Going on Safari, Southern Africa from “A Poet’s Progress,” Newtopia Magazine #9

November 20, 2010: Johannesburg, South Africa

It’s been a long trip. With a 13-hour layover in Heathrow (luckily four of them in an airport hotel bed courtesy of the travel agency), I’ve been traveling for close to 38 hours. The only reason I’m still vertical is because I’m waiting for my bag. I said I’d rather bring it up myself, but the desk clerk insisted it be brought to my room. I was also told no tipping was allowed in the hotel but that I’d be given an opportunity to tip the entire staff in the morning when I checked out.

Nearly half an hour later, I’m settled in and bored, watching a South African talk show where they go back and forth between English and I think Swahili in the same sentence, and everyone I see is black. The host, the guest, the studio crew, and all of the musicians—a classic soul revue led by a heavy-set woman in a tight blue satin gown and silver eyeshadow playing a huge blue Fender bass. She is proudly introduced as the host’s sister, Cyrille.

There’s a knock at my door and I grab a dollar from my bureau, because there’s no way I’m going to take a bag from someone who’s just walked upstairs with it without giving him at least a dollar. So I open the door and prop it open with my left shoulder and simultaneously thank him and hand him a dollar with my left hand and reach with my right hand to take my bag off the cart as quick as I can. Off-balance and hurried, I swing the bag clumsily in the direction of my room but my shoulder slips off the door and it begins to close, pushing me forward so that I smash my bag into the door frame and lurch forward. The old man reaches behind me to push the door off my back and swing it open behind me and I look up to thank him and he’s leaning forward, bending down to bring his face close to mine and he’s smiling up at me with real joy and I’m ashamed that up until now I hadn’t even looked at him, or acknowledged him personally.

Male Baboon Chases Off a Rival, Zambia

November 21, 2010: Johannesburg, South Africa

Before Breakfast

In the hotel courtyard, silver-black sardines flash
out of the darkness beneath the stones in which
they sleep, to poke the white and shifty moon.

November 22, 2010: Baobob Camp, Chobe, Botswana

Among the San

The paintings in the caves have almost disappeared
on which the map was written
before anyone thought to write the story down—

and the locals no longer remember
what their grandfathers said about the paintings,
and the caves are thick with dust.

Around them and far into the distance
the landscape is almost blank
with the emptiness of evening.

Infant Baboon Swinging on a Vine, Zambia

After Dinner

Before dinner, Tinashe announced that since this was Africa, the men would eat first, and the women would serve them. All of the women except Rhona were shocked and offended. We all treated it as a joke, except for Rhona, who said, “Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” The men explained to our hosts that it was not acceptable to Americans for women to serve the men. Tinashe said, “You know your way. Why not try ours? It is only for a fortnight. Why not at least give it a try? Then when you go home you can resume your old ways.” We ended up agreeing that the men would serve themselves first, and then we’d wait until the women finished serving themselves before starting to eat.

Alpha Male Baboon, Baobob Camp, Chobe, Botswana

On my way back from breakfast this morning, I saw the baboon families were still busy with their morning foraging. They were sitting around a broken tree in the veldt between the path and the river. Some were wrestling, most were eating, the alpha male sat at the top of a woodpile, occasionally barking at the other baboons when they got too close to him or strayed too far away, or the kids were getting out-of-hand. I counted more than 48, at least as many as last night. On the way to breakfast I saw them climb down from about a dozen trees into the scrub at the edge of the veldt. The males climbed down first with a lot of noise, and began staking out territory and hunting through the grass. When all the men were down, the mothers, who were smaller, most of them with babies attached to their chests, gracefully floated down, ghostly, making no noise at all. (The joints in a baboon’s finger locks, which is why babies don’t fall off no matter how fast the mothers run.) The younger mothers were still descending when the children began to jump from branch to branch, squawking and shaking the limbs. They didn’t climb down the tree like their parents—they climbed out on the lowest branches and then cried out for everyone to watch, and then they would do some fancy swing and catapult off the branch into the air, doing a somersault or a twist in the air, landing on all fours and then running off to join their comrades.

