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Icons & Innovators: Wilderness Safaris: Wild Life

Jack Smith

Not far from Vumbura Plains, a posh safari camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Grant Harris is wheeling his Land Rover through a herd of a dozen elephants that have emerged from behind a stand of trees. “The main thing to keep in mind is, you don’t want to get between a baby elephant and its mother,” says Harris, the camp’s general manager, before slamming the shift lever into reverse and backing away from a foursome of tusked behemoths that form a phalanx in front of us. I am now very glad that he did not accept my offer of a few minutes earlier to take the wheel.
 

“It’s not so much a matter of how well you can handle a vehicle,” continues Harris, as he brings his snorkeled Landy to a sudden halt. “You have to know how the animals are going to behave.” Seeing a gap in the herd, he guns the engine, propelling the vehicle through the high grass, down an embankment, across a patch of swamp, and out of harm’s way. The animals watch us go and trumpet in triumph as if to say “Good riddance.”

A few minutes later, having encountered nothing more threatening than a family of warthogs whose manes make them look like ugly little ponies, we arrive back at the camp’s main lodge, where four guests are relaxing over cappuccinos and enjoying the vista.The Okavango River, which flows southeast from its headwaters a thousand miles away in Angola, has transformed the dreaded Kalahari, turning the desert into a never-never land of lagoons, lakes, and islands, with emerald reed beds and towering trees. A herd of sable moves lazily across the plain, while nearby a family of giraffe grazes on leaves from an acacia tree. Brilliantly colored songbirds perch on the deck furniture and call to each other like little creatures from a Disney movie. The mood is peaceful, idyllic. So much so, says one of the guests, you could almost forget that danger lurks at Vumbura Plains. But even after four African safaris, he acknowledges, he will not sit out on his deck at night.

 

Harris does not fault the man for his caution. He assures him, though, that “we haven’t lost a guest yet.”

Harris’ statement is no empty boast, considering that animals far more menacing than elephants roam the delta and, for that matter, the camp itself. But then, he explains, that is precisely the appeal of the camp. “Our goal is to offer guests an authentic experience in the wild,” says Harris, reflecting a philosophy at the core of Wilderness Safaris, the company that operates Vumbura Plains and 54 other camps on more than 6 million acres across southern Africa.

The idea of preserving wildlife rather than shooting it was still a novel concept in Botswana when, in 1983, two young guides, Colin Bell and Chris MacIntyre, founded Wilderness Safaris. At the time, the big game hunting safari was a hallmark of wealth and privilege, a celebration of the self wrapped up in the primal mysticism of the chase. A trophy room full of animal heads signified steel nerves and a steady hand, not to mention an abundance of firepower. But Bell, then a 29-year-old with a degree in economics from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, was averse to hunting; instead of lifeless trophies, he wanted to offer clients a memorable, life-altering experience. He and MacIntyre pooled their resources—after six years of guide work, each had saved $800—and with one old Land Rover at their command, they set out to change the way the world thought about safaris.

From the outset, Bell and MacIntyre targeted niche markets, leading photographic tours, bird-watching safaris, and other specialty trips that took guests to places few foreigners had explored. “In the early 1980s, Africa meant Kenya,” says Bell. “Nobody went to Botswana, and nobody had ever heard of the Okavango Delta, which is one of the world’s magical places.”

As demand for the company’s trips grew, Wilderness Safaris acquired oversize military surplus Land Rovers and converted them into rolling refrigerators that carried gourmet food and wine into the bush. Other antiquated Landies became mobile libraries, furnished with books on birds and botany, and Wilderness Safaris hired experts on flora and fauna to accompany guests and lecture in the wild. “Everything we did,” says Bell, “we did with one goal in mind: to turn every single guest into an ambassador for Wilderness Safaris.”
 

The formula worked; it was not long before Bell had a 50-person waiting list for an operation that could accommodate only 16 people at a time. From Botswana, the company expanded first into Zimbabwe and then Namibia. In both countries, as in Botswana, Wilderness Safaris incorporated as a local company so that revenues generated in a given region remained within that region. Bell and MacIntyre also trained inhabitants of local villages to be guides, chefs, bartenders, and tour drivers. “The governments generally embraced what we were doing,” says Bell. “We were adding value to their country and giving their people marketable skills.”
 

At that time in Botswana, the government operated a large network of national parks that was contributing little if anything to the country’s economy or its communities. For two pula, or about 20 cents, a visitor could drive willy-nilly through a park all day with no supervision. But in the early 1990s, Botswana’s government made tribal land in the Okavango and outside the national parks available for lease as private concessions, a policy that would alter Wilderness Safaris’ course dramatically. “We had never aspired to being landowners,” says Bell. “Land ownership is a sensitive issue in Africa.”
 
White settlers and landlords indeed have had a turbulent history in Africa. But leaseholders were another matter; as tenants with a 15- or 20-year agreement, Wilderness Safaris paid from 5 percent to 12 percent of a camp’s gross revenues to the nearby villages, fees the communities received whether the company made a profit or not.
 

By building fixed lodges on concession lands, Wilderness Safaris began offering a luxury experience that was unattainable in a tented campsite. For Bell, however, the concession system had an even more profound purpose in that it reduced the problem of poaching. “Once you sat down beneath a tree with the whole community and showed them how the game benefited them as a tourist attraction, the animals were no longer meat,” he explains. “Instead they became a community asset.”

So, too, did the Wilderness Safaris camps themselves, which besides paying concession fees also brought new jobs to the neighboring villages. The company had set the pattern for a high-quality, low-impact form of tourism, an industry that today employs some 45 percent of northern Botswana’s population.
 

Drawing on Botswana’s experience, Malawi, Namibia, and Zimbabwe soon established private concessions of their own. Today, Wilderness Safaris operates camps on concessions in seven countries, where it employs some 2,500 residents from nearby villages. Bell and MacIntyre, however, are no longer involved in the company’s operations; MacIntyre resigned in the late 1990s, and Bell sold his shares in January 2006. “I’d been guiding for almost 30 years,” says Bell. “It was time for somebody else to take over.”

At 52, Bell is too young, too bright, and too much of a visionary to retire. He is not certain what he will do next, but he is confident in the future of Wilderness Safaris. “The company doesn’t seem to miss me,” he says. “I just see them going from strength to strength.”

Vumbura Plains, which opened on a private concession in the Okavango Delta a few months before Bell’s departure, is a handsome illustration of his former company’s strengths. The property is actually two facilities, set about a mile apart, each of which features seven tented suites with their own bedrooms, lounges, dining rooms, bathrooms, bars, and decks, as well as outdoor showers beneath the foliage of towering trees. The tents—diaphanously veiled pavilions—are elevated three to four feet from the ground, as is the wooden boardwalk that links them to the main dining room, lounge, and campfire and bar area.
 

The purpose of the walkways is twofold: Besides keeping the mud and muck of the delta out of the high-style accommodations, the boardwalks also protect visitors from uninvited guests. Preeminent on this list are the lions that share this stretch of the delta with kudu, antelope, giraffes, hippos, Cape buffalo, hyenas, wild dogs, leopards, and red lechwe. It is an article of faith among the camp’s employees and guests that the big cats never will jump up on the walkways. “Nobody knows why,” says Boyson Ikitseng, one of the camp’s managers, “but they don’t.”

 

Even if one of the fanged felines were to venture onto the deck, continues Ikitseng, it would not dream of entering the tents and disturbing the occupants. “Like most animals, lions see walls of any sort as a barrier,” he explains. “They’ll walk around them before trying to push through them.”

Sometimes, however, the big cats get too close for comfort. Three weeks before my visit, a pride of lions came strolling through the North Camp at dinnertime, prompting the managers to post a guard. From time to time, a lion makes a kill—usually wildebeest or antelope—within the perimeter of the camp and within view of the deck. Such moments of high drama notwithstanding, says Ikitseng, the predators tend to leave people alone. “They don’t like the noise or the lights or the campfire. Lions aren’t very adventurous.”

Nevertheless, this being my first day in camp, I am obliged to keep a few dos and don’ts in mind. Do not run. Do not go outside the tent at night without one of the camp guides. Do not step off the walkway. And, says Ikitseng, “In case of emergency, just sound the air horn in your tent, and we’ll come running.”

This raises several interesting questions, such as, what kinds of emergencies does he foresee? And how often do they arise? Then, too, no matter how fast Ikitseng runs, what difference will it make? However stylish the gossamer drape that veils my suite, I am not convinced that it would deter a hamster, much less a hungry, 500-pound predator. But the other guests do not appear concerned, and the bush plane that has brought me here has long since disappeared over the horizon, so it’s too late to do anything about it now.

The day passes quickly. All too soon a guide appears at my side to lead me through the darkness to my tent, set perhaps 100 yards from the main deck. There, he wishes me a good night with the cheery reminder, “Any problems, remember the air horn.” He clatters back down the wooden sidewalk, and the sound of his footsteps is soon swallowed by the cacophony of birdcalls and monkey screeches. But the calls and screeches fail to conceal certain noises. Dawn is still hours away when I wake to the sound of something large and heavy rubbing against the posts that frame my tent. Was that low, rumbling noise a snuffle, grunt, or growl? From the distant recesses of memory comes the old saying, “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” Never have words rung so hollow. There was no escaping the irony of it all. I had come to Africa to see wild animals. And now here they were, coming to see me.
 

