A few of my favourite (safari) things

I decided to do something a bit different today – encapsulate a few of my favourite moments, experiences, places and animals in Africa in an A to Z. Enjoy!

A – Aardwolf – how a creature so large can eat only ants I don’t know! I was lucky enough to see one near Sossusvlei, Namibia, several years ago.

B – Ballooning over the Masai Mara, watching the sun’s first rays hit the savannah

Mara ballooning

C – Chimpanzee tracking – a heart racing experience and a fascinating opportunity to learn more about these primate relatives of ours.

D – Damaraland, one of my favourite regions of Namibia, comprising desert elephants, arid mountain terrain, ancient rock art and unusual birdlife.

E – Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi – the work of Dame Daphne Sheldrick is humbling and inspiring.

F – Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands, one of the best destinations in the world for incredible food and wine. Go here for the ultimate indulgence.

G – The Great Migration; two million thundering hooves trampling the Serengeti and Masai Mara in search of fresh grazing – a true wildlife spectacle.

H – Hermanus – home to the best land-based whale watching in the world – something I’d love to see one day.

I – Indri – one of the largest lemur species in Madagascar.

J – Jinja, a charming small Ugandan town and home to some superb white water rafting on the first stretches of the River Nile.

K – Kenya, a magical country and probably the most misunderstood destination in Africa. I could go to Kenya every year for the rest of my life and never tire of it.

L – Laikipia Plateau in Kenya, a vast unending wilderness of dramatic landscapes, unusual animals and adventurous safaris on camel, horseback, on foot, mountain bike, river and vehicle.

M – Mahale Mountains in Western Tanzania, one of the most unique destinations; towering mountains, chimpanzees, sandy beaches and the continent’s deepest lake.

Mahale Mountains National Park

N – November, one of my favourite months in East Africa, Dramatic thunderstorms make for great photographic opportunities, the rain scares off other travellers so you can enjoy the wildlife to yourself – bliss!

O – Oudtshoorn, South Africa – a charming stop off on the Garden Route, filled with ostrich farms and the Cango Caves famed for their stalagmites and stalagtites.

P – Pangolin, one of the animals I most want to see (NB the more safaris you go on, the more obscure your wishlist of wildlife becomes)

Q – Quelea, a small bird that flies in flocks a thousand strong, making a beautiful whistling noise as their cloud-like formations spin and whirl across the sky – simply beautiful.

R – Rift Valley, filled with towering volcanoes, glittering salt lakes and thousands of flamingos – pure postcard perfection.

Flamingos, Lake Nakuru

S – San bushmen, an inspiring and beautiful people who I have been honoured to spend time with.

T – Tonic – as in gin and tonic – one of my favourite safari traditions is the sundowner – what a beautiful way to pay homage to the day’s adventures than to stop, soak up the sunset and enjoy a cold G&T?

U – Under the stars. Fly-camping is the ultimate experience to get right out into nature and sleep under the African sky surrounded by all the nighttime sounds of the bush – I’ve longed to do this for years and am finally getting the chance in May – can’t wait.

V – Vervet monkeys – common as sparrows but I love these cheeky, charming creatures and could happily watch them scampering around an acacia tree for hours.

W – Walking safaris in the South Luangwa and Selous are amonst my best safari memories – from taking the time to notice the small things, to strolling into a herd of buffalo or an angry hippo.

X – Xigera concession in the Okavango Delta – an iconic concession offering superb birding, mokoro rides through the waterways and fantastic wildlife.

Y – Yum! Food on safari is one of the most surprising features for most first timers. I am a not-very-secret foodie, so the extravagant breakfasts, sumptuous lunches, afternoon tea and cake, sundowner bitings and a three course dinner make for an amazing day, almost regardless of any wildlife encounters I’ve had that day.

Z – Zebras, of which Grevy’s are by far the most superior and special – skinny stripes and big ears mean a big thumbs up from me!

Grevy's zebra, Lewa Conservancy

I should have known better…

…than to go on safari with a shopping list. I’ve been on too many safaris to think that I could have a wishlist of animals to see and for that list to transpire into reality. I’d told clients countless times to just enjoy every second, the smells, sounds, observing the smaller creatures and not just focussing on the bigger ones. I knew better. But somehow, I’d ended up on safari, desperate to find a leopard. Sure, we’d seen wild dogs within the first hour of our safari – pretty incredible. But we wanted to see a leopard. It was the South Luangwa, in Zambia, renowned for being one of the best places to see leopard in Africa – so everyone I knew kept telling me before I left the UK. And somehow I listened, and it transformed what was one of the best safaris of my life, into a slightly crazed, desperate search for that elusive spotty cat.

We had five days on safari in the Luangwa, staying in two superb bushcamps in the very heart of the park. The guides were top notch, it was the end of the dry season which meant conditions for game viewing were superb. As the dry season wears on, the grass is grazed and trampled down and the water sources dry up, meaning grazers are commonly found around waterholes or the rivers, and predators are never far away. Each morning we set out before the heat of the day on a walking safari, which the South Luangwa is famed for. Great for taking in the smaller details of the bush, learning about the flora, how plants adapt themselves against invasion from insects and grazing animals, watching warthogs and their baby wartlets scurry away, and creeping up close to the spectacular clouds of carmine bee-eaters nesting in the banks of the river. Elephants are prolific in the park, too, and rarely a walk went by where we didn’t have a heart-racing encounter with a herd or handful of ele’s – trust me, you will never appreciate how large, powerful and intimidating an elephant can be until you meet one on foot, rather than from the comfort of a 4×4.

The afternoons were hot and spent zooming around on game drives, to see what we could see, stopping at sunset each day to soak our feet in the cool river and enjoy a cool gin and tonic, contemplating the last rays of sunshine. Then the game drive turned into a night drive, and this was prime leopard time – even the guides said so. We searched in the fading light, and then following the spotlight, listening for alarm calls from monkeys or birds which might point us towards our leopard. We searched and searched, secretly praying for a spotty cat.

In the end, we found one, but not the kind of spotty cat I was after! Instead of a leopard, we found a serval cat, skipping across the branches of a tree. Five days went by in this way, and we left the South Luangwa without a leopard in sight. I wasn’t as disappointed as you’d think. It served me right for going on safari with a shopping list – and I knew it. Plus it gives me an excellent reason to go back one day…

Tribal Namibia

The Himba…the poster children of Namibia, as famous as the rusty red dunes of Sossusvlei. Despite the postcards and posters everywhere, this nomadic tribe isn’t easy to come across on your average trip to Namibia. So when the opportunity arose on my last trip, I was thrilled. The group I met had decided to settle, rather than continue their nomadic lifestyle, having found some land on the corner of a farm in Northern Damaraland. Their arrival wasn’t particarly welcome to begin with, but over the years the farm owners and the Himba have grown into a comfortable co-existence together.

The men still roam and pursue their hunter gatherer traditions, but the women and children stay, growing vegetables, keeping herds of goats to milk and use for meat. My guide introduced me to the mothers and elder sisters of the extended family and immediately I am asked “Where is your husband?”. I replied I did not have one, and they asked my age, astonished that someone as old as 30 could be unmarried and in a different country alone. It’s not the first time I’ve had this kind of reaction in Africa and I laughed it away with a shrug and a smile.

We chatted about our lives, and they were keen to show me their traditions, from braiding their hair and covering it with ochre, to grinding maize into a porridge to eat. I took a number of portraits which they were keen to see on the screen of my SLR, and wanted to have pictures of me taken beside them, too.

Encounters with indigenous people like the Himba can be highly commercialised –  I have seen examples of this in the Masai Mara in Kenya. But here it was as close as you get to simply observing and taking part in a few hours of an average afternoon with these women. The daughters returned halfway through my visit with a gaggle of goats, bells jangling and the kid goats running bleating to their mothers in delight. And whilst the location where I met these Himba matriarchs and daughters was the corner of a Damara farm, rather than in the vast, unending wilderness of the Skeleton Coast, it certainly didn’t lessen our interaction with one another.