No other word is more evocative of wildlife and adventure than ‘safari’ – Swahili for ‘journey’. And no other country can lay claim to its origins more than Kenya, with Nairobi the ‘Safari Capital Of The World’
Not so long ago a real safari meant setting off into the African bush for weeks at a time. Accommodation was a canvas tent with a bucket shower set among the shadows of acacia trees as you tracked down big game with a gun over your shoulder. Then, as now, finding the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) was the yardstick of success. That kind of safari was immortalised in the writings of Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark, who captured the heady mix of excitement and danger, the swirling dust devils and brain-numbing heat of the hunt. The truth, of course, is that contrary to their portrayal as big, bad and dangerous, most wild animals simply want to be left alone, quickly becoming tolerant of people in vehicles who mean them no harm. By the 1970s most visitors to Africa wanted to capture memories of their safari with a camera rather than a gun.
Africa’s last great herds of antelope, buffalo and elephants, along with the great predators whose lives depend on them, will continue to enthrall and excite a new generation of visitors eager to experience the wonder of safari. The challenge is how to manage the expectations of visitors, while satisfying the development needs of local communities and fulfilling conservation objectives so that all can benefit in a sustainable manner. Wildlife in Africa has to generate an income to help cover the costs of protecting it. Your park entrance fees help to do that.
Overland through Africa
So what makes a real safari? What will ensure that you don’t come away thinking that you could have saved yourself a lot of money by visiting a safari park in Europe or America? Surf the Internet and you quickly see just how spoilt for choice you are when it comes to taking your first safari. The key is to decide ‘when’ and ‘where’ and then discover how to get the most out of your choices. East, West and southern Africa are all very different in terms of the landscape and the ease of finding the animals and birds you hope to see. When I travelled overland through the length and breadth of Africa in 1974 I saw just how different these three regions were. By the time I reached South Africa I had experienced the vast tropical rainforests of West Africa, the Congo and Rwanda. I had fallen head over heels in love with the ‘savannah’ Africa I had read about in wildlife magazines and seen in television documentaries – in particular East Africa’s vast Mara-Serengeti ecosystem with its spectacular wildebeest migration and multitude of predators.
There were thirty-six of us packed into two rickety old Bedford trucks as we navigated our way through the cloying black cotton soils of the Serengeti’s Western Corridor, bursting with excitement at the sight of all those animals. Later we crowded around the campfire, listening to the sounds of lions roaring and hyenas squabbling over a kill. We eventually snuggled into our sleeping bags, feeling the thrill of sleeping rough under the stars, yet barely able to sleep at the thought of what we might see on our early morning game drive. I remember being mesmerised by my first glimpse of a leopard lying in the long grass at the base of a sausage tree, and sitting spellbound as two sway-backed cheetahs glided across the vast open plains towards us near Simba Kopjes.
Truth is that you can still ‘rough it’ in the African bush at a fraction of the cost of staying at an upmarket tented camp or lodge. The game drives will be just as exciting whether you pay a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars per night.
Governor’s Camp – adding value to your safari
At Governor’s Camp, where we are based, you can enjoy a mix of traditional vehicle-based game drives with a hot air balloon safari. And if you fancy a ‘walk on the wild side’ you can set out on an early morning walking safari in the company of an armed ranger and an experienced guide. Take your balloon safari during the wildebeest migration (July to October), giving you a bird’s eye view of the greatest wildlife show on earth.
The challenge for Kenya is how to add value to its familiar products. One way Angie and I do that is by hosting week-long safaris in the Mara for photographers and naturalists, helping people to make the most of their safari whether by providing insights to the lives of the big cats we know so well or in capturing their favourite moments on camera. Our thatched stone cottage at Governor’s Camp is located in the heart of Marsh Pride territory, the group of lions we have followed since 1977. And across the river in the Mara Triangle, Little Governor’s Camp has one of the most idyllic settings of any camp or lodge in the Mara, with 17 spacious tents flanked around a perennial marsh that attracts elephants and buffalo and all manner of water birds year-round. Further east are two of our other favourite venues for privately hosted safaris: Asilia’s Rekero Camp, situated along the Talek River, and Kicheche Mara Camp in the Mara North Conservancy.
The creation of Wildlife Conservancies, bordering the Mara Reserve offers visitors a less crowded wildlife experience while helping to make the lease of Maasai-owned land to tourism stakeholders a financially viable alternative to pastoralism or agriculture. We would recommend spending time at a camp situated inside the Reserve, such as Little Governors (www.governorscamp.com), combined with a few days in one of the conservancies. Mara North Conservancy – home of Leopard Gorge, a favourite leopard hideout – is our top choice with its mix of open plains, acacia woodlands and rocky outcrops. Also check out Porini Mara Camp (www.porini.com) in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, which accommodates just 12 people in the only permanent tented camp in the Conservancy.
The concern is whether tourism partners will continue to meet their financial obligations to the Maasai landowners whenever tourism revenues decline for any reason. Tourism alone may not be enough to safeguard the future of these wildlife dispersal areas.
