Sometimes, Dreams Come True
Originally posted August 12, 2013
I dreamed of Africa, and now I’ve been there.
For as long as I have romanticized Africa – almost a half-century – it would not have been surprising if the reality failed to come up to the dream. But the real experience met the dream square on and more.
First, the landscape. The “bush” (in South Africa at least) is just that. Miles and miles and miles of low-growth trees and bushes, a large proportion of them with sharp thorns. The vegetation does not grow tall, but it does grow thick. There was no jungle, not to say that other parts of Africa may not be jungle territory, but not the 90,000 acres of the Sabi Sand and Krueger game reserves. In terms of protecting animal life, the bush does just what the creator of it all must have intended…it makes the critters hard to spot (and even tougher to photograph.)
But you can, and we did. I shot something over 4,000 frames. Cindy, because of her equipment and the way she works, probably captured a fourth of that number, but trust me, it’ll be good stuff. As I’ve said in this space before, she has the “eye.”
The typical day on safari in the bush began at 5:30, when the phone would ring, and a pleasant African on the other end wished you good morning. At that point, we had actually been up since 5:00 getting ourselves ready for a long day. At both of the lodges where we stayed, tea and coffee, along with English biscuits, were served beginning at 5:30 in the central dining area or the lobby. At Arathusa – the first of our accommodations – we were free to walk from our cottage over to coffee whenever we were ready to hit it. At Savanna, however, guests are not allowed to walk outside of their cottage after dark, unless accompanied by a staff member. So, at about 5:45, we would hear a lilting African voice announce “Hello” just outside our front door. That meant that it was time to gather our gear and ourselves for coffee followed by the morning game drive. (For most of the time we were at Savanna, our “minder” was armed with only a flashlight. However, during the three-day period that a Leopard had got past the electric fencing and took up residency in camp(!), our escort also carried a high-powered rifle. That’s when you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.)
After a cup of coffee the guides, trackers and guests settle themselves in the hunting cars, which head off into the bush. These cars are worthy of a bit of description. They are essentially the same at every lodge and consist of either a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup or a Land Rover pickup, which has had the top of the cab lopped off at the base of the windshield, which is then replaced with a fold-down windscreen ala a WWII Jeep. In the bed are constructed three rows of seats, ascending by about eight inches each from the first to the last row. There’s not a bad seat in these vehicles, but I preferred the first or the third row, with the third row offering the most expansive view but also the roughest ride. The “guide” or “ranger” (the terms are used interchangeably) sits in the right front seat (of course) and drives. On the left there is a seat added at the front of the front fender. If you have ever seen the movie Hatari, you’d recognize that seat as the “catch seat” in the animal capture scenes in that film. In modern Africa, that spot is where the “tracker” sits, looking constantly for game spoor and the animals themselves. You can check the photo of the game car and see that there really are no bad seats, especially as compared to the pop-top Volkswagen vans, frequently used in other parts of Africa, where clients have to take turns popping up and snapping the shutter.
Guests are assigned to a particular car but are allowed to work out the seating arrangements on their own. We were never in a full car and on our second evening’s drive, we had the guide, the tracker, and the car all to ourselves. And that was a memorable drive on which we saw a Leopard, Zebra, and a Hyena at a new den with a three day-old pup.
At about 9:00, on the morning drive, the guide would announce that it was time for coffee (or tea) and we’d stop for that. The Land Rovers have a fold-up panel in the front radiator protector that serves very nicely to lay out the coffee, tea and snacks, but the morning coffee break was just as welcome in the Land Cruisers, where refreshments were laid out on the hood or a small table. At the conclusion of 20 minutes or so, we loaded up and headed back to the lodge, alert to any game spotting opportunities along the way.
Back at the lodge, breakfast was served at 10:00 and could be pretty much whatever you wanted it to be. I usually opted for coffee, orange juice, a couple of poached eggs and bacon, accompanied by toast and marmalade. But you could have anything from a croissant to an omlette.
At the conclusion of breakfast, you were free to download photos, arrange for a bush walk with your guide, sleep, or whatever until 3:00 when lunch was served. Like all meals, lunch was served family style and like dinner each evening, offered a choice of entrees, and a guest wanting extra malaria protection could indulge in a mid-day gin and tonic, or a glass of wine if they wanted to take their chances with the local mosquitos (of which I saw one on the whole trip).
