Saturday, June 9, 2001

Savuti Marsh, Botswana III

I leave camp with lights out, driving by moonlight. I heard a lion’s roar near the campsite, and I drive south. Stopping the truck a mile or two out, I sit and listen to the African night. A jackel’s yelp. Bird song. Baboons squabbling in a distant tree. No lions.

And then I make out three shadows, padding silently through the sand, moving with quiet purpose. I feel a mix of wonder, fear and joy at the sight. I hear nothing but the odd growl and purr as they stroll into the night.

Further south, five sets of eyes reflect in my headlights, small golden coals lighting up with curiosity. Half-grown cubs play in the sand tracks, rolling around in the tall grass and setting up ambushes and leaping onto each other. A lioness’ call sends the cubs scrambling off into the brush with me fumbling behind.

Friday, June 8, 2001

Savuti Marsh, Botswana II

Pop quiz. In the things they never taught you in photo school department...

An eight-foot long, highly agitated python hides under your truck. What do you do?

I think it’s safe to say that prodding it with a tripod leg until it emerges enraged, and promptly setting off after it with a macro lens to shoot a portrait is not on everyone’s short list of bright ideas.

And that was assuming that my guidebook was right, and the python would only bit me with his numerous sharp teeth, then coil around me, working toward my eventual suffocation. As opposed to something truly unpleasant.

We danced back and forth for a while before he broke cover and darted for the thick brush. On the way past, he struck once, hard, at my tire, leaving two little fang marks on the dusty sidewall.

Thursday, June 7, 2001

Savuti Marsh, Botswana

In the depths of winter here, the nights are quite long, which gives me way too much time to think. I spent much of last night pondering mortality, but only after nearly stepping on a puff adder. I’d taken one step too many in the dark, heard a long, low hiss and hopped back swearing. Grabbing a flash light out of the truck, the light showed a stout snake with small head and ugly disposition.

After I disturbed him, he weaved through the tall, dead grass and leaves in no particular hurry, allowing me time to fetch my guidebook, turn to the reptiles page and to authoritatively identify him as one of the more lethal snakes on the continent. Shit.

I follow after the snake with my flash light for longer than necessary, inexplicably drawn to him. It’s as if Death itself brushed past in the darkness. Instead of being suitably chastened, I cape along behind, tugging at his robe. “Hey, mister. Is that really you?...”

It occurred to me later, sometime after midnight when the lions began to roar near camp, that this is all an exercise in blind faith. In particular faith that my thin nylon tent will somehow discourage a lion or elephant or hyena from sending me to an early, unpleasant demise.

I followed the lions’ progress through camp, debating whether to start being officially worried. I apparently wasn’t that worried, since I drifted back to sleep instead.

Monday, March 12, 2001

Masai Mara, Kenya VII

This place can be so utterly magical when appreciated alone. And then there is the other 90% of the time. In fairness, the majority of the tourists, with their fruit fly attention spans, roll through quickly enough. Stop, gawk, take a snapshot and move on. I watched today as no fewer than 26 vans and safari trucks lined up to view four petrified cheetah hiding in a thick bush.

One load after another looked at the shrub, looked at me, and drove off in disgust. Someone finally shouted, “What are we supposed to be looking at?” I shrug and put on my best clueless face and wish them well as they drive off in a cloud of dust.

Saturday, March 10, 2001

Masai Mara, Kenya VI

An hour after sunset, an orange glow appears on the eastern horizon, like a forest fire one county over. Out of that glow blooms a moon so fat and round and orange that cheese metaphors become hard to ignore. I sit and watch as it climbs straight up into the darkened sky, casting a shadow across the grass, and the evening comes alive.

Frog and cricket song fills the night air like perfume, and I chase after a firefly, laughing and remembering back thirty summers and eight thousand miles distant.

