Imagine leaving your home and venturing out into the presence of an undetectable and terrifying enemy, just to have some fun! Why would one do that?
During the pandemic, our homes have become our place of refuge. A place where we don’t wear our masks or worry about contaminated surfaces. A place to exhale. Just going to the grocery store has been scary enough. Imagine what traveling to another country would be like. The airports are like ghost-towns, the extra safety measures stressful. “Enjoy this trip,” my husband retorted through smarting eyes after one of those highly intrusive, unpleasant nasal tests.
My husband is a media producer and the protracted lockdown on travel has been particularly hard on his penchant for wandering the globe. I used to enjoy joining him sometimes too, with my camera in hand. But we were both in a bit of a negative emotional spiral, as many people are these days. Things that gave us joy before have been minimized and we live on Zoom instead. I’ve tried to escape reality through work, studies, making sure others are alright, but what about me? What would save us from this depressive vortex called the pandemic? We just HAD to get away.
One good thing about travel bans is that when tourist countries do open up, there are “specials.” We spotted one online. In a fit of glee, we decided to “go for it” but then thought, “what have we done!” Too late. At least the statistics were down between waves. For the first time in long time, we had something to look forward to! It was a photo-safari to the Chobe National Park situated along the magical Chobe River in Botswana. The country of Botswana is known for its conservation of nature and protection of animals leaving the animals to roam freely and nature to take its course. A little bit like the Garden of Eden, except for the fact that some animals prey on others for food.
Our guest lodge was the kind of that caters for the entire range of photographers: from the completely obsessive to the skeptical beginner. They cater for your every need and even provide the cameras and lenses if you don’t have the right stuff. Literally minutes after our arrival, we were ON that boat, and every icy morning thereafter at 6:30am, and I’m not even a morning person.
The flat-bottomed vessel has only eight chairs in a single row per boat. Each chair can swivel in any direction with a gymbal alongside to which your camera is secured. This set-up helps you to get any shot at any angle in that perfect early light, with no one blocking your view. Like the morning the driver expertly navigated through some rocky rapids to the trees where Yellow-Billed Storks had moved in to build nests. It was so funny to see them balancing their top-heavy frames on the tippy tree-tops, flapping about and vying for the right spot.
The onboard wildlife and photography-guide helped us learn the technique for following a bird in flight and taking the photo at just the right shutter-speed and aperture-size to have the subject in focus but achieve a motion-blur in the background. It’s more difficult than you think but such fun trying! Luckily it was time for the morning coffee-break with cookies, complements of Chef Robson back at the lodge. Up river, we spotted a “Little Bee Eater” dancing among the papyrus reeds then settling to preen its bright green and yellow feathers.
Click, click, click and off he flew. Did I get a sharp enough shot? “Why not try shooting in manual mode,” our guide challenged me. “Then you can control the speed and aperture, and the camera automatically compensates with the ISO. That way, you are more certain to get a sharp photo.” Next, we turned up a small channel to the see Jacana chicks balancing on lily-pads and Egrets fishing from the bank.
A flock of Pygmy Geese flew past. Among some trees on the other side of the river, our guide expertly spotted a shiny Water-Monitor sunning itself on a log. “This is a perfect opportunity for a low-key photo,” she suggested. “You expose for the background. If it is dark, you heavily under-expose. This will help the lighter subject to really “pop” in the photo.” The opposite applies for a dark subject on a light background.
Just further along, some Pied King-Fishers entertained us with their hovering skills and quick dives into the water again and again. A Fish Eagle was at the water’s edge drinking drops of water. The morning grunting-laughs of the submerged Hippos caused a tingle down my spine and sent me constantly giggling.
The Baboons were up and about, scouring the ground for breakfast morsels, while the little ones got into trouble playing high-speed rolly-polly. A few Water Buck were down at the water’s edge having a sip, all the while looking out for the Crocs who were luckily lying quite motionless, waiting for the sun to warm their blood! So much to take in on just one trip! But it was time to go back for brunch, and see what the chef had spoiled us with today!
Time to relax and connect with fellow photographers after brunch, gave our computers the opportunity to frantically download the morning’s photos from our cards in time for the 3pm move-out. The afternoon trips had that golden light to look forward to and observing the evening animals behaviours. All seemed to have slightly higher energy-levels than in the morning, even the humans. The Ellies were out, slurping water in ceremonial fashion.
