Le zoo de Rome – a charming novel intertwining reality and fiction, written by Pascal Janovjak

A year ago, in May 2019, Pascal Janovjak gave me his book “le zoo de Rome” (1) with the following words: “Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

Let me tell you more about this beautiful novel that evoked memories of “my” zoos, that taught me much about the zoo of Rome integrated in the history of the XXth century and that made me enjoy the related fictional story lines.

 

Prologue: “Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories; it might evoke yours as well

“Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories of “my” zoos in Basel (Zolli) and in Karlsruhe (Stadtgarten). You may have such memories as well.

At kindergarten age, in the 1950’s, my grand-ma invited me to the Stadtgarten in Karslruhe, whereby I was very cautious, when being confronted with animals.

Some ten years later, our teacher took us to the Basel Zolli to practice drawing animals; “my” pelicans and “my” penguin are from that time.

As a student, I took photos in the Basel Zolli and developed them in the kitchen-darkroom. The black-and-white polar bear is resting calmly on its paw on a frosty-cold winter day.

No more polar bears in the Basel Zolli today. However, polar bears still live in the Stadtgarten of Karlsruhe, in their “icebergs” built in 2000 (colour photos taken in 2009). A hundred years ago, the Swiss Urs Eggenschwyler created an iceberg in the zoo of Rome; it will play a role in Pascal’s novel.

Now I go to the Basel Zolli with my grandniece and grandnephew. They very much like the flamingos – or flamands in French. The “lagoon” is near the main entrance of the zoo.

Pascal also seems to like flamingos. He has selected this flamingo for the cover of his book.

My “le zoo de Rome” shows signs of use… I have read it three times and I have read it with great pleasure.

 

“Le zoo de Rome” is a puzzle of essays telling intertwined stories: My summary in a nutshell

Pascal tells his novel “le zoo de Rome” as a puzzle of small essays (two to four pages long) rolling out intertwined story lines. The real story of the zoo of Rome starts shortly before 1911 (construction and inauguration), ends in 2013 (two years after the centenary) and interacts with the historical events of one century.

Superimposed to the real history of the zoo, I identified fictional story lines that begin in 1940, focus on 2009/2010 and end in 2013.

  • The first fiction is the life of the architect Chahine Gharbi (born in 1970) and his tender love story with Giovanna Di Stefano. Chahine comes to Rome in December 2009, because a sponsor from Riyad has asked him to evaluate the project of a shopping city to replace the zoo. Chahine orders his room until 16th of January 2010. Mid-January, he has to leave his hotel room, as his sponsor has stopped paying for it. He lives in the iceberg for some time and leaves with unknown destination in May 2010.
    Chahine and Giovanna meet in the zoo. They are both about 40 years old. Their love culminates end-January or beginning-February 2010, when they make love in the zoo.
  • The second fiction is the saga of the family Leonardi that worked as guards from grandfather to grandson Salvatore. Salvatore was born in 1949 (there was rinderpest in the zoo then). Salvatore works with engagement for his animals and imagines the zoo being Noah’s Ark and himself being the captain. Salvatore meets Giovanna and Chahine several times. He is the guard of the last tamandin anteater, until sent to retirement in July 2010 – which leads over to the third fiction.
  • The third fiction is about the last tamandin anteater (a fictional animal) alluding to criminal energy and overtourism. During the war, in 1940, the zoo takes over his first tamandin from another zoo. In November 2009, the veterinarian Moro of the zoo of Rome kills the two tamandins in the London zoo. By doing so, he achieves that the old tamandin anteater of the zoo of Rome, Oscar, is the last representative of this species. For the zoo, so far having attracted only few visitors, the last surviving tamandin changes everything. Visitors flood the zoo. They are channelled to the Grande Volière (aviary), where the animal lives. It is a hype, which Giovanna supports with her marketing actions.
    Meanwhile, the veterinarian of the London zoo, Nadia Monk, finds out that Moro has thrown infected ticks into the cages of her tamandins, which was the cause of their infection and death. Moro is arrested in May 2010.
    During the tamandin hype, Salvatore looks after Oscar day and night. In July 2010, the faithful guard gets the announcement of his retirement, kills the tamandin Oscar and ends up in prison. No one asks why he has shot the tamandin. Small detail: It turns out that Oscar was a female, despite its name.
    At the same time, in July 2010, Giovanna visits the gynaecologist to get the confirmation that she is pregnant. She must have been five to six months pregnant.
  • Fourth, without having a name (I could not find it), Giovanna’s husband supports her calmly during the exciting months at the zoo. During that time, they also make love in late winter/early spring 2010. In 2013, a happy future opens up for Giovanna and her husband: Giovanna has left the zoo and is again successful at her former job in government, and the couple enjoys the life with their son that they had no longer expected.

I enjoyed the rich and dense language of Pascal. The words are concise and placed exactly where they fit. I took notes to keep track of the artfully intertwined story lines presented in small puzzle pieces with hints dispersed all over. Some of the hints I only understood, when reading the novel for the third time, for example:

  • In the first chapter, the architect Chahine Gharbi notices a metallic sphere, when settling in room number 324 in the hotel adjacent to the zoo. A metallic sphere? Reading the novel the third time, I understand: What Chahine sees, is the “Grande Volière”, the “Large Aviary”, built in the 1930’s at Mussolini’s request.
  • Soon after having started work as the head of communications and administration of the zoo, Giovanna visits the animals and notices the tamandin, marked as “in danger of extinction”. Coming back to the office, she finds an angry letter from the zoo of London asking the zoo of Rome to deliver the tamandin immediately. First, I thought, Giovanna has taken over a messy office. When reading the third time, I understand this hint: Moro, the veterinarian of Rome, has recently thrown ticks carrying viruses into the cage of the tamandins in the London zoo. Now he waits for the tamandins to pick up the ticks, catch the infection and die. For that reason, he has no intention to send his tamandin to England, as there is a good chance that Oscar will be the last anteater of its species, which will attract visitors to his zoo of Rome, desperately needed visitors.

