For many people the incentive for a trip to Africa is the wildlife. Thousands of tourists shell out millions of dollars each year to go on safari. They stay in luxurious bushcamps, eat gourmet cuisine, and rely on experienced, armed guides to locate and lead them to the world’s most exotic animals in their native habitat. Not so the Andrus family. Our budget simply won’t allow for $4000/night nor do most safari companies accept children. As far as we can tell, this is for two reasons: 1) gamespotting requires patience and silence, qualities few small children possess; 2) carnivorous animals find the under 10 crowd tasty and easy to capture.
So we have embarked on a safari of our own styling, which we were surprised to discover is ridiculously easy and affordable to do. While we don’t have anyone with a gun to protect us from the lions, we’ve been able to visit some of the world’s greatest game reserves on our own and effectively find all the animals we’ve wanted to see without any help. We’ve avoided expensive lodge fees by camping, which tickles Tom, an avid camper, frustrates Dax, a reluctant Boy Scout, and sits fairly well with the rest of us. It has hardly been roughing it, since most campgrounds are attached to amenity-rich lodges or backpacker hostels and offer clean bathrooms, lounges, and sometimes kitchens. Never before an eager camper (you hear me, Clarence?), I prefer sleeping under the mindblowing Africa sky on a brand new air mattress in a brand new sleeping bag to a musty hotel room.
Our first night outside was in Swaziland on the Mlilwane Game Reserve. We drove in at dusk and during the 5 minute trek to our backpackers’ lodge we spotted warthogs, wildebeestes, a monitor lizard, and some springbok. We awoke to a see an ostrich drinking from the swimming pool and spent the morning searching for hippos. We didn’t find any but came across this awesome dung beetle rolling the fruits of his labor across the road, some more warthogs, and a wide variety of ungulates (our new favorite word–look it up!).
Our next stop was the coastal estuary region of St. Lucia in the South African state of Kwazulu Natal, where as McKane explained in his last post, we found our hippos. Oh, were they magnificent! Thousands of pounds of mammalian blubber lumbering across city streets to graze on the town’s well-manicured lawns. No one will be promoting the Hippo Diet any time soon, since they achieve their massive bulk by eating only grass.
From St. Lucia we headed inland to Hluhuwe-Umfolozi, one of South Africa’s premier national parks. It was here that we appointed our in-house master gamespotter. You might think it would be Kieran, our 7-year-old animal afficianado or McKane, our resident enthusiast, or even Asher, who when not begging for candy actually enjoys scanning the horizon for wildlife. To our shock, it proved to be Dax, whose technique is improbable yet effective. At 14, he would rather be surfing or hanging out with friends than looking for giraffes from the back seat of a van, and so he usually drifts off to the sounds of his iPod during our extended treks. After six hours of scouring the park, we had found zebras, giraffes, bush pigs, Cape buffalo, wildebeestes, kudu, warthogs, a smattering of birds, and two rhinos. We made sure to wake Dax up with each new discovery and he proved a good sport, oohing and aahing at the appropriate times. As the sun began to set, we decided we really wanted to find more rhinos. Even though Hluhuwe-Umfolozi is home to over half the world’s rhinoceroses, we had found only one pair and they had been in a poor spot for viewing. We veered off the beaten path onto an isolated trail and hoped for the best. We passed a few of the park’s guided tours and asked if they had spotted anything. Not much was the reply. We ventured on, determined to succeed where others had failed.
Another 15 minutes and still nothing. Then, from the far reaches of the back seat emerged a deep voice, “Is that a rhino?” We stopped, abruptly turned our heads to the left, and sure enough, not 15 feet away was a pair of rhinos lackadaisacally munching on the underbrush. We burst into laughter. How had Dax, the one who cared least about finding animals, been the only one to spot them? We watched a few minutes longer and our hearts raced as they crossed the road just a few feet in front of us. I had turned Uncle Vito off and wasn’t sure he could make a hasty, agile retreat if the rhino decided to charge. Fortunately, we got off with only a snort from our grumpy friend and lived to tell our tale.
We might have written Dax’s performance off as a fluke had he not repeated it a few days later in Botswana. While speeding along a narrow, potholed road through a densely vegetated area, his voice again drifted from the recesses of the van, “Did anyone else see those elephants?” Again we came to a screeching halt and spun the van around. Through the thick bushes, the dispassionate teenaged wildlife spotting savant had spotted a group of massive African elephants making their way from one waterhole to another. Luckily for us, they had to cross the road to do so, so we sat and watched in awe as they stormed across the pavement and then paused for a drink before disappearing through the trees.
After this feat we crowned Dax the safari king, a title he did not seek, but good-naturedly accepted. As we venture on to Namibia’s Etosha National Park, we have high hopes that our king will continue to make the tough finds for us. As long as his iPod’s battery holds out, we’ve got a fighting chance!