I have just returned from a six-day horseback riding safari in the Okavanga Delta of Botswana. The very words, Okavanga Delta, evoke poetic realms, and truly it is. This is the largest land-locked delta in the world, a place of clear, deep pristine channels, rivers, lakes and ponds that drown the high savannah, leaving islands and peninsulas on which the wild game gather—elephants, giraffe, antelope, zebras, hippos. They gather by the hundreds of thousands, drawn by the life-giving, reed-filled water. This ever-shifting landscape is carved out every year when a thousand miles upstream in Angola the Okavanga River floods, sending tons of water down to Botswana, some to evaporate in the dry air, some to serve the plants and some to sink into the dry, salt Kalahari desert.
Returned now to Washington, I feel different—interior-ly different. Every day five or six of us rode out in small groups, to observe the wild buffalo, kudo, elephants, giraffes, wart hogs, or the flash of brilliant bird life soaring over the high grasses. This is a place disturbed by nothing more than the hoofbeats of frightened tsessabe or zebra. You feel you are looking at a landscape untouched by human hands: no paved roads, no growl of motors, no construction projects, no cement, no litter, no beer bottles or plastic bags, not even a jet trail to mar the endless deep blue sky. I think the land must have looked like this ten thousand years ago, or 200 million, when God first breathed out love on it; and it puts us humans in perspective, as insignificant.
I should add that the Macatoo Safari camp (you can find it on www.Africanhorsebacksafari.com) has room for only 14 guests and a staff of about 33, including the stable hands that care for some 45 horses. So there were no more than 50 people in a no-hunting concession that covers almost 800 square miles. But it was not only that, nor the simplicity of living in a tent, cradled by the whisper of the wind in the grass that has changed me.
It was not only the daily exercise of riding two or four or six hours a day; nor the luxury of being waited on—no cooking to do, no shopping or sweeping or washing up—no duties. No, it was something else extraordinary.
We had no internet, no email, no telephone, fax, printers, cell phone or ipad. For a week I was out of communication: no news of war, violence, suffering, destruction, despair. Slowly I could feel myself relax. Outside my tent at night the elephants tramped and crashed through the trees, and at dawn a family of baboons, howling and calling to note the break of day, swung through the treetops or playfully slid down the hard canvas of the tent roof, just for fun.
As the days passed I realized I was very happy, happy the way I was as a child, when I lived in the apple-green days of golden timelessness.
I write this now on the computer. Outside my office I see the traffic pouring past, streams of cars. I am back in Washington, available to phone calls and email and people who want to link up professionally, to dunning pleas for charity or calls to attend events or buy unwanted products, the restless urgency of balancing bank accounts not to mention the fact of making calls myself to impose on the patience of others. I drift restlessly, trying to recall that sweet hot smell of African sage, when I felt myself both insignificant and also a part of something whole.
I have had these sensations cruising sometimes in the open ocean. Not that many years ago I bought a shack on a mountainside in New Mexico. It had no running water, no electricity (well, okay, one bare bulb hanging dangerously on a wire from the ceiling—safer to use the kerosene lamps), no plumbing (but a terrific two-hole outhouse in the woods), and of course no telephone or fax or internet access. I was happy, before I put in the modern conveniences and opened myself to the suffering we call “news.”
Do we all need such periods of pilgrimage, moments when we wrench ourselves away from the obligations of modern life? (Most of it is trivia. Let’s be honest. Most of it can wait another day. Except there’s comfort also in the structure that communication gives. We feel important. Needed.)
I wonder if I dare to take such a reprieve once every year. It doesn’t need to be with elephants and giraffes. Can I abandon the internet and settle (even for a short time) into the diurnal rhythm of the stars and sun?