Friday, March 9, 2001

Masai Mara, Kenya V

One eye stares blindly toward the sun, slowly fading gray as life ebbs and the gazelle’s ribs lay open. The cheetahs, still panting from the hunt, plunge their muzzles deep inside. If you’re a gazelle, I can’t imagine a more surpassingly bad end to your morning.

A small herd stood in the tall grass, idly grazing and unaware that death had come calling. Three cubs lay low, hidden as their mother was slinking closer, her movements lost in the swaying yellow grass. She bursts out in a blur, and in five steps the gazelle is down.

The cubs draw near and to my surprise the mother lets the gazelle run free. He stands up a little unsteadily, then tries to bolt. The cubs give quick chase, trying to follow their mother’s example. They succeed in knocking it down, but the lesson comes to an abrupt halt when they plunge in to feed.

Thursday, March 8, 2001

Masai Mara, Kenya IV

Early in the afternoon, the air thickens, and dark clouds build toward critical mass. A lion and lioness nap through the day’s torpid heat, taking what shade the tall savanna grass affords. Lightning crackles and as if a switch has been thrown, the air turns to liquid.

The pair look as happy as any wet house cat and the temperature drops 20 degrees in as many minutes.

As the rain falls, the road system, such as it is, turns into a thick muddy stew. Matatu drivers are no great skill under the best of circumstances, turn the park into a demolition derby, careening in the slick mud and burying themselves to the axle. I make friends for life with a Japanese couple by offering a rope to extricate their driver’s minivan out of a rut. They speed off into the gloom in a spray of mud. I stay with the lions for a few minutes more, watching as lightning spits from the receding storm clouds.

Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Masai Mara, Kenya III

The cheetah hunts have an ad hoc quality to them, not the polished strategy I might have expected. The three that I’ve been watching for days will wander off, sometimes stalking, sometimes strolling, at this or that group of gazelle. If the gazelle see something suspicious, they’ll usually walk closer for a better look, before bolting in mortal terror.

Just before dawn, two young cheetah chased a large herd south, and mom cut across to drop the last of the gazelle. One animals lies with its mouth open, gaping in surprise and terror, another’s jaws clamp down hard. Life drains away.

Monday, February 26, 2001

Masai Mara, Kenya II

Three cheetah wait in the shadows, watching as a small herd of Thomson’s Gazelle wander closer, oblivious. Stalking in the tall grass, the mother leads her cubs closer. They’re nearly in striking range when another herd crests the hill and bears down without mercy.

No fewer than 13 safari vans race hellbent across the savanna, alerted to the spectacle. The vans and their chattering, laughing cargo surround the cheetahs, spoiling the hunt. Winding through the vans, the cheetah still try to sprint after the scattering gazelle herd.

They give up. Hungry and desperately panting, they slowly limp back to the shade to gather their strength, waiting for another chance.

Show over, the legions depart, in search of another spoon-fed thrill.

Saturday, February 24, 2001

Masai Mara, Kenya

Blind confidence and credit cards will get you a long way in this world, but getting back is another matter.

I should have been paying better attention, but that’s what I always say. One minute I’m cruising down some deserted track through the East African savanna, the next I’m bogged, stuck and wading in ankle-deep mud trying to extricate this pig of a truck.

My fall from automotive grace could hardly be quicker.

Waiting for help seems a poor option. I haven’t seen a fresh tire track in hours. Shoving the car matt under the spinning tires, I try very hard to ignore the shadows of an approaching thunderhead, until the deluge hits and I can only sit inside and stew. i start calculating my survival options. Three weeks worth of food and fuel, lots of reading material. No one on earth with a clue where I am.

Night closes in and I set up my tent on the truck’s roof. There are few places darker than a cloudy, starless night on this savanna. I lie in my sleeping bag disconsolate, chasing sleep that will not come. Just as I start to drift off, a low growl cuts through the darkness, and there’s a snapping of twigs. I unzip the fly just enough to stick out my big cop flash light. I flick it on, squarely into the eye of a passing elephant. Startled and blinded, he kicks his way through my fuel and water cans, and wanders off in a huff.

