11,000 KM: ON With the Quest

The Quest For Hope has now taken me over 11,000 kilometers.  It’s led me from Port Elizabeth down to Cape Town, then up the west coast of South Africa to Elands Bay. From there through the length of Kgaligadi, across into Namibia and up into Kaokoland, the home of the Himba.  Then around Etosha and into Zambia at Katima Mulilo and east to Livingstone. Then to my childhood home, Ndola, and from there up through the Copperbelt to Chingola and on to the world renown chimpanzee orphanage, Chimfunshi. From there up the Great East Road to north eastern Zambia and Luangwa Valley, an absolute must for everyone’s bucket list.  Then back south and down to Sinazongwe on the edge of Lake Kariba, the ancestral grounds of the BaTongas who were forcibly displaced when the lake was first created.  As I write this I’m camped in the shade of a weathered fig tree looking out over the lake under the watchful eye of a curious troop of monkeys all hoping I’ll leave the camper door open long enough for them to sneak in for a banana or two.

To date its been a wonderful albeit very challenging and eye opening trip, one that has taken me on an emotional roller coaster with remarkable highs and some very sad lows. The Colonial Africa of my youth has gone never to return and many will say that’s a good thing. Regardless of your view the continents unique wildlife, soaring vistas and colorful people still put Africa very much in a league of her own. I’ve now had the privilege of meeting with some of its leading conservationists and I’ve been tremendously impressed with their commitment, courage and dedication and a sense that there is still some hope for the future of Africa’s wildlife; that its still possible to fan these faint embers of hope back into flames if, and its a very big if, we can persuade the powers that be – most especially Africa’s leaders – that the future protection of their countries wildlife must become one of their top priorities and not merely a useful sideshow for the promotion of tourism.

They need to understand that at the end of the day it’s the wildlife that make Africa so special. Indeed it is the only thing that truly separates Africa from the world’s many other unique and special places. Nowhere else on the planet can you sit on the banks of a river watching elephants graze along its banks, marvel at hippos grunting and bellowing in its shallows while the sound of a lion’s roar cuts through the air. Where you can watch giraffes browse on treetops, hear the thundering hooves of buffaloes, zebras and antelopes of all shapes and sizes, and gaze in wonder as leopards and cheetahs follow the same hunting ritual that their forebears have for thousands of years.  This doesn’t happen anywhere else but in Africa.  It’s a rich and special heritage, but its in as fragile a state as its ever been in, and without a concerted, concentrated effort and strong political will, it will most certainly disappear.

Perusing through all my Facebook posts it may well appear that I’m on an extended vacation touring all the national parks. The fact is that’s where all the game is.  Tragically outside of these parks very little wildlife is left at all.  So if one wants to help save the wildlife then visiting these parks and meeting with the conservationists based in and around them is the best way to proceed.  That’s what I’ve been doing and will continue to do as I gradually make my way back down to South Africa.  I’m now a little over half way through my trip and I’d like to believe that I’m accomplishing what I hoped I would when I first came up with the idea of The Quest – finding, promoting and helping the conservation groups and individuals doing the best work and most worthy of support – and helping to catch some poachers while I’m at it. But as anyone whose been here knows, nothing in Africa happens quickly.  You could change the Mexican “manyana” to “manyana would be terrific” and you’d be right on the money.

Amongst other things the trip has served to reinforce many of my existing opinions while introducing me to new lines of thought as well including the fact that when the first explorers arrived over three hundred years ago Africa must have been as close to the Garden of Eden as anyone could imagine. They discovered a continent where wildlife roamed freely from one tip to the other with an indigenous people who understood and valued their relationship with the animals.  But we couldn’t let well alone and instead we hunted, enslaved, and divided the continent until it bore only a faint resemblance to what it once was.  We paid no attention to traditional tribal boundaries creating countries with the stroke of a pen and a royal edict.  We imposed our will, our religions and our laws on the indigenous Africans and when we finally handed them back the keys, either reluctantly or by force, we had already destroyed much of the fabric that had held the continent together for millennia.

