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Notes from the bush

Y Care's 2005 Tsodilo Hills Walk

The following is taken from an e-mail Cecilia sent out to friends and family:

I didn't get a chance to say much about the latest walk. For the most part, it went smoothly since Peter went up to this part of Botswana to work with the community there to forge the walking route. For this walk, we had the Pans walk under our belts and had a better understanding of our responsibilities and the terrain.

We all meet at Shakawe Fishing Camp, a quaint lodge that has donated the campsite and the use of their boat. From there, we are greeted by one of the beneficiaries of the walk, Bana Ba Metsi's headmaster--an amiable American who has been in Botswana since the 80's. The school is a refuge for boys who are orphaned, homeless and in need of guidance and support. The school currently has 39 boys, who, according to Steve, are all promising because they haven't yet killed anybody....

First night's camp (Note elephant skull in background)

We are ferried to Red Cliffs, where we will be setting up camp overnight. We arrive after a leisurely 2 hour sunset boat ride. The support staff should have been set up and had dinner ready--but the deep sand prevented their arrival until just before we disembarked. They tell us of the many times they had to dig the cars out, frantic since there was evidence of much animal activity. As they drove up to the campsite, they scared off a herd of 1/2 dozen buffalo and several elephant. Sure, Jesi confirms, this is a favorite watering hole for the large animals. Jesi is the coordinator of Temacane Trust. Elephant is a way of life for him and his people. I am excited by the prospects and appropriately scared.

The camp is tight and we sleep tent just a few inches from tent. We can hear each groan and snore...but above the human exultations, there is a rumble and then another. After living next door to the elephant enclosure at Mokolodi, I know full well these sounds are communications between elephants. Some are just calm statements and then there are loud complaints, followed by feet stomping and here it comes...you guessed it, the unmistakable trumpet blare. Several elephants voice their displeasure at our intrusion, then leave. One, I can only assume is a young bull, decides he will not put up with this--this is his watering hole. He was here first! And so he barrels ahead, sounding his trunk in loud protest, and splashing in the water just in front of our tent. His belligerence is unmistakable. We know exactly what he is trying to tell us

In the morning, many people did not hear the onslaught, and so woke refreshed instead of exhausted as I was from listening and then praying. Nomsa, the walk originator, said she had a dream that she rolled from one side of her tent to the other, trying to avoid the elephants footsteps. As the last, the largest elephant stomped on her tent, she didn't know where to turn. She scrunched herself up into a corner hoping she'd survive the night.

As I tried to warm myself up with a bad cup of instant coffee, Nomsa came to me. We have a problem, she says. There was no one to drive her quad bike to follow alongside the walkers. The quads are important because they carry necessary supplies such as water and light snacks. They are also reassuring to have around should a walker fall ill, get hurt or need a lift. After last night's grueling caravan, the support crew did not feel they could do without even one of the guys since they needed each man to help them dig the cars out. I would have to drive the quad...this would not be good.

I had driven the quad a bit during the last walk, but the clutch was tricky and I did not know the terrain. I would be driving with the medic, also on quad, so he could help if I got stuck, but as we all know, I'm not good at direction nor am I aggressive enough to forge through thick brush. But there was no one else and so off I went.

We were given general directions and tried to follow the walkers. But no sooner had we left camp when we were already in trouble. Where we expected only a single path, it turned out to be many walkways coming from every direction and worst of all, the paths were not covered with shoe prints as I had originally thought. These paths and the crinkles on them were ALL elephant pathways, the sand so firm, the prints so fresh that each wrinkle could be seen, like a glass in a detective show after being dusted for prints. I careened into bushes, stalled repeatedly, practically upend the quad trying to avoid a ditch, and finally ran myself over (how did I manage that?!) Breathless with my heart beating a kilometer a minute, I made it to the first stop--Bana Ba Metsi where the walkers would meet the "bad" boys and get a tour of the school.

The trip was worthwhile. The Managing Director of Shell Oil Botswana was so taken by one of the boys that he pledged all of the diesel the school needed for the next three years. OK, so this is worth it...

