I was sitting in the schoolyard at Elicecy with my student Precious when she took my arm and inspected it closely. After a bit, she looked up at me and said “Teacher, your skin is changing.”
I smiled at her and responded with a simple “Yes, Precious. It is!”
All the SPF 50 in the world (thanks mom!) won’t stop the African sun from tanning your skin. The sun has an intensity here, and the epic tan lines I am currently sporting prove just how true this is.
We’ve been in Africa for a little more than a month and I haven’t shared too much about the environment, aside from the fact that it’s blazing hot in the month of October.
Zambia is REALLY beautiful and very different than any other place where I’ve spent an extended amount of time.
In Michigan, everything has a backdrop of green in the summertime. The grass is green, the bushes and trees are green. Yes, there are splashes of color from wildflowers, lawn decorations and flowering trees, but for the most part – it is green.
Here in Zambia, everything has a backdrop of red and sepia tones. The ground is a red, fine sand. The trunks of the trees have a red hue, and many of the trees are full of small red flowers. Even the houses are red, since many of them are mud and thatch – built with the same red sand that covers the ground. The sun has a tone of red here. You know the opening scene in “The Lion King” that shows a big, deep ruby red sun peaking over the horizon? Yea, that’s pretty accurate. That deep, red glow lights the landscape each sunrise and sunset.
For anyone who knows Luke and I, you know we are huge nature lovers and we love to spend time outdoors. One of our favorite things to do together is go long distance backpacking and for hikes in the woods.
In Michigan and along the Appalachian Trail (our favorite drivable hiking destination in the USA) you can see a fair amount of wildlife. You may go out into the forest and mountains and see squirrels, chipmunks, Robins and other birds, salamanders, butterflies and various interesting insects. If you are lucky, you may see a wolverine or a skunk (preferably from afar!), or something a bit bigger like a deer or a black bear.
But here in Africa, the wildlife is a level vastly it’s own.
When driving along the road, you may see zebras just a few feet away from the street heading in the direction of town. Your taxi driver may have to stop to let a herd of elephants cross the road. You may see warthogs out in the bush as you walk or ride in a taxi, or giraffes off in the distance munching on some tree leaves. You will definitely see tons of feral cats in town and a lot of different types of birds. There aren’t really any equivalents of squirrels in town, but just outside of town there are a lot of baboons.
The wildlife here is unreal.
On the weekends we do not have volunteer responsibilities, so we have the ability to go out and explore.
We have traveled to Botswana and experienced an overnight safari, sleeping in a tent out in the bush to the sound of hyenas and jackals around us. The whole time we were there I had to keep reminding myself that we were not in a zoo or a fenced off area – that I was visiting a natural habitat and I was very VERY much a guest there. We saw 13 lions – some VERY close up. We saw hyenas, jackals, over 100 elephants (including some SUPER SMALL adorable baby elephants), giraffes, warthogs, herds of zebras, a bunch of different types of antelopes, impala, crocodiles, water buffalo, tons of different birds, meerkats, hippos, vultures, fish eagles … I can’t even begin to list them all. My mouth was hanging open pretty much the whole time, and I took so many pictures it will take me forever to sift through them all.
I will share more about Botswana at some other time. It’s a beautiful and raw place. You hear a lot about amazing Safari’s in Kenya, but not too much about Botswana. Botswana seems like a hidden gem for taking a safari. It wasn’t crowded at all, and we had a fantastic time.
A few weekends ago, we went on a rhino walk in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park here in Zambia. I want to share the story, because it was one of the most strange and memorable experiences in the wild during our time here!
We arrived in Zambia during the peak of the dry season in October, and we’ve been able to see the transition into the wet season which starts in November.
The transition happens very quickly.
One day, the sky just opens up and it lets out an absolute torrential downpour of rain that settles all the red dust into hard packed earth, creating new watering holes, promoting the growth of grass and vegetation and dropping the temperature by at least ten degrees.
The day of the first big rain (well…. the HOUR of the first big rain) happened when we were out on safari for the rhino walk.
There were five of us total in the back of the safari vehicle, driving out into the bush toward the place where we would be able to see the white rhinos. Due to poachers, the population of white rhinos has drastically decreased in Zambia and there are only ten of them left (…yes, you read that right. TEN left!). The remaining ten live in the Mosi-oa -Tunya National Park, and they are protected by armed guards around the clock.
The rhino walk is pretty much what it sounds like. We were going to be led toward the animals by a few of the armed guards so that we could see them closer and appreciate how beautiful they are.
When we arrived where the guards were set up that day, the sky had darkened and lightning had been lighting up the horizon for almost a full hour.
We stepped out of the vehicle to meet the guards and learn the rules. There are a lot of them when you come close to wild animals. You have to listen to every single instruction from the guard. If he says go left, you go left. If he says back away, you back away. You have to walk in single file, and you have to walk slowly. You shouldn’t turn your back on the animal. You shouldn’t get too close. You shouldn’t run or make loud noises – and so on.
While learning all of these things, the weather turned.
In a rush, the lightning became more extreme and it began to rain. HARD. Big drops of water pounded the Earth in sharp bursts, blowing in at an angle from the strong wind of the storm.
Safari vehicles have an awning, but no windows or sides or doors. With the wind blowing so strong, sitting beneath the awning offered zero assistance at keeping us dry.
Luke and I in all our genius decision making had decided to skip bringing rain jackets, because in all our time here it hadn’t yet rained.
