This was, without a doubt, one of the best trips we ever took. Sally would say it was the best. We spent nine days in four camps, eight days in three cities (1), and three days traveling to and from Africa.
The cities were pleasant and/or informative. I would say we are both much more knowledgeable about South Africa’s history than we were before the trip, and much more aware of the conditions on the ground. My biggest learning was this: South Africa, under Nelson Mandela’s leadership (2), transitioned from the horrific oppression of apartheid to a functioning though messy democracy inclusive of all people, one which still faces significant issues. And it did so without a civil war, and without a bloodbath.
The camps were something else. While we knew what lions, giraffes and elephants looked like we had no idea of how they lived. We had no idea how they interacted with all the other wildlife in the bush. We had no idea how the ecosystem that is the bush worked, and how the pieces all fit together. It was sad and gruesome to watch the lions catch and kill the water buffalo, but the alternate outcome is clear: if the lions don’t catch and kill their prey, they will die. That is truly the circle of life.
The animals were spectacular. The birds were spectacular. As I mentioned, Africa could turn you into a birder – there’s so much to see.
While the city hotels were, well, hotels, the camps were a completely new experience for us. They are a strange combination of luxury and roughing it.
Luxury: you never touch your luggage, there’s food and drink set out for you throughout the day, the view from your tent/villa is extraordinary (3). Your every whim is catered to, within the limits of what the camp staff can accomplish in the bush. Free laundry. Hot water bottles and blankets in the game drive vehicles as well as your bed (4). Watching the sunset from a private pontoon boat with a G&T in your hand, just the two of you (and your guide). Sitting for an hour and watching an animal live. A free high end camera to use (5). Binoculars to use (5).
Roughing it: no heat in two camps, limited in another. No electricity in one camp. Dim lights at best. You’re not allowed outside after dark. Limited or no wifi in three camps, and no phone service (even to call the front “desk”). Driving around at dawn and after sunset, in the cold and even the rain, in open vehicles. We were cold, a lot.
I’m not sure whether to characterize being flown from camp to camp in your own private plane as “luxury” or “roughing it”. It was, as the pilots said, “a little rough”. At the very least it was new for us.
But there was another dimension to the trip, one that made this different than any other trip we’ve taken.
Mind blowing: being close enough to lions to touch them, although you don’t dare reach outside of the vehicle. Watching a male ostrich chase a female across the plain at high speed. Watching a leopard cub annoying it’s mother, just like any toddler. Hearing a pride of lions, which surrounds you, announcing to the world that they’re there with their roars. Seeing hundreds of water buffalo appear out of the brush and cross the meadow in front of, and all around, you. Seeing lions bathed in the golden light after sunrise. Seeing two lions catch the scent of, chase down and kill their prey. Seeing hyenas anxious to get the scraps the lions left, but afraid the lions are still around. Seeing an elephant herd rush to protect their young from a leopard, bellowing all the time. Watching a father baboon caring for and playing with a newborn, and a (slightly) older sibling joining in the fun. Seeing a herd of elephants come down to the river to drink, and to play in the mud. Sunrise and sunset over the delta. Rushing through the brush in our open Land Rover as our guide tried to follow some animal’s tracks. Following a pack of wild dogs as they patrolled their territory, looking for food.
Did I mention the birds?
And I’m sure I have forgotten maybe one or two (6).
Once we had decided on this trip, I gathered up my camera gear and went to the Bronx Zoo to see if I could actually take pictures of animals. I got some good portraits. But I may never go to a zoo again. The idea of seeing these animals confined to cages (even “big” cages camouflaged as natural areas) is just so unappealing. The animals don’t interact with any others as they normally would; they don’t hunt or forage, but get fed by humans. Life for animals in the bush is unforgiving, but it’s life. It’s not cruel; the concept doesn’t exist.
Perhaps there’s a lesson there for all of us. Perhaps all of Africa, where we all came from, is a lesson for all of us.
(1) I use the term “city” loosely regarding Vic Falls.
(2) Countries seem to do better when they have good and effective leaders.
(3) Jack’s Camp excepted; there we saw a bush.
(4) An attempt to offset the lack of heat in the tents, or a roof and windows in the vehicles.
(5) A camera in one camp, binoculars in two.
(6) John Sebastian, Younger Generation.