African Journals, Past and Present


Sometimes memories of the past can combine with thoughts inspired by recent events to form new insights.  This was certainly the case when I returned last month from a safari in Southern Africa. 

You see, as a young man in 1971, I traveled the length and breadth the African continent and as I recently reviewed my journals back then, I was struck how these two journeys—many years apart and the trips on either side of a continuing career in veterinary medicine—came together in a surprising, emotionally intense mosaic.

I’ll begin with that original trip, so long ago.  I’d graduated from Cornell Veterinary College and had served several years as a US Air Force officer which brought me to Europe, the Far East, and North Africa.  Returning to direct an animal hospital in 1970s New York City, urban life seemed disenchanting. 

I felt a need to accept a new challenge, to drive a vehicle across the Sahara Desert , through the Congo and other regions of the the African continent.  Needless to say, my idea for a yearlong journey received no encouragement from friends and family.  Others even defined the idea as “reckless,” if not impossible.  I did some research and felt, with the proper planning I could make it.  And so, I went on the adventure of a lifetime.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate how transformative that trip was.  It was a pause in my career and, indirectly, it led to my move to Manchester by the Sea, and creating the Manchester Animal Hospital.

That trip across Africa was indeed risky, but such is youth.  I wasn’t yet a parent, and answered to no one, so that risk resided solely with myself.  In fact, my risk tolerance offered an opportunity for experiences few others have had, and it was ultimately worth all the planning, risk and hard work. 

Looking back, I recognize those times when I put myself in harm's way, and yet I cannot imagine not having the extraordinary experiences that unfolded as I pursued the quest to understand how people live and animals survive on that continent.  

There were too many events to recount to share them all, and they show just how remote from Western culture I actually was back in 1971.  Like when I found myself at the wrong end of an angry Masai warrior’s spear.  Or the time I was detained at a remote airport in Niger by security guards who made to crouch on the ground while being harshly interrogated.  Or the time I realized that I was standing next to a pride of three female lions in the dark.  Or while in the heart of the Congo, my journey was interrupted by adolescent soldiers sporting submachine guns while they searched through my belongings.  And there was the nerve-racking challenge of driving across two planks onto a miniscule wooden barge to cross the Congo River.

More than 50 years later, last month, I returned to Africa.  I asked myself, Would my trip—this time comfortable and protected and older—enhance or diminish the memories of that great, risky adventure?

What I Came Here For …

I stayed in three camps, one in Zimbabwe, one in Botswana and one located in a huge 9,050 sq. kilometers game reserve in eastern Zambia called the Luagana Game Reserve.  Zambia is the home of the thundering cascades of Victoria Falls and the untouched bush of the South Luangwa.  The country is a tribute to the awe-inspiring diversity of the natural world and a wildlife lover’s dream.

My first morning in the bush was a hint of how these days in Africa would unfold.  I woke up in a thatched roof hut on the edge of a lagoon.  My abode had a small deck directly above this body of water.  There was a mist over the lagoon separating me from the bush that held the secrets of the wild animals that reside there.  When I came out onto the deck, monkeys that had been playing quickly scrambled to branches in a nearby tree.  

I stepped out on the little deck, no more than 10 feet above the water to explore the sounds that woke me up.  Below me, I saw them: huge animals, hippos floating and reacting to each other, sometimes playfully, other times bellowing about something in their world.

This is what I came here for ... immersion in the African land.  The hippos were remarkably close, but I was safe on my deck, overwhelmed with the musty smell of a beautiful lagoon already alive with the songs of the birds, the monkeys playfully jumping.  What an introduction to several weeks away from the din of a busy life in Massachusetts.

The country is awe inspiring.  When there has been rain, the plains roll green against the blue hills.  Much of the upland bush country looks much like an abandoned New England orchard until you crest a hill and see a spectacular expanse of blue green grasslands bordered by the red earthen trails.  Large balboa trees stand out as monuments to the grandeur and variety in this natural habitat.  In the distance are rivers and lakes.  And then there are the animals.  

Against this background I saw families of giraffes, from newborn to old, gracefully moving together or stopping to cherry-pick the leaves high on a tree.  Impalas looked at me and then darting away.  Zebras seemed to care less, and as they herded together their stripes seemed to merge, creating a wonderful black and white contrast to the land.

Into the Game

A successful safari depends on several factors.  First and foremost is the amount of game, which can vary.  I later discovered that Luagana was the location of choice of Earnest Hemingway’s relatives, so that was a very fortunate selection.

The other big factor is the quality of the driver and guides.  Their experience are indispensable, and our driver’s knowledge of when and how to leave the road and venture into the bush made the difference on several occasions.  Once, our driver was able to settle us mere feet from a male lion while he was hiding in the bush—an unforgettable memory that I fortunately captured by iPhone.

At the lodge, precautions were taken.  After dark, for instance, like all guests, when I was in the bush on foot, I was accompanied by a guard armed with a rifle.  But I never saw anything that resembled a need for a defensive weapon.  In fact, on one such walk, I was taken back when a very large giraffe walked towards me, rather than running from me.

I also had good fortune with leopards.  Driving along the red dusty road, the driver stopped in front of a big tree.  There was a stench in the air from a decaying carcass, but we saw nothing.  Suddenly, we saw the slinky image of a leopard moving from the bush towards the tree.  She got to the base of the tree and just sat there, her mouth open in what appeared to be kind of a pant, when suddenly she sprang up the tree.  By then we could discern the source of the smell: a decaying impala carcass the leopard had hidden from opportunistic predators.  She tore into her hidden meal, a rare sighting.

Another unexpected experience came with an elephant encounter.  I have a photo taken of me in the bush with my arm around a huge elephant’s trunk.  What’s not shown is the several elephant caretakers who had long established a trust with these mighty animals and made that photo possible.  These elephants in the bush understood that I didn’t represent harm and embraced me with a trust I will never forget.  I owe that to the caretakers.

We saw elephants in many different habitats, and just being able to view them and their offspring in their natural environment is something special.  But the opportunity to touch and feel safe next to their gigantic bodies was not just unique, it was incredible!  

My driver and guide knew that I had a special interest seeing the rare African wild dog.  One morning, word came in that a pack of African Wild Dogs had been observed nearby.  Powerful, agile, tough and ruthless, the African Wild Dog is as regal as it is fierce and it is revered as one of the most successful mammalian predators in the world.  Yet, as with so many animals in the African bush, its habitat is diminishing, and populations are decreasing. 

I dressed early, in hopes of catching sight of one of Africa’s most elusive carnivores.  As the sun rose, our safari vehicle forded shallow channels and rumbled through dense thickets of reeds.  Two hours crept by, and my eyes were becoming bleary from focusing fruitlessly on nearly identical bushes, one after another.  Suddenly, small patches of tan, black and white appeared through the negative space between leaves.  And then they appeared, a pack of 20 dogs, pups and all were huddled together in an open field.  We stopped at a distance, observing and photographing the group, who were oblivious to our presence.  After nearly 20 minutes, the dogs methodically began to pick up and leave, somehow communicating to one another when to go and where.  

When I returned home, I contemplated Eliot’s words about never ceasing to explore, and about arriving back where I started.  I thought of my original safari—perhaps reckless but ultimately so impactful—at the dawn of my career caring for animals.  I thought of the intensity, the excitement of forging across lands rich with wildlife and people.  Decades later, I see these two adventures are much greater than the sum of their experiences.  Returning home, I arrived where I started, but I carry with me so much more. 

africa, congo, far east, sahara desert, north africa, botswana, victoria falls, eastern zambia, luagana, earnest hemingway