By ROB SLATER
There are many ways to start a perfect day in Africa, from a snorkeling trip on one of East Africa’s beautiful reefs to climbing the red sand dunes of the Namib Desert as the sun rises. Bumping your way excitedly down into the Ngorongoro Crater, sitting with habituated meerkats in the Kalahari Desert or heading out on foot in South Luangwa – there are such a myriad of incredible experiences to choose from. I have always enjoyed walking, and it is therefore hard for me not to start my day exploring on foot, either searching the forests of Rwanda or Uganda for the great apes, or simply climbing a suitable African hill at sunrise for some expansive views. For me though, the absolute magic of Africa reveals itself as you head out across the game-rich plains of the Mara/ Serengeti ecosystem at first light. I have always been fascinated by the great predators of our planet, especially the big cats, and there is nowhere more compelling than East Africa’s plains when it comes to the possibility of seeing some ‘big cat action’.
Lion and leopard are usually still active at dawn, whilst cheetah can often be found hunting at this early hour. To witness a cheetah hunt is a true privilege, whilst I’ll never forget the feeling of awe as a huge male lion, his breath visible in the cool morning air, roared repeatedly as he walked towards us in Kenya’s Mara North Conservancy. Moments like this can be cherished for ever.
Beyond the apex predators though there are so many other possible surprises waiting for you, from serval cats and honey badgers to aardwolves and bat-eared foxes, all in addition to the normal plethora of plains game. I recall a wonderful moment in the heart of the southern Serengeti plains when, as the sun peeked over the distant horizon, the air was filled with the sound of hundreds of larks; whilst on another morning I sat for an hour as thousands of wildebeest surrounded our vehicle as they moved across the plains in search of fresher pastures.
Back in camp it is time for a refreshing shower and cooked breakfast, but at this point I would choose to be over-looking some water. Mid-morning during the dry season is an active time at water sources, with a steady stream of plains game, monkeys, elephants and birds arriving to quench their thirst before it gets too hot. In 2019 I visited a waterhole in the interior of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools where the action was non-stop. From lovebirds and quelea to a fish eagle hunting ring-necked doves, the birdlife was non-stop, accompanied by a steady stream of larger herbivores including buffalo, eland, kudu and several impressive elephant bulls. To relax and watch nature at work, whilst sitting comfortably and surrounded by peace and quiet, is a true pleasure.
By now it is late morning and resting in camp is a sensible way to spend a few hours. On our working forays to Africa we rarely get to enjoy such downtime, as we are always on the move and there is so much to check up on, but when we get the chance it is wonderful to slow down to the pace of a true safari and have a few hours during the heat of the day to read, edit photos, sit in a hide, bird watch from your verandah, listen to some music or if needed, catch up on some shut eye.
However, it is also the time of day when the bush is most exclusive, and when you can sometimes enjoy the most unexpected of sightings. Over the years I have come to embrace the raw heat of the midday sun, and I also enjoy being out and about when everyone else is resting in camp. But to be out at this time you do need a purpose, and for me this would be exploring somewhere remote that can’t be easily reached from a permanent camp. Across Africa I have explored some wonderfully remote places. In Liuwa Plains in western Zambia the flat horizon continually beckons you on, a seemingly endless wilderness of open plains to explore, whilst in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou I could sit all day atop the impressive Chilojo cliffs, feeling totally insignificant compared to scale of the view stretching away beneath me. There are places in Namibia where you feel like you are exploring another planet, where mountains shimmer in the midday heat haze, whilst at Paradise Pools in Tanzania’s Katavi you might wonder how long it has been since other tourists last set foot there. I love this sense of remoteness and exploration, and the special sightings that come with exploring unknown territory. An unexpected midday leopard sighting in Katavi, a caracal in the Central Kalahari, cheetah hunting oribi in Liuwa, desert lions in Namibia and 120 strong herd of elephants emerging out of the dry woodland in the Okavango Delta all stick firmly in my mind and provide wonderful memories.
As the heat starts to fall away in the late afternoon, I would head out on a bush walk. But this walk would be quite specific. It would be a short walk where the focus would be on the birds and animals, and it would be through beautiful, open areas (short grass, impressive mature trees) where I can ‘relax’ and enjoy the scenery and as well as the wildlife. The walk would end 45 minutes before sunset on the banks of a stunning water course where a boat and a (full) cool box were waiting. The Mana Pools shoreline in Zimbabwe, the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Zambia’s South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi are four of my favourite destinations in Africa, and all can offer lovely walking which can lead you to perfect sunset spots overlooking water and surrounded by wildlife.
