Some hotels are situated in dangerous neighborhoods. If you venture down the block, you risk getting mugged. But when you go on safari, stepping outside your bungalow can get you eaten.
My South Arican safari adventure took me far outside my usual comfort zone. As you’ll see, the perils that I faced did include the possibility of becoming fresh meat. But the discomfort started before I even arrived. It began with the airplane I needed to take to get to the safari.
One thing you need to understand about me: I hate flying. I don’t mean that I dislike it because of the delays, or the hassle of going through airport security checkpoints, or the poor customer service that has become all too common (although none of those things thrills me). What I mean is that flying scares me. It absolutely terrifies me.
This might seem surprising for someone who travels as much as I do. Obviously, I don’t let my fear prevent me from doing what I love. When I’m on holiday I force myself to board airplanes, because the rewards of reaching the places to which they whisk me are so substantial. But during much of the time that we’re airborne, I’m a nervous wreck — especially during turbulence. Yes, I know how statistically safe commercial air travel is; and I know too that turbulence usually poses no danger to the safety of the flight (although there may be occasional exceptions). But that intellectual awareness is of scant comfort when my aircraft is being tossed around in the stratosphere. I’m somewhat calmer when I’m riding on one of the jumbo jets that are typically employed for long-haul international flights; but even then, bumpy air unsettles me. Perhaps the most terrifying hour of my life occurred during a flight from Sydney to Hong Kong in January 2010. The plane was shaking so violently that I had to hold on to the tray table in front of me. I kept wondering how close we were approaching to the plane’s stress limits; and until we emerged from whatever horrendous weather we were bouncing through, I was convinced that a plunge into the badly-misnamed Pacific Ocean was imminent. And that frightful episode happened aboard an Airbus A340-600, among the largest airliners ever built.
So when I was making plans to go on safari in September 2011, I became very, very nervous upon learning that the only way I could reach my chosen location (the Elephant Plains lodge at the Sabi Sands game reserve in South Africa) was to hitch a ride on a tiny propeller plane. That was my only option for transit from Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport in Nelspruit (well, my only option unless I wanted to show up at the Johanesburg airport at 6:00 am for ground transportation all the way to Sabi Sands. And I am so not a morning person; even making it to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport for my 9:00 am depature to Nelspruit was not easy for me). While Mpumalanga has a cool name, you’re forced to strap yourself into a perilously small aircraft if you desire the privilege of landing there.
As the date and time of my white-knuckle flight approached, my apprehension soared, based on a combination of two factors: the plane would be minuscule, and it would have propellers instead of jet engines. Small planes just provide less of a feeling of security — it’s like the difference between driving onto the autobahn in a SmartCar versus a tractor-trailer. As well, you tend to feel turbulence more in smaller planes. And in case I haven’t mentioned it, I hate turbulence. 🙂 Propeller planes terrify me for the additional reason that I’m always fearful the propellers will stop spinning. Hey, I didn’t say my phobia is rational.
My stay in South Africa began when I arrived at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport on a Saturday morning. Two days later, I was back at the same airport for my flight to Nelspruit. Shown at right is the actual plane that I was forced to climb into. I might as well have just been wearing wings on my back. After we’d been seated for takeoff, I turned to the passenger beside me and told her I was nervous because I had never flown on a plane as small as the one that we were now on. “I’m scared too,” she responded. That was reassuring . . .
The flight on that little puddle-jumper actually turned out to be remarkably smooth (an example of the very common phenomenon of the apprehension turning out to have been much worse than the thing that was feared). Even so, I was on pins and needles until we touched down at Nelspruit.
The next phase of my journey to Sabi Sands consisted of ground transportation. This involved a roughly three hour ride in a minivan. The distance that we covered was not nearly as vast as the duration might suggest, but much of the drive was over bouncy dirt roads that could only be traversed at a low rate of speed.
It was a huge relief to be securely on terra firma, but a new issue had arisen. I was sick. Beginning the previous day, I’d felt intermittently feverish; now my condition was steadily deteriorating. By the time of my van ride to Sabi Sands, I’d developed full-blown flu-like symptoms.
