Squatting in the darkness over an earthen hole at the heart of the Okavango Delta in Botswana,
my ears almost twitched from trying to penetrate the silence for
unfamiliar sounds. The wilderness setting – full of myth and folklore –
fuels the imagination until hungry beasts are seen lurking behind every
tree. Orange, flickering light
peeps through the bushes from the campfire at our solitary campsite. The sounds
of laughter are carried from the camp with the occasional babble of grunts from the nearby hippo pond.
This is what a prowling lion would see, peering through the bracken at the
rosy-cheeked smiling faces, senses dulled from wine and stomachs
stuffed with meat roasted over the fire. Considering my own situation,
with a flashlight clutched in one hand and toilet paper in the other,
perhaps I would be the first to go – my Canadian ass beckoning in the
moonlight – a tasty butt roast and tender shank for some ravenous
beast – an indecent way to die, to be found half eaten by
a lion with pants around my ankles, caught in the act in the
wilderness of Botswana.
“He even took the gramophone on safari. Three rifles, supplies for a month
and Mozart,” says the character, Karen Blixen in Out of Africa.
The word safari conjures many a vision – from Robert Redford as
Denys Finch Hatton, and Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, sitting outside
their tents in the Kenyan wilderness at a table laid with champagne, Mozart playing on the gramophone – to well, the significantly less
romantic vision of yourself squatting over an earthen hole waiting for
your butt to get poached by a lion.
A safari is an overland journey, traditionally for a big-game hunt. In more modern times, it’s a bush holiday watching wildlife, associated with adventure, khaki clothing, big guns and animal skins. The word safari entered the English language in the late 19th century and comes from the Swahili language meaning "journey" or "to travel".
The long history of the safari trip into the wilds of Africa gives "going
on safari" pilgrimages status for visitors to the continent, to show you return the obligatory wildlife photos, the modern equivalent to 19th century leopard skins, ivory tusks and toothy heads. Safaris are considered so necessary that it’s difficult to get out of going on at least one, regardless of the hefty price tag. Legends are not cheap.
The question I ask, is: Are safaris over-rated? There is this pressure on the travelers to Africa, because of people’s cinematic expectations from movies such as The Lion King, Out of Africa, and Ghost and the Darkness that if you haven’t seen a lion and a herd of elephants, than you haven’t really "experienced Africa".
In this age of the Discovery and Nature Channel, from your living room,
you can see fleas on a leopard’s back running at 50 kilometers per hour, you
witness cheetah cubs being born and licked clean by their mothers – you’ve
seen it all at home, clearer, closer and more dramatic then in nature.
Camera crews live for years on Game Reserves to capture those rare
moments – the panoramic shots of "the big five" all drinking next to
each other and mating at the same watering hole, of a lioness chewing
on the head of an antelope with a million times digital zoom. You see
the rivulets of blood, the music emphasizes the moment, and the stern
voice tells you exactly what is going on.
We are somehow convinced real life will be better. Then
there are the scary, action movies – the blood-thirsty man-eating lions
prowling at night in the African villages, a shirtless Val Kilmer
and Michael Douglas step out with their big guns and save all the
flailing, tribal women. If cinema and TV don’t do it for you,
there is always the zoo. It’s a real experience. It’s contained. You
can still get the close-ups you’re after or go grab them at the gift
shop. Meh, the zoo! Nah, I wanted "the real thing". Where’s my damn safari hat?
Seven friends: 2 Canadians, 3 Americans, 1 South African and 1 Irishwomen, planned a 10-day trip through Botswana – the Chobe Game Reserve, the Makgadikgadi Pans, the Okavando Delta and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. With the lack of tourist infrastructure in Botswana,
chartering an overland truck and camping gear seemed like the best
option. Delta Rain priced a trip including park fees, food, gear, a
driver, a guide and a 4X4 overland vehicle for R7500 per person. Our
guide is a large, brassy Australian named Natalie, with an accent
straight out of “Muriel’s Wedding”; our driver Johnno, a
forty-something Brit with sun bleached hair and a snake-skin tan,
resembles the spawn of Johnny Rotten and Crocodile Dundee.
