Crisis in Katavi

Dear Annette,

Greetings from Katavi National Park, which is about as wild a place as there is left on Earth—so wild that I feel slightly guilty entering this raw chunk of Eden with my heaping pack of electronic gadgetry. Lugging my range of manmade technology into camp, I am a cold and steely intruder in this world of green and wet life.

Indeed, on this journey through Tanzania, I have become a walking Radio Shack—even more than usual. Never before have I felt like such a digital “digital nomad”, laden with solar chargers and adapters and satellite phones and more wires than I can keep track of—I just grab one from my bag and hope it fits.

Fortunately, my camp here only grants me about three hours of electricity per day, which means that for the most part, my equipment lays dormant—unlike me.

I would also like to lay dormant, if I could, but so far, Katavi is the noisiest of all Tanzania’s national parks. At night, when the stars are painfully brilliant, I slip into my tent and into my bed, pull up the sheets, shut my eyes and pretend to snooze . . . but that’s when it begins: first one little hippo grunt, then a moaning lion in the distance. The chorus gets louder and crazier but then dies down just long enough to fall asleep, briefly. At around midnight, the leopard starts, sawing wood like a wheezy asthmatic. My sleepy knee-jerk reaction is to call out, “You really should get that checked!” but then I remember he is a leopard and I stay silent in my tent.

The silence is broken at 2 a.m. by a pair of bull elephants who like my tent best but disapprove of the landscaping. And so, they kindly volunteer to rearrange the trees into a more minimalist arrangement. I do not contend—I only cower in my bed and pray that the hulking beasts do not decide to knock down my tent with it.

I am sure being the intrepid travelers that you and your husband both are, that you would absolutely love to be kept awake all night by megafauna and some of Earth’s last remaining saber-toothed carnivores. I secretly love it as well, but that is not why I am writing. Nor am I sending you photos of any adorable animals or gorgeous flowers. Instead I am writing to let you know about the scariest moment of my entire journey, or, as they say in French—une crise.

It all began here upon my arrival in Katavi by bush plane, which is like a Tanzania taxi cab. Here in Africa, one hops about from one empty expanse of wilderness to another in these very small single-engine aircraft that feel to me, like being airborne in a barber’s chair.

In any case, my very talented bush pilot dropped down into the wild green forest and aimed for the tiny red strip of dirt. As we passed over the runway, I was sure that we wouldn’t make the landing, as we were still hovering about 15 ft above the ground and already halfway through. I covered my eyes with arms crossed, sure that at any second I would feel the impact of the rain forest against my chin, but no!

At the last possible minute, we zoomed upward and then banked severely to the left, doing a quick 180 and revealing the herd of Thompson’s gazelle all sprinting from the runway.

“I was just buzzing the animals away,” said the pilot, and I nodded, as if I knew it all along and supported his decision not to collide with the wildlife.

On our second attempt, he brought the plane down right on time, and as we soared over those first few feet of the airstrip, he asked me to open my window. As the obedient and unskilled co-pilot of the flight, I unfastened the window and popped it open, right as we made our first bump of impact on the red dirt.

I felt the hardness of the ground shoot up from the airplane’s little tricycle wheels, up into the metal body of the plane, through the seat and into my back—BAM. And then, as if watching all of it in slow motion, my innocent iPhone leapt from my hands, hung briefly in mid-air and then tumbled out the airplane’s open window, dropping to the stony ground behind us.

There goes my life, I thought—tweeting, pictures, texting, everything I do, finished. As we bounced along the airstrip, I turned to the pilot who had just completed his safe landing and stared blankly.

“What?” he shouted over the noise of the clattering engine. “What’s wrong?”

“I dropped my phone out the window,” I reported, feeling rather stupid and doomed. Like the opposite of Hercules, it seems every day I am in Tanzania, I confirm my awkward, out-of-place mzungu status by accomplishing some new feat of utter un-brilliance.

The pilot looked equally stunned and waited until the engine was turned off before asking once again.

“You DROPPED your phone out the window?” He shouted—this time without any engine. It is the same voice a father uses with his teenage child who has just backed over the mailbox—the Thompson’s gazelle stayed in the woods.

I deserve this, I thought. For many years I have tempted fate with my daring and precarious ways—snapping pictures with sweaty fingertips from an open helicopter over Niagara Falls, recording wildlife at close courters who might eat my phone in a single bite, or taking this dainty little card deck of technology into the ocean with one hand held inches above the surf. For years I had pushed the limits of iPhone and now, in Katavi, the fate of Africa had won and claimed the thing on which my entire career depends.

“We will find it,” is all that my pilot said, removing his headphones and unlocking the door. I wanted to believe him—I always want to believe the optimistic Tanzanians, whose hamna shida (“there is no difficulty”) approach to life means much, much more than the carefree over-quoted Disney song Hakuna Matata and the irresponsibility of a flatulent cartoon warthog.

What it really means is that when you drop your new iPhone 5 out of an airplane window, nobody derides you or says, “What is wrong with you?” or tries to assign blame. No, instead, they merely get out of the plane and start searching the runway as if looking for a lost child. Two of us turned to three, and then five—as more people joined us on the lone airstrip and began scanning the grass and dirt for a needle in a haystack.

The search was complicated slightly by the sudden presence of a nuclear family of giraffe who seemed puzzled at us humans walking their turf. Normally I would never dare get out of the car so close to such imposing animals, but this time was different. For safety’s sake, we chased the giraffes from the runway, waving our arms over our heads and yelling like maniacs. I felt silly and scared, as one good giraffe kick would knock me clean and unconscious, or worse, leave me dead in the sun, gruesomely, with tsetse flies buzzing around my nostrils.