Judging from a western viewpoint but as someone who was born and raised here, I think its fair to say all of Africa is in a dreadful mess.  Much of what we created or insisted on when whites ruled the continent has either been thrown out, destroyed or changed, but too much time has passed and too much has changed for Africa to revert to what it once was before our arrival.  Instead Africa was left with power vacuums that were all too quickly filled by despots only interested in lining their own pockets and those of their immediate tribal members.  We’d left them with guns and wire and plastic all of which they quickly used with deadly effect on each other and with horrific consequences on the wildlife.  They gunned down wildlife by the thousands, entrapped it in wire snares that crippled and maimed it, and poisoned the landscape with hundreds of millions of plastic bags that now blanket every city and many rural areas with a kaleidoscope of non degradable color.  Every natural resource that Africa was blessed with was and is now being exploited to an unsustainable level. Because they were uncertain of their own future wellbeing, Africa quickly became – or maybe it always was – a continent of short term thinkers versus long term visionaries.  Of course there were exceptions to the rule with Nelson Mandela quickly coming to mind.  But its a sad truth that if you give an African a choice between a dollar today or ten dollars in a week, they’ll take the dollar almost every time.

In our rush to make up for our past ill-deeds we have flooded the continent with money and volunteers all hoping to solve or at least mitigate the consequences of our past actions.  This has proved to be equally ill advised and Africa is now awash is NGO money that never seems to make it into the right hands, and well intended programs that have failed miserably because not enough forethought was given to them before they were launched.  In the process we have created a culture of dependency and expectancy.  Not only have they come to depend on foreign aid, they have come to expect it as if it’s their birthright.  For example Zambia’s roads have been allowed to deteriorate to a horrific level and the only reason any good ones exist at all is because they are funded by foreign aid, e.g. the portion of the Great East Road from the Luangwa Village turnoff to Chipata which is currently the best road in the country complete with solar powered street lighting through villages which still lack running water and electricity.  It’s crazy!!

Zimbabwe has gone from being the breadbasket of Southern Africa to pauper status with an economy that is in a complete shambles and a country that lies in ruins while the iron fisted Mugabe still holds all the reins of power. Namibia is really two countries. South of Windhoek huge private hunting reserves are the norm while in the north the country is as horrible an example of polluted, ill constructed and poorly maintained villages that you’ll see anywhere.  And even Etosha, the supposed shining jewel of their wildlife reserves is very poorly maintained and managed.  South Africa, once the richest country in Africa, faces serious social and political issues.  Huge squatter camps ring every city, pollution is everywhere, political nepotism is rampant, and poaching in their game parks has reached such a high level that their managing agency no longer releases any figures at all.  Many of the country’s top politicians have been implicated in poaching schemes and attacks and murders on the rapidly dwindling ranks of white farmers are spiraling out of control.

I’m hoping that Botswana will prove to be the exception to the rule and I’m headed there now to see for myself.  All hunting has been banned in the country and if you bring a gun into the country you are putting your own life at risk as their army has been instructed to shoot suspected poachers on sight.  Amazingly even the elephants appear to know that they will be safe in Botswana as the reports are that hundreds of them have made the long trek from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola to join the ranks of the thousands already there, so much so that the country runs the risk of being overwhelmed by them.

It’s taken me a while to formulate all these thoughts and to write them down in a reasonably coherent fashion.  If they sound terribly negative then I apologize.  Frankly it’s hard not be but if some of the country’s leading conservationists are determined to remain optimistic then the very least I can do is to remain so as well.  One thing I know for sure.  Africa’s wildlife is amazingly resilient.  Give them even the smallest of survival chances and they’ll manage to find a way.  Addo Elephant park started with just eleven elephants and now they have a population that ranges between four and six hundred!  All we have to do is to find a way to give them that small chance.  It’s time for all of us to do a bit, however small that bit might be – trust me every bit counts!

Thanks for reading and my best to you all……..on with The Quest.