What is a South African Safari in Today's World?
The etymology of the word "safari" traces the meaning back to it's origins in the Swahili language where it refers to a long journey. In the nineteenth century it was adopted into the English language to refer to big game hunting trips where the objective was the collection of trophy heads for one's wall back home in old England. Today, it primarily refers to a trip to observe and perhaps photograph wildlife. No longer do most safaris trek out into the wilderness for days at a time roughing it with minimal camping equipment. Today, one usually stays in a luxurious lodge and drive out a couple of times a day in a comfortable vehicle on what are called "game drives." Today's safari is much tamer than the earlier adventures, but it is no less amazing. Physical danger from charging elephants and roaring lions has been replaced by the thrill of seeing these animals for extended periods of time up close and personal.
I didn't make it for any nineteenth century safaris, but my guess is that the average game drive in Kruger shows a visitor more different kinds of animals up close and personal than most folks saw on a traditional walking safari years ago. Part of the reason for this is that the animals have become conditioned to the vehicles. During our trip we literally drove up and parked next to an endless series of different animals without in the slightest interrupting what they were doing at the time. A pride of lions eating a freshly killed giraffe, a leopard mother with cub eating a freshly killed impala, a hyena den with four playful youngsters running around their parents, a pack of wild dogs hunting, dozing leopards, hunting lions, grazing zebra, etc, etc, etc. The animals have been conditioned by years of vehicles driving around them without any adverse impact on their lives. Had we been on foot, however, we were told that the situation would change immediately. Depending on the animal and the direction that we were facing we would either be prey or predator and they would act accordingly. (We didn't test the theory.)
Kruger National Park is not the Africa of old and a modern photographic safari is not what attracted Hemmingway. In many ways, Kruger is a zoo with the people caged and the animals free to roam in a vast protected area. Some of the animals become well known and some even collect nicknames. Unfortunately, poachers still take their toll. In a world where not everyone has heard of viagra, the restorative value of powdered rhinoceros horn is still king. A poor villager may kill an animal to provide for his family. We were told that some private reserves have cut the horns off of their rhinoceros and the tusks off their elephants in order to protect them from being killed. We saw armed guards patrolling and heard stories of very well equipped poachers using helicopters and night vision devices to accomplish their nefarious objectives. Although there is still some legal big game hunting going on, most of the value of these animals is increasingly recognized as being related to their ability to draw tourism to Africa and I suggest that is a good thing.
Even as isolated as we were in our touristic bubble on this trip, it is impossible not to be struck by the different levels of wealth that exist in South Africa. Just outside of the various game reserves there are large villages with rudimentary infrastructure and inadequate employment opportunities. One can not avoid thinking about the dichotomy between the life of the tourist and that of the villager. One of the reasons that these various safari camps are so luxurious is that labor is extremely cheap. We saw some evidence of local community support projects undertaken by the various lodges and we were told about more programs that they support. We were struck throughout our trip at the quality of the people that we met in every single position that interfaced with the tourist. They were, without exception, highly qualified and skilled in their work. Obviously, from what we saw on the ground, the South African tourist industry provides a lot of employment and that is a another good thing about the "safari" business.
I should also mention a bit about the photographic opportunities on one of these safari trips. Bottom line, it is impossible not to get some great shots that will take a prominent place on your living room wall, your iPad or your lap top screen saver. First off, you obviously need to find the animals. No animals - no pictures. Here, much of the work is done by the trackers. Ours were superb. Elvis, Zup, and Rogers definitely know their business and we were treated to a constant supply of every kind of animal imaginable. After you find the animal you have to get into position for the shot. The rangers that are at the wheel on these game drives do all of the work for you. Obviously, even if they are not photographers themselves, (and many of them are) they have been driving photographers for years and they know what is necessary to get a camera in the right position for "the" shot. They not only understand the importance of light, but they know their vehicle well enough to put the photographer in the correct position to shoot through the gap between the bushes. In addition, they are polite about the whole process and infinitely patient. Because they know their animals so well, many times they will find the picture before the photographer wakes up to the fact that it is staring him in the face. If you find any of my own images to be worthy of notice I freely attribute the vast majority of the credit to the three rangers that drove for us - Ryan, Dyke and Nick. Thanks to their expertise, all I had to do was squeeze off the shot and say thank you. I said thank you a lot! (See more about the Tracker/Ranger Team.)
As you can tell from this section of Wandering Lizard, we are sold on South Africa. We wish it well and hope to return one day to see more of it's wonders.