Blogging about a safari in the 21st Century seems like an almost pointless endeavor. After all, far better writers than me long ago documented the thrills of being ten feet away from a massive predator capable of ripping you to pieces in seconds flat. And of watching those same dangerous beasts gently reprimand and protect their young just as any loving human parent might.
Back when the likes of Hemingway and Robert Ruark wrote about their safari experiences, there was no Discovery Channel, no worldwide web, no Facebook. Nowadays, an endless variety of National Geographic episodes shot in hi-def video are available 24 hours a day on a TV screen near you. Add to that millions or maybe billions of multi-megapixel photographs populating the internet, and it’s more than enough to bring an armchair voyeur into the depths of the African bush. All that visual imagery provides far richer descriptions than any words I could hack together.
The safari experience has changed in other ways too. Nowadays, those who partake gush about checking off the “Big 5” from their list as if failing to do so would somehow be the equivalent of declaring bankruptcy. It wasn’t an issue for our ragamuffin gang. We enjoyed quality viewing time with all the Big 5 – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. In fact, we were privileged to observe adult males, adult females and babies of each of those species. We also saw cheetahs, giraffes, monkeys, hippos, impalas, warthogs, and well, too many other animals to mention.
But the “Big 5” is an antiquated concept. It apparently dates back to Theodore Roosevelt’s day, when he reportedly spent more time hunting in Africa than politicking in the White House. I don’t know if that’s true, but there’s no question ol’ Teddy was a consummate outdoorsman. When referring to the Big 5, he meant the 5 most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt on foot. And that makes all the difference. Because we weren’t hunting. And we weren’t on foot. We went on “game drives” – twice daily 4-hour treks in colossal Land Rover jeeps that chewed up dense thickets, carved up sandy riverbeds, and navigated rocky hills with the sureness of a snow plow on a ski slope. Meanwhile, of course, we were snapping bazillions of digital pics using our fancy hi-tech cameras with zoom lenses long enough to focus on your nostril hairs at fifty paces.
Were we ever in danger of being maimed or digested by things in the wild? I don’t really think so. We did experience several minutes of “extreme off-roading” (as our ranger, Fred, put it) – a slightly harrowing stretch during which a couple of us were nearly beheaded by branches or gored to death by acacia thorns. (Who would have guessed the greatest risk to our continued existence would come in the form of plant life?) On another drive just past dusk, a pride of hungry lions literally strolled past our jeep, inches from our unprotected limbs. No question they could have done us some serious damage. And although Fred always had his rifle at the ready during the game drives, even he might not have been able to fend off a sudden surge of feline blood lust.
But amazingly, those lions – in fact pretty much all the animals we encountered – more or less ignored us completely. It was as if we weren’t even there. Or were completely invisible. Or maybe the flavors of human flesh and innards aren’t especially appealing to the predator palate. Whatever the reason, most of the animals wanted little to do with us. And so we roamed a private reserve in one of Africa’s most famous untamed regions – Kruger National Park – under very different, and much safer, circumstances than those fearless hunters of the 20th Century.
Although seeing the Big 5 was fantastic, it turns out none of those creatures is all that difficult to track down on a modern safari. But there were a few other species Fred wanted us to see that proved a bit more elusive. One of our best drive experiences was meeting up with a pack of wild dogs and following them for an hour or so. According to Fred, it’s not an everyday sighting.
Another species that managed to dodge us for a while were the rhinos. In that part of Africa, the rhinos are not quite endangered, but they are threatened. And it’s possible to go hours or days without spotting one. But again we were lucky. (It also helped that Fred is a very knowledgeable and savvy ranger.) We eventually spent time watching several different rhinos, including a couple of solitary bulls, and later, a cow prancing along with two of her young.
Yes, rhinos can prance.
I hate to return to the Johannesburg blog’s theme of shitty people doing nasty things, but the reason the rhino are threatened is because they get poached. Rhino horns are worth a fortune on the black market, mostly because of selfish rich assholes who covet the powdered horn’s purported value as an aphrodisiac. The rhino in Kruger Park (and elsewhere) are illegally hunted down for the sole purpose of sawing off their horns to make money. Okay, it’s a shitload of money – a single rhino horn can fetch millions of dollars. But that in no way justifies the cold-blooded killings of these magnificent creatures. And what’s worse, sometimes the poachers don’t even bother to put their rhino victim out of its misery. They are perfectly willing to leave it suffering terribly and certain to die.
But as in Johannesburg, the cruelty of some people is countered by the heroism of others. Now that I’ve been on a safari, I have to add park rangers like our man Fred (and his tracker, May) to the list of occupations that don’t pay nearly enough to people who are doing vitally important stuff in our world. Fred and May and their brethren aren’t only providing entertainment for tourists. They’re also working their butts off to protect and preserve the African bush. That means defending the rhinos against poachers. It means ensuring all the wild animals have a chance to live and prosper in an unspoiled natural environment. It means teaching people to respect wildlife and acknowledge our debt to it. Humans do a great job of fucking up ecosystems. Guys like Fred are doing the best they can to stem the tide.
Our four days on safari were an incredible experience, and definitely money well spent. It’s something I think everyone with the means should aim to do at least once in their lifetime. As for more detailed descriptions of the wildlife we saw, I’ll let those multi-megapixel photographs do the rest of the talking.