Jaana is an independent Finnish writer, who lives in The Big Mango. Her political views are as far away from this website as possible. She is a pro-choice, pro-immigration, pro-Muslim, pro-unemployment benefits for life, pro-social benefits from cradle to grave, pro-same sex marriages, pro-female priests and pro-Sweden.
I have been on a safari. This Masai word means to travel. And travelled I have. From Bangkok (The Big Mango) to Johannesburg to Livingstone and Botswana. I really can’t say exactly where I have been. The longer stretches I sat in tiny, one engine planes with a pilot between my legs and my 50x40x70 luggage filling the cargo area underneath. It was a tight fit for all parties concerned. We flew at a hight of 500 meters, saw plenty of green and wet nothingness and landed on an airstrips smack in the middle of nowhere. Even when flying very low, it was difficult to see any details, even big details like elephants, on the ground. And it was too shaky to use the binoculars. All these “Out of Africa”- scenes with masses of frightened animals running away from the plane are pure fiction.
The pilots were young, polite and helpful. Ready to stuff the tourists into their seats and strap them in. The seat belts were a constant wonder, as they worked in two parts. First fasten the one across your lap, onto which you hook the one that goes over your shoulder. I.e. three loose ends and no space to maneuver. I think most our departures were late because my belts were jinxed.
Our first stop was Tongabezi Camp by the Zambezi river, a few kilometers from Victoria Falls.
The bungalows were built on a hillside and boasted a wonderful view over the flooded landscape.
We even had our private pool to frolic in! Getting up and even down to it on the rather steep and slippery gangway, paved with wet moss and cracked stepping stones, was a bit of a hurdle though. One could see that someone with great taste had built the Camp, but now the place was somewhat run down . When I asked who started the project, the reception girl said that there were two men, and that one of them had died. I said, “Oh, a gay couple! I could see it right away!” The girl was horrified and said “No, not gay. But not married.” The camp needs repairs, a good scrub and a new chef. The staff was just great. I wonder how they manage to have them perform like thart. We had a butler who was serving dinners and breakfasts in the room, who washed my underwear and drew me a bath every evening. One builds a special bond with a guy who washes one’s knickers.
Tongabezi was very close to a place that organized elephant safaris on African elephants. This I had to try, of course. African elephants are huge, enormous compared to the Asian ones. It seems that they have to be handled like a horse, from a saddle. Two saddles in a row, a tight fit and very uncomfortable. Just imagine straddling an elephant and you get the picture. After half an hour my legs were numb, ankles scratched by the beast’s hide and about to develop saddle sores. The Asian style Elephant Chair is an excellent invention that should be promptly introduced to the Africans.
After crossing the Zambezi river we arrived in Botswana. There was a poster at the immigration claiming that “Circumcision reduces the risk of AIDS.” Next, a mini bus drives in with an ad covering the side of it saying ” Sexual networking can be dangerous!”. What are these guys up to!? 40% of the adults are HIV positive and they still do networking?
April is the end of the rainy season. The whole of Okawango delta was one big lily pad.
We landed in Duba to see the National Geographic-famous water lions. There really is so much water everywhere that swimming is essential if one is a lion and wants to eat. Every safari goers’ dream is to see a kill, I was told. We saw a few stalkings, mostly to give the cubs a bit of practice, as the lion pride had killed a buffalo the day before we arrived. I personally do not care to see any mayhem. I was all happy binoculing king fishers, horn bills and chameleons. And, most importantly, taking regular naps and sundowners.
The life on a safari is very organized. Much like in any institution: wake up at 5am, light breakfast, therapy till 11 followed by brunch, nap and afternoon tea at 4pm. Therapy again till 7pm. Dinner 7.30 and lights out right after. It is very easy to get institutionalized, just do as you are told and wait for the meals! I wonder what they put in the drinking water, as I was taking 2 hour siestas and slept soundly 8 hours through the night. Safari therapy is jeep rides across the bush and ponds where one can look for animals and very often find them. The big 5, the ugly 5 and loads of birds everywhere! It was like magic.
Each camp has only a few tents and there are never crowds anywhere. You get to keep the animals you find just for yourself!
The meals were generally adequate. There was very little Botswana beef, a vegetarian would have been happy with the selection. The beef, I suspect, was fed to the local guides. They were the traditional types who drink the blood of their cattle and savour meat beyond all else. Some even said that they eat only meat. “I am a man – I eat meat.” Being a man in those parts of the world is serious business. Veggies are for sissies. Thinking of this, I am not quite sure what I been eating. But, for sure, nothing that I would absolutely like to repeat at home. Most of the time it was too dark to see any details anyway. Maybe it was a blessing.
Laundry was taken care of daily, all except underwear, claiming traditional values are against that. Ok, how long have the locals had exposure to underwear, traditionally speaking? I guess oral sex is out as well. But networking is in.
The tents were all 5 star affairs, some a bit more so. There was electricity from generators and solar panels, all very dim. Jack’s Camp was driven by paraffin only, but had a little bit of power in the afternoons to get a fan going. Kalahari afternoons were hot and to properly enjoy my siesta a fan was welcome. An odd place it was. The tents were the usual 50 square meters army green jobs on stilts, but here they were lined with pink, Indian style cotton. The colour was something between FT pink and Hustler pink with a stylized flower pattern in charcoal. The style of the camp was -30′s glam. When we arrived there was a German couple already having lunch at the dining tent. She was a force to reckon with, about 60, flanked by a toy boy type,10 years her junior, and what I thought was a batty uncle dressed as a sailor. It turned out to be a beer heiress, her husband and their pilot. All three were consuming vast quantities of free gin and brandy.
There was Pete, the host, a charming young man, always on duty. He was from Norfolk and an arts graduate from Edinburgh University. I guess he really wanted to run away with the circus, but got this job instead. It is like a half way house with stuffed animals on display, sculls of all kinds stacked neatly in cupboards, much like in my school’s biology class room. Dusty and musty specimens of yellowing bones, arrow heads and old pictures framed on walls. There was a large scull with fangs in my tent. I did not investigate further. There was also a small antelope skin on the chest of drawers and what looked like a piece of artillery shell used as a flower vase. Wonder how that was connected to the hunting theme?
The tent was packed with too many pieces of furniture, useless chests and chairs. It was like a curio shop from the Victorian era. Think Harry Potter and the Diagon Alley. The actual shelves, meant for use, were practical canvas works in the back of the tent.
The bathroom part of the tent was very silly. The toilet was the “Throne”-type with arm rests. One sat there with knees together and anyone, who knows anything of the female anatomy, realizes that this is no good in the end. Quite unhygienic, actually.
At Jack’s the coffee was good, the food better than in other camps but our tent #6 was very far from the main venue. Should you book Jack’s, state an infirmity that prevents you from walking long distances and insist on getting a tent closer by. The Germans were in a tent no more than 20 meters from the bar. After dark you need a guide to take you to your tent. And there you stay with a few storm lanterns, stuck in semi darkness. There is an aerosol can with a fog horn – for medical emergencies only. We were specially told that a wild animal outside the tent is not an emergency. Yes, I guess not, as long as it keeps its claws covered. There were lion tracks right by our hut in Duba and a leopard was sighted in Chitabe camp just a few days earlier. So, this escorting the tourists after dark is no joke. This way, at least, the guide goes first into the leopards mouth.
Each of the 4 camps we stayed at was different. The Duba camp was in the middle of lotuses and lilies. The camp itself was oldish and will be totally renovated within the next two years. The location was ideal, the game was close and the scenery was outstanding. We were lucky that the owners were there at the same time. Service was excellent, coffee was poor and food ok. We got a nice steak upon our arrival. Most likely from the staff cantina. They arranged sundowners in the wild one night. A very nice memory with fire flies and a few hippos snorting in the distance. Some Swiss travelers, we met later, had gotten a bad impression of Duba. They had seen 7 different camps and rated Duba as the worst. Can’t please them all.
Chitabe area hosted lots of animals. The camp itself looked shabby in the daylight. The management was elusive. Once I walked into the bar -without my minder- and saw the management team around the bar having drinks. I shouted hello and good evening before they noticed me. Then panic! All seven fled in different directions like a flock of meercats! I nearly apologized for causing such inconvenience. The food was bad, coffee undrinkable. Lucky, there is always Nescafe. There were lots of elephants and one could see the damage they do to the trees. However, hornbills love the dead trees and so do the termites. One day we saw hundreds of elephants heading South. The problem was that we were parked under a tree with a leopard in it. When the elephants started to pass by in lines on both sides of the tree, the cat got a bit nervous. I was thinking that if it decides to jump there is not much we can do to avoid a collition. The elephants kept on coming and there were hundreds of them but everything was very silent. Some young bulls just wanted to show a bit off and mock charged the jeep with a scary trumpeting.
Jack’s Camp was in the dry area. The environment was very striking. Salt pans with no horizon, meerkats, hyenas and plenty zebras migrating. Food was good, coffee was great. The guests on the odd side. Probably not a place for people with allergies.
This trip set the standard for all safaris.
By Jaana Kopra Madsen, The Big Mango