It was in December 2016, at HRH the Queen of Kutch’s birthday party, that 8 of our closest friends met. A plan was plotted. All of us old friends, some from as way back at 1969, would go to Africa for a Safari. The time decided was December 2017. Discussions ensued and two or three in the group in a mixture of assumption and thrust, took up the mantle of putting the whole thing together. There was much enthusiasm. Many phone calls were made and emails exchanged and opinions expressed. I was reluctant. A safari was not my cup of tea, for reasons that I shall explain subsequently. Anyway, I was told I was being foolish as since I had not been on a safari earlier I should give up my preconceived notions, experience one and then decide. I was also told that it would be great fun to go on a trip with 10 of your closest friends. I could not counter these very sensible arguments, so I went along.
Finally, it was all done. We were to fly to Nairobi, book charter a small aircraft and reach a moving camp called Olakira in Tanzania. After 4 nights at Olakira we would catch another charter to the Grumeti Reserve and spend 4 nights at the Singita Sabora Camp. From there we would fly by yet another charter back to Nairobi and home to Mumbai. 8 Nights in the “bush” as they say.
A few bits of information for you dear readers.
How a safari works
I am using generalizations here. Safari “hotels” in the “bush” are called camps. Most camps are all inclusive meaning that you pay a fixed price per day per person. You get two drives or safaris a day in a jeep with a guide, lodging, all meals, unlimited booze from a selection and laundry. Laundry included? Yes folks, the reason is that you are permitted to carry only 15kgs of luggage per person as the charter aircraft are small. So laundry is included.
The day starts early, 6 am. You have a warm beverage and head out for the morning safari drive. Return by 10 am have breakfast, lunch possibly a snooze and you are out for an evening safari drive from about 4 pm till sunset. Then its sitting round a campfire, cocktails, dinner and lights out. Repeat till booking is over.
Going off road
This is apparently a big thing. You must understand that in the “bush” there are no roads as we know them, i.e. no tarred roads, just paths used over and over again thereby forming an apology of a road. In many reserves you are not permitted to take your vehicle off these roads. If there is a Lion pride lolling about 300 meters away from the road, well, too bad. You cannot drive up to them, neither can you walk up to them, nor for that matter can you call them like you would a friendly dog or cat. You simply squint or use a pair of binoculars. So not being able to go off road is bad. Consequently, having off-roading capability is good.
What happens on a safari drive
The camps have their own vehicles which are normally Toyota Land Cruisers heavily modified. The vehicles have no bodies, just some very robust bars over which a tarpaulin in fixed. So the sides are totally open and the windshield can be dropped. They have three rows of seating behind the driver with each level being elevated, much like in a movie theatre. This gives all passengers excellent visibility. The vehicles have cow catchers, shovels, racks to pull out of mud, storage for food and drink and all are equipped with radios.
Please do note that the vehicle used is a Toyota Land Cruiser. This is something that I have seen at every off road, jungle, desert place. It is almost always a Toyota Land Cruiser that is used. Not the Land Rover or its more upmarket sibling the Range Rover. Those vehicles have too many electronics, are too expensive and are difficult to maintain in these very challenging conditions. The Toyota Land Cruiser is the vehicle of choice.
What you do is clamber into the vehicle and drive for hours, many hours, sometimes over 8 to 10 hours a day. Remember there are no roads. It is fucking bumpy. Worse than Mumbai roads. Devendra Fa(t)dnavis, take a bow. Roads are better in Mumbai than in the Serengeti and the African Savanah! Bharat Mata Ki Jai and all that! Of course there is no traffic. The object of the game is that the guide is trying to show you as much “game” as he can. The drivers have radios or walkie talkie’s so they are constantly in touch. A feeling of brotherhood and sharing exists between drivers, so if any one spots a “Cat” immediately it on the blower and all vehicles converge at the spot.
Repeat till booking is over.
Permanent v/s moving camps
A permanent camp as the name suggests is, well, fixed. The tents are constructed on a wooden platform raised about 1 meter from the ground.
Non-permanent camps or moving camps have tents constructed at ground level with plastic sheeting on the floor. These camps are dismantled and moved to different locations. The choice of locations is based on animal movements. These camps don’t move at the drop of the hat but have a sort of schedule. 4 months in one place then dismantle, move, set up and 4 months at the next location. Temporary camps tend to be a bit more basic, for example no running hot water, less luxurious and so on.
