Welcome to Safari Week! For the next few days, I’ll be recapping my bus travel adventures, camping fails and custom form mishaps through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Spoiler alert: I make it through them all in one piece. Enjoy!
I took it as a good sign that one of the first people I met on Safari Week was Max, a South African tour guide who spent a year working as a guard for an anti-poaching organization.
“That sounds like an interesting job,” I said. “But also kind of dangerous.”
“It is,” he said. “But it’s not the animals that scare me. It’s the people. Sometimes they shoot at you. But not all the time.”
It was probably the most badass thing I’ve ever heard and for the next hour I sat around listening to him talk about living on a wildlife preserve, tracking animals and disabling snares, hoping that he’d be able to top his opening line. Just as he was describing his tattoo – a rib print of the words “Live and let live” with three stars, one for each of the rhinoceros he lost to poachers in his year as a guard – the receptionist interrupted our conversation to ask him if he could drive a truck to Swaziland.
“I know it’s your day off,” she said. “But they won’t let the other driver cross the border and now there’s a bus full of people who need to be picked up.”
Advice I needed yesterday: Do not proceed on an eight-day overland safari with a company who does not have their paperwork in order. And definitely don’t go with one whose idea of a contingency plan is to ask the nearest employee to take a six-hour drive across Africa as casually as the rest of us would ask someone to fetch a Diet Coke on their way back from the kitchen.
I felt sorry for those people stuck at the border, I really did. But I felt a little sorry for me too, because Max left and I never got to see that tattoo.
The (rhino) stars just didn’t line up this time.
Shortly after Max departed on the most elaborate errand of all time, our tour kicked off with a 400 kilometer drive through South Africa to Botswana.
While in line at the immigration counter at the border, a middle-aged German man in our group* took it upon himself to point to each interview window the second it became available. It was a habit that my seatmate**, a consultant from London, and I found simultaneously hilarious and obnoxious.
“The Germans can’t help it,” I shrugged. “They like efficiency.”
That explanation seemed to satisfy both of us until the following day, when the German man boarded the bus a full five minutes past our designated departure time.
“Well look who’s late,” my seatmate muttered under his breath as the other man sauntered down the road, suitcase in hand.
“Du bist spät!” I taunted as he walked by.
The Englishman looked at me, incredulous.
“Did you just call him a douchebag?!” he hissed.
I didn’t, of course. I just said, “You are late,” in (very poor) German. Although, I must admit that “Du bist spat” does sound frighteningly similar to “douchebag.” Now that I’ve heard it, I can’t un-hear it.
“I’m surprised you think I’d say that,” I said to my English friend as we climbed onto the bus. “I would never call someone a douchebag. Not on the second day.”
*The German guy was actually Swiss and he ended up being quite nice. Not a du bist spät at all.
**Because I know someone will ask: Face: Cute. Teeth: Good. Accent: So posh. Status: Girlfriend.
At the end of the first day of the tour, our group went on a nighttime big game drive in Stevensford Reserve in Tuli Block, Botswana. I know that sounds very exciting, so I’m happy to report that you can recreate my experience in your own backyard.
First, pack a dozen people in your car, roll down all the windows and proceed to the nearest large field, community park or unpaved parking lot. Alternate between driving at the vehicle’s maximum speed and slamming on the brakes. Try to imagine that the goal of the trip is to have at least one person bounce out of their seat and onto the path. If this person or their companion complains about the ride being dangerous, tell them that it’s part of the journey.
As you drive, shine an industrial spotlight at the tops of trees. Claim that there’s usually a leopard sitting in one but that tonight, regrettably, he must be taking a nap. Say something about a lion – but keep it vague. You haven’t actually seen the lion since 2014.
Next, focus the light on a cluster of bushes. Insist that you just saw a herd of zebras run away. When people suggest that the animals may have done so because they were startled by a 10-passenger safari jeep traveling at 35 mph or the halogen lamp attached to it, concede nothing.
If people seem unimpressed with the tour, get out of the car, arbitrarily pick a tree and tell everyone that its bark can cure cancer. When they appear skeptical, mention that there is also a bush that can treat gonorrhea. Enjoy the fact that there’s going to be at least one person who is very interested in knowing which plant you’re talking about.
When even that fails, point out a perfectly ordinary looking rabbit as it hops in front of the headlights of the truck. Pass it off as “the elusive spring hare,” throw in a reference to a few deadly snakes and then serve everyone a plate of spaghetti.
That, in my experience, is an authentic African nighttime big game drive.
More to come.
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