The Journal of a Non-Hunter’s First Safari
(Or: The Awakening of a Safari Virgin)
This article appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of the African Hunting Gazette.
I am the hunter-friendly wife of an avid hunter. I did anticipate our first safari with some doubts and concerns, but the fearful and negative attitude of the person in this tale are not my own; if they are yours, read on! – Linda Worthington – Cascade, MD
My husband says we’re going to Africa… I wonder if I’m happy about that?
Disease. Things that growl – and bite! Very probably food that is not edible. Shots, pills, clunky boots and drab clothes, sunburn, bug bites, sleeping in thin, shabby tents with things that crawl and fly and… no showers!
I don’t think I am happy about it… maybe he’ll change his mind…
We are at the SCI Convention. I have never seen so many things! Hunting, hunters, the hunted… easy to see who won! People wearing so much jewelry – rings, necklaces, bracelets, big, heavy, gold with diamonds… and that’s just the men! Booths displaying everything and anything related to the “blood sports” – what a term that is! But some of those things are beautiful – African crafts and art and furniture… hmmm.
We are going to meet a prospective PH and his wife. I wonder if all those wild tales are true – encounters with large charging animals, hair-raising stories of courage and cowardice… I probably shouldn’t have read those books someone loaned us… what was that author’s name… oh yes – Capstick.
There they are… gosh! He’s pretty daunting in his safari gear – looks very capable though! She looks so.,.. civilized! Elegant, gracious… she’s wearing makeup! Very reassuring. The men talk guns, trophies, fees; we women begin, as women do, that delicate dance to learn the style, the boundaries, the possibility of a bond… these people will be in charge of our lives for weeks… can we trust them? Do they really care?
We sat and talked for an hour and asked questions and looked at photos. We had a lot of things to ask them… so why do I feel that they now know more about us than we do about them? We leave with brochures and forms to fill out and the start of a whole new vocabulary, heads awhirl.
We are at a booth belonging to a company that specializes in making the complex travel arrangements for safaris. I’m used to making my own, but we are urged to hire someone to shepherd us through the tangle of paper work, passport issues and plane changes that are required – very sound advice I must admit.
My husband looks like an eager boy on Christmas… what a good thing that is!
Alright… we are going to Africa!
One of the things we are told most often is: “Africa changes you – you’ll see!”
June of the following year:
We have traveled a lot, both separately and together, over the years, but it took more organization and preparation to get ready for this trip than for any other. We got the necessary shots, and the usual dreadful photos to renew our passports, and sent a check with our applications. I pre-paid bills, copied essential documents for backup in case ours are lost or stolen, notified credit card banks, friends, family – and one neighbor, who will check on the house. We gave thanks often and earnestly for that advice regarding the Travel Service… packets of information, reservation confirmations and plane tickets arrived over the months, with long lists of hints, tips and advice… all of which proved invaluable.
Shopping for “correct” safari gear: I feared the drab, semi-macho garb that might await me. Who knew! Subtle, muted tones of green and khaki, nicely tailored and cut from good cloth. I am particularly fond of my classic safari jacket – soft and comforting on cool mornings, and those frosty nights in the Kalahari. It seems to surround me with an aura of the bush and convey upon me an air of Africa Hand – great fun! (And all those fabulous pockets!) The boots are very comfortable, especially designed to step quietly on the sandy soil – and not clunky at all.
And now we are flying to Africa. We have completed the longest leg, from New York to Johannesburg, SA, which seemed to take just short of 2 years… but which was actually about 17 hours. Now we sit waiting for our connecting flight. What a place… over the speaker we hear that flights are boarding for Dar es Salaam, Marrakech, Dakar… and the passing parade of humanity is colorful and exotic. Then we hear our destination announced, and begin the shortest leg of our long journey.
Our PH and his wife welcome us at the small, tidy airport and we travel in a comfortable vehicle to their ranch in the Kalahari Desert. I wonder what we will see there… thatched huts? Will the beds have springs? To our amazement, as we drive through the gates our eyes behold beautiful stone buildings, low and graceful, resting gently on lush green lawns. (Look! The roofs are thatched!) Flowers bloom everywhere and a lap-pool sparkles in the sun.
We are shown to our room, a tranquil sanctuary of wood and stone, with rich, earth-toned fabrics and snowy white sheets. The bathroom, en suite, has a shower that puts our own to shame. A quiet young woman brings a tray with coffee and little cakes. A curious hornbill lands on our window sill and eyes the newcomers to his world.
We are, most emphatically, in Africa.
The PH’s wife runs a meticulous operation while her husband handles the hunting and oversees all the related services. Because she treats her staff with respect and affection, they return the same to her ten-fold. This is passed along to the clients: we find ourselves the delighted recipients of many comforts and little treats, always with a smile and a quiet greeting.
I had read, “Pack light – your laundry will be done for you every day…” Oh right. P. R. talk, I thought. Scrubbed on rocks perhaps, and dried on bushes? Imagine my embarrassment – and relief – when this fantastic promise turns out to be entirely true! Everything is carefully laundered, pressed, and hung or folded, and brought to our room during the day while we are on the hunts or elsewhere. I dismiss another of my silly preconceptions.
