In early November I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the first time in my life, which included a visit to a private game reserve, Sabi Sands, in the Kruger National Park region. My prior knowledge of Africa in general and South Africa in particular was derived from things like the autobiography of Roald Dahl, the novel The Power of One, various history lessons about European colonialism and WW2 and assorted contemporary news articles about violence and poverty in post-independence South Africa. Clearly, none of it could really prepare my mind for what South Africa was as I experienced it, and certainly it couldn’t capture the majesty of experiencing exotic wildlife up close (sometimes as close as 6 feet away, protected only by the elevation of an otherwise open vehicle) in its natural habitat, much better than the idea captured by a “living zoo”. As a collection of experiences packed into 11 days of travel, it would be exhausting to fully catalog as a blog post, so I’ll try to stick to some high level perspectives and recollections as far as piecing this entry together goes.
Our trip started in Cape Town, which we transited to through the UK and which involved two day/night cycles which made for truly disorienting jet lag on arrival. Despite being an international airport capable of servicing large, long-distance aircraft like ours, the terminal was “sleepy”, with little people and activity aside from the recent arrivals. Security and customs was a joke– no disembarkation card to fill out, no questions, just a quick stamp in the passport book and then on our way. It suggests South Africa is either quite welcome to having visitors and tourism, or doesn’t take border security seriously. Either way, I appreciated it as a traveler.
The ride from the airport to our destination downtown took us by numerous shantytowns along the roadside. I learned later that these shantytowns are normally populated by recent immigrants from bordering African countries which are even more poor and unstable than South Africa. South African law allows for squatters rights after some short period (may have been 90 days) at which point the shantys can’t be removed. It doesn’t seem like there is a concerted effort to remove them in the meantime as the towns were numerous and expansive. Trash develops along the roadside wherever they spring up but they otherwise appear to be orderly places, with electricity, running water and satellite TV. I don’t know if satellite TV would be the most important use of my funds as an impoverished immigrant and I am always surprised to see how the “destitute” manage to be able to shell out for what appears to me a luxury item. But who am I to judge?
Something that struck me being in and around Cape Town was the number of construction cranes on the skyline! Cape Town by no means has a “scenic” skyline. The architecture is largely dreary and uninspired, it looks like the kind of semi-Soviet concrete structures that populated many Third World countries during itinerant booms in the 1970s and 1980s. But it seems that Cape Town is participating in the same global boom in downtown real estate prices and thus experiencing the regenerative development patterns that can be seen in every other major metro from LA to London to Tokyo. From my hotel balcony near the water front I could see 8 different construction cranes, and I did not have a full 180 degree view looking back toward the city. Surely there were more that escaped my notice.
The other thing I noticed about Cape Town is that it is geographically scenic. Framed by Table Mountain in the background, Cape Town appears to offer many retreats and activities for the active bodied resident. And standing on Table Mountain you can see all that you might like to see– Cape Point and the southernmost part of Africa, the Stellenbosch wine region and dramatic, glassy ocean blue views. With international shipping routes converging at the cape, the horizon is peppered with interesting longhulled ships here and there. There are opportunities for ocean sports, hiking, climbing, air sports, “extreme sports” and more.
We took a tour of the wine country, Stellenbosch, and I found it both scenic and idyllic. And the wine was fantastic. I chatted with a friend before my trip who is a wine snob, who insisted “South Africa doesn’t have any good wine.” I just don’t know what to say to that kind of ignorance, it is demeaning to the country to even treat the objection seriously.
When I visit some place new I always try to ask myself, “Could I imagine living here?” My biggest stumbling block is usually thinking about what value-added service I could provide to have a comfortable income in this new place. Nothing stuck out to me in terms of economic opportunities during my short visit in Cape Town. And while I don’t think I’d rush to find some place to live there, I could see myself enjoying my lifestyle there.
After a few days of acclimating in Cape Town, we were off to the bush for the safari. We took a small aircraft (jet) from Cape Town to a municipal airport in the northeast of the country, and from there boarded an even smaller aircraft (twin propeller) where luggage weight was a concern and flew directly to the game reserve’s air strip about 15 minutes away. Here we were picked up by our guides and trackers in their Land Rover trucks and proceeded directly into the reserve. Not knowing what to expect, I was quite shocked when a few minutes later we spotted a herd of elephants in the brush, thinking that we needed to drive to some “attraction” area to do some animal spotting. This would be a theme throughout the visit, the unexpected nature of animal sightings which occurred nearly everywhere.
