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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 2)

Tanzania offers the famed Serengeti National Park. With the adjoining Masai Mara on the Kenya side of the border, the two parks form the Serengeti Plain. Visitors can also experience the magnificent wildebeest migration here. Close by, Ngorongoro Crater conservation area features a flat caldera (a volcanic crater) with steep walls, about 15 miles in diameter; it is home to the densest concentration of wildlife in Africa, teeming with virtually every East African creature, with the exception of the giraffe, whose long legs are unable to negotiate the steep sides of the caldera. Near Serengeti and Ngorongoro is Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey discovered fossils of prehistoric man.

The vastness of parks such as the Mara and the Serengeti is surreal. Herds of buffalo, gazelles and zebras, numbering in the hundreds, fill the plains as far as the eye can see. Where the plains give way to trees, giraffes nibble at leaves overhead. When spooked, these graceful creatures sprint surprisingly fast, their long legs making huge strides. Up in the hills among the rocks, rhinos wander. Down by the riverbed, the leopard lurks in the lush foliage. "There he is, right in front of you," my guide whispered as I stared blindly into the tree. Shaking my head, I watched again as he pointed, following his finger upwards. Suddenly I saw that the thick branch was not a branch at all but a sleeping leopard, barely distinguishable from the tree, with his spots blended into the bark and leaves. I could have driven beneath the tree hundreds of times without noticing him. Considering the cruel efficiency of nature's camouflage, I pitied the animals he feeds on. I wondered how many other leopards wait in trees like this one throughout the Serengeti.

Two other notable Tanzanian parks are Arusha National Park and the Selous Game Reserve. Both allow walking safaris. Arusha, at 20 square miles, is tiny but quite beautiful, with its forested foothills, crater lakes and grassy glades. While Arusha is on many safari itineraries, Selous is on few. It is one of the more remote parks, but well worth the visit, as it is uncrowded, parts remain unexplored, and it is the largest park in all of Africa. Since it contains wild rivers, it is well suited to rafting trips and among the best places for viewing hippos and crocodiles.

South Africa offers many of the same animals found in East Africa, and while the game viewing is less concentrated, visitors are drawn to South Africa by the wide variety of other sights, from preserved gold rush towns to the golf courses and entertainment complexes of Sun City. South Africa is the most modernized nation in Africa, and the amenities and health conditions (you can drink the water in many areas) reflect this. Kruger National Park, along its eastern boundary, has more wildlife species than any other place in Africa, including black rhinos, buffalo, leopards, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and the recently returned elephant. The private reserves on its western boundary provide greater seclusion and upmarket comforts. Mala Mala Reserve is one of the few places to see the "king cheetah," a larger example of cheetah with stripes instead of spots, and its main camp is one of the lushest safari lodges in the world. Londolozi Reserve is widely known for its many leopards.

In the West African nation of Namibia, Etosha National Park is an enormous reserve that is home to a wide variety of animals, including the black rhino and the black-faced impala (a large, brownish antelope), which is found almost exclusively there. There are few human visitors, and its huge animal population tends to crowd around the dwindling water supply (except in the wet summer months), making viewing very easy.

Clearly, Africa is a large place and visitors will not see every form of wildlife in every area. Some they will not see at all. When one of the guests at a lodge in Samburu asked, "When do we get to see the tigers and gorillas?" our guide could barely suppress his laughter. This is a question they get weekly, given the misinformation generations of Americans have been fed by the Tarzan movies. Despite what the Lord of the Apes would have us believe, tigers inhabit Asia, not Africa, and larger primates do not coexist with lions, cheetahs and the like. To see the great apes, you must travel deep into the mountainous regions, and for this reason travel to Uganda is on the rise, although the country's volatile political situation makes the more stable Kenya and Tanzania the choice of most tourists. Another option is neighboring Rwanda, where researcher Dian Fossey lived for 13 years. Her book, Gorillas in the Mist, which describes her studies, was later made into a feature film. Gorilla safaris are generally conducted on foot and can be quite a bit more strenuous than conventional safaris. Gorillas can be hard to find, and some guests come away disappointed, but others experience the thrill of sitting in the midst of a family of these amazing creatures.

Many guidebooks and brochures name the "big five"-- lions, buffalo, elephants, leopards and rhinos--as the animals to seek out on safari. The "big five" is something of a misnomer, because the term was originally created by hunters who were describing the most difficult or dangerous prey, not necessarily the most desirable to view. Most visitors would gladly trade a glimpse of the buffalo, which is commonly seen in huge herds, for the more elusive cheetah or the graceful zebra and giraffe. For tourists, the great cats--the lion, leopard and cheetah--are the most sought-after animals, and while almost every visitor will see lions, those who spy a leopard should consider themselves lucky.

A luxurious alternative to standard safari accommodations in lodges is a mobile tented safari. This is the quintessential traditional safari experience popularized by Teddy Roosevelt on his 1909 journey to East Africa. Accompanied by hundreds of porters, Roosevelt's entourage enjoyed spacious deluxe tents, portable bathtubs, vintage wines and gourmet meals served on fine china--all in the privacy of the bush. Fortunately, this deluxe experience is still available today, albeit on a smaller scale.

The idea of camping in tents may suggest an image of roughing it, but do not be fooled; mobile tented safaris are more expensive and often more comfortable than their lodge-bound counterparts. The sturdy canvas tents boast more than 400 square feet of living space, en suite bathrooms with hot showers, beds and linen sheets, dressing tables and mirrors, and a private veranda where you can sit out and enjoy the pleasant African climate. A dining tent accommodates your silver-domed serving trays and crystal Champagne glasses, and the bar can be stocked to your specifications. At a tented camp in the Masai Mara, I enjoyed cocktails on my tent porch while watching the sun set over the nearby river. That night I slept soundly, only to be awakened by the sounds of hippos frolicking in the cool predawn temperatures. There are worse ways to wake up.

In addition to history and pampering, mobile tented safaris give you the convenience of creating a varied itinerary, and going where there are no lodges. When you depart on your morning game drive, porters break camp and move it to your next location, where all the luxuries await you. For this experience, which is offered through the major outfitters, expect to spend $400 to $1,000 per person per day. Trip size can begin at just one. For those seeking something special but a little less extravagant, groups big enough to fill a van, usually six or more, can plan a custom or private trip. This is a particularly attractive option for families traveling together.

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