Mindful Moments: Reflections on a Far Country
Late August, 2015. It is late evening when we arrive in Cape Town after 18 hours in the air from Brisbane via Sydney and Johannesburg. Our visit to South Africa will take in the Cape before heading north to Makalali Private Game Reserve to the east of Kruger National Park. We will then move on to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Kasane (Botswana) to complete our fourteen days of game drives and river cruises in the splendid Chobe National Park.
The Makalali section will be a novel experience. Author and meditation guru David Michie came up with the idea of a Mindful Safari; an exercise combining twice-daily meditation guidance and practice with the conventional safari activities of good food, ample wine and close encounters with the magnificent wildlife. The latter would appear at random amid the striking bushveld surroundings; a passing parade for our viewing pleasure and mindful appreciation.
My wife, Robyn, a clinical psychologist and keen practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, heard of David’s initiative and passed the word to our good friend Emeritus Professor Trang Thomas; eminent academic and inveterate traveller who leads Australian Psychological Society professional development tours worldwide. Trang, attracted by the prospect of a new and different meditation experience, was enthused but insisted that we accompany her. Robyn agreed, explaining to me that I had much to learn about mindfulness and indeed awareness in general. David’s safari would be a good start. One thing led to another and a group of ladies, including several past travelling companions from the psychology sisterhood, also signed on for the experience. As the token (but non-pysch) male member of the group, I hoped for an injection of masculinity and my wish was granted when it transpired that two other males, accompanying their wives, would be joining us for the Makalali experience.
Next morning, the first of two glorious days of winter sunshine, I look out from the Protea Breakwater Lodge in the touristy Victoria and Albert Waterfront area of Cape Town. The view is dominated by the imposingly rugged skyline of Table Mountain, flanked by the equally impressive Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Closer but lower to the east I can see the top of Signal Hill; the lookout from which warning of approaching ships was sounded in the colonial days. It is now a great launch point for paragliders as well as providing a magnificent view of the city and its environs. From my vantage point, once a prison but now a large complex also housing a business school, I reflect briefly on the living history around me and how the nation itself came into being.
Like its fellow southern outposts of the former British Empire, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa is a far country that is not easily understood or fully appreciated by the casual traveller. There is spectacle and wild beauty in abundance, yes; key selling points for the adventure-hungry tourist who has read of dramatic landscapes, a night sky that exposes the full majesty of the Milky Way, and, above all, the excitement of the safari. Those of us now in our dotage recall adventure movies featuring steely-eyed hunters with rifle in one hand and distressed damsel in the other; intrepid leaders confronting the perils of the trek to King Solomon’s mines amidst a host of bad guys and charging rhinos. Cut frequently to the Lion King and his physically diverse subjects; a background chorus of growls and yelps through bared teeth. It was edge of the seat stuff; just great for wide-eyed kids.
But I digress. South Africa is now much more than the world’s largest wildlife reserve spilling over with diamonds and gold. It is an industrialised country rising slowly, even painfully, from a history of conflict between its original inhabitants, whose tenure spans a hundred millennia, and the European settlers who began their encroachment with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company’s tiny outpost near the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. It was an ideal location to replenish European vessels plying the eastern trade route to exploit the riches of the Far East. The task entrusted to the outpost’s leader, Jan van Riebeeck, was simple. Build a fort and establish a very large market garden to enable a measure of healthy eating by intrepid sailors and their passengers. At the same time, try not to waste time and resources squabbling with the locals. Fight if you must, but try to barter with them instead for what you need. Setting up operations in a new country was a relatively straightforward procedure back then.