I checked into the Elephant Plains lodge, and was shown to my private bungalow. As you can see at left, the accommodations were quite comfortable. Which was a good thing, because I was about to spend quite a lot of time in my room.
Whatever was ailing me, I didn’t feel up to going on the afternoon game drive that would normally greet new arrivals. Neither could I muster an appetite for anything more substantial than soup and orange juice; so I skipped the communal lunch and dinner that were available, and remained in my bungalow while staff members periodically came by with the aforementioned liquids. Even those items, I could only force myself to consume with great difficulty.
I would have sought immediate medical attention, but when you’re on safari you can’t just hop in a taxi to an emergency room. The closest available doctor was a 90 minute drive away over bumpy dirt roads, and only saw patients by appointment. The earliest available appointment was the following morning. I scheduled a next-day office visit, and arranged for round-trip transportation (I hoped that I would be making a return trip, and would not have to be admitted as an inpatient).
As I languished in my bungalow, I started stressing. I didn’t know what affliction I was suffering from, but my mind raced through possible diagnoses. I doubted that I’d gotten the flu, since I’d received a flu shot prior to departing from New York (although later I would learn that a flu vaccine does not become fully effective until roughly two weeks after it’s administered; and of course, one can always fall prey to a strain that this year’s vaccine was not designed to combat). Could I have been exposed to one of those notorious African microbes like the Ebola virus? Or perhaps I’d come in contact with a less exotic virus during my 15-hour flight from New York to Johannesburg. Those airplanes are virtual petri dishes for infectious diseases, after all.
I did have an alternate theory of what had brought on my debilitating fever. Before I left New York, my travel medicine clinic had written me a prescription for Malarone, an anti-malaria medication. The clinic directed me to take the pills starting two days before my arrival at the safari lodge, and continuing through the end of my stay there. I think the Malarone recommendation was pretty reflexive on the part of the clinic: sub-Saharan Africa = malaria risk, no further analysis required. It’s true that the African continent is a hotbed of that disease; and no question, getting malaria would be undesirable. But I became convinced that my doctor had overstated my risk of exposure, for two reasons. First, the rainy season, which swells the population of mosquitoes that transmit the disease, had not yet begun. Second, in order to become infected with malaria, you must be bitten by (i) a female mosquito that (ii) has previously bitten an infected person. Even if you encounter a mosquito (and I think I only saw one during my entire time on safari), its chances of meeting both of those criteria are quite low. This is particularly the case if you’re in Kruger Park, or an adjacent game preserve like Sabi Sands, where the other people who are on site are unlikely to have contracted malaria themselves. Plus, I would wear insect repellant when out and about, and I would keep my bungalow hermetically sealed while I was sleeping.
When I was still in the Johannesburg area during the first couple of days after my arrival in South Africa, a tour guide who took me on a day trip told me that he’d safaried in Kruger National Park roughly 500 times. He added that he’d never taken malaria pills while on any of those safari excursions; in fact he’d only taken anti-malaria meds one time ever, when he was traveling to an impoverished area of Uganda. Meanwhile, my internet research was revealing that flu-like symptoms were not only a symptom of malaria, but could also arise as a side-effect of the Malarone that was supposed to prevent it. What’s the point of avoiding malaria if you still feel as if you had it? Well, I guess at least the side-effects from Malarone won’t kill you like malaria can. But if my fever was the Malarone’s fault, I sure didn’t feel like I was better off.
Based on my new awareness about Malarone’s side-effects, and the advice of the I-never-take-it-myself tour guide, I’d therefore made the decision to discontinue taking my Malarone pills on Monday morning (the morning on which the rickety prop plane conveyed me from Johannesburg to Nelspruit). Since I’d ingested Malarone pills the previous two mornings before discontinuing them (and the onset of my fever had occurred the day after the first ingestion), the side-effect theory seemed plausible. At the same time, I couldn’t rule out Ebola. Was it possible that I would never again see my friends, family, or colleagues in the United States? Maybe it was the delirium talking, but such an outcome seemed like a non-zero possibility.