 

The novel taught me much about the zoo of Rome… and about “my” Basel Zolli

These are some of the facts that Pascal’s novel told me about the zoo of Rome and other zoos:

  • I was shocked to read that Hagenbeck, the designer of the zoo of Rome (and of the Tierpark of Hamburg), was a trader of wild animals; by designing zoos, I believe, he cleverly created the market for his business. I was also dismayed to read, how many animals did not survive the transfer from wilderness to Rome, when the zoo was to be inaugurated in 1911. I was appalled that just a few years after the inauguration, cost saving efforts deprived the animals from food.
  • Urs Eggenschwyler was an eccentric Swiss who knew how to build artificial cement rocks. In the zoo of Rome, he built various rock landscapes and the iceberg. In the Basel Zolli, he built the rock for the seals. I had never thought about this rock around the pool being artificial, when watching the seals playfully “hunt” their food. The iceberg landscape in Karlsruhe should show the visitors, how the polar bears live in the Arctic. Hagenbeck was the first architect of zoos to have planned landscapes that reflect the habitat of the animals shown. Pascal describes nicely, how Hackenbeck dreamt of the animals living in their habitats, when reviewing the plans for the zoo of Rome.
  • I shivered, when “a crazy man” entered the cage of his lioness called Italia. Pascal resolves the mystery later: It was Mussolini. He ordered to enlarge the zoo, because it was smaller than other zoos of Europe. The architect de Vito was in charge of the construction. I liked to follow, how de Vito proceeded: He watched the animals intensely, he visited other zoos to gather ideas, and then, accidentally, he saw the cylindric gas reservoir of the community of Munich that became the model for the “Grande Volière” or “Large Aviary” allowing the birds to fly in circles, which is natural for them. Furthermore, he built his aviary in a sustainable way – more than 80 years later, the metal shines in the sun (as Chahine noted, when entering his hotel room with the view of the zoo). I would love to see de Vico’s aviary one day.
  • I have mixed feelings about zoos. Might be, the student Guido watching animals is right: Zoos are like Noah’s Ark. In Mongolia, I saw the Przewalski horses. They had become extinct in the wild, but they survived in various zoos. Resettlement was a success. It was beautiful to watch these elegant horses against the horizon of the Mongolian steppes.
  • Another finely observed detail: Chahine and Giovanna struggle with the zoo map. Zoo maps do seem to be a challenge; with the map of the Basel Zolli I always get lost.

 

The zoo is the backstage to caricature observations about people in fictional story lines 

The zoo of Rome is the backstage for creating caricatures about people and their behaviours. The observations, painted using fine brushstrokes, resonate with me. Let me give you some examples.

  • With pleasure, I observed the tender love emerge between Chahine and Giovanna, which culminates, when Chahine helps Giovanna to get rid of her wet cloth, after having been in the pouring rain during the move of the tamandin to the aviary. Wet cloth is hard to take off – I have also experienced that. Then Chahine wants to disappear in Giovanna’s body. Later I understand what he suffers from. While hiding in the iceberg until May, he visits Salvatore Leonardi guarding the tamandin in the Grande Volière and, as they do not speak the same language, he uses gestures to describe, how his seven years old daughter died in the car accident and that he was at the steering wheel. I feel sorry for Chahine devouring the soup that Leonardi offers to him, because probably he is very hungry.
    After their love night, Giovanna looks for Chahine, but cannot find him – she just finds his accessories, including the white plush polar bear that he had bought, perhaps with his daughter in mind; he has left the plush bear on the iceberg.
    I feel sympathy for Chahine’s wife that probably never saw her husband again – she had let him go to Rome saying: “What you need, is a project”, when the request to plan the shopping city came from Riyad. What a sign of love.
  • The calm love between Giovanna and her husband ends happily with their newly born son. Pascal leaves open the detail who might be the father of their son, Chahine or Giovanna’s husband. He gives a small hint: Giovanna’s husband loved their son that resembled Giovanna so much – what a tender loving care.
  • From the very first moment, I have felt bad with the veterinarian of the zoo of Rome, Moro. I hated that he thought, he knew everything better than the director of the zoo and that he disdained Giovanna by telling her that she had ink at her fingers, while she was explaining to him her ideas about the next steps to be taken for the zoo (occasionally, I came across such unfair behaviour at work…). Later, I felt Schadenfreude (malicious joy, a word that only exists in German, I believe), because Moro failed to go unnoticed, when attacking the two tamandins in the London zoo, though he had prepared everything in detail acquiring an English coat and an umbrella as well as paying cash for the bus and metro tickets to Regent’s Park. But at the entrance gate to the zoo, he felt stressed because of the long queue and he got engraved in the mind of the cashier, as he forgot the change in coins and his umbrella, his coat was too warm for the sunny day and he was too stingy to make a donation. I can imagine the man clearly.
    The veterinarian Nadia Monk of the London zoo wanted to know, why her tamandins had died and found viruses from ticks. One tick had a tiny thread of wool around its body, as she noticed in the microscope. She spent eleven nights in the office of the night shift security guard to watch the video surveillance films. The guard was not amused, as he loved to read poems during his night shifts – great caricature. After eleven nights, Nadia Monk identified a man in a coat throwing ticks at her tamandins. The cashier remembered the man. Due to Nadia’s persistence, Moro was arrested (Pascal only says that two policemen knocked at the door leaving the conclusion to the reader).
  • I relished reading about the touristic turmoil around the last tamandin anteater. The tamandin was shy and hid away in its bush. The visitors could hardly ever see it. Nevertheless, hordes of tourists came to the zoo and to the Volière, where it stayed, guarded by Salvatore Leonardi. Leonardi, also hidden, observed that the visitors were not interested in the tamandin, but only in themselves. The hype around the tamandin is a well-pictured allusion to overtourism, I find. It reminds me of what I saw in Petersburg in the Hermitage Museum: Tourists rushed to “Madonna and the Child” by Leonardo da Vinci, stopped, turned round, took a selfie “me and the must see tableau of da Vinci” and went off, without looking back – they were not interested in this magnificent work of art.
  • With sympathy, I followed the saga of the Leonardi family up to their grandson, Salvatore Leonardi that felt engaged for his animals, while he was just a bit talkative. I am sad to see him end up in prison. No one asked Salvatore Leonardi, why he killed the tamandin. I believe he wanted to protect the old animal from having to adapt to a new guard or he just felt sorry for the tamandin being the object of gawping crowds that were not interested in the animal as such. This is another detail that Pascal lets the reader solve himself.