From that foothold at the Cape, colonial expansion spurred by the twin lures of unlimited land and mineral wealth spawned four distinct states (Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal and Natal) that now make up the nation of South Africa. It is a powerful story of rivalry, conflict and discovery commonly identified by teachers of history with major events: frontier wars against resident tribes including the fierce Zulu; the Great Trek to outer regions from the 1830s by disgruntled, independence-seeking Afrikaner farmers (Boers); the discovery of huge deposits of diamonds and gold which enriched, among many others, one Cecil John Rhodes; the arrival of the British, determined as always not to miss out on their slice of the gem-studded cake; the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), which ended unfortunately for the Boers; and, sadly, the post-World War II imposition of apartheid (apartness) by a rigidly anti-egalitarian white government. This act of extreme injustice sparked a decades-long struggle, closely identified with the iconic figure of subsequent national leader and inspirational world statesman Nelson Mandela, before the defiance of the black population prevailed with the beginnings of social and political reform in 1990.
For those with an interest in cultural diversity, history, politics and international relations, I recommend that you at least read a broad summary of South Africa’s fascinating story before you arrive. Even a basic knowledge of history and the ongoing issues of abuse of political power and persistent black poverty will enhance your visit through an understanding that, a quarter of a century after the formal death of apartheid, many political and socioeconomic obstacles remain to be addressed. Having said that, I apologise for any hint of judgmental bias. Personally, I blame the Brits for much of the world’s post-colonial adjustment disorder. My views might also be influenced by their very recent Ashes victory over Australia.
It is time now for breakfast and tourist activities. We ignore the jet lag and head down to meet our tour group in the lobby. Our very competent and personable trip organizer, Barbara Turner, has set us up for two days of sightseeing which take in Cape Town and surrounds, including Signal Hill (the cable car to the higher elevation of Table Mountain is closed for maintenance) and, the following day, a memorable trip south to the Cape itself. The city tour, with expert commentary by our guide, is a great introduction; a confluence of architecture, cultures and belief systems from East and West that dates back to the early settlers and slaves brought in from the East to do the hard yards. A shopping and sightseeing walk around the Waterfront is the ideal way to finish off Day One.
Next morning we head for the Cape. The coastal road winds through wealthy suburbs leading out past Hout Bay to the Cape Floristic Kingdom; the smallest but richest in diversity of the world’s six floral kingdoms. The area showcases some 1100 species, notable among them 24 variants of the striking proteacae family. It is also a spectacularly scenic drive through rugged peaks rearing to the ocean’s edge. At the Cape itself, the Flying Dutchman funicular railway makes light work of the ascent to the old lighthouse with its panoramic view of the Atlantic seaboard. This drive is definitely not to be missed unless you are overwhelmed by thirst for the grape, in which case a day trip to the famed Stellenbosch wineries is a relaxing alternative. And since you are being driven, it can be as relaxing as you like.
On the way back from the Cape we stop for a delicious late seafood lunch at Simon’s Town, host to much of the South African Navy, and take the opportunity to visit the Boulder penguin rookery. Regretfully, the little dears are not available for adoption, so we farewell them to take the scenic inland route back to the city. Next day we will be moving on to Makalali for our Mindful Safari, the focal point of our tour, so there is much anticipation of the mental transformation that will permit escape from whichever of our demons have come along for the ride.
The following afternoon our Bombardier Dash 8 short haul turboprop aircraft snarls noisily onto the runway (thoughtfully provided by the South African Air Force) at the bush centre of Hoedspruit; the jumping off point for many private wilderness conservancies to the east of the great Kruger National Park. Our destination, Makalali, is little more than an hour’s drive past the stark battlements of mountain ranges which dominate the skyline. Our camp comprises two very impressive lodges: Xidulu, (pronounced Zidooloo), and Clive’s Camp. These privately-owned residences have opened their doors to tourists for the first time to accommodate David’s mindfulness venture. The outlook from the spacious decks is that of true safari territory, with the splendid extra of large waterholes that attract game in a regular display of who’s who in the bushveld; a forested element of the vast savanna grasslands of South and West Africa. Robyn and self are quartered at Xidulu in a magnificently thatched and appointed external hut accessed by a long, illuminated boardwalk. Douglas, the resident warthog, grunts his approval through the night hours. His presence is pleasing as it distracts from my own occasional noisiness. Our deck offers constant, close-range viewing opportunities as thirsty impala, giraffe, zebra and warthog singles and groups drift cautiously to and from the waterhole with its resident clan of hippos and a croc that suns itself happily on the beach. I have seen much in my life and I am not easily impressed, but this place is the real deal. The ambience is matched by the friendliness and dedication of our lead rangers (Robin and Claudia) and their staff. If ever you have the opportunity to join one of David’s future Mindful Safaris, take it.
