The No-Frills African Safari
To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we invited readers to pitch us ideas, and we sent five of them on assignment. This writer embarked on a 15-day no-frills African safari.
To my dismay, however, the group votes six to two (me and Rainer) to spend our final two nights of camping at a permanent campsite with flush toilets and hot showers. After two straight days of rain, the others are willing to put up with the sounds of campers and portable radios for a little comfort.
Every day, Master warns us that seeing animals at this time of year is pure luck. But we're fortunate. We find hippos everywhere, bathing in pools of water. "The first day, it was amazing to see a hippo, and now I'm saying, 'Ah, it's just another hippo, there are so many,'" says Ana. We watch zebras grazing in magnificently green fields, track families of vervet monkeys and baboons climbing in the trees, and count eight species of antelope, including a sable. ("Very rare!" says Master.)
One sunny day in Botswana, we notice a lion's footprints in the road and follow them in our Land Rover. Suddenly, a pair of francolin birds cries out in the bush. Everyone is silent, looking for the lion in the grass, and the suspense is palpable. At last, we spot the huge male lion, napping under a tree. When he looks up at me with his amber eyes, I feel as if my heart has stopped beating.
Another time, as night is falling, we come upon a shape in the grass ahead. We strain our eyes trying to make out what it is. A jackal? A hyena? "It's a leopard!" Master says. Everyone in the vehicle exhales at the same time. A moment later, the young male—about the size of a dalmatian—crosses in front of our vehicle and walks alongside it, eyeing us curiously before returning to his hunt. He's one of the most beautiful animals I've ever seen, and for a moment, he's so near he doesn't even seem real.
We occasionally get out of the car to look at the animals—even dangerous snakes. Once, we come across a highly poisonous puff adder lying right in the middle of the road. Master maneuvers the Land Rover so he can drive over the snake without hitting it, and we all get out and walk back to look at it. Puff adders sometimes play dead in the wild to fool predators, and after a few seconds, we see this one blinking its eyes. On another occasion, while everyone is looking at a snake eagle, I spot a cobra in the grass. It looks like a stick at first, but then I notice it move slightly from side to side. I never thought I'd find snakes so interesting, but these are impressive.
On our last day in Botswana, we watch several families of elephants splashing in a river, spraying water on each other, and rolling in the mud. Out of nowhere, a huge female turns to face us, bellows, and starts charging, flapping her ears. Then she stops in her tracks and raises her trunk to trumpet, making a loud noise. I want to take a picture of her, but I can't bring my hands to lift the camera. Our Land Rover doesn't always start easily, but thankfully, this time it does. We drive off quickly, the elephant briefly giving chase to make sure we keep going.
I ride a much calmer, orphaned adult elephant near Victoria Falls in Zambia. When the ride is over, the elephant takes treats from my hand and nuzzles me with the tip of her trunk for more. Then she kneels down and allows me to sit on her front leg as she wraps her trunk around me, giving me a big hug.
The 15-day Elephant Trail safari with World Expeditions is $3,190 per person for a double tent (the single supplement is $325, or solo travelers can share a tent with a stranger). The price covers the guide, meals, camping gear, park admission fees, and all transportation except air. 800/567-2216, worldexpeditions.com.