I love history and I love novels that unfold their fictions in a historical setting. One of my favourite novels is “natural history” (historias naturales) by Juan Perucho who selected the Spanish Carlist War of 1840 to intertwine the fiction of “pursuit of the vampire by a young scientist and the scientist’s happy end with his love” (2).  With Pascal’s “le zoo de Rome”, I found a second favourite novel that joins history and fictions.

 

Epilogue: Animals are the basic material of fables and the rose colour of flamingos conveys happiness

Let me come back to what Pascal wrote in the dedication, when giving his book to me:

“Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

In fables, the animals act like humans and convey a moral lesson. In “le zoo de Rome” the animals remain animals (some of them fictional) and are a wonderful backstage for the fictional story lines. Nevertheless, I sense some moral reflections that resonate with me: For instance Mussolini entering the cage of his lioness is underlining his delusion of grandeur. The bear Fritz greeting like a fascist does not know, what it does. The chimpanzee Bungo that the animal welfare activists save from the bar to transfer it to the zoo asylum seems to suffer in its cage (good intention of the activists, but…). The rose flamingos had to move to a pond near the entrance to convey the feeling of happiness to the visitors, but they suffer, because the pebbles on the ground are too large for them to walk on (the new owners of the “Natura Park” look more for appearance than for the welfare of their protégés).

Perhaps it is for the rose colour conveying happiness that Pascal placed the elegant flamingo on the cover. Do you remember the song “la vie en rose” by Edith Piaf (3)? It gave hope to the generation of 1945 to find happiness again, now that the war was over.

I sense that the novel begins and ends with optimism: It begins with the rose colour of the flamingo on the cover to greet the reader which invited me to open the book. In the last chapter, we see the happiness of Giovanna and her husband with their son, which may makes me dream about their future.

Let us look for facets of life that makes us happy, now, that this virus confines our freedom to meet. It was wonderful to use video conferencing for discussing “le zoo of Rome” within the framework of the Solothurner Literaturtage (4).

 

Footnotes

(1) Pascal Janovak, “le zoo de Rome”, Actes Sud 2019

(2) See my blog about Juan Perucho, “historias naturales”, edhasa, Barcelona 2003.

(3) Edith Piaf, “la vie en rose”, YouTube officiel  written in 1945.

(4) Solothurner Literaturtage 2020

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: Namibia

Now in March/April/May 2020, the virus stopped me from being on the road. I am at home. After all, I am 65+…

My home tells me stories – I just have to listen: This is the photo gallery that reminds me of the Victoria Falls, Botswana and Namibia, where I was with Ernst in April/Mai 2008.

I have already told you about our adventures at the Victoria Falls and in Botswana. Let me continue with the last stage of our 2008 Africa adventure, about Namibia.

These souvenirs remind me of Namibia: The green neckless with the ear rings (I lost one of the ear rings unfortunately) and the silver studs with elephant hair and the matching pendant.

These were the points we visited: Windhoek – Ohakandja – Otjiwarongo – Waterberg – !Uri’s Lodge – Etosha Park with Halali Camp and Okaukuejo Camp – Twyfelfontein – via Opuwo to the Epupa Falls – via Epembe to the Ruacana Falls – via Palmwag, Omaruru and Ohakandja back to Windhoek

.

 

Picking up our camper from Britz at Windhoek, planning our tour in Okahandja and visiting the crocodile farm

We overnight in the friendly Hotel Steiner (still exists in 2020), stroll through Windhoek (a city with some German touch), pick up our four-wheel drive camper from Britz and do some shopping: We need food and some interfaces to charge our camera, GPS and laptop in the camper.

Then we drive to Okahandja which is 100km north of Windhoek to plan our tour and get settled in our new mobile home. My first camper dinner, Broccoli, steaks and pasta, tastes rather dull, because I only have salt and pepper to flavour it. Ernst comforts me: “Camper meals taste like that, do not worry.” Hm, Ernst is so patient, but I will look for more spices in the next days.

We take a shower in the chilly morning… fortunately the manager of the camping site has heated up the donkey that gives us warm water.

Our next destinations will be the Waterberg and the Etosha Park. The main road going out to the north of Windhoek is straight.

In Otjiwarongo we visit the crocodile farm – it still exists today. It is a place for breeding crocodiles and in addition, it is a tourist attraction with a restaurant attached.

A guide gives us explanations: In this huge pond of about 800’000l, there are seven adult males and about 120 female crocodiles. They live about 80 years. The animals eat until May, and then they do no longer eat for the rest of the year – what an interesting diet schedule.

Each female lays about 40 eggs, hence 4800 eggs in total; 80% of the young crocodiles survive. There is a baby crocodile house, then the young animals are in larger ponds.

Our guide tells us to approach the pond carefully. We try, but as soon as the young crocodiles see us, they rush into the water. They grow for three to four years and then they are ready to be used for leather production.

 

The articial wild life park on the Waterberg

After a delicious ostrich and kudu steak in the Otjibamba Lodge (still exists), we leave the main highway and turn east to get to the Waterberg. It is a flat top mountain. We go for a walk. We have a wonderful view of the plane looking south…

… and come across this beautiful spider hanging in the air above our footpath. Yes, there are also beautiful small animals in Africa!

We then reach the cemetery of the Herero people that died in the battle against the Germans in 1904… this genocide is a blot in German history that makes me feel bad.

Our neighbours at the camping site are uncle Jürgen and his nephew. They give us a screwdriver and Ernst repairs one of our cupboards, mumbling that he had forgotten his Victorinox knife. “Look, I have taken this small knife with me that I had noticed lying around in our house”, I say. Ernst’s face brightens up: “Oh, great, this is my officer knife!” – I am happy that Ernst is happy about this find…

With uncle Jürgen and his nephew, we book a game drive to the plateau of the Waterberg. It is a wildlife reservation area with artificial water holes. The water is pumped up to the plateau. Some of the water holes have shelters to watch the animals without disturbing them. There is a variety of wildlife here such as giraffes, zebras, antelopes, leopards, cheetahs, buffaloes or rhinos. Our guide is called Peter. He drives far on the plateau, but all we see are two oryx antelopes (this is one of them),…

… some giraffes, this one keeps the overview,…

… and later we see two buffaloes from far – they stay in the bushes and do not dare come to the waterhole.

While we drive back in the chilly evening, I reflect about this reservation area. As long as the artificial water holes have water, it may be good for the animals to live here. And as long as tourism keeps on going, the park earns money to finance the pumps that take the water up to the plateau. But what happens, when Namibia has no more money to maintain this artificial park? Those were my reflections in 2008. Now we are in 2020, and tourism has stopped due to the pandemic. Will Namibia be able to care for the animals on this otherwise barren plateau? I hope so, because these animals have nowhere else to go. And I do hope for this place that tourism will revive soon again.

 

The meteorite and the luxurious lodge on the way to the Etosha Park

We drive around the Waterberg on a pebbly road, do some shopping at Grootfontein, where I find marjoram and some broth cubes that will add more flavor to our camper meals.

We look for the meteorite. My “Reise Know” says that the meteorite is 80% iron and hit the earth 80’000 years before our calendar system started; Hence now, in 2020, the meteorite is 82020 years old ;-).

We stop at !Uri’s Safari Lodge near Tsumeb. The lodge looks inviting. We decide to sleep in a bungalow and enjoy some luxury. The “!” of “!Uri” is one of the three glottal stops of the Khoisan language that the Damara people speak here.

The manager shows me his wine cellar under a trapdoor. He has bought it with the lodge, and he asks me about the wines. I see wines from South Africa and tell the manager that he should sell (or drink) the 5 to 10 year old white wines (Sauvignon, Chardonnay) soon, but can keep some of the red Cabernet Sauvignons for 20 years, if needed. For dinner, we reserve a half bottle of Pinotage, a grape crossbreed that only exists in South Africa (Pinot and Cinsault). We have it with Kudu steaks and its cherry like taste is a good match. Then we retreat to our luxury bungalow, lay down in the canopy bed and close the mosquito net curtains.

The terrace is full of Marula fruits. For breakfast we have delicious marmalade made of them – the whole breakfast is excellent and very soigné.

 

The Etosha Park – great for wildlife watching (no, no, not the Etosha House in the Basel Zolli)

Our next destination is the Etosha Park. Jean-Claude calls from Basel and wants to know, where we are. Etosha? He checks the Internet: “Etosha House?” “No”, Ernst laughs, “not the Etosha house in the Zoo of Basel (called Zolli), no, we are in Namibia, in the REAL Etosha Park.” – “Aha, okay…”.

We enter the park from the east and stop at Twee Palms (the water hole of the “two palm trees”; there is just one branch of the second palm tree on the photo). About 15 giraffes are here – how difficult it is for them to drink water! A herd of fine springboks, zebras, gnus, herons… we cannot get enough watching.

We are at the Fisher’s Pan in the east most part of the Etosha park. The pan is dry now. A road leads through the pan. An elephant is walking in front of us. Our car approaches the elephant from behind. It does not like that, turns back and threatens us, pulling up his trunk and waving his large ears. We back up and keep distance. When the elephant reaches firm land, Ernst honks quickly, the elephant trumpets loudly and runs into the bushes – I am surprised, how fast this clumsy looking animal runs.

We look back at the Fisher’s Pan…

… let the ostrich cross the road…

… and see much more wild life (elephants, turtles, zebras, oryx, gnus, lilac breasted rollers, herons, bustards) – this is a populated park.

We have reserved two nights in the center of the park, in the Halali Camp, and settle at slot number 43. After dinner (now more tasty with the spices from Grootfontein), we go to the artificial water hole near our campsite. There is a platform with benches, like in an amphitheatre. Two rhinos are drinking water (Ernst mumbles something about trying out the infrared program of our camera).

Then we hear loud trumpeting. About 15 elephants emerge from the bush. They drink water, play with one another, stalk in the shallow pond and keep distance to another rhino that joins them with its offspring. Even elephants stay aside, when rhinos are around.

The next morning, we try the track in the southern part of the Etosha park which is called “rhino drive”. There are trees and bushes. We find this pretty ground squirrel…

… and these cute suricates,…

… but no rhinos, as the name of the drive would suggest.

We turn north to the Etosha Pan. There are less bushes here and the animals can be seen well such as these giraffes against the horizon,…

… and the lion lady with the zebra kill.

In the afternoon, we return to see, what this lion lady does. The lady is still there, but soon gets up and walks towards the forest, carefully observed by the grazing zebras.

We go back the next morning – no lion lady, and where the zebra kill has been before, there is nothing left – vultures and hyenas have eaten it all.

We continue westwards, take photos of these elegant oryx antelopes and…

… stop at a parking lot that is extremely noisy from all the twittering of the bayas that have woven this huge nest (Webervögel).

They belong to the family of sparrows and are very social.

We reach the ghost forest with these odd looking bottletrees.

The eastern part of the Etosha Park ends soon here. The eastern part is for visitors with cameras. The western part is for visitors with rifles that shoot animals at artificial water holes… scary for me. I now understand that, in earlier times,  the habitat of the animals was much larger than the Etosha park. The animals migrated to the ocean, when looking for food and water, but now they are locked in the Etosha Park. In a way, this park is a large zoo. If I understand it correctly, the Serengeti is a much more sustainable wild life reservation concept, where the animals can migrate as the have always done.

We stop at the Okaukuejo Camp, still in the Etosha Park, and find a place to spend one more night. Also this camp has an artificial waterhole, where we can observe hyenas, zebras, springboks, elephants and the black rhino that slowly, slowly approaches the waterhole, while all other animals get out of the way. The black rhino is the one with the pointed mouth (Spitzmaulnashorn), as opposed to the white rhino (Breitmaulnashorn) with the broad mouth which is called “wyd mond” in Afrikaans. The Anglo-Saxons heard “wyd” and made “white” out of that – white rhino. Consequently, the “other” rhino must be “black” – black rhino, they may have thought. But both rhinos are neither white nor black, they are just grey.

I do like the water hole of the Okaukuejo Camp. We return in the evening and see more rhinos, jackals and a wild cat.

After three wonderful days we leave the Etosha Park, drive to Outjo to reload our gas tank (for cooking) and to do some shopping. We find an excellent butcher, where I buy Biltong (dried meat pieces, a convenient picknick), steaks and the house spice mixture for barbecues and vegetables to add even more flavour to our camper meals.

Then we continue to Twyfelfontein.

 

Barren landscape and rock paintings in and around Twyfelfontein

Damaraland in the west of Namibia is dry and barren…

… with yellow meadows, some green bushes and blue mountains.

We sleep in a community camp that is managed by Damara people. The steak we have bought in Outjo is excellent and the butcher’s house mixture of spices is perfect. Now, my camper dinners do no longer taste dull at all.

We stop at Twyfelfontein, which is a park with rock paintings. Thekla shows them to us. I can see a giraffe, a lion and various antelopes. The tail of the lion is angled and ends as a hand – interesting.

The small gecko looks for the sun, right where the rock paintings are.

Thekla speaks the Damara language. It belongs to the Khoisan languages that use three glottal sounds. She clicks three times, and it always sounds different. We give it a try, but we can do no more than one poor click. To get an idea, look at this San man talking Khoisan.

After having seen Twyfelfontein, we drive to the doline Wondergat, where Ernst sees this beautiful grasshopper.

 

Driving North to the Epupa Falls

Now Ernst looks for some adventures on challenging roads. We drive north, first on good roads and then on pebbly roads…

… some springboks run ahead of us. From time to time, they jump up high. We wait to give them time to get off the road.

We stay overnight in Sesfontein and then head north to Opuwo. We have to cross some hills on rough roads,…

… drive up the Joubert pass (easy, it has been paved going up)…

… and are now on 1300m on a high plateau with Himba villages.

The last kilometers to the Kunene river are challenging with pointed pebbles and river crossings. We advance slowly. At the Kunene river, we settle in the Omarunga Lodge & Campsite (still exists in 2020), with a view of the river. We eat in the restaurant of the Lodge & Site and Ernst invites some students for dinner – he says that he has been invited by some elderly business man, when he was a student a  long time ago and now, he wants to give it back. We have a wonderful evening with the students – they study chemistry.

Across the river Kunene is Angola.

Swimming is forbidden here; there are crocodiles. At the reception, I hear that one of the crocodile has a name, Lucy. Lucy has not been seen for some time now, but there are more crocodiles, beware.

We walk along the Kunene river…

… to the Epupa Falls. The water flows around Baobab trees.

Jacy takes us to the Himba village. Jacy is a Himba that went to school in Opuwo and now guides tourists. We are hesitating. We do not want to “look at” people, we want to LIVE the countries that we visit; 15 years ago in Myanmar, we had rejected visiting tribes. But Jacy was nice and we thought, like this, he earns some money and for the Himba, we had some corn flour as a gift.

Jacy explains to us that the Himba use redwood paste to care for their skin, and that it takes three days to make these artful plaits. The Himba belong to the Herero people and have kept their traditional way of life – so far.

These are the graves of the Himba. They worship their ancestors. It is a holy place. All three of us stay at distance meditating. The more noble a man or a woman were in life, the more bull horns decorate his or her grave, for men showing upwards, for women showing downwards.

We have our last “Kunene dinner” and our last “Kunene breakfast” under the palm trees near the river.

The next morning, we will drive to the Ruacana Falls. Again, there are challenging roads ahead of us.

 

Adventurous drive to the Ruacana Falls and returning to Windhoek

We drive back the same way from the Kunene river to Epembe and then turn left to Swartsbooisdrift.

“Road washed away”, our Tracks of Africa on the GPS warns us. This is the “road washed away”. Ernst overcomes the obstacle splashing through the water.

This is our next larger obstacle. Ernst masters it as well, while I get out of the car to take the picture.

Our rear mirror is dirty after all these rough roads with obstacles. We have had our off-road adventures and Ernst is happy about that.

The Ruacanafalls are retained by a barrage. With an altitude of 80m, these waterfalls must have been impressive before. The powerstation of the Ruacana Falls has been completed in 1978 and covers more than 60% of Namibia’s energy consumption, our Lonely Planet says. In 2012, more turbines were added, as Wikipedia says.

We overnight at the camping site near the so-called hippo pool (which is part of the power station system). We settle near the river. Ernst studies all the tracks around our camper to make sure, no dangerous animals or snakes are here. There is one track that he cannot identify (we have a book for that). It turns out, these are the paw prints of the friendly dog of the camping site that joins us wagging the tail.

In the morning, I fall down the ladder of our camper and spill the breakfast yoghurt. The dog tries the yoghurt, does not like it at all and walks away. A huge grasshopper comes and loves the yoghurt, while a prepare a second yoghurt portion.

Then we take an easier route back to Opuwo. In the hot afternoon sun, we have a puncture, hard work – together, we manage to change the wheel. Then we stay overnight in Palmwag. Sitting at our dinner table, we enjoy this beautiful evening ambiance.

On the way back to Windhoek, we stop at the Kristall Kellerei of Mr Kluge in Omaruru. He owns about 4ha of vineyards. He grows Ruby Cabernet (red) and Colombard (white). We buy two small bottles from each. Then we stop at Okahandja for our last camper night in Namibia and have one small bottle of Ruby Cabernet with our barbecue. What a nice farewell dinner.

The other bottles we take home. I keep one bottle of Kluge’s Ruby Cabernet in my cellar. I do not know, whether now, in 2020, it is still drinkable, but it makes a somewhat melancholic souvenir of these four wonderful weeks with Ernst in Africa, 12 years ago.

Now, in 2020, I read in the Internet that the Kristall Winery belongs to Michael Weder who makes a much valued Brandy (Nappa) from the Colombard Grape.

 

Background information about Namibia: Khoisan speaking peoples, Bantu tribes, the German colonialization in the 19th century, protectorate of South Africa in 1920, independent in 1989

Peoples that speak the Khoisan click languages: San bushmen, Nama and Damara (this San man talks Khoisan and this is a step by step lesson about clicking).

  • The SAN (now 3% of the population of Namibia): About 8000 years B.C. pottery appeared – probably the San had settled then – they were hunters and collectors. The SAN or bushmen are small, gracefully built, have a bright (yellowish-brown) skin, high cheekbones and their hair looks like “peppercorns”. The rock paintings in Twyfelfontein may originate from that time, but it is not proven.
  • The Nama (now almost 5% of the population) lived as nomadic cattle breeders. They are a bit taller than the San, and have the same bright skin colour, cheekbones and “peppercorn” hair. Because their click language sounded like stuttering to the Europeans, they called them “Hottentotten”. The origins of the Nama are not clear. Either they descended from the San or they immigrated from East Africa and mixed up with the San. The mightiest Nama tribe, the Orlaam, immigrated from the cap region. They had learnt how to use firearms from the European settlers.
  • The Damara (or Dama, now 7% of the population) have always been a sedentary group that also speaks Khoisan. Other than the Nama and the San, they are black (and proud of that). Their origin is not clear.

 

Tribes that speak Bantu Languages

About 2000-2500 years ago, the first Bantu speaking tribes immigrated. Today, the two main Bantu tribes in Namibia are the Herero (about 7% of the population) and the Ovambo (about 50% of the population).

  • The Herero immigrated to North Namibia and later to East Namibia and Botswana in the 14th or 15th century – their legends say that they are from East Africa. They were cattle breeders and nomads. The Himba that now live in North West Namibia belong to the Herero.
  • The Ovambo (or Vambo) came from East Africa in the 16th/17th century. They were sedentary farmers and cattle breeders. Traditionally their culture was a matriarchy, which changed, when adopting Christianity. They had a king that leased the land to his subordinates for their lifetime. The Ovambo live primarily in the north of Namibia and in southern Angola.

 

European colonialists (whites – now 7% of the population; there is also a coloured population of about 8%, which includes the Basters of Rehoboth)

The Portuguese landed at the coast in 1485, but did not stay. In the 17th century the Dutch started to explore the coast line. In 1844 Germans evangelized the Herero, while the Finns cared about the Ovambo. The English annexed the Walwis Bay in 1878, because they were interested in Guano which are excrements of seabirds used to produce fertilizer and explosive substances. In 1883 Adolf Lüderitz from Germany bought the port Angra Pequena from a Nama chieftain which became then Lüderitzland. Fights between the Nama and the Herero “motivated” the Germans to send troups, first 23 soldats, then more. They built fortifications and promoted commerce and mining. The Germans founded Windhoek in 1890. Namibia became a German protectorate. German farmers settled and the Germans agreed about the borders with the other colonial rulers of the area around 1890. This included the so-called Caprivi Strip, a thin band of land bordering Botswana in the north up to the Zambesi river. The idea was to use the Zambesi river to access German East Africa (today Tanzania) by boat on the Zambesi and via the Indian Ocean. This was, however, impossible; from the Caprivi Strip downstream the Zambesi is not navigable because of the Victoria Falls.

The German farmers settling in Namibia expelled the Herero from the fertile plains. The Herero retreated to the Waterberg and revolted. The Germans lost their freshly established estates and backed up to Windhoek. Reinforced, the Germans hit back. At the battle of the Waterberg in 1904, the Herero were vanquished and those that survived escaped to the desert, where many of them died of thirst. 80% of the Herero perished – this is a genocide. The Germans apologized 100 years later and made a reparation payment.

After World War I the Germans lost their colonies. Namibia became a protectorate of South Africa. Many German farmers stayed in the country and expanded their farms. The native tribes were confined to less fertile “home lands”, a process that was completed in 1963.

Namibia struggled for independence from South Africa,  but South Africa continued to rule over Namibia, despite the UNO resolution 435 from the 1960’s. In 1983, the UNO recognized the SWAPO (South West Africa’s people Organization, dominated by the Ovambo) and, supported by Cuba, the SWAPO fought in Angola and in the north of Namibia. In 1989 Namibia became independent. The first president, Nujoma, was an Ovambo chieftain. He strived for peaceful solutions in his multi-ethnic nation which was symbolized with the flag of Namibia: The osprey stands for vision, two oryx antelopes for courage.

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Namibia#/media/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Namibia.svg

Nujoma ruled for 15 years. He was followed smoothly by Ovambo (or SWAPO) chieftain Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba until 2015. Then, smoothly again, Hage Gottfried Geingob took over (also from the SWAPO and with a long international experience outside Namibia). I do wish all the best to this multi-ethnic country. For the people and for the animals, I hope that tourists will come again after the pandemic.

 

Former blogs about stories that my home tells me: The Schefflera plant that reminds me of having climbed the Kilimanjaro with Ernst and the ebony wood bowls that remind me of the safaris in Tanzania  (2006), “Map of Etosha”, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Honeyguide Publications

Sources: Paula Hardy et alii, “Botswana & Namibia”, Lonely Planet 2007; Daniela Schetar et alii, “Namibia”, Reise Know-How, Markgröningen 2007; Duncan Butchart, “Wildlife of the Okavango, Struik Nature 2000; my own travel report, “Südwestafrika – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia”.

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: Botswana

Now in March/April 2020, the virus stopped me from being on the road. I am at home. After all, I am 65+…

My home tells me stories – I just have to listen: This photo gallery reminds me of April/Mai 2008, when I travelled to the Victoria Falls, to Botswana and to Namibia with Ernst.

I have already talked about our visit to the Victoria Falls.

Let me now continue  with our fly-in safari in the Okavango Delta. This map (taken from google maps) shows “our” lodges: From the Victoria Falls, a car driver takes us to the Chobe Game Lodge. From Chobe we fly to the Savute Lodge and then to the Okavango Camp. By boat we get to the Camp Moremi and finally we fly out to Maun and to Windhoek, where we will pick up our camper to tour through Namibia.

 

Chobe Game Lodge – the pinnacle of Botswana

The Chobe Game Lodge is located directly on the Chobe river. We have a room with a canopy bed – wonderful. “Our” Lonely Planet says that this lodge is the pinnacle of Botswana. The meals are delicous – on our first day, we have a large first course buffet, then Impala Stroganoff and a rich dessert buffet.

From our terrace we see the river. Warthogs visit us in the garden.

We stay in the Chobe Game Lodge for two nights and go for game excursions before breakfast and after afternoon tea, with Lebuku in the safari car and once in the boat with Brigitte. Lebuku knows each animal, each bird, each plant. The early morning game excursions are very, very cold… Fortunately, Lebuku takes warm blankets along, they are needed.

