The Sahara, Morocco
Four of us and a guide, another Abdou, leave Marrakech heading south. We cross a pass in the High Atlas Mountains different from where we’ve been before. The road has many switchbacks as it climbs higher and higher. The air is cold and the wind is very strong. It begins to snow. The next day, we learn that the pass has been closed to traffic due to heavy snowfall.
The landscape south of the mountains is scorched, the color of copper. We visit locations where the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, among others, were filmed. There are occasional oases that are filled with trees—date palm, olive, walnut, plum, fig, apricot, apple, pomegranate. We take a hike through one of them near the village of Skoura.
The fruit trees are starting to flower, others just leafing out. The green is deep and bold, such a contrast to the red earth. We drive through the Anti Atlas Mountains to the Draa Valley further south and walk through an even larger oasis where the vegetation is lusher due to the warmer climate. We tour kasbahs where pashas of old lived in luxury, having accumulated wealth and power. Some have been converted to hotels and are lovely.
And then into the Sahara, dusty and windblown.
We drive through a village, isolated and remote. The school children run to our vehicle waving and shouting, perhaps the high point of their day. We walk into a fierce wind, stop for tea in another small village where the women come out and display their handmade colorful scarves, little camel figurines, and jewelry. All of us buy several scarves to wrap around our heads and faces against the sand.
We arrive at our camp for the night, a spectacularly beautiful place, tents all set up, and watch the sunset in a marvelous sky so full of clouds, so free of any impurities. A magical day.
We ride camels for seven and a half hours deeper into the Sahara, first heading south toward the Algerian border then east.
I alternate one hour on the camel with one hour of walking to avoid the mishap I had the last time I rode a camel for two hours straight: a saddle sore that lingered for ten days! The heat is intense, the land parched; dunes butternut squash orange; hillocks with tufted grass, the color of straw mixed with green; thorn acacia trees, scrubby for lack of rain.
There are no villages here. We reach our second camp and later see a glorious night sky filled with countless stars, there being no light sources to diminish their brilliance.
We spend five days in the desert riding camels and walking (mostly the latter for me), hiking the largest ergs (sand dunes), and camping four nights, each night at a different scenic location. Juliet and I regret saying goodbye to our camels, Mr. Camel and Bernie, respectively (the names we gave them, of course!), and ending our journey in the Sahara.
High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Such contrast in Morocco!
The night we arrived, we were lost in the Souks of the Medina in Marrakech. I mean, literally. Juliet and I left our lovely riad to wander the narrow streets and alleys of the bustling old city. We enjoyed a tasty French-Moroccan meal and then set out for our temporary home. After two hours of walking in circles and getting variations on go straight and take your second left, we reached the riad. What a relief!
The next day, we were driven to the High Atlas mountain village of Imlil and then hiked with our guide Abdou and a mule carrying our belongings to the Kasbah du Toubkal. What a gorgeous place it is, situated with snow-covered Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, as its backdrop.
After a warm-up hike to and through the picturesque neighboring village of Armad, we drank “Berber whiskey” (mint tea) on the rooftop terrace of the Kasbah, watching the sun soften on Mount Toubkal, and then took a steam bath in the hammam. It was heaven.
Another day, we hiked to a saddle above the town of Tamatert, where we had a commanding view of the Imlil and Imnan valleys and were treated to a delicious picnic lunch at an elevation of 2,480 meters. The mountains are steep, the color of cumin, a spice often used in Moroccan cooking. The architecture is stark, the simple buildings painted in muted browns and pinks. The combination is utterly compelling.
Next, we trekked more than sixteen kilometers with a great deal of elevation changes from Imlil to our destination for the next two nights, the village of Ait Id Issa in the Azzaden Valley, a considerably less touristed place where life is much harsher, our lodging very rustic. Electricity came to this valley in 2006. Outside our window we hear barking, bleating, braying, mooing, crowing, chirping, and the Muslim call to prayer.
