Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My First Safari

I’m not an animal person. I find them very unpredictable and I must say, my previous animal encounters have been somewhat unpleasant. A neighborhood dog, for example, traumatized me throughout of my childhood. A friend’s adorable Persian feline scratched me till I bled. An allegedly gentle horse ran away neighing as I tried to caress his mane. Even when I swam with dolphins, I got bitten. Twice! No one would believe this story but that’s okay.

So…when I get to travel the world, the idea of safari or camping in the wild ranks not very high on my wish list. I have instead chosen the history and cultures of Europe, the urban energy of the United States, the fascinating fiestas of South America and the alluring gastronomic scene of South East Asia as priorities.   

Here I sit anxiously, comfortable yet confined, on a ten-seater bush plane that travels across Botswana’s Okavango delta that stretches over 16,000 km2. A15-minute flight, from the tourist town, Maun, is flying me into a safari camp. The small Cessna is jumpy at times and very stuffy inside. Sweaty palms and feeling tense all over, I begin to play I Spy game in order to distract myself from advancing nausea. It is difficult to spot any animal from 1200 feet. All I could see is an intricate patchwork of earthy-hued savannahs, swamps, lagoons and woods.

It looked so relaxed and romantic when Meryl Streep and Robert Redford did it in “Out of Africa”.

The first animals sighted are the two baboons monkeying around on the runway as we land. We receive a VIP welcome upon our arrival at Belmond Eagle Island Lodge, with the entire staff members singing and dancing, which makes me blush a little. We are then briefed about the lodge, Safari programs and most importantly security. We are advised not to roam around on our own at night. The guides will be on standby if and when we need to go out of our tents as wild animals such as hyenas and hippos could be out and about.


Make no mistake! It’s far from camping. Not in a traditional sense at least. It’s rather glam-ping, I believe. The property operated by Belmond, formerly known as Orient Express Ltd, offers luxury thatch-roofed tents complete with four-poster bed, en suite bathroom, fully-stocked minibar, air-conditioning and this has got to be my favorite part, a private deck with easy chairs and a hammock.

Four elephants are grazing just right in front my tent.  Not long after, I receive a visit from two gorgeous Giraffes. It truly feels surreal to see animals that large hanging out a few meters away from me as I sit and sip my first glass of champagne on my porch, watching sunset.  

Soon begins my first safari ride. Just as the jeep leaves, we come across a small group of impalas right outside the gate. They are African antelope, elegant and nimble, which reminds me of Bambi. Minutes later, Sile, our safari guide, shows us a baby giraffe in the bush. The little one is still learning to walk, wobbly and awkward, clearly frightened by us, visitors. Sile notes that the nursing mother cannot be too far away considering the size of the infant.


Sile doesn’t smile very much and in fact has a stern, serious look at times. But he’s expert in wildlife and always rises to the occasion whenever questions are raised. Although he had warned us beforehand that the chances of animal sightings may vary and that it was, understandably, all up to the nature, we have so far seen zebras, antelopes, eagles, cranes, giraffes, elephants, baboons and warthogs. Being a safari guide is not an easy task. Not only must they be expert drivers but also possess discerning eyes. For example, Sile has just seen a leopard sitting on a tree about 100 meters away while driving through a muddy bumpy road. How is that possible? Search me. As excited as I am, Sile, flashing a rare grin, drives us closer to the cat. He too hasn’t seen a leopard in three years in this camp. 

Admittedly, I’m nervous as we go closer. My mind races with questions. First of all, we are on an open-air jeep. What if the animal jumped on us? Could there be others, (its relatives perhaps?) waiting to ambush us? Are we allowed to shoot if and when we get attacked? 

This is my first encounter with a wild animal, a predator that is not caged like in zoo. Sile chuckles at my is-it-safe? question.
He assures, “Animal sees the jeep as one unit. As long as you don’t get out or stand up, you are perfectly safe”

What a beautiful beast, so agile and ethereal. Admiring it up close makes me understand why mankind has always wanted its majestic fur. The sound of jeep engine is obviously disturbing.  The cat strides down swiftly and hides behind the tree before creeping into the grasslands with its spotty tail pointing out to the sky.  

“He’s not on hunting mode. You can tell because he’s flipping the tail over his back revealing the white underside. He’s not seeking prey”, explains Sile. 

Well, I’m glad.

Bush walk, the next morning, gets interrupted due to heavy rain. But Sile leads us into the woods once the downpour dashes. It’s eerily quiet apart from a chirpy orchestra of winged creatures. A trio of cranes is looking for worms or bugs that now cannot fly away, soaked in the rainwater. A kingfisher is drying off its wings on a tree nearby. An elegant baobab tree, a common species found in the region, poses jubilantly, looking rather like a feather-clad Vegas dancer. For an hour or so, we continue savannah strolling while taking a crash course on various plants, herbs, animal behaviors and fascinating past Safari experiences of our guide extraordinaire. Zebras and impalas are everywhere but they do not like us too close. They would run off in synchronized manner, only to pause at a distance, turn their heads dramatically, looking back at us in unison. 

Do y’all know what that sound is? Sile challenges us. It surely sounds like that of a giant but I can’t answer the question. Following Sile,I hop on a hill that overlooks a river where a group of hippos, approximately 20, are swimming, submerged in the water. Weirdly enough, their snorting sound resembles starting of a car engine. Such gigantic animal but their graceful manner makes me want to dive in there and pet them on their back........... until I learn that “hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other large animals”. 

The best way to do safari, in my honest opinion, is not on foot or by jeep, but from a helicopter, well, if one could afford it. Four-seater chopper, including the pilot, is the smallest helicopter I have ever been on. Chris, our friendly South African pilot, very much aware that I’m armed with a big-ass camera, looking vaguely like a journalist, helps me with my photography endeavor. Always informing me about animals and what to spot ahead of time, he flies both high and low, which gives me a chance to photograph from different perspectives and angles.

As our helicopter comes near, a herd of elephants relishing a mud bath, run off to hide behind the trees. Little do they know their massive behinds are hard to conceal. The two large buffalos stare right at us, puzzled but unafraid, with a determination to charge at us if and when necessary. Wildebeests are shy but it’s truly magical when they run with their manes flaring in the wind. We fly above wetlands shooing away sun-tanning crocodiles on the riverbank and shrimp-hunting flamingoes amongst water lilies. It is an adventure so thrilling that an hour flies by so quickly.  

“We have arranged some hippos for you today”, jokes the lodge manager pointing at the bloat of hippos enjoying a douche in a distance. We have moved to another lodge, 30 minutes plane ride away from Eagle Island, called Khwai river lodge, also operated by Belmond. Our safari guide, Moses has the friendliest smile and very calm character. He would stop the jeep often to explain about the animal footprints, make us listen to the various sounds of birds - differentiating between stress-call and soft coo and entertain us with fun wildlife trivia. It feels like watching Animal Planet live.

While enlightening us about African stinking ants, Moses receives a radio message from one of his fellow rangers. He then announces joyfully,

“The lions have killed a baby giraffe”. Sad news such as this is clearly a delight to safari guides. 

Excited to see one of Safari’s big five (along with buffalo, leopard, rhino and elephant), we set out to the Moremi game reserve where a pride of 7 awaits. Moses believes that the cats are resting after the giraffe banquet. Their rounded tummies indicate that they have had a lovely meal. However, it turns out that the dead animal is a hyena, not a giraffe as previously reported.


 “Lions don’t eat other meat-eaters. It’s likely that the hyena may have come to steal their food, which in this case, could be a giraffe, kudu or zebra. I’m guessing that there are more lions, possibly a male lion behind this forest, still eating that animal. If we are lucky we might be able to see him today.” 

Eeeeeew! What a way to go! With its stomach wide open and the insides out, the hyena lies lifeless next to a napping lioness. Vultures are on standby on a dead tree nearby, waiting patiently for the leftovers. Two other lionesses languidly lounge on the bed of green grass a few meters away, babysitting their young. The four cubs are tossing and turning like fur balls, adorable and child-like, winning the bystanders’ hearts with their mischievous demeanor.

Nothing could prepare you for your first safari experience. Like many, I arrive here with expectations based on what I have seen on National Geographic channel or Animal Planet programs. However, in reality, it is a gamble, really. There’s no guarantee that you will see the big five or say, flocks of flamingoes flying fabulously as seen in “Out Of Africa”. There are days that we drive around for hours with not even a glimpse of animal. Also there are days that we keep bumping into the same animals; such as impalas in my case; they are far from extinction and will survive till the end of time, it seems. Five days is more than enough for Safari. Rainy season should be avoided if you intend to see lots of animals. Water is everywhere during monsoon, therefore animals are scattered all across the delta. There is no need for them to gather around a pond or river. July and August are considered the best time for Safari. Both our safari guides try their best and work really hard under given circumstances. Especially Moses, on the days we see less animals, he sounds very apologetic as though it is his fault.

I will definitely miss the natural warmth and effortless charm of Batswana people and the fragrance of wild sage that grows with reckless abandon all across the delta. Photographing animals in their natural habitat is both challenging and thrilling for me. Especially from a moving jeep. I learn a lot as a photographer as I am always on-the-prowl mode just like a predator hunting its prey. Not only must I be quick but also able to go for the kill when the opportunity presents.

But, no...unfortunately!  I didn’t get that iconic “Giraffe in sunset silhouette ” shot.

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