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Friday, June 11, 2010

Sometimes it Takes a Guide

From Opuwo, Namibia we drove east down the Hoarusib River then turned back. The river had just succeeded from the floods and there were no visible car tracks to lead the way. The rout was marked on Tracks for Africa, our GPS savior, but we didn't exactly want to roll the dice in the middle of nowhere. We headed for higher ground through the steep narrows of the river valley passing through the mountains for a bit before dropping back into the riverbed. This time we found tracks to follow.

A couple days later we arrived in Purros, a tiny villiage known for the conservation efforts of a few scientists living and working in the area. We had been told to seek out a man by the name of Dr. Flipstandis, who has dedicated his life to preserving the rare desert lions that inhabit the canyon. Unfortunately our lion expert was in Swakupmund so we headed to the bottle shop (the hub of commerce in all small villages) and asked for a guide. We had driven two days down the river valley without seeing a single elephant and apparently that was uncommon. This is how we came to meet Ricco; our drunk guide who had sworn off alcohol for several months only to find himself a worthy cause to celebrate…for two days running. We made arrangements with Ricco and a couple hours later our boozy guide was bumping along in the back of our camper for an overnight elephant seeking expedition. And to our good fortune, Ricco was an excellent guide, tracking and spotting tons of elephants. Over coffee we asked about scorpions, as we had yet to see one (a good thing, I think). A few minutes later Ricco gets up and heads over the hill. He came back within minutes carrying a long stick and walking very cautiously. On the end of his stick was the biggest scorpion I had ever seen.

We had a fun two days with Ricco, whose nickname comes from his love of Riccoffee, a powdered coffee drink. Hanging out with Ricco we learned the names of the desert plants, fed him funny foods that he had never eaten - spaghettine with red wine, garlic and tomatoes. He couldn't get over the pasta and kept asking why the noodles were so long. So we showed him how to separate a few, twirl them around the tines of his fork and eat them somewhat effortlessly - listened to his stories of cunning and trickery and realized that we had no stories of our own to share. This is a big difference between people with oral traditions and those without. To me, a story comes from a book, or a person, but it is relevant to a particular culture or group. Our stories had long been forgotten, so Ricco improvised with more of his own.

The next day we drove around Mt. Himba, circling back into the Hoarusib River. Earlier that morning we stopped and chatted with a Namibian family that had watched a group of 8 elephants passed right in front of their camp. We began tracking that group. A couple miles down the river we saw a lone male elephant, then we saw two more. Within seconds the others began emerging from the brush and within minutes 8 desert were headed straight for our car. You never notice small squeaks and noises until you're trying to be quite, but when being quite coincided with a gigantic momma elephant walking straight toward you as you noisily roll up your car window, even the smallest noises sound unbelievably loud. Had it not been for Ricco's reassurance GP and I would have started up the car, avoiding a 3 point turn at all costs, and broadied out of there, totally freaked out and driving for our lives (as we had done once before, without a guide). But Ricco was very calm and just as he predicted, the elephant family filed by without incident. Wow. What a rush of adrenaline for both of us. When you're parked in the bend of a very steep, narrow river canyon with a posse of wild elephants a trunks length away from your car, time seems to stand still and memories are stored forever. What a thrill it was seeing these beauties in the wild.

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