All You Need To Know About Eco-Conscious Travel In Africa—And The Best Sustainable Safari Experiences To Have In 2020
Ernest Hemingway once said: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.” An overwhelming feeling of happiness and gratitude is not uncommon when visiting the continent—especially so when you go on a safari. “Safari used to be a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, but more and more people are bitten by the safari bug,” says Nico Heath, co-founder of luxury travel agency Lightfoot Travel.
For many, seeing lions and leopards in their natural habitats represents the ultimate in transformative travel. “Unfortunately, human incursion and climate change are placing environmental pressures on the wildlife and the landscape. Droughts and poaching are having a detrimental effect on animal numbers and habitats are shrinking,” Heath says. As an added incentive to return to the savannah, many safari lodges are making environmental protection and community empowerment top priorities, which means that guests of luxury lodges can give back while enjoying first-class holidays.
Wilderness Safaris, a sustainable luxury safari operator with camps in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, helps protect more than two million hectares of prime wilderness across seven biomes, harbouring 39 threatened mammal, bird and reptile species. The company donated US$14.7 million to conservation in 2018, more than three times the value distributed to shareholders. Another US$3.77 million was devoted to community development and welfare— providing schools, bore holes and other services to communities in need.
“Going on safari is a means of protecting these unique ecosystems,” says Dr Neil Midlane, group sustainability manager of Wilderness Safaris. “Our company ethos and commitment to restoring the wildlife and the large tracts of land we are privileged to manage means that everyone travelling with us is contributing, making them all conservationists by proxy. Each guest enables us to continue doing what we do.”
Apart from conservation, Lightfoot Travel is also a passionate advocate of undertourism, so it consciously picks and promotes destinations that need support, like Zimbabwe. Dr Midlane says that despite the political and economic uncertainty in the country, the safari lodges are safe, comfortable and great value for money. “There are many gems in the national parks that provide outstanding, authentic safari experiences, and this year is an ideal time to visit Zimbabwe, before demand drives the prices up.”
It’s great timing, then, that Wilderness Safaris is planning to upgrade its Ruckomechi Camp in Zimbabwe as well as its Duma Tau Camp in Botswana soon; it’s also opening Little DumaTau—an exclusive, intimate camp featuring four tented suites—in August 2020.
As more people crave safari experiences, there is also an increasing number of alternative ways to enjoy them—something I discovered on a trip to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Luxury safari lodges are providing spectacular excursions beyond the confines of the traditional game drive jeep. With the help of expert guides, I was able to encounter the vast plains from a whole new perspective: venturing on foot, flying high in the sky and cruising on serene waters. Exploring the terrain this way transformed my safari experience—giving me a new lens on the flora and fauna of the veld, a change of perspective that is sure to enrich both first-time and veteran safari-goers alike.
What: A walking safari at Linkwasha Camp in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
I had been looking forward to taking a walking safari, but now, just before heading out, I am not so sure. While on our game drive the night before, we had seen a pride of lions on the move and a lone cheetah lounging a mere 100m from the main lodge. At breakfast on the veranda of Linkwasha Camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, I gaze across the plain to the camp’s deserted watering hole which, hours earlier, had been bustling with elephants, zebra, and antelope.
To head out of camp at dawn and enter the untamed wilderness on foot without the protection of a jeep seems insane. I eat my toast with a trembling hand, and tell my travel companions that I might meet them afterwards, but they cajole me. If it comes to it, they say, our expert guide Peter is an excellent marksman. It’s a fact that isn’t entirely reassuring.
Nevertheless, we set off from camp in single file, Peter leading us with a loaded rifle in his hands. A professional guide for 36 years, he knows the plants, the birds, the animals and the land better than anyone, and it isn’t long—just a dozen metres from camp, in fact—before he spots something of interest. A weathered and dismantled kudu skeleton lies scattered on the ground. “Kudu resting in pieces,” he jokes.
Around it are the enormous, wrinkled tracks of elephants—at least 30cm wide and twice as long, headed in a straight line for the watering hole. They had crossed right through our camp last night, and from our seats around the fire pit we had watched wide-eyed as their dark, towering forms lumbered in the shadows metres away, and stopped for a sip at the camp’s swimming pool. Peter points to the tracks of an eland and a zebra, and gives us a detailed geological history of the landscape before we silently move on.
On foot, one can delight in the details of the veld. I crouch down to place my hand inside the lilypad of an elephant’s footprint. I touch the raw bark of a teak tree that has been scarred by elephant tusks. I peer into an elegant pile of polka-dot feathers, which have fallen where a bird once flew. It feels liberating to walk and stretch and generate my own momentum after so many hours in the jostling jeep.
It’s peaceful. There’s no sound of a generator or an engine. I feel my nerves relax into the rhythm, tension replaced by the pleasant tingle of bravery for being here on the ground. No one speaks as we scan the grass and trees to the horizon. Only the crunch of our boots and the sharp trill of birdsong accent the safari’s silence.
