NAME: Lee Whittam
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CURRENT COMPANY: Essential Africa
Africa’s sheer size and diversity makes each country quite unique, particularly when it comes to a wilderness experience. With this in mind, I’ve highlighted the outstanding attractions of the areas that we regularly operate in, and why they feature in our safaris.
For a nostalgic feeling of “old Africa”, Zambia has to be one of the wildest destinations on the continent. Small, exclusive camps from rustic bush style to luxurious lodges are located along major rivers such as the Zambezi and Luangwa. During peak season, these regions offer huge volumes of game, and the total freedom to enjoy night drives, off-road driving, walking, boating and fishing. Zambia is well known for game viewing from specially designed hides in superb locations, often on game trails or at the edge of waterholes or river banks, where you get an in-your-face view of the wildlife as it wanders past or comes to drink.
There’s also a staggering amount of game that roams through the camps - elephants brushing past your room, lions and leopards walking between tents, and hippos grazing on the lawn. Dry season from June until November is best for game viewing, when the heat goes up a notch or two and animals are drawn to the remaining surface water. In the later part of the dry season, the wilderness takes on a stark, harsh beauty characterised by blood-red sunsets, typically dusty African bush scenes, and an almost continuous procession of wildlife to and from the water sources.
Botswana’s pro-conservation government was clever when it introduced and followed its policy of high income, low volume tourism. This means that there are huge private concessions of land set aside for non-consumptive tourism, like photographic safaris. Within these concessions, there’s minimal impact on the environment, which offers each guest the chance to be in some of the most remote lodges and camps in Africa, far from the crowds, enjoying an exclusive wildlife experience. Having lived, worked and guided at most of them, we are able to select specific camps for all the right reasons to ensure that you get the very best out of your safari.
The Kalahari Desert surrounds the Okavango Delta, one of the most unique delta systems in the world. Palm-studded islands and constantly fluctuating levels of crystal clear waters teem with hippos, crocodiles and fish, with spectacular wildlife and birds on the fringes. Expect to see all of Africa’s big game, plus more unusual sights like the big cats swimming the channels. Lions have adapted their hunting methods to these watery conditions, and you might be fortunate to see them fording the channels in search of prey. Wild dog packs of thirty or more, plus cheetah, leopard and huge herds of elephants appear from the mopane woodlands along the water courses in the northern Selinda, Savuti and Chobe areas as the season heats up.
Highlights of Botswana include boating through the Delta’s network of channels, following lions as they hunt through the floodplains and islands, and in the north, sitting amongst endless herds of elephant as they slake their thirst during the dry season; the vast, empty solitude of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, fossil riverbeds, and Deception Valley dotted with wildlife; star gazing on clear nights, and unforgettable sunsets to mark the transformation as night falls and the predators start hunting. Botswana’s exclusivity also ensures that you are able to enjoy each sighting at your own pace.
Probably the best known and most recognisable safari images come from this part of Africa. Classic savannah with flat-topped acacia trees makes up a large part of the scenery, especially in areas such as the Serengeti. Tanzania is famous for its massive volumes of game - abundant herds stretch as far as you can see across the openness of the Serengeti, providing constant background noise as they move past your camp. We use small luxury mobile camps which are best positioned in the path of the migration to put you right in the midst of the action. The combination of mobile camps and permanent lodges in the more remote areas of the park, away from the usual tourist routes, ensures an exclusive and unforgettable safari.
For many, the Serengeti is all about the migration, which occurs year-round in different phases. There’s the mass calving season in January to March, when several hundred thousand wildebeest calves are born on the southern plains. The herds swing northwest to face the hazards of the Grumeti River, before trekking further north to the churning waters of the Mara River and more gigantic crocodiles. The panic, drama and energy is difficult to put into words, and must be experienced to be fully appreciated. You then have the “quiet” times of the year when the migration has moved on, leaving plenty of resident game and very few tourists. There is also the chance to spend time with Maasai tribes and get a glimpse into their everyday lives, a big part of a Tanzanian safari, and something that isn’t always possible in other parts of Africa.
The baobab-studded hills of Tarangire National Park are less well known, with massive herds of elephants and buffalo, a fantastic array of general game, and all the predators that follow. It’s an area that we use during the dry hotter months when the game is drawn to the Sahale Swamps, the only surface water for miles around. Great sightings are guaranteed, and you’ll see a volume of game that is difficult to match elsewhere. Walking is also permitted here and offers a totally different perspective on the bush.
Another less travelled part of Tanzania is its “wild south” - Selous Game Reserve, and Ruaha National Park, with the rugged beauty and harshness typical of this region. There are no migrations here, but plenty of resident game that’s completely wild and requires more effort to find in comparison to that of the Serengeti’s open areas. Baobab forests, large herds of elephants and buffalo, the privilege of walking and “fly camping” out in the bush, and drifting down the Rufiji River by boat to end your safari with some down time on a tropical island just off the Tanzanian coast makes for a well-rounded safari.
Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains are the focus here. With an estimated 750 individuals remaining in the lush, steep, forested mountains, our aim is to spend time amongst these magnificent great apes. Although the trekking permits are expensive, an important point to remember is that most of it goes back into the local community, and ultimately, the protection and conservation of gorillas and other animals in the National Park.
The trekking varies in time from 20 minutes to several hours, depending on where the gorillas are. Irrespective of the length of the trek and the often muddy and slippery conditions along the way, once you sit down next to a family of gorillas and watch them walk within feet of you as if you’re simply not there, you’ll quickly forget any hardships experienced in getting to them. These gentle giants look you in the eye with an all-too-human quality, leaving no doubt that they are contemplating far more than we think. Although physical contact with these animals is strictly forbidden, it’s not unusual for some of the younger members of the family to brush past you, leaving an indelible memory of your time with them.
Photographically, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to capture a perfect portrait or general family shot as they move around you, feeding, playing and interacting with each other. Their habitat is also very different and unique - a back-drop of volcanoes and cloud-covered valleys keeps your attention, and we often combine Rwanda and the gorillas with a safari in Tanzania or elsewhere, so the contrast in climate, topography and experience works well when combined with a more traditional safari.
This country of contrasts offers just about everything that might be on your list of must-do activities. Travel in South Africa is smooth and efficient, making it easy to explore your choice of world-class destinations. Safaris can be done from the Cape itself, all the way to the north-eastern part of the country with its well-known private game reserves. Game viewing is some of the best in Africa, and often you’ll see all of the “big five” in a single game drive. The lodges are fully equipped with the latest mod cons, and for the person who wants to travel but still needs to be in touch via the internet or phone, it’s possible in most areas. Private reserves offer you the chance to follow the game off road as it moves through the bush, plus there’s the option of exploring on foot.
At the end of your safari, ease yourself back into the buzz of city life with a few days in Cape Town. A trip to the Mother City could include a boat cruise to Robben Island, with its pivotal history of Nelson Mandela’s captive years. Take a different view of your surroundings from the top of Table Mountain; enjoy the outdoor life and magnificent beaches, or head off into the winelands to taste some of the finest wines in the world. There are endless options in this wonderful city.