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