There are few activities in life as civilized as the Sundowner. It represents the still extant link between the modern world and the wild—an activity that provides us with an understanding of who we are and a reflection upon how far we have (and in many ways have not) come as humans.
Only a fermented beverage could offer such promise.
I came to this realization during a six-week trip through Botswana and Zimbabwe in 2006—a glorious voyage it was. Each morning we would wake with the sun, consume a quick coffee and biscuit, then head out to view the animals coming in from the night. After several hours of wandering around, we’d head back to camp, as it becomes too damn hot for both humans and animals, whose preferred midday activity is to loll about instead of partake in fascinating behavior (running, jumping, roaring, eating, etc.).
So, around noon, we would all just nap it out. Then, we’d be roused for tea at 3.
Now, I profess I’m an American. But afternoon tea is an exceptional concept. It’s enough caffeine to wake the mind (but not too quickly), and there’s a little sweet and a little savory to get the blood sugar back up. Piled upon a restful nap, nothing could be better.
But wait, there is something: the Sundowner!
While the mind and body are finding their bearings as you sup from blue China and look over the bush, you are faced with perhaps the most challenging question of the day: “What, sir, would you like to drink at sunset this evening?”
Do I have a glass of red? Perhaps a gin and tonic? Maybe tonight it would be best to take two fingers of single malt with half an ice cube?
This decision is important because your fate is at stake—your happiness several hours from when you place a bet on your first cocktail of the evening. (For those of us over 30, we know the importance of having a drinking game-plan. This isn’t college after all; it’s the African bush!)
So, carefully you decide.
Here’s how it plays out. At teatime, you inform the guide of your preferential potable, and this individual logs it along with the others’ choices. You then forget about it, hop in the vehicles, and head out for some sightseeing late into the afternoon. About sunset, the guide finds a good watering hole, and pulls over where there’s a fine vantage, and you disembark.
Maybe it’s all the Hemingway lodged into the back of the American mind, but the soul resonates with the sight of a field table covered with a proper linen cloth, topped with decanters and silvers jars, standing against the African countryside—which, mind you, is filling quickly with a random assortment of animals coming in from the heat of the day to take a drink before nightfall.
And then the entire situation crystallizes, suddenly.
Nighttime for animals of the bush is when everything comes to life. It is a wild time. The darkness is fraught with danger and excitement. This is when it all happens—eat or be eaten, fight or flight. But before all the creatures plunge into inky darkness, they mingle and drink. They gear up for what’s ahead.
You too are there for the same. And you see it, so similar to life at home. The predators and the prey, drinking side-by-side at the watering hole before the craziness of the night begins. We could be at any bar or lounge in the world and see the same sight. How far we have not come in behavior. But how far we have come in appreciation!
As the sun goes down, there is little left but to take in the beauty of the scene and allow a sense of wonder about life wash over us—as the spirits in our glass give us lift, heightening our senses while simultaneously putting us at ease. And this is needed in the African bush, where we willfully place ourselves back the food chain, and we acknowledge that the only thing separating us from the animals is a little bit of electricity.