Amid thoughts of my mortality, I fretted about a different potential effect of my illness: Could my safari that I’d so been looking forward to be ruined? I’d flown all the way to the other side of the world, and my trek might have been for naught. The animals that I’d been so excited to see were practically just outside my door, and yet they might as well have still been 8,000 miles away.
I also began dreading my visit to to the local doctor. What type of medical practice would I even find out here? What kind of antiseptic techniques would it employ? Even under the best of conditions, I have a fear of hospitals to rival my fear of flying. And these were far from the best of conditions.
Suddenly, around midnight, I felt much better. My quick recovery bolstered my conclusion that my suite of symptoms had been brought on by the Malarone; the cessation of those symptoms could obviously be explained by my cutting off of their suspected source. Regardless of the accuracy of that theory, I had more immediate needs: I was ravenous because I’d eaten almost nothing all day. I didn’t think I’d be able to fall asleep without some food intake. But how would I find food at this late hour? My otherwise well-appointed bungalow lacked a minibar, and although there was a refrigerator, that fridge was devoid of any pre-supplied victuals. I couldn’t dial room service because there was no phone in my bungalow (and there was no open kitchen to call anyway). Being in the remote African bush, I also wasn’t going to find a 24-hour convenience store around the corner.
So I emerged from my bungalow and wandered around the grounds of the lodge. My first stop was the reception offices. Closed; no great surprise there. Next, I searched for the night guard. I located him in the outdoor amphitheater where dinner is served (a bonfire burns in the middle of the amphitheater while people are dining, although the flames had been exitnguished several hours before I got there). The night guard radioed a lodge employee who woke up, went to the kitchen and assembled a plate of sandwiches that he then brought to me. (I’d walked back to my bungalow alone after speaking with the staff member over the guard’s walkie-talkie). It was very nice of the staff member to arise in the middle of the night and, as he put it, “organise” the sandwich plate.
The next day I slept in. People who go on the morning game drives are roused from slumber by a 5:00 am “wake-up knock” on their door; under the circumstances, an awakening that early didn’t seem like a good idea for me. So I had now missed the first two game drives that were held during my stay. But when I did finally roll out of bed I was definitely feeling better, and to my relief I was able to cancel my doctor’s visit. I began to look forward to my first game drive that afternoon.
I didn’t even have to leave my bungalow to get up close and personal with wildlife. As seen here, a nyala, which is a type of antelope, ambled right up to my window. Only a thin sheet of glass separated me from my inquisitive visitor. I could also open the sliding glass doors at the back of the bungalow and step out onto a private balcony that looked out on a watering hole (The balcony was elevated, so there was no chance that I would find the nyala relaxing on one of the chaise longues). I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at that watering hole, gazing at impalas, zebras, and wildebeest that ambled up to it for liquid refreshment. Soon it was time to get much closer.
The game drives are far and away the highlight of any safari experience. Your party and several other guests from your lodge pile into a roofless SUV. Your guide is behind the wheel, but there’s also a raised seat above the front bumper in which sits a “tracker.” The tracker is particularly adept at sighting animal tracks as well as recognizing the “evidence” that the animals have deposited. From such clues, the tracker and the guide jointly deduce which animals have passed through the area recently and in what direction they’ve headed. Your vehicle then heads off in hot pursuit of the game that you’re stalking. The guides also radio each other; so for example, if one vehicle spots a herd of giraffes, other guides will be apprised of the location where this sighting took place.
So you don’t just drive around aimlessly, hoping to stumble upon a particular species. And when you’re trying to catch up to your quarry, the driver/guide will often take full advantage of the off-road capabilities of the LandCruiser. You will leave the dirt roads and crunch your way through the brush, with the cowcatcher-like appendage at the front of the vehicle knocking down small trees that get in the way.
