Text & Photography by Thomas C. Wilmer
“Shhh…Listen! Up there in the tree.”
Our naturalist guide, Dave Luck, points skyward, “See the vervet monkey? His call is definitely warning others of a leopard in close vicinity.”
Luck compliments us on our incredible good fortune with animal encounters and a second later Luck abruptly asks our local Botswanan guide, Kenneth Liwena, to stop the Land Rover. We suspect that Luck is pulling our leg about his savvy monkey-communication skills. But, a ten-yard detour through the bush delivers us eye-to-eye with a semi-somnambulant leopard, napping after a feast of gazelle. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are the oft-repeated mantras of our surreal African safari adventure.
Our ten-day journey to the backside of beyond (including three wilderness camps and four countries) commenced with an overnight at The Grace, a luxurious four-star Johannesburg hotel, where we rejuvenated from the arduous trans-Atlantic flight. The following morning we flew north to Botswana and transferred to a Britain-Norman Islander bush plane that seamlessly delivered us to King’s Pool, the first of three Wilderness Safari bush camp experiences.
After settling in, a leisurely Land Rover jaunt through the bush reveals an extended family of seventy-five mother, grandmother, and baby elephants blithely parading past. Cameras and video recorders have barely stopped clicking and whirring as a caravan of shy but disinterested zebra amble out of the brush and head in our direction.
Liwena fires up the Land Rover and starts navigating back toward King’s Pool. A minute later he brakes for an up-close look at a pride of lions and their cubs snoozing under a baobab tree. A few yards beyond, Liwena brakes again as he spots a family of giraffe transiting to greener pastures.
Before we make it back to King’s Pool camp for four-star dining under the stars, we meet a cheetah couple munching on a fresh-kill of Impala—literally less then two yards away, and they could care less about our presence. Incredibly, all of the above occurred before the end of our first day in the bush.
Two days later, we pack our bags and head for a nearby dirt airstrip and board a turbocharged Cessna 206 Caravan for the flight to Xigera (kee-ja-rah) luxury tent camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta.
A 1.5-hour bush-flight across the Northern Kalahari Desert divulges absolutely zero signs of village or traces of man below, not even a dirt road. Settled in at Xigera, we set out on a sunset cruise through the papayrus-fringed Okavango Delta aboard traditional “Mokoro” dugout canoes paddled by local naturalist-guides.
A delicious starlit dinner at Xigera concluded with the Botswanan staffers performing traditional ethnic African dance and song under the stars. The chatter of creatures and critters, close and far off, punctuated our days and nights.
Tucked comfortably in bed, enshrouded in a mosquito-netted tent, a hypnotic sleep was induced via the jungle-rhapsody of primordial chirps, whoops, buzzes, whirrs, and tweeps.
At Chitabi Trails, our third camp, a sunset parade of more than 50 female elephants halted less than 200 yards from the camp’s open-air living room. The elephants hosed themselves down in a shallow pool while others flung dirt on their backs. Ten minutes later, they packed up and trundled off into the brush.
From Chitabi Trails we flew to Zambia for a sojourn at the legendary River Club–a marked departure from the tent camp experience. Situated on the banks of the hippo and crocodile laden Zambezi River, the elegant but understated River Club, with its decidedly refined, Edwardian architecture and furnishings, deftly recalled the long vanished era of British Colonial Empire.
Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is just 18 kilometers downstream–and the reason for our visit to Zambia. Peter Jones, River Club’s dapper proprietor and Sandhurst graduate, arranges for us to experience the “Flight of Angels”– a helicopter sojourn that hovers directly above the raging falls, like a bubble in the sky.
It gets better. When we return to the aerodrome on the outskirts of Livingstone, I am offered the chance to fly in a micro-light–a triangular kite-like affair with a rigid-frame and industrial lawn-mower engine bolted on the rear of a tandem tricycle-wheeled-contraption.
As we approach the aerodrome, I am visualizing a 19-year-old extreme-sports-psychopath pilot, and I assume that this could easily be my day of reckoning. Fortunately, when I meet the pilot, a dashing, former RAF fighter pilot, my fears are assuaged.
For insurance and liability purposes, passengers are signed up as student pilots. As we soar no more than 500 feet above Vic Falls, I ask the pilot if I can fly the craft. He nods and a moment later I’m at the helm. The airborne adventure is highly recommended and remains as a treasured interlude in my journey through the backside of beyond.
Back down on earth, walk across a bridge and present our passports to the Zimbabwe customs officer and spend the afternoon exploring a nearby village and craft-market followed by a hike along cliff hugging trails overlooking Victoria Falls.
As we walk past the Victoria Falls lodge I am wishing we could check in and stay a day or two but it’s time to fly back to Johannesburg where we transfer to a sleek Bell Long-Ranger helicopter. A low altitude, 100-mile rocket-ride through the countryside ends in a regal landing on the neatly clipped croquet lawn of Mount Grace Country House Hotel.
Mount Grace, a world-class estate retreat, located on the outskirts of Magaliesburg, offers superb dining, trend-setting spa treatments and palatial colonial-style thatched roof suites. An overnight of indulgence at Mount Grace served as an exquisite way to re-enter the modern world.
Our Animal Planet adventure, punctuated with a thousand exclamations of “Unbelievable” and “incredible” comes to a reluctant conclusion. The South African Airways 747 pushes back from the gate in Joburg and sails off for home across the Atlantic.
The journey was a dynamic encounter with the natural world where big game and the mighty termite thrive in spite of man’s presumed dominance and omnipresence.
Most importantly, the numerous heartwarming interactions with the indigenous Africans remain as potent reaffirmations of humankind’s basic goodness. In spite of receiving the evil stink-eye from a nest of Zimbabwe soldiers, our interlude in Zimbabwe is fondly remembered for the heartwarming interactions and conversations with the villagers. The entire adventure was a reaffirmation that those who have so little—by western standards—are blessed with spiritual riches, and a readiness to smile, dance, and sing sweet songs—elements that are precious commodities back home in the frenetic urban world.
Wilderness Safari’s luxury tent-camp facilities:
All luxury tent camps include fine dining, a pub and main lounge under thatched roof as well as outdoor swimming pools. All camps are limited in size and average 16 twin-bedded tents, each with private bath and shower facilities. Fresh fruits, meats, vegetables and other perishables are air freighted into the camps weekly. Meals at every tent camp visited were delicious and on par with upscale urban-eateries.
Power throughout Southern Africa is 220v, at remote tent camps, electricity comes from solar-powered 12-volt systems or generators that typically operate when guests are out on Safari.
Communications with outside world:
There are no telephones at the bush camps, but they maintain emergency radio contact and some travelers now bring their own satellite phones.
Dining in the bush:
Gold and diamond jewelry, leather goods, wooden carvings, local handicrafts, beadwork and woven articles are most popular.
Strongly advised to take prophylactic medication and bring industrial-strength mosquito repellent.
Pack two suitcases, one for city/urban explorations (stow it with the bellman when you depart for the outback), and a soft-sided bag for your time in the bush. Wilderness Safaris, for example, limits checked baggage to 26 pounds (including camera gear) on bush flights.
It is possible to bring extra luggage on safari but surcharges can easily exceed $600.00 (depending on the length of the trip. You pay for an extra seat on each light aircraft flight). Be sure to bring compact binoculars but leave your camouflage “safari” attire at home–wearing Camouflage is considered bad form as you could easily be mistaken for a mercenary, poacher or rogue military character.
Air: South African Airways offers daily direct flights from New York City to Cape Town and Johannesburg.