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Editor’s note: From the wondrous Victoria Falls in Zambia to the Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana to the towering red sand dunes of Namibia, longtime WND contributor Anthony C. LoBaido recently captured the grandeur that is 21st century Africa. It includes natural wonders ranging from immense herds of elephants, river-crossing lions, majestic rainbows spanning two nations and the night skies of the Namib Desert.
LIVINGSTONE, Zambia – “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” It remains the quintessential statement concerning Western man’s attempt to bring what he considered “civilization” to Africa in the 19th century. Still today, in an age of political correctness, it seems the efforts of missionary David Livingstone have been paid the ultimate compliment.
Other Western-named capitals in Africa have had their names changed in the de facto era of national liberation – for example, cities like Salisbury (renamed Harare) and Pretoria (now Tshwane). Yet the tiny town of Livingstone, Zambia, which rests adjacent to Victoria Falls, stands as a testament to the love the native Africans still hold today for this brave and maverick pioneer. Clearly, Livingstone is not viewed as a kissing cousin of the Conquistadors who brutally forged the Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere.
At the Livingstone Museum the visitor will witness the difficulties and triumphs David Livingstone endured and achieved during his lifetime. Yes, he was a missionary, but Dr. Livingstone was so much more. He was a cartographer, naturalist, journalist and an explorer commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society. Of course, Livingstone will always be remembered primarily as a crusader against the evils of the slave trade.
However, Livingstone’s discomforts remain the remote stuff of history books while the interloper relaxes amid the opulence of the Zambezi Sun Hotel – only a quarter mile from the falls.
Touring Victoria Falls is a life-changing event that staggers the imagination. This writer had the privilege of sitting atop the falls only 30 yards from the edge, basking in the glow of a double rainbow stretching from the Zimbabwean side all the way over to the Zambian side. One could actually feel as though he were sitting inside the Supreme Creator’s hand amid the roar and the power of the falls.
Sunset at the falls, which the natives call “The Mist that Roars,” was also a magical “moment of a lifetime,” as the African fireball traced its way to the horizon and made the rippling waves of the falls sparkle like crystalline diamonds. To the left of the falls emerged a dauntingly dark mist set off by the spray tumbling over the edge and to the bottom. It rose ghost-like and foreboding.
While exploring the falls from other vantage points, the visitor must wear a poncho complete with a hood. The mist from the falls exceeds even the worst torrential downpour one might find in a South Pacific typhoon.
Not to be missed is the old-fashioned railroad bridge built by the late Cecil Rhodes, the man who forged his own private country, the former Rhodesia. Rhodes desired to build an African empire reaching from “Cape to Cairo” that would rival the wealth and influence of the United States.
In our modern era of transnational corporations, IMF credit, high-technology transfers, the Rhodes Scholar Program and mass media culture, one may be tempted to wonder if Cecil Rhodes achieved his dream by other means. After all, while the British Empire may be gone, the British Commonwealth, comprising 54 nations, is stronger than ever, and more and more nations are seeking to join (even Cambodia and the PLO).
Transferring across the tranquil river that separates Zambia from neighboring Botswana – where several African nations merge to a single point – the visitor will make way for the Chobe Nature Reserve of Botswana. Chobe is the home of the world’s largest collection of elephants – some 54,000 strong.
In May, this writer engaged in a safari/photo shoot on one particularly glorious evening. It was here that I saw two pairs of male and female lions, as well as scores of elephants with their little calves tagging along.
A mother and her calf.
This precious moment was a lifelong dream come to fruition. Filled with excitement as I was, this photographer leapt out of the safari vehicle to take a picture of a large bull elephant. (Never mind that this was against the sensible rules of the tour.)
I stood only 40 feet from the giant elephant. This was the very same beast referred to as “Nature’s great masterpiece, the only harmless great thing,” by the English poet John Donne.
I tried to communicate with the elephant. I actually spoke with him, trying to coax him into a better position for the shot. I’m no great white hunter. I could never shoot such a magnificent animal – except of course with a camera.
I kept saying, “Come on, baby, turn to the left. Let’s see that ivory,” and other babblings, as though speaking with a very small child.
Yet wouldn’t you know it, Murphy’s Law kicked in just when the shot was perfectly lined up. My Minolta Dynax 4000i camera jammed. It had never done so before. I had purchased it back in 1999 as a “demo model” on Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, for half of the suggested retail price. The camera had served me well while working in over 40 nations as an international correspondent.
Why would it fail me now?
Was there some inexplicable explanation?
I wondered if the elephant, which can emit sound waves, (infrasound at 30 Hertz, which is two octaves too low for the human ear to pick up) had somehow disabled the electronics inside my camera.
Undaunted, I returned to the safari vehicle, changed the camera battery and finished the photo shoot of the bull elephant, who was still busy “mock charging” the vehicle. The bull kicked up a whirlwind of dust, which all the more served to mesmerize and intrigue me.
A South African woman who had come along on the journey remarked, “Everyone else was crapping themselves and there you were – fearless.”
That might have been a reach. I figured (crudely) that the elephant wouldn’t actually charge unless its calves were threatened, or the beast was cornered and had no room to maneuver. It’s like a fight in a bar. You give a man an out, and nine times out of 10 he’ll take it.
By watching them up close, this novice naturalist has learned elephants are truly amazing creatures. They carried Alexander the Great and his vast armies into battle. They sought to besiege ancient Rome by traversing the Italian Alps. They played a part in wars between the peoples comprising modern day India, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia in olden times. Elephants were the tanks and APCs of their day.
Elephants develop in the womb for more than twice as long as humans do. They can fish through their trunks by sucking up water from a pond, river or lake like a giant vacuum. Those trunks can hurl an entire tree a good distance or pick up a single apple seed from the ground. Elephants have air-bag type sacks in their feet to support their great weight, and this gives them stealth while walking through the jungles, deserts and forests of the world.
Elephants have not one, but two natural internets, the aforementioned sound waves and secondly via the stamping of their feet on the ground. This enables elephants to send messages to other elephants several hundred kilometers away. Translocations of elephants and their mass slaughter are almost instantly communicated to distant elephant herds via these almost surreal means of interaction that scientists are now only beginning to understand.
Apparently, elephants have very sensitive nerve endings in their toenails and this enables them to pick up such vibrations. (The Beach Boys would no doubt be envious.)
Elephants are smart and kind. They can adapt to almost any environment. They work hard. They’re good with children. They have been known to “bury” in symbolic funerals humans who have been injured and “appear” to be dead. Elephants cry real tears. They have strong family ties. They are loyal to a fault.
(In the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, elephants sometimes step on land mines and they are force fed Ya Baa, a kind of amphetamine to make them work harder while logging. Still, like faithful German shepherds, they obey their “mahouts,” or masters.)
These pachyderms are simply so utterly marvelous that the ancient Romans decided they could no longer be sacrificed in the gladiator games. One night the Roman historian Pliny found an elephant practicing a tightrope circus act all alone in the Roman Coliseum.
Once a young elephant calf has run up to you, playfully sprayed you with water and then wrapped its trunk over your shoulder as if to say, “I was just playin’ with ya!” you’ll never, ever be the same.
Sossusvlei, Namibia, is as close to the middle of nowhere as a human being is likely going to get. It’s a dot on a map like Tibet or Timbuktu and otherworldly by any standard. This desert played host to films like “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and “A Far Off Place.” Nothing, not even IMAX, can capture the grandeur of this wild, rugged place.
During the daytime hours, the interloper can climb the world’s highest sand dunes. They’re red and shifting and timeless. You know the saying, “It’s so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Well, out here you could fry bacon as well. Capturing the essence of one single dune took an entire sweaty afternoon. As an alumnus of Arizona State, I can tell you nothing on Earth can prepare you for the summer desert in Namibia. Even the Stone Age tribes that have wandered across this desert for millennia take a siesta in the afternoons. Yet if you want to capture the shadows of the dunes, you have to come out by 3 p.m. and set up your shots for the approaching sunset. (Unless of course you just want to go sand boarding.)
The sands of Namibia.
At night, while looking up at the sky, the most awe-inspiring sights imaginable begin to emerge. Far from the nearest cities, Windhoek, Namibia, and Johannesburg, South Africa, there’s no light pollution.
The stars gleam in all of their brilliance – billions of them. You can see the curvature of the Milky Way, the actual banking of it. Orion’s Belt, Beta Carina and Alpha Centauri, (the nearest star to the Earth after our sun) are also visible. You can see satellites crisscrossing in their orbits around the Earth. Some of them are engaged in activities like photographing sensitive military installations (like Mainland China’s space vehicle tracking facility outside of Swakopmund). Other satellites are simply transferring TV and cell-phone signals. The space shuttle can also be seen with the naked eye, or so the locals say. Random meteor showers often fill the night sky with a cascade of celestial candles not unlike fireworks.
In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble ascertained that the universe was expanding. Now our knowledge of creation and its parallel meanings in our own lives are also expanding.
A Botswana sunset.
Readers may recall that old Woody Allen movie in which a bright young boy becomes depressed when he learns that the universe is expanding – fearing it will eventually contract as the Big Bang ends in the “Big Crunch.”
Perhaps more appropriate is a forerunner of Woody Allen who also specialized in philosophizing the cosmos – the late, great European astronomer Johannes Kepler, the son of a professional mercenary who once exclaimed, “My God, I am thinking your thoughts after you!”
Inspired by Woody and Johannes, as well as the wondrous stars of Southern Africa, this explorer was prompted to seek out the deeper meanings that might rest just beyond them.
Consider The Great Attractor, a massive collection of 100,000 galaxies beyond the Local Supercluster of galaxies of which our Milky Way is a part. The Great Attractor seems to be pulling a plethora of galaxies toward it. In fact, the Hubble Telescope recently captured the spectra of one galaxy completely devouring another. It’s all a part of the faire de jour of the cosmos. It’s just that before the Hubble was sent into orbit by NASA (which has devolved of late into a glorified space concierge), no one was able to see such great and terrible events unfolding.
