Friday, December 28, 2007

I saw a hippopotamus for Christmas. Redux

I'm a litle preoccupied right now. (See previous post) Christmas this year was quiet and introspective, filled with the love of family and good fiends. While it was just what I need now, it does not make for a very exciting story.

Christmas last year though, that's a story! In three parts! For those who were not hanging around this little corner of blogworld last year, here it is.

Part 1:
Christmas Eve, 2006, Kori Bustard Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania.

“Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, had a very shiny nose...”

We are sleepily singing, sitting around the camp fire. Les has strung some battery-operated Christmas lights around an acacia bush. The stars are out. It has been an exciting day of game viewing (3 cheetahs, 11 lions, countless giraffes, hyenas, rare foxes, and more!) in the Gol Kopjes area of the Serengeti, followed by a long drive to our camp.(above photo courtesy of G. Vandegriend)

We drift off to bed in our tents, looking forward to tomorrow: sunny skies, wildlife, and a special Christmas dinner for our last day of camping.

At 2:30 a.m. I wake up and hear the patter of a few raindrops on our tent. Oh shit. We had to cross three rivers to get to this special campsite. The previous week, one had flooded in a heavy rain, stranding people in the northern Serengeti for days. But the skies were so clear when we went to sleep, it must just be a shower. I cuddle close to my Beloved, or as close as we can get while bundled in mummy bags, and go back to sleep.

BOOOOOM! KERAACK! KERBOOOM!! Sweet Mother of God! Thunder and simultaneous lightening right over my head jolts me from sleep to instant terror. A Niagara of rain is pounding on our tent. CRACK! BOOM! CRACK! again. "Holy Crap" I yell. We are camped on an open plain, with only the occasional waist high acacia bush to draw lightening away from our tall tents with metal poles. "Sweetie", I shout at B, who is awake, "What happens if lightening hits our tent?"

"I suppose we would be toast".

In between thunder blasts,we can hear a lion growl and grunt, warning other lions "this is MY territory". We have heard the roar of lions most every night while camping, but our guides Lyimo and Wellking assured us they would not come into camp. Especially with the campfire and several kerosene lamps which are put around the campsite at night. I open the tent flap and peer out into inky blackness. The wind and rain have doused the campfire and lanterns. I have to pee. It is 3:30 am, and no way can I wait until morning. Throwing a blanket around me, I put on my headlamp and run out in bare feet, hoping no cat's eyes shine back at me. The ground cannot soak up the torrential rain fast enough, so water is swirling over my toes as I scamper behind the tent.

Settled back in the tent, I realize there are rivulets running along the floor, soaking into our foam mattresses, and up into our sleeping bags. Then we both have to shuffle and move our pillows to avoid leaking spots from the roof. The thunderstorm seems to be going around in a circle, coming back overhead every 20 minutes. The downpour never lets up. We are wet, sleepless, and separated from lions and lightening only by a little soaked canvas that could collapse any second in the wind. We could be stranded by floods for days. "Merry Christmas," I mutter wryly to B. He starts to shake, and I wonder if he is shivering or crying. Or both. But no, he is giggling, then laughing out loud. He hugs me tightly, smacks a big kiss on my lips, and says between snorts and chuckles:

"Merry Christmas Darlin'."

And I realize again I found The Right One.

Part 2:
December 25, 2006, Serengeti, Tanzania

Ho! Ho! Ho!

That is not Santa. It is a chorus of evil African Ho gods, laughing at us. Dancing in glee. Our campsite is awash, and we have been awake half the night. As the sky changes from pitch black to dull soggy grey, the rain continues. But this is not just rain. It is an ark-building, life-raft-launching, deluge. That has been pounding us since 2:30 am.

Breakfast is out of the question. We huddle in our tents, hungry and wet, trying to read soggy paperbacks, while one of our over-worked guides goes to check the level of the nearest river.There are three swollen rivers we will have to cross to get out of the northern Serengeti.

"Do you want jujubes or licorice allsorts for breakfast?" asks B, digging through his candy stash.

Suddenly D and A's tent collapses. We don't see them crawl out, so we run over to help. Turns out they were... um, ahem, naked, and are now frantically trying to find clothes. You gotta admire that. In the circumstances.

By 10:30 am. the decision is made to evacuate camp. If we can get out. We are 4 or 5 kilometres off the "main" road. Even then, we have nowhere to stay; It is Christmas day, and we were supposed to camp here tonight. Lodges have been booked up for months. But we cannot stay here, in places the water is over our ankles.