The Mara’s future
Some people have long since written the Mara off as a lost cause, with its poor management record and proliferation of camps and lodges. Nonetheless, the Mara is still very much top of our list of safari destinations, with its unrivalled abundance and variety of wildlife. And there is reason for hope. To the west of the Mara River is the area of the Reserve known as the Mara Triangle that is run by a private management company called the Mara Conservancy. In 2001 the Conservancy began implementing a professional, well thought-out plan as to how to balance the needs of the environment with the demands of the tourism industry and those of the local Maasai community living around the Reserve. The Conservancy has been a beacon of hope in the face of the rampant unplanned development in and around the Reserve, investing in road maintenance and track distribution, anti-poaching in conjunction with their neighbours in the Serengeti, plus control of tour vehicles and visitors to ensure that sensitive species such as big cats are not unduly disturbed, particularly when breeding and hunting.
Crucially, the Conservancy has helped to promote greater accountability in revenue collection and allocated more money to enable the Triangle to be run properly. Some of the money passes to the local Maasai community who share the surrounding dispersal area with the wild animals and who bear the costs of living with wildlife through loss of livestock, human life and damage to crops. The hope is that, with the Reserve once again the responsibility of a single authority, Narok County will see fit to employ a credible management company to run the day-to-day affairs on the east side of the Mara River, and in so doing create a new sense of order. We expect no less for an area of such national and international importance.
The Way Forward
The Conservancy approach is vital to safeguarding wildlife on private land, but what about protected areas? The challenge for all of us engaged in the wildlife business – whether as tour operators, scientists studying in the field or as conservationists – is to find the most innovative and inclusive ways of working with local communities and game managers in charge of national parks and game reserves to keep Noah’s Ark afloat. In this regard the Bushcamp Company are leading the way. I don’t know of another safari operation that is quite as genuinely engaged on so many different levels – though hats off to Wilderness Safaris in that respect too. Apart from offering employment opportunities, they embrace the local community living around the park by supporting textile factories and schools through visits from their guests and they offer bursaries and funding for school facilities. Guests visiting Mfuwe and the bush camps also have the chance to engage with local conservation agencies such as the South Luangwa Conservation Society, which is pivotal in supporting anti-poaching patrols in the area. Guests can also hear, first-hand, from scientists working with the Zambian Carnivore Programme which monitors predators such as lions, leopards and wild dogs and helps create nationwide management strategies to protect them. Andy Hogg and his team at the Bushcamp Company help to create good will and a sense of inclusiveness on the part of the local community rather than simply turning a profit.
The challenge for all of us engaged in the wildlife business – whether as tour operators, scientists studying in the field or as conservationists – is to find the most innovative and inclusive ways of working with local communities and game managers in charge of national parks and game reserves to keep Noah’s Ark afloat
Capture your safari with Jonathan and Angela Scott’s top tips
1 Test it first
Make sure that you test your camera before setting out. Photograph your friends, the family pet or your loved ones to be sure your camera is working the way you want it to.
2 Be prepared
Always bring at least one spare battery (and the charger) and plenty of large memory cards – we use SanDisk, which are highly reliable. Don’t forget to bring the camera manual.
3 Choose your equipment
We are Canon Ambassadors and Canon have just brought out a new version of their popular EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L zoom lens – ideal for travel and wildlife photography. The Series 2 model features the latest Image Stabilisation (IS) system and is pin sharp. Add the Canon x1.4 Extender (buy the Series 3 model) and the effective range of the lens increases to 140-560mm (with the loss of one stop of light). That gives you all the benefits of shooting with a long telephoto lens plus the advantage of greater flexibility in composing your shot compared with using a fixed telephoto. If you can, bring more than one camera body – and a wide angle lens such as the Canon EF 24-105mm. If you want to shoot really wide then try the Canon EF 16-35mm. Wherever possible choose lenses with IS to avoid camera shake.
4 Pack carefully
One of the banes of air travel is weight restrictions – especially if you are a photographer. We never put our cameras and lenses in our main luggage, packing as much as possible in our rucksacks and camera jackets to carry on board. I place a number of camera bodies and lenses in the large pockets of my jacket and hand carry it through Security rather than wearing it. Works a treat!
5 Don’t forget your binoculars
We use Swarovskis – either EL 10×32 or EL 8×32, or try the CL 10×30 or CL 8×30. They are lightweight and feel great in the hand. Optically, Swarovskis are second to none for looking at animals and birds – or when sightseeing.
You’ll find plenty of photography tips in our Safari Guides to East African Animals and Birds – readily available in Kenya or online at: http://www.eastafricansafariguide.com/index.php/buy/books-animal-detail
If Kenya is the home of safari then Zambia can rightly lay claim to being the land of the walking safari, and what better place to experience it than in South Luangwa National Park (the best time to visit is June to late October). In Kenya and Tanzania the wildlife is so visible and easy to approach that drivers and guides need do little more than tell you the name of the animal or bird you are watching before moving on to the next highlight. Zambia takes a different approach, as exemplified by the Bushcamp Company who own Mfuwe Lodge (www.mfuwelodge.com) as well as a number of small bush camps tucked deep within the wilderness – the perfect location for an exhilarating and nerve-tingling walk through the bush. The possibility of coming face to face with big game such as elephant, buffalo and lion on foot tends to focus the mind and quicken the pulse.