Ernst was happy to see so much wild life that he took most of the photos, and I was happy that he was happy.

This is a herd of elephants in the Chobe river.

This huge elephant comes pretty close. It does not like to see us… Lebuku backs our car up – carefully.

Watch out, this is a crocodile. No swimming here.

Hippos “hide” in the Chobe river. Hippos stay in water during the day and only get out to graze at night, Lebuku tells us, as they would catch a sunburn during the day. Though they are vegetarian, they can be utterly dangerous for us, when meeting them face to face.

The graceful impalas are all over.

Young lions… Lebuku is good at following the tracks that I would have never noticed. He recognizes, how old the tracks are, whether they belong to a young or an old lion, to a male or a female lion, and whether someone else has passed after or before the lions.

Mama lion walks into the bush, carefully watched by four impalas.

It is dangerous all over for the impalas – what might be the intentions of this jackal?

Giraffes – they look like the logo of the zoo at my hometown Basel. They keep eye contact over distance which is easy for them being so tall.

The neat pied kingfisher sits on a branch near the Chobe river.

This red-blue roller sits on a bush (Gabelracke in German).

This is an African fish eagle.

We see many more animals. I admire the dung beetle that rolls an enormous piece of dung through the sand (much larger than itself). We see phytons, squirrels, baboons, water bocks, kudus and a rich variety of birds such as guinea fowls, vultures, plovers, ducks, storks, hornbills or ibis. We see tracks of leopards, but they are hiding well.

Once we stop at a picknick area. “Is it correct, Lebuku, that lions avoid picknick areas?” I ask (jokingly). “Yes, right, look here, these are lion tracks”, Lebuku answers and points to the ground. Hm… In the evenings, we take a drink near the Chobe river, while the sun is setting.

Mankind’s role in this wonderful wildlife world provokes my doubts: The borders of the Chobe National Park have fences, ad beyond the fences live the farmers. We can see farms with cattle across the river. The fences prevent the animals from migrating to the places they went to before. I am not sure, whether the restrictions imposed on the wild animals by us men are a sustainable.

After dinner, we join the manager of the lodge on his terrace. He is a hobby-astronomer and explains the stars and planets to us using a telescope. I can see the Saturn with its rings. We recognize the southern cross and various constellations of stars such as the Orion, Castor and Pollux or the Gemini. The manager tells us that 2000 years ago the Greek could see the southern cross, because the earth is wobbling.

The next morning, the alarm clock wakes us at six. Ernst asks me, whether getting up is a good idea. Oh yes, it is. We have our last safari excursion with Lebuku in his jeep called Thutlwa (=giraffe). After breakfast, we leave for Kasane airport. Marco flies with us to the Savute Camp Site. Marco is from New Zealand and he wants to gather miles. With us is a freshly married couple from the Basque Country (Spain) enjoying their honey moon. Their names are Leida and Javier.

 

Savute Camp Site – the Savute river is dry now

Marco lands his small airplane safely on the pebbled airstrip and Gwist drives us to the Savute Camp Site, where the management awaits us with refreshing wet towels.

We now live in the Bungalow number 5 in the bush. We find two cans inside, one to kill insects and one to blow the horn, when we need help – there is no telephone here. We stay two nights and Gwist takes us out for safari rides early in the morning and after three o’clock tea. Tea and sometimes meals are served on the terrace overlooking an artificial water hole, where we can watch animals, often elephants.

Gwist explains to us that the Savute Camp is located in the southern part of the Chobe National Park. He adds, Savute is a river that due to seismic movements sometimes has water and sometimes not. In spring 2008 the river has been dry since 1982. Therefore now, the Savute area is dry.

This grassland becomes marsh land or even a lake, when the Savute river has water, Gwist tells us.

Later in 2008 the Savute river started to fill with water again and since 2010 it has been full of water and the area must be greener now.

Here are some impressions from our safaris with Gwist. The wrinkled elephant, …

… zebras…

… that like to be close to Gnus,…

… some impalas in the now dry marshland, …

… lion ladies with a baby, …

… lion ladies yawning and drinking water,…

… cute mongooses,…

… a lilac breasted roller,…

… and the hornbill (a colourful raven) on the terrace of our lodge.

This is just a small selection of our animal photos – we have seen many more – just gorgeous.

Ernst looks at his GPS and mumbles: “Behind that hill must be the rock paintings.” It is true. Gwist is excited about Ernst’s GPS with the Tracks of Africa that shows all the paths around his lodge. We climb into the rocks and discover the drawings of an elephant, an antelope, a giraffe, two snakes and perhaps a buffalo.

While Ernst can never believe that such paintings are old (my engineer has a very critical and down-to-earth attitude), I do some research with Gwist in the lodge library. The books say that the paintings are between 6000 and 20’000 years old. Difficult to say, how old they really are, but at least, these paintings only show wild life and no cows or horses – hence it could well be that they are old.

Our next target is the Okavango Camp.

 

Okavango Camp – boat and walking safaris with Obed, the San bushman

Our plane lands at the “International Airport of Okavango” (this is, what a sign says), which is an airstrip with some grass. Small and delicate Obed welcomes us. His hair is bundled to a plait. He belongs to the San people. We will spend two nights in the Okavango camp, and we are now an ad hoc group with a Dutch couple, on their honey moon. The meals are delicious in the Okavango camp and I particulary love the Amarula liqueur apéro, made from Marula fruit.

Obed and Emma take us out for a mokoro boat ride. Mokoro boats are made to glide through the shallow side channels of the Okavango river. Now the mokoro boats are made from artificial material, but before they were made from the wood of ebony trees.

We reach the main river with miscanthus grass and water lilies.

Again, we see many birds, such as kingfishers, grey louries, pigmy geese, and fish, such as catfish and barbs. Obed tells us that, to catch fish, the San people spike them using miscanthus. On our way back, we cross the elephant highway – we hear an elephant walk “splash-splash”, and then we see it. We are sitting in these light mokoro boats, pretty vulnerable. The elephant has heard us, stops and moves his ears back and forward. Obed and Emma back up our boats and we wait, until the elephant has passed by. Yes, elephants have the right of way here.

