In Search of Wild Canaries in southern Africa


Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River

D uring my last visit to Australia, I met a pair of travelers at one of the backpackers' inns in Broome (northwestern Australia). Cathy and her traveling partner were on vacation from France. We shared a sailing outing on an old pearling schooner. The next day I had to leave for the town of Catherine in the Northern Territory to join a group of volunteers for the Gouldian count. (See my previous article in Watchbird, Sept. 1998). Our encounter was brief, but we did exchange e-mail addresses. The following January, Cathy sent me an e-mail message asking me if I would be interested in a safari through southern Africa in the month of June. She mentioned that the land trip would he inexpensive because she knew three safari guides (also French) named Christophe, Marie Lu, and Babeth who lived in Windhoek, Namibia, and were going on their own vacation. They needed people to share the basic expenses (gas and food). They would use their own Toyota Land Cruisers for the safari.

The opportunity was very attractive to me. I deliberated for several days, considering camping for one month in the wilds of Africa, with mosquitoes, malaria, and other possibilities. I also thought of all the birds I could see!

There are several species of wild canaries in southern Africa and other African birds that I kept in the past. As I explained my dilemma to my wife, Stella, she would smile and shake her head saying, "not me." The opportunity was so rare. This was not one of those tourist trips where you only see things next to the main roads. The safari was to take us into remote areas of southern Africa. Once I decided to go, I consulted with my doctor who gave me several inoculations against some of the diseases to which I could possibly be exposed, and a prescription to protect me from contracting malaria.

I left Los Angeles on May 29th, flew to New York and connected with a South African airline. After flying for 14 hours, I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, at 3:00 P.M. Johannesburg time, where I stayed at a Holiday Inn near the airport for one night. The next day I met Cathy and Sandra at the airport. (They had come from France that morning.) At 11:45 we left Johannesburg on a flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Christophe picked us up at the airport, and he drove us into town where we met the rest of the group. There I met Marie Lu and Babeth (the other two guides) and two other group members, Caroline and Stephan. They all drove up from Windhoek, Namibia, where they live and work as safari guides.

We set up our tents in a camp- ground near the town of Victoria Falls. The Zambezi River, which eventually spills over the gorge and creates Victoria Falls, ran next to our campground. In the afternoon we took a cruise on the Zambezi River that took us very near to the upper limits of the falls. The captain of the boat assured us that in case the engine failed, we would not fall over the falls because he would drop the anchor. Suddenly, I wished I had missed the boat. As we cruised along the river, we ate hors d' oeuvres, drank wine, and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. We observed many hippopotamus that came near our boat, and elephants foraging for food on the riverbanks. After the cruise on the river, we returned to camp.

This was my first night camping in Africa. As soon as the sun went down, the temperature dropped. By the time I retired to my little tent, it had gotten really cold. During the night, the temperature dropped to 35°F. It was a miserable night. I could hear baboons running and fighting all around my tent.

Not able to sleep, I got up at the crack of dawn. The others were still in their tents asleep. The baboons were no longer running and fighting. I started a fire and put the water kettle next to it. Later, when the rest of the group got up, they suggested that I do the same every morning. I agreed that it would be my job for the rest of the trip -- if I survived. Mind you, the group members were mostly in their 20s and 30s. I was 69.

After a continental breakfast of toast and coffee, we packed up our camping gear and left for a destination unknown to me. I was the only American, and communications were strictly in French. I was perfectly satisfied with the situation. just follow the leader. In this case it was Christophe. I called him the "chief." I don't think he liked the title I gave him. Every time I referred to him as Chief, he would look at me with a strange smile.

Christophe was a very capable leader, and a good bread maker. He taught everyone in the group how to make bread, including me. Bread making was a daily evening activity at our campsite. It was sort of a competition each day to see who made the best bread when his or her turn came.