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Longboat Key Wednesday, Jul. 14, 2010 7 years ago

Energetic Traveler: Magic moments

by: Judy Stanford

The dream safari: a group of only nine tourists led by an experienced local guide; a light cargo plane to whisk us from camp to camp; two open Land Rovers to carry us through the Okavango Delta; and unlimited opportunities to ask questions and take photographs.

As usual, my husband, Bill, was giddy with enthusiasm. And, as usual, I nagged him all the way to the airport. “Are you sure our tetanus shots are current?” “Did you take your malaria pill this morning?” “Are cargo planes safe?”

We were to spend six days in Botswana, bush-living and game-viewing (giraffes and kudus, elephants and leopards, crocodiles and rhinos). Then we were to travel on to Zambia to witness one of the world’s greatest natural wonders — Victoria Falls.

Our travel companions turned out to be diverse and delightful. We were three married couples in our 50s, 60s and 70s; a father-son duo; and a highly self-reliant woman traveling on her own. No matter what went awry, we supported each other, cheered on our patient guide, Ali, and laughed — a lot.

Often, plans did go awry because the delta had experienced unseasonable flooding. On our game drives we mired ourselves in mud and got stuck more than once. We endured bloody assault from acacia thorns and treated occasional wasp stings. Sometimes the “restroom” was a hillock in the dirt “just behind the termite mound.” (Still, we laughed.) We were charged by a small group of elephants feeling out-of-sorts. Now, I know that a Land Rover can outdistance an elephant on the run, but I couldn’t help asking, “Do these manmade machines ever stall out?” (Nobody laughed.)

Most elephants are wild, but Jabu, Thembi and Marula are free-roaming but semi-tame. They allowed us to make friends with them and joined us for luncheon under the sausage trees.

We did not always travel on wings and wheels. Sometimes we explored by canoe (mokoros) and found assorted snakes and painted reed frogs. Sometimes we ventured out on the water late in the day to watch hippo families gather in the river close to the banks. At dusk we always took a break to share “sundowners,” libations sipped as the African sun slipped from the sky.

Accommodations were rustic, but spacious. We slept in safari tents or in small lodges. Dressed in jeans and khakis, we dined by candlelight and enjoyed sumptuous meals served on starched white linen with sparking crystal goblets and silver tableware.

There were no televisions, no newspapers and no telephones, but each bedside table was equipped with a whistle to blow in case of emergency.

Although it seemed like quite a bit of effort to travel to yet another country just to see a waterfall, we obligingly winged our way on to Zambia. Shrouded in panchos and shod in flip-flops, we set out to see this “wonder”— and “wonderful” it was with its famous permanent rainbows and the deafening roar of the tumbling waters — 120 million gallons flow every minute.

We were sodden and waterlogged. We slipped and slid and sometimes tripped. Yet, not for one minute did we question the worth of making that trek to stand breathless and awed at the sight and sound of nature’s power.

One last afternoon to spend. What had we missed? People! So, we boarded a mini bus and set off to see a local village. Unlike some native communities I’ve visited, there was no “catch.” Nothing was for sale — only hospitality, and that was freely given.

We toured the village and saw homes, thriving vegetable gardens, immaculate animal stockades and “the well” — just one-year-old, it replaced the river as the primary water source. We admired the school and the health clinic in progress.

The children were enjoying a holiday from the classroom and they tagged along with us, full of questions: “How old are you?” “Do you have children?” “Do you speak English?”

We discovered these children had a small soccer field, even a team, but no soccer ball at the moment. Be assured the hat was passed quickly inside the bus and now the kids have two balls — just in case.

It seemed 1 million miles from Zambia to Sarasota. We were thrilled to be headed home, but truly sad to end the journey. Along the way we mused and marveled at the magic of the world we had left behind: baby zebras and lilac-breasted birds, raging rivers and lazy old lions, breathtaking sunsets and chatterbox children.

We reminded each other of what our guide had said to us as we pulled away from the children’s soccer field.

“They will remember,” he told us.

So will we.

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