Also consider taking a walk on the wild side in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Two of the best options for walking safaris in the Okavango are Footsteps across the Delta in Shinde concession and Linyanti Walking Safaris in the Chobe enclave (www.kerdowneybotswana.com. Either can be combined with safaris by vehicle, motorboat or mokoro. Walking safaris operate between May to November in the Delta. For more information go to: www.botswanatourism.co.bw
Out of Africa
The word ‘safari’ holds such power to the imagination that it can equally be applied to describe a jungle adventure in search of the largest and most magnificent big cat of all – the tiger. Where to start? Ranthambore National Park is India’s most strikingly beautiful Tiger Reserve, a wonderful mix of ancient ruins, steep sandstone rock-faces, forested pathways and glassy mirrored lakes where peacocks glimmer in the sunlight. This is an ornithologist’s paradise, with over 300 species of birds, everything from magnificent ospreys and crested serpent eagles to dazzling pied kingfishers and colourful bee-eaters. There are fewer vehicles than in the past – a limit is imposed on a maximum of 17 short-wheelbased jeeps and 23 Cantas – large bus like trucks that can carry up to 16 visitors and help to reduce the number of vehicles patrolling the park. Soft sandy tracks help the forest rangers and tour guides to track the tigers’ movements as they pad around their territories using the roads as pathways and scent posts to announce their presence to other tigers.
Game drives are all about finding a tiger and that means listening for alarm calls as well as looking for fresh pug marks. Your first tiger is like a meeting with the Gods – you feel blessed to be in the presence of such beauty. Our first tiger was a young female called Machli – the Lady of the Lake, as she became known. Many years later we returned in search of Machli, now in her seventeenth year. Day after day we found fresh tracks on the narrow trails and heard alarm calls echoing through the forests and dry riverbeds, sending our expectations soaring. Nothing. Then one morning our guide picked up the alarm call of a sambar as we paused to photograph a party of spotted deer. We hurried along the track as it descended in to the forest. And there was Machli, picking her way carefully through the thicket of trees, each massive forepaw rising and falling in the daintiest and quietest fashion. She crossed the track in front of us, the light picking out the reddish brown colours of her coat, pausing just long enough to mark her territory. Then she was gone, her striped coat blending perfectly with the sunlight and shadows.
Parks and Tiger Reserves are closed from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, so there is plenty of down time on safari in India, so be sure to choose your accommodation carefully – preferably with a swimming pool to keep you cool in the heat of the day.
• Sleep The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambore, is a ten minute drive from Ranthambore National Park and offers luxury tented accommodation. Vanyavilas is set in twenty acres of lush landscaped garden with a rich variety of indigenous birds and plants. An observation tower in the grounds provides a wonderful wildlife-watching vantage point.
www.oberoihotels.com Fly KQ to Mumbai and connect with a low cost carrier to Jaipur
Spot rhinos on elephant-back at Kaziranga National Park, India
Around 80% of the world’s population of Indian one-horned rhinoceros are found in this rich stew of swamp, reedbed and forest, along with good numbers of buffalo and elephant. Explore on an elephant-back safari and keep watch for tigers. The park is open from November to April.
• Sleep Kiphlu River Lodge, a short drive from the park, is a 12-bedroomed eco-friendly camp with rustic lodges built on stilts.
www.diphluriverlodge.com Fly Kq To Mumbai and connect with a low cost carrier to Dimapur or Jorhat
Pick & Mix
5 more inspirational safaris to try
1 Glimpse geladas in the Great Rift, Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
Along with large troops of gelada baboon, the dramatic Rift Valley escarpments of the 4000m Simien Mountains are inhabited by walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf and lammergeier vulture. Visit October-March for trekking. Fly KQ to Addis Ababa
2 Island safari, Madagascar
Lemurs may be the stars of this evolutionary treasure chest, but Madagascar also boasts many other unique, often bizarre, creatures, including a dazzling variety of chameleons. Visit April to November. Fly KQ to Antananarivo
3 Stroll out with the Samburu, Laikipia Plateau, Kenya
Camel trekking with Samburu warriors provides an intimate, low-impact way to explore the arid frontier land of Laikipia – home to Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, black rhino and gerenuk. Visit January to March, or July to October. Fly KQ to Nairobi
4 Canoe along the Zambezi, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
Launch a canoe on the River Zambezi, paddle silently past hippos and herds of browsing elephant, drift within a few feet of bee-eater colonies and camp out on remote islands. Visit April to November. Fly KQ to Harare
5 Witness the rebirth of a park, Gorongosa, Mozambique
Following a devastating civil war this national park is being restocked and now offers an exciting safari experience. Visit April to November. Fly KQ to Nampula