Before going further, I want to talk about health risks in the bush. November in South Africa is the beginning of the summer rainy season, and the rains activate insects which have lain dormant through the dry winter period. The health recommendation for the trip was to take vaccines for Typhoid, Hep A and Malaria (and/or anti-malarial pills). According to the CDC, the country is a known risk factor for the first two and the particular area we were going to for the safari, near Kruger, is a known malarial zone.
Prior to the trip, I agonized about whether or not to take steps to protect myself. As a general rule, I am a vaccination skeptic. I also was trying to think about the risk of getting ill and/or bringing something home with a pregnant wife near term. After doing a lot of research and thinking about it, I decided not to take any vaccinations nor to take the anti-malarial pill regimen. My reasons were many. First, I found out that typhoid and hep A are extremely uncomfortable symptomatically, but they are not considered lethal nor do they cause lasting tissue damage, and a normal person can fight the disease and heal on their own if they contract the disease. I also studied the transmission mechanism for these diseases, which is contact with bodily fluids (specifically blood or feces) from an infected person. I was never going to be anywhere on the trip where I expected to be exposed to that kind of hygiene problem, and I didn’t see why I was at more risk of this transmission mechanism at home versus in South Africa. Googling and reading stories on TripAdvisor confirmed these suspicions– people with more competent doctors were laughed at for considering these precautions on anything but remote mission work, and even then.
As for malaria, I did a lot of research and realized that we were unlikely to encounter a lot of mosquitos at this point in the season. In addition, most people reported success in warding off bites (which are the only vector for the disease) with simple bug spray repellant. Finally, while malaria can be lethal, if it is contracted it is pretty obvious and can be treated with anti-viral medications at that time with a high rate of success. The side effects of anti-mallarial medications are well known and include horrible nightmares, vomiting, diarrea and other miserable flu like symptoms, which seem to occur with some frequency.
I decided to take my chances and I am really glad I did. I experienced my time in Cape Town as quite “civilized”, at no point did I feel there should be a reason for there to be a heightened risk of transmission of typhoid/hep A via food contamination, the most likely vector given that I don’t do intravenous drugs or hang out with prostitutes. In fact, many parts of Cape Town came across as very “hip”. I think hygiene is something they understand in this part of the world and the economy, which is so dependent on tourism, would really suffer if they were poisoning all their visitors with careless, avoidable disease transmission.
As for malaria, I didn’t see one mosquito the entire safari, nor receive one bite of any insect or spider (I saw many insects and spiders). The day we arrived was the first day of rain after the dry season, and we were leaving four days later, which happens to be the normal gestation period for the larvae once they receive water. So we lucked out in that sense. However, I spoke to the guides about this and they kind of laughed at the idea of taking anti-malarials. None of them took any and none even wore bug spray. They felt it was an extremely small risk and treatable if it occurred. These are trained ecological scientists (more on that soon) and wilderness survival professionals, not snooty dorks from the city that read anti-vax hoaxes on the internet. They just found operationally it wasn’t a risk in their area.
Meanwhile, many of the other people on the safari who had taken the meds had horrible side effects to the point that they were crippled with symptoms for several precious days. When the rumor got around that they might be experiencing side effects, they one by one stopped taking their meds and recovered instantaneously, enjoying the remainder of their trip in perfect health. Aside from spraying myself with a citronella bug spray before going out more out of habits back home than anything else, I did nothing to preserve my health on the trip besides eating well as I always do, getting sleep and being aware of my surroundings. This seemed to work just fine.
The safari experience is hard to describe to a person who hasn’t enjoyed it. It is not simply like being inside a zoo exhibit, because at a zoo animals behave differently than they do in an expansive habitat. They live on a kind of rhythm created by their feeding schedules and the coming and going of people as the park opens and closes. They lose their instincts, they stop mating, they no longer hunt to survive, they no longer have to avoid predators. Often times they become depressed or deranged. So going on a safari is not a “super zoo”, but a qualitatively different experience entirely. You now are watching animals do what they always do as if no one is watching and nothing disruptive has happened in their life. You are watching them be truly natural. Modern humans struggle to understand this, but what is natural is often fundamentally different from what is man-made.
On our safari we road around the massive acreage of this game reserve in a Land Rover, with our guide driving and our tracker sitting on a chair hanging off the hood of the vehicle. It is quite noisy and obvious moving along the trails (and quite ferocious in terms of mastering the terrain, able to climb and remain balanced in steep slopes, operate in deep water, crash through small trees and other brush as necessary) but it doesn’t seem to disrupt the animals. They perceive it as a large but unthreatening animal moving through their environment, as long as the humans all remain inside.
We’d start with a 430AM wakeup, gather for a quick snack and coffee and depart by 5 or 530AM. The sun rises around 330/4AM, so by this time it has been up for awhile but it is not yet warm. We would drive and see what we could see for a couple hours, stop on the trail and make a snack and second coffee on the hood, clean up and continue driving for another hour and a half, ending around 830AM. The rest of the day was to be spent at leisure at the lodge, until afternoon tea again around 4PM, followed by the afternoon drive at 430/5PM. A similar pattern ensued, with a break for a snack and the last half of the drive occurring after sunset at which point the Land Rover headlights come on and the tracker sweeps the horizon with a floodlight rhythmically, looking for the glint of reflection coming from a hidden animals eyes.
The “Big 5” on the safari that everyone hopes to see are the leopard, the lion, the rhino, the elephant and the buffalo. We managed to see all of these, and more. We were truly spoiled as we often saw some of them more than once, or doing unusual things (mating, recovering after a kill, with newborns, etc.) We were often so close that, while I never feared for my life because we were with professionals who understood the risks, my own instinct was to tighten up and remain still not wanting to make any sudden movement unintentionally. It felt like that sudden move could invite a beast to come lunging into my lap in one snap motion!
Things that can’t be communicated in photos, and only poorly in videos, are the sounds of the safari. Warning cries. Combat sounds. Horseplay noises. Mammals, birds, insects. And of course the smells! At this time in the season, the bush and the grass are well eaten away and some of the animals are on the verge of starvation. An entire season’s worth of shit of every conceivable species is littered over nearly every square foot of ground and while it doesn’t smell bad (even when it’s fresh, most of it is essentially grass and leaf material, it is the meat-eater feces which smell putrid) it adds something to the environment. So does the occasional rotting carcass, which can literally be smelled from a mile away and which is totally revolting at proximity when driving by.
And then there are just general landscape items that are hard to capture because they become almost monotonously mesmerizing as they are passed by repeatedly. Hundred year old termite mounds that look like small hills dotting the landscape every fifty or sixty yards. Trees being slowly consumed by strangling vines. The nearly endless variety of grasses, bushes, trees and other plants, some of which have still not been cataloged and fully speciated.
All of this stuff we were whizzing past for hours every day for four days, all of it so different and unusual and unassimilable in my normal experience parameters that I was amazed at how quickly I became inured to it as a stress-induced response to being incapable of taking it all in in such a short period of time. Something funny that happened again and again was the way I’d get a photo of an animal, and then we’d come across another specimen of the same one I had photographed earlier, and I decided to set my camera aside and just watch because “I’d already seen this”, and the animal would proceed to exhibit some unusual or unexpected behavior and I’d be cursing myself for setting the camera aside! But simultaneously, I was fighting that urge to just be present and let my memories develop organically rather than trying to catalog everything at risk of missing out on actually perceiving it live and honestly.
The highest praise I can give the safari experience is that it is one I will be eager to share with my children at some point in the future. They can certainly live without it, anyone can. But it is a trip worth taking if you want to take a trip. It is just so different in terms of the sights, sounds, smells and sense you get in “being there” that it has no comparison to any other travel I’ve done up to this point in my life (and I think it’s taken the crown for most “exotic” from my trip to Japan in 2001, an experience that has not been surmounted despite a recent return trip to Asia that touched many other countries).
On our way home, we decided to stop over in Dubai for a day and see the sights. I will keep this brief. I was not impressed with Dubai. In fact, I was a bit offended with how impressed I was supposed to be. To me it was a depressing place– a false city of gilded monuments to a capability that doesn’t belong to the people who live there, constructed with resources that other people discovered and learned how to produce. It is the most sickening welfare society I have yet come across and I couldn’t get over how phony it was, with it’s attitude of “we’ve brought the best the world has to offer to one place, our city!” trying to paper over the fact that there’s nothing remarkable or noteworthy originating there.