Many people who go on safari set a goal of seeing each of the species on the list known as the “Big Five.” That term originated among hunters, to denote the quintet of animals that are most challenging to hunt (with the challenge arising to a large extent from the danger that those animals pose to even a fully armed big-game hunter). They are the elephant; lion; Cape buffalo (also known as the African buffalo); rhinoceros; and leopard. Checking off each of the Big Five is a prized experience among safari-goers (even though people who safari these days are much more likely to be shooting their prey with a DSLR than with a rifle). Other savannah denizens such as giraffes and hippopotami are also highly sought after, but completing the sightings of each of the Big Five is a special source of satisfaction.
At a well-run lodge like the one I stayed at, guests tend to be grouped in the game drive vehicle with fellow travelers who’ve been on safari for about the same length of time, so that together you experience a gradual progression through the checklist of the Big Five. When you set out on a new drive, your guide is aware of which animals your group has already seen, and which ones you’ve not yet set eyes upon. He plans the drive accordingly. Sometimes it seemed that the driver and tracker could deliver desired animal species on demand. The guide would call out things like “Who wants to see a rhino?” — and then darned if we weren’t soon gazing upon the horned creature that we’d been promised (With that said, I would certainly acknowledge that a great deal of luck goes into which species you’ll be able to find on a given day).
As mentioned, many of the game animals that you will see on safari are dangerous. You’re encroaching on their turf, and they are capable of killing you. We were informed, though, that they’re used to the sight of the SUV’s motoring around in their midst with seated passengers inside. So the mere glimpse of your approaching vehicle will not incite an animal to attack. We were further informed, however, that it is absolutely crucial not to stand up in the vehicle when in the vicinity of one of the Big Five. The reason is that the vehicle then ceases to be in the familiar unified form that the animal is used to. If you’re standing up, the animal will suddenly notice you as a separate individual who is not on its “approved shapes” list, and may react by charging towards you. So when I did stand up to get a better angle for my photographs, I made sure that there was another passenger in the SUV positioned between me and the dangerous animal, to absorb the brunt of any attack. Okay, I didn’t really do that. I complied with the warning and remained seated at all times.
(In case you’re wondering, you would not be completely defenseless in the event of an attack on your SUV. The guide carries a gun in the vehicle, although the occasions for its use are fortunately rare. The guides are never happy about having to put down an animal).
Two game drives are offered daily: the first sets out before sunrise, and the second departs in late afternoon. These timeslots are based on the fact that during the hottest part of the day, many of the game animals tend to slumber and/or hide in the shade, so the best viewing opportunities are in the earlier and latter parts of the day when the animals are more active.
My first game drive was an afternoon one. That drive was a sublime experience that surpasses almost anything else I’ve ever done. Mid-September is still Austral winter in South Africa, so darkness came relatively early. So at some point we were still in the SUV, with twilight giving way to darkness, and the driver killed the engine. We sat there in the quiet and stillness (except for some animal calls), with lions skulking all around us. If I looked up I could see the silhouetted trees in the fading light. If I looked further up, I could see dazzling stars filling the sky above. Among the constellations that dotted the celestial canopy was the Southern Cross, which I beheld for the first time in my life. But the most spectacular phenomenon in the night sky that evening was that the moon had assumed a reddish hue (see photo at left). The billion points of light, the red moon, the utter serenity; I had a feeling of completeness. I wished that moment could last forever.
After dinner that night, I ended up in the bar, having drinks with staff members. Recall that the previous night, I’d walked the grounds of the lodge, alone, after midnight. Well, the staffers now casually mentioned that leopards and hyenas frequently roamed the lodge grounds at night, so that it wasn’t safe to leave my bungalow after dark. In fact, just the night before (i.e., the same night when I’d left my bungalow to search for sustenance), a leopard had been running around on the premises! And no one had warned me about this risk before the casual mention that I was just now hearing from the staff (As it was, when I finished my beer a staff member insisted on having the night guard escort me back to my bungalow). During my run for a midnight snack, I’d been blissfully unaware of the deadly intruder’s presence as I stepped out into the dark night. What if I’d come upon the leopard?