From Chobe, we drive down to the Makgadikgadi
Pans. We are bundled in jackets and hats, cocooned in our sleeping bags
against the cold and wind of the open-air truck. We are not going to
reach the camp before dark, so Johnno drives into a slightly wooded,
wilderness area to set up camp. The initial lack of group support for
this plan is palpable, but before long, Dan and Johnno have built a
fire, the tents are pitched and various people are chopping vegetables
and marinating slabs of meat for dinner. Mairin has thrown on her Ipod
with its little travel speakers and is dancing around the fire with a
beer. Unimpressed with the music breaking the natural silence, Johnno
is an old-school safari guy. He is a sport hunter accustomed to leading
big game hunting expeditions. He skins elephants. She takes the hint and turns it off.
In the middle of the night, Mairin, Dana and I peel out of our tent to use the facilities. It’s cold tonight. All three of us have been wriggling for hours trying to avoid the eventual exodus from the
sleeping bag. In the distance, we hear what we assume is the yowling of
hyenas. Quickly back in the tent, we catch a few more hours rest before
being awoken at the crack of dawn by a loud Australian. Nursing our
fire-boiled coffees over breakfast, Natalie announces, “Girls, did you
hear the lions last night, when you were out having your pee?” Johnno
and Natalie had not bothered to pitch tents and slept outside on the
These safari people are deaf to complaints of the discomforts
of sleeping in a tent. The calls of lions had kept them awake, sitting in an upright position for most of the night. Lions do not roar in the night, but instead prowl around communicating with each other in
low, repetitive grunts. We want safety tips. Natalie explains, “Animals
do not see in 3D, so if you are in your tent, you are safe. They see
the tent as one solid object, like a rock. It doesn’t matter if they
can smell you in there. But if you leave your tent at night, you are
fair game. They will see you move. They will be interested.” This
explanation does little to ease our fears. It also comes as a surprise
that Johnno does not carry a gun. The paper work as a result of firing
on an animal is so lengthy that it is common practice not to carry
weapons on safari. Even if an animal attacks and you kill it in
self-defence, there is a chance you can be charged. PETA, it seems, has
done wonders for the safety of humans on safari. Finch Hatton wouldn’t go anywhere without his gun. What a let down!
"The Lion King has a lot to answer for," growls Johnno. If you want to start Johonno on a rant, refer to a lion as a Simba, a meerkat as a Timon and a warthog as a Pumbaa. Apparently, many safari-goers perceive themselves as experts on African wildlife, flora and fauna for having
seen the movie. Johnno is constantly put to the
task of de-bunking a history of the Lion King’s mis-education.
We drive through the thick sandy tracks in the Makgadikgadi
Pans for several hours. Still no lions. We are apparently not
taking their threat seriously enough when we exit the vehicle to
stretch our legs. “In this tall grass, you would be dead before you
even saw it,” admonishes Johnno. He checks behind every bush before
allowing us to go anywhere. “Last year an experienced guide stopped for
a pee and never came back. They eventually recovered what was left of his body,” he says menacingly.
Described as "the river which never finds the sea", the Okavango
disappears into a 6,000-square-mile maze of lagoons, channels and
islands, forming the world’s largest inland swamp. The delta’s
freshwater provides a giant water hole
for the larger animals of the Kalahari. And
inevitably, with the attraction of wildlife, comes its attraction to
the safari crowd with a number of bush camps in the lagoons and
islands, most only accessible by boat.
We load our tents and enough supplies for the next three days into narrow, wood makoros, a type of canoe dug out of a tree trunk, used to propel through
the shallow waters of the delta by standing in the stern and pushing
with a pole, in the same manner as punting. Makoro safaris are an ideal
way to see the delta, but are still a practical means of
transport for residents to traverse the swamp. Deep water occurs in only a few channels.
With two passengers per boat and a poler at the stern, the
makoros cut quietly through the vast areas of giant reedy grass
dominating the swamp, and are often covered only by a few inches of water.
Sitting low, the water is within inches of the edge of the makoro;
we sit in its bottom like a coffin with our sleeping bags, bedding and
clothes made waterproof in black, plastic garbage bags. I
am trying not to think about our vulnerability to hippo attacks. Hippos
are reputed to have developed this behavior after the use of makoros
for hunting. I am also trying not to think about the insurance waiver I
signed at the start of this trip. Sorry mom.