Almost three hours later we reach the road, having pushed the vehicles several times out of muck. Our driver/guides Lyimo and Wellking alternately dug us out and made wild dashes through new lakes that have appeared overnight.

Muddy, soaked, and stinky, (except for A, who was always fresh and chic when the rest of us looked and smelled like refugees from Planet Pig Pen) we pull in half an hour later to a very classy, expensive lodge. We can't stay there, it is full. Anyway, it costs almost $400 bucks a night. But they do offer us use of a couple of rooms to shower and change, and we can eat lunch in the fancy dining room. In dry clothes, with hot food and cold beer in front of us, our spirits climb. Quietly, L begins singing:

"Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry,"
and we join in;

"You better not pout, I'm telling you why"...

By the end of the song we are singing with gusto, and earn a round of applause from the well-heeled lodge guests.

But we still have three engorged rivers to cross, nowhere to stay, and the Ho gods are not finished dancing.

Part 3:
December 25, 2006, Serengeti, Tanzania

If you have followed the story of my 2006 Christmas day so far, I congratulate you on your perseverance or excess hours of nothing better to do. Either is to be envied. For those with a normal attention span and a real job, a recap: After a night wondering whether we would wake up (or not wake up, to be accurate) as lion kibble or charred toast, and a morning doing the breast stroke across the Serengeti plain, the story left off with us eating heartily and singing "Santa Clause is Coming" to a bemused audience of starched and pressed expensive safari suits.

Giddy with the roller coaster ride that was our Christmas so far, we headed out on the road again, ready for anything. Our safari outfitter, busy on the phone back in Arusha, had finally found a lodge that could take us in, but it was out of the park, a long drive away on flooded tracks.

We crossed the first two rivers with no problems. Then, at the Seronera River, the evil Ho gods struck again. A line of vehicles snaked up the road on either side of the bridge. Or where a bridge would have been if it was not covered by swirling rapids and a waterfall.

Here is our guide Wellking and our worried camp staff as they seriously studied the flooded bridge situation.

Actually, no-one was very concerned, because the sun was out and the river level was falling. Our guides were confident the wait to cross would be only an hour or so. It turned out to be almost three hours. But G set up the i-pod speakers, and a rousing card tournament was played on the hood of the truck. G & my Beloved opened wine we had planned to save for Christmas dinner. They made wine glasses out of plastic water bottles sliced in half, and we toasted the lowering sun and the hippos wandering around the riverbanks.

Crossing the flooded bridge we held our breath. No problem. But a few kilometres further we came upon another stopped line of vehicles. Road wash out. Our fabulous guides knew another route around using the flooded back roads. There were more wild rides with the wheels spewing huge arcs of spray. A flat tire. Then we picked up a stranded Chilean / Spanish couple whose truck had broken down. The final stretch in the dark along a soaked track was eerie, with wildebeest and zebra scampering in and out of our headlights.

Finally, exhausted, we pulled into the lovely old Ndutu Lodge, where a decadent Christmas buffet was waiting. We pulled the Christmas crackers, put on the goofy paper hats and read the lame jokes. Just like Christmas at home. Well, except for the genets lounging in the rafters.

(Photo # 1 & 4 courtesy of our friend and fellow adventurer G. Vandegriend)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

On a serious note

In writing this blog I've hoped to amuse, to entertain, and to provoke some thought. In return I get to bring my creative side out to play in a welcoming arena. And I discovered a benefit I never imagined when I began; connecting and caring about people and their lives in so many places.

But today I have nothing to give you: no amusing story, no travel photos, no dream travel destination. Today I am doing something I've never done here. In fact I find it difficult to do at all, whether here or with the people I connect with in person every day. I'm asking for your help. I need your prayers. In whatever form or to wherever your beliefs direct.

Since I last posted, my Dad fell ill and has been diagnosed with a serious brain tumour. I've written about my Dad and how special he is here and here. A few days after Christmas he will begin a tough daily treatment of radiation and chemotherapy. I wish I could be beside him and my Mom on the other side of the country every day of this.

I believe in the power of love, of community, and prayer. Not necessarily prayer to the God of my Dad's Anglican church, that Dad sings in and is a lay preacher for. (But hey, if you share that particular God, great. Dad and He are on a first name basis.) When I pray I can't really say what I pray to, the Universe, Nature, Creation, Love, whatever. But I believe in it. And I ask now for yours. For my Dad. Please.