Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Africa: The Safari Experience

Guide Shaun Malan of Machaba Safari Camp in the Okavango Delta of Botswana
 sets up a sundowners spread of wine, cocktails and snacks in the bush.
 The pop-up table on the Land Rover is standard safari gear.

Our January and February 2016 safaris in Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa were not always what Jane and I expected because, as total novices, we hardly knew what to expect. Here are some tips and information for any newbies considering a safari vacation. Click on photos to see larger versions.

Where to go? We were fortunate in being in the Serengeti in late January to see part of the annual great wildebeest-zebra-Thomson’s gazelle migration, but a week or two later and we could have seen the wildebeests’ calving at the southern end of the migration area. We were in the Okavango Delta during its rainy season when the brush is dense, making animals harder to see. We were in the Kalahari during its summer when many animals are elsewhere.
Cheetahs take turns feeding on a wildebeest in the Serengeti.
Safari vehicles can get you amazingly close to most big cats.
        If you’re going to multiple locations, odds are you’ll be off-season at some of them. If you have only a short time in Africa and you want to see as much as you can, where should you go?
 If part of your time is to be spent hiking up Kilimanjaro, the closest places for game are Lake Manyara National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, where you’re sure to see loads of animals and leave with some great pictures. The mountain and these areas are easily accessed from Arusha, which has an international airport.
        The Serengeti in Tanzania and the Kalahari in Botswana are amazing landscapes and both have loads of lions and cheetahs. Kruger National Park in South Africa and the adjacent Sabi Sand Game Reserve are known for rhinos and leopards. For simply the most big animals in the shortest amount of time, Sabi Sand would win – and Simbambili was the poshest place we stayed. Each cabin had its own little plunge pool on a very private deck overlooking an area where we saw elephants, impala and other antelopes.
       All the camps we stayed at (all mentioned in another posting; click HERE) had many good points and few negatives, but my favorite was Machaba Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. We saw elephants and hippos beyond counting, zebra and giraffes, and a lovely female leopard, known to the guides as the Machaba female, and her year-old cub. We heard but did not see lions there, though.
       Your shortest stay at a camp should be three nights, giving you at least four game drives and possibly six if you arrive early at the camp and leave late.  We met people who were staying five nights at Simbambili to maximize their chances for seeing leopards. They saw leopards on their first day but nonetheless seemed delighted to have so many game drives in this game-rich area.

What about the camps? You won’t feel as if you’re camping, even if you’re in a canvas tent with doors that you have to zip and unzip.  The “tented camps” furnish their tents with real beds with real mattresses, other real furniture, flush toilets and sometimes quite large and elaborate bathrooms. Some have both outdoor and indoor (in tent?) showers. All have electric lights, though you might have to recharge your camera or phone in the main tent.
The attached bathroom of our tent at Lake Masek. The
tent was on a platform a few feet above the ground.
       It’s common to have to be escorted, especially after dark, when going between your tent and the dining or reception tent. These are generally unfenced camps in areas with lions, hippos, hyenas and other dangerous animals. Only in South Africa, at Simbambili in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, were we protected by any kind of fence, and it was merely an electrified wire placed high to discourage elephants from trashing the camp. Lions and antelopes and other beasts were free to come and go beneath the wire. 
        Food in the camps tends to be abundant and hearty. Springbok loin is tasty enough in itself, but camp chefs want to present it covered in sauce. Most meals are buffets with meat and vegetarian options;  hot breakfasts are often cooked to order and are supplemented by a buffet of breads, pastries, cold meats, cheeses, cereals and yogurt.  Some evenings camps might do a barbecue, offering a variety of grilled meats.   All camps include all your meals (there’s nowhere else for you to eat) and often include “local” (and local means African and more importantly, South African) wines and beers. Some include all the whiskeys and other spirits they have on hand; others charge extra for “premium” drinks. But with 5 a.m. wake-ups, few people want to drink much at all; during our weeks of safari, I saw no one over imbibe. There are often swimming pools or spas or stacks of wildlife books to help kill the middle of the day between game drives. I think most people nap.

Who’s the guide?  You can travel with your own guide who stays with you from camp to camp, or you can use a camp’s own guides.  I prefer the later.
     We started out with our own guide for our first two camps. He picked us up in Arusha, Tanzania, and drove to our lodgings and took us on game drives in Manyara National Park,  Ngorongoro Crater and the Ndutu part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. While he clearly knew the area – never getting lost on the webs of trails in the bush – he wasn’t intimately familiar with the wildlife and seemed to rely totally on radio contact with other guides to find anything.  Although we had been told that with a private driver we could set our own schedule, this driver was resistant. We wanted to get into the crater as early as possible, having been told that most animals are most active early and late in the day and inactive during the middle of the day. This driver told us that it wasn’t true and that the middle of the day was just fine for viewing wildlife. He didn’t want to leave the lodge until 7:30, which meant we weren’t on the floor of the crater until nearly 9. We stayed about six hours; all but one of the lions we saw were asleep.
        We relied on guides from the camps for the rest of the trip. They not only knew how to find the big cats when they were active, they knew the life histories of many of them. They also took us out very early in the morning and again late in the afternoon, which meant we saw the animals during the active parts of their day.

What’s your transport? You not only have to have vehicles to drive around to look at the animals, but if you’re visiting more than one camp or lodge, you need transportation between them.  This should all be arranged by your original safari travel agent – and I can’t imagine trying to organize this sort of vacation without professional help.
       The different camps, their guides and perhaps a transfer company will all be in near-constant communication to make sure you get to where you’re going. In Tanzania, our private guide was originally supposed to take us all the way to Namiri Plains, but he had never been there before and the tangle of unmarked trails in the bush make giving directions almost impossible. So he arranged with Namiri to hand us off to Namiri guides at Seronera Airstrip.
      Later, in Botswana, we were flying from Kalahari Plains to Machaba Camp via the small town of Maun. Our little plane from Kalahari was running late, but when we landed in Maun a van was waiting to rush us to the other end of the airstrip where the second plane was loaded with other passengers and waiting for us. It was very reassuring that there was such a strong system undergirding our travel in the bush.

What to wear? We had advice from two safari companies about what to wear on safari. Neutral, earth-tone colors, no red, no white, no black.  We didn’t want to upset a lion or a hyena.  So we were surprised that the safari vehicle from Namiri was equipped with red blankets to fight the morning or late-afternoon chill. It turns out that as long as you’re seated in the vehicle, animals don’t see you as a threatening or edible individual. White is still to be avoided because it attracts too much attention, and black should be avoided because it’s said to attract tse-tse flies (which we did not encounter at all), but plaids and blues and even reds seem just fine unless you’re planning to walk a lot in the bush, which isn’t even allowed at most places.  (Most camps do laundry, some with same-day return, but try to take quick-drying nylon clothes because most camps hang laundry to dry. Camps at which the clothes are all hand washed will not wash your underwear – you’ll have to do that yourself and leave it to dry in your tent or cabin.)

Tipping? We were told that tipping was not mandatory, but that there are expectations of $5 to $10 a day per person for guides and about that much again for the communal tip box at the camp or lodge.  If you’re like us, you’ll find most of the people so helpful, so genuinely nice and accommodating, that you’ll want to tip.  You might also find that individual camps and lodges offer their own tipping guidelines, some quite a bit above what we had been told was “usual.”  In Tanzania, tips in U.S. dollars are just fine. The country seems to accept dollars as a de facto second currency. I went with pulas, the local currency, in Botswana although I imagine dollars might be OK. I also used pula in Namibia because I had no Namibian currency and where we were, people had to go into Botswana to shop anyway. In South Africa, you’ll want rand. Nothing in South Africa is priced in dollars and I imagine converting tip dollars to rand in the bush would be a chore. Get rand from an ATM when you arrive in the country.
That's us in the next-to-last row of our Toyota Land Cruiser safari vehicle at Simbambili, a game
 lodge in the Sabi Sand reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Here the spotter  rode, without a seatbelt, in the chair at the front of the vehicle.


Shared vehicle? We had private vehicles (just me, my wife and the guide) at some camps and shared vehicles with other guests at some camps.  Private vehicles are more expensive; we had them only due to a miscommunication. The shared vehicles are just fine – assuming there’s no one who insists on stopping to photograph every bird in every tree.
       We found our safari companions very amiable.  We were fortunate to ride at one camp with an English psychotherapist whose extensive knowledge of Africa and the animals enriched our trip. At Simbambili we shared a vehicle with an English couple who had traveled a good bit in Africa and were very entertaining, as well as two American men who were ending a church mission trip to Johannesburg with a few days of safari.
       The main advantage of a private vehicle is that you go out and look specifically for the animals you want most to see, but in a shared vehicle you’re still likely to see everything you want to see. The main disadvantages of a shared vehicle, to me, is that you might not be able to switch sides to get a better photo, and if you’re in the rearmost seat you might have trouble hearing what the guide is saying. All in all, though, shared vehicles are just fine and a sociable person might say they’re preferable to a private vehicle.  If you’re using a camp guide, you’ll have the same guide for the duration of your stay, and if you’re in a shared vehicle, you’re likely to have the same companions on every game drive.

What’s the safari itself like? The safari experience itself is always amazing, mainly because you can get so close to animals like lions, cheetahs, leopards and even rhinos and elephants. 
There are several kinds of safari vehicles, all based on either Toyota Land Cruisers or Land Rovers. Some have sides, doors and roofs that raise so you can stand and take photos. If you’re going to be on a paved road very much, this is probably the type you’ll be in.
Safari vehicles at the end of the day at Namiri Plains in the Serengeti.
The one on the left is a closed vehicle with doors, windows and a
roof that can pop up as shown. The other is an open-sided Land
Cruiser with a canvas roof, much preferable to the other vehicle
when out in the bush.
       Out on the trails in the bush, you’re more likely to be in an open-sided vehicle with three rows of tiered seating (not counting the front where the driver sits) that puts the rear row a couple of feet higher than the first. Watch out for branches reaching in and slapping you in the face as you race after a big cat. You’ll bounce around a lot on the deeply rutted and pot-holed trails, and there are usually no seatbelts to hold you in place. The vehicle may or may not have a canvas roof, but either way you don’t stand up without asking the guide first. Your standing could trigger an undesirable reaction from whatever beast you’re trying to see.
       If you’re in a public area – like a conservation area or a national park – your guide will have a lot of rules to follow: no going off the established trails, no getting out of the vehicle, get back to camp before dark, etc.  (Sticking to the trails isn’t as restrictive as it sounds because animals also use the trails and are often found near them.)  In a private game reserve, such as Machaba Camp and Simbambili are in, there are fewer rules. The guides can drive wherever their vehicles can go chasing a leopard or a pack of wild dogs or getting close to a remote herd of elephants. You can go on night game drives, using spotlights to illuminate leopards drinking from puddles or any other nocturnal activity.

     Always there is something to see and to learn about. If your guide is having no luck finding the lions you want to see so badly, he’ll probably be able to get you interested in whatever wildlife can be seen. I know a lot about lilac-breasted rollers and kori bustards because those birds always seemed to be around when the big game wasn’t.  And even when the game viewing isn’t great, the landscapes tend to be, especially in the Serengeti and the Kalahari.  And with camp-based guides, the drives are broken up with refreshment stops – coffee or tea in the bush in the morning, and sundowners (gin and tonics, wine or whatever’s your pleasure along with hors d’oeuvre like dried beef biltong) in the bush as the African sun sets.