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Into Africa

From photo safaris to rhino wake-up calls, Africa beckons with gripping wildlife experiences
By Larry Olmsted | From 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.

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.

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.

Most conventional safaris offer a taste of the Roosevelt experience by spending a few nights at permanent tented camps that are especially popular in the Masai Mara. Here you will find the same canvas tents and services, but they are pitched on permanent concrete platforms, and the camps offer swimming pools, bars and restaurants. For many guests, a night in a tented camp is the highlight of the trip, with lanterns burning and the breeze blowing through the windows.

When you visit Kenya, make sure your itinerary includes a stay at the venerable Mount Kenya Safari Club. Film star William Holden transformed a small inn into what is widely considered to be the continent's finest hotel, and so it remains to this day. In addition to serving as a deluxe resort, Mount Kenya is also a private club, whose membership has included Winston Churchill, Lyndon Johnson, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Conrad Hilton. The resort is home to the biplane rides of Classic Aerial Safaris, and guests can also partake in tennis, spa services, horseback riding, swimming and gourmet dining. Nestled at the foot of Mount Kenya, the continent's second-tallest mountain, the club straddles the equator and golfing guests can hit tee shots from one hemisphere into the next.

Since much of your time on safari is spent out of doors, whether in open vehicles, on viewing decks or on your own veranda, cigar smoking and safaris go hand in hand. Unfortunately, quality cigars are a rarity in Africa, so bring your own. John Paragano, a lawyer and the deputy mayor of Union, New Jersey, was another guest on my safari, and he kept me well supplied with Cuban Montecristos. Paragano and his wife, Sharon, were enjoying a honeymoon visit to Africa. "We looked for something different for our honeymoon, because I'm well traveled," he explained. "A safari sounded like an exciting adventure as well as a unique honeymoon trip."

When Paragano and I returned to camp after an early-morning game run, having just tracked two lionesses on the hunt and glimpsed another elusive leopard, we were the envy of everyone at breakfast. Other groups had returned without spying a single cat. It was our second leopard of the trip, and a few people had yet to see even one. When he was asked how we did it, our guide just smiled.

Choosing quality outfitters and guides is critical in planning a safari. The parks you visit and the accommodations you secure will not affect your enjoyment as much as the professionalism of your outfitter and the knowledge of your guide and driver. Africa is a difficult place to get around on your own, and safaris are very detail-oriented; how these details are handled will mean the difference between the trip of a lifetime and a bitter disappointment. An excellent guide and driver will educate you and be able to find game almost anywhere, while lesser ones will come up empty in the best parks.

Many U.S.-based safari companies are merely booking agents for outfitters in Africa and may have little control over the details. Only a handful, such as Micato, which I chose for my safari, and Abercrombie & Kent, actually own their own vehicles, use their own staff and maintain offices in both the United States and Africa. Micato and A&K operate guide schools, where their personnel are specially trained, and all their guides are multilingual. Our driver, who spotted the leopard, had been leading safaris for Micato for more than 25 years.

Perry Lungmus, the director of tours and specialty operators for API Travel Consultants, a network of travel agents that caters to an exclusive clientele, makes several recommendations for choosing an outfitter. According to Lungmus, a "wholly owned local office in Africa equates to dependable and accessible on-site service. It also means local contacts and current information." And he adds, "There should be a qualified, overall safari guide to keep an eye on quality control. Ironically, although guiding is perhaps the single most important aspect of a successful safari, the quality of guides and drivers varies greatly between companies."

At the start of each game run, our guide would ask what we wanted to see, and when the cheetah was the last major item left on our laundry list, our driver set out to find one. Driving into the rocky hills overlooking the plains, we spotted not just a cheetah but a family--two big cats and four babies--a sight that was rare enough to surprise even our guide. It was a wonderful photo opportunity, one that was made possible because our guide and driver knew where to look.

Group size is also important. The number of passengers per vehicle should be limited, both for comfort and view. For instance, Micato guarantees each passenger a window seat instead of simply cramming as many bodies as possible into the vans. There should also be a limit on overall group size to maintain a feeling of personal service. Some operators require a minimum size, which means that their trips are subject to cancellation, even though you may have bought plane tickets and reserved three weeks for vacation. One reason I chose Micato was its guaranteed departure policy. Once I signed up, I knew the trip was on.

Most outfitters include just about everything, such as lodging, food, park fees, transportation within Africa and incidentals; some throw in international airfare as well. Check the fine print, because items like park admission fees alone can run several hundred dollars. An upscale vehicle safari, excluding airfare from the United States, generally costs between $200 and $400 a day per person. Trip itineraries begin at 10 or 11 days, and 14-, 17- and even 27-day trips are common.

Don't try to cram all of Africa into one trip, Lungmus suggests: "Plan on coming back to Africa. There is an undeniable magic in the wildlife and people there that draws visitors back again and again." *

Larry Olmsted, who frequently writes about travel, golf and outdoor recreation, lives in Vermont.


Entry Requirements: Visas are required before departure for most African countries. While few countries require Americans to be vaccinated, doctors strongly recommend yellow fever and other inoculations, as well as preventive malarial medication. Also consult your tour provider and the Center for Disease Control's International Traveler's Hotline at (404) 332-4559 for specific precautions you must observe for your itinerary.

Operators: Finding a good tour provider is imperative. The family-owned Micato Safaris (212-545-7111) is known for its excellent guides and personal service. The agency offers group and custom private trips, as well as cruise/safari combinations, and top-notch lodges and camps. Another respected name is Abercrombie & Kent (800-323-7308), which offers a wide range of trips throughout the continent, including private and mobile tented safaris. Mountain Travel-Sobek (800-227-2384) and Geographic Expeditions (415-922-0448) concentrate on active trips, including foot safaris and naturalist trips. API Travel Consultants has specialized knowledge of safari outfitters, and can book any of the above suppliers. For the agent nearest you, call (800) 401-4274.

Photography: For a photo opportunity of these proportions, you may want to leave your compact camera home and invest in something with at least a 200mm lens. Use ASA400 film or higher, because you'll be shooting at dusk and dawn. Bring plenty of film; guests typically use two or three 36-exposure rolls a day, and it can cost up to $30 a roll in East Africa. Bring spare video batteries as well. Most safari vehicles are equipped with charging outlets.

What To Bring: Pack warm sweaters, as the temperatures plummet at night. Safari vests may look funny, but they will hold all your film, camera batteries and such valuables as money, credit cards and your passport. For hiking you'll need sturdy shoes; casual footwear is fine for vehicle safaris. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must, as is very strong insect repellent for protection against malaria. A good pair of binoculars is also recommended. --LO