Camps come in various price points, much like hotels. For example, in Goa you can get a lodge, a shack, a 3 star and a 5-star deluxe. The same with camps.
Generally speaking, camp rooms or tents have no TV, no room service and other things you find usual in a 5-star hotel. There is very limited mobile phone network and even less internet. This is simply because the camps are so remote. Except going on safari, there is really nothing to keep you occupied at the camp.
Since camps are so remote, or, to put it differently, located so deep within the “bush” that wild animals are literally at your doorstep. A giraffe and zebra, while they will not kill you, are as wild as a lion. On a couple of nights, we had lions, probably 20 meters away from our tents, roaring like there was no tomorrow, or at least that is how we felt in out tents. We did not know if we would have a tomorrow. We were woken up with their roars, that is how loud, and, obviously how close the lions were. Other nights, it was the insane “hee haw” of the Zebra that woke us. Naturally, there is curfew from 6.30 pm to 6.30 am. You cannot leave your tent unattended. You have to call the radio room to send you an armed [with a gun] guard called “Ashkari” to escort you.
Game & Gujju’s
Ginger and Garlic, Game & Gujju’s. Both are magical combinations.
Let me give you some deeply opinionated, though wholly correct insights. The rich vegetarians – Jains, Gujju’s, Khandelwals are the most bloodthirsty people I have seen. Among them the Gujju’s are the worst. If you take a straw poll among your friends, please count, out of those that have been for a safari, how many are Gujju’s. Honestly. When they speak about their safari experience, the first thing they narrate, with pride, is how many kills they saw. Nothing thrills them more than seeing a “cat” eating the entrails of a Topi or a Thompson Gazelle or a Wildebeest. Nothing gives them more jollies than hearing the sound of bones being crushed and broken by the jaws of a lion or cheetah.
For Gujju’s seeing birds, of which there are hundreds, the graceful Giraffe, the frisky Gazelle, the daft Wildebeest herds or flocks of Zebra is no thrill. They want to see “cats” and kills. What is it that makes these vegetarian folks have such bloodlust?
What we saw
Since I had not been on a safari earlier, I had nothing to compare to. However, my friends assured me that what we saw during the 8 days spent in the “bush” was more than what they had seen before, ever. As they say we had excellent “sightings”. So, I guess, I must consider myself lucky. On the very first day we saw not one but two separate instances of cheetah hunting, stalking, chasing down and making a kill. Then we then saw them eating the kill. This is very rare I am told. Subsequently, to make things even more exciting, we saw 4 cheetah cubs being trained by their mother to hunt. This was extraordinary. The way they crouched, surveyed, crept along and very very slowly and patiently got near to the prey was as the youngest member of our group JB said, ‘better than watching a suspense film.’ It was. Even cynical me was enthralled. Needless to say, this was not a movie. The inexperienced cheetah missed and the prey got away.
Lions must have a special section. We saw so many prides. Handsome males, females and cuddly cubs. Cubs who are teething are just like children or dogs. They chew on everything.
We saw an elephant in `Must’. This was quite something. He walked along very purposefully, and when faced by a tree, well, he just proceeded to knock it down. When the tree was knocked down the other elephants in the herd who were keeping a safe distance, gleefully went to the now fallen tree and got around to eating the leaves.
We saw literally thousands of Wildebeest and Zebra, who sort of live together, graze together and migrate together. Giraffes by the Tower, deer of all kinds from the large Elan, Topi, Gazelle and the tiny Dik-Dik. Warthogs, land Turtles, Ostrich running in their surreal manner, Lions, Lionesses, Lion Cubs, Lions mating, Cheetah, Leopard on trees and on the ground, birds of all kinds, Wild Buffalo, Guinea Fowl, Hippos. No Rhinos.
You also see changing landscape and understand how animals change with that. At times the vastness of the plains in the Serengeti, the Savana Grasslands are imposing and humbling. The topography is flat in all directions for miles around as far as the eye can see. It is huge and beautiful, and make you want to burst into clichés and superlatives.
I can understand what a large influence Africa has on people. It is mystical and awe inspiring at the same time. Since I like and have listened to a fair share of music, the impact that Africa has had on composers is quite something. The song Africa by the group Toto for example, is written by two Los Angeles based white musicians. Their influences and inspirations for Africa are second or third hand as you shall see. This is how powerful the myth and aura of Arfica is. Recently, when interviewed, the writer and singer David Paich said
“One of the reasons I was in a rock band was to see the world. As a kid, I’d always been fascinated by Africa. I loved movies about Dr Livingstone and missionaries. I went to an all-boys Catholic school and a lot of the teachers had done missionary work in Africa. They told me how they would bless the villagers, their Bibles, their books, their crops and, when it rained, they’d bless the rain. That’s where the hook line – “I bless the rains down in Africa” – came from.
They said loneliness and celibacy were the hardest things about life out there. Some of them never made it into the priesthood because they needed companionship. So I wrote about a person flying in to meet a lonely missionary. It’s a romanticised love story about Africa, based on how I’d always imagined it. The descriptions of its beautiful landscape came from what I’d read in National Geographic.”
What was good
On the whole, for me the trip was good. I enjoyed myself, primarily because of the company. 8 old friends, common experiences, the jokes, the hilarity, the ribbing, the kindling of memories. The camps we went to were barring in issue with alkaline water at Olakira were top notch. Seeing the locations and the remoteness, what they put out for us was stupendous. It is difficult to describe here.
The food in the camps was beyond good. The way “bush” brunch and lunch were organized was a lesson. Here we were, miles from anywhere, hungry after spending hours bouncing in a car turning up at a predetermined location to a fabulous setting and being served a first-class hot meal. Chefs on hand, service staff, eggs to order, sausage, bread pasta salad and dessert. This was really well done. They are experts.
The guides were experts too. They answered all kinds of questions, kept us entertained and engaged and did their job diligently. No lack of enthusiasm and flagging off.
The “sightings” as I said were really good too, in number, quality and frequency.
The way the charter flights operated and flew us in and out was again a marvel.
Listening to my much more travelled friends, safari in India is rather poor by comparison. The level of red tape ruins the experience. Just by way of example, no radios, walkie talkies or even mobile phones are allowed. Therefore, if a driver spots something good luck to him, no one else will know.
And, to top it all, we saw no Indians either on safari or at the two camps.
What was my problem.
I have never quite understood the charm or thrill of safari. Yes, I do like my dogs and cats. I do watch videos of charming animals, cute pups, cuter Labrador pups and National Geographic shows.
Fine, I did see a cheetah stalking, that was nice. Seeing a lion up close, nice. Cheetah having lunch, nice. But again, and again and again? You would be correct in asking how is seeing a kill again and again different from, for example, eating at the same restaurant repeatedly, which is what many of us do. My response is very simple. Safari is not my cup of tea, eating good food is. Hence, I am willing to repeat the restaurant experience but find the repeat viewing of cats and kills boring. Simple! Safari is not bad, it is simply not my cup of tea.
Sitting in a car, for hours, on dirt tracks is not my idea of fun. In those pristine areas, careening about in a polluting diesel SUV is foolish. However, that is the nature of the beast [no pun intended]. You simply cannot go on a safari by walking. You will be attacked and killed by a lion.
At the end of the day, I remain unconvinced. I am pretty certain I will not be going on safari again, not my cup of tea at all. We should have done 4 days of safari and 4 days in Zanzibar at a beach resort. That would have been nice.
Anyway, live and learn. If there was a way for me to ditch the whole thing and head back, I would have done it without thinking. This was a very expensive way to know that your instincts are correct. I did not like safari, I went on an expensive one, and I still do not understand it at all.
Lessons and advise for you
Lesson number 1. Keeping money out of the equation, if you do not like something just don’t do it. Stick by your convictions. If you are ambivalent, go.
Learn the essential words to keep up with the Jones’s –
· Off Roading is not/is allowed.
If you have to go, spend the maximum you can, don’t go to a cut price one. The more you pay the better everything gets. Unless of course you are in India where only the hotel gets better the rest by and large remains the same.
Doing more than 4 to 5 days of safari is too much. Balance your holiday with something different.
Do not shuttle between too many camps. Travel is a drag and a time waste. Stick to two camps if possible.
Remember, if you are in the camp and do not go on safari that day, you will have nothing to do, except draw or read a book. Camps are not built to entertain you, so, there is no TV no internet and no mobile network. Swimming pool? Perish the thought. Some camps have a spa for you to blow money. You could stay back and spend a day in the spa and have a pedicure.
Some other comments are downright racist. I cannot make them here. Call me, I will tell you.