I sit there calling after him, “Don’t go. Just take the other end of this rope...”

By morning I’m feeling like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. And I don’t even have a volleyball to talk to.

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Nairobi, Kenya

The hotel staff keep smiling, but their eyes are starting to show suspicion. Every few hours I march through the Serena’s four-star lobby bearing another load of diesel cans, water tanks, expedition food and safari gear in all shapes and sizes.

Oh. A safari, sir? Of course, sir.

I drive through Nairobi like a skittish fawn. A four wheel drive, two ton Mitsubishi fawn, but still. I cannot put the city in my rear view mirror fast enough. Road signage is not Kenya’s strong suit, but I somehow eyeball the way, and soon find myself gaping into the Great Rift Valley.

The land drops a thousand meters revealing lush green plains below. Framing this wonder of nature are dozens of dubious photo platforms, curio shops and ersatz tribesmen, all awaiting tourist buses that seem to be running late.

It takes hours to reach the park entrance, traveling through Masai country and over stupendously bad roads. I find a campground as darkness falls, and have the place to myself, except for my very own Masai warrior. For 300 shillings he’s watching my every move, and will spend the night on guard, spear in hand, to keep me safe.

I’m too exhausted and jet lagged to even feel guilty about paying someone four bucks to protection against lions. rabid dogs and the local banditry.

I just feel so...colonial.

Thursday, January 11, 2001

Cape Horn, Chile

We cleared the southern tip of the world just as a single beam of sunlight struck the cliffs, and soon rain and clouds obscured the view. Just before land faded from view, Henk intoned “Ladies and gentlemen, behold the horror of mariners.”

As if on cue, a squall blew in hard and fast, and upon leaving the last protection of land, we took it right in the chops. Forty knot winds whirled the sea into ugly chaos.

Nearly all the non-sailors suffered a speedy return of yesterday’s distress. Out of sheer stubbornness, I sat on deck for ten full hours, eyes glued to the horizon, growing wetter and colder.

As we plowed through the 15-foot following seas, Sarah lurched and fell in endless repitition. The northerly wind drove sleet and rain under the meager protection of the small cockpit canopy. It grew steadily colder and stronger, until another squall around sunset brought a 62 knot gust.

The rain and spray blew into a mist across the ocean’s face. I reached the point of cold and exhaustion where hazy dreams began mingling with reality. Time began to blur and I drifted in and out of seemingly random dreams, waking each time we rolled off a wave and heeled over past 45°.

Jurgen finally convinced me to go to bed, but not before I was shaking uncontrollably. I stepped out of my rain gear, struggling with wooden fingers to open zippers. Crawling into my meager, borrowed sleeping bag, warmth returned only slowly, but sleep was right on its heels.

Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Isla Hornas, Chile

Sunlight streams through my tiny porthole, a marked improvement over last night’s blue water washing machine view. The seasick rejoin the living and after a light breakfast to settle stomachs , we’re off again to Isla de Hornas, Cape Horn.

Jagged spires stagger away from the islands, all steep cliffs and a thin layer of green covering all but the most vertical surfaces. Rain storms whip through and we make up to 8.5 knots, crashing into waves and sending up white curtains of spray.

Chile maintains a small border and Coast Guard station atop the rocks there, and every shirking gale and howling storms gets a clear shot at the ramshackle lighthouse and low cabins.

We climb the stairs, dutifully pet the dog and wander to the station for an oversized passport stamp and overpriced postcards. A young family of Chileans spend a lonely year here before transfer to a cushy post in a more accommodating climate.

At least for a few minutes, the Horn seems altogether pleasant, with the Jennifer Sepulveda-Quintrileo, the couple’s two-year-old, running through the tall grass. A passing gust nearly bowls her off her feet.

Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Puerto Williams, Chile II

With little warning and no fanfare, we set sail. I’m busy petting one of the yacht club stray dogs, stroking his sweet spot with his leg kicking double time when Henk calls out, “Care to join us?” Everything is stowed, the already rotting box of tomatoes is dumped in the garbage and we jockey out of the yacht club anchorage. Goodbye to cheap red wine, smoky pubs and the last hot shower we’ll see for a while.

