© Dr Jonathan Hey
I Prescribe a safari in...
A Saskatoon doc and his sons have near-death adventures on an African safari
It started with my oldest son, Spencer, making cinnamon buns for his mother on Mother’s Day. At any other time that would have been a wonderful gesture, but not at midnight with the taxi to the airport arriving at 3am.
He wanted to make them from scratch, using a recipe from the Internet. At 2am, he asked me what a dough hook was; at 2:30, still not packed, he gave up, leaving a bubbling morass on the stove and utensils strewn around the kitchen for my wife to clean up. He did though leave a Mother’s Day card.
I had planned this trip a year ago, down to the last detail, and nothing was going to get in the way. Certainly not the main reason for going, Spencer. Ever since he was old enough, I had been reading him stories about my home country, South Africa, and the continent I grew up in. “When you turn 21, I’ll take you on a safari,” I used to say. And so it had come to pass.
The safari was to take my two sons and I from Saskatoon via Minneapolis and Atlanta, to Johannesburg, a 36-hour journey that left us gasping. There we spent the night in the luxurious InterContinental Hotel at O.R. Tambo International Airport, not far from the arrival gate. It was our reward, and, after a supper of lamb wontons and beef curry, washed down with a bottle of Pinotage, I felt I deserved it.
The three of us met my sister and brother the next morning at the departure gate to Maun, Botswana. Once in Maun, we took a small plane into the Okavango Delta to Machaba Camp (machabacamp.com). The Okavango River doesn’t end in the sea, but dissipates into the land, creating a vast area of crystal-clear water a metre deep. The camp sits on the Khwai River and looks onto the famous Moremi Game Reserve. Machaba is new, built in a Hemingway 1950s-style with eight luxury safari tents and two family tents. The tents have living areas, ensuite bathrooms and indoor and outdoor showers. Since the camp is built on a private concession area and controlled by locals, earnings stay in the community.
The view from my “tent” overlooked the Khwai River. From my large bed I could see elephants grazing and hippos splashing. One morning while eating my cereal I saw a pack of wild dogs and a leopard come down to the river to drink. I have never seen that while eating my cereal in Saskatoon, despite the large river. The first night I found it difficult to sleep, not only due to jet lag, but because hippos were making a cacophony of grunts and groans that kept me up. Hippos, being large and really not interested in making a good impression, have an annoying habit of farting underwater and then thrashing the water with their tails -- I suppose to dissipate the smell. Not unlike humans. I’d hear loud gurgling, a pause and then thrashing water. Then, I imagined, a look around to say “No, it wasn’t me.”
Each day was the same: a 6am wake-up from our guide, tea or coffee and rusks and into the open Land Rover by 7am to explore. We would stop a few hours later for more tea and rusks, then continue for a while, returning to camp at around 11 for brunch. Then it was siesta time until 3:30 (sleeping for some, swimming for others). After tea, coffee or juice with very good cakes, it was back into the Land Rover our guide, who ironically was called Leopard. At sunset, we’d stop for drinks in some idyllic spot, and then take a night drive with an infrared light to not hurt the animals’ vision. Supper and then to bed.
There were several unforgettable moments at Machaba. On the second morning, Leopard stopped the vehicle and gazed intently at the dirt track we were on. “Leopard,” he said, leading to some confusion. “Heading behind us.” We turned the vehicle around. A few minutes later he stopped. “The tracks are on top of our tire marks. He can’t be far.” We slowly inched forward, Leopard gazing intently at the ground as he drove, veering off into the undergrowth, until at last he pointed under a bush. “There she is,” pointing under a bush. I couldn’t see anything, but kept firing off my camera in the general direction, hoping to at least to get one good shot. And if not, there was always Photoshop.
Suddenly a blade of grass twitched, and into focus came the head of a large leopard, gazing equally intently at me. We followed her for a long time, watched as she tried to stalk an Impala, crouching low to the ground, tail twitching.
Another “unforgettable” was coming across a pride of seven lions lying in the shade, playing with the horns of some poor antelope that had been a late night snack. I sat in the Land Rover not more than six metre from them, thinking of the insignificance of Man. Or if not Man, then of me.
One morning, we turned a corner and came across three waterbuck sunning themselves. The light was perfect and I asked Leopard to stop while I took pictures. My son, Nigel, was sitting in the trackers chair that juts out from the hood of the vehicle. As I clicked away, Leopard quietly said, “Nigel, I don’t want you to move. The rest of you, turn slowly and look down. A leopard.” And there it was, at our feet, seriously upset with us for coming between it and its breakfast. I believe now in levitation. I swear Nigel floated, without moving a limb, to the safety of the Land Rover. The leopard snarled at us, flicked its tail, and sauntered off.
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK
We left Machaba after five nights and flew in a small Cessna, following the Chobe River to Kasane, a small town in Botswana, where we were driven to the Chobe Game Lodge (chobesafarilodge.com), in the most northeasterly corner of the Chobe National Park. The view from the verandah is of the vast Caprivi Flood Plains, and not far away the four corners of Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia. There are a reported 45000 elephants here, all the game Machaba has and then some. We had decided to spend two nights in relative civilization, so that my sons could get onto Facebook. And speak to their mother.
Mod cons have a trade off. The grounds were manicured, the staff efficient and the wine list extensive. But the lodge caters to large groups and brings down the shared knowledge to the lowest common denominator. Travelling to the hotel from the airport, we asked our driver what tree that was. “It’s just a bush,” she said, proving that we had been spoilt at Machaba.
Rather than join a group of tourists on the game drive the next day, we paid $250 extra for a guide and our own Land Rover -- well worth it. Ishmael was a wonderful guide who grew up in the area and knew the game and birds – not to mention the name of the undefined “bush.” We spent a wonderful day with him driving out in the morning and floating down the Chobe River in the afternoon on a motorized boat. We encountered hippos on their turf and saw game come down to drink, watchful and nervous.
The next day we set off again, this time into Zimbabwe. Our destination was the Hwange Game Reserve, and in particular Davison’s Camp (wilderness-safaris.com/camps/davisons-camp), where we met Brian, our game ranger for the next five days. Davison’s is an open camp, with game moving freely through it. An armed guard has to walk with you to and from your tent at night. Presumably during the day one can see the lion stalking you and take evasive action.
The area has no natural water so man-made pans are usually constructed for the animals. There seemed nothing more civilized than sipping a glass of chilled white wine watching elephants, sable, antelopes, baboons or lions come down to drink right in front of the camp.
The first full morning set the tone. We came across a lion and lioness sunning themselves against a termite mound; we spent time watching them and, it seemed, they watching us. We drove, as we did at Machaba, in an open Land Rover, with no protection. I was told that the animals look at it as a large, smelly animal, and don’t see through it as edible tourists. The lioness was in estrus and mated often and without shame. The act was over in 20 seconds, with much roaring and snarling and absolutely no foreplay, and then both went to sleep. Although they repeated the act several times, the lioness was always the initiator.
There was the option to explore on foot, which we did one morning. Our guide was Themba, a local ranger who had grown up in the area and, as an added bonus, had taken courses in tracking game and carrying a firearm, though he had yet to use it. It was a lovely, informative morning. Themba knew the plants and their uses, and he knew the spoor of the game. We passed within 200 metres of a lion kill, hearing the lion grunting and tearing. Themba had us passed well away and upwind to let them know we were there. Despite reassurances, I couldn’t help but glance behind me and walk quickly with my buttocks clenched. I’m not sure why, but it made me feel safer.
The next morning, another party of three decided to walk. We waved them goodbye, set off on our morning drive, and within three kilometres came across two lionesses walking resolutely down the dirt road. Less than 100 metres behind came the male, looking magnificent in the morning sun. They walked straight passed the Land Rover; they were so close that I could have reached over and patted them. They disappeared around a bend in the road, heading straight for the group on foot, about two kilometres behind us.
I was later told that Themba spotted the male some distance away. The lion looked intently at them, crouched down and disappeared out of sight. Themba radioed the camp, two kilometres away, telling them to hurry with a truck. They then saw the two lionesses, who did the same -- stopped in their tracks and then veered off into the bush. Themba got the group to huddle together in the middle of the road while he radioed again. The truck roared up, they clambered aboard, and as they pulled away, the lion stepped onto the road where they had been standing. Twenty metres away the lionesses were crouched down, waiting to pounce. There weren’t any more walks that week.
On our final night, we had planned to stop for sundowners on the other side of the pan, looking across at the campsite. Unfortunately, a lion got there first. He sat gazing across at the camp, perhaps smelling the dinner that Nicholas, the cook, had prepared. After a long time, he let out a low guttural roar, got up, stretched and sauntered towards the camp. Towards Nigel’s tent. Nigel had decided to skip the evening drive and catch up on sleep. I turned to Brian, and in as nonchalant a voice as possible, informed him that I would rather face the lion barehanded than face my wife when I had to tell her that one of her son’s had been eaten. He radioed the armed guard who ran into Nigel’s tent and brought him safely to the dining area. The lion sauntered around the camp well into the night. Then to cap things off, we heard the call of side-striped jackals. “They’re not happy,” said Brian, and shone his flashlight towards them and then towards the pan. There we saw why: a leopard.
It was a busy last night: besides a stalking leopard and a lion that nearly ate my son, the baboons in the trees outside my tent were not at all happy. We had to be at the airport early the next morning so there would be enough time to clear any animals from the runway.
The next day, it was off to Victoria Falls for two nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel (victoriafallshotel.co), the grand dame of the Falls, resplendent in portraits of Queen Victoria, King George and Livingstone. I had to have a Pimm’s Cocktail sitting on the verandah, with the spray from the falls and the bridge over the Zambezi as a backdrop. I gazed about, picturing myself as Livingstone meeting Stanley. Then I shook my head, coming to my sensing and ordered another drink -- far too strenuous, that exploration stuff.
The next day was full of tourist things to do. We started by taking a helicopter ride above the Falls, something well worth doing, with spectacular views of the Falls and the Zambezi River. Later my dear son Spencer decided that what he would really like to do would be to bungee jump from the bridge 111 metres to the raging Zambezi, which incidentally was at its highest since 1963. Even whitewater rafting had been cancelled. But he wanted to do it and so the five of us walked across the bridge into Zambia, paid $130 and returned to the centre of the bridge, where Spencer was strapped up and pretty well pushed over, arms flailing, howling into the abyss, while I gripped the railing and prayed. He said he would do it again in a heartbeat, but he came back up puffy-eyed and red in the face. I didn’t tell Spencer that the platform from where he jumped was strapped together with duct tape and I certainly haven’t told his mother. But I have a picture of it.
And so ended the trip of a lifetime. The next day we flew to Johannesburg and on to my hometown of Pietermaritzburg.
The trip had taught me plenty of things: never go anywhere without your camera, you never know when you’ll see majestic sable antelope from the view of a toilet. Believe in levitation, especially when an angry leopard is looking at you. Drink a Pimm’s cocktail on the verandah of Victoria Falls Hotel. And try hard not to let a lion eat your offspring.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.