“On the first day, we went out looking for lions, and we certainly found them. In fact, not only did we find them, but we found 4…two males and two females. Both sets were mating to the left and right of the vehicle. We learned that they actually mate every 15 minutes for 4 days in a row. Wow. I felt like I was intruding on some private time…I needed to have a cigarette.” — Mari & Alex
To really be there, going to Africa for the first time, the true surprise is simply being there. You think to yourself, ‘Am I really seeing zebra, giraffe and kudu?’ To be able to see all of these creatures up close – as close as you want to be (and we definitely pushed our boundaries) – is something you really don’t expect.
One time, we were especially close to the female lions – from 1-20 feet, and what was surprising to me was that I never felt like our family was threatened. There was a certain respect that the guides held for the land and the animals. They just knew the environment, and we could tell they weren’t going to put us at risk. Honestly, the fact that we could camp out in the Savannah in the middle of the night, allowing our own children to stay watch – you have to have a lot of faith to make a big leap like that. Not once did we ever feel scared because ever-present was the mutual respect between humans and animals; a certain understanding. It was very cool.
It happens from the very beginning, too. We left Johannesburg and took a long drive to Botswana where the adventure literally began at our border crossing – from South Africa to Botswana. We went out in an open Land Rover with one of the more experienced guides…sort of like a Grand Uncle kind of guy who was very hospitable. As soon as we were loaded up, we drove across – or actually, through – the river, which was the boundary between South Africa and Botswana. Everything was dirt road from that point onwards, and we’d only made it 100 yards when our driver pulled over so we could watch some zebras. He told us to look back – he’d seen movement – and sure enough, out of the bush came an elephant, and then another, and then a whole herd of elephants. Our jaws dropped in amazement – we’d only just crossed over, and here we were having animal experiences.
Just the presence of these animals…to be greeted by the most beautiful of beasts…is incredibly moving. It’s the entire reason we went, and there it was, unfolding before us in only 100 yards. Zebras, giraffe, Impalas… I’m even forgetting the names of all the creatures we saw. It was a wild kingdom.
A Sensual Adventure
At our second stop, or concession, we were having our orientation and they said that they wanted to pitch an idea to us. This was when they asked us if we wanted to sleep out in the Savannah, hiking out about 3 miles…along with two guides and their guns. Doing this meant that each of us would have to stay awake for 2 hours per night to keep watch. My first reaction was YES! I mean, what other time in your life would you be able to camp out in the Savannah with wild animals? It was the most amazing experience.
It’s difficult to portray what we witnessed…through all of our senses. Infinite stars…stars beyond what you could imagine. We’ve been to Yosemite. We’ve been to Yellowstone. There is just no comparison. You’re serenaded by a cacophony of the sounds, too. The laughing hyenas, the hippos, and what’s called bush babies, which are little monkeys that live in the trees…and they literally sound like babies.
Over one outdoor dinner, we could hear lions roaring in the distance while we were eating. There was nothing between us and the lions, which could seem unsettling, but part of what gave us comfort was the fact that the guides called each lion by their name – simply by knowing the sound of their roar. Oh, and the smells! The smells were things we’d never smelled before. The basil and African sage, which had a sweet lemony smell to it, was sweet and very pungent.
Late Night Surprise
One night, we were on safari driving around. It was much later than we usually stayed out, but it was probably only two hours after sunset. Our drivers seemed a little disoriented – like they were lost – but they kept driving. One of the guides was holding a big spotlight, and we were looking for elephants. He was shining the light on either side, and suddenly we saw a campfire in the distance. They told us they thought it was an anti-poaching crew; that they go out there and sometimes catch poachers and keep them in camp until authorities pick them up. There were a couple other trucks parked when we pulled up, and it was clear we were going to talk to these guys. Admittedly, we were a little concerned. As we approached the camp, we could see a fairly large group, shadowed by the firelight, and as we got closer, we realized that it was a group of student guides. Whew! Turned out it was planned all along, and they’d made a great dinner for us, and one of them was showing us how to take night shots.
They had tables, chairs, and table coverings. They had amazing food there – Mealie Pap, kind of like a porridge, or polenta, that’s served with a meat, or a stew. You use your fingers and you scoop it up and just eat it. My family also enjoyed the Mashatu chili, which was a flavorful and spicy chili prepared by two amazing women, Nomo and Rosena. The night before we left, my son’s girlfriend wanted to bring some home, and they gave her a jar of it along with the recipe. Can you believe that? At the next stop, we had to put our food in the storage container, and accidentally forgot it there. That was probably the biggest disappointment of our whole trip.
We’d go back. In a heartbeat. It would be great to go back to the same places for the nostalgia, but on the other hand, we’d probably want to see something different. It’d be great to go to Kenya to see the mass migrations…where they have herds of millions of animals. Now that we’ve gotten a flavor of Africa, we understand there is so much more to see. It was such a wonderful experience, and Jeremy and Kili had so much to do with that. From one conversation where we shared our vision, they took exactly what we described and made it happen. We didn’t want to travel like privileged Americans where we were driven around, etc. We wanted to go where they had good labor practices. We wanted the opportunity to touch the land with the dirt going through our fingers, touch the trees, and smell the environment. We didn’t need champagne and chocolate fountains (well maybe a little), but from the very beginning…the languages, the sounds and the sights, the people, the environment. It was just such a whole medley of sensations.