We go on our first game drive on the afternoon of our arrival, driven and educated by master tracker Patson (one of only fifteen guides in the country so designated). I distinguish myself by falling out of the tiered seats of the drive vehicle as soon as I climb in. Nothing more than hurt pride, a scratched knee and a corked thigh so we proceed. Within minutes Patson shows us both black and white rhino, giraffe, impala and a host of other wildlife, saving the best for last; a leopard dining on its fresh kill of bushbuck in the safety of a treetop. We are very lucky to have the opportunity to study this amazing cat at such close quarters, he explains. It is a scene that most visitors are not privileged to see.
Next morning we rise early for morning meditation under David’s guidance before heading out in two vehicles on another game drive. Two hours into the drive I am feeling quite unwell and, when we stop for a coffee break with the second party from Clive’s Camp, I distinguish myself again; this time by passing out most ungracefully alongside the truck. I am assisted to my feet when I wake up but immediately hit the dirt again. By now there is a good chance that my heart has given out so the group shades me from the sun while I lie there with poor Robyn (an ex-nurse and now prospective widow) doing the observing and comforting bit. Robin, who is also a trained paramedic, brings another vehicle from camp to rush me to a private medical clinic at the town of Tzaneen. It is more than an hour’s drive, so he and Robyn keep me talking lest I should slip away. I feel very much like slipping away but make the effort to continue my flow of inane comments. I am quite embarrassed at this stage because my attention-seeking behavior is working too well. We arrive at the clinic and, to cut to the end result, a genial Doctor de Villiers supervises many tests and announces that my heart is fine and that I have acquired a very nasty stomach bug that combined with a hot day and dehydration to bring me down in a most unattractive heap. He provides medication and a drip, following which we return to the wilderness to search for the remnants of my pride. Alas, they are not to be found.
Inevitably, Robyn succumbs to the same bug the very next day so it is my turn to nurse her through the ordeal until she emerges pale, wan and quite empty from a night of groans that overshadow the noisy rumblings of the hippos in the waterhole and Douglas the warthog. By this time our travelling companions are quite concerned that they have been saddled with a couple of duds but, in the spirit of mindfulness, allow us to stay on after we recuperate. We are thankful for their concern and, in particular, for the care and professionalism of tour organizer Barbara and leaders Robin and Claudia. Thanks also to chef Lucy, her assistant Sabrina, (a lovely teenager on work and adventure experience from Germany) and the housekeeping ladies. No effort was spared to ensure our comfort and to provide whatever nutrition we could handle. Fortunately, we were able to stagger through the remainder of the safari experience without further disgrace to yours truly. I had insane urges to throw myself into the waterhole to complete the traditional disaster-in-threes scenario but managed to contain myself. In hindsight, I should have done it to bring the episode to a tidy end. But here I am, recovered and still laughing.
As our six days at Makalali come to an end, I feel that it has been a unifying and memorable experience for all of us. I think that the concept of a mindful safari is timely and appropriate. As well as the obvious benefits of meditation, the experience provides both context and reinforcement for the sincere efforts of our safari leaders and guides to remind us that it is humankind’s dominance of technology and unbounded appetite for resources that poses the major threat to Nature’s plan for the orderly perpetuation and freedom of all species. As we leave the comforts of our lodge to move on to the next stages of our tour, I am happy to give full marks to David and our guides for the work and initiative that went into our experience. Full marks also to our tireless Barbara for her local knowledge and attention to detail. Check her out on travelmanager.com.au if you wish to visit this amazing continent. We are leaving her behind, the occasion for a particularly tearful farewell on her part and mine. Once is not enough so we do it again.
Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls; One of the Seven Wonders
A quick flight from Hoedspruit back to Johannesburg ends our first wilderness experience. It is there that we farewell most of our West Australian contingent including David Michie his lovely wife Koala. Leaving too are West Australian couples Dave and Bev, Gary and Gerri. This leads me to do a quick count of the remainder of the group. Ten. I face the chilling realization that once more I am the token male. There is my beloved Robyn. And Trang, who has been concerned not only for my survival but also that I should live to complete her biography. Their fellow psychologists Leanne, Elise, Gail, Noelle and Joanne are a watchful lot, already mindful of my propensity to make up whatever I don’t know. Then there is Chris, a courageous lady from Melbourne who is both philanthropist and seeker of new frontiers. Last but by no means least is the cheerfully out there Chantal. Her range of interests in the world of pain relief and therapeutic beautification is wide and, although it is too late for me to benefit from her skills, I welcome her warm and upbeat presence.
As the tour is now leaderless, I am entrusted with the business of collecting and dispensing gratuities for the remaining week of our tour. I am humbled by the trust in me shown by the ladies of my feisty pride. We overnight at a nearby hotel, heeding Barbara’s advice not to prowl the streets of Johannesburg at night. Next morning we return to the airport for our 90-minute flight north to Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls; one of the seven natural wonders of the world and, at present, a major contributor to the Zimbabwean economy. The country is a true basket case, with unemployment running at about 85%. The attractive little town of Victoria Falls is dependent entirely on tourism. At the airport, it takes about 90 minutes to queue for our visas in the rudimentary border protection centre. $US 40 each and we exit to meet our bus driver for the trip to Ilala Lodge; a spacious and very welcoming place to stay for the next two nights. Our entertainment begins with a Boma dinner; a BBQ and buffet affair featuring game meats, traditional dancing and drum lessons. With our assistance it is a noisy and discordant evening that ends with full bellies and a mild headache.
The highlight of our visit is a guided walk through the national park with multiple viewing opportunities of each section of the 100m plunge of the mighty Zambesi River; the Devil’s Cataract and the Main, Horseshoe and Rainbow Falls. It is the tail end of the dry season so the river is running at about 45% capacity. It is a lucky break, we are told, because at full capacity the falls throw up enough spray over the viewing points to blot out much of the spectacle. Even today, we put on some wet weather gear to keep our clothes dry. Later some of the ladies follow up with a 15-minute chopper ride to see the full scale of the falls and their environs from above. Expensive at $US 150 each but their verdict was that the ride was not to be missed. Our day finishes with a cruise on the Zambezi, with elephant, hippo and diverse birdlife laid on to keep the cameras rolling. I love river cruises, and although I seldom take photos I do enjoy the scenic attractions with beer in hand and mind in reception mode. It is a very pleasant way to end our brief visit to Zimbabwe, with time for shopping next morning before we drive across the border to Botswana.
Chobe National Park, Kasane, Botswana
Crossing the border to Botswana entails passing through the roadside customs and immigration checkpoint and transferring our bags to a different vehicle for the second stage of the journey. Another vehicle’s cargo of suitcases is being checked for drugs as we file through the post to have our passports stamped. We look harmless so are spared the bother, and after disinfecting our boots in a shallow tray of very muddy liquid climb onto our new vehicle to head for Chobe Marina Lodge at Kasane. We will stay there for the next three nights; the final wild experience of our tour. Kasane and its inhabitants are straight out of Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels featuring No 1 Lady Detective Precious Ramotswe. It is a warm and friendly place, with none of the endless pressure to buy that we experienced in Zimbabwe. Why? Botswana today is a relatively rich country on the back of discovery of the world’s finest diamonds. That is not to say that everyone is rich. There are pockets of poverty outside of the major centres, where village life continues with little change other than the arrival of communications technology.