However, to finish the day I want to get out on the water, and there is nowhere better than the Lower Zambezi River for this. Where the eastern section of Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools faces across the river at the central areas of Zambia’s Lower Zambezi, you have 360 degrees of pure wilderness – nothing but the river itself, islands, sandbanks, floodplains, woodland and as a backdrop, escarpment hills. It is absolutely stunning, and full of wildlife. Open-billed storks fly low overhead, kingfishers dart from small trees, hippos snort and grunt in their numerous pods, and elephants browse on islands, silhouetted against the sunset. You can keep a look out for predators coming down to drink, whilst potentially casting out a line for a tiger fish. The cold drinks flow at the end of a busy day, the atmosphere is serene and relaxed, the scenery is mesmerising as the colours darken, and the conversation engaging. For me, this is Africa at its finest.
With one last throw of the dice, and before a sumptuous bush dinner around the campfire, I would include a night drive. Night drives can be ‘hit and miss’, but I love them. I love the suspense, the prospect of what might be, and the atmosphere of the bush at night. Some nights are quiet, but when they go well they are highly rewarding, especially if you enjoy seeking out slightly more unusual species. I love the call of the Scops Owl, though seeing them is very difficult, whilst animals such as civet, porcupine, wild cat, serval, genet, caracal, honey badger and the elusive aardvark are always such a pleasure to see. And of course many leopards are seen at night, sometimes stalking their prey which can be incredibly exciting.
The African night is full of life, and my perfect dinner would be disturbed by animals coming into a camp waterhole to drink. On one particular evening in Zimbabwe I barely got to eat anything because the procession of animals out of the darkness was non-stop, including lions, a leopard and a pack of wild dogs! After a suitably wonderful meal under the stars, my ideal accommodation would continue the close to nature experience. A comfortable and airy tent in a stunning big game location is perfect, with the sounds of the African bush all around you, and animals moving through camp at night. I particularly enjoy the full moon where you can often see animals from your bed. I wouldn’t choose to sleep right next to a large pod of hippos at the end of the dry season, as that can keep you awake a little more than you would prefer, but the occasional snort of a hippo, roar of lion, whoop of hyaena, bark of baboon and rumble of elephant is all part of the magical night experience. A sound I recall with fondness, from a night spent in a remote bush camp in Zambia’s South Luangwa is the clinking of horns as a herd of buffalo moved gently past camp. Less desirable is the eerie screech of a tree hyrax just outside your tent!
In many parts of Africa, special sleep out platforms and decks are available, which are hugely fun and also keep the safari going through the night. But wherever you rest you head, you can’t go to bed until you have had a moment around the campfire, enjoying that ‘oh, just one more then’ drink and gazing up misty eyed at the unbelievable Milky Way.
Yes, I am missing Africa!
Thoughts from Mary Grimwood:
We know that it is the incredible wildlife and breathtaking vistas that keep pulling us back to Africa but let’s not forget the people that also help shape our memories. So many times we have heard from you about the room attendant who woke you before the dawn with a gentle ‘knock knock’ and a steaming cup of coffee, the waiter who welcomed you back from a hot and dusty game drive with a cool cloth and a fresh drink, the guide who showed you your very first leopard or the camp manager who regaled you with tales of their time in the bush; the list goes on but each and every one of them contributed to your yearning to return.
Throughout Africa I have learned so much from, shared stories with, laughed, smiled and even cried with the extraordinary people that I have met on my travels. It is the proud Maasai however that hold a special place in my heart. When I worked in a camp in the Masai Mara it felt like I had 50 brothers; 50 naughty, incorrigible, giggling, sometimes moody, fiercely proud, practical joking but very hard working younger brothers. These days when I travel to Kenya the sight of a smiling Maasai striding towards me calling out ‘Jambo Mama, welcome home!’ makes my heart soar and reinforces my belief that these people are just as important as the wildlife in creating your perfect day in Africa.
Thoughts from Frances Gwyther:
Well it would certainly be difficult to find any fault in Rob’s perfect day in Africa! But I would potentially make a few tweaks! Gently dipping into the warm blue turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean for a wonderful snorkel would have to be included for me. More specifically from Misali Island, near Tanzania’s Pemba Island – a small remote paradise where you find the sea full of dazzling shoals of fish darting around and beautiful coral. Alternatively I will never forget my incredible experience snorkeling with a whale shark off Mafia Island – a once in a lifetime wildlife experience!
I adore watching elephants and so my perfect day would include a dry season visit to Hwange in Zimbabwe, where I could spend the heat of the day watching elephants come to drink at a waterhole just yards from me. The sounds, smells and different personalities of the great pachyderms can keep me enthralled for hours on end.
