It’s a dark-as-dark-gets night in the remote area of Africa where I’m lying in bed reading by the light of a battery-powered fluorescent light hanging overhead.
I hear sounds of lions roaring. They’re very near. And I’m in a tent! All that stands between me and these lions is the tent’s canvas and, I’m guessing, maybe 30–40 yards.
Informed that this would be my next adventure, family and friends had asked: What about lions? What about leopards? Why wouldn’t they drop by and select you for a takeout meal?
There are very, very few instances of tourists being bothered by wild game while in their tent or riding in a vehicle—and nearly all of those instances occurred because someone ignored the common-sense rules of conduct that are so easy to grasp.
What makes me comfortable about staying out in the wilds of Africa in a tent isn’t the statistical evidence that indicates that I have little to be concerned about, but rather a little knowledge about the explanations that account for the reassuring statistics.
According to wildlife experts, lions, leopards, elephants, and all other wild game don’t view humans as something to prey upon. They are put off by human scent and fear us as much or more than we fear them. Their natural tendency is to avoid us, not to confront us. And for them, any man-made structure, be it a skyscraper or a tent, is something incomprehensible and thus best avoided. Just be sure that you use common sense and keep your tent zipped up so nothing wanders in.
Great that my sturdy tent is huge—28 feet long, 14 feet wide, 10 feet in high; a large bed with comfortable mattress and box spring; real furniture; and a “bush toilet,” a wooden seat toilet that looks like the ones back home except that instead of a flushing mechanism, it features a three-foot hole in the ground and a supply of lime and soil mixture that you toss in to maintain hygiene. There’s even a large “safari shower” cubicle so whenever you wish, the staff will heat water to your preferred temperature, pour it into the large canvas bag that hangs above your shower cubicle, and you can have a full-spray, fairly leisurely shower.
But what you really come to Africa for is the game viewing.
Our two or three times a day game-viewing expeditions were conducted in an open-sided, custom-designed four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser. You have the sense of an African panorama as you gaze at the wide views in front, beside, across, and behind you.
Couldn’t a lion or a leopard leap into an open vehicle? Of course. But you shouldn’t spend any time worrying about that because, as wildlife experts explain, when one of these creatures looks at people in a wide-open vehicle, he sees a strange object that he deems best to keep his distance from.
So when a few lions are a few yards away, sitting quietly looking up at me, what I think of is which aperture to set my camera at, not how far a lion can leap if it wishes to. If, however, I were so foolish as to ignore the guide’s advice and step out of the vehicle, I would quickly discover just how far and how fast a lion could pounce.
The simple truth is that if you carefully follow the advice of the experts and always use common sense, the African creature that is likely to represent the greatest danger for you isn’t any of the big game creatures, but rather the tiny mosquito. That’s because in Africa, many mosquitoes carry malaria, which, of course, you should take the proper medical precaution against.
The Guide Is the Key to a Great Safari
The best thing that can happen to you on safari is to be blessed with a great guide, and the smartest thing you can do on safari is to listen carefully and learn from him.
Our two guides were truly extraordinary. The Disney Company chose Abel July, a Botswana native and former police officer with a diploma in conservation and ecology and long experience as a senior guide, to be one of its consultants before when it opened its Animal Kingdom at Disney World.
He can spot game without binoculars better than most guides can with them, and his wide knowledge and engaging personality make him a splendid interpreter of the wild kingdom. When I tried to put him on with that old gag of asking him with a straight face if zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, without a pause, he got me right back by deadpanning that the ones that are white with black stripes are males and the ones that are black with white stripes are females.
A Man Who Talks to Lions
And then there’s Gavin Ford.
“Gavin,” I asked him one day, “How long is that lion likely to lie there like that?”
I was disappointed that a particularly photogenic large lion that had been sitting in a regal pose had suddenly decided to sprawl out on the ground just as I was getting ready to photograph him. Was there any point in waiting around for him to strike a better pose for me?
“He could stay like that all day,” Gavin said. “Unless someone calls him.”
And then he smiled and made a strange, loud sound.
And then the lion got up, sat down for a while, and then started walking toward us. And I got some great lion photos.
Gavin Ford is the most remarkable guide that I have ever come across anywhere in Africa—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Born and raised in neighboring Zimbabwe while his father served there in the British military, Gavin has a passionate love of Africa and nature that makes being around him an incredibly interesting and extraordinarily educational delight. He seems to be able to talk to lions and other game. He seems to understand what the animals are thinking. Listening to him elucidate about the sweep of nature—plants and trees, soils, water, animals and the stars—is sort of like watching a fascinating documentary unfold before you. No, actually, it’s more like feeling that you are part of that documentary.
It was under the direction of this extraordinary man—honors degree in zoology, trained medic, able mechanic, well-read, widely traveled, great storyteller, always pleasant and fun to be around, veteran leader of more than 2,000 safaris—that we experienced the enchanting allure of Botswana and its wildlife.
Seeing Just About Every African Wild Game Imaginable
At a waterhole in the Nxai Pan National Park of the great Kalahari Desert region we twice—twice!—witnessed the drama of a successful lion hunt: a couple of lionesses patiently stalking a large gathering of springbok; the skittish springbok sipping water only when the lionesses seemed not too dangerously close; the lazy lion getting up and seeming to admonish the lionesses to try harder, then returning to rest himself under a shade tree; the springbok making a fatal miscalculation; the rapid surge and flying leap of one of the lionesses; the lazy lion moseying over to claim the kill that is turned over to him without challenge; the lionesses now free to start working for a meal of their own; an elephant coming to the waterhole and shooing away the lionesses; the hyenas and vultures suddenly making an appearance in the area.
In the Moremi Wildlife Reserve of the vast Okavango Delta, an area that boasts some 9,000 species of flora and fauna and is probably the most scenic area in Botswana, we see in great abundance and in close proximity to one another just about every conceivable kind of southern African wildlife—lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, cheetah, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, impala, kudu, waterbuck, hippopotamus, hyena, warthog, baboon, monkey, jackal, bat-eared fox, even several of the endangered wild dog known as the Cape hunting dog or painted wolf. Plus an abundance of incredible birdlife.
Riding in a small boat on the Chobe River, we watch herds of elephant cross the river against the blazing backdrop of the setting African sun.
And so it goes. One delightful experience after another.
A typical safari day starts with a game run that begins at around sunrise and lasts a few hours, after which an English breakfast is served, often followed by more game viewing, then a three-course lunch, with an afternoon game run starting at about 3:30 p.m. and lasting until dark. After showering and savoring a gourmet dinner under the African stars, we sit around the campfire as Gavin Ford and Abel July enthrall us with tales about Africa. As the sounds of the wild alternatively fade and soar, I fall into a sound sleep in my tent, looking forward to the dawn of another great day on safari.
We spend two days out in the bush in our tents at a remote, unspoiled spot and then move on. As we prepare to fly out for a few days stop at a luxury lodge—one time, it is the camp at Chobe Chilwero, currently being rebuilt, another time, it the fabulous Chief’s Camp, where you can even go on walking safaris—the staff dissembles our campsite and loads everything into the specially designed seven-ton truck that carries all our tents, all our furniture, our kitchen equipment, our food supply, and our huge mobile reservoir of fresh water. They pack up everything, even the garbage, and totally restore the area. If you happened across the campsite you would never know anyone had ever been there.
As we relax at one of these luxury permanent lodges, going on game viewing excursions each day while residing in something more like a hotel, the staff journeys overland to a far distant and distinctly different part of Botswana. We and our two guides fly there a couple of days later. When we arrive back in the bush, the rest of the team greet us with song, and I feel anxious to begin another genuine bush safari adventure experience.
Lovely Images and Fond Memories
And back home in the United States, long lingering in the recesses of my mind, are lovely images and fond memories of a wonderful experience savoring one of the most spectacular wildlife displays available anywhere on earth. How nice it was to have done it all in a manner of style and comfort that an Australian friend summed up as “five-star adventure.”
If You Go: Experiencing Africa in Style
Information: Website: The 10-day Botswana Safari in Style is offered by Abercrombie & Kent (800-554-7094).
Best time to go: For safaris, choose the dry season, mid-April through mid-October.
Safety: The smartest safety precaution you can take is to listen carefully to your professional safari guide and do what he tells you. There is always the potential for danger in the wild, but it seems to diminish in proportion to one’s use of common sense.
Health: Malaria medication should be taken just before, during, and for a while after a visit to Botswana or most other parts of Africa. This is strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Other medication or shots may also be appropriate. Be sure to check with your doctor. A safari is normally not a very strenuous activity.
Language: While Botswana has several different ethnic groups, it is a former British colony so just about everyone, except some rural tribespeople, speaks English. English is the country’s official language and is the language of instruction from the fifth year of primary school on.
Guidebooks: You probably don’t need one if you’re booking through a tour operator. Better to get a good guide to African wildlife and a good book on wildlife photography.
Camera equipment: If you are thinking of upgrading your camera equipment, do it before, not after, your African safari. Bringing one lens of at least 200 mm, preferably longer, is just about a must if you intend to return home with some better-than-average photos.
Should you bring the children? No. Don’t even think of it. While some safari operators permit children as young as 9 years old—occasionally even younger—to be included, it is not a good idea. Guides are not babysitters, and children, no matter how mature beyond their years, are likely to get bored easily and can’t be depended upon to remember to constantly take the common-sense precautions that are essential to a safe safari.
What should you pack? Any good tour operator provides its clients with a comprehensive checklist of what to bring and not to bring. Don’t forget the binoculars, eye protection, and insect repellent.
Entry documents: U.S. citizens need only a passport—no visa required—to visit Botswana and South Africa, but need a visa, easily obtained at the border, to visit Zimbabwe and Zambia. Tour operators make these arrangements for their clients.
Travel tip for peace of mind: If you ever had to be medically evacuated while traveling, it could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Many plans that claim they cover this fall far short. My wife and I cover ourselves against this with membership in MedjetAssist (800-527-7478).
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents.