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Christmas in Africa is a surprising time of year. For a start it falls during the hottest months, often with sticky humid days and brilliant cobalt skies. Granted, in southern Africa, the torpor is disturbed in the late afternoons by dramatic electrical displays and the sort of fat, weighty raindrops that sting on impact.
The adaptable fellows that were selling pool toys and Zimbabwean flags at the traffic lights a month ago, are now selling Santa hats and plastic mistletoe - content not to consider the origins of these symbols, nor to question their relevance here in Africa; they are simply another item that has come to represent the consumer-feast that is Christmas the world over. That said, we have our own very distinct brand of Christmas trees made on the side of the road by entrepreneurial chaps which knock the socks of any sagging pine tree. These are twisted from silver wire into the shape of a baobab, are very beautiful when decorated and won’t litter your carpet with needles.
At a craft fair recently, I found one stand selling beautifully crafted, modern African nativity scenes complete with zebra, giraffe and dusky gentlemen in shiny suits bearing maize cobs and drums of vegetable oil. The local shopping mall, meanwhile, has seen fit to decorate the avenues with colourful lights and giant, truly hideous “My Little Ponies” made in China. I still haven’t quite worked out the Christmas connection here.
Recently passing through the airport, I enjoyed the scenes in the baggage hall as Zimbabweans returning from Europe to spend the holidays with their families, wrestled stacks of suitcases bulging with goodies onto straining trolleys. Three generations of relatives waited patiently in the arrivals hall to smother their prodigal offspring with colourful hugs.
On Christmas Day, some families will doggedly sit and sweat around a table laden with heavy meats and icky alcoholic puddings, while others will more sensibly opt to “braai” under a shady tree next to the pool, with coolers full of icy beer.
However you are celebrating this year, have a very Happy Christmas and all good wishes for a prosperous 2012.
One of the wonderful things about small safari camps is the degree of expertise in animal behaviour that the people working there inadvertently build up over time through sheer exposure to wildlife. Some become experts on insects or birds. Others like a chef by the name of Meru that we worked with for a few years, became extremely adept at imitating the noises that animals make in different situations. One that sticks in the mind is “the noise a leopard makes when you trip up over it in the dark holding a tray of kebabs”
This particular incident unfolded much like a scene from a restoration farce, with cook and large cat approaching each other unwittingly - and in reverse of course - around a corner in the dark. Just like a stage production, the result was that the tray went airborne, cook and leopard fell into an ungainly heap. Fortunately, despite the presence of some rather sharp kebab sticks, nobody was hurt. After a wash they were still pretty good too. The noise – so memorable - that the leopard produced was alledgedly a mixture in equal parts of fear, surprise and intense embarrassment (possibly not the best emotion to evoke in something like a giant predatory cat).
While this was a memorable occasion, it was by no means the only one of its kind that we encountered involving safari cooks and their ability to draw large (mostly dangerous) animals like moths to a flame. From crocodiles causing havok in a flooded kitchen, lions sleeping by the camp fire on fly camps or elephants generally getting in the way, it seemed that the thick of the action was usually to be found somewhere within a radius of a few feet of where the cook was busily trying to produce culinary miracles over an open fire.
So I guess the moral is that even if you think you’ve done it all – game drives, flying safaris, walking safaris – the truth is you ain't seen nothing until you've spent some time at the heart of the real action; at the cook's side in the kitchen on a small bushcamp.
Earlier this year we sent comedian and actor (Outnumbered) Hugh Dennis off to the Serengeti to find out why we think it's so worthwhile exploring in April. Viewed by most as the off season, Easter is quite simply one of the best times to be there in our experience. Hugh agreed with us and at the same time found out what it's like to feel really outnumered - here's a snippet of what he had to say:
"My best holiday was a safari with my family. We spent a week in the Serengeti, right in the middle of a wildebeest migration and it was just incredible. It felt almost prehistoric. When you're used to safari parks you think: 'We'll probably see a couple of tired looking lions,' but within five minutes we'd seen lots and lots of them. Within about 10 minutes we'd seen cheetahs just strolling across the plains, hippos, giraffes and a lion devouring a warthog. It was like being in the middle of a Disney movie, like Madagascar or something. We changed camps at one point and moved about 40km and I asked our guide, 'If I walked from here to the other camp, would I make it?' and he said: 'You probably would need a gun but it's not the animals you think would kill you that would actually kill you.' The animal that would kill you is a buffalo, who are apparently really cross." You can read the full piece on the telegraph website
Hugh spent a few days in two different locations in the Southern Serengeti using a wilderness mobile camp still one of the best ways to get off the beaten track in Northern Tanzania