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African Notebooks 2011  

September 17, 2011: Morocco

A group of children are sitting on a long concrete slab in front of a building in the medina of Fes. One of the girls—about seven years old, dark and unkempt—leaps up and runs in front of me and yells at me in Arabic, pushing against my stomach with her tanned hands, walking backwards, and I realize she is almost exactly Zoe’s age, that this would be Zoe if she had been born in Fes.

A teenage girl rounds the corner, almost running into our group. She leaps backwards to avoid contact with us and spits on the ground between us. It’s been explained to us that we must ask people if we can take their photos but still several of our group point their cameras at the locals as we walk quickly down the alleyways of the old city. Walking behind them I can see the people react violently against being photographed, bringing their hands up in front of their faces, scowling and looking away, waving their hands to scold us, or spitting at our feet as we pass. One shopkeeper rushes after us down the street, grabs a man from our party, points to the camera and makes him erase the photo. A young European woman comes up to me and says “Bon jour.” I smile and say “Bon jour,” and she begins to yell at me. With what little French I can understand, she’s asking me if I’m having fun photographing the locals as if I was visiting a zoo. The odd thing is that I’m just about the only person in our group who’s not carrying a camera.

Boys of many ages are playing soccer in a dusty lot in front of the 17th century ruins outside Erfoud. A sudden yell of “Watch out!” in English and I turn to see a soccer ball coming at my head. It drops and takes a weird hop and I have to leap out of its way. The closest boy—maybe seven years old—shrieks and imitates my clumsy leap, scolding me with a singsong nursery rhyme in Arabic, his eyes crossed, sticking out his chest, his hands on his hips, wiggling back and forth in an exaggerated pantomime of a sex act as the other children shout and laugh.

It is explained to us that locals sometimes dress up in authentic historical costumes from their family’s caste, even though their services are no longer needed—like the waterbearers and the musicians who gather wherever there are tourists—and that this is how these people make their living and they expect to be paid to have their picture taken. You should always negotiate the price first, our guide Ibrahim tells us, and he recommends five dirhams, or about 60 cents. He says that if you wait until after the photo is taken, the price often rises dramatically to 100-150 dirhams, and sometimes both waterbearers ask for payment, whereas if you negotiate beforehand it’s assumed that it’s for both of them. I watch one American couple walk up to the waterbearers and pose with them for some video, and one of the waterbearers takes their camera and shoots the couple with his partner. When it’s over the Americans turn their backs and walk away, ignoring the commotion behind them as the waterbearers follow them to the edge of the park, hurling insults in four different languages at their backs and shaking their fists in the air.

When I walk down the backstreets, everyone falls silent, staring as I pass. When I look up and smile, they continue to stare as if I don’t exist, as if I’m projected on a screen. I slip alone into the jigsaw maze of the medina to find my way along its narrow streets to a music store I passed on the way in, but the streets are never headed in one direction, and I only think I know where I am for a few moments before I’m lost again.

I’m the only foreigner in this part of the medina. Other than when I am doing something forbidden have I ever really been alone?  Whatever I wanted this is what it is, one way and then another, over and over again, what it is and in a moment it will be gone with everything I’ve thought about it, uninvolved in all things except those I can’t avoid, accepting the irrational even when it leaves me bewildered. Whatever it is, what was once in the distance is now what I’m walking through and I will never be able to walk fast enough or far enough to walk out of the frame.

When the desert sun sets, the landscape begins to disappear. Now the horizon is gone beyond anything perceptible, anything even conceivable. This is what long hours of empty desert will do to you—the baked earth, the withered spikey grass, the bleached bones and dehydrated fur, the sting of woodsmoke in the evening, a land distorted by the wind, the dunes constantly changing against the sharp edges of the rocks, the moon a part of this place as much as the cliffs and valleys. The sky glows with heat and the clouds slowly turn red and white herons arc across them.

When I was about to walk into the desert, Ibrahim warned me, “No one has to tell you that when you see a spinning cloud of yellow sand that it’s time to get indoors.” 