And as the trip wore on and problems came up like huge elephants stomping all over our plans, we ducked and dodged in the hopes that we would survive. The trailer carrying our water tank lost its axle while driving down the road and we got stuck in deep sand for 6 hours and only got out with the help from the men that maintain the veterinary fence. But we made it. . .with these highlights along the way -

I think we lost an axle somewhere!

1.) Walkers complained about one of the guides--he has no bloody idea where he's going. Not true, Nomsa and I decided. He knew where he was and where he wanted to end up. But the steps he took to get there all depended... One time he realized the path he was following was that of a mother elephant and her baby. He quickly rounded up the walkers and ushered them out of danger--that re-routing would cost the walkers to trudge an extra 3 kms out of the way. Another time, he saw a croc ahead of them and without causing alarm, moved the group to higher, more difficult ground (more complaints ensued!). And another time, he was talking to someone, enthralled with his own story and he went beyond the turn off--oh well, no one is perfect. But after walking 35kms, one more km is a big deal!

2.) One evening we heard hippo calling far away. That very night, late at night, almost to morning, I awoke to the sound of grunting and crunching. There was a hippo just outside of our tent, eating to his or her heart's content.

3.) No matter where we went, people would congregate. When a large crowd of over 150 people surrounded our camp, I asked Jesi what was going on. They don't often see white people, he said. They just want to see what you are doing...and so they sat there and when evening came and we were entertained by the local dance troupe and story teller (Jesi), with their community all around them, the night wore on past midnight and the crowd with their laughter and singing slowly thinned out until all you could hear, as Van der Post wrote, were the stars.

Jesi (on left), Mbukusu dancers, and the whole village in background

4.) On our last night of the walk, in the crook of the famous World Heritage Site, Tsodilo Hills, we were introduced to the elders of the village. One was a blind man who had helped a famous historian chronicle the over 4,000 rock paintings. Another was the Bushman chief, whom, to our surprise had guided the walkers through the thick brush and across the elephant infested bush during the last two days of the journey. When the cars did not make it again until well after dark. When the walkers were resigned to sleep under the stars, no tent or sleeping bag in sight, they were indeed in good hands--this is his land. Surely, if anyone could ward off ancestral spirits or animal danger, Chief Xuntao could.

Chief Xuntao (in yellow) leading Nomsa (on right) and the other walkers

5.) As we gathered around to celebrate the completion of the walk, some walkers shared a few thoughts. A doctor (actually, a radiologist who happened to have examined me when I was convinced I had stomach or ovarian cancer (which I did not!)) who walked to raise $5,000 for the Botswana Cancer Association said he had no sooner finished the walk when he climbed the largest hill, known as the Male Hill. As he started to speak, he began to tear up. He said his emotions surprised him since he hadn't realized how he felt until just now. This trip, for him, was life altering. His completing it fulfilled a lifelong dream he's had to live through a physical challenge and to be so close to nature. Completing this challenge, he said, made him realize he could do anything. And as I wiped the tears from my eyes, I looked around to see the culmination of the journey for everyone that was there.

These walks were so difficult and I never want to run another one again! But going to these remarkable places, with little else between us and the elements (in the Pans), and us and the elephants (at Tsodilo), you realize what a privilege it is .

Unlike the Pans walk where we came home to the horror of our dogs being shot, on this trip, we did not lose our pet, Squeakers--our goat is fine. Our car did not break down, and all-in-all, things went much more smoothly. From this trip, we can leave Africa on a high note--knowing we have completed our obligations, that we have had the privilege of seeing and doing something very few people ever do in their lifetime, and that we have made the best of our experience here. These walks allow us to check off a milestone we didn't even know we wanted to achieve and leave our lifelist of things we've done a little longer and a lot more interesting.

See you all in the States in October (or there abouts)!! With lots of love, Cecilia, Peter, Macallan and Markham.

For more information about Cecilia's project to help remote area dwellers and women in Botswana!

Womens Work Botswana


2006 African Excusions All rights reserved

Sowa Pan - Day 6
Ntwetwe Pan - Day 2
Hardcore group
Okavango River
John and Eugene Day 2
Crossing river by ferry - Day 2
Humbukusu dancers
Tsodilo Hills