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Tippi Degré was born in Namibia in 1990 to wildlife film-maker parents. Already it would seem improbable that she was destined to have a run- of-the-mill childhood. Her first ten years was indeed pretty special as her parent’s work took them travelling throughout southern Africa. Namibia’s game ranches, conservancies and the tribal lands of the Himba and San Bