Mindy Canard of Oceanside had never even gone camping when she found herself in a tent in the Botswana bush surrounded by lions, elephants, giraffes and hyenas.
“I don’t think you ever fully understand it until you’re there,” said the first-grade teacher. “I was thrilled we had a quasi working toilet,” which involved a toilet seat, a bucket of water, tubing and a zippered tarp, “so you have the option of watching the wildlife go by while you’re doing your business.”
According to Mindy’s husband, Greg, “she settled into the rhythm of being out in the wild pretty quickly and ended up enjoying the whole thing.”
“The whole thing” was a 22-day trip that included two weeks in the Okavango Game Reserve.
“I’ve wanted to go to Africa ever since I was a kid and watched Marlin Perkins on ‘The Wild Kingdom’ (a television show in the 1960s),” Greg said.
The opportunity came two years ago when friends Bruce and Patty Montgomery of Carlsbad suggested making such a trip.
The foursome plus a San Francisco Bay Area friend departed in mid-June. After several plane changes, a Cessna 280 took them to a dirt airstrip in the Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta and a portion of the 80 percent of Botswana that is national park.
Because the plane was so small, “we each had a 26-pound maximum for luggage,” Greg explained. “That’s everything — cameras, medicines, binoculars and clothes.”
To lighten their load, the travelers brought lightweight safari clothes and did laundry by hand about every third day. Daytime temperatures were in the mid-70s; nights in the 40s.
“Our camps were out in the open with the animals and they traveled in and out of our compound,” Greg said. “Our guides carried no weapons — just flashlights. They didn’t believe in killing any animals.”
Hence the explicit protocol for bush behavior.
“When you’re in the Jeep, you never stick out your arms or your camera. You don’t break the plane of the jeep. That way, the animals don’t see you as individuals — just as part of the jeep. Otherwise, they might jump into the truck.”
An encounter with a lion?
“You don’t run,” Greg said, “even if they come up and sniff you. You’re supposed to stare them down.”
Nighttime had its own set of rules.
“You never knew what was roaming around, so if you had to go to bathroom, you first partially open the flap of your tent and check with your flashlight. You’re always searching for eyes that are watching you. If you find any, you keep your flashlight on their eyes. Next you unzip the flap further and put your head out.”
One night, no one left the tent.
“We had two male lions roaring close to camp and no one went to the bathroom that night,” Greg said. “In the morning, we saw the lions. They were probably 50 yards from us.”
On another night, hyenas surrounded the tent and started screaming.
“When they see your flashlight, they leave,” Greg said. “You’re supposed to raise it over your head and they think you’re that tall.”
Once Greg got a little closer to the wildlife than expected.
“It was about lunchtime in camp and we were talking. All of a sudden Bruce had a strange look on his face. I asked him ‘What’s behind me?’ I gently turned my head and all I saw was a wall of gray, and then (the elephant’s) trunk opening and closing. That boy was big. We just sat there. He sniffed around, then walked away.”
The trip, which included stops in London and Victoria Falls, was “life-changing,” Mindy said. “I’d go back in a heartbeat. It’s a beautiful continent and the people are so welcoming. I’d never put up with those conditions here, but to be in Africa and see the animals and to be in that setting, I’d do it anytime.”
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.