Almanac

Cover Story - September 21, 2011

An African journal

Safari company helps provide creature comforts as travelers seek out sights of creatures in the wild

by Caitlin Moyles

After 30 hours of air travel, I arrive at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on a clear, 40-degree winter day. To experience the natural beauty of this vast and relatively inaccessible continent, my family and I have come for a 12-day safari from Johannesburg, through Botswana's national parks, and into Zambia.

In the marbled airport lobby, I am met by souvenir shops selling memorabilia from the FIFA World Cup last summer, crowds of people waiting to greet family and relatives, and a handful of freshly vaccinated tourists like ourselves, overburdened with baggage, undoubtedly full of khaki cargo pants and insect-repelling, UV-protecting shirts.

Always a family to balance adventure with creature comforts, we have planned the trip through Micato Safaris, a luxury safari outfitter that offers a number of different safari "styles" in countries throughout Africa. Included in the pre-paid package is our trusty, theatrical safari guide, Allan, whom we meet at the Westcliff Hotel along with the rest of our eight-person tour group.

The city of Johannesburg has a certain rugged beauty to it. Originally a gold-mining town, Johannesburg has grown to 10 million people and has a 40 percent unemployment rate, according to a driver employed by Micato. Trees abound, and in the nicer suburban neighborhoods, large homes are protected by high plaster walls and electric fences.

Indeed, on our drive through Johannesburg to the Westcliff Hotel, a pink-walled oasis perched on a hillside just outside the central city, I am left with the impression that Johannesburg straddles modernity and the remnants of its apartheid history. On the short ride from the airport to our hotel, I am acutely aware of the striking number of Mercedeses and BMWs we pass on the freeway, right past the remnants of the small fires that the people who live in the tall grass alongside the freeway have built to keep warm this winter morning.

That night, we dine together at the comfortable, suburban home of a Johannesburg family, where our hosts serve us "bull tongue jerky" (made from a buffalo the husband recently shot while on holiday in the bush), South African wines, and Amarula, a South African liqueur made from marula fruit.

The next morning, we awake bright and early to catch a flight to Maun, Botswana. In Maun, we board a six-passenger, single-engine charter plane that takes us on a 30-minute flight into Moremi Wildlife Reserve in the Okavango Delta. As we touch down on the dirt-strip runway, we spot our first glimpse of wildlife, a herd of elephants grazing in the distance. We are greeted by our safari guide, Nesco, who drives us to Khwai River Lodge in a Toyota Land Cruiser that looks as if it came straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

Situated amid a mixture of woodland, grassland, and floodplain, Khwai River Lodge is on the banks of the Khwai River and feels a world away from the rugged urbanism of Johannesburg. As we pull up to the steps of the lodge, we are greeted by an ensemble of about 10 staff members singing a welcome song in their local dialect. They greet each of us with a handshake and offer us a drink and a warm towel.

The grounds include an open-air bar and dining area, an outdoor pool, a miniscule spa and gym, and "luxury tents" for guest rooms, which are designed to blend in with the surrounding environment.

The tents are built on raised wooden platforms with spacious outdoor patios, providing for an excellent view of the river and a place to rest in the hammock and read in the middle of the day. From the balcony, we see and hear hippos grunting in the water, and an elephant breaking through the brush in the distance.

At Khwai, we are awakened at 6 every morning by a staff member who shouts, "Knock-knock!" from the patio and brings in a tray with coffee and fresh muffins warm out of the oven. We then dress in the chill of the African winter and dash off to a continental breakfast, often featuring a form of porridge made of corn meal, which we eat with cinnamon and raw sugar. At 7 we are off on our morning game drive, four hours of bouncing along dirt roads and plowing through rivers in a giant Land Cruiser, interspersed with shouts of, "Look, giraffe!" and a flurry of picture-taking.

We return around 11 a.m. for a hot brunch, a couple hours of rest, and "high tea" at 3. At 4, we're off for our evening game drive.

Throughout the day, we see elephants, giraffe, zebra, baboons, two lionesses and four cubs lounging in the brush, and hippos, who break the water surface with their snouts and glare at our Land Cruiser with suspicion.

At sunset, we stop for "sundowners," a chance to enjoy evening drinks, stretch our legs, and pull on the massive, knee-length ponchos the lodge has provided — it gets awfully chilly on a moving Land Cruiser after the sun goes down. It's also less relaxing at night, as this reporter's thoughts turned to what we would do to get back to the lodge, with nothing but a radio to guide us through the bush, should anything happen to our driver.