On our fourth day in the mountains, Abdou took us through five of the villages in this valley. The houses are carved into the steep hillsides, built of the earthen material on which they sit, shades of red, brown, and grey.
The highlight of the day was a visit to the home of Abdou’s cousin who welcomed us with a meal of home-baked bread, home-churned butter, freshly laid eggs (cooked, of course!), and Berber whiskey. It was most interesting to be invited into a typical Berber home and experience such warm hospitality!
Our final day in the High Atlas Mountains began with a trek straight up from our lodge to the Tizi Oudit Pass. We descended into the Matat Vallley and enjoyed a leisurely lunch along a gently flowing river. We were sad to leave these breathtakingly beautiful peaks after such an extraordinary visit.
Cape Town, South Africa
How magnificent were the last few days, perfect for touring the Cape Peninsula and for wine-tasting in the Winelands. But today is different. Cool, cloudy, moody. Appropriate for the journey at hand. Because today we are going to Robben Island.
We take the ferry from Jetty No. 1 under a low-hanging sky. It is very cold and windy.
We arrive at the gate and are greeted by Thulani Mabaso.
He escorts us through the maximum security prison where he once was a political prisoner, an inmate along with Nelson Mandela and other ANC founders, for over ten years.
His crime? Protesting the hateful, oppressive apartheid regime. He tells us about the torture and the cruelty that the prisoners endured, and he speaks of the secret plans Mr. Mandela and the others made for the future of South Africa. He describes their high morale under the brilliant leadership of that singularly inspirational man.
At night, we go with Thandis, our guide, to Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town, home to more than one million black South Africans. He introduces us to a woman who sells sheep heads called “smileys” (so called because the lips, when boiled, shrink back from the teeth to expose an unearthly grin). She stands by an open fire pit on the street for eleven hours a day, six days a week, in order to pay for her two daughters’ education.
We visit a pub–a tar-paper shack, really–where men socialize over a bucket-full of beer, home-brewed from sorghum and maize.
We talk to several of them, each of us eager to find out more about the other.
We meet Mvelli, a young man studying IT at a university in Cape Town, who hopes to have his own business one day. He takes us to some of the different kinds of homes in the township, where some families share one bed in a single room and others live in a single-family home. Finally, we have dinner at Vicky’s, the first township B&B–what the owner calls, “The Smallest Hotel in South Africa”.
We welcome the opportunity to meet people in places that sometimes feel off-limits or uninviting and to bridge the perceived divisions between races and cultures.
Another wake-up in the dark and cold requiring many layers of clothing. A quick breakfast and then off to Sossusvlei before 6:00 am. A lot of fog, just like home, only unexpected. The sun comes up making the dunes–many of them 1000 feet tall–appear blood red, creating graceful shadows on the curvaceous mounds of sand. One after another, different shapes and sizes, all huge.
Regan, our guide, parks the Land Rover. The trek up Big Daddy, one of the largest of the dunes, begins. The climb is strenuous but lovely, barefoot in the silky sand.
Up and up we go, walking along the knife-edge where the sides of the dune meet, feeling that familiar fear of falling, concentrating on each footstep, just what is immediately ahead.
Stopping to take in the gorgeous views all around, the multitude of colors. Arriving at the top and the stunning panorama, one of the most beautiful sights ever. Staying a long while, drinking it all in, not wanting to leave, not wanting to break the spell.
Unaware of time, being entirely present in the moment, wanting to be nowhere else in the world. Still cold and cloudy, unusual for Namibia even in winter. Storms in Cape Town ride the cold Benguela Current affecting the climate here.
The trip down is totally different, delightfully fun, running down the steep face of the dune, laughing all the way, giggling like a kid.
The huge pan of the Dead Vlei is below, dotted with dead acacia trees said to be five hundred years old. Wonderfully picturesque.
Six hours later, back at the beginning. Words cannot express what I have seen, what I have experienced. Simply put, this has been one of the finest mornings of my life.
Bwinde Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
The alarm goes off. It is 5:00 AM. Too dark. Too cold. You dress, still sleepy. You climb into the Land Cruiser for the two-hour drive to Ruhija. It is not an easy drive. The road is dusty, rutted, and potholed, only 42 kilometers from Buhoma where you are staying. But very slow. You skip breakfast. It is too early to eat, and anyway, you suspect you’d never be able to keep it down on this roller-coaster ride.
The sun is rising red. You see the mist in the mountains surrounding you. It is quiet, beautiful. People are beginning to stir in the villages you pass. Men and women and children fill the road. Children run barefoot in the clay, dressed in their colorful school uniforms. They wave madly at you as you pass, yell Hello! and give you a wide smile. The adults carry all manner of material on their heads–baskets, water jugs, wood, farming implements, bananas. It amazes you, as always.
You arrive in Ruhija and check in. You meet your assigned group. It is called Orozogo. There are eight of you, the maximum allowed. Your guide, Obed, gives you instructions: Speak softly. No sudden movements. No flash photography.
You begin the trek, steeply downhill, and then the same uphill. You are glad to have walking sticks. After some time, the trackers stop and listen. They are waiting for a special sound. They hear what they are waiting for and abruptly turn off the trail. Then you are bush-whacking. The trackers use their razor-sharp machetes to chop the vines and stinging nettles from in front of you. The terrain is very difficult, so hard to get your footing. After all, this is Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, so aptly named.
After two and a half hours, Obed tells you to stop. Drop your sticks. Leave your packs. Follow the trackers a bit further. And then you see one: what you came for. A huge head covered in thick black fur. A face so human, so expressive. And a hand, fingers, so much like your own–only much, much bigger. Massive shoulders.
You hear what sounds like a bark, and you back away. Is this a charge? You follow Obed’s directions exactly. The silverback runs away.
You spend the next hour following the family. You never stop whacking bushes. You never stop moving. You see a young one climbing in a tree eating the fruit.
You see an adult female pulling on a big tree, enjoying its leaves.
After six hours, you return weary but fulfilled. You have seen the elusive mountain gorillas of Uganda.
One day, Juliet and I are in a very small boat, big enough for just us and the boat operator. We are on the Rufiji River. We see two very special things. In the mud banks of the river, there are hundreds of small holes. As we get closer, we see that in those holes are White-Fronted Bee Eaters chirping madly. But the most spectacular part is the color of these birds: iridescent green wings, yellow chests, scarlet and navy blue stripes on their necks and faces. So many all at once in the same place!
Later on as dusk approaches, we notice a large herd of elephants gathering on one side of the river. They line up trunk-to-tail, about twenty in all. What are they doing? The boat driver tells us to watch carefully and we do. What we see next is astonishing. The elephants enter the water right in front of the boat and swim across the river! The river is deep and wide. The elephants are not walking. They remain attached to one another the entire swim. Only when they get to the other side and are safely on the bank do they detach themselves from one another. This is truly awesome to behold. The boatman tells us this happens every day.
That night after dinner, we are standing by the river in our camp feeling the silken air and gazing at the full orange moon hanging low in the sky as it casts a soft glow over this quiet, remote place. We retire to our rock hut and prepare for sleep. As we get comfortable in our beds we see something in the corner of the ceiling. It is moving. It takes us a moment to realize what it is: a large, long, thick snake slithering in and out of the rock construction. It is a scary proposition falling asleep I can tell you.
I was going to Zambia and Tanzania in their winter and was told I had to take anti-malarial medication. I thought this was entirely unnecessary since I had been to Africa in July twice before and had never seen any mosquitos. But my doctor insisted. So I was prescribed Larium, the once-a-week pill that I had taken the previous two trips. I took the first dose a week before departure as directed.
It happened our second night in Zambia. My fifteen-year-old daughter and I were the only guests in a sixteen-tent camp. We were zipped into our tent. There was no one around. There was no electricity. There was no flashlight. It was very cold and silent. We decided to go to sleep. It was 10:00 pm.
I awakened terrified. I looked at the clock. It was midnight. It felt as though the walls of the tent were closing in around me. I thought mosquitos were attacking me and I buried myself deeper in the covers, pulling them over my head. I heard the sound of buzzing and wondered if I was going crazy. Then my arms below the elbows all the way to the tips of my fingers became numb. There was no way I could go back to sleep with all this pandemonium going on.
Yet I didn’t want to alarm my daughter. I waited and waited, hoping the terror would subside. It didn’t. I looked at the clock again. 3:00 am. I needed help right away. I began to mutter out loud finally awakening Juliet. She was not happy as evidenced by her grumpy remarks. What I said to her was this: “I don’t want to alarm you but I think I’m losing my mind. We have to go home tomorrow.”
I told her what was happening to me. She reacted with aplomb and with what seemed like extraordinary maturity beyond her tender years. While quietly reassuring me, she pulled back the curtains from around the screens to give the illusion of letting in light. She gave me her Walkman with music from Lord of the Rings to soothe me.
Although insomnia prevented me from further sleep, I started thinking. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I was a pretty level-headed person. But wait! I suddenly remembered the pharmacy instructions about Larium that I had briefly glanced at weeks earlier. Possible side-effects included paranoia, insomnia, numbness below the elbows, and suicide! I was experiencing most of these symptoms.
This realization gave me some comfort. And I made a decision then and there: I would rather die from malaria than have this experience again. So I didn’t take another dose on that trip and, needless to say, since then, any time my travel plans have called for an anti-malarial drug, I have chosen anything but Larium.
My daughter and I flew to Lusaka one summer, to begin a walking safari in Zambia and southern Tanzania. We arrived late at night. Although Lusaka is Zambia’s capitol, the airport was not much to speak of. There were no hotels or amenities. Ours was the only plane to arrive at that hour.
We collected our bags and went outside to find our pre-arranged transport to the hotel where we were scheduled to stay for the few hours left that night. As is customary, there were a number of drivers holding signs to alert their parties of their rides. We expected to see someone holding a sign with our names but we did not. After awhile, all the passengers and drivers were gone. This was disturbing, to say the least.
I went to a bank to change money. The man there was closing and wouldn’t make the transaction. I went to a travel agency where the agent was just leaving. I asked to use her phone. She refused. What was I to do? I felt the edges of panic begin to creep in.
We went outside once more. There was a lone man standing there with a sign listing the names of people who apparently hadn’t arrived. I went up to him and asked if he could take us to our hotel since he was a driver without passengers and we were passengers without a driver. This was against my better judgment but what could I do?
The man took us to a bus with no identifying information written on its side. Was this really a vehicle meant to transport tourists? I admit it, I knew this was foolish, a very poor model for my fifteen year old. We got in. The driver told us he would have to stop and change to a smaller car. Oh my God!
The night was very dark. There were no street lights. We were in the middle of nowhere once we left the airport. After about an hour, we drove into what I can only describe as a junkyard with several menacing-looking guard dogs straining at the chains around their necks, barking madly. I thought of the Jim Croce song “Bad, bad Leroy Brown.” I also thought that if this came to no good, no one would ever know what happened to us.
We switched into a compact car and set out again. More time elapsed. My fear increased. We arrived at our hotel at about 2:00 in the morning. A driver was to come get us just a few hours later at 6:00 am to take us to our next destination. And he did. It was the very same one. There had been a mistake. He had been misinformed about the identity of the passengers he was supposed to pick up. It was us all along!
We were in Botswana in the Okavango Delta. Unlike most rivers, the Okavango does not drain into a body of water such as an ocean, but rather drains into its own delta, a wide, fertile triangle, home to much African wildlife.
As distinguished from many places in Africa where one drives from place to place to see animals, here you take a motorboat or canoe-like vehicle called a Mokoro from one island in the Delta to another and then walk around looking for animals.
So it was on a July day that we went with our guide, Robert, to Buffalo Island to explore. Guns were prohibited and Robert was armed with only a walking stick. We alighted from the motorboat and began walking. There were impalas and giraffes and warthogs, all of whom ran from us once they caught our scent. It felt very different being on foot as compared to riding in a jeep. In a vehicle, the animals don’t smell humans. They are habituated to the vehicles and don’t run from them.
Suddenly, Robert put his index finger to his lips signaling for quiet. He whispered that their was an elephant just around the bend. How he knew this I have no idea but indeed there was. A huge bull, ten feet tall, all alone grazing on a tree not too far away. Being reared on Disney movies, I felt no fear. This was just like Dumbo.
I took plenty of time to put the 400 mm lens on my Minolta and focus. Robert said “take your picture.” Still I fiddled. Until Robert said with urgency “RUN.” He instructed us to zig-zag to confuse the elephant. We were running in sand. The camera equipment was very heavy around my neck. I should have thrown it off. Robert and my daughter disappeared way ahead. My husband was in front of me. My throat was burning. I didn’t think I could continue. But I had very compelling motivation. The sound of the elephant trumpeting so loud, so close, right behind me. I was afraid to look how close. Finally, we caught up with Robert and collapsed panting. The elephant had turned in another direction.
And since then, that trumpeting sound has never seemed the same to me. Every time, it conjures my being chased by an elephant.
I imagine a visit to Egypt is different today than it was in 1983 when I visited. Society there was secular then. Men wore mustaches; the only beard I saw was my on the face of my husband, Ken. The primary mode of dress was western. I remember dressing modestly in a skirt that hung below my knees and a shirt that covered my shoulders, but the outfit was largely turquoise and my hair was in its poodle phase, as my daughter, Juliet, so kindly puts it. We definitely didn’t physically blend in but nevertheless were warmly welcomed by Egyptians.
When we arrived at the airport in Cairo, we took a city bus to the central Tahir Square. This was no ordinary experience. At home, we sedately wait on line to board a bus or train. There, the doors opened and all the passengers rushed to climb in the windows. We were left behind on the street pretty astonished. When we arrived in the Square, the same thing happened in reverse: everyone climbed out the windows.
Next we were faced with the challenging prospect of crossing from the Square to the opposite sidewalk which was separated by a multi-lane roadway that had a never-ending stream of cars, buses and trucks zooming along. We must have looked pathetic standing there wondering how to navigate when a well-dressed man asked if he could help. When we confessed our fear about getting to the other side, he gamely picked up my suitcase and told us to follow him as he stepped boldly into the chaotic traffic. After safely arriving, he asked if we had a hotel reservation. I told him yes but that since the street signs were all written in Arabic, I couldn’t read them and therefore wouldn’t be able to find the hotel. He asked the hotel name and was familiar with its location so he took us there, apparently not trusting that the two of us could find it on our own.
Next, it was time to go to the Pyramids of Giza. While waiting for the public shared car to take us there, several locals struck up a conversation with us and were so thrilled to learn we were American that they insisted on paying our fare. We had another surprise in store when we arrived at the pyramids and were shocked to see that they were surrounded on three sides by apartment buildings and trees. A hotel coffee shop was located just across the street. I had imagined they would be located in the middle of the desert surrounded by nothing but sand! Well, that was true on one side where all of the photos must have been taken.
Later on in the trip, we flew to the Valley of the Kings where the Temple of Luxor and many temples, tombs, and antiquities are situated. There we rented bicycles for three days and visited the tombs of Queen Hatshepsut, and the boy King Tut, among many others. Along the way, we met a twelve-year-old boy, Ali, who impressed us with his knowledge of English and all things American. He was a delight to talk to.
The singularity of my experiences in Egypt makes them as fresh and enjoyable today as they were then.
The Sahara, Morocco
High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Cape Town, South Africa
Bwinde Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
Okavanga Delta, Botswana
Egypt (May 1983)