FEATURE

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.

By Heather Anne Cunningham, Tuesday, May 20, 2008, 12:00 AM

About the author
Heather Anne Cunningham, 37, is a lawyer and an animal lover who lives in Boise, Idaho. Her goal is to see as many endangered species in the wild as she can. "I always figured I could never afford a trip to Africa, but once I made it happen a few years ago with a safari to Kenya, I knew I had to go back. Now I'd like to try an all-camping safari in southern Africa. I did a little bit of camping on my previous safari and loved listening to the intense animal sounds at night—I could hear all kinds of dramas being played out!"

***

Just before dinner on our first night at a bush camp in Namibia, we hear a lion roar. Looking at the seven other people on the safari, I see apprehensive faces in the light of the lantern. "Sometimes there are hippos, lions, or other wild animals in the camp," says Master, our Botswanan guide. "There is no fence. Don't leave your tent to go to the toilet at night. Don't ever wander from camp. You are safe in your tent."

Throughout the night, I hear noises all around me. Two leopards make heavy breathing soundshuuuuh, huuuuh, huuuuhto each other across the camp until dawn. Once in a while, I hear the woo-whoop of a hyena or the sharp ack! ack! ack! of a hippo. The frogs sound like glass balls clinking against each other, while the cicadas and crickets hum collectively like an enormous refrigerator in the wild.

One night, something is pushing into the small of my back from outside the tent. The pressure stops after a moment, and the tent springs back into place. In the morning, Julian, a German lawyer on the safari, says something rubbed up against his tent, too. There are no footprints beside our tents, but we find hyena tracks in another part of camp.

In the rainy season from November to April, the animals in southern Africa are typically harder to see, in part because they're not concentrated around watering holes the way they are during the dry season. But I've come during the rainy season, anyway—I may spot fewer animals, but I'll avoid being around 20 other Land Rovers and a horde of people motioning at the animals to look up. I chose a tour group, World Expeditions, that limits the number of guests on a safari to 12. Only eight of us end up booking the trip: two Americans, five Germans, and a Portuguese woman.

The two-week safari starts in Botswana, then loops through Namibia before finishing in Zambia. We travel in a Land Rover with removable sides and top (and very little seat padding), towing a small trailer packed with our tents, mattresses, food, and supplies. On some days, we cover more than 200 miles on roads so flooded that ducks are swimming on them.

The tour differs from other African safaris because we camp out in the bush most of the time, as opposed to staying at permanent campsites with running water, toilets, and showers; moreover, we only have a guide, a German translator, and a cook with us. Everyone is responsible for setting up and taking down his or her own tent —and the iron frames make the tents shockingly heavy. "We can't use fiberglass poles, because the baboons and hyenas can break them," says Master.

There's a good mix of people in the group—the other American, Al, is in his 70s and is on a trip around the world. Ana, the Portuguese woman, is a medical student in Frankfurt and is traveling on her school break with Julian, her husband. Of the other Germans, Rainer is a civil engineer, Frank and Andreas manage gas stations, and Fritz is a mechanic. Besides me, only Rainer enjoys camping at home—many of the others aren't prepared for the conditions in the bush. Our toilet is a wooden seat on a frame placed over a hole in the ground, and the bush shower (when there is one) is a suspended bucket with a shower spout. At first, there's grousing about the lack of hot water, but by the end of the first week, we're grateful for any shower at all. "Your perspective on luxury changes quite a bit when you have no electricity, no running water, no roof over your head except your tent, and no clean clothes," says Al.

Breakfast usually consists of cereal and bread that's been baked in a Dutch oven over a campfire. At lunch, we eat by the side of the road—sandwiches and salads, sometimes made with leftover rice or pasta. The cook, a Botswanan man named Victor, makes delicious dinners, usually a cornmeal paste with meat and vegetables. Desserts, our favorite, include bread-and-butter pudding and roasted bananas with chocolate.

I love the camping, and nothing dampens my spirits, even though my luggage doesn't arrive for a week and a half and I have to wear the same grubby clothes every day and comb my hair with a fork. My tent even springs a leak at one point, and everyone laughs at my bad luck, but I still enjoy lying awake at night, listening to all of the animal ­noises in the savanna around me. I just force myself not to think about the wet mattress beneath my back.

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.

Safari details

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.

ON SAFARI IN SOUTHERN AFRICA