Better Than Betty Davis Eyes
The following story by journalist Dana Hammond, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and a regular contributor to AAA publications, first appeared in Horizons magazine. Or, Horizons and Your AAA magazines.
The eyes are the windows to the soul, but a tracker’s eyes reveal so much more. I met my local Shangaan tracker just before embarking on the first of several game drives at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, a super-chic yet ecologically savvy outpost ensconced within the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Throughout this private swath of land, geographically integrated with South Africa’s legendary Kruger National Park, wildlife roams freely and so do guests on safari in open-air vehicles. This freedom to travel off-road, with a knowledgeable ranger behind the wheel and a seasoned tracker out front (basically seated on the bumper!) ranks as one of the best reasons to choose a private reserve.
My safari group, a fun foursome, developed a deep affection for Africa through the relationship we shared with our ranger and tracker. Aside from the obvious thrill of spotting wild animals in their natural habitats, one of the most enjoyable features of going on safari is stopping in the middle of the unspoiled bush to enjoy a steaming drink in the morning or a classic “sundowner” in the afternoon. You get a chance to stretch, inhale the splendor of the setting, and socialize with your ranger and tracker. They host these intimate affairs, spreading out scrumptious snacks on the hood of the safari vehicle and serving up the drinks.
Going on safari is a powerful bonding experience. You meld with the group and certainly become one with the land. This synergy seems instantly palpable. It’s also been sanctioned, quite literally, by lion kings and other territorial cats in the Sabi Sands area that have become habituated to safari vehicles, viewing them as single, non-threatening entities as long as passengers remain seated. That set of circumstances sets the stage for spectacular, up-close encounters with some of the most elusive cats and practically ensures you’ll see Africa’s “Big 5” -- buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros -- during a typical three-night safari. I spied them all in just two days.
Our ranger’s face was the first one we saw in the morning and the last one we saw at night. He delivered a personal wake-up call at our door before dawn and escorted us back to our suites when we decided to retire in the evening. Mindfully built into the rise of a berm, Earth Lodge practically disappears into the rugged landscape despite it cushy features for humans (think private plunge pools, sublime indoor/outdoor showers and egg-shaped stone soaking tubs in all 13 suites, a full-service spa, a wine cellar, gourmet dining within eyeshot of an active waterhole and several lounge areas, including a popular roost with tables scattered amid a footbath). The one thing it doesn’t have is a perimeter fence, so a ranger escort after dark is welcome, especially since elephants and other wildlife have trampled over and around those stealthy suites!
Our ranger offered insight and readily answered every question we rattled off in an eagerness to digest this wild realm, but during game drives it was our more pensive tracker who quietly divined the course by signaling left or right and sometimes getting down on the ground to survey spoors. He had decoder eyes that read the land like a map. They were a generational gift, fine-tuned by his father who had learned the art of tracking from his own father before. For us they became not only a window to his soul, but a window onto the heart of the African bushveld and all its inhabitants.
Going on safari is nothing like visiting a zoo. There are no scheduled shows. Mother Nature sets the pace, but a skilled tracker instinctively has the ability to fall into sync no matter the rhythm. Our tracker never missed a beat. Responding to a chorus of agitated birds, he signaled a sudden stop. A second later we glimpsed a spectacular black mamba, its head raised more than a foot off the ground as the rest of its seemingly endless body slithered behind in a speedy blur. I think even our ranger was impressed with the prowess that produced that sighting. Known as the world’s fastest land snake (more than 12mph), black mambas have spawned legendary tales and their bite has been dubbed “the kiss of death.”
Our tracker seemed genuinely satisfied in that moment, too. His eyes said it. I noticed a similar twinkle after he successfully located a pride of lions. If we had been ticking off notches on our safari belts—and despite best intentions to avoid doing that, we were just a bit—spying a lion was the one thing standing between us and a Big 5 victory. Following a steady beat this time, he slowly and meticulously tracked down a flat-bellied pride that appeared to have just collapsed from exhaustion in a shady spot. Obviously, all their prowling had proved fruitless. The only ones with an ounce of energy were two mischievous cubs trying to nudge a reaction out of their mother.
