The most visceral fear that I have ever felt on a holiday occurred when I came face to face with a blood smeared lion gnawing on the buffalo that he had just killed. He was panting in the heat of the grasslands where he lay, licking off the blood.
Our guide had just picked us up in an open Jeep from the airstrip where our three-passenger plane had landed in the middle of the vast Okavango Delta, the magical area in the north of the Kalahari Desert that floods every year bringing a huge array of animals to feast on the vegetation and each other. Our guide had swung around a stand of bushes and there was the lion with his kill not 20 feet away from our vehicle.
Every cell in my primordial brain screamed danger and the hairs on my neck stood on end. My fight or flight response was alive and well.
While I have had many adventures on my travels, including exploring through Europe by train alone as a young woman, our safari trip to Africa was the greatest. My adventurous husband had set up, with the help of a knowledgeable travel service, a trip through the many wonders of southern Africa including South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Not only was it an amazing journey, it was also an incredible learning experience.
The Beautiful Faces of Africa
There is no better way to learn about Africa than to go there. There is no better way to learn about nature than to spend time with knowledgeable guides to explain what you are looking at.
We started in South Africa, flying to Cape Town, and then heading south to watch the Southern Right whales who had come north from Antarctica to the ocean around Hermanus south of Cape Town to calf and the raise their young while fending off sharks. These majestic creatures lose a third of their body weight as they feed their young. It was a magical time that only happens for about three months in the year. After a trip to the bucolic wine region near Paarl and Stellenbosch and a visit to the wonderful sites of Cape Town, it was off north to Victoria Falls and the animal reserves of Botswana.
The Camps – Inside Out Zoos
Three different camps were on our itinerary. All camps had sleeping accommodation in tents and specific rules about where and when guest could walk around the camp. Feeding the animals was strictly forbidden. Most of the camps’ staff and guides were Africans who had been well trained in the ways of the animals. Controlling the animals with guns was always a last option.
The first camp, Elephant Camp in western Zimbabwe was close to Victoria Falls and the Zambesi River which provide a rich habitat for hippos and crocodiles as well as hundreds of birds and other smaller animals. Victoria Falls was majestic even though we arrived just at the end of the dry season.
The next two camps were in Botswana which has very strict rules about how the camps are to be run. They lease the land to the camp developers and continually inspect them for compliance. These are camps whose missions are to teach visitors about the animals and they do not disappoint. There are very limited roads to the camps, and they are used mainly to bring in supplies to the camps while the guests fly in. Unlike our zoos, humans stay in restricted areas and the animals are free to carry on in this wild environment. To ensure that the wilderness remains, there are limits on interactions with the animals and anything intrusive such as lights on vehicles and travelling at night is forbidden.
The camps are like inside out zoos where the animals roam freely, and the humans are kept in enclosures.
So Much to Learn About Africa
Botswana had found a way to preserve the animals while providing a way for humans to understand them and their environment. The hope is that these camps will bring economic benefits to the country and visitors will learn just how precious and fragile this part of Africa is.
Our trip to Africa was such a learning experience. We gained a much better understand of things like animal behaviour, vegetation, politics and how climate change is affecting areas that are already precarious. It also gave us a real appreciation for Africa. In the west, we think of the continent as a basket case, but this is just not true. A country like Botswana is never in the news because it is stable and has a real eye to the future.
It was a revelation to see how evolution has ensured that animal species survive in this wild environment through their social structures and their sometimes-brutal habits like killing off the young of a rival alpha male. This brings me back to the lion and his kill. One thing I did learn was that after a large cat makes a kill and gorges itself, it can barely move as it digests its food. While I would never want to put that fact to the test, the lion that I saw had no interest in attacking us. He was already full. Unlike humans, once he was full, he stopped eating.
Have you been to Africa? What did you learn?