by Paula Leslie
Every great adventure has a beginning. Mine started by asking a friend about her recent safari while we both waited in the checkout line at a local grocery store. There are not enough words to describe how explicatively amazing this journey was for me.
My first experience in Africa was dining at Moyo Restaurant in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was there I tasted the fine delicacy of Mopane worms. Tastes like…well, let’s just say there isn’t enough spices in the world to add flavor. Someone at a table adjacent to ours in the restaurant was celebrating a birthday so the staff came to the table to sing much like our chain restaurants in the U.S. Only this was better with drums, clapping and harmony, and that high pitched melodic yipping sound the lead singer made. I was already smitten.
We boarded a plane the next morning to the Maun, Botswana, airport where our safari guide met us. One more night in a place with running water and flushing toilets before heading out to the wonderful world of tent safari and open-air vehicles.
June and July are winter months in Botswana so there were mornings waking up in 40-degree weather. The blanket and hot-water bottle helped keep me warm as the crisp morning air whipped through our wide-open Land Cruiser.
Our early wake-up alarm when it was still dark was a staff member saying “knock, knock” outside our open-to-the-sky canvas latrine area, and the sound of hot water pouring into the galvanized buckets. Our toilet was shaped like a toilet, but simply covered a hole in the ground. Flushing the toilet was done with a spade and dirt. Showers were quick and out of a canvas bucket and taken during the afternoon hours when the air wasn’t so nippy. Princesses need not to apply for this safari.
My favorite morning meal was porridge and campfire coffee, of which you chewed the last swallow. My favorite morning time was watching the sun rise off the horizon like a big red ball and listening as the birds started singing and the hippos continued their snorting. There’s a mixture of scents that I wish I knew which individual plant aromas get captured by the cool breeze and then meshed into a fresh, clean outdoor perfume. I can only compare it to the Arizona desert after a rain.
But, ah, the safari. The first animal I saw was an elephant walking out of the bush toward our vehicle. It was the most majestic living creature I had ever seen. I was in for a whirlwind of majesty in the form of a lion, lioness with her cubs, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, warthog, giraffe, water buffalo, wildebeest, kudu, impala, ostrich, baboon, mongoose, crocodile, hippopotamus, lots more elephants, and dozens of different birds that I can’t remember. I’m sure I have omitted some of the animals, but not intentionally. They were all beautiful; they all took my breath away.
The last night at camp, after our dinner was complete and we all were sitting around the campfire feeling a little sad the safari was coming to an end, the camp staff showed up and entertained us with singing and dancing to Botswana folk songs. As we were on our last short safari drive the next morning, tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I was missing Botswana already.
After the six-day safari, we headed to Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls for our last stop of the trip. The falls were awe-inspiring. Zip lining over the Zambezi River and then viewing the gorge is a “tourist-y” thing to do but it envelops enough grandeur for an article of its own.
This was technically a photo safari. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but photographer is usually not on that list. I took some decent pictures and recorded some decent videos (including the zip line). But, my notes? I will be writing journal entries about Africa for months. I hope the guide didn’t think I was playing word games and ignoring his astute explanations of his native land. I was typing thoughts before they flew out of my head into the Botswana wilderness lost forever. A thousand words can paint a picture, and that is how I recall my travels – with words describing sounds, tastes, feelings, sights, scents.
I’ll share with you several entries combined in one: “I’ve seen most of these animals in a zoo setting, but to see them interact within their natural environment, to see them heedless of the carnival of safari trucks surrounding them with camera lenses clicking, to feel the warm afternoon breeze, to smell the air, to hear lion cubs mew as they ferociously play, and then gnaw on the defeated wildebeest which was last night’s kill, to wonder what will become of the wild dog with the injured front right paw who struggles to keep up with the pack, to awaken in the middle of the night to lion roars and hyena cackles, to watch young elephants splashing around and dunking each other like teenage boys would do at a public pool, to listen as an elephant slurps up hippo grass much like a human would slurp spaghetti, to see nature as it should be without the manipulation of man, these are the things you miss by reading a magazine or watching a show. Your heart cannot get lost in a television show. Your heart can get lost here.”
I fear I have left a piece of my heart in Botswana and one future day I may find a need to retrieve it.
- Pack light. I typically pack light for all travel, but I could’ve packed even lighter for this trip.
- If you go to Africa during winter months, take a scarf, gloves, knit cap, and layer your outerwear because the afternoons can get warm. The mornings are cold, but early morning is the best time to find the animals so it’s worth the runny nose.
- Stay hydrated.
- Be prepared to eat. There will be no losing weight on this trip. Well, unless you get malaria. But the mosquitoes don’t like the cold.
- Enjoy the freedom and stress relief that being unplugged gives you. You will thank yourself for choosing the wilderness over the lodge. I haven’t slept this well in years.
- And, if you have granddaughters who are sisters, never ever just buy one stuffed plush toy leopard.