What: Boat cruise at Ruckomechi Camp in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, and a ride aboard a traditional makoro canoe at Jao Camp in Okavango Delta, Botswana
A raft of hippos stares at us—ears pivoting, nostrils flaring, their dark marble eyes locked on our fishing boat floating in the Zambezi river. Every once in a while one rises or descends with a loud, discontented snuff of air or swoop of water, and we coexist, if not happily then civilly, here in one of the most majestic of rivers. We hopped aboard our river cruiser at Ruckomechi Camp, a lodge and 10 luxury tents with spectacular views across the Zambezi Valley in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe.
My travel companions and I are fishing in the loosest of senses. There is bait on our hooks, which are bobbing in the water, but we don’t care to catch anything, really. We’re too busy chatting, drinking sodas and beers, and marvelling at a landscape so beautiful we’re giddy with it.
Mana Pools National Park is at our starboard side, and through our binoculars we can see a small pack of wild dogs, an endangered species and safari rarity, lying on the dusty ground. Beyond them is the low-lying cliff where, the evening prior, we had our sundowners by a campfire and watched the swollen African sun sink beneath the river, blazing pink and orange.
Tall grass and marshland fill the valley, and after days spent in dry, beige safari camps, it’s a relief to be surrounded by so much moving water. The fecund valley formed by the Zambezi escarpment, a dramatic ridge of lilac-shaded mountains rising 500 to 600 metres above the riverbed, is lush, green and achingly romantic.
It’s hard to remember that the opaque, muddy water is treacherous, full of crocodiles and hippos, and only big mammals dare to swim here. When we take the boat out again at sunset, we watch a pair of elephants taking a drink. I’ve seen hundreds of elephants by now, from every angle except this one—head on and below—and I’ve never seen what happens next, as they step into the water and slowly swim across the channel between river islands, their trunks raised like snorkels just a few metres away from us.
Our guide has one last gem to show us as he pulls up beneath a bare tree full of southern carmine bee-eaters. The exquisite, fluttering jewels of fuchsia, carmine and turquoise flash in the air above us, darting in and out of the nests they have carved into the steep face of the riverbed.
The sun setting scarlet behind us amplifies their gorgeous colour—so vivid and iridescent it seems otherworldly—and I’m grateful that we took the boat rather than a drive that night, or we would never have seen the incredible beauty of these birds, an entrancing sight that no photograph or video can ever really capture.
Depending on the time of year, one can also ride a canoe along the river banks. Elsewhere, such as in Jao Camp at the Okavango Delta, Botswana, guests can go on safari by mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe which is propelled by someone pushing with a pole from the stern of the boat. Without a motor and floating 20cm above the water, this type of safari provides a truly immersive experience as you quietly glide past purple lilies and beneath the tall papyrus to admire the buffalo, antelope and birds at eye level, drinking at the water’s edge.
Above it all
What: Helicopter safari at Jao Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta
It’s not often that I’m excited by the sight of a pilot removing all of our aircraft’s doors, but this time I am alight with anticipation. Our pilot Michael, from Botswana-based Helicopter Horizons, is preparing to give us unobstructed views of the Okavango Delta.
There has been an unparallelled drought in the delta this year, and much of the lush green river basin is bone dry. The boats which are typically used for water safaris have been beached, and their current position, perched bizarrely high in the bush, is the only indication that the road we are driving on is, in fact, a river bed that is usually submerged a few metres underwater.
The newly refurbished Jao Camp, with its luxurious suites rising on stilts above what is normally a mist-covered marshland of waterlilies, for the time being looks across a sandy basin that has become a highway for kudu, buffalo, zebra and even a heavily pregnant lion. But this parched panorama isn’t typical of the delta, so the camp has kindly arranged a 45-minute helicopter flight and we can see what this semi-aquatic paradise usually looks like.
Soaring 100 to 300m above the bush, I realise that this is what my safari experience had been missing. It is the vista I didn’t realise I had been waiting for—the long backs of elephants, the shadowed ridges of their spines, ears waving over their shoulders as they walk in parade; a flock of white herons flying in formation over tall, emerald-green grass; shimmering clouds and blue sky reflected in a mirror-like lake. These are the safari scenes I remember from the nature documentaries I love. Now, here they are, right before my very eyes.
From this ethereal view I can see flocks of Egyptian geese, countless giraffes, resting hippos and antelopes of many varieties—rare red lechwe, tsessebe, sable and even a rare sitatunga wading to its knees in the shallow pools—in a patch of delta where the Okavango River is still flowing, far away from where Jao’s jeeps would be able to reasonably reach.
What’s most astounding from above are the lines that crisscross the delta between tree-lined islands and scattered towers of Egyptian palms. They are the elephant’s highways, says Michael, through our headsets. Herds of elephants have instinctively followed these submerged paths for generations, working the route deeper into the riverbed, even when it is flooded.
Looking out over the vast network of paths that lead elephants on their migration across Southern Africa is astounding. Wind in my face, soaring above the delta with a spectacular view of the mesmerising landscape, I can’t help but feel a little thankful for the drought that initiated this incredible helicopter ride. A bird’s-eye view of the delta is second to none.