I felt guilt when I wrote the check for our trip to Botswana in Africa. Guilt because the roofing on our house will probably have to withstand another few Wisconsin winters. Guilt because the cold wind seeping in through the aging windows will seep in next year too. It is gut-wrenchingly hard for a Midwestern man to shunt money away from home improvement projects to something as frivolous as a trip to Africa.
African safaris don’t come cheap and in Botswana they tend to be higher priced than other countries. This is on purpose. Botswana aims at high-end experiences. Their strategy is to place fewer tourists in larger spaces, keep it environmentally low impact and frankly a bit pricey. But the good news is that they plow the profits back into their natural resources and into the people who live in proximity to them. Many local people are employed at safari camps. This is a self-sustaining environment where the economy relies on eco-tourism versus farming or industry or something else where people and animals would be at odds. Because their are few tourists the environment stays pristine, the beauty is intense, the animals abundant. You get what you pay for.
The Okavango Delta and Linyanti Marsh areas of Botswana are wilderness with no sign of human habitation, no cell towers, no power lines, no fences. The effect is like stepping far back in time into a wild world which was once common but is now very rare. Small aircraft are the preferred means of traversing the miles of open land between camps. This is a semi-tropical climate. Flora and fauna thrive and lots of the fauna is of the mega variety. The animals are free to wander and under the care of your guide and safely aboard a rugged Land Rover, you are free to wander among them.
On the trail before sunrise, the first treat of the day is what photographers call “the magic hour.” This is because the time around sunrise and sunset transcend night and day. It is beautiful as indirect sunlight starts to paint the sky and the sky lights the earth. Objects start to glow in a bath of changing colors. It is also a time of increased animal activity. Animals who are either active during the day or during the night are often both on the move during twilight times. By contrast, midday is nap time for the local inhabitants, both human and non.
I don’t know if adrenaline poisoning is a thing, but if your passion for nature, animals and photography lies as close to the skin as mine, you may come dangerously close to an overdose on safari. Experiencing animals in their environment, unbothered by human observers, protected from human hunting, displaying behaviors honed by eons of evolution, is really all it is. But it is also freaking amazing.
Watching impala pronking; running, jumping, seemingly playing, becomes more interesting when you learn that they are doing this as if to say to predators, “See me I’m the strong one. Chase someone else. Kill someone else.” Following a lioness, watching her call her cubs from a clump of grass and leading them for a mile to her kill turns into high drama when male lions turn up to claim the meal. Surprisingly the massive males allow the tiny cubs to eat all the antelope they want, but when the lioness comes to get a piece of the meal she won there is a battle. Watching wide-eyed, almost feeling the blow as the 400 pound male strikes the female with a paw the size of a catcher’s mitt, fur flying because that mitt has claws, we are not 20 feet away in a wide open truck. We are immersed in the experience. It is riveting, unforgettable.
It’s a fight! A male lion allows cubs to feed on an antelope kill but when the female wants to eat there’s trouble. Joanne captured this video.
At some point your guide will coax you away from these scenes and drive back to camp. Built to blend into the environment and theoretically able to be disassembled in a few days, these joints are anything but tough duty. Here you can share stories with fellow safari-goers, eat way too much amazing food and maybe even hear a song sung in tribal dialect by the staff. Rooms are tent-like and designed in what I’d call luxury safari style. Depending upon the ante you may enjoy a variety of amenities including libraries, free drinks, swimming pools or even your own private plunge pool. Shake off the dust, recharge camera batteries and write your journal because after a little nap you gather for “tea” (more great food) and then it’s time for the evening game drive.
On one stormy afternoon near the Linyanti River, we had been tracking elephants. The great beasts were in and out of the water, swimming and eating. This scene was set against a setting sun and blue rain clouds in the distance. On and off during the afternoon we had seen a male elephant that our guide, Moses, told us was in musth. This is a state of high testosterone and subsequent agitation for the bull. “When he is in this state,” Moses described, “no other elephants want to be with him because he is pushing and even goring them with his tusks. He is unpredictable and dangerous.”
One very civilized tradition of the safari is the “sun downer,” an opportunity to enjoy a libation as the sun slips toward the horizon and the hour, once again becomes magic. This is one of the rare occasions when you can dismount from the Land Rover and walk around, chat and stretch your legs. We had ours at the river’s edge, elephant herd milling around in the distance. A memorable scene, I set up my camera on a tripod and was working on a good sunset picture.
I became aware that one elephant was rapidly approaching from the river. I started tracking with my camera as it got closer and Moses said, “This is that male in musth. We may need to leave quickly.” He started packing our gear back into the Rover. I got close to the truck but stayed on the ground. It is startling to see how quickly these guys move. It is more startling to see an animal the size of a cement truck emerge from the water and suddenly fill your viewfinder. His trunk was making cork screws around his tusks, his eyes red and ears furled out dramatically. The ground shook from his footfalls. I squeezed the shutter and the camera racked off a dozen shots in quick succession. I didn’t know if I captured the image. Then at the insistence of Moses and in spite of my jittering knees I climbed back in the truck and we retreated. In about a minute I had gone from relaxing to full adrenaline. Such is safari.
I have come to think of game drives as treasure hunts. You never know what you’re going to find but if you search hard enough you’ll be rewarded. As we bounced back across the dirt roads to King’s Pool Camp that night under a nearly full moon, road dust and fragrant sage blowing through the truck, I figured I had found treasure in Botswana. I occasionally thought about what this trip was costing while we were there. I am not rich and I am not naive. I know that money spent here necessarily means that I won’t have it for other things…maybe important other things. But life seems to slide by faster and faster as I get older and for me, “things” are becoming way less valuable than experiences. My time in Africa is something I will remember; I will treasure. Heck, I’m pretty sure my memories will outlive a new roof and better windows. And as I sort through my photographs and get ready to hang a few on the wall, the guilt is passing. Now my thoughts are bothered by images of lions drifting through the grass in the light of dawn, closing in on impala and I’m not there. I wonder…What can I put off next year so I can go back?