Melissa's Travels

Botswana and the Magic of Safari

On my fifth night in Botswana this spring, as we gathered for drinks before dinner (as one does on safari), I got in a discussion with a number of safari repeaters about what it is about the bush that draws us back and makes us feel that there is “no bad day on safari.”

I mentioned the strange feeling of homecoming or familiarity that many feel when they arrive in east or southern Africa for the first or fifth time. Some say that instant nostalgia comes from deep race memory or an awareness on a genetic level that the Great Rift Valley is where our species originated. There is also a return to a more primitive way of living in the bush. If you are doing it right and spending some of your time sleeping under canvas, you are falling asleep to the sounds of night creatures and waking up to bird calls. You spend your mornings and evenings on game drives. You become alert to the sounds of frogs and monkeys and learn to decipher their meanings—alarm calls of crested barbets, warning cries of male impalas and baboon growls. You study tracks in the sand for meaning. How fresh are paw prints? Was a kill being dragged? Is it a male traveling alone or females together? Tracking on game drives forces you to be more alive to right now and intensely aware of your surroundings.

There is something elemental and more powerful about being that switched on with all of your senses on high alert. Maybe that is why the memories seem to be etched more deeply too. I can vividly remember the morning on my very first safari at age twelve when elephants came just outside our tents at Amboseli as well as the smell of the fires lit in our rooms each dawn at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. I can recall the electric fear that I felt on the night when my husband and I woke up to the sound of hyenas lapping water from the tin basins outside our mobile tent in Tanzania as well as remember just how the grass glistened with dew the morning we took a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti on my son’s tenth birthday. In the wild, your days are stripped of distractions and you return to a more pure existence. The sunsets and sunrises bookend your days in a way that plugs you back into nature’s rhythms. You also seesaw between being quiet and patient as you scan the horizon for a cheetah on a termite mound or the flick of a leopard tail in the bush and then being intensely focused when you spot the animal. Both stand in stark relief to our normal routine of distraction mixed with periods of attention.

In the wild you are unplugged from the white noise and a stranger to your surroundings, so it returns you to a child like state of wonder; you are suddenly a sponge for knowledge and you have to surrender your safety and control to a stranger, a guide who you may know nothing about except that his name is Goodman or Broken and that he has passed years of training to become an expert in the wild. You may go on a walking safari and come around a corner and see lions or a hippo. He may have a rifle with him but what if there are seven lions? You better hope that he can stare them down and keep you safe. For these and other reasons, I find being in the bush exhilarating and enriching no matter how often I have been—and why, for me, there is no bad day on safari.

Published onApril 30, 2014

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