By Andrea Granahan
The couple next to me bragged they had paid seven thousand dollars each for their ten days of wildlife viewing. They were so happy about their trip I persuaded them to compare wildlife notes rather than tell them I had paid $1150 for 17 days.
I didn’t have porters to carry my luggage. I had to pitch my own tent and help out with the food preparation. But I had seen the same critters and had seen a lot more of them. I also had the help of a knowledgeable guide who had gone through the same vigorous training program theirs had since the profession is regulated by law thoughout most of southern Africa. A guide is indispensable to not only help find the animals but to explain what you are seeing when you find them.
While you don’t have to pump iron or be an athlete, you do have to be in reasonably good health to undertake a do-it-yourself budget safari. You must carry your own baggage and space is limited, so you need to pack light and well.
There are a number of companies that run small, cheap safaris that have catered to students, blue-collar workers on vacation from Europe or Down Under, and adventure travelers. The one I chose was called Drifters. While you can book with them from the United States through agents or via e-mail, your best bargains are to be found on the spot when a safari is about to leave and there is a spot to be filled. One of my group had got in the day before for a little over half of what I paid.
The safari vehicles vary according to the size of the group and destination. The group of ten I joined used a specially designed Mercedes overland truck converted into a glass-walled bus. It proved to be very comfortable and excellent for game viewing. Its one drawback was having to climb a ladder to get in and out. By the end of the first few days we had all become as agile as monkeys and were grateful for the additional height which gave us an advantage over lower vans as we scoured the bush for a glimpse of animals.
The lower part of the “safarimobile” held the tents, chairs and kitchen gear. Whenever we changed locations we were expected to set up and take down our own tents except when we used a Drifters lodge. The lodges were always rife with African charm. One was Hazy View, a thatched wooden building built on stilts over a hippo-populated river. Another was an African farmhouse straight from “Out of Africa” in the Drakensberg Mountains. Once we even got to sleep in Swaziland straw huts and play at being Dr. Livingstone as we sat on our cots and toasted each other with good South African wine. The accommodations were sometimes shared, sometimes solitary. Couples always got their own room.
We also took turns at kitchen duty, washing dishes and helping our guide with food prep. Some other budget safari outfits also ask the travelers to help shop.
We quickly fell into a routine. Since we stayed in comfortable campgrounds or lodges we had showers wherever we went. We’d wash up and whoever had K-P duty would help set out the breakfast table. Usually it was cereal, fruit and milk if we were in a hurry to get out to the animal preserves, but sometimes our guide would do a full-scale bacon and eggs feast. After breakfast we’d pack up the table and head for the animals.
The game drives were anything but routine. From spotting our first elephant the first day, an old bull giving himself a dust bath, to the half hour quietly spent under a bough holding a napping leopard, the thrills of seeing such magnificent animals in the wild never palled. We quickly learned what it took to get close and stay safe. Hands and heads inside the perimeter of the vehicle.
“They see the vehicle and you as part of one large animal. A glimpse of a hand sticking out is enough to let them know you are prey,” our guide told us.
While sitting next to a lion you remember the rules. The animals make great enforcers.
At noon we’d find a “people cage” (a safe fenced enclosure), break out the table and set up sandwich makings, helping ourselves. After a full afternoon of spying on rhinos, impala and wildebeestes we’d go back to camp.
While some would chop vegetables as the guide cooked, the rest of us would sit around the cookfire with drinks and compare notes. All the meals were prepared in a cast iron pot over a wood fire except for the “braais” (barbecues) when we did without the pot.
Drifters International, like many of the small safari outfits, runs out of South Africa, which maintains a rigorous guide training and licensing program. The guides are not only excelllent zoologists, Drifters also requires that they be excellent shade tree mechanics who can repair their vehicles if need be. They know first-aid and know the countries they travel in first hand. It’s largely a young people’s profession since it doesn’t allow for much of a family life. It is almost military in its demands and schedules, but some older hands have made it their life work. Part of the training includes rappelling cliffs, dealing with overturned canoes, and such, but what they really pride themselves on is their cooking.
Get a bunch of guides together in a campground bar, ply them with drinks and before the night is over their boasting won’t be about animals they have tracked or encountered, it will be about the superb pot roast they cooked or the new stew recipe they have.
Sometimes we would stay at a campground where night game drives were available with specially trained and armed rangers. These were always worth the modest extra cost (less than $20). At night the quiet, low, open-sided trams allowed us to get very intimate with the animals and to see a lot of smaller nocturnal game like civet cats. We also saw our share of larger animals such as hippos, which wait until after dark to emerge from the rivers and graze to avoid sunburn. Night also brought out the lions.
I was the only American on the safari I joined. Most Americans simply don’t know about the cheap safaris. Since the guides are all English speaking, English is the way everyone communicates, at least once they get used to your American accent. A lot of comraderie develops as you all share lifetime experiences. None of us will ever forget the lionesses or the young bull elephant who shared a sunset with us thinking we were his mom.
By the time our safarimobile pulled up to the inn at Johannesburg and we gathered at a local restaurant for a farewell dinner, some of us had become friends for life, and all of us had the memory of a lifetime to go with our albums full of wildlife photos.
The safari organizers will tell you specifics on packing. Many rent sleeping bags cheaply so you don’t have to haul them with you. Pack no bag heavier than you can lift shoulder height. Soft sided baggage is required so it can be stuffed into lockers. If you bring extra bags for further travel you can usually rent a locker for them at the starting point
Carry any prescription medications, antihistamines, antiseptic cream and a basic pain killer like aspirin just in case of strains. If you are taking malaria medication you might also want to pack some over-the-counter sleeping pills to counteract the havoc it can play with sleep patterns. Bring a water bottle and flashlight. A small inflatable pillow is nice.
Sturdy sandals and walking shoes are a must. Bring binoculars and lots of film!