Each morning a tap on our door announces the coffee tray, preceding breakfast in the dining room. Each afternoon, as we rest before dinner, refreshments of our choice arrive. There are exquisite arrangements of feathers and dried flowers and porcupine quills tucked into unexpected little niches around the lodge, whose massive stone walls are adorned with indigenous art and artifacts. No detail is overlooked and no comfort is lacking. Within one day we are shamelessly spoiled… and happy to be! (Wasn’t I worrying about thin, shabby tents and serious deprivation?)
The dining room is a casually comfortable place for a the substantial full breakfasts and sumptuous lunches; in the evening, bathed in candle light, the table set with silver, fine china and crystal, it is transformed into a luminous vision – a 5 star venue worthy of the fabulous feasts proffered by the chef’s kitchen. No game meat is wasted. Most is given to the local population, some is served to us. We choose our favorites from among the animals that my husband has contributed to this table and many others. Each dish is prepared to perfection and served with fresh vegetables and fine wines. (Another ridiculous assumption eliminated: “Better eat everything the airlines offer us – might be the last edible food we get for weeks!”) We are fed like Royalty – we eat like starving commoners!
How does a woman who oversees such a myriad of details, who is hands-on in every aspect of the life of the camp, find the time to make us feel so safe and special and at peace?
She takes us shopping in the surprisingly sophisticated small town: gifts for family and friends, souvenirs for ourselves. We have lunch in a charming little cafe. We enjoy the “civilized” interlude… but we return to the ranch as to a beloved home place!
Along the roads between the ranch and the town are signs: CAUTION! KUDU CROSSING!
The ranch is a self-sustaining community. It is imperative that all the important supplies and services are available – it’s a long drive to a town from here.
The power-source for the entire camp is a massive generator, located in its own building. It is the star of the show, the giver of light and comfort, carefully maintained.
There is a garden of course, providing vegetables for the table. (A local problem: “Those darn kudu have been eating the greens again!”)
There is a well-stocked garage for vehicle repair, a laundry room with large-capacity machines, a butchering area for the meat, a skinning shed for the trophies… and much more, all vital to a successful safari operation and to life in the bush.
The Domestic Animals:
There are always dogs: tracking dogs, pet dogs, family dogs visiting from elsewhere. They ramble in and out, lounge around, race to board the hunting car or any vehicle going to town, depending on their particular duties – tracker or companion. They all seem to get along well, and to have opinions about everything, including us. Some seem disdainful, some are cool but polite, and some are very solicitous, clearly aware of our ignorance and naivety about all the things that they understand completely. They are willing to help.
One morning we ask, ‘Where is that little cat that was playing around the porch yesterday?” Our PH says, “Oh, a leopard ate it during the night.”
My husband is fulfilling a lifelong dream. Having chosen, in his opinion, the best PH for his safari, he places his total confidence in this professional’s skills and abilities. I can only do the same, trusting that he will find trophies worthy of my hunter’s efforts and steer us away from all those lurking horrors so graphically enumerated in those books.
On our first day in the hunting car, somewhere in the vastness of the desert, he stops the hunting car along the sandy track, leaves the vehicle for a moment and returns with a small, fierce creature, which he places in my hand. It stares balefully at me with a rotating round eye set in neon-green and wrinkled skin. It is a young and highly offended chameleon. It is beautiful, cranky and biting my finger in a rage – with barely perceptible pressure and no teeth. I can only laugh, and our PH looks just ever so slightly relieved: this woman is not a wuss, thank goodness.
Every day is new, unscheduled, random and filled with visual wonders and great success. My husband fills his list of trophies over the time allotted, I make videos and still photos, and keep a journal to preserve the myriad bright and fleeting moments that we will joyously relive in the years ahead. We marvel at the constantly passing parade of wildlife, straight out of his dreams and my imaginings. Great herds, little family groups, sudden swirling color as a flight of beautiful birds sweeps over and around us. None of this could be planned, nothing here is predictable, and yet each day is perfect and unique. The country is huge, wild and dangerous, but we know that we are safe in the best hands. The air is pure, the sky is endlessly wide and deep, the sounds are soft winds, sand under foot, hoof beats, birdcalls.
Each day Africa enfolds us, enchants us, and works its magic in subtle ways. What was strange on our first day has become familiar, what bewildered us is now comfortable, and a part of our lives. When we see the sun rise over the far mountains we know that adventures await us; when we stand under the night skies, blazing with the glories of this other hemisphere, we greet the Southern Cross as a friend.
When we leave Africa we take it with us, in the red dust on our boots, in the photos, my journals, our dreams.
We have joined our voices to those who say, “Africa changes you… you’ll see!”
While my observations and experience surely apply to many top outfitters, Tom and I thank Joof and Marina Lamprecht of Hunters Namibia Safaris for helping me lose my virginity.