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On Safari in Africa

by Dean Johnston

“What is that smell?” you ask, wrinkling your nose up in disgust. “Ah, the sweet smell of buffalo blood. It means we’re getting close”, replied our guide rather ominously. Close, indeed. As our iconic Toyota Land Cruiser trundled around a bend in the rough savannah track we spotted movement in a clearing off to the side, a number of vague shapes blending smoothly into their grassy surroundings. Three lions – two females and one large male – up to their ears in the mutilated carcass of a freshly-downed Cape buffalo. After spending a suitable amount of time watching those animals devour another animal from the presumably safe confines of our jeep, quietly awed by such pure evidence of nature’s food chain, the huge male finally decided he’d had enough. Rising and licking the blood from his face, he strutted directly toward us, looking both bored and cocky at the same time, and completely unconcerned with our presence. As I watched him saunter by I finally understood the origins of the term “King of the Jungle”. Well, sort of. I am still a little confused by the fact the nearest jungle was actually a week’s drive away. Majestic, all the same.

The wild game safari is without a doubt one of the world’s most memorable adventures. The opportunity to get up close and personal with a wide variety of the planet’s most intriguing animals in their natural habitat is something that every intrepid traveller should experience at some point in their life. Even if you have seen your fair share of unique African fauna in zoos, or on television, or in extravagant and morally debatable Las Vegas shows, none of that compares with visiting them in their own surroundings. And lions are only the tip of the iceberg. At the very least, most people aspire to spot the original “Big Five”, a list compiled by European hunters in the early days of colonization which includes lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffalo. But that is just a start. There are also the massive, swarming hordes of wildebeest, zebras, hartebeest and a dozen different variations of gazelle, plus the more solitary cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, ostriches, and the wonderfully easy-to-spot-from-any-distance giraffes. Rivers and lakes offer glimpses of hippos, crocodiles and hundreds of species of birds. Delve into the mountains to see gorillas and chimpanzees. Different areas have varying concentrations of these animals, so it is important to decide what your focus will be early in the planning process.

Although there are many different wildlife safaris around the world, Africa is considered to be the ultimate safari destination. There is also a wide variety of unique types of safari, all providing very diverse experiences. By far the most common is the so-called jeep safari, during which you spend much of the day bouncing around in the back of a standard Land Cruiser, built perfectly for the terrain and featuring a pop-top to allow for better glimpses of the wildlife. However, taking advantage of some of the less common forms of safari can also provide exceptionally memorable interactions. Sunset walks, canoe trips, hot-air balloons and viewing blinds all offer something a little different than the usual Land Cruiser tour, in both experience and price. Personally, I found half-drunkenly gazing from the deck of our hotel at sunset to be especially rewarding.

While almost every country in Africa offers fascinating wildlife watching, Tanzania leads the pack in this regard. It features two of the world’s most famous parks – the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater – plus the lesser known, but impressively elephant-filled, Tarangire.

And amateur archaeologists will surely enjoy Oldupai Gorge, the site of a critical discovery featuring human remains ranging from 1.7 to 3.5 million years old. Which really provided some perspective regarding Laynni’s black toenail that she claimed “has been that way forever”.

Five Things
1. I have never particularly enjoyed watching a cat finish off a can of tuna, yet I was inexplicably thrilled to watch a leopard gnawing on the remains of a dead gazelle.
2. Baby elephants are very similar to mature adult elephants, only smaller.
3. Few things are more majestic than a male lion standing proudly over his latest kill. Many things, however, are more majestic than a Cape buffalo wallowing in the mud.
4. Apparently, monkeys like ham sandwiches every bit as much as we do.
5. Hippos are considered both the most dangerous animal on safari and most likely to look hilarious in a bikini.

Dean Johnston is the author of three travel books, including the recently published Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth. He is currently at Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala suffering depression regarding the current state of Arsenal Football Club. Read about all his travels at routinelynomadic.com.

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