“Wait for the trunk to go into it’s mouth and the head to lift nicely, in order to get that shot of the water trickling down. Over-expose a little and zoom in close because you’re never going to get that entire large body into one shot anyway!” Then, “Catch that one at the back, flinging dust all over his body with his trunk!” We watched a pregnant giraffe spreading her long legs so that her face could reach the ground for a mouthful of some gritty, mineral-laden sand. It made her mouth pull all funny but she went in for another one.
Even the Kudu were mining the white banks for nutrients with their licking tongues this evening, as the setting sun made their otherwise grey hides turn red. These creatures must know some secrets about the soil that we humans have forgotten, I thought. Would we even know what was edible out there? The animals still have this amazing knowledge, no doubt installed by our Creator.
I cannot adequately describe the calm, the peace, the joy, each excursion brought to my fatigued heart. I kept thinking what a privilege it was. It started feeling like the pandemic was far away and that God was close. Or was I just closer to God in nature than anywhere else on earth?
The boat was not our only vantage point for photos. Equally well-fitted, safari-vehicles took us and our cameras out on the sandy roads from time to time. Ponchos, beanies, scarves and gloves helped keep the chill out. The very first such morning, we happened upon a pride of about 16 lions. They were feasting in turns on the carcass of a Buffalo they had taken down in the night. It must have been quite the action. It was clear who was in charge, who thought they were in charge, and who the up and coming in charge ones would be.
Slowly but surely, members of the pride strode in from up-river and took their places around the kill. Others, with stained faces and already round bellies, sat at a distance, grooming, growling, yawning or dozing off. The young ones enjoyed kicking up the sand and chasing the vultures and jackals away. Invariably they conceded. “Keep your shutter-speed up so those action shots will be sharp, our guide reminded us!” The scene made for thousands of multi-shot bursts and lots of data to be downloaded later.
The fact that animals need to feast on other animals is a reminder that evil exists everywhere. It is the evil that makes life a battle. Not just for physical survival, but for spiritual endurance. There is another trip I look forward to, above all others, and that is Jesus’ Second Coming.
I have found it immensely helpful to understand the dynamics of a pandemic, or any other difficult time, by remembering that there is a devil who is trying to misrepresent God’s character of love and make Him look like the cruel one.
The Bible reveals that the Creator of this world willingly died a cruel death, on our behalf, so that He can have the joy of having all His willing creatures with Him once again in a perfect state for all eternity, just as He originally intended. His kingdom will work according to the principles of God’s self-sacrificing love. And that there’ll be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying or pain. It’s a promise. (Phil. 2:6-8; Rev. 21:3, 4).
One of the most exhilarating moments on the river was one evening when the sun had already set. We had implored the guide and driver for more time to photograph the yawning hippos in that late pink light. But did you know that those yawns are not because they are tired? They yawn to show dominance. They seemed extra-edgy possibly because of the several young ones around. Earlier, one of them felt the need to show our boat who is “boss!” The water was shallow enough for the one and a half-ton animal to have landed on the boat with some exertion. She made a mock charge. One photographer actually caught it on camera while the rest of us were screaming wildly and the driver was quietly but skillfully moving out of its way.
But now the sun was down and we had to pass an angry Hippo to get out of there. Twice, we tried and twice the driver conceded to the Hippo. Finally, he decided to go back just far enough to get up a spectacular amount of speed and simply intimidate the Hippo out of our way. I just closed my eyes, held on tight, and here I am today! It made me think of what we can do when things become impossible around us. We can literally close our eyes and escape into God’s presence through prayer.
I am grateful that I have a hobby that could take my mind off of the dismal things going on around me for a while. I’m happy it is a hobby that takes me out of my comfort zone and puts me in touch with God’s masterful and beautiful creation. “Loving Father, help us make it through these difficult times with our faith in tact. With Your creatures in nature, as the laughing Hippos, trumpeting Elephant, roaring Lions, and all the songbirds, I want to lift my voice in a chorus of praise (Ps. 148) as I look forward to better days here, and an eternity of joy with You.”