Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Safari Bliss

I will be the first to admit that as a South African I am just a little snobby about this whole idea of 'safaris'. Technically, 'safari' is just a Swahili word for journey. In Kenya one will often say, "Oh I cant wait, I am going safari this weekend" and when asked where to, one would reply "oh to the beach, soak up some sun", for example. For the rest of the world it has come to mean khaki coloured clothing and long hours sitting in the back of a game viewer truck driving past massive quantities of lions and leopards all ready to wow you with their ability to kill, and waiting to pose for your photograph.

The reality is quite different, really. Animals are hard to spot, the rainy season means long grass and low visibility and the dry season is generally at a time of year when people dont like to travel. Going to a game reserve and having high expectations of seeing leopard is somewhat like going fishing and expecting to see a shark. Just because you cant see them doesn't mean they aren't there, they are just hard to spot.

For me, game viewing was always about driving up for the weekend (or long holiday) and spending days with beer in a cooler, driving at super low speeds chilling out in the bush with friends or family, and stopping when you felt like it. I always laughed a little at the tourists piled into their guided trucks stopping to view the abundant impala, and stuck with a schedule not their own.

No more! I have been converted! My company is a tour operator and one of the occasional perks is going to a lodge or on a tour on 'business' to do a site inspection. Which is what a friend and I did this last week. Oh wow, the place was wonderful. Rustic but awesome, we stayed in tree houses! The game drives were not as terrible as I imagined, but rather gave us a wonderful insight into what was going on around us, with guides that keep you informed.

The treehouses were so cool, with separate but private bathrooms on ground level, open air. Showering naked in the bush with monkeys sitting on the branches above you watching with fascination is a rare experience! The first morning we woke up and got out of bed to head down the stairs, only to blearily open my eyes to discover that our little hideaway was surrounded by buffalo! Luckily when we started talking loudly they headed away and I was able to make my way down the stairs, maul free.

That day we spent almost 8 hours in the open  top trucks, and had the most phenomenal luck. A leopard actually just sauntered up to our car! So rare that despite the many reserves I have been to in several countries I have never seen one! And it just wandered up to us to say hi.

One of the highlights of the trip was a game walk. After days of telling you how important it is not to let a hand dangle out of the truck, or step out of the vehicle at any time that isn't prearranged by your guide, they then get you out of the car and walk you off into the bush. Although warned that we were unlikely to see any big game, you cant help but see an elephant in every rock and a hungry lion behind every tree. The idea of the walk, however, is to take in the little stuff, pick up rocks and scare the scorpions, learn about tracks and the animals in the area. The joy of walking through bush that has never been tamed and is home to so much life is just phenomenal.

Lest I gush and suddenly make myself out to have gone soft, I shall end it there. Needless to say, coming home was a little sad, but this country makes me proud to be African. Below are some highlights from my trip. Till next time...