Gray skies weep over the mountain tops, parting to reveal a dusting of fresh snow. We’re aleady beyond the anticipation and excitement of our departure from Ushuaia. Willimyn is layering tomatoes in her lasagna platter, folks wander below to read and write, or sip tea in the warm galley. We catch a little bit of current and the boat picks up the beginnings of the ocean swell.

An ancient forest clings to wind-scoured cliffs, trees bent over by centuries of gales howling in off the Atlantic. But in these sheltered bays, we motor a steady six knots over seas that mirror a featureless sky.

All was going along more or less swimmingly yesterday, until all of a sudden it wasn’t.

Motoring on leaden, mirror calm seas past Navarino Island, no mare than a light swell swaying us as fat raindrops fell straight down. It was only gradually, without much drama, that the wind started to build, and the seas developed a nasty chop. Up on deck, we watched as the boat slowly turned 180° and began an ugly wallow. The rain pelted the deck watch, but I was happy to have myself, the horizon and my dinner all in happy accordance.

As we pitched and rolled, the boat grew silent and more than a little sullen as first Piet, then Annie and most spectacularly Jan sprinted to the head extravagantly puking up dinner.

With much crashing and cursing, we’re under sail, heeled over 45° to port, sending the sick one circle lower into hell.

After ten, the clouds grow even more leaden, but the only sounds we hear are the crash of waves, lines snapping in the wind and the eggbeater sound of our wind generator blurring in the gale.

Toward midnight, the winds drop off to below ten knots, and we motor under sail to Herschel Island, anchoring in Martial Cove until dawn.

Monday, January 8, 2001

Puerto Williams, Chile

I wake in another world, a more perfectly rendered version the old one.

Walked to town in the warm sun. One last phone call home; Jodi’s voice swimming through 10,000 miles of static and satellite delay. She was warm and snug, just waking in my bed. In another world.

Do some last minute shopping, parting with my last $20 bill for batteries and some paper towels. A group sets off in the afternoon to hike oiut to some ponds created by the beaver introduced half a century ago. An alien species, they’re wreaking havoc, drowning countless acres of forest.

The wilderness trail has been replaced by a gravel road, bisecting the biggest of the beaver ponds along the way to a military base. At a stream, we balance over precarious log crossings. I cross back and forth until obliging everyone by stepping onto a shifting log and soaking one leg.

Willamyn entices four of us on an off-trail march through the thicket. We’re quickly and thoroughly lost, reduced to following the winding stream downriver, hoping that it will eventually led us back to the sea. We’re without compass, water, food or clothes beyond t-shirts and jeans, as storms clouds build over the surrounding hills. We cross and re-cross streams. Pieter slips and falls in, Annie wishes she’d been smart enough to take the road back. I’m furious at how recklessly we’ve wandered off, on Willamyn’s blithe assurances. I find a marsh of dead beech trees; a breached beaver pond, calmber up a hill and finally stumable across a road. Willamyn says it’s a fine adventure, but I counter that it’s more like Scott’s heroics. Go off half-assed into the wilderness without a map or food or warm clothes and you’re goinng to have all manner of adventure. It’s just stupid is all.

Sunday, January 7, 2001

Beagle Channel, Argentina II

“I’m just coming up here to ask how you’d like your steak cooked. It some really lovely meat we’ve got for the grill.”

Things are definitely looking up.

“Be careful what you say, we have to stay together for four weeks.”
“It’s not four weeks. It’s only 27 days.”

But who’s counting.

“Will we ever be this happy again?”
“Yeah, on the way home.”

We sit in the lingering evening sun, motoring out at a steady six knots through the Beagle Channel, away from Ushuaia. We drink red wine, conversations in three different languages ebb and flow across the narrow deck. Four of us have been to the same tiny Outback town in Australia, and all have a totally different spin. Only mine involves drunken footie fans, though.