Belts of forest fringe the swamps with open savannah grasslands and tall
trees lend shade to herds of larger game. But from the bottom of the
boat, all we can see is a massive field of swamp grass. After two
hours, the initial excitement of hippos and flipping the tippy makoro
has worn off; I am lulled almost to sleep by the sound of the
grasses brushing the boat and the intermittent sound of the poles
spearing the water – a gondola in canals of grass. Pulling up to an
island by mid-afternoon, we unpack the boats and set up our tents under
the shade of some large trees. A hole is dug with a shovel "for
facilities", not far from the camp behind some bushes. The beer and wine
are chucked into the swamp to chill. The five local polers set up camp
with us and stay for our three days in the isolation of the delta.
After a large lunch and a nap, we assemble to be taken on a walking safari
with Disaster and G, both polers and guides. With a name like Disaster, we are too afraid to ask how he got it. He isn’t the smiling type. We follow Disaster in single file with G at the rear as
we leave the camp. Before going further, Disaster briefs us on safety.
“If an elephant charges, run away as fast as you can in a zigzag
pattern,” he says sternly. “If you are chased by a wildebeest, run straight as fast as you can, get behind a tree, and then climb the tree. If
you see a leopard in a tree and it sees you looking at it, it will jump
on you.” At this point, Mairin and I cannot contain our giggles,
imagining ourselves doing all this. Disaster looks on grimly as we begin enthusiastically
practicing our zigzag runs.
Continuing on, our path is blocked by three elephants. The closer we get to them, the more
irritated they appear, we are forced to quietly retreat. After a
half hour of waiting, the guides slap chucks of wood together, until
annoyed by the noise, the elephants move off. We continue. I am struck by the massive chucks of dried elephant dung, each the size of a soccer ball. At last I have come upon a fitting gift for my
Our days consist of animal watching, drinking delta water and cooking
extravagant meals over the fire – from French toast and maple syrup to
meaty stews to kudu steaks and roasted gem squash and potatoes. Leah is usually arguing with Aaron about something like who is to blame for using up the Ipod batteries. In
the evenings the campfire functions as the local pub, the place to tell stories, socialize and stay warm. A freelance safari guide
for over 6 years, Natalie entertains us with her stories. On our last
night in the delta, we brew 10 litres of box wine into sangria and
Natalie surprises us with a bag of Malawi grass as a farewell present
since she will not be accompanying us on the remainder of the trip into
the Central Kalahari.
Recently Natalie returned from a 7-month trip from Morocco to Cape Town with a group of fifteen. She told us of having her passport stolen in Nairobi, of a 19-year-old girl on safari getting raped on a beach in Ghana, of her overland vehicle being stuck in sand in Nigeria
for several days and of awakening to the sight of lions sleeping against
several of the tents in the camp. Last year, a 12-year-old boy left
his tent during the night only to be found minutes later with a hyena
eating his face. They had to drive the vehicle
over the body to get the hyena off him. These stories are just the kind
of lore you need before heading off to bed after drinking a couple
litres of sangria and knowing that some time during the night, you are
going to have to leave your tent for a pee. Tipsy and high off our
heads, we are the perfect targets for wild animals.
Next stop is the Central Kalahari – the second largest chunk of desert land in the world.
Founded in 1961, this sandy reserve was not established to protect endangered
wildlife species, but to protect an endangered breed of man, the San Bushmen. A sea
of shimmering pans, golden grasslands and other drought-resistant
plants, this is a place of beautiful isolation. After
traversing through thick, sand tracks most of the day, we set
up camp in a place devoid of human life, as deserted as one would
expect in, well, a desert. After days of
watching animals, all you want to see is something new. You have
crossed each animal off the list and now it simply repeats. With only a few days left, we want to see lions – lots of them- frolicking with their newborns, maybe even
mating. The point of all of this whole safari nonsense is to
spot and provide photographic evidence of the king of the jungle.
On the first game drive of the morning, less than half an hour later, we see them: lying in the shade of a copse of trees, two male lions. Driving the truck as unobtrusively as possible, we arrive within 7 metres of them. They stare at us, mildly curious. After several minutes,
they flop back down on the ground to sleep. They don’t move, except to
occasionally twitch a fly off their back. We watch expectantly. Evidently we are not that exciting. The
temptation is to jump out of the vehicle and poke them. Johnno looks
at me warningly. He skins elephants. Nevermind.
Leah and I decide to sleep on the roof of the truck for our last night. The sky is open above us,
full of stars. The night is clear, the air fresh. We can hear the
sounds of the night. It’s too perfect a moment to be sharing with Leah
and all her questions. I should be lying in the arms of Finch Hatton, with his gun cuddled up between us.