Path from My Cabin Looking Back Toward the Kitchen, Baobob Camp, Chobe, Botswana

I’d been warned not to leave the path for any reason. Before you get to the veldt where the impalas and baboons feed in the mornings, you have to cross the scrub, which is where the lions and leopards hide when they want to catch a baboon, one of their favorite foods. Not to mention the lightning-fast black mamba, whose venom has no known antidote, and other dangers. At night we can hear the lions and leopards as they walk through camp, and in the morning we can see their tracks in the dirt. But it’s rare to spot a lion or a leopard or a cheetah during the day, since they’re experts at not being seen, and are usually long gone before you get anywhere near them. A beginner like me doesn’t stand a chance in the bush. A skilled guide wouldn’t walk where I was about to go unless they had a gun and a good reason. And they wouldn’t take a handgun or a shotgun because you need the accuracy and stopping power of a rifle to drop one of the big cats before they reach you. If you don’t get a clean kill, the cat’s going to get to you before you can get off a second shot, and when he reaches you he’s going to be pretty pissed.

My Cabin, Baobob Camp, Botswana

But after breakfast there was plenty of light, and I looked pretty thoroughly and found an area where things were largely open, and I wouldn’t have to go far to get a good shot. There was one baboon I’d love to get a photo of—I noticed him last night and again this morning. One of the young males is missing his right hand and tail but seems to be doing fine, scavenging one-handed. I asked James if that would be from a predator attack and he thinks it’s from getting caught in a wire snare and having to chew his way out.

So I walked ten or fifteen feet off the trail and crouched, taking a photo. But I was still too far away for a good shot, so I checked out the area on either side of me and there was nowhere to hide so I walked a good 20 or 25 feet closer, and crouched again, but I was still too far away so I walked clean out of the scrub and into the veldt and crouched and took some photos, but I was still too far away from the alpha male, so I moved even closer. Once I cleared the scrub, though, the alpha male began squawking and most of the baboons scampered away. I realized that the closer I got, the farther away they retreated. Monkeys climb trees to escape from predators, but baboons feel safer on the ground.

Ever since I left the scrub I had two strong feelings—one of a force in front of me, drawing me in, pulling me, and the other one behind me, pushing me forward. I more or less stumbled forward as if going downhill, which I was more or less, not really in control. And I felt the presence of something intelligent that was slowly maneuvering itself between me and the trail, isolating me in their territory.

As I left the scrub and entered the veldt, I began rehearsing what I’d do if I encountered a predator out here. You’re taught to stand up as tall as you can, and wave your arms above your head and roar, and even lean toward them, if you can. They tell you that even when a lion or leopard charges you, 80% of the time the first pass is just testing to see how easy a kill you’ll be. If you stand up to them, they’ll likely go off and find an easier lunch. But if you run you raise your chances of becoming dinner to around 100 percent. Anything that’s running looks like dinner to a lion.

Just as I’m thinking about what I’d do, I hear something making a lot of aggressive noise—screeching and screaming—and coming at me through the bush. I turn around and all I can see is a long patch of flat grass, and then a slope of scrub and some kind of disturbance about twenty yards out and a little off to my right. Something is shaking the tall grass in my direction and screeching. I can’t believe how far I’ve gotten from the path—probably 50-60 yards—so far I can’t even see it. And when I get to the path, I’ve still got another 30-40 yards to get to the stairs that lead up to my cabin. I’m the last cabin from the dining hall, about a quarter mile out. No one would hear me from here even if I screamed. There was no way I could outrun an enraged baboon who wants to do me harm. I’d decided it was a baboon because I could hear the same screeching coming from behind me as soon as I turned my back to the veldt. But I could see that the baboon was being gracious. He was staying to my right, pushing me toward the path, doing all he could not to trap me. He didn’t want a fight and probably figured I would be more dangerous if I felt cornered. And I took the opening he gave me and I don’t care what the book said, I ran as fast as I could and didn’t stop until I was safe inside my cabin.

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