September 19, 2011, Ouarzazate, Morocco

The air conditioner in my room suddenly starts banging and hammering and clanging loudly, pieces of white plastic shooting out of it onto the floor. I rush to the remote control and shut it off, go out to dinner, and stop at the front desk on the way back to my room. I explain the situation to the guy at the desk. He asks me if I turned it off and I tell him "of course" and he tosses the key to one of the guys hanging out at the desk, who takes me back to my room. When we get there he unlocks the door and leaves it wide open and walks over to the air conditioner and turns it on and it starts right up and isn’t making the horrible clanging noise and he turns it off. I look behind the TV to show him the bits of plastic that came out of it and it turns out the only thing underneath it is a puddle of water. “That’s funny,” I say. “No it’s not funny” he says and finds the TV remote control and goes through the channels one by one until he comes to channel six. It’s a sports channel and he points to the screen and says, “Foosball.” “But?” I say, picking up the air conditioner’s remote control. “No,” he shouts, wagging his finger back and forth in front of my face and taking the remote out of my hand and opening a drawer and throwing the remote control inside and shutting the draw. He points to the TV. “Foosball.” Then he walks out of my room, leaving the door wide open. I stand for a minute wondering if he’s coming back. Is it safe to use the air conditioner? I don’t want to watch foosball in Arabic. A woman athlete is seated behind a desk. She has worn a modest black dress, her black curly hair swirls over her shoulders. Across from her sits a short, dark, angry, fat man in a tan suit, and when he shouts a question at her, she bends down to look at her fingers, which she flexes on the desk as if they are keeping her vertical. She answers slowly, and then stops and swings her head to the side, taking him on a digression until he catches her attention by barking at her again. She waves her left hand in the air, dismissing him, then turns away as if to qualify something she’s said, which only makes him madder. The atmosphere is claustrophobic—she backs away as if he’s physically threatening her. She becomes more careful and deliberate in what she says, her left hand waving less confidently, drawing diagrams on the table with her fingertip, raising and eyebrow and scowling for emphasis, the movements of her head becoming small nervous leaps away from him, as he continues to shout at her. Then she turns to fully face him, more animated and agitated than before, cornered, fighting back, protecting her babies.

I turn the TV off and pick up the novel I’m reading—The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles—leaving the door open in case he’s coming back. After about fifteen minutes, there’s sounds in the hallway of a couple returning to their room next to mine, so I get up and close my door, but it’s one of those doors that won’t close unless it’s locked, so I just leave it open an inch or two so that if he comes back I won’t have to get up and let him in. When I wake up in the morning it doesn’t seem like there’s been anyone in my room but I turn on the air-conditioner and it works just fine, and continues to work perfectly until my last day in Ouarzazate when suddenly it begins to make the same loud crunching noise and pieces of white plastic begin shooting out of it again. I turn it off and look behind the TV and see that the white things shooting out of it aren’t pieces of plastic, they’re chunks of ice. 

September 23, 2011: Essaouira, Morocco

I feel comfortable in the Essaouira medina and know where I'm going after a brief tour and two passes on my own through its streets. On the central avenue you are either headed for the center of town or the castle Hendrix wrote about in "Spanish Castle Magic." Perpendicular to this central axis, the streets head either toward the south or the north beach. When I make a wrong turn and head down a dead-end street, it is obvious I am lost, and the locals point me backwards in the direction of the “exit.”

I am looking for a music shop I passed on my way in, when I didn’t have time to stop. I start off in the wrong direction but when I get to the center of town, I realize where I am and find the store pretty easily. The same woman's voice is singing in the shop, which is a gift because I didn’t know how I was going to describe her to the store owner when I returned hours later.  He is standing outside his shop and nods to acknowledge me and then turns away. I stand for a moment and listen until I'm certain that it's the same woman singing and then excuse myself and ask who is this singing? He hands me a CD by Rokia Traore. I ask him how much. Fifty dirhams, about 6 dollars. Sold. Her father is very famous too, he tells me and hands me one of her father’s CDs. Can I hear? Of course, he says. Boubacar Traore looks like Howlin’ Wolf and sings like John Lee Hooker, accompanying himself with a large acoustic guitar. (I find out later that he is not Rokia’s father. But it’s a common mistake. Traore is a common surname among the musical caste in Morocco.) Then he shows me a CD by Saifa Kaita. Yes, I say, I have everything. He shows me a CD by Ali Farka Toure. Yes, I have everything. Tinariwen. Ah, yes! The best! But I have everything. He reaches over and pushes play and the opening bars of "Ammassakoul" fill the marketplace. Ah, yes, I say, I have been singing this song the whole trip. Damn you!  Now I won’t get it out of my head all day! We laugh together. I tell him I’m looking for some good Gnawa music and he hands me a recording of the 2010 Gnawa Festival in Essouria. I have 190 dirhams and I pour it all on the counter. “What can I get with this?” I walk out with Rokia and Boubacar Traore, the Gnawa anthology, and a CD by a local female percussionist, Amina Alaoui. As I pick up my package he reaches out and grabs my hand, shakes it vigorously. "You will like these," he assures me.

