By Jered Barclay
Safari. For me, the word had always conjured up trying to take photos through the backs of way too many tourists who were trying to take pictures through the backs of way too many other tourists photographing animals. Happily, my assumptions were wrong .
One of the things I discovered on my first trip to South Africa and Botswana is that they are two countries on the continent of Africa that provide welcome detonations of the "Africa" stereotypes. We get our immutable notions about a country usually from our magazines who have taught us that Africa is only The Big Five - lion, tiger, rhino, giraffe, and elephant and, of course the cliche photo of a searing orange ball that makes us feel that all the sunsets in Africa are the size of Saturn. From the movies we have learned that you can't go more than four minutes in the jungle without a crocodile, lion, or python attack from which, of course, Tarzan always saves Jane and that these perils are punctuated by terminally cute antics by Cheeta, The Chimpanzee. Baloney. Africa is full of the unexpected. Just as some people who have had bad face jobs have the look of eternal surprise, South Africa and Botswana have genuine, and pleasant surprises.
On the first morning we began our most exciting adventure. We transferred to a regional Johannesburg airport where David of Davids Tours had chartered a private plane for us and we were excited to have the aerial views between South Africa and our destination, the Mashatu Private Game Reserve in Botswana. After the hour and a half flight, the Band-Aid like gravel landing strip is fun and the airport is the size of a rest stop restroom in Oregon! We were primed for our adventure.
A quick meal and deep sleep is what we needed and what we got in preparation for the morning. Dawn and dusk game rides are the order of every day. Wow. Talk about thrills. After coffee, tea and pastries, we climbed into the open jeep that sat seven comfortably and watched the dawn crack. My assumption that animals come out at dawn and dusk to drink was quashed when our guide informed us that many animals don't drink for weeks.
We left our air conditioned and two bathroom cabanas very early every morning, had breathtaking experiences with animals, came back to camp, had breakfast, slept, or swam in the pool,then went out in the evening, had the same encounters, eager to have another thrilling experience the next dawn.
On the third night an amazing adventutre. One of the two game rangers who accompanied us slowly raised his spotlight up to reveal the tiny face of a baby leopard in the crux of a tree. Leopards are nocturnal and rarely sighted in Botswana. But a one month old baby leopard with no protective mother at its side? My five companions in the jeep were awed and frozen with delight. I carefully mounted the long lens on my camera and with my heart slamming against my chest, shot a roll of film. The other ranger/driver put his index finger to his lips and pointed upward. The spotlight slid 15 feet above and on a branch directly above us in our open jeep, thank you very much, was the mama leopard. Gulp! Photograph or flee? Congo, the ranger/driver whispered that mama had just killed an impala and was napping after the feast and that I should shoot quickly before she awakened. You can believe I did.
Forty-five minutes later we were having cocktails and an opulent dinner al fresco at the Mashatu Game Lodge with a sassy monkey drinking from the swimming pool nearby. Heart pounding adventure and elegance within an hour of each other? Yup.
Understand that this is not the "jungle" that exists elsewhere in Africa or in the Tarzan movies, but a high desert-like topography in which the roads are barely visible or non-existent. Congo ascended and descended hair-raising gullies to track animals and through a cell phone tracked animals with the other four Mashatu vehicles. If one ranger spotted a rare or unusual sighting, each jeep would take its turn at the sight.
Every morning, and night, we experienced zebras, impala, lions, cheetahs (rare), leopards (also rare - see above), giraffes, hyenas, vervet monkeys, suricates, ostriches, elands, blue wildebeests, white rhinoceros, kudus etc . Not to mention that this is the refuge for the single most populous number of elephants in all of Africa.
On one of the mornings our first sighting fifteen minutes from the reserve was of a herd of elephants circling a two month old baby from our possible invasion. To be ten feet from a herd of unpredictable elephants protecting an infant was a breath-holding experience. No bars, no fences. You were on THEIR territory and the experience was, and continued to be, for the four days there - unparalleled. Congo always had his rifle at the ready.
The sighting of a cheetah stalking a herd of impala, a night sighting of a lion and his lioness from 20 feet away was a lifetime experience. If, when you die, your life passes in front of you - I want these images on parade in my cerebellum.
Before and after these staggering experiences with nature comes the boring stuff - food, drink, comfort. After the morning game drive comes a sumptuous breakfast, about ten am. Then nap, swim in the small but pleasant pool, and at lunch swapping stories with the other guests and the very informed staff. The night drive was followed by an internationally influenced and varied cuisine surprising because of its isolation from any food growing landscape.
No doubt - This was one of the most exciting experiences of a lifetime - along with the Panatanal in Brazil - because you are on the animals' turf. You, not they, are the outsider. A singular experience.
Another skillful guide , Thom, accompanied us on our last stop - Sun City where we had accommodations, at the Palace Of The Lost City a Five Star rated hotel in Sun City near Johannesburg. After "roughing it" in the Mashatu Game Reserve, a panoply of excess is offered. There are four different types of accomodations ranging from family plan to super elegance. Nothing is ignored. Golf, tennis, an Olympic sized pool, plus kiddy and family pools, man-made beaches, a large man-made lake, an imitation waterfall, miniature manicured zoos, kiddy parks, a shopping mall, all those swell things.
Thom guided us though all of the above. At the Palace Of The Lost City hotel which was ragingly luxurious, the Tusk Bar there was a fun place to meet. The Crystal Room is one of the four opulent restauants within the complex, and deserves its reputation.
The entire elegant experience was extraordinary thanks to David's Trips and Tours for their scrupulous and thoughtful planning. They also offer Morocco, India, New Orleans etc. Try it. You'll like it.
Contact David's Trips and Tours Toll Free - 888 - 723 - 0699 Fax - 949 - 7230666 or amail: firstname.lastname@example.org.