We can smell the seal haulout before we can see it, a small series of rock spires just breasting the sea’s surface. We idly slowly closer, Sarah’s diesel purring , as cormorants waddle and flap and shriek in threat, though they can’t be bothered to bestir themselves to fly off. The seals seem even less inspired to move, more inclined to yawn and view us with indifferent eyes as we sidle back and forth.

The sun lingers past 10 pm, and Willemyn grills slabs of fine Argentine beef. Already a crew, we sit together on deck, huddled against the brisk wind coming down the channel, laughing easily. The moon, two days shy of full, rises above mountains still clinging to last winter’s snows. Clouds color from orange to pink and finally slate blue.

Storm clouds and showers gather around Ushuaia Bay, but the sky remains clear overhead for now.

I raise a glass of red wine and toast “Let’s go have some fun.”

Beagle Channel, Argentina

Sometime in the night, the wind kicks up and my eyes open. Rain moves west through the Beagle Channel and comes down in cold, hard sheets. I wake again at dawn, and an orange beam like a spot light hit the mountains near town and the clouds’ low-slung bellies.

I roll over and sleep for two more hours, my last on land.

During the last few days, fear and anticipation have risen more or less in tandem, managing to cancel each other out, leaving me with a sort of emotional white noise. The disastrous state of my finances served as a distraction as well.

I spend an hour sorting clothes and gear on my hotel room bed. Dress shirts and khakis: out. Anything in polypro goes in. Much shuffling about. Take a very long, very hot shower. Another last. Grow waterlogged but not much more focused. I’m still waiting to liberate my last duffel, the one containing storm and camping gear, from the left luggage room that no one seems to posses a key to.

Finish my last ham and cheese omlette, my last cappuccino, and get ready to face the music. Or at least send some more email.

It took some time, but after a half hour walking in the cold rain, I finally track down my boat and her skipper. The Sarah W. Vorwerk is bright red, single masted and looks like a very, very small space to spend a month with seven complete strangers. Make that eight, since we seemed to have picked up at least one extra passenger and some woman who never introduces herself except to say coldly that no, she is NOT Henk’s wife. It takes some hours and an observed crotch grinding embrace that I start to get the picture.

It’s all a little overwhelming, one of those rare times in life when I simply have no idea of what is going to happen next.

What happens next is we sit. For several hours. With no clear reason or purpose. An emigrations officer finally saunters down the gangway and there’s quite a bit of conversation centering around missing stamps and lost papers. Then suddenly we’re off. Casting away lines and slowly chugging through the harbor. No fanfare, just a few waves from fellow yachties. Passing through glassy waters and heading down the Beagle Channel, slowly southwards.

Monday, January 1, 2001

Ushuaia, Argentina

The moon’s mad clown smile slowly rolls on its side, from left to right.

Read. Drink. Doze. Wait.

Emerge blinking and a little stunned into the morning air in Buenos Aires. A forty dollar cab ride transports me and five bulky duffels at the Aeroparque. Four hours of chatting up a chirpy but dull Thai-American bartender who’s sailing on a 300-foot blue hair cruise ship to Antarctica in the dingy airport cafeteria.

There’s another hour sitting in the plane on the ground and three more in the air, concluding with a memorably awful descent into Ushuaia, at the southern tip of the world.

Bienvenidos al fin del mundo.

Peering out the window of a small hilltop restaurant, looking down upon Beagle Channel. A tiny Zodiac motors out against the swell. In fluorescent orange survival suits, the pilot and passenger take a royal pounding, kicking up a cold, soaking spray as they head out toward a cruise ship anchored in the harbor. It all looks so very big. So very cold. So unforgiving.

I feel like a man condemned.

Some Aussie talked of orcas bumping their heads against the yacht’s hull in play, massive icebergs calving. Magic.

And Force 8 gales. Everyone puking.

I’ve got five long days here to think about it all.