A Million Ways to Die in the Bush: Africa, Part II

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Baobab tree, Okavango Delta

When most people think of “the bush”—the safari term for being out on safari—the desert doesn’t really qualify, so official safari-ing begins here. I will confidently say right now that I don’t think there is any kind of travel more interesting and exciting that being out in the bush. There’s always something different going on and seeing nature at work, even when it’s kind of gruesome, is amazing no matter who you are. I am not a science or biology person. The last science class I took was human physiology in high school and assembling a model of mitosis for the final project required every ounce of my scientific and artistic abilities. But being out in the bush will make anyone wish they’d taken more biology and suddenly animal taxonomy seems fascinating.

Another thing about being on safari is that every guide has a story about how you could hypothetically die, whether it’s from a deadly bite from a black mamba or being mauled by lions walking back to your tent at night. This can at once feel like such bombast and totally real. So much of nature is serene and amazing and you hear these stories about people being eaten by crocodiles or whatever and think, how could anyone be that stupid? You’re in these amazing camps and it’s hard to imagine how it could be that dangerous.

At the same time, you’re in the wild. There are no fences and you would be an idiot to underestimate anything. Safari is supposed to be safe, and it is very safe, but that proximity to danger, very literally sometimes, is half the appeal. 

You can find Africa, part I here

Baines Camp: Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

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There’s a mystique that surrounds the Okavango Delta, the site of some of Africa’s best game viewing in the fertile wetlands in the northern part of Botswana. The large inland delta is formed by the Okavango River, which floods into the Delta during the summer. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site two years ago and the scenery is the kind of thing you’d expect from a wildlife haven. There’s tall green grass everywhere with the iconic acacia and baobab trees breaking up the completely flat landscape, interspersed with flood plains and tributaries that form several islands around the Delta during the wet season.

Botswana is literally militant when it comes to protecting its animals; the army and the anti-poaching unit are one and the same. So while animals have not been poached into scarcity, the massive area the Okavango covers can make them hard to find. This area’s biggest strength can also be a weakness. Few lodges mean that you’ll almost never run into another truck when you’re out on game drives, but it means fewer eyes are out looking for animals. On the reserve I stayed in in South Africa, they had a very sophisticated operation between rangers tracking animals, and the results show; I so many more animals because you have a lot more people out keeping track of where the lions went to sleep last night, where those two leopard cubs are hanging out, where the rhino and her calf were last seen, etc.

While the cats were hard to find here this time around, the elephants are not. There are several wild herds in the area, as well as three habituated elephants, who were supposed to be killed as part of a culling operation in South Africa and were taken in by a couple in Botswana who now look after and care for them full time. For being not-quite wild animals, these elephants have a good deal. They spend most of the day walking around in the Delta, interacting sometimes with wild herds and getting the opportunity to feed naturally, with the knowledge that someone will feed them again when they get home. They know something like 80 voice commands and seem to relish the opportunity to show off.

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Dead elephant. NOT REALLY. She’s lying down, one of her many party tricks

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The bull in the herd, Jabu, had developed an abscess on his foot, hence the garbage bag bandage

You don’t need to stand next to an elephant to appreciate its size, but it’s a good reminder that for all the noise and show that the lions put on, the elephants have the potential to be the most dangerous animals in the bush. (Lions are understandably afraid of them and elephants are known to chase off prides of lions for fun).

In the Okavango, you gain an appreciation of just how hard game tracking is when you’re in one truck trying to cover a huge area. I had a run of bad luck at Baines Camp with seeing the big predators—lions, cheetah, leopards—but it’s still hard to complain. I don’t really have a whole lot else to say about the Delta. It’s a beautiful place and a great area to see animals, so let’s just look at some pictures.

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Spotted hyena

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Male impala
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This is a wild female elephant, who was not too happy about us getting close
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Deck at Baines Camp
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A few of the hippos from the large herd that live in the water right next to Baines Camp
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An uncooperative wildebeest

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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia

After several days in the bush, Victoria Falls was definitely a change of pace. There’s not a whole lot else going on in the immediate vicinity around the falls, so the town that’s grown up around it is for tourists almost exclusively. There are casinos and junky souvenir shops and restaurants with names like “Pizza Inn” and as far as tourist towns go, it’s really not bad at all, but when coming from the isolation of the Okavango, it can feel like you’ve landed in Disney World.

There’s a weird formula for determining the “biggest” waterfall in the world. Iguazu Falls are the widest, Niagara Falls have the highest volume of water, and Victoria Falls are the tallest. So, everyone’s a winner. At the moment, Victoria Falls are nearing their full capacity, but haven’t yet, so it’s a good time to see them. The water volume is still high, but the mist hasn’t completely obscured the falls.

