Friday 22 November 2013

Africa, off the leash: 10 tips for safari virgins

Just the word "safari" conjures images of wild things untouched by man. It's the epitome of eco travel, offering glimpses of the world before we came along. A few weeks ago I went on safari in South Africa, with my dad, on a private game reserve adjoining Kruger National Park. 

Our four nights at Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson's luxuriously homely clifftop lodge overlooking the lowveld were amazing. The up-close wildlife encounters on our twice-daily game drives were out of this world.

Behold, the king
I’m talking sitting in an open-sided Land Rover within spitting distance of a pride of 14 lions dining on a buffalo they’d just killed: males conked out in the long grass barely two metres away, cubs climbing over the black-skinned bovine, lionesses growling at their offspring to mind their manners. 

We watched hyenas staking out a tree where, in the branches above, a leopard sat eating its latest meal. Followed a lone male leopard walking in perfect silence through the dry grass. Saw a family of cheetahs licking each other clean after dining on an unfortunate duiker (a small antelope).

Cheetah love
The incredible thing is: they look right at you, but seem not to see you. To the animals, the Land Rover is just an inedible part of their environment, something to walk around, or ignore.

It was my first time on safari, and I learned a lot – not just about the animals but about how to safari. 

So here are my top 10 tips for other safari virgins:

Dad and me, day 3, in khaki
1. Be invisible. Failing that, wear khaki. I know, you don't want to look like all the other tourists arriving at Kruger airport. But within a day or two, you realise the good sense of it. You're less likely to be seen by the animals, and it’s a good way to keep cool in the South African heat.

2. Be patient. Even in places like Ulusaba, where there's so much wildlife, you still need to wait for the rangers and trackers to find it. The animals are wild and roaming after all. It helps to be quiet too. The wildlife might be habituated to the vehicles, but can still be disturbed, and you're assured of a more authentic viewing experience if the animals aren't reacting to you. 

3. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. There aren’t many rules on safari and the few there are, will keep you safe. The main ones: never stand up in the vehicle (which alters its shape and might make some animals curious enough to investigate), never leave the vehicle (except with the all-clear from a ranger) and don't make sudden movements or loud noises. 
Walk like a leopard,
silent and stealthy
4. Do a walking safari (with an armed ranger). If ever there was an experience to wake you up, this is it. Your senses are on high alert. Which way is the wind blowing? You soon realise how defenseless most human beings are out here, which gives you a new respect for the animals that survive on their wits and instincts.

5. Put your camera down. You've brought the long lens, or the compact camera with mega-zoom, and it's great to get pics and video you can enjoy and share later. But remember to snap some internal pics too, with your eyes. Nothing beats watching wildlife in real time. 

Dignity in danger
6. Don't self-drive. You'll see and learn more game-driving with a ranger. You might even live longer. Stories abound of self-drivers leaving their vehicles (gasp) to take photos or not making it to camp by nightfall, and being charged (or trampled) by elephants. These aren't animals in a zoo.

7. Be respectful. You're not watching a nature documentary in your living room, either. Other people can hear you when you say, "He looks like Uncle John" or "Isn't it CUTE!". Try to resist the temptation to infantalise or anthropomorphise the animals too. They have dignity. They’re not cartoon creations, they're wild animals living wild lives.

Young leopard, listening
8. Listen. There's so much to look at in the African bush, it's easy to switch off your other senses. But open your ears and you’ll heighten your experience by hearing, say, zebras or other grazers making alert calls, the rumble of lions roaring.

9. Look after yourself. Sitting in a vehicle for up to six hours a day (2-3 hours at dawn and dusk) can give anyone an aching back. Make use of the free time between game drives to stretch, do some yoga, have a massage or a hot bath, or go for a walk around your camp (supervised if necessary).

10. Share your stories and photos with friends when you get back home. Put your good fortune to good use: by spreading the word about the preciousness of Africa’s wild things, and the importance of protecting them from poachers and other threats such as habitat loss. See WWF South Africa for more info.

Family love in the wild
One more thing: go with someone you love. There were times when Dad and I would look at each other on a game drive, hardly believing we were really there, watching a rhino and her calf or a giraffe family perfectly lit by the morning sun. Or he’d squeeze my hand, to say without words: this is awesome. It really was.

Big thanks to South Africa Tourism and Virgin Limited Edition for this once-in-a-lifetime, father-and-daughter-in-the-wild experience.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Wild (underwater) kingdom - The world's best swim-with experiences

I've always loved the water. When I was growing up, it would rain on my birthday EVERY YEAR, but that didn't stop me having my annual pool party (remember when your hair used to turn green from the chlorine? Happy days). Then I grew into surfing, one of the loves of my life. I've swum in Antarctica, in icy tarns in New Zealand, in bath-warm waters off Thailand, all over Australia.

I love wild animals too (did you know I studied Zoology at uni?) and when you put me in the sea with a (preferably harmless) marine creature or two, I'm pretty much swimming over the moon.

Who's swimming with whom?
So my latest published story, in this month's WellBeing magazine, is close to my heart. It's about 10 of the best swim-with experiences you can have in the world's oceans - from curious minke whales to Galapagos sea lions (the labradors of the sea) to man-sized tuna, whale sharks, dolphins, dugongs... Here's a preview:

A minke whale, by Bruce Paterson
(Eye to Eye Marine Encounters)
Marine encounters of the incredible kind
Now and then, we humans need a reality check, a reminder of our true place in the world - not at the top of the food chain, seemingly in command of our environment, but part of the cycle of life and the community of beings we all belong to, whether we're aware of it or not.

One of the best ways to do this is to get into the water with a marine creature or two, or more, preferably ones large enough to wake us up to our inherent vulnerability in the sea. It's humbling, it's exhilarating. It also reminds us of our responsibility to these magnificent animals and their ocean habitats. Read the full story.

What are your favourite swimming experiences? (Everyone's got at least one. It doesn't even have to be outdoors...)