Later on during my safari, my guide/driver would tell me how to react in the event of such an encounter: Stand your ground. Eventually, the spotted feline will probably lose interest and slink away. But the absolute worst thing you can do is run. Because then the leopard will chase you and even if you’re Roger Bannister, you will not come close to winning that race.
On the night when I was actually in danger of crossing paths with the leopard, I hadn’t yet been given the advice to remain indoors after sundown (although I might have chanced it anyway because I was so desperate for food). Neither had anyone shared with me the imperative of not trying to run if you do have a leopard encounter. So if the leopard had accosted me, panic and flight may well have been my response (especially since I was just getting over an illness and was not well-rested, and thus was not in condition to be thinking clearly). And if the leopard had then proceeded to do what leopards do in that situation, well, let’s just say that I’m no Roger Bannister. I never would had to worry about being hungry again . . .
I did see a leopard during my safari, but he was safely up a tree. I have no way of knowing whether it was the same leopard who had trespassed on the grounds of the lodge on that earlier occasion. Either way, he had not had the good fortune to come upon me when he was foraging for food, so he’d made alternate dining arrangements. He’d killed a bush buck and lugged the carcass up into the tree, where he was now feasting on it. He was a sloppy eater, frequently dropping pieces of his dinner to the ground. A hyena was strategically positioned at the base of the tree, eagerly scopping up the sloppy seconds that descended its way.
In addition to the leopard, I also managed to complete my sightings of the other four members of the Big Five. I was especially enthused about this achievement because I’d only been able to go on four of the six game drives during my three-night stay at the lodge. My guides did an incredible job to ensure my diversity of game sightings.
Among the top animals that I would have liked to see but didn’t were the cheetah (although the only reason I know that I saw a leopard and not a cheetah was because my guide told me what I was looking at. All those spotted cats look the same to me). Another disappointment was that my only sightings of hippopotami occurred when the hippos were mostly submerged in ponds (they tend to stay underwater during the daytime to keep cool). You could only see the head sticking out above the surface of the water, and that was about it. It would have been nice to see a full hippo, but that wasn’t in the cards for me. The guide did suggest one way that I could have obtained my desired hippo sighting: if I were to walk up to the edge of the water in which the hippo was swimming, the hippo would then emerge from the water. He would charge me and kill me, but at least I would see 100% of the hippo before I expired from my wounds.
In addition to the game drives, I went on a bush walk. As the name implies, a bush walk is simply a stroll through the reserve. Your guide periodically points out flora and fauna of interest, and other notable sights such as termite mounds (those things are crazy huge, by the way). Now, when you’re on foot instead of inside an SUV, you’re obviously more exposed to attack by safari animals. My guide cheerfully offered that about once in every ten bush walks, the walkers are confronted by a dangerous animal such as one of the Big Five. He instructed us on the defensive posture we should assume in the event of such a confrontation (The ranger who leads your bush walk does carry a rifle, but it can’t be assumed that he’ll have time to use it in the heat of the moment. A charging animal, such as a rhino or elephant, can reach you in a hurry. Besides, a single weapon only goes so far when you’re cornered by multiple multi-ton mammals). I never pay attention to those safety briefings, but at one point it appeared we might need to actually put the defensive plan into action: as we neared a watering hole, the guide told us that there were lions within 200 meters of our position (he formed this assessment after examining their tracks and dung). As luck would have it, my group was not ultimately threatened by any lions or other beasts during our bush walk. I decided not to tempt fate by going on any more bush walks.
You may have noticed that although we’re over 4,000 words into my narrative, I haven’t mentioned any singing experiences. In case you were wondering, shockingly enough, I didn’t find any karaoke in the African bush. When you go on safari, where you get a “wake-up knock” on your door at 5:00 every morning, nightlife in general is understandably minimal. Still, it sure would have been awesome to have been able to sing “The Lion Sleeps tonight” while surrounded by actual lions.
At the conclusion of my karaoke-less safari, I flew back to Johannesburg and then caught a connecting flight to Cape Town to continue my tour of South Africa. I’ll discuss Cape Town in a future post. But now, here are additional photos depicting some of my safari adventures: