Scenes from a Safari

Dec 1, 2017 - 8:30 PM

One of the most overused adjectives in the English language is “awesome.” Still, I don’t hesitate to use it to describe Victoria Falls, between Zimbabwe and Zambia in east Africa.

The falls, the world’s largest at a mile wide and 350 feet high at the center, is called Mosi oa Tunya in tribal language—“The Smoke That Thunders.” You see and hear it from miles away. As you approach, you feel as if you’ve wandered into a huge white rain cloud that’s  resounding with thunder as the Zambezi River tumbles in a giant silvery curtain deep into a gorge.

But the thunder you hear is also from sightseeing helicopters clattering overhead, one after the other, all day long.

Therein lies a quandary for sub-Saharan Africa and for the tourists coming there, as interest in high-end safari vacations steadily grows. East Africa in particular depends mightily on international tourism. For example, in corruption-saddled Zimbabwe, tourism makes up 11 percent of the gross domestic product.

On safari drives along dirt roads through the vast Serengeti plain last June, my wife and I gaped in wonder at the lions and giraffes, families of elephants, galloping wildebeest, and migrating zebras. But we were also struck by the traffic jams that these animals helped to produce. At one point, two lions just off the road were taking turns feasting on a gazelle carcass while jackals tried to sneak a bite. Our guide’s radio crackled, and soon we were surrounded by other rumbling safari vehicles crammed with tourists aiming lenses. And June—the start of winter in the southern hemisphere—is the off-season.

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Iam not suggesting that anyone with a yen to go should hesitate. An African safari is a life-changing experience in the sense that you become fully aware of what is being lost to criminal poachers and incursions on habitat. Once you have witnessed the raw magnificence of wild east Africa, you return home as an ambassador.

Our hectic 15-day safari—just under $16,000 for two, not including thousands more for airfare, tips, and travel-medicine preparations and vaccines—took us to Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Kenya, and finally to glorious, progressive Botswana. All of our accommodations were in what were amusingly referred to as “safari camps.” If you go that route, banish any thought of a saggy wall-tent and a latrine down the path. We stayed at “tented” lodges, in spacious private rooms, all of which had bathrooms with showers, some even with spas.

Our trip was time-consuming. But a growing trend, said people I spoke with in Africa, is for business travelers to combine work trips to major urban areas with shorter leisure safari forays into the wild.

General aviation infrastructure in Africa is growing in fits and starts—bureaucratic regulatory hassles remain a major complaint—to service rising business and leisure regional travel demand. In Tanzania, for example, a long-delayed third terminal at Julius Nyerere International
Airport in Dar es Salaam is nearing completion, and once sleepy ­Kilimanjaro International Airport, which calls itself “The Gateway to Africa’s Wildlife Heritage,” has been expanding while positioning itself as a center for business aviation.

That includes the aforementioned helicopters, which have become popular with VIP groups on safaris. While there don’t seem to be any limits to the racket they cause at Victoria Falls, there are definitely limits at high-end wildlife lodges.

“Some groups are disappointed when we say they can’t land the helicopter in the camp,” said Himal Nathoo, the Zimbabwe-born manager of Elephant Camp West, a safari lodge where we stayed for two nights near the end of our trip.

As we spoke in the luxurious open-air lobby, Nathoo had a pet curled beside him—a fully grown, gentle cheetah named Sylvester, who has been a resident at the camp since he was found in 2010 as a two-day-old cub curled beside the ravaged body of his mother, killed by a lion.

“Sylvester likes it nice and quiet,” Nathoo said.    

Joe Sharkey the author of six books and a longtime BJT contributor, wrote a weekly business column for the New York Times for 16 years.