We find the Marina Lodge in a lush, attractive riverside setting. Robyn and I are assigned to a riverfront unit surrounded by sprinklers, finding to our surprise that its garden is home to another warthog. He had dug up a large section of lawn to create a very messy mud wallow; for him the nearest to Paradise he is likely to get if the gardeners have their way. They filled in his wallow, and he promptly dug another. I have never seen such a happy pig. I watched as he took a fast bowler’s run-up and launched himself, all four legs splayed like a landing jumbo, into his new creation. I called him Clarence, and he will always be a special memory of Africa for me.
Our first outing after arrival is a cruise along the Chobe River, a major tributary of the Zambezi which also marks the border between Botswana and Namibia. In midstream we circumnavigate a large island. It is literally teeming with elephant and hippo families, together with crocodiles and a rather unusual antelope species called the Red Lechwe. These cute beasts have fairly short front legs, which enable them to swim and climb steep riverbanks more effectively than their taller brothers. The birdlife was a twitcher’s dream, from the scavenging maribou storks to tiny kingfishers nesting in the mudbanks and pretty much all you could ask for in between. Our guide tells us that ownership of the island was long disputed between Botswana and Namibia, with settlement in Botswana’s favour finally being adjudicated by the International Court at The Hague. A tall pole now flies the flag of Botswana, a constant reminder to the Namibians, who wanted to farm the island instead of keeping it as a wildlife refuge, that they no longer have any claim. They did take the flag down once and replace it with their own; a final protest I suppose. The flag of Botswana was restored and is now a fixture.
It is the tail end of a very dry season, so the river and its magnificent island refuge is a magnet for big game, in particular elephants, struggling to survive on the dry mainland. The rains are not due until November, so it is a tough time. Next morning on an early game drive we come across a dead elephant that didn’t quite make it to the water. A leopard is chewing on its trunk, watched by truckloads of open-mouthed camera carriers. We join them. Our guide, a charming and articulate guy called Onks, explains that the vultures and storks will come to rip its thick hide open for access to the easy picking pickings of the entrails and organs within. Then the bigger predators, the hyenas and lions, will follow to feast on the meat. Nothing will be wasted, as is Nature’s plan. The park rangers have already checked the corpse for signs of disease, in which case they would burn it. That is not the case, so the remains are left as suitable fare for the scavengers. It is an object lesson in effective wildlife management. As we drive on, the game is indeed prolific; many giraffe and zebra, the ubiquitous impala, bustards the size of large pelicans, and once more an amazing array of smaller birds. As a destination for lovers of wildlife, I’d rate Chobe as a ten. Great place, beautiful country.
The last days pass in a haze of shopping opportunities and last-minute wildlife viewing before our bus driver transfers us to Kasane International Airport for our long journey home via Johannesburg and Sydney. At Johannesburg we spend our remaining store of rand on gifts before boarding the good ship Longreach (Qantas 747) for the trip across the Indian Ocean. It is a quicker trip home than our fourteen-hour flight to Africa; a solid tailwind from the jetstream and we arrive in Sydney twelve hours later. From there it is routine customs and immigration until we go through security before boarding our flight to Brisbane. Imagine my surprise at being called for a backpack search. Imagine my greater surprise when told that there were two knives in my bag. ‘We all know that knives are verboten in carry-on luggage, don’t we sir?’ It transpired that my enterprising wife had stowed two butter dishes with very decorative (and totally harmless) knives in my pack because she’d run out of space in her own. Or perhaps she owed me one for some misdemeanour I’d committed along the way. Like falling out of a truck. It is my experience that ladies can be like that. Like the great elephants of Africa, they may not see too well but they never forget anything.
Readers will be grateful to reach the end of this blog, which although long is but a taste of Africa’s unique offerings. Don’t wait. Check out Barbara at travelmanager.com.au to organize your safari, whether your preference is mindful or happily mindless. She hails from the Dark Continent and knows it very well.
Finally, thanks to all of our travelling companions for your care, good fellowship and occasional weirdness. Weird is good. I might even volunteer to be the token male once more.