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For such a popular destination, the falls are surprisingly uncrowded. The park that sits on the opposite cliffs overlooking the falls has a nice system of lookout points and trails that follow the length of the falls and you get the best views. The falls extend into Zambia, but the views on the Zimbabwe side are unquestionably better.

The “problem” with Victoria Falls is that they’re kind of hard to see. The mist produced by the impact of the water is astounding. During high water season, the cloud can extend 500 meters into the air. When you’re standing directly opposite the falls, the water cloud obscures the view and as you would expect, you get soaked. Because of the wind currents, the water falls straight down on top of you, rather than blowing into your face. I was convinced it was raining until I decided that my guide wasn’t lying to me. Additionally, because the falls descend into a relatively narrow canyon, it’s hard to get a good perspective on the whole thing, unlike at Niagara Falls where you can approach from the base. If you come to Victoria Falls, you have to do a helicopter ride to get another view and you can see from an aerial perspective why they’re difficult to see.

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This is an area with a lot of history. David Livingstone was the first European to “discover” Victoria Falls in 1855 and gave them their current name. The falls were originally named Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders.” During the British colonial period, a train extended from Cape Town to the falls in Zimbabwe, terminating at the entrance to the colonial Grand Dame Victoria Falls Hotel, which is still there today in something shy of its former splendor.

You wouldn’t come all the way to Africa just to see Victoria Falls because you’d be disappointed and it would be an incredible waste of time. But as a two-day detour on a safari trip, it’s worth it. This is the one thing in Africa that I’ve seen that I would say is a once in a lifetime visit, in that you can see it once and be satisfied. This is one to check off the list. It’s breathtaking to see in person, but you can spend those two days on something else on your return trip to this part of the world.

Royal Malewane: Thornybush Game Reserve, Greater Kruger, South Africa

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If there’s one takeaway I have from this whole trip so far, it’s that context matters. You’ll think about a place entirely differently depending on what you’re coming from. On that note, if you’re going to several camps in Southern Africa, you have to end in Thornybush, because it’s all downhill from there.

Thornybush Game Reserve is adjacent to Kruger National Park, the king of safaris in Southern Africa. As a private game concession, the area is not as big as the main park—not that you can cover all that ground anyway—and an open-fence policy means the animals can move between the areas, but the tour buses can’t come into the private reserve. You pay a premium for this kind of thing, but there is no comparison in experience.

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View from the deck of the Royal Malewane

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If you’re on safari in Africa, your shortlist for desired animal sightings will always include the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, black/white rhino (I only saw the more common white rhino), and Cape buffalo. The list was initially created by hunters as the five species that were the most dangerous to hunt on foot—not so much because of size, but because these five are the most aggressive when injured—but the list has now become a quick checklist for people on safari. There are a lot of iconic animals in Africa—giraffe, zebra, impala and dozens of other antelope species—but the Big Five can be tough to find depending on where you are. If you come to Africa and don’t see a lot of giraffe and zebra, you’ve been massively unlucky.

Before I got to Thornybush, I’d see one of the big five—elephants—as I’d had bad luck with the cats in Botswana. From the time I got to Royal Malewane around lunchtime until sunset, I saw all five. No matter how good your guide and tracker are, there’s a lot of luck that factors into sightings on safari, so this was a particularly lucky day.

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Big Five
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There is also the Ugly Five. From top left clockwise: Marabou stork (I didn’t get a good picture so you can get a sense of its less-than-beautiful physique from the drawing); Warthog; Wildebeest; Lappet-faced vulture; Spotted hyena

I know I’ve already said this, but I never cease to be amazed how good the guides in Africa are. Their ability to track an animal based on a set of tough-to-spot tracks on the road is part of the job description, but it’s still incredible. You can’t teach people eyesight and good instincts and while all of my local guides in Africa were great, the guides at Royal Malewane are on another level. They are what make the difference between seeing everything and seeing nothing.

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More elephants, who were very excited about this watering hole
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Male Kudu

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The embedded video below has a sound recording of this guy and his brother roaring to another pride of lions one night. You probably don’t want to listen to that without headphones if you’re in public.

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Cape buffalo, looking majestic
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White rhino wallowing in the mud. This is an older male, who bravely stood his ground when a herd of elephants came charging up to the watering hole later on.
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2-3 week old baby rhino following its mother
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When you’re on safari, a leopard is about as big a find as you can get and I got so lucky to see this one lounging in a tree one morning
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This is a female cub, about a year old but basically full grown

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She had just eaten and was clearly very full and kept trying to find a comfortable position in the tree
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We have all been this leopard
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This is just a ridiculously photogenic animal
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This is the brother of the above leopard several hours later, who was still seemingly very full from the morning’s kudu feast

I’d always been a little wary of going on safari in South Africa because it is the place to go on safari, which means everyone else has the same idea. Crowds are not fun when you’re traveling anywhere, but they’re completely detrimental in this setting. Thornybush is everything you could hope for in a private reserve, with all the animal access of the big parks and none of the bullshit. If you want the kind of safari you’ve seen in National Geographic and in coffee table books, it’s hard to imagine you could top this.

It’s almost impossible to compare Africa to anywhere else. I want to say there’s a magic in Africa, but that’s so mawkish and cliché and reductive and completely misses the point. It’s not really magical at all; it’s utterly natural. And that means it can be a rough place in a lot of ways too. Nature is brutal. There are a lot of places in Africa that don’t seem that way, the Okavango or Thornybush, where there’s water and the cats are well fed and you see enormous herds of healthy animals. Of course there are the hunters and the hunted, but it’s an Edenic place. In the end, you begin to think that even if you’re a wildebeest and you have your throat ripped out by a lion, you got to live in a pretty cool place while it lasted.

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Lioness and her cubs in a food coma after eating the hindquarters of a zebra, which she’d stashed under a nearby tree for later

But a lot of Africa is not like that. In the desert in Namibia and the salt pans in Botswana, I saw groups of zebra who were dying in a painful and protracted manner because of the drought, and it’s not pleasant to watch. Safari is just about observing; you’re not here to save anything in that way.

I’m not blind to the issues here. Government corruption and violence is more widespread in Africa than on any other continent by a mile. Many of these countries are human rights disasters with problems in education and public health that dwarf the morass of crap we are currently wading through in the States. People and animals are horribly exploited, so I don’t want the fact that there is cool wildlife and beautiful landscapes to paper over the very real and gut-wrenching problems here.

At the same time, having a doom and gloom perspective on it is not productive. This is an enormous continent with a lot of potential. There are pockets of government stability and democracy with people trying to do right by their citizens. For every poacher, there’s a park ranger putting his own life in danger to protect rhinos. (Encounters between poachers and rangers can easily turn into shootouts and the poachers are always better armed).

I’ve been to some pretty remote places on this trip, but nothing has felt less of this world than Africa, and not just because of the lack of connectivity. When you’re in these camps, it’s easy to imagine that nothing in the outside world can touch this place. Saying it feels remote doesn’t really capture the feeling of these places. It’s like they exist on another plane, or in a parallel universe. Which is a dangerous illusion. National politics and global interest in diamonds, oil, rhino horns, etc. obviously have a huge impact on what happens in this part of Africa.

That said, as I was writing that last paragraph, I got distracted by a red-billed hornbill that landed nearby and spent 15 minutes tracking him around the camp. In what world is it a thing to get distracted from work by the bird from The Lion King? That’s what I mean about Africa; there’s very little that’s mundane here.

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Africa is not an easy vacation. It’s really tough to get here, it’s remote, it’s expensive, and it’s essentially impossible to travel without the help of a travel agency, which is yet another expense. All of that makes it a vacation with a lot of upfront effort and I totally understand why that makes it a daunting trip. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time dealing with logistics and planning for this entire trip, and I can confidently say no place I’ve visited has been more worth the effort. And I’ve really enjoyed almost everywhere I’ve been.

Africa is like the Hotel California; you can leave whenever you want, but you’re never really gone. As I said at the beginning of my first post, it’s not a place that fades from memory the further away you get.

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Finally, to wrap this up, I have an unofficial rule about not talking about people I meet, except when they feature as the anonymous stooges in my rants. Even though people are such a big part of what makes traveling cool, it’s not that interesting to read about. “I was in X country and met Y person and he/she was cool.” You’re sitting thousands of miles away reading this; you don’t care. Secondly, while I’m not kidding myself about the number of people reading this, this blog is public and I don’t want to just go around haphazardly documenting people’s lives and putting it on the Internet.

Now that I’ve laid that out, I’m breaking that rule to say a massive thank you to my guide in Southern Africa, Russell. Russ is ridiculously knowledgeable. Literally one time he only half correctly identified a bird that quickly flew past us and beyond that, he knows truly everything about everything when it comes to safari, and also Pearl Jam. His finest moment was when he left his phone on the plane early in the trip—a good early impression—but he turned out okay in the end. Russell, thanks so, so much for an awesome two weeks. The trip would not have been the same without you. You’re a regular David Livingstone in flip-flops.

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Pretending to look for wildlife while waiting for his gin and tonic

My next stop—Dubai—was a very brief one, but I have a LOT to say about that place. After Dubai, I’ll be in Jordan for a few days and then onto Turkey.

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