Did you know that giraffes can kill an attacking lion merely by kicking him? Yes they can. Taken by surprise, giraffes will likely lose to a pride of lions, but if the giraffes are aware, they will fight back. If they can injure just one of the lions, the rest of the pride will retreat. Lions know that a fighting giraffe is not worth the meal.

I looked up at the wonderful giraffes—two adults and two beautiful juveniles, so graceful, bobbing their necks as they retreated from their airstrip (they looked as if the owned it). The clearing in the acacia forest allowed them easy access to the treetops, like a mile-long giraffe buffet. Instinctively, I reached for my phone, intending to snap the scene, tweet it up for all of you, and share this magnificent wild moment from the wilds of Tanzania.

But my hand grabbed only humid air, my pocket was empty and I remembered—there was no phone—there was no picture-taking or tweeting or connecting.

Did I feel naked without my iPhone, you ask? Oh yes. Three minutes after losing it, and already, it was like a phantom limb that was destined to mock my fingertips forever. As my eyes searched every square meter of ground, my mind raced through alternatives. Katavi is extremely remote—accessible only by bush planes and long muddy rides in a 4×4. There is no Apple Store servicing the hippo pools and I figured it would be at least a week before I could actually get access to another phone.

Of course you could cope without me tweeting for a week, right? But could I? No way. Already, simply mourning the inability to share my giraffes with you was just eating me up inside. I do not need any of you to inform me that I am addicted to the Internet or that maybe, just maybe, my longing to tweet my travels is a kind of obsessive disorder. I am all too aware—but please, just let me have it!

Thus I pouted in a red-faced bout of heat exhaustion, walking up and down the mile-long Katavi airstrip, petulant at the injustice of my disappeared phone, imagining it to be smashed to pieces or perhaps already swallowed up by some slithering green mamba. Only when I accepted that my phone was totally lost was I able to calm down (just a bit), look up at the giraffes, and simply enjoy them.

This time there was no reaching for the iPhone, no tweeting, no waiting for all of your gratifying responses to come pouring in from afar. Nope. This time it was just me, alone, shielding my eyes from the intense daylight as I admired one of the great creatures of Africa, moving in their mysterious dancer way, one bent leg at a time, their eyes rolling upwards and long purple tongues coiling and uncoiling from leaf to leaf.

Oh, I love giraffes, Annette. They are astounding to watch and without my iPhone in hand, I actually watched those giraffes. I watched them for several minutes, completely pleased by their presence, even if their giant lion-killing hooves posed a potential threat to my tender lost Apple product.

In the end, I lived without my iPhone for a complete thirty-two minutes—which is a new record for me (I bow to your applause of relief). It was my driver in Katavi who saved the day, spotting the silver phone case hundreds of meters away from where I swore that I had dropped the thing. I rushed over to my wounded phone, trying to push away my biggest fear—was she dead?

I touched the back of the screen for a pulse and only felt the impersonal heat of the sun. I picked her up and was glad to see that she was wearing her soft rubber case surrounded by a harder plastic case, which, though scratched in places, looked relatively unscathed for something that was dropped from an airplane onto rocks at 100 mph.

There was no iPhone CPR—only my wishful index finger clicking on its only button and then waiting for the breath of life to alight on the screen—which it did.

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“YES!” I cried out like a hero in an afterschool special—overjoyed as my phone sprung back to life, happy to be back in my hands (I imagined that part). As you may recall, I tweeted a recap of my small crisis and the case of the dropped iPhone and you kindly shared your concern and gratitude that I was back online. If there is ever a contest for extreme tweeting, I think I might stand a chance at one of those bronze trophies.

And so I live to tweet another day—you’re not done with me yet, Annette! Oh no. Now my phone is back in my hands, I am right back to my obsession of snapping and sending the world around me.

What valuable moral lessons did I gather from this whole episode? Well, I learned not to open the window of a moving airplane with the same hand that is holding my only connection to the outside world and upon which my job depends. I learned that like lions, giraffes enjoy hanging out on the airstrip and that while they may cost twenty or thirty dollars more than the regular ones, the soft/hard combination case turned out to be a sound investment.

Oh—and I learned that I don’t need the phone to enjoy the world. Sometimes you just stop and look at the giraffes and remember them in all their glory and think, “Geez, I wish all my followers could see this right now.”

I wish you could have seen those magnificent giraffes and I wish you could have been there the following day when a pair of tusks came to rest at the foot of my tent and an elephant began rustling through my thatched roof.

I do my best to share these things with you Annette, because out of all my followers, I know that not only are you reading, but you are taking mental notes and that someday, it is likely you will follow in my footsteps. Already I have connected with you in so many countries and I must tell you, it is an honor to have travelers like you and your husband with me online.

I always aim to be completely honest in my reporting, so, as you can see, my travels are not always the paradisiacal jaunt that some may imagine. In some ways, my life on the road is a series of unfortunate events, punctuated by brief moments of sheer beauty.

One of those brief moments happened to me in Katavi, when I lost my phone and saw the world instead.

I pray you keep warm and well, be ye in Canada or down south and as I bid you farewell, I repeat the Swahili mantra that I hear again and again in this vast Tanzania: Hamna shida—there is no difficulty.

Your friend,


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