The starry night skies of the Namib inspired this explorer to consider the helix of a single strand of DNA and photos taken by the Hubble Telescope of forming solar systems in distant galaxies. They are identical. Is this all part and parcel of the micro and the macro spelled out in the Master Blueprint of the universe?
Does everything have a corollary meaning in mankind’s wilderness of mirrors? Would it be too much to refer to this as “The LoBaido Paradigm”? (Keep it in mind that I still don’t know how my electric can opener works.) Just look at the DNA helix and the Hubble photos. Can there be any mistaking this? It’s both scientific and esoteric all at once.
There are many other examples of modern space phenomena that may well be manifesting in our personal lives. Think of the increasing speed of the Earth’s rotation and then ponder upon the pace of life and world events. Is there not a correlation? Ask any person over the age of 50 about the pace of life in their youth vs. today. You might even ask a person over the age of 40 about life before the Internet – when a mouse pad was merely a hole in the wall and the phrase “get the net” meant throwing it over a crazy person.
Consider the weakening of the Earth’s magnetic field; then look at how the things that historically gave our lives meaning and held our societies together are being disassembled and reassembled before our very eyes. All around the world, societies are being deconstructed and are only beginning to put themselves back together again. Truly we live in a great moment in history, not unlike late 15th century Europe when Columbus proved the world wasn’t flat, gunpowder replaced the sword and the printing press became the forerunner of the Internet.
Yet the idea of life on Earth mimicking the cosmos is as old as the Pharaohs. The ancient Egyptians believed that the Milky Way was the reflection of the Nile River in outer space. The three Great Pyramids are arranged to mimic Orion’s belt. Each of them has one piece of the troika just a bit off center.
Look at the Sphinx, which is now believed to be far older than first thought – at least by geologists who have studied the water erosion on the statue. One day soon, all of Egyptology – and thus all of human history – is going to have to be recalculated just like those massive electronic train schedules at Penn Station.
Now look at the parallel in outer space – now the age of the universe has been seriously called into question.
In “Oops … Wrong Answer” appearing in the Nov. 7, 1994, issue of Time magazine, author Michael D. Lemonick wrote, “… Last week the Hubble delivered its preliminary verdict: the universe is between 8 billion and 12 billion years old. That may seem imprecise, but it was specific enough to throw astrophysicists into a state of high anxiety. The problem: Our own galaxy has stars believed to be as much as 14 billion to 16 billion years old. And it makes astronomers more than a little uncomfortable to try and explain how stars could have formed before the universe began.”
All of this fact and conjecture must not stop us from simply marveling at the universe. The reader, perhaps now inspired, might look up at the stars in his backyard even this very night and ask how long it would take us to drive to the sun (non-stop) and/or to Alpha Centauri in an SUV?
The reader might consider the Grand Canyon-like structure on Mars, Valles Marinaris, that is almost four times longer than the famed Arizona monument. Maxwell Montes features a peak higher than Mount Everest. Some dust storms on Mars are more than 200 kilometers wide. The largest volcano in our solar system, Olympus Mons has 10,000-foot high cliffs and its base is as big as the state of Montana. The mouth is as large as Rhode Island.
Is it not possible to ponder upon the size of the larger planets in our solar system, especially Jupiter? Think of the Great Spot on Jupiter. It’s an anti-cyclone larger than two Earths. (Over 1,400 Earths could fit inside Jupiter). It has been raging for more than 400 years, when Galileo first glanced heavenward with his looking glass in 1610. Hence the term “Galilean moon.”
Now compare the Great Spot with the hurricanes that brutalized Florida in the fall of 2004, as devastating as they were. The Great Spot – now that’s a storm!
Such musings are not unlike the quest of Speke, Burton, Grant, Baker, Livingstone and Stanley. They were all 19th century explorers who sought to vindicate Ptolemy’s (then) 1,700-year old map, which supposedly led to the source of the Nile. Was that source Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, the so-called “Mountains of the Moon,” (meaning the snow-capped equatorial mountains Kilimanjaro and Kenya) or some other “fountain” in “Africa Incognita”?
So, too, are the stars calling us to search for deeper meaning in both science and in our own lives. Again, it’s the macro and the micro at work.
Florence Nightingale referred to Stanley’s book, “How I found Livingstone,” as “The worst possible book on the best possible subject.” Such books were the precursors of today’s TV reality series, only more so, filled as they were with religious zeal, uncovering “lost” regions, and allowing the reader to live and sweat and triumph along with said explorer.
In the final analysis, stargazers don’t have to camp under the awesome evening skies of the Namib to wonder if they are but mere cobwebs for that which the Supreme Creator has hidden beyond the curtain of night.
After all, the imagination and the soul are mightier and deeper than even the source of the White Nile. Indeed, they are greatest of all deep-space telescopes. Thus each reader stands ready to write the best possible book on the best possible story. And that story is this: that his or her own personal inner space is just as vast and important as outer space.