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Into Africa

From photo safaris to rhino wake-up calls, Africa beckons with gripping wildlife experiences
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

"She's very hungry," whispered our guide. Less than 20 feet away crouched a lean lioness, her ribs clearly visible. She stood perfectly still, every muscle in her powerful body tensed, as she waited patiently for the wind to die down, so no scent would carry to the oblivious zebra grazing a hundred yards away. When the breeze stopped, she resumed her methodical stalking, silently closing the gap between her and her quarry. As she drew close, the zebra sensed something amiss and looked up, but by then it was too late.

This scene is repeated hundreds of times daily throughout Africa--the hunter and the hunted vying in a constant game of survival. Often brutal, but always necessary, the savage beauty of predators on the hunt is often the highlight of an African safari. This wasn't always true. Earlier in this century, adventurers like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway traveled to Africa to play the hunter themselves, bagging trophies as they went. Today's wildlife safaris are all about stalking images--visual, photographic and especially mental. To see a lion, all one has to do is go to a zoo. To experience a lion, one has to go to Africa.

No number of pictures or National Geographic specials can prepare you for the real thing. Only when a three-ton bull elephant emerges from the trees, 20 feet away, and eyes your car as a plaything can you comprehend his size and power. When a giraffe cranes his head two stories over you to pick leaves from a tree, you suddenly appreciate every brown spot on his huge body.

Tourism to Africa is at an all-time high. While this means increased human crowding in the most popular parks and game reserves, it also translates into larger animal populations as governments recognize that protecting these four-legged attractions is good for business. Furthermore, tour operators are constantly devising new ways to experience the stunning wildlife and natural beauty that are unique to Africa. Wildlife safaris now couple a wide variety of destinations, transportation and lodging with other diversions, including golf, water sports and river rafting. This may seem peculiar, since we usually associate safaris with great white hunters going after big game, but the word safari comes from an Arabic term that means a trip of any kind.

One element common to most wildlife safaris is the game drive. Since nearly all African national parks prohibit traveling on foot, safari visitors usually find themselves driving through a park in some kind of vehicle as a guide and a driver seek out animals. If you are lucky, you stumble into the midst of action, whether it is a cheetah streaking across the plains at 70 miles an hour or buffalo locking horns near a salt lick.

On a recent safari in Kenya, I discovered that the search for action makes for early wake-up calls. Because of the oppressive heat, the animals are most active at dusk and dawn, so drives are usually conducted in two-and-a-half-hour segments at daybreak and in the late afternoon. On most mornings, we downed our coffee before 6 a.m., packed into a Land Rover and raced the rising sun to whatever section of the park promised the particular animals the group's members had requested to see. To catch a glimpse of the elusive leopard, the driver might head for the large trees, where this great cat sleeps and waits for his next meal to pass below. For hippos and crocodiles, he might go to the rivers and watering holes, where these two vastly different creatures coexist. Cheetahs, on the other hand, frequent the vast, open savannas, where they use their phenomenal speed to bring down smaller antelope.

After the game drive, there's typically time for a hearty breakfast back at the lodge and, in most areas, the core of the day is spent at leisure. But if a pride of lions is in attendance, it may be worth an additional game drive after lunch to see them sleeping lazily in the midday sun. The king of the jungle enjoys the rare luxury of being able to sleep out in the open, nestled in the tall grass, because the adult lion is hunted by no other animal.

Late-afternoon game drives usually begin at around four or five, and this may be the best chance to experience the heart-pounding action of the kill. As the antelope, wildebeest and zebra graze in the falling temperatures, the predators, rested and hungry, prepare for the hunt. One afternoon, a group of vultures circling on the horizon led our driver into the thick of the action as hyenas feasted on a wildebeest recently killed by a lion. In the bush, the food chain often depends on the meat left by larger predators for a succession of smaller scavengers. For our part, the life-and-death spectacle was followed by cocktails, called "sundowners," at the lodge, and an extensive dinner.

Most safari operators use specially equipped minivans, with beefed-up suspensions and removable roofs. These allow for comfortable game drives, and passengers can stand up for a clear field of view and good photo opportunities. In many parks, vehicles are restricted to the numerous dirt roads, and although these may extend deep into the park, there are places the minivans cannot go. In parks that allow off-road driving, some outfitters use Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers, with open tops or detachable roofs. Although these vehicles aren't as comfortable inside as the minivans, they're ideal for tracking animals on the hoof. They can get surprisingly close to the animals, especially those that don't perceive humans as a threat. A hunting lioness will give the car a once-over and then ignore it, even as the vehicle creeps along just a few feet behind her.

Despite the nonchalance of the animals, there is something disquieting about stalking a predator or parking in the midst of a dozen dozing lions. While our guide assured us that these beasts are not hungry for humans, they are big cats after all, and in an open-top Land Cruiser all that stands between us and them is an easy leap to the hood. Whether we were following great cats, hyenas or baboons, there was always the uneasy feeling that most of these creatures could join us in the car anytime they wanted.

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