I’m back. I interrupted my 100 posts in 100 days in order to go and sit in an unpowered bungalow out in the wilds of Africa for a week with two small children. As one does. I’ve actually been back for a day, but I didn’t post yesterday because it was Christmas. Again. I’ll explain tomorrow.
We were out in an unfenced wildlife area in the Lowveld next to the Kruger National Park. It really is a wild place. There are lions and hyenas and elephants and (last week at least) my children walking around. And giraffes.
I talk about the Lowveld a lot on this blog, so I thought I would just explain a little about what we do there. Or rather, I thought I would explain what we don’t do. We don’t “go on safari”.
The place we go to is a small, privately owned place called Ntsiri. It is surrounded by places where you can “go on safari”. I thought I would tell you how they work. And how Ntsiri doesn’t work. If I sound like I’m mocking “going on safari” at any point, I apologise. I am absolutely doing so. But with a degree of fondness. I’ll stop writing it in inverted commas now.
Things you need to know about “going on safari”. Sorry. That was the last time. I promise.
1. Rob a bank.
Going on safari is not cheap. It can cost upward of $650 a night, per person. Sometimes quite far upward. And that doesn’t include getting there.
2. Go and buy some clothes.
When you go on safari, you have to dress like you are auditioning for a lead part in “Out of Africa”. To start with, you are going to need some khaki pants. If you’re the conservative type, simple khaki slacks will suffice. If you’re slightly more rough and ready (as one is at $650 a night) you can wear those cargo pants with nineteen pockets.
You can get away with a khaki t-shirt, but a long sleeved khaki collared shirt is better. Top this off with a khaki jacket or, at the very least, one of those natty little sleeveless photojournalist jackets with even more pockets than your cargo pants.
You also need to get yourself a wide brimmed hat. In khaki. And boots. Khaki boots. With khaki socks.
All this khaki will enable you to nip through the undergrowth like a stoat. Which you won’t do. There are lions out there.
It is vital that you should dress like this. You don’t want all the other safari-goers to turn up their noses at your jeans and red shirt. Just pretend that I never told you that the Lowveld routinely gets up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 in Fahrenheit), and if you pass out in the undergrowth from heatstroke, no one will be able to find you in all that khaki. You’d be better off in a thong. A khaki thong.
Right. Now prepare to meet the locals.
3. Your guide.
When you reach your destination, you will be introduced to an earnest young man (or less often woman) in tight khaki shorts. He (or she) will be your guide. This is not an easy thing to do. He will be younger than you, and trying to earn a large tip, but at the same time, he has to keep you in line. There are big scary animals out there, and you can’t have a bunch of tourist in khaki wandering around unsupervised.
Your guide has been on a guiding course. He will know all of the animals and birds, and many of the plants. He will also have a list of things to show you when he can’t find any animals. Come hell or high water, he’s going to show you a pile of rhino poo. Do not try to stop him or he will cry. He will also show you which tree you can use as toilet paper and how to make a toothbrush from a twig. Just in case you forgot yours at home.
Your guide is not simply a guide. He is also a vital part of the safari experience. This means that he needs to spend a fair amount of time looking steely eyed and ruggedly handsome, and ever so slightly sexually available. He will also spend a lot of time conducting mysterious conversations on his radio, littered with African words like “tshukudu” and “ingwe”, and standing like this.
4. The other guy.
With your guide there will often be another guy. An older man. A man who has not been on a guiding course. He is there because he really knows the bush. He grew up there, and knows how to track and find the animals. He will not show you any poo. He usually won’t show you anything at all. He’s there to guide the guide, not you.
To maintain the balance of power between him and the guide, he is occasionally made to sit in a tiny chair on the front of the vehicle when out on a game drive. This is ostensibly to let him spot tracks in the road, but is really there to add a certain frisson to the experience of driving through a pride of lions.
5. And more.
You’re going to be roughing it in the wilds of Africa. You will need a little support. And you will get it. You will have a five-star chef, wait staff, room attendant and pool attendant. Which is fine. You’re at an expensive hotel.
Every now and then, however, these people will gather in front of you as you sit around a roaring fire to play the drums, sing, and dance. Which is all very picturesque, but it pays to bear in mind that not a single one of these people would ever have done this at home. At home they watch satellite TV and update their Facebook accounts.
6. The place.
By law, all safari lodges have to be thatched, and decorated with drums and masks in case you become disoriented and forget you’re in Africa. These places tend to be a little remote, so they can be a bit spartan. Your Wi-Fi signal can be a bit patchy, and sometimes you find insects in your private pool. Just look at this hovel.
And this one.
And this one.
7. The animals.
This, then, is what it’s all about. The lodge, the staff, the food, the wine, none of it would matter without the animals. And it’s all about the big five. Rhinos, lions, leopards, buffalos, elephants. Without those, these places would be nothing. And that could be a massive problem. Because there aren’t very many of them.
Lions are territorial. A single pride occupies a large area, and they can only be in one spot at a time. And they blend in with their environment. Leopards are even worse. They’re territorial too, but solitary. And sneaky. And the rhinos are almost gone.
When you’re paying a small fortune to come out to see the big five, you kinda want to see the big five. I can go years without seeing a leopard. But these guys have a solution. The guests all wake up, have a cup of coffee and head out for a drive. As far as they’re concerned, they’re off to explore Africa’s trackless wastes.
But they’re not. Someone was there before them. They will stop out in the bush for breakfast. The guide will whip out a little table, complete with linen table-cloth and silverware at some or other stunning viewpoint. There will be champagne. And while they eat, trackers go out and find the animals, and radio their locations back to the guides. That’s what all that “tshukudu”ing and “ingwe”ing on the radio is all about.
Some places take things even further. When they find that a leopard has had cubs, they send a guy out in a safari vehicle just to sit with them. For weeks. The cubs grow up completely habituated to vehicles, and the guests can cheerfully watch them go about their natural business as if no-one was there. They do this with other star animals too.
Then there’s the planning involved around special sightings. If you’re staying at an exclusive lodge, exclusivity is one of your expectations. You don’t want to sit with twenty other safari vehicles watching a single leopard. So the guides have become the equivalent of wildlife air traffic controllers.
When something special is spotted, the word goes out. A complicated holding pattern of vehicles is formed. Vehicles circle around the area, pretending to look for game or discussing rhino poo in excruciating detail. As each vehicle leaves the sighting, the next one goes in. It’s like a well-planned SWAT operation.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. The animals are not disturbed in any way, and the guests get to see their big five. But the bush isn’t really like this.
If you go to the Kruger Park and drive around in your own car, it’s all down to luck. You can see the big five in a day or you can see nothing in a week. But you don’t have to sell any of your kidneys.
So that’s it. Now you can mortgage your house and “go on safari”. In khaki.
And us. I’ll tell you more through the week, after I explain about Christmas, but here’s a quick rundown.
1. I’ve never robbed a bank. I hate waiting in queues.
2. Shorts and t-shirts. In any damn colour we please. Shoes are optional.
3. Your guide? Some guy in shorts and a t-shirt, and no shoes. He does have a bush hat though.
4. The other guy? The same guy. And all he can tell you is that a lion or elephant walked down the road at some point in the last week. And he still doesn’t have any shoes.
5. And the others? That would be Mr no-shoes guy and Mrs 23thorns. The children treat us like staff anyway, but they tend to get embarrassed when we haul out the drums and do a song and dance. Philistines.
6. The place? I want to die there. Failing that, Mrs 23 thorns has been instructed to take my body there and dump it into the bush for the hyenas. She doesn’t seem keen, for some reason. She wants to burn me, which seems a little wasteful.
7. The animals? I can never find the bastards. My sisters were there for a week before us, and saw wild dogs three times. There were lion tracks on every second road. Other people saw leopards around every corner. We saw lots of giraffes. Hormonally balanced giraffes.
I’ll tell you more over the next week or so. But it might all seem a little sad. Mrs 23thorns is off to New Zealand for a week or two, so I will be pining. Stick with me. I’ll need the company.