Our group crouched down by the wheels of the Safari vehicle on one side, which worked alright at blocking the wind and rain blowing in from the opposite direction.
We were still getting soaked!
The lightening flashed, and the rain was relentless for a solid ten minutes before it began to hail. Big pellets of hail clinked and clanked as they hit the awning and sides of the vehicle. Most of the guards stood holding a tarp above their heads just ten feet over from us, their AK-47’s hugged to their chest and the wind blowing the tarp around as it made loud flapping noises. One of the guards sat beside us, crouched down like a ball with his gun between his legs.
I’ll lighten this up a bit and share that while this was happening we were all LAUGHING our heads off. What a crazy situation! In the middle of Africa, in the middle of the safari, soaking wet and getting hailed on.
Just as we were acknowledging how funny the situation was, two warthogs wandered out of the bush in front of the place where we were crouched. With the thick hail, it looked like it was snowing. So we just sat there – again, my mouth hanging wide open – while the warthogs wandered about in the hail sniffing the ground and grunting. They hung around for a while, and then ran/waddled back into the bush.
Warthogs and hail?
I just kept thinking – you must be kidding me.
After the rain stopped, we all stood up and looked off in the distance at more grey clouds headed our way. The next storm was far enough in the distance that we could still walk to see the rhinos.
The guards gave us the rest of the rundown, and as we were talking we looked up to see a mother rhino and her baby headed toward us. Wow!
The guards pretty much said “Okay, you get the gist of the rules. Here we go!”
We began the dance of getting closer, backing away, walking in slow arches around the animals, appreciating how beautiful they are.
We walked a little further, slowly circling around the two rhinos and watching them rub their horns on a tree. Then out of the corner of our eyes we saw a big group of rhino’s coming up from the same direction as the two we were watching – eight of them.
The guards said we were in luck! It was the full group!
Rhino’s are pretty optimistic creatures, and when it rains they get all riled up, assuming that there is now grass to eat. (…Like, minutes after it rains, haha). So the animals tend to walk to higher ground to start searching for the grass. They also like mud, so they look for that too.
The rhino’s were maybe 25 feet away. We stood behind a termite mound watching them, one of the guards on the mound between us and the animals, and the other two guards standing off to the side. (While the guards are there to protect the animals from poachers, they are also there to protect the people who come to see the Rhino’s if something bad happens. If needed, they’ll shoot their gun up in the air to scare the animals away and give the group time to get back to the vehicle.)
The rhinos were definitely riled up from the storm!
You could feel it.
The animals were swinging their heads about, grunting and communicating with each other, and trotting around pretty quickly. The bigger males were positioned at the outskirts of the group and the females and babies were positioned in the middle.
Eventually, the largest male noticed us and took an interest in us. Suddenly, he began to move fairly quickly in our direction. There were three guards with us at the time, and the female guard at our side quickly instructed us to back away, and try to move slowly but swiftly. This rhino was the guard for the group, and he was moving with an attitude of protection – clearly telling us to back off. A few of the smaller males were following his lead. I will say – it’s a sight to see several giant ass rhinos trotting toward you as you try to back away slowly and calmly.
Then all of the sudden, the guard standing on the termite mound (who was clapping to distract the rhino from our movement) TRIPPED and FELL TOWARD THE ONCOMING RHINO.
EVERYTHING WENT CRAZY!
The lead rhino was confused for a moment, and then kept moving forward now with a bit more enthusiasm. We saw the guard swing his gun around to his front as he stumbled to catch his footing, and the woman guard near us had wide eyes and was like “OKAY lets go. Go go go.”
Nothing bad happened!
But it was a moment of crazy adrenaline.
Once we had some distance between us and the rhinos, our guide (the guide is different than the guards) quietly said “Okay, maybe we stop and take a few more pictures now!”
The guards responded with a firm no, and continued to usher us back toward the place where the vehicle was parked.
The rhinos were still watching us as we quietly walked back toward the starting point.
Arriving back at the vehicle, the silence broke and EVERYONE was talking energetically about what had happened! The guard who had tripped down the termite mound let out a big breath and said “My heart is beating so fast!” Even our guide said he’d never experienced anything like it before, and he smiled hugely and joked with deep exaggerated breaths to calm down.
The guards were all looking relieved that nothing bad had happened and everyone was okay (including the rhinos!).
We snapped a photo together as a group, and then noticed that the rhino’s were walking lazily up the path toward us, still scoping us out but only with mild curiosity now.
We climbed back into the vehicle, and with the energy still settling, we began a drive through the rest of the park. We spotted other animals like giraffes, baboons (lots of babies!), and hippos.
What an EXPERIENCE!
Our guide talked about how crazy it was the whole remainder of our drive through the reserve. He said that he felt like a tourist for the first time in a long time, and admitted that he was looking to the guards needing just as much instruction about what to do as the rest of us.
…Maybe this is a part of the “tourism experience” and they tell this to everyone!
Buuuttttt.. maybe not.
It doesn’t really matter and I’m definitely not trying to exaggerate a dramatic experience, but I will say this- the fact that the guards firmly said no to stopping for more pictures, and continued to shuffle us quickly back toward the vehicle, while keeping one guard at the back of the line, one to our side and one to the front …. yea, that tells me that maybe we cut it a bitttttt close.
It is wild here, and the animals are not to be underestimated!
I will definitely remember those warthogs in the hail, and I’ll remember the chaos while our guard tripped down the termite mound very distinctly for a very long time.
Crazy experiences happening over here.
Loving this continent!