The sun is setting. Obed tells us a story, this is what the people do here, when the sun sets: The hare finds a rope and sets out to tease the elephant and the hippo. To the hippo, the hare says that  it, the hare, is very, very strong, as it will pull one end of the rope and let the the hippo pull the other end of the rope. He then tells the elephant the same story. But then the astute hare gives the hippo and the elephant the opposite ends of the rope. They both think that the hare is at the other end of the rope and they are puzzled, how strong that hare is… nice story!

Then Obed takes us out to a walking safari. By motor boat, we reach a landing stage, leave the boat, and then we are on foot in the middle of the bush. With elephants, buffalos, lions, leopards or antelopes. Obed has grown up surrounded by wild life. He leads us carefully and shows the tracks and the dung of the animals. We meet some elephants, follow the tracks of lions, get almost to close to a herd of buffaloes, see a leopard from very far… it is an interesting, yet almost scary experience.

Returning from our walking safari, we find this brave chamaeleon making huge steps. It keeps on falling between the wooden planks, “gathers” its legs again and continues its way, bravely.

Once we go for a motor boat ride. Obed is at the steering wheel. We glide through papyrus grass, water figs and common reed. Obed sees a crocodile, but it disappears so quickly that none of us can see it. Again we see much wildlife along the water, elephants and birds. These hippos are not all amused, when we arrive. They stand up in the water and attack our boat. Obed backs up and approaches them again, when they have calmed down. Now, we just see their ears, eyes and noses in the water.

Our next destination is the Moremi Game Reserve. The Okavango Camp manager takes us by boat along the Okavango river network to a small island, where we meet Moota who came by boat from the Xugana camp with some more guests. The guests from Xugana want to go to the Okavango Camp, where we came from. Moota drives with us to yet another island, where Mod picks us up and takes us to our destination, the Moremi Game Lodge. Complex logistics in the bush that work out smoothly, and on the way, we see much wildlife, among them these storks.

 

Camp Moremi in the Moremi Game Reserve – our last wildlife experience in Botswana

Ernst, looking at his GPS, mumbles: “Soon, we reach the large lagoon”. Right, we reach open water and the landing stage of the Moremi Camp. We settle in the bungalow number seven…

… where the beds have been prepared carefully.

We are not allowed to walk from the restaurant to our bungalow at night – the hippos might be wandering from the lagoon to their pastures and hippos are very dangerous for us.

Lucky is our safari guide, and, like all other guides, he is very knowledgeable. He has a book under his windshield that allows us to translate the names of the animals and plants or to refer to the Latin names.

Also in the Moremi Game Reserve, we see much wildlife such as this elephant herd,…

… kudus,…

… buffaloes,…

… a female lion with the prey – an impala,…

… a lion yawning,…

… female lions with their offspring,…

… a proud black stork,…

… vivid baboons,…

… and many, many more animals… another marvellous experience.

Our Lonely Planet mentions that a tame hippo, Pavarotti, likes to rest in the garden of the lodge. I can see no tame hippo. I am told that Pavarotti with its crooked tooth was indeed the pet of the lodge. One day, it did not turn up. The lodge team set out to search Pavarotti and found it dead in the lagoon. Some time ago, there was also a tame crocodile, the personnel tells me. Its name was Alison. It picked up a red towel in the laundry and then laid down near the pool. Very peculiar.

After two days, we take the plane to Maun.

From Maun, we continue to Windhoek, where our Namibia adventure starts.

We keep wonderful memories from our fly-in safari in Botswana. Ernst had always wanted to return to Botswana… may be I will do that one day with Ernst in my heart, once we will be able to travel again.

 

Some background information about Botswana: A long tradition and thoughtful presidents give stability, as I understand it

Early settlers in Botswana included the San bushmen. In the years 200 to 500 AD, Bantu speaking Tswana tribes arrived. Still today, they are the main ethnos in Botswana, basing themselves on three Tswana tribes of the 14th century that three sons inherited from their father. A long tradition of 600 years.

In the 19th century, the Tswana tribes were under pressure from outside; under the charismatic king Segkoma I in 1840, they joined forces in a federation. Also the next leaders were charismatic such as Khana I in 1875 who modernized his country, supported the San people and introduced laws to protect fauna and flora.

At the end of the 19th century, the Boers had to migrate north for having been pushed out of southern Africa by the English. The Boers put pressure on Botswana. England accepted Botswana as a protectorate. The English intended to integrate Botswana with Rhodesia, but Khana II resisted. Botswana remained under English protectorate and did not become part of Rhodesia.

In 1966, Khama lead Botswana into independence from England. He was one of the tribe chieftains and was president until 1980. Also the president Festus Mogae (until 2008) was one of the chieftains. “My” Lonely Planet points out that the presidents reigned thoughtfully, without enriching themselves, and Festus Mogae could even be seen doing his own shopping in the local Spar shop. In 2008, the son of Khama followed, and in 2018 Mokgweetsi Masisi became president. All presidents belong to the Botswana Democratic Party that has the absolute majority. Botswana presents a successful mixture of democracy and thoughtful tribe policy, I believe.

When Botswana became independent, it was a country with few natural resources. A year later, in 1967, three diamond mines were detected. The profits allowed to improve the education system and the infrastructure of the country. Export of diamonds is still important today, as more diamond mines were found later. When reviewing my material and the latest information in the Internet, I find a sad piece of information. Because of diamond reserves in the Kalahari, the San people were relocated. They fought for the right to return, which was approved by the appeal court in 2011, but the San can still not return to their land. This is what I found on survivalinternational.de. and also in the NZZ from the 23.11.2018 (Neue Zürcher Zeitung). Very sad. I hope that Botswana finally will reinstall the rights of the San people and continue on the tracks that charismatic and thoughtful leaders, such as Khana and Khama, layed for the country and for the sustainable tourism in the 1960-ies.

 

Sources: Paula Hardy et alii, “Botswana & Namibia”, Lonely Planet 2007; Daniela Schetar et alii, “Namibia”, (update until today: Wikipedia); Reise Know-How, Markgröningen 2007; Duncan Butchart, “Wildlife of the Okavango, Struik Nature 2000; my own travel report, “Südwestafrika – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia”.

 

Former blogs about stories that my home tells me: The Schefflera plant that reminds me of having climbed the Kilimanjaro with Ernst and the ebony wood bowls that remind me of the safaris in Tanzania,