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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

(continued from page 1)

Game-viewing lodges offer a more relaxed approach to getting close to the action. These facilities are built near watering holes or salt licks where animals gather, and guests can spend most of the day on a porch, sipping cocktails and smoking cigars, while watching the tableau unfold below. One afternoon, a number of gazelles and buffalo served as a barometer of activity for our group. When the animals suddenly became alert and bolted into the woods, everyone on the porch gazed down intently, awaiting the arrival of a predator, in this case a single lion, whose short visit cleared the area in a trice. Once he had left, our previous guests slowly began to return. Then the noise of rumbling and breaking branches in the nearby trees indicated that an elephant was about to make an appearance. A young male emerged from the jungle and proceeded to the watering hole while the smaller animals eyed him warily. Soon he was joined by another, and the elephants continued to arrive, coming in groups of four or five. Within half an hour there were nearly 50 elephants below, and we sat transfixed by the scene. The herd dominated the watering hole for several hours, crowding out smaller game, then suddenly moved on, allowing other species to take their turn.

Another advantage to this arrangement comes at night, when much animal activity occurs but often can't be seen. At the lodges, powerful spotlights are turned on (to which the animals have long since become accustomed), and game viewing continues around the clock. I was awakened in the wee hours one morning by a brisk knock on the door. I scurried to the porch in time to view the rhino I had been waiting to see. Earlier that evening, at dinner, a spotter had come to the table and taken requests. You could register your favorite animals in case the desired quarry made a nocturnal appearance. I had left a rhino wake-up call.

Many itineraries combine game drives and stays at game-viewing lodges, and may even include a short walking safari. Daytime diversions range from fishing excursions to visits to local villages to hot-air balloon rides. As well as providing a thrilling ride, these balloons offer a unique airborne perspective, as the gondola drifts silently over herds of elephants, prides of lions and other denizens of the plains. When the balloon touches down after an early-morning flight, tables are set up so you can enjoy a bush breakfast, complete with Champagne. As the sun climbs into the sky, you nibble your croissants in the middle of the vast Serengeti National Park, but the lions and cheetahs are never far from your mind.

In addition to the driving safari, where participants spend a couple of days at each park and drive on to the next, there are rafting safaris, foot safaris, cycling safaris and even camel safaris. A more expensive option is a flying safari, where instead of ground transportation you are whisked about in small bush planes, greatly reducing the time spent in transit. One outfitter, Classic Aerial Safaris, offers individualized itineraries using its reproduction 1935 Waco biplanes. These carry a pilot and one or two passengers in an open cockpit à la Denys Finch-Hatton, the character played by Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa. Dressed for the part, right down to the white silk scarf, leather helmet and goggles, I gazed in fascination as my pilot pointed out a herd of giraffes, then banked and flew lower, allowing a close-up view of two rare white rhinos.

Most of these safari options can be combined in different ways, permitting guests to spend all or part of the trip using various forms of transportation. A "wing safari," for instance, allows guests to tour the parks close to one another by car, even while they fly between more remote destinations to save time. This method is generally reserved for lengthy itineraries and multinational safaris.

The countries of East Africa, especially Kenya and Tanzania, comprise the classic wildlife and terrain associated with safaris. Kenya's Masai Mara (often shortened to "the Mara") is a large, open grassland high on the Serengeti Plain, where some of the most popular species, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, rhinos, zebras and a variety of gazelles, make their home. Since the Mara is a reserve, not a national park, off-road driving is allowed, and visitors can exit their vehicles and walk among the protected rhinos in the company of soldiers. The best time to visit the Mara is in July and August, during the incredible annual wildebeest migration, when millions of these animals move across the Serengeti, providing an indispensable part of the food chain for a variety of predators, especially lions.

Also in Kenya, Amboseli National Park is dry thorn country at a much lower altitude than the Mara. Amboseli is known for its huge herds of elephants, and visitors can often see several hundred of these magnificent beasts at a time, as well as views of Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent's highest peak.

Samburu, in northern Kenya, has very different topography. The hilly and wooded terrain makes game viewing more challenging but allows glimpses of the animals in a different habitat. This terrain is well suited to camel safaris.

Tsavo, a large and popular park that is also in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, recently achieved fame as the site portrayed in the Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer movie The Ghost and the Darkness, based on a true story about the legendary man-eating lions of Tsavo. More famous now are the 8,000 or 9,000 elephants that roam its thick bush and appear brick red because of the prodigious dust there. Only a decade ago, Tsavo was the scene of shootouts between park rangers and elephant poachers with assault rifles. Happily, the area has been secured and the once dwindling herds are coming back.

In the northwest corner of the country, Lake Nakuru National Park, with more than a million pink flamingos crowding its shores, is one of the world's most impressive bird-watching destinations.

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