I go to the cash machine and take out $200 in dirhams and walk to another music store I passed on the way in. Interesting music is coming out of his stall as well. He is leaning against the speaker on the street, his armed crossed. He returns my gaze and we both nod. Then he turns away and stares out into the street. I say, “Excuse me, who is this singing?” And he stands up and goes to the shelf. Puts a CD on the counter by Boubacar Traore. “Oh,” I say, “I just bought that one.” “No you didn't,” he says. “Yes I did,” and I go digging in my bag. “I can see what you bought” and I look and see that my bag is transparent.  “Oh, right. Here is what I just bought. And then for dance hall I like Amadou and Mariam. For female singers I like Oumou Sangare, for male singers I like Salif Keita and Issa Bagayoyo, and for blues-based music I like Ali Farka Toure, and my favorite is the desert blues of Tinariwen.”

“Eh,” he says, dismissing Tinariwen with a wave of his hand. “Everything they know they learned from him,” jabbing at the Boubacar CD. He is quickly losing patience with the whole desert blues thing. “Listen,” he says, turning around. “If you like Tinariwen, you will like these”—he pulls out a two-CD set “Desert Music Volume III” and puts it on the counter. “But I know you,” he says. “You like blues, right? Do you like jazz?” “Yes,” I say, “some jazz, sure.” He pulls out a CD by a local oud player, Anouar Brahem. "Here he is playing with….” “Dave Holland” I shout, reading his name on the CD cover. “Yes” he says, “and John Surman. Do you know Surman?" "No, I don't." "He played with Miles, he plays with John McLaughlin. He is very good. Do you know Jan Garbarek?” “Oh, yeah, sure, and his daughter Anja, who’s a musician too.” “Here take this.” He hands me "Madar" on ECM from 1994. "This is Anouar with Garbarek and Ustad Shaukat Hussain, a very good tabla player." "So it's west, middle east, and far east." "Yes," he smiles. "It is very good." He puts on a CD by Ismail Ko which he says is hard to describe. It's a duet with Marianne Faithfull. "How much for these six CDs?” He points to my bag. “How much did you pay him?” “Fifty dirhams each.” “Are you happy with that price?” “These cost me $6.00 a piece. If I could find these in the U.S.—and I doubt it—I’d probably pay $60.00 for the four of them. So, yeah, I’m happy.” “Then 50 dirhams for these too.” I stuff them into my bag and reach out to shake his hand. “Thank you. You have been a great help.” “You will like,” he says, nodding, looking away, refusing to meet my eyes. 

September 24, 2011: Ourika Valley, Morocco

It's our last day in Marrakech, and we drive out to visit a Berber house in the Ourika Valley of the Atlas Mountains. As we’re leaving the storeroom, I see a mirror that I want. I've been looking at these Moroccan mirrors ever since I saw the first one in Casablanca. The mirror itself is hidden behind two wooden doors inside a larger frame, except when in use. These mirrors are for sale everywhere in Morocco and I’ve looked closely at each and every one and found fault with each one. They're either too touristy or they're in bad shape or their design is simplistic or poorly executed. But this one is perfect in every part. Its frame and doors are trimmed in elk bone that has been incised and then rubbed with coal-black and painted with ink, and the surface of the door and the lintel and doorframe are made of hammered silver that's turned dark with dust and sand and age. The cedar doors are in perfect shape and the hinges are solid from top to bottom on both sides. The mirror itself is slightly foggy near the top, but I’d already decided that if I bought one I would turn it into a shrine, and cover the mirror with an image of whatever god came to me, so it's still perfect.

The problem is that I only have 450 dirhams on me and he will go no lower than 850 dirhams (a little over $100). I tell the salesman that this is all the money I have on me and I'm not coming back. But he can't go lower than 850, so I leave and find Ibrahim in the courtyard. I ask him if he can help me bargain. I show him the mirror and he says “That’s real bone, that’s real silver. Eight hundred and fifty is a good price.” “Yeah, I know, but I don’t have it. I’m just asking for your advice. Is it fair to offer 450 dirhams?” And before he can answer, the salesman returns. He looks weary, as if he’s dealt with Ibrahim before. Ibrahim says, “You want 850, he’s only got 450. What do you want, 450 or nothing?” “But that is worth much more”—he says, “that’s real silver, that’s real bone.” “He’s not disputing the fact that it is silver. He’s telling you he only has 450 dirhams. Do you want 450 or nothing?” The seller ignores Ibrahim and says to me, "I can show you another one for 450” and I say, "No, I've looked at all of them. This is the one I want." Ibrahim says, "He doesn't want another one, he wants this one. Do you want to keep it or do you want his 450 dirhams instead?" The salesman asks me, "Can you come up with a couple hundred dirhams?” I open my wallet and show it to him—“Look, there is no more money in here. If you can find more money, you can have it.” Ibrahim hands the mirror back to the salesman and throws my 450 dirhams at him. The salesman doesn’t reach out to catch the bills so they flutter slowly to the floor. “Do you want 450 or nothing?” The salesman turns to me again, “100 more?” “I told you, I have no more.” Ibrahim shouts, “He is leaving tomorrow, he will not be back, he has 450 dirhams. These are the facts. Do you want 450 dirhams, or do you want nothing?” "You can borrow 100 off of him,” the salesman snarls, and I turn to Ibrahim and laugh, “Well, now your tip is on the line. The only cash I have in my room is for everyone's tip. Now you’ve got as much invested in this as I do.” When we turn back, the salesman has picked up the money and slipped into a backroom, where he is wrapping my mirror in bubble wrap and an Arabic newspaper, twisting sealing tape around it several times as if he's wringing someone's neck, glaring at Ibrahim the whole time. Since he is angry and not paying attention, the salesman knocks several bracelets off the wall behind him onto the floor. “Look out,” Ibrahim says, “You are falling apart. Look, bracelets are falling out of your sleeves. Where did those come from? Are you made of bracelets?”


November 22, 2011, Baobob Camp, Chobe, Zambia

At dinner it was announced that since this was Africa, the men would eat first, and the women should serve them. All of the women except Rhona were shocked and offended and treated it as a joke. Rhona said that that was the way it was supposed to be. The men argued with our hosts that it was not acceptable to Americans for women to serve men. We ended up deciding to have the men serve themselves first, and wait until the women finished serving themselves before starting to eat.

On my way back from breakfast this morning, I saw the baboon family was back from their morning foraging. They were sitting around a broken tree in the veldt between the path and the floodplain and its meandering inlets. Some of the baboons were wrestling, most of them were eating, and the alpha male sat on the top of the woodpile, occasionally barking at the other baboons when they got too close to him or strayed too far away or were getting out-of-hand (mostly the kids). I counted more than 48 baboons, the same as last night. In the morning I saw them climb down from about a dozen trees in the scrub beside the veldt. The older males climbed down first with a lot of noise, clearing out the brush, and began staking out territory and hunting bugs and worms and insects in the grass. They were followed by the mothers, sliding silently to the ground, most with babies under their bellies (the joints in a baboon’s fingers are such that when closed they lock and can’t unlock, which is why the babies don’t fall off no matter how fast the mothers run) and finally the children, who are the unruly, noisy ones, squawking and shaking and swinging off the branches and landing in heroic poses and running around in circles when they hit the ground.

I’d been warned not to leave the path for any reason. Before you get to the veldt where the impalas and baboons feed, you have to cross the scrub, which is where lions and leopards hide when they want to catch a baboon, one of their favorite foods. Not to mention the leafy shade the black mamba prefers, and other deadly snakes who feast on anything that wanders too far into the scrub.

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. This is how they survive, because the cats are slower than their prey, and they rely on surprise to catch their victims. They usually have to bring down the kill before they even know they’re in danger. A skilled guide wouldn’t walk where I was about to go unless they had a rifle and absolutely had to, and they wouldn't bring a handgun because you need the accuracy and stopping power of a rifle to drop a big cat. If they're close enough for a shotgun, it’s probably already too late. If you don’t get a clean kill, that cat’s going to get to you before you can get off a second shot.

But after breakfast there was plenty of light, and I looked pretty thoroughly and found a spot where I didn't see anywhere for anything to hide and I just wanted a good photo of the group and I wouldn't be long. There was one baboon I'd especially like a good shot of—I noticed last night that one of them was missing its right hand and his tail. I'd asked Tinashe if that would be from a predator attack but 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 around me on either side and there was nowhere for anything as large as a big cat to hide so I walked a good 20 or 25 feet farther, 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 good shots but I was still too far away from the alpha male, so I moved even closer. Once I cleared the scrub the alpha male began squawking and the baboons scampered away (a peculiarity to baboons is that they feel safer on the ground whereas monkeys climb into trees to escape predators), so I wasn’t going to get a good shot anyway.

Ever since I left the scrub I’d felt a tingling at the back of my neck, like I was being watched, and I began to think about what I would do if I was attacked by a lion out here. I'd a read a book about survival in the bush and their advice was “Whatever you do, don’t run”—anything that runs looks like dinner to a lion. You’re supposed to stand still, face the lion, raise your hands above your head to make you look as big as possible, and roar back, even if the lion is running toward you. It’s like a deadly game of chicken—right up until the last minute, the lion’s testing you. If you don’t back down, he’s likely to veer off right before contact. He doesn’t want to fight for dinner. Unless he’s very hungry, he’ll find something that’s less work to eat.

Anyway, just as I'm thinking about what I'd do if I came across a big cat, I hear something making a lot of aggressive noise—screeching and screaming—coming right at me through the bush. I turn around and all I can see is a slope of scrub and a lot of shaking in the grass. I can no longer see the path, and even if I was somehow able to reach it before I got caught, I still had another 30-40 yards before I reached the safety of my cabin. But when I turned my back to the baboons in the veldt, they began to charge me well and they made the same noises I was hearing from the scrub and I realized what was happening—the baboon in the bush was making sure I knew I wasn’t trapped, because he knew I could be dangerous if cornered. He was leaving me plenty of room to get back to the path. 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.

Then tonight, as Julius was walking me back to my cabin with a flashlight after dinner, I was making small talk, embarrassed to have to be walked back to my cabin—surely it was a necessary precaution but how often does something actually happen, I asked him. What did I mean, happen? Well, running into wild animals, that sort of thing. Pretty regularly he said, waving the beam of the flashlight back and forth on either side of the path in the dusky light. He told me a couple of stories that made my heart race faster and we walked more briskly. But how safe was I, I thought, walking behind him—a lion could pick me off before Julius even knew I was in trouble.

The cicadas were screaming and the baboons were making a lot of defensive noise in the trees and it took me a moment to realize that it was we who were the cause of all of this noise. My cabin is farthest from the dining hall—about a quarter mile away—and as we approached the final turn before my cabin, there was a lot of crashing up the hill a little behind my cabin. Julius stopped and crouched, shooting the beam of the flashlight up the hill. “See them?" he asked. "Two elephants feeding—right there, where I'm shining my light. Can you see them?” “Sort of,” I lied. I only saw a wide expanse of darkness. And then a part of it moved. "Holy shit, it's huge." It was making an angry roaring sound and slowly moving down the hill toward us sideways. And then there was another larger dark shape behind it that was moving too, and roaring. The one closest to us took an acacia tree and snapped it in half with its trunk, and stuck one end in its mouth, suggesting what it would do to either of us if we came any closer.

“Am I going to be okay?”  “Yes, they won’t bother you once you get inside the cabin.”  “Are you going to be okay?” “Oh, sure, I’ll be getting out of here as soon as you're inside and turn on the light.” He pointed the flashlight at the steps that led to my porch and I walked briskly to my cabin and opened the door, found the light switch, and flashed it.

This is the only place during the whole trip where I will have a key to my room—the baboons at Baobab have learned how to open the doors and find any edibles in your room or anything else that catches their attention. One photographer I met lost all of her toiletries when a baboon found a hole in her netting and worked it until he could get in. The only thing he left on her bathroom sink was a jar of blue Noxema hand cream. And the baboons at Baobab have developed a taste for prescription bottles—they’ll go through people’s drawers and shelves and bags and leave everything except prescription bottles, which they’ve learned how to open. Rhona and I whisper to each other that we hope it’s some of the help who could probably use the money and wouldn’t a baboon die after swallowing a bottle of just about any medication? 

November 23, 2011, Baobob Camp, Chobe National Park, Zambia

At dinner, Jean said that she wanted to see a kill. Earlier she said that she wanted to step on a dung beetle to see if it pops or splatters. I teased her that her inner child must be an eleven-year-old boy. But James frowned. He said that in the last group another woman had wanted to see a kill. The next morning, three wild dogs chased an impala into camp. The impala ran one way around their tents and one of the dogs split off from the group, going the other way around the tent and catching it by the throat right in front of the startled campers and with the force of its leap pulling the much larger animal over onto its side. The other two dogs each grabbed a hind leg and tore the animal into three pieces and disemboweled it, feeding on its stomach, lungs, and intestines while it was still alive and bleating. None of the campers, James said, ever mentioned anything more about wanting to see a kill.

This afternoon I went looking for the baboons, but they were gone. Tinashe says that they can travel as far as 35-40 kilometers in a single day, foraging. He tells me that he once saw the one-armed baboon in the camp in the morning and found it 20 kilometers into the park in the afternoon, and it was back in the camp by evening. 

November 24, 2011: Baobob Camp, Chobe National Park, Zimbabwe

The women here do not walk in the rain because lightning is attracted by their scent. Girls killed by lightning become stars, and a wife killed by lightning becomes a white lotus. Clouds are the hairs of ancestors who have died. When a chief dies, his body becomes the waters of the flood and his hair becomes black thunderclouds. Black birds gather every afternoon into thunderheads. The monsoon is a giant leopard with fire in its eyes and thunder in its throat. Rituals tame the leopard with flattery so he allows rain to fall and the desert to bloom. But he must always be shown respect—it’s the tallest trees that are blackened by fire from the sky. When the angry eyes of the giant leopard flash and he roars, winds swirl and the clouds empty all at once.

This afternoon, caught in a downpour, I gathered in a rain-break in the shadows of the cliffs with four reapers coming home. Since time is precious in the bush, they used the delay to prepare dinner, sharing their bananas, mangos, and monkey oranges with me. Their sandals were knotted strips of bark trimmed with a knife.

We were upslope from the pasture, so we watched the water fill the bowl of the valley without any real anxiety, even as the rivulets became streams became channels, and finally overflowed into the thickets of the plants that drank in the floods—the camel-thorns, the purple terminalia, the sickle bush, the shepherd brush, the hookthorns, the brandy bush, the donkey berry, sand raisins, and rain trees—the whole bewildering variety of African botany.  

November 27, 2010: Wilderness Camp, Okavengo Delta, Zambia

Today in late afternoon, coming around a corner, we suddenly came upon a leopard, our first after three days of searching for one. It was a male, dozing in the afternoon sun less than 20 feet from the path we were following. As we dug for our cameras, Capt. Jack, our driver, spun the Land Rover around and drove up behind him. Wild animals see the Land Rovers as one big creature and since we never do anything to harm the animals, they pay no attention to us. Size is also a determining factor with predators, and since we are considerably larger than the lions and leopards, we can pull up right next to them and not feel in danger. But there are a couple of rules that keep us safe. First of all, no one is to get out of the Land Rover at any time other than with a guide. Second, we are not to stand up or lean out of the Land Rover, because if a hungry predator sees us as a separate human being they won’t be afraid of grabbing us out of the Land Rover and carrying us away as dinner. It would all be over before we even knew what was happening.

Capt. Jack and the other guides are experts at determining where an animal is headed, and so we pull forward just as the leopard stands and begins to walk in our direction. He goes around the back of the Land Rover where I am seated beside Rhona. Just as the leopard begins to walk behind us, Rhona stands up to get a better shot and I see the leopard notice the movement and look up at her, less than three feet away from her. There was a split second where I had to decide whether or not to lunge at Rhona and drag her back into the Rover, but just as I began to move, the leopard looked at me and for a few seconds I was looking into the leopard’s cold yellow eyes as he was deciding if I was a threat or if I was dinner. And then, just as quickly as it began, it was over, and the leopard continued walking past us.

James, who saw it all happen, came up to me during a break. “Do you know how close that was, with the leopard?” I explain how my instinct was to reach up and pull Rhona down, but as soon as I began to move the leopard looked over at me instead. James laughs and says we were never in any real danger, he meant how close we got to him. “Did you get some good photos?” I pulled out my camera and we went through them together. None of them–even one taken just seconds after it walked away, or one a moment or two before it looked up at us, had any of the charge of what it was like looking into a leopard’s eyes. And even one that I took a couple of minutes later when we caught up with him again and I did get a photo of him looking into my camera lens had none of the power of actually looking into a wild leopard’s eyes less than an arm’s length away. When I look at the photos, all I can see is a leopard. He might as well be in the zoo.

After we spotted the leopard, Capt. Jack called out to the other guides on his walkie-talkie and directed them to take a right at the tortoise shell and a left at the single acacia.

At dinner, Capt. Jack arrived and danced in front of the fire. He was obviously drunk and had strapped a red bicycle light onto his forehead, and held a stick in the crook of his elbows behind his back, simulating wings. He danced bent over at the waist, high-stepping his knees almost up to his shoulders, doing the crane dance, honoring his family’s totem animal who had led him to the leopard today.  

November 29, 2010: Wilderness Camp, Okavengo Delta, Zambia

Walking back from lunch, I ask Robert why the birds of Africa seem so brightly colored. Most of the ground animals are trying to hide. Why do the birds want to stand out? He tells me that it’s because the birds eat bugs that feed on flowers, so they imitate a flower’s bright colors.

I ask Robert if he’s ever seen a greater honey guide lead a honey badger to a bee’s nest. A honey badger is a nasty looking rodent about the size of a raccoon, and an animal dangerous and ferocious enough that it is one of the few that will attack a lion or leopard or a wildebeest or cape buffalo—animals many times its size—without provocation. They’re crazy enough that they’re one of the few animals that lions and leopards will walk away from if they see one in the area.

The story I’ve been told is that the greater honey guide—a small bird—likes beeswax, but can’t get to it. So it calls to chimpanzees or humans or honey badgers with a sound like a shaken matchbox, and once it’s got their attention, it flies off a few yards, flashing the white feathers under its tail. It lands on a low branch in order to stay in sight, making the shaken matchbox sound again. And this goes on until they reach the beehive. Chimps and humans love honey enough to climb the tree, and knock down the bee’s nest and crack it open to get at the honey inside. Then when it’s sated, it’s supposed to walk off, leaving the honeycomb for the greater honey guide.

Robert says he has not only seen a honey badger led to a beehive, but he’s watched it stand on its hind legs and fumigate the entrance of the beehive through a noxious scent it excreted from its anal pouch, swirling its tail to direct the fumes into the nest, the way modern beekeepers smoke a hive in order to dull the bees.

James says that if a chimp or human or badger eats the whole hive or carries it off without leaving the comb for the honey guide, the birds will find that animal or human again and repeat the same routine—only this time it will lead them to a hungry leopard or lion. His neighbor’s cousin brought home a beehive one day and the next day he saw the same bird and followed it again. Only this time it took him to a black mamba, a snake whose venom has no antidote, incapacitating the vocal cords before there’s time to scream, shutting down an adult human respiratory system in under ninety seconds, and stopping a heart in under two minutes. It is also one of the fastest snakes in the world and can easily bite a victim and escape before the prey even knows what’s happened. 

December 2, 2010: Lufupa Camp, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Today on a game drive Rhona asked Timba if he really had more than one wife. “Yes,” he said. “I have three. A man with one wife is like a stork standing on one leg. He has no balance.” 

December 5, 2010: Linkwasha Lodge, Hwange National Park, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Tinashe and James are taking us deeper and deeper into the bush and farther away from civilization and electricity every three days, as if they are gradually acclimating us to the wild. And so with our fourth and final move, we’ve ended up in a camp that is two and a half hours by Land Rover through daily thundershowers to the nearest paved road. At night after dinner I have to be driven to my hut by a guide with a rifle, waving a flashlight from the back seat onto both sides of the track to make sure there are no lions or leopards or elephants on the path.

I’m surprised to find in this camp the only white people we’ve encountered since we entered the bush two weeks ago. Two of the three hostesses are white, and the manager is a white male. Both of the white hostesses are in their early twenties, blonde, smart college graduates—in anthropology and architecture—slightly heavy but in a sexy way, and were raised in South Africa in wealthy white neighborhoods. Trish had always wanted to live in the jungle. She was halfway through her second year in her first three-year contract with Safari Adventures, and already knows she will be signing up for another three years. The other girl—Madge—had left South Africa with her family for Australia during the difficulties, and had returned last summer to study the ecology of the nomadic San and the animals of the savannah. Now she was three months into her first three-year contract with Safari Adventures and was very happy with her life in the bush. The manager, probably almost thirty, had inherited the private concession from his father before it was bought by Safari Adventures almost a decade ago. During his first years as a free and wealthy teenager, he’d lived in a gated community in Zimbabwe’s capitol, Harare, and then moved to London England. One day he was driving a back road in a suburb of London and a man talking on a cellphone wandered into the street, and he had to slam on his brakes and honk his horn, and the jaywalker got so angry that he came back and stood in front of his car, screaming at him, and smashing his windshield with a rock. That’s the most scared he’s ever been. The violence in Harare made sense—you learned how to protect yourself and your neighbors from becoming targets for crime. So two years ago he sold everything except his house in Harare and returned to manage the camp he’d grown up on.

The three whites had “gone native” according to Elizabeth, the one black hostess, who was also in her early twenties but had been raised in a village in rural Zimbabwe. For her, living at the camp was a step up and out of the life in a Zimbabwean homestead, from which few escaped, especially women.

Elizabeth told me that the manager had arrived shy and gangly and inhibited but at some point had become wilder than anyone else. On our first night in camp he jumped inside the dance circle, pushed everyone else aside, and then did a dramatic, powerful dance with the bonfire as his partner, which eventually brought him to his knees. Then he jumped up and leapt across the blaze to pick up his drum and rejoin the circle.

The two white girls gave themselves to each of the black male dancers in turn, teasing them, turning their backs to them, pretending to ignore them but moving their bodies back and forth, sometimes turning around and smiling up at them in encouragement. The boys showed off their moves, sliding up behind them, inserting one leg between their legs. If the girl fancied him, she would slide her thigh along his until their inner hips met, and they would swing together in long, lengthening circles. Sometimes the girls lost interest in the boys and danced with each other, rubbing their breasts together and simulating the sex acts the boys had pantomimed as if to show them how it was supposed to be done.

The night we arrived, Elizabeth was the most passionate of the dancers, bending over backwards, hands on her hips, her legs spread to highlight the curves between her thighs, her head hanging to the side below her shoulder, twisting back and forth, smiling up at me. But since that first night she had danced less than the others. Instead she would stand in the shadows with her back to the fire, and drink a single bottle of beer. As the fire was winding down, she’d put the bottle down and look at her feet and shake her hips back and forth, rising up on her right big toe until she began digging her toe into the earth. When her toes were under the earth, something happened, and her head snapped back as if someone had pulled her dreadlocks from behind. Then she would spread her hips and swing her upper body back and forth, with her back still turned to us, stretching her shoulders as if she’d grown wings and flaring her elbows until she became a huge eagle, lifting off a branch, on a hunt. When she turned to face us, she ignored the other dancers and danced with the fire, giving it her body. Once she bent over backwards, her hands reaching over her head, and then twisting in the air and landing on her hands and knees like a leopard ready to spring. Her joints seemed impossibly liquid, and the meat of her swung from her bones, her bare skin suddenly more exposed than I’d realized.

The next morning the girls were back in their white uniforms serving us breakfast, and calling us sir and ma’am, but there was a light smile in their lips and a blush on their cheeks as they refused to meet our eyes. But with Elizabeth there was no change at all. She stood apart so she could observe everything that was going on and came forward to help before we even knew to ask.