Lions, 3 o’clock!!!
It’s not a date. But orientation coordinates. The hunt has started and I don’t mean the predators kind of hunt. But us, a bunch of curious eyes, standing at the back of the jeep, feet on top of the seats, heads popping out of the lifted roof, camera in one hand, binoculars in the other, looking for wildlife in it’s purest forms, in Africa.
During the 3 months I spent in Africa, I was lucky to go on different types of Safaris. My first one was a 4×4 drive for 4 days between three National Parks in the North of Tanzania: Tarangire, Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. Later on I also went on a river cruise and an open car safari at the Chobe National Park; a walking Safari in the Okavango Delta in Botswana; and another 2 days safari at the Etosha National Pak in Namibia.
Life on the road gained a different form during these days, the surviving rules changed and I was happy to adapt to whatever it meant to be on a Safari. Even thought I had never put much thought into it and ended up going on one because, well, “when in Africa…”
But to the sight of zebras, the first animal we encountered shortly after entering the Tarangire Game Reserve, I was struck by the realization that these zebras are real survivors!! This is not a Zoo! There are no fences protecting them from what kills them, there are no plates where food and water is served daily either. Wild animals live on the move, in a game that consists in roaming the unending grasslands, unsheltered from predators, exposed to the elements, on a non-stop quest for water, day-in, day in, leaving footprints behind, putting instincts forward, a constant quest for survival.
So what is it exactly a Safari?
In Swahilli, the main language spoken in Tanzania and Kenya, safari means journey. But I must add, more than a journey, it is a game!
It is the game of patience. The more you have it, the more likely you are to witness something incredibly intimate… like a lion hunting, or zebras playing with each other, or elephants breastfeeding. You play it well and you have the time of your life. You also need a dash of luck and the knowledge of a good guide to be able to read the animal’s behavior and identify if the animal is about to do something that you want to stick around.
But like every game, there are rules and goals.
Your guide may ask what would you like to see: more of lions? More of elephants? Or is it the slicker dots of a leopard that you are crazy about?
A good Safari driver will know that leopards like to hang out on top of tree branches, near water, so you need to know where to look, as these cats can be hard to spot. The elephants also hang around water holes, but lions like to sleep on rocks and lionesses are more likely to hunt in the early hours.
Most people make their initial goal to see the Big Five: Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and Leopard. These were once named the Big Five as they were the hardest animals to kill on foot. Not all the parks have them all. The Ngorongoro Crater doesn’t have leopards and at the time of my visit, only one Black Rhino was allowed to roam freely in the crater, due to the heartless hunt of poachers that recently cost the life of another rhino.
I actually only saw a leopard once, in the far distance, thanks to the eagle eye of our driver. As for Rhinos I wasn’t lucky to see any in Tanzania, but ended up seeing lots later in the North of Namibia, including baby rhinos!
You may even have goals that are season dependent! The Great Migration of wildebeests, where over a million march in anticipation of the best grazing to feed through lands that stretch from Kenya to the south of Serengeti. Between August and October, the majority is in the north of Serengeti, taking the plunge to cross back and forth the crocodile filled waters of the Mara River. And from January to March they are roaming the south short grasslands of the Serengeti, literally dropping babies like mother-crazy. Experts estimate there are over 300 thousands wildebeests calves being born every year. Obviously a lot of them won’t escape the predator’s fangs that seem to follow the migration.
My advice: be open to what you may find. As I found out more about some animals such as the Kudu or the Oryx, I grew founder of them and the more time I would have liked to spend watching them.
These are set by the National Parks (NP) to conserve wildlife and their habitat and to protect the visitors. Every National Park has Rangers, locals employed to patrol the parks, some even live inside the Park. I was surprised to find that the Serengeti has a little village with a market and all.
A few common rules to all the Parks and Conservation Areas are:
– Animals always have the right of way (especially a Zebra crossing… haha it’s a joke get it?!);
– You can’t feed the animals (this would disturb their diet and create unnecessary dependency on humans);
– The use of radios or music players is forbidden, so is shouting and mimicking animal sounds;
– Domestic animals aren’t allowed in;
– Some NP won’t allow you to drive off the road or will have a distance limit;
– Picnic and camping are only allowed in designated areas;
– Take nothing and leave nothing behind (no littering and no cutting of vegetation).
But if you cheat the rules, you risk your life and you risk being kicked out of the park, literally. Not to mention the high fees you will be charged.
For example, one of my guides told me a couple had to pay $2000 American dollars for taking photos hanging out the vehicle in a Namibian National Park, where this was strictly forbidden. Another one was charged $5000 for feeding a jackal that was wandering at the campsite; this last one risked the whole Travel Agency, who he was travelling with, being permanently banned from the Park. Not so cool!
It’s a game, listen to your guide, follow the rules and you are sure to have a wonderful time exploring the African savannah.
YOU WILL LEARN A LOT
I heard for the first time in my life about the practice of Hunting Safari, where rich people pay thousands of dollars to chase and point a gun at whatever animal they paid to hunt. Then go home with a trophy (often the head/horns of their prey)! I’m not going to elongate myself in this topic, but thought I would share how my stomach turns at the thought of such a horrible practice called holidays by these westerners!
Anyway, back to the Safari life I was happily describing…
Every animal encounter we had was a discovery and I found myself reflecting on aspects of wildlife I never thought of before. Like how do giraffes behave next to rhinos?! And do hippos attack lions? Who would win a fight between a lion and a buffalo? Which animals like to roam alone and who stick with their family? Do elephants fight against each other too? How to identify when an animal is showing signs of distress towards us? And when to run away?
Okay,… for this last question I was surprised to hear “Never run!”. Except if it is a buffalo attacking, because these impatient beasts never threaten or show signs of disliking your company, they just go for you, head first!
Safari. No one’s safari day is ever the same as another. And at the end of the day, the day belongs to the lion, to the zebra, to the snake… driven by instincts, helpless to change their destiny. And we are just watchers, privileged to witness it all with curious eyes. My own brown eyes.
How safe is it to go on a Safari?! How did I sleep?! I camped without fence protection! Where did I eat?! Picnics. And what else should I have known?! Weather myths and the secret to a perfect sunrise photo… Continue reading part 2 of this article here!