The sagacious look in our tracker’s eyes when one lioness rose up and strolled right in front of that bumper-mounted seat he occupied is something I’ll remember forever. It seemed to balance so many thoughts at once – satisfaction, respect, perspective and much more. For me, it distilled the safari experience, the privilege of being able to witness this wild world as it once was and still endures.
All Photo Credits: Sabi Sabi Game Reserve
Magical Places To Sleep In Africa
Africa is a continent of stunning landscapes and amazing wildlife which is why it is on most travelers bucket lists. However, Africa hides some magical moments that travelers don't expect to experience when they are there. One of the best is the sleep-outs, some of the lodges that we work with offer sleep-out experiences that allow our clients to sleep under the stars and drift off to the sounds of Africa.
Here are some of the amazing sleep-out options we offer on a number of our tours.
Loisaba Star Beds
Photo Credit: Loisaba Star Beds
A team of traditional Samburu & Laikipiak Maasai warriors welcome and host you with their customary warm African hospitality. Poised on a rocky kopje, the Loisaba Star Beds command sweeping views over an undulating valley and a permanent waterhole, frequented by resident wildlife. Enjoy the handcrafted four-poster wooden beds sit on raised wooden platforms jutting out from a thatched-roof accommodation and are rolled out each night for guests to enjoy the most memorable sleep under the endless Kenyan sky.
Photo Credit: The Nest Gallery
The Nest, is perched out on a limb in a lone Warburgia tree overlooking the Mara River. A mere meander away from Serian Camp, it is the perfect spot for an overnight in the bush under the canopy of stars. The Treehouse has 2 cozy nest-shaped double beds and plenty of space for additional bedrolls for kids. Enjoy the candlelight and kerosene lanterns, infrared spotlight and night-vision camera for watching nocturnal creatures.
Photo Credit: Lion Sands Gallery
The Tinyeleti Treehouse, which aptly translates to ‘Many Stars’, is an overnight wilderness experience that has no match. Watch the sun dip beyond the horizon as you sip on a cocktail or a glass of bubbly. You will be utterly riveted by the many animals that arrive at the river to quench their thirst. Tinyeleti is a tale you will tell over and again. That is, if you can find the words to describe it.
*Available at extra cost
Photo Credit: Kapama
The Kapama Romantic Sleep-out offers a million-star overnight experience. Sleeping in the open air on the reserve, elevated high above the ground under the African night sky, is a uniquely romantic experience. A raised platform is evocatively furnished with an oversized bed festooned in white linen and billowing mosquito netting. It’s completely safe, while being surrounded by only wilderness and wildlife. The experience is guaranteed to take your breath away.
*Available at extra cost
Photo Credit: Wilderness Safaris
Little Makalolo is a small intimate camp in the heart of Hwange National Park. Makalolo is one of the best areas for spotting impressive herds of buffalo and elephant as well as lion, leopard, wild dog and cheetah. Bird life in the area is abundant and varied. They offer a stunning Star bed experience situated on a raised platform overlooking Madison Pan, the Star Bed is just a 20-minute drive away from camp and offers a truly secluded, remote wilderness experience – and the opportunity of sleeping under the stars.
Photo Credit: Wilderness Safaris
Ruckomechi Camp lies in the heart of remote Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River, with spectacular views of the mountains of the Rift Valley escarpment. They offer an amazing sleep-out experience which is situated near a productive watering hole, so you can see and hear the wildlife go by. There is truly no better way of falling asleep than being serenaded by the sounds of nature while you gaze up at the starry skies of Africa.
*Available at extra cost
Speak to our safari specialists about any of the above amazing options to enchance your safari.
Sanctuary Retreats || Chief's Camp
Nestled the in the heart of the Okavango Delta, Sanctuary Retreats, Chief's Camp offers an exclusive safari experience.
Wildlife and wilderness are as abundant as action and adrenaline and refinement and relaxation at this remarkable remodelled luxury camp. If you want to learn more about the sights and sounds of this camp, along with what they are doing to give back, take a look at their amazing glimpse into the camp with the video below.