Perhaps it’s just me, but one of things I most want to encounter on a safari is “differentness.” I’m not simply after more of what I get at home, which is why things like sleeping in a tent, or under the stars, or trying new foods are so appealing. So it’s no surprise that experiencing a different culture is one of the most rewarding things you can do in Africa. And yet, the term “Cultural Tourism” has a hollow, almost oxymoronic, ring to it. It raises expectations of exploring a culture in depth, but all too often it only scratches the surface. Visiting cultural centres, or watching staged performances, may be entertaining and make good commercial sense. But in the same way that watching the changing of the guards probably tells you less about British culture than an hour in a supermarket, this perhaps isn’t the best way to reveal anything particularly meaningful. Ultimately there is no getting away from the fact that this is theatre…and you’re the audience. But of course, if you aren’t after theatre, and you don’t have much time, you have to accept the flip side. Which is that people are people. If you turn up on a day when no body feels like hunting, dancing or circumcising, things might seem a little pedestrian. So the question is how, in only a few days, can you gain an insight into the way a culture works? Short of setting off on your own and simply moving in with a “Tribe” - Bruce Parry style - it’s not easy. But spending a few days in a small camp, which runs in conjunction with a community is a great way to begin. Many small camps across Africa now work closely with local villages. Training staff and guides from the community and employing them to work in the camps. The great thing about this is that you can overcome the performer / audience thing. You get the chance to meet people properly (including your guide), over time, to ask questions and to be asked questions and – in my experience this is far more revealing than any organized event. For me a particularly memorable day was a walk with San guides in the Northern Kalahari in Botswana. We had no language in common, and while they were friendly to a fault, thankfully they we’re far too busy chatting amongst themselves to pay too much attention to us. What followed was a decidedly low key meandering ramble through the bush, casually harvesting snacks; roots, berries and some (understandably) rather perplexed looking beetles. The walk culminated in building a fire (no matches of course) and cooking the hapless beetles (we weren’t offered any). The men who took us then spent the best part of half an hour playing something, which looked and sounded like Rock-Paper-Scissors. But to me, this is where the interest lies. Time and again when I’ve met people with a life experience so dramatically at odds with my own, the thing that really stands out is not so much the differences, but the things which it seems we have in common. Watching the San playing rock paper scissors, and howling with laughter every few minutes when some one was caught out, you didn’t need a common language to see that at the very least, slapstick is something that transcends cultural boundaries. Hardly an anthropological revelation, but an unusual way to spend an afternoon. You should try it.
If you go to Africa in the green season, one of the things you can’t fail to notice is the outrageous breeding attire sported by many of the birds. Some of these outfits (and it's nearly always the males) bear testament to the extraordinary lengths to which some creatures will go for sex. Amongst the most outstanding examples are the Whydahs. For most of the year, these are small, humble looking little birds that you wouldn’t give a second glance to. But come the breeding season, all this changes as the male takes it upon himself to grow the mother of all tails; one that is quite preposterously out of proportion with his diminutive sparrow sized body. There are several species of Whydah in East Africa, including the Straw Tailed and the Pin Tailed, but it’s the Paradise Whydah that is the most common and the best example. A typical sighting would be of a flock of small birds flying past, accompanied by what looks like a Ping-Pong ball attached to a pheasant’s tail bobbing around amongst them. The male’s tail is an elaborately foppish affair with a large bustle and two central feathers over 14 inches in length that trail along behind him. The tail, which is highly visible and cumbersome must seriously increase the chances of becoming someone's lunch, but it does show that it's not just politicians who'll do anything for attention. In Darwinian terms it's no doubt a statement of fitness (if I can fly with this thing strapped to by backside, then I must really be pretty hot.) And the evidence would suggest that it's a stretegy that works as the Whydah is both common and polygamous; in fact he rarely leaves home without numerous females in attendance. But like many party animals, the Whydahs are reckless parents – the female isn’t interested in raising her chicks, but instead, like the English Cuckoo, lays her eggs in somebody else’s nest, to be raised by foster parents - in this case a melba finch.