Sitting with his eyelids and fingers well and truly squeezed, dad tried to convince us he is not that afraid. My brother, Jack, and I struggled to keep our safety belts on. We had hoped for leaping stomachs and high-pitched screams. Aged nine and ten, we were prepared for an adrenaline rush like no other.
But this was no Lego Land in the clouds. It took a lot of painful ear-popping and a sincere lack of turbulence for us to realise, flying on a plane was not much more adventurous than sitting in the backseat of the car. Still, we were determined to enjoy it. Stretching our heads up from the middle aisle, we glimpsed through the pocket-sized windows at the suburban squares forming below; a tarmac grid. Eleven hours later, we would look out of the same window and see the burning orange glow of desert earth.
We were flying to Johannesburg to meet my mum’s sister and family, travelling onwards to their home. I had never been outside of the UK. Unlike my parents, who had spent summers sizzling on hotel rooftops in Greece and trekked through Brazilian rain-forests in their early twenties, this was my first step abroad. Being driven through Johannesburg, the culture shock was instant. “Try not to stop at a red light because if you do you’ll probably get mugged” advised one of the locals. Not stop at a red light? The world suddenly seemed like a very fat pancake that’s continued to flip ever since.
Bits of the daily journal I kept at the time and a few treasured photographs have helped to bring back some of the memories written below.
My Aunt, uncle and cousin lived in Botswana and had done for many years. We stayed with them at their bungalow in Selebi-Phikwe and spent Christmas Day belly-flopping into the swimming pool, playing Marco Polo and wrestling with a blow-up killer whale. Looking back on my journal at the time, the pool was our endless source of entertainment:
“It was sunny but it was no time to sun bathe. Me, Jack and my cousin, Luke, were splashing around crazily (we splashed mum and we weren’t meant to!). I made biscuits and iced a cake then went back to the pool.”
Even at night, we tiptoed in our pyjamas back onto the floating haven of a lilo and drifted on the water under the speckled starlight.
The novelty of spotting geckos on the ceiling and holding mopane worms (colourfully coated as they were) soon wore off, just in time for our upcoming trip to the Island Safari Lodge. We journeyed out of Selebi-Phikwe, passing small villages where traditional mud-brick huts stood scattered on the dry earth. A group of kids wearing football t-shirts laughed and screamed in excitement when our jeep drove past, running after it waving their arms.
Our first trip was a water safari on the Okavango Delta. Shakily stepping into thin dug-out canoes (mocorros), we were steered around its reedy confounds by local bushmen. Necklaces were made from the waterlillies but little in the way of wildlife was spotted (so naturally it did not make it into my journal at the time…) It should really have been a relief not to bump into any hippos or crocs as there was always seemed to be an unending supply of ‘animal attack’ stories. A family friend of Jean’s told us how they lost their dog to hippo-jaws. They counted themselves lucky. If not the dog, it could well have been their son who was paddling alongside.
Our first land safari was more dramatic than the meander through the Okavango Delta. It certainly seemed to have more impact.
“We saw wonderful, amazing things. First we saw some Zebra, then these wildebeest being chased by a lion. Just round the corner we saw a dead zebra with a jackal around it. There was a herd of elephants coming right behind the zebra.”
Driving for hours with hardly a tusk in sight, we stumbled upon a scene which embodied both the beauty and brutality of Africa’s natural wonderland. A zebra lay ripped open on the ground surrounded by vultures and a Marabou Stork, otherwise known as ‘the undertaker bird’. A fitting title, given the circumstances.
Our next stop involved camping at the Moremi Game reserve.
“It took six hours to get to the place. There is a risk of getting eaten because you’re camping in an area where hyenas and lions are. When we entered the campsite there were baboons everywhere.”
Prison-barred gates on the toilets prevented the baboons from entering, but that was not particularly comforting considering what wild beasts could have been lingering outside our thin, pegged shelters. Luckily there were no tent-slashing lions around that night. Ironically, the biggest danger of all were the remnants of a fire. Fixed on always learning the hard way, I continued the remainder of the evening sulking with my hand in a cup of water insisting that the ashes were not hot and my hand was not actually burnt.
New Year’s eve was celebrated in the company of majestic baobab trees and luxury mud-hut styled accommodation. Planet baobab certainly lived up to its name as these colossal specimens, with a trunk width-span up to 36ft, stood towering everywhere in sight. Allowing time for ‘the adults’ to recover from their late night, we continued travels through the savanna to the Makgadikgedi Pan. From the roof of the jeep, a sea of pink blended into the purple clouded sky as hundreds of flamingos gathered across the Salt pan came into view.
Chobe National Park was next on the list and led us to a second safari trip. I was sick of elephants. We all were. So when the game driver reported that lions had been spotted nearby, the jeep jumped with buzzing, camera-waving and over-excited tourists. What would the lions be doing? Would they be hunting? Maybe we’d see a chase! It quickly became clear our expectations of the Pride had been high. Three plump beasts lay stretched out under the shaded trees, occasionally shaking their manes and turning their heads to yawn. They were, without a doubt, the most boring creatures we saw that day. I struggled to understand why we couldn’t just go on over and stroke one. Those over-fed, rolling sacks of flesh hardly looked able to wave a dismissive claw, let alone venture to attack us.
Crossing the boarder into Zimbabwe, the mightiest sight of nature was still to come. Victoria Falls.
“It was so big, it was a mile and a half! You got soaked with water. There were even boys fishing at the top of the waterfall. People could bungee jump from the sides. I was going to, but it was closed.”
Yeah right. As my dad leant over the side of the rocks with his video camera, I remember tugging at his socks to get him away from the edge.
The journey had nearly come to an end and we found ourselves rewinding on the outskirts of the salt pans at Nata Lodge. This is where monkeys had previously stolen our fruit. Moments after going inside, our apples and oranges were whipped out of baskets and dispersed among the other primate chums. When it got dark, bush babies were teased out of their hiding by game-keepers chucking chopped up pieces of fruit- “They had glowing yellow eyes and were chased by rats”. Mum, (who had started to refer to Jack and I as bush babies), was also treating us to a feast at the buffet while dad lay fatigued in a distant log cabin. Enthusiastically, Jack tucked into the local cuisine of mopane worms. I stared at the array of sloppy grilled fish and dangerously coloured meat, trying to figure out what wouldn’t offend my taste buds or worse, puke my guts. I was not about to join dad in quarantine. Mum offered me bits of cooked Impala but, suddenly a self-righteous vegetarian, I objected- “I don’t want to eat any cute little animals!”
Seconds later, I asked for a sausage.
Time had finally caught us up. Back again at my Aunt and Uncle’s home, we clambered on rocks to the top of the local Kopje. It was sparse. The perfect place to reflect.
We had been on this continent for nearly a month, celebrating Christmas and New Year in 30 degree heat. We had been road-blocked by elephants, maddened by mosquitos and burnt to blisters. But it was worth every itch. Vowing to return, having only just scratched the surface of one or two African countries, we boarded the plane to the UK.
Years later, my school projects would be based on these adventures, as tales of baboon-filled toilets and mopane worm snacks came flooding out of ‘public speech’ assessments in English. Early signs of a very welcome travel bug; a Bush Baby at heart.