 

Perhaps no experience embodies the Zeitgeist of the 21st century as much as the modern-day safari does. Exotic and still relatively exclusive, it is also outdoorsy, educational, and uplifting, with the prospect of adventure at every turn. At Vumbura, guests typically rise at about 6 am for game drives in three-tiered Land Rovers, from which they spot an abundance of extraordinary creatures. They return to camp for lunch, and then the vehicles go out again at about 3:30 pm, returning two or three hours later so guests can dress for cocktails and dinner. 

 

The format of the adventures, and even their purpose, differs at the various Wildlife Safaris properties. Vumbura, for example, is famed for having both wetland and savanna wildlife, and it is one of the few places in the world where the red lechwe (a water-loving ruminant with graceful, lyre-shaped antlers) and the sable (a dry-land antelope with horns five feet long) can be seen together. But at my next destination, Mombo Camp, the emphasis is on predators.

This point is evident immediately upon my arrival at Mombo, which is located 15 miles south of Vumbura in the Okavango’s Moremi Game Reserve. The first thing I notice is that Mombo’s tents and walkways are raised higher off the ground than those at Vumbura, six feet or more at some stretches. This, explains the camp’s general manager, “Taps” Tapera, ensures the guests’ safety while allowing the animals to roam freely through camp.

Lions are the most fearsome of Mombo’s visitors, but they are not the only attractions. A few weeks before my arrival, a leopard killed a male impala and carried its carcass into a jackalberry tree within view of the tents, where it remained for three days. Cheetahs also had been spotted on the prowl recently. Lion sightings, however, are the most common at Mombo; there have been 40 in the past month alone. The 41st occurs as I stroll out of my tent and onto the walkway, bound for the lounge for a cup of coffee. 

I have been told what to do, of course. The conventional wisdom dictates looking the animal in its face, so that it will see that you, too, possess binocular vision and thus are a predator in your own right. But this would seem to invite a staring match more likely to aggravate than to pacify. I also have heard some safari-goers tell of simply stamping their feet and ordering the animal to scat, though I am reluctant to try this tactic with any animal much larger than a house cat. Everyone agrees, however, that the worst thing you can do is run. Screaming in panic is a close second. 

I do none of these, nor does the woman who first spies the lioness moving across the parking lot toward us on the walkway. With about as much excitement as you might announce the arrival of a bus, she points to the loping animal and says, “Oh! There’s a lion.”

We freeze, and neither of us says another word as it passes beneath the walkway and disappears. But I excitedly share the news of my encounter with Taps. “Oh, that lion,” he says, nonchalantly. “She’s traveling alone. She’s nomadic. There won’t be any more coming along with her.” 

Even so, instead of a coffee, I decide to have a double Scotch.

Later that day, I join a foursome of birders for a drive in one of Mombo’s game-watching vehicles. All around the camp, as seemingly everywhere in Africa, the landscape is studded with termite mounds rising 15 feet or higher. As our guide, Alex Mazunga, explains, virtually every tree and shrub on this patch of the delta owes its existence to the termite. Though the mounds are as hard as concrete, they provide fertile ground for the seeds deposited there by passing birds. The termite mounds themselves are benign, but they have to be approached carefully; more than one traveler has decided to relieve himself behind its shrubbery only to find that a lioness has made it the shelter for her newborn cubs.
 

For an hour or so, the drive yields slaty egrets, wattled cranes, rufous-bellied herons, and rosy-throated longclaws, until Mazunga spies a tree heavy with vultures and wheels the Land Rover toward it. Beneath the avian scavengers we find a grouping of perhaps 20 lions, three female adults and the remainder cubs, several of which are playfully rolling around on their backs. One cub struts proudly about with a bloody leg bone in its mouth. Two others inch slowly to within a few feet of our tires, as if wondering whether we would be good to eat. We watch them for a half hour but leave before they find out.

 

If game drives in Land Rovers are exciting, then safaris at my next destination, Abu Camp, should be downright enthralling. The Wilderness Safaris camp in the southern Okavango Delta is home to one of the company’s most colorful figures, Randall Moore, who pioneered the elephant-back safari. The Portland, Ore., native’s talent for working with elephants gained international attention in the 1970s, when he accompanied three elephants back to Africa from a circus in Seattle and oversaw their release into Kruger National Park. The animals were accepted by the local herd, but seven years later, Moore returned to the park, called the elephants, and climbed onto their backs for one more ride.

Today, safari-goers climb onto the backs of Moore’s seven-ton animals to ride through the delta almost every day. “Before I did it, everyone said the African elephant couldn’t be trained,” says Moore, a feisty character with an omnipresent stogie in one corner of his mouth. He bears a resemblance in appearance and manner to actor Joe Pesci, but I do not bother mentioning this to him. 

Moore has his own ideas of what is required at a safari camp. Unlike Vumbura or Mombo, for instance, Abu Camp does not have walkways between the main lodge and its six tents. “Nah, you don’t need those things,” he says, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. “The only time the lions come into camp is when the mothers want to show their cubs the tents.”

And why wouldn’t they? The tents, which Moore designed himself, are handsome structures with copper or porcelain bathtubs inside and sculpted decks wrapped around African ebony and sycamore fig trees. The raised lounge offers plump sofas with a breathtaking view over the lagoon.

In another departure from other Wilderness Safaris camps, Abu accepts guests only in concurrent three-day increments. “When you’re coming and going, you never get to know the other guests,” explains Moore. “This is more intimate.”

And so it is a convivial group that gathers on a plain a half-hour drive away for a torchlight dinner in the bush. Shapes skulk about menacingly in the shadows as the waitstaff dispenses roast kudu in caramelized onions and other exquisite dishes. The figures skitter away if approached, but not all of the delta’s wildlife is so easily dealt with.

Later that night, a scream from one of the tents is followed by blasts from an air horn. At breakfast the next morning, we learn the nature of the emergency. A Spanish couple’s tent had been invaded by an animal—not a lion nor a hippo, but a mouse. “My wife was terrified,” says her husband, as we move out for a trek on elephant back.

Abu Camp employs about 50 villagers from the region, but Moore appears most proud of his elephant handlers. “There’s tremendous prestige in being a mahout in Botswana,” he says as my mount kneels and I clamber up into the padded, boxlike saddle and hang on as the elephant rises to its full height. “You can tell, just from the way these men carry themselves. They have tremendous dignity.”

As for the animals themselves, Moore never feels as safe as he does atop an elephant. “There’s something very special about it,” he says. “A lion might be walking close by, but the elephants protect you.”

Moore’s words are comforting, but the feeling is short-lived. At Jao, the fourth camp on my itinerary, the husband-and-wife managers confirm what I have suspected all along. “Sometimes tourists get eaten,” says Kim Dietrichsen, “but usually when it happens, it’s a German.”

Her husband, Shane, agrees. “That’s what everybody in the safari business will tell you,” he says. “We’ll tell them to stay in the vehicles or not to go outside after dark, but Germans just don’t listen."

The good news for Germans and similarly stubborn guests is that at Jao, a nine-room Wilderness Safaris–managed camp north of Abu, you could spend a week without once venturing off the premises. The camp’s Balinese-style structures, which owner David Kays built in 1999, are connected by elevated walkways and include a two-story lodge with a bar and dining room upstairs and a library, wine cellar, and spa below.

This region of Botswana has been shaped by four generations of the Kays family, the first of whom arrived in the area in the 1880s driving an oxcart. The family prospered when David’s grandfather opened cattle routes from the frontier town of Maun to Livingston and later opened a filling station and garage to service trucks and planes. David took over the business in 1983, but he always wanted to be in the bush.

Today, Kays’ camp employs about 70 staff members, of whom 55 are local residents. “Our trackers are BaYei or MaXaniqwe tribesmen,” he says. “They know the area like the back of their hands.”

This trait is a plus when the trackers are guiding you through waters inhabited by hippos and crocodiles. Especially popular at Jao are night drives, during which guests can spot civets, spotted hyenas, pangolins, spring hares, bush babies, and genets. But even an afternoon game drive at Jao yields a lion family and, a half hour later, a leopard lolling imperiously in a tree.

That night over sundowners, guests share pictures, experiences, and impressions from the drives at Jao and other Wilderness Safaris camps. Some of us hardly can believe that we have moved virtually within arm’s length of some of the most ferocious carnivores on earth, or dozed off at night with Cape buffalo foraging beneath our tents.

It is difficult to say, of course, how many of my fellow safari-goers would ever have experienced the Okavango if not for Colin Bell. What is clear, however, is that without Wilderness Safaris, the modern safari—the institution that now benefits tourists as well as the environment, wildlife, and people of Africa—would not be quite what it has become.

It also is apparent that Bell has left Wilderness Safaris in the hands of people who share his commitment to conservation. Jao’s owner, for instance, did not cut a single tree to build his camp. “It was all created from fallen timber,” says Kays, who adds that he pays extra every year for the exclusive right to hunt animals on his approximately 150,000-acre concession. But Kays does not hunt, nor does he allow his guests to do so. “I bought the license just to keep anyone else from hunting,” he says. “I didn’t want people coming in and raping the land or shooting the animals.”

Wilderness Safaris
www.wilderness-safaris.com

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