After lunch, it was back to the hunting cars to load up for the afternoon game drive, which lasted until sunset, about 6:00. At that point, it was time for the bar to be broken out, set up on a folding table with a white linen table cloth, and for everyone to enjoy a sundowner before heading back to the lodge. On that evening trip, the tracker was equipped with a spotlight which he would sweep about to search for game, but being very careful with certain species not to shine the light directly in their eyes, which could result in a temporary or permanent loss of vision.
Back at the lodge, you had perhaps an hour to get ready for dinner, which was also served in the open-at-the-sides dining area and bar. Both of the lodges did everything they could to make the welcome to camp, after the game drive, memorable and evocative of a classic tented safari…like the kind that Hemingway, Ruark, and Jack O’Connor experienced. At Arathusa, the mosquito netting would have been lowered around the turned-down bed and the room set in soft light. Savanna did that one or two better however. The huge tub (in addition to which there was both an indoor and outdoor shower at each lodge) in the center of the equally huge bathroom, was filled to the level of a couple of feet with warm-off-toward-hot water, with candles aglow on a small table next to the tub, illuminating two glasses of sherry. You could cut the romance in the air with a butter knife.
The evening meal, preceded by cocktails and standup conversation, is the cap of the day on safari. Guests exchange sightings and other experiences of the day while staff circulate among them to take their appetizer, entrée, and desert preferences of the choices offered. Guides and staff join the guests for dinner served family style at a candle lit, perfectly set table with plenty of sparkling crystal. Good wine, good food, and good conversation…it really doesn’t get much better. There were never more than a dozen guests present at the evening meal at Savanna and perhaps twice that number at Arathusa. On one evening at both lodges, dinner was served in the “boma”…a round stockade fenced area with a healthy campfire burning in the center and torches and luminaries providing the ambient light, assisted by a million stars overhead (including of course, the Southern Cross).
At about ten or ten-thirty, it’s time to wander back to your cottage, accompanied at Savanna by a staffer with a flashlight and perhaps a rifle, depending on the situation of the un-invited guest Leopard.
And then you get up at 5:00 and do it all over again, reveling in a world populated by some of the most exotic, interesting, and potentially dangerous animals on the planet. During our time in Africa, we saw and photographed Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Cheetah, Elephant, Rhino, Zebra, Hippo, Wild Dogs, Hyena, Impala (always and everywhere) Kudu, Crocodile, Giraffe, and I don’t know how many I’ve forgotten. These experiences included seeing Lions, a Cheetah, and Wild Dogs on a kill. It’s not for Disney, but it’s the real deal.
And you can get close…literally within feet of these animals, as they are absolutely un-afraid and un-disturbed by the hunting cars. The reason for this, I’m told, is that they regard the vehicle as one thing and not something that contains humans. Guests are absolutely cautioned against standing up in the car, as that would change the profile, and the game would bolt to a hasty exit…if you’re lucky. And of course, nobody gets out of the vehicle, ever. One client in our car on one day dropped a lens cap next to the car, at a time when we were in the midst of a pride of Lions. The guide managed to retrieve it with a stick, but stepping outside the car to pick it up was never an option.
The bush is dissected by any number of trails, usually not much more than a two-track. But the guides are not in the least hesitant to head right out into the scrub, scraping by thorn bushes and driving over small trees, to get a close and good view of the animals. And, they understand light and photography, always maneuvering to get the light behind the hunting car, the better to illuminate the quest. That can be the all-important difference between “you can’t really see it clearly, but…” and a photograph you can be proud of.
And in the end, that simple act of getting the light right may evoke as well as anything the spirit of an African safari. All staff address you by name. They do your laundry every evening, having it laid out for you when you return from the following evening’s game drive. And everyone, from the lodge manager right on down through the entire staff seem to understand intuitively just how much it all means to their guests and are absolutely committed to do everything to make it truly the experience of a lifetime, which for me, it was.
Will I ever do it again? Probably not. It’s not inexpensive, and it’s a long, arduous haul over there…more than 35 hours block-to-block. But the saying in Africa is that safari is like malaria. Once contracted, it’s chronic and tough to cure.
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