As the day comes to a close, I would also want to hear the beautiful singing voices of a camp staff choir, round the crackling campfire before dinner. The rich joyful sound, when it’s done well, is so enjoyable to listen to, especially seeing the assortment of guides, chefs, waiters, managers, mechanics and room attendants all come together and have such genuine fun!
Thoughts from Joe Corder:
As appealing and dreamy as Rob’s perfect day is, for me it all begins with the excitement and anticipation at daybreak, enjoying a coffee around the smouldering campfire as the sun emerges and the dawn chorus of Guinea fowl punctuates the cool still air.
Then I would be out in search of my favourite animal, the African Wild Dog (or more recently referred to as Painted Wolf). Whether exploring beautiful Nyerere (formerly Selous) in Tanzania, the wilds of the Linyanti/ Okavango region in Botswana or the stunning woodlands of Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, it is always exciting if dogs are in the area. It is incredible if you can find them while they are still active, possibly hunting, but once they settle down I love watching their interaction with each other, especially when the pups are playing and causing mischief.
Every day in Africa I look forward to sunset drinks, as it is such a magical time, but I don’t need to be out on the water. Give me a lavish set-up (with nibbles and a bar to rival any in London) or a simpler version with just your guide and a well-stocked cool box under an albida tree, and I am happy. The first sip of a gin and tonic or cold beer in a magical setting as the sun begins to dip beyond the horizon is simply unforgettable as a velvet black curtain changes the bush from day to night. Having not been out in Africa for 14 months, I don’t feel too particular on the exact spot (anywhere in the African bush would be great…..), but my mind keeps being drawn to the South Luangwa Valley in Zambia and Mana Pools on the banks of the Zambezi, Zimbabwe.
Thoughts from Jane Walker:
Rob’s perfect day in Africa makes me realise the value of every minute of a day on safari. It starts with dreams of what I may be lucky enough to see today, gently interrupted by a growing chorus of bird song. First an early robin calling or maybe the annoying wake-up alarm of a Crested Francolin. The variety builds: was that the distant hoot of a Giant Eagle Owl or a Ground Hornbill? Each camp has a distinctive wake-up call, all with a welcome cup of tea.
During the safari day, it’s about being at one with nature and living in the moment: appreciating every minute detail of a fallen feather, smelling the scent of Gardenia flowers or watching the graceful manner in which a big cat moves. The experience is enhanced by sharing your perfect day with like-minded people, guests and camp team alike. The collective silence of tracking rhino spoor on foot. The shared anticipation of what might be around that next bush.
Breathing in time with my horse as I canter across the grasslands is an essential ingredient of my perfect day in Africa. Sharing my apple with him at lunch. Giving him the chance to rest and relax while I siesta. Then continuing our journey together to a new camp, arriving just as the sun is setting. A roll in the dust, a brush and hay for him, whilst I enjoy a bucket-shower and warming fire. My perfect day doesn’t finish until I’ve heard nightjar, an owl or two and the rasp of a leopard. All washed down with a glass of red wine.
Thoughts from Michele Seamark:
It is always hard to define your most perfect day or experience in Africa. For me, just being on the continent, I could pinch myself, I am in my heaven. Waking up in the bush is one of my most favourite experiences on safari. The night sounds give way to the morning chorus. Fresh hot coffee delivered to my tent is always a treat and as I sip it, the anticipation of what I am going to encounter on my morning activity already has me on cloud nine. Being on safari in my home country, Zimbabwe, is always special for me – but it really doesn’t matter too much whether I am exploring the great plains of the Masai Mara or the woodlands of South Luangwa, just being there is what counts. Every day in Africa is wonderful.
However, without a doubt my perfect day has to involve an afternoon fishing. Whether I catch or not doesn’t really matter to me, as long as I am sitting on a boat with a rod and beer in my hand, I am content. It gives me time to reflect and really take in and appreciate my surroundings. Whether I am on the mighty Zambezi river in Zimbabwe or Zambia, the remote Rufiji river in Nyerere (Selous) or a lagoon in the wilderness of the Okavango Delta, I feel totally immersed in my surroundings. I never feel that I may have ‘missed out’ by not doing a game drive or a walk as I have always encountered incredible wildlife whilst fishing. Whether it’s a colourful malachite kingfisher fishing beside me, a crocodile sliding off the bank into the water, elephants crossing a channel ahead or even a leopard coming down to drink in the distance, there is always plenty to see and enjoy whilst in anticipation of a bite!