The next destination

A 30-minute charter flight away from Khwai, Eagle Island Camp is located on Xaxaba island, along the Boro River in the Okavango Delta. Surrounded by a sea of reeds bursting out of perfectly still, crystal-clear water, the camp offers comparatively tranquil activities after a couple of days bouncing around in the Land Cruisers.

Upon our arrival, we set out for a sunset cruise on a river barge, from which we see an adolescent crocodile, hippos, a variety of birds, and the most colorful sunset I have ever seen, a striking red, orange, and yellow concoction that fades into purple, pink, and blue.

The next morning, we take motorboats down the river and through the reeds to Kiri Island, where we get our feet dirty for the first time on a hike led by Rock, our safari guide, who is armed with a loaded gun for our protection. Fortunately, the gun proves to be unnecessary. Then we motor to a nearby shore where the Eagle Island staff serves us a "bush picnic" of roast chicken, fruit, pasta salad, and fresh bread.

In the afternoon, we enjoy an aerial view of the water-ridden delta by helicopter, from which we see the little waterways that hippos have carved through the reeds, a herd of elephants crossing the water, grazing buffalo, a baobab tree, and a huge crocodile basking on a little island in the sun, all while dangling our feet from the helicopter's edge over several hundred feet of open air.

Late that afternoon, we go for a ride through the reeds in a mokoro, or traditional canoe, and get up close and personal with the insect life. We also witness an elephant crossing the water no more than 60 feet from where we sat, helpless, in our little wooden canoes.

We visit a small, local village during our stay at Eagle Island Camp. Mid-morning, it was mostly populated by mothers and their young children. School-age children go to boarding school in Maun. We pass by circular huts with walls of home-made cement and roofs of dried reeds from the river — one has a solar panel outside, which our guide says powers a television inside — and buy baskets and bracelets that the women make from reeds by hand.

Our third and final camp in Botswana is Savute Elephant Camp, located in Chobe National Park, the elephant capital of the world. The driest of the three camps, Savute rests next to the Savute Channel, miraculously flowing again after two decades of dryness in the middle of these seemingly unending grass-covered plains.

In hopes of increasing our chances of sighting a leopard, Allan has arranged for Onyx, his friend and head guide for all three camps we have stopped at on our journey, to lead our game drive this afternoon. We set out together, packed into a giant 11-seater Land Cruiser with Onyx at the wheel, along the dusty roads, through herds of impala and elephants, when all of a sudden Onyx points and shouts, "Leopard, leopard, leopard!" and steers the Land Cruiser into the tall, brown grass. There, crouched in the grass near a bird, is a female leopard. Barely even acknowledging our presence, she walks around the vehicle with determined purpose, back into the grass, crouches down, and then pounces at something we cannot see, except for the flit of the grass as it dashes off into the distance.

"African wildcat!" Onyx shouts. Those are even more rare than leopards, he says.

Our last night at Savute, all the guests gather together for a "surprise dinner," which is held in a bumba, an outdoor enclave where people gather to eat around the fire. After Onyx explains that we will enjoy a traditional African meal for dinner, the entire Savute staff enters the bumba singing in beautiful, loud, melodious harmony, stomping around the fire in a simple but powerful dance step. After their performance, we dine on a feast of butternut squash soup, slow-roasted goat meat, crocodile tail curry, roasted vegetables, salad, polenta, and date cake for dessert.

The final segment of our journey takes us to Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, which runs between Zambia and Zimbabwe. We check into Zambia's Royal Livingstone Hotel, a gorgeous British-colonial style hotel right on the Zambezi River, so close to the falls that we can see not only the mist rising above the river a few hundred meters down river, but also hear the thunderous sound of the entire river spilling into a seemingly bottomless chasm and hitting the rocks below.

At Victoria Falls, we suit up in rain jackets and waterproof pants and walk along the slippery, mossy path along the cliff opposite the waterfall's edge. There is so much water, and it is falling from such a great height, that it sprays all the way back up and down again as if it's pouring rain outside. We also take a helicopter ride over the falls, with stunning views of the water gushing over the jagged edge, the river winding along in a snake-like pattern, followed by a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River in the evening.

After a week spent studying the finer details of African wildlife — the footprint of the elusive cheetah, the spidery silhouette of the baobab tree — the sheer size and grandeur of the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls are a majestic conclusion to our journey to Africa."

Information

Visit www.micato.com for more information about Micato Safaris.

About the author: Caitlin Moyles, a graduate of Castilleja High School, a sophomore at Duke University, and an intern this summer at the Almanac, traveled to Africa in July with her mom, dad, and brother.

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