Miracle #3 – Exploring The African Wilderness – Safely –
Recently there was a tragic incident in South Africa where a woman was killed by a lion at a wildlife park. Since then I’ve had a couple dozen queries from friends asking if I’d seen this in the news and what I thought. Are safaris safe? In my opinion there is a pretty big difference between the trip we were on and hers. I can explain a little more about what we did and why.
What is it that captures the hearts of so many who come to Africa for a safari? There is certainly a dichotomy. Or is it an odd pairing…like chili and chocolate…heat and sweet? There is heat, thrills…in the form of close proximity to unpredictable wild animals. There is sweet. In one safari camp we had a private plunge pool and our own, private open bar! In 90 degree F Botswana it doesn’t get much sweeter than that. It’s the combination though that makes it so perfect. If you like your wild served up with a shot of civilized, your adrenaline laden sweat mopped away at the end of the day with a gin and tonic and a cool towel to the brow.
Yes, you will sign a waiver. You are going to pound around dusty miles of remote wilderness in an open vehicle. You may step out and right onto a much lower rung of the food chain than you’re used to at home. You may even get within yards of the planet’s highest and mightiest predators and they don’t give a rip that you’ve got an opposable thumb or a super-sized cerebellum. A 400-pound lion has muscles that look like coils of steel cable and can bring on a burst of speed around 50 mph. But isn’t this why you came? After all this is “adventure travel” and not a shopping vacation. On the other hand no one wants to get hurt.
As it turns out there is a system that many safari operators have honed to an art form. It centers on expert knowledge of the environment and strict procedures and is manifest in the form of a guide and a British Leland Range Rover – the safari vehicle. Because the guides are well-trained and spend their lives among the animals, they know how to find them, how close to approach and when to leave. Because the animals have grown up with Range Rovers in their midst they give them faint notice. It’s like a middle-aged man going into a bar full of young women. They are aware of his presence, but ignore him since he presents neither opportunity nor threat. Thus it is with the wild inhabitants of the bush. The lumbering trucks, which sometimes appear and follow them for a while, provide no opportunities for food and do not threaten harm. Animals go on about their business while visitors get close enough to get goosebumps.
Interaction between humans and nonhumans is subject to procedure. Sitting in a Range Rover, you blend into the vehicle and don’t cut a human silhouette. Stand up in the truck and it’s a different story. If you stand you transform from part of the the truck to a potential target for nearby predators, but your guide will take notice and politely insist that you sit. The drive operators also follow strict rules that insure safety of both guest and critter. They never feed the animals. There is no association between human and food, ever. The woman who was killed at the lion park, well, in my opinion that wasn’t a safari. It was a kind of zoo you drive through. The operators there feed the lions, then the lions associate people with food, subsequently everyone is told to keep their windows closed because it is dangerous to be exposed. The woman who was killed didn’t have her car window closed and the lion attacked. That was a different situation from the wilderness safaris we experienced.
Our guides at Xigera Camp in Botswana led us to an island to show us a rare Pell’s Fish Owl.
As someone who spends a lot of time photographing, hunting, fishing and camping in North America, I felt a big contrast between my home turf and the African bush. I’m used to animals being scarce in most places and usually disappearing as soon as they are spotted. I’ve spent long hours in a blind hoping for a few seconds of good viewing. The African safari experience is much different. Don’t get me wrong, paying your dues by spending time observing is still the key to rich wildlife experiences, but on the twice daily game drives I was on in Africa with the guides and the Range Rovers, I felt like I was zooming from scene to scene on an invisible magic carpet. The encounters with animals were frequent, close and sometimes intense.
Human and animal contact has a long history of bad outcomes. In times going back to prehistory, most people would have had a tough time surviving in the bush; the other animals had the edge. In modern times the tables have turned. Humans have wiped out populations of animals and altered the environment, usually to the detriment of wildlife, however there is something in many of us that makes us yearn to see wild places and experience the joy of observing animals in their environment. It can be a life changing experience and it can be safe for all involved but a reasonable amount of caution is advised. I recommend choosing your safari operator carefully. Thousands of people enjoy safaris every year and it’s pretty easy to get online recommendations. When you get out there, listen to your guide and follow the rules. Let your guide show you the wild…safely, and get ready for the time of your life.
Classic Africa – We’ve used this travel company for two safaris in Southern Africa. Their knowledge of the area and attention to detail can’t be beat. They helped us out by arranging transportation and accommodation at the camps listed below.
Xigera Camp (pronounced Kee-Jeer-Ah) – A small camp on a permanently flooded part of the Okavango Delta, it is oriented toward exploring wetlands. The staff here were some of the friendliest and talented (best singers) we met on our safaris.
King’s Pool Camp – This camp really isn’t technically in the Okavango but it was part of our Botswana experience. It borders the Okavango in the Linyante Wildlife Reserve and is also oriented to wetland rivers and pools. Very high end, this is a place where you will enjoy top notch wildlife viewing while staying in luxury accommodations.
Chitabe Camp – Several things stand out in my mind about Chitabe. The scenery is gorgeous. We had amazing cheetah viewing and to top things off we saw a lion roaring at twilight. Check out the video below where our guide uses a red light to illuminate the lion. Red light doesn’t destroy the lion’s night vision.
Links – Check out my other African Blogs:
Three Miracles in Botswana – #1 Water in the Desert
Three Miracles in Botswana – #2 So Far We Haven’t Screwed It Up
Reasons To Go On An African Safari Even Though You Can’t Afford It
Photography Gallery – Botswana and South African Safaris In Color
Photography Gallery – African Safaris in Black & White