I’d never had a group travel experience before, but it turned out to be perfect for the African safari I’d been dreaming of since childhood.
I’ve always been fascinated with Africa. As a kid I was obsessed with African wildlife. Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Cynthia Moss were my heroes, and I fantasized about living among the animals in Africa like they did.
I expected that Africa would be one of the very first places I visited, but years later my dream trip still hadn’t happened.
There were a couple of things that were holding me back. One was that I never had enough expendable income to go on the luxury safari tours that I saw some friends and family doing. Another was that I wasn’t sure I wanted to travel like that anyway. My dream safari vision was simple: to see as many animals as I could in their natural habitat, while making as light a footprint as possible. I just wasn’t sure how to make that happen…
When Intrepid’s 16-day Experience Southern Africa trip was suggested to me, I didn’t know what to expect. I had always been a solo traveler and resistant to group travel, which brought to mind a slow-moving group of tourists in New York City trailing a guide with hoisted pink flag. But I read about the camping itinerary through South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and I decided this was how I would finally get to Africa.
The experience ended up being perfect for me, for the following reasons:
The freedom to be in the moment
Prior to my safari, all of my traveling had been independent, and I love the experience of shopping for food in a new country, figuring out the public transit system, meeting people and navigating language barriers.
But with only two and a half weeks in Southern Africa and my priority being wildlife, I was happy to turn over the decision-making to our team leaders. Border crossing arrangements, route navigation, meal planning and grocery shopping – it was all blissfully out of my hands. My responsibilities were limited to packing up my gear in the morning, returning from bathroom breaks on time, and choosing what bottle of Pinotage to get for dinner at camp.
What I discovered is that not being responsible for the logistics of a trip leaves so much time and mental energy for taking in new and incredible surroundings.
I have many memories of riding in the open-air vehicles on game drives – in Kruger and Chobe National Park and the Nata Salt Pans – alert to the world around me as we spotted baby elephants, basking hippos, frolicking wildebeest, and the occasional giraffe (how can an animal that looks like that be so hard to spot?). No part of my mind was distracted by the thought of what was next on the itinerary. I was able to be fully in the moment – a rare and amazing experience.
Camping for the full experience
The Intrepid tour appealed to me, in part, because of the camping. As beautiful as safari lodges can be, I went to Africa to see the wilderness, and I wanted the immersion experience.
There is nothing like camping to connect you with your environment: sitting under the stars before bed, lying in your sleeping bag and listening to the sounds of the nocturnal world outside the tent, waking up to the singing of birds. In Africa, camping put me in direct contact every night with the new world we were traveling through. The stars in the Southern sky were unfamiliar. Trips to the bathroom at night had me scanning the bush for eyes (fortunately none were encountered). And the morning birdsong was a dramatic wake-up call, one so different from my familiar alarm clock.
The Okavango Delta was one of my favourite parts of the trip. We traveled by traditional flat-bottomed canoes through labyrinthine reeds to an island where we pitched tents for the next two days. We went on game walks in the evening and in the morning, and we found many animals, including a herd of elephants, surprisingly close to the camp.
This was definitely not a place I would have gone on my own, but the guides were incredibly knowledgeable. They kept the campfire lit overnight to let the animals know not to stumble into our tents – for which I was grateful – but it was the knowledge we were sleeping in the middle of the African wilderness that was most thrilling.
No exploitation of wildlife
It can be a challenge for animal lovers to experience native wildlife when traveling, without supporting their exploitation. Especially because it can be hard to distinguish organizations that are legit from those that aren’t. Since learning that some groups that market themselves as animal “refuges” or “sanctuaries” are as guilty of exploitation and abuse as the more obvious culprits, I’ve been concerned about making responsible travel choices.
Learning about Intrepid’s Animal Welfare Policy was a huge relief to me. For a trip to Africa, where animals are central to the experience, I wanted to feel confident that I was in no way endangering or exploiting the wildlife for my own enjoyment.
A highlight of the trip for me was going to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana, where we learned about the incredible measures taken by the Botswanan government to save the white and black rhinos in the country and region.
Watching a baby rhino grazing with its mother, protected in the sanctuary, and knowing that it was literally the future of the species, was an incredible experience.
Want to experience the magic of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe like this traveller? Check out Intrepid’s Experience Southern Africa trip.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Joy Elliott, Conrad Duckett, Joy Elliott, Intrepid Travel, Conrad Duckett.)