On Safari

We’d never been on a safari trip before our time here in southern Africa.  Well, now we’ve been on several here, and have a far better idea of what is involved.  For our family, these explorations have been fabulous.


Botswana -- Jack's 401 The campsites are located in the middle of remote wildlife areas in Namibia and Botswana.  We flew to these places on small prop planes, landing on crude airstrips.  One “runway,” for example, was a dirt road for cars that doubles as an airplane landing strip.  The planes are small, holding six to twelve passengers, and without bathrooms.  The flights are typically an hour or two in length, over beautiful terrain. 

Botswana Jack's by G 400 I’m not quite sure how these places do it, but the food is incredible.  Breakfast is usually fruit, bread, cereal, and eggs cooked to order.  We had “pancakes” at one place, but learned that African “pancakes” are our version of crepes, and we needed to ask for “crumpets.”  Lunch is generally light — soup, sandwiches, some prepared meats or casseroles, and maybe a light dessert.  And dinners are fabulous, most often local meat of some sort (one of the local antelopes or cows), great vegetables, a terrific soup or salad, and desserts (generally pudding or cake).

The Days

Wake up time on safari is typically 5:30 to 6:00 a.m., and out exploring by no later than 7:00 a.m., returning in time for lunch.  Mid afternoon, when it’s hot and most animals are hunkered down, we did our home-schooling (most other guests took naps).  Then, around 4:00 p.m., we’d head back out for a couple of hours, and return for dinner. 

Namibia 118 When we’re out during the day exploring, we’re in a vehicle that’s kind of a combination of a jeep and van, with a driver and another spotter.  They are incredible at finding interesting things to look at in the wild.  We were very fortunate to have an outstanding guide (Trevor Carnaby) in Southern Africa, who not only knew all the animals and plants, but shared with us all sorts of interesting context.  We’d see lots of birds (some big, some small), reptiles, smaller mammals, and the bigger animals.  Hardly an hour went by without seeing something that the four of us found quite exciting.  We are a bit quirky as a family, though, since we can get very excited by the smallest of reptiles, amphibians, or insects.

Botswana -- Stanley's 128 We learned that the vast majority of people on a safari have very simple criteria for success.  If they see lions and elephants, they’re happy; if they don’t see both species, they feel they had a lousy safari, no matter how much else they saw.  Anyway, we had a few outings where we saw very little, but many where the sightings were spectacular.

Botswana -- Stanley's 087 The roads can be rough at time, but aren’t too bad.  We got out and hiked occasionally (almost not all is in parks with big game).  The biggest challenge when hiking is the high concentration of burrs in the grasses, a huge number of which find their way into socks and shoes.  We were wishing we had packed “gators” to protect our lower legs and ankles.  The vehicles are covered, so we were largely sheltered from the sun. 

Botswana -- Jack's 313 We’d occasionally pick up tracks of interesting animals and pursue them, often with success.  And the guides were great at picking up interesting sounds and knowing exactly what to do.  The vehicles all have radios, so if there’s a particularly interesting sighting, you may well hear about it from someone else, and make a beeline to see what’s going on.  But often it was the chance encounter with something remarkable (like the morning we encountered a Leopard sleeping in a tree, waking up, and coming down) that stood out.


The Nights

Namibia V by Gibson 359 Most nights we’d do a night safari of about an hour, with a jeep and searchlight, looking for nocturnal animals.  The “rules” were that the searchlight couldn’t focus on diurnal animals (animals active in the day), for fear of spooking them or damaging their eyesight.  But we’d see some great animals at night.  One night, for instance, we saw a porcupine (hard to see), and Aardwolf, and Brown Hyena.  Another night we parked and watched a Spotted Hyena, several Impalas fighting among themselves, a herd of Wildebeests, some African Elephants, and some exotic frogs — without ever leaving our location.  And just taking in the African Savanna at night, under a sky full of stars, was awesome.

Botswana -- Stanley's 441 The campsites range in level of accommodations from quite basic to fairly plush.  They generally have a small number (four to eight) two-person tent cabins, a central larger tent for eating and congregating, and a set of interconnecting paths.  Each individual tent can be isolated, and we weren’t allowed to leave the tent at night (the risk of wildlife attack is real).  Consequently, we slept with one adult and one child per tent.

Botswana Jack's by G 406 Tents had their own bathrooms, with flush toilets and showers of some sort.  At Skeleton Coast, they’d bring in a bucket of hot water at certain times of day, and you could drip out the hot water to take your shower!  Others have a fairly predictable, but limited, supply of hot water.   But the water can go from hot to cold in a moment’s notice (generally just after your hair is full of shampoo!).

These sites generally rely on a range of solar power and a small generator for electricity.  The tents either have very limited electrical power, or none at all.  The quality of lighting was poor enough that we generally couldn’t read after dark.

Botswana Jack's by G 052 The beds in our tents have been, for the most part, remarkably comfortable.  I’ve had several beds here that are among the most comfortable I’ve slept in over the past eight months (and that’s a LOT of beds!!).  We’d check under the covers each night before going to bed, to make sure a stray scorpion or other nasty creature hadn’t gotten under the sheets ahead of us.  And we’d keep our  bags closed, and would check shoes before putting them on, just to make sure there were no wildlife surprises.

Namibia 031 Our very first night on safari got off to an ominous start.  Our kids spend almost every waking hour hunting for lizards, toads, snakes, you name it.  So, after ten minutes after they went to bed in their tent, they came sprinting into our tent, scared to death by a large Wall Spider.  So much for our fearless wildlife hunters!  As fast as you can snap your fingers, we were switching sleeping arrangements (even thought the Wall Spider is harmless), and had one adult sleep with one child.

Of course, the one thing that can keep you up at night, or wake you up, is the sound of nearby wildlife.  Some nights we’d hear the roars of lions or hyenas.  One night Elizabeth and Sterling were woken up by an elephant pulling up plants and trees right outside their tent!

Other Interesting Issues

The camps are very conscious of guest safety.  There are places we can’t walk and times when we can’t walk without a guide.   When we’re out in a jeep exploring, we can’t leave the jeep without a guide first surveying the area (no matter how much a bathroom break is needed!).  Also, there was lots of discussion about the “do’s” and “don’t's” of chance encounters with wildlife.  Rule #1, #2, and #3 is — “DON’T RUN”!  If you run, most animals follow their natural instinct to chase you down and attack you.  So running, while having considerable appeal, is the worst thing you can do.  Best to stay still, raise your arms to look even bigger, and yell at the potential attacker.

A challenge of safari is the extreme temperature ranges you experience.  The days can be quite hot (close to 100 degrees), while it gets cold at night (maybe 40 degrees, but feels colder).  And it’s pretty darn cold in the morning when you go out, but warms up quite quickly. 

Electronics is a huge challenge when on safari.  I now know what the “out” is in the phrase “out of Africa.”  It’s out of internet contact!  I had some hope that the camps would have a satellite link, and offer some internet availability.  So far, no luck on that front.  Even charging batteries is a challenge, and it’s generally not possible to charge things in your room.  So it takes real organization and discipline (not my strong suits) to keep things charged at the charging location in the main tent area (which is limited in outlets, power, and often only available at certain times of day).  And in some locations, my only option was to give the cords and charging devices to someone else and hope they’d handle it the right way at some off-location site (hopes generally not realized).  Finally, I did bring a charger that plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter, and that’s been invaluable a few times here. 

Cell phone coverage is non-existent in most camps, and iffy even in the bigger cities.  Since we had internet access in Antarctica, I assumed (quite incorrectly) that there’s be some connectivity at these tent lodges.  Wrong!  This is the longest I’ve gone in ages without access to the internet or e-mail, and it definitely had its pluses.

 Almost everywhere we’ve stayed did most of our laundry, with the exception of underwear.  This laundry service was very helpful, meaning we could pack lightly and always have clean clothes.

We didn’t face any real issues with mosquitoes, although a visit during the rainy season would be worse.  We did have big challenges with dust, which in some places was just everywhere.  It really permeated our clothes, and was a big issue for our cameras.  We lost yet another camera in Southern Africa (three have failed us so far on the trip), and it was hard to keep dust out.

Net, Net

If you love wildlife and nature, then Southern Africa is an absolute joy.  The accommodations are still fairly basic, but perfectly great, and the sights are wonderful.  We heard that some tent lodges are becoming more upscale (adding spa services, pools, internet access, etc.), and it may be a matter of time before all get forced into giving up their rustic nature.  But we loved the lodges as they are, and hope they don’t change before we’re back again.

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