Over the past year I have written about several encounters with animals whilst travelling. Dogs in Nepal and animal exploitation are a couple of examples. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of going to the zoo as well; walking around and looking at the different animals in their enclosures was something I remember doing from when I was just a kid. There is something intriguing about looking at exotic animals like giraffes, lions and monkeys lazing around.
It may come as a surprise, then, that visiting Tanzania was never on my bucket list of things to do. I’d seen elephants and antelope at the zoo and had been forced to watch just about every African documentary on big cats that had ever been shown on television courtesy of my father. But with my parents both working in the Tanzanian city of Arusha for the year, I was compelled to visit. Not doing a safari whilst in Africa would have been like not having a beer at Oktoberfest.
Going on safari conjures up images of men in khaki suits with helmet like hats, armed with large rifles and equally sized moustaches- the kind that a hipster would sport at a trendy Melbourne café (fashion trends come full circle, apparently). Fast forward one hundred years and there are people still dressed in khaki safari clothes but it’s usually just middle aged couples wearing matching outfits. And instead of being armed with rifles to shoot anything that moves, they are carrying cameras so expensive they could easily be the equivalent to a deposit on an inner city apartment. Some even have lenses that without proper weight training prior to purchase, look too heavy and cumbersome to lift off the ground.
Most safari drivers are wildlife experts and mechanics. Not in the qualified sense mind you, but the necessity to not break down in the middle of the African savannah so the clients aren’t eaten by things with large teeth dictates the need to know their way around a vehicle. Considering the thrashing they give them, it’s no surprise that breakdowns occur. Driving along the corrugated Serengeti highway, we drove at such speed that we were hovering over the top of the bumps. Really, despite the rules that drivers are supposed to stay on the tracks, they were more than willing to drive off into the bush in search of animals. Trails were more like guidelines than defined roads. To their credit, they know their way around the myriad of nameless bush tracks blindfolded and had the uncanny ability to get to any part of the park from memory; this includes memorising the different areas of all the various lion prides.
Regardless of roads, there are vehicles everywhere. Safari is big business in Africa with operators trying to make the most of the popularity of its native flora and fauna. Drivers are well aware that their livelihood depends on clients seeing a large variety of animals so it is not uncommon to be queued up for periods of time to try to get a glimpse of a fur ball hiding in the grass. Chances are there might not be another time to see particular animals, so there is no shame in joining the hordes.
Occasionally, you see things that are more special than watching a deer eat the grass. For example the wildebeest migration, crocodiles eating the wildebeest migrating or a cheetah chase down and kill an antelope. There is an element of expectation watching the fastest land animal hunt down some prey. You half expect Sir David Attenborough to pop out of the grass and explain everything as its happening, waiting for that slow motion shot detailing the moment the kill takes place in a puff of dust. Real life is much quicker. After berating the big cat for not running fast enough, complaining that Sir Dave has been lying to you all these years, it flicks a switch, going at such speed that it’s more like a dust outline on a cartoon. One swift ankle tap later, the antelope is dead, the cheetah is knackered and you’re high fiving everyone in sight celebrating the antelopes sacrifice.
People want to see the African ‘Big 5’- lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinoceros- but the other animals like monkeys are just as entertaining, but in a different way. You see, monkeys are smart. They recognise that vehicles represent people and people represent fast food. Rest stops and lunch areas are often occupied with cute little monkeys that will not hesitate to snatch food from your hand. With that in mind, it is hard to relax and enjoy your food, constantly looking over your shoulder for a monkey to steal your sandwich and ruin your break. I have never been pickpocketed whilst overseas, but I have had monkeys rob me of my food. The greatest insult is that they stare at you from their tree, never breaking eye contact as they eat your food in front of you. You half expect them to flip you off while they do it.
Everything about the place is stunning, though. Vast landscapes, teeming with life, the sound track to the Lion King constantly running through your head. In the space of a week I got to witness lion prides resting in the shade after gorging themselves on a buffalo, male giraffes battling it out in a fight for domination and a baboon hitching a ride on the back of another animal. Hippopotamuses in the mud, an endangered rhinoceros and her calf under a lone tree and elephant families roaming freely in the scrub. The list is endless. Even the smallest bird has an exotic feel that makes it memorable.
Our accommodation one night was a bush camp. Whilst in bed that night, we could hear the animals walking in between our tents, going about their business. Earlier, we were sitting around the fire, drinking a beer and listening to hyenas calling to each other.
“How far away are they?”
“Three hundred metres.”
“Is that why that bloke has a machine gun?”
“Yes. Now, please relax.”
This is going to sound cliché but doing a Safari is something every person can enjoy, whether you are into animals or not. You might think that it will be a bore, that nothing will happen and animals are just animals but once there you will be amazed by the experience. Being able to appreciate an animal in its natural environment is a memory worth making and safaris bring that to life in a vivid fashion.
- Patience is a virtue. If you think that you’re going to get a list of animals and spot them all within the first half hour, you are sorely mistaken. It may take time, but the results are worth it.
- Small groups are more comfortable and flexible. Large group operators exist but you feel more like cattle than a tour client.