Recently, I had the pleasure of joining a CW Safari group on an epic journey through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia. And while our days were filled with the classic experiences I’ve come to expect from a safari—spectacular lodges and camps, fantastic guides, cool sundowners, jaw-dropping wildlife encounters, delicious food, and stunning scenery—what struck me most were all the experiences you don’t expect. Africa offers so many surprising moments, from little gracenotes during a game drive to captivating, all-day adventures that you share around the campfire each evening. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. Relaxing in the Rushes. In the waterways of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, we enjoyed a different perspective on nature from aboard traditional mokoro canoes poled along by our expert guides. Gliding past flowering water lilies and papyrus, we marveled at views of hippos grunting, blowing bubbles, and wiggling their ears. All around us, the wetland sounds of swaying water plants and birdcalls narrated our adventure. We followed pathways created by hippopotamus through the reeds (the so-called “hippo highway”) to the far bank where we enjoyed a fantastic walk through the savanna.
2. The Small Five. Most people heading out on their first safari can’t wait to see the “Big Five” (the elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and buffalo). While they were certainly on our list, I also loved encountering the Namib Desert’s “Small Five,”—the Dancing White Lady Spider, Waxy Darkling Beetle, Ant Lion, Dune Cricket, and Brown Borrowing Scorpion. Walking out into the Namib Rand Nature Reserve desert, it was hard to imagine any life existing in the spectacular orange sand dunes. However, time and again our trackers pointed out desert creatures perfectly adapted to life in this remarkable climate. We discovered plants that are used to cure all manner of ailments, spiders that tap messages into the sand to communicate with each other, and scorpions that dig elaborate—some might even say luxurious—burrows.
3. Mountains of Sand. We were humbled by the colossal dunes of Sossusvlei, which rose in great, golden mounds to heights over 1,000 feet—each sculpted by the wind into dramatic, sweeping curves. I joined a group hoping to conquer the world famous “Big Daddy” in the Namib Naukluft National Park. Standing at the base of this mountain-sized beauty was both awe inspiring and intimidating at the same time. We set out with every intention for success, but after an hour of hiking, realized that we were no match for it—at the end of the day we were just happy to have given it our best shot.
4. Trees Older than Alexander the Great. During a game drive in Botswana’s Nxai Pan, I was struck by the size and age of the baobab trees we stopped beneath. Some of these stocky beauties have been carbon dated to be over 6,000 years old. Sitting in their ample shade, it’s easy to see why they’re known as the “tree of life.” Our guides told us that their fruit is edible, their leaves used medicinally, and the bark used to make cloth and rope. In addition to all this, each tree holds hundreds of gallons of water inside, and local tribes have been known to tap the tree and “borrow” some during a dry season.
5. A Dinner to Remember. In Cape Town, South Africa, we had the privilege of joining Capetonians Lisa and Barry O’Mahony at their lovely home for a wonderful dinner party. Nothing gives you a feel for a place quite like sharing a meal with local residents. Lisa, in addition to running a full household, is quite the accomplished chef, having prepared meals for many dignitaries including the father of the nation, Nelson Mandela. Among the distinguished attendees was a local vintner, who served his delicious creations and regaled us with the rich history of the 300-year-old South African wine industry. What an experience!
6. Safariing on Foot. While game drives in open safari vehicles are not to be missed, there is nothing quite like walking in the footprints of elephant, hippopotamus, lion, and leopard. As our Zambian guide put it: “From a vehicle you see Africa. On foot you feel, hear, and smell it.” Walking in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia—where the walking safari was pioneered 50 years ago—it was easy to see the truth of that. In the company of a highly experienced Zambian “wildlife police officer”—who scouts the way forward, ensuring unparalleled access—we were able to spot animal tracks, discover rare flora, learn about the relationship between animals and humans, and, of course, behold a menagerie of animals: elephant, lion, kudu, giraffe, impala, zebra, baboons, hippo, crocodile, guinea fowl, African fish eagle, lilac-breasted roller, carmine bee eater, and many more.
7. The Opportunity to Give Back. One of the great joys of traveling in a developing country is having the opportunity to give back to the community that has graciously welcomed you. There are many ways to do so: eating at restaurants that source produce from area farmers, buying handicrafts from local artisans, staying in locally owned and operated accommodations. Then, of course, you may participate in activities that are explicitly designed to benefit the local community. While staying in Cape Town, for instance, we spent a day cycling through the township of Masiphumelele with the Bicycle Empowerment Network, an organization that fights poverty by providing bicycles as a means of transportation for low income families. It was a genuine pleasure to support their cause. The constant shouts, smiles, and welcoming embraces from children we met along the way stole our hearts.
Also rewarding was the time we spent in Mfuwe, Zambia, where our local partner, The Bushcamp Company, has been running a charity initiative for years. We’re proud to support them in their important initiatives: providing needed education to local school children, suitable living conditions for rural students, and clean drinking water for the surrounding communities. I was honored to view our efforts first-hand and it was fantastic to see the support and enthusiasm of our guests as they visited with children and learned about the programs.
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