Traveling Out of Africa

Columnist Len Bourland
Columnist Len Bourland

It’s 2016 and I’m a little bummed. 2015 was my Year of Adventure when I crossed off of my bucket list one of my dreams. I went to the region of south Africa, traveling by plane, train, bus, and boat.

To go to Africa at my age, you have to really want to get there and save up a pretty penny. This was an action/adventure travelogue with my university alumni travel program. Now I’ve parked my passport. Was it dangerous? Absolutely.

Was it the bugs and diseases? There was mosquito netting on the lovely beds in the two old colonial hotels and at the game preserves where we stayed. I had brought pre-treated tropical-weight clothing but still made daily repellent applications on the sweltering days when even the hippos stayed submerged in the Chobe River and the hundreds of elephants were crossing over to an island that separated Botswana from Namibia where they could slather on mud as their own mosquito repellent.

I kept my mouth closed so as not to inhale gnats or whatever was swarming in the heat as we descended our flight from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, ran the bug gauntlet to check through customs, and I was popping my malaria meds. I was not pawed by a lion by rolling my window down and leaning out to get a better photo like some woman did somewhere.

In fact, we tracked in open air vehicles in the bush, where our guide and Zulu tracker got us within 10 yards of a satiated male lion who had been feasting all night, and we were told not to make noise or sudden movements. That was also the case when we got that close to hyenas feasting on a water buffalo carcass after the pride of lions had its fill and was lolling nearby. We headed away from the giant bull male elephant in musk thrashing through the bush and found the more peaceful rhinos and giraffes, and on our last day finally found the elusive leopard we tracked for three days.

It’s impossible to describe how close we were to zoo animals. Was I on edge when an armed military escort took me by flashlight at night to my cabin lest the baboons or worse came along for the stroll? Not really. Nor did I get food poisoning from eating ostrich (like gamey flank steak) or impala, or the favorite South African dish of baboutrie (don’t ask). I tiptoed through a rancid footbath of nasty chemicals crossing into the not-so-friendly border from Zimbabwe into Botswana where there were dire warnings of “foot-and-mouth disease.”

Was I afraid of the locals? Everyone was incredibly friendly, and the only place we were warned to not wander was in Johannesburg. Even when touring a desperately poor part of a township in Soweto outside of Joberg, we used a lot of hand sanitizer but no illness ensued. Despite allegedly corrupt governments, especially in Zimbabwe, we had no incidents, and it was a week before Paris.

So this danger? It is crucial today to travel with a good cell phone for more than just photographs. Even in the slums of Africa, people have phones. Despite having two numbers to call in case of overseas problems, I was put in danger by my provider. I traveled by myself using miles to get back to Dallas, leaving from a different airport than my group. I had four segments to my journey, and unsurprisingly some flights were being canceled and rescheduled while I was sitting in the overheated Zimbabwe airport when my charged-up phone locked up.

The error message said I needed a PUK code for my SIM card. This can happen if you enter your code incorrectly too may times “for security,” I was told much later. But I don’t have a code for that very reason. I used my tablet to get Internet directions on how to unlock. Which didn’t work. Neither did any of the numbers I’d been given or found online once I got to an Admiral’s Club in London three flights later for a very few minutes. I almost missed my connection in Cape Town due to a lack of an electronic device, and my bag got rerouted for the same reason, as I had very tight connections.

Upon landing at DFW, I had to borrow a kid’s phone to call my ride. I was incommunicado for two days and my family was worried. “We don’t know how that happened, but we have a different phone number for that problem overseas, but it could happen to anyone anywhere, anytime,” an apologetic guy told me once I got home. That’s not a disclaimer you will ever hear when signing up for your international plan. Plus it’s not on their website.

The most dangerous part of my international trip to Africa was relying on AT&T. Gut-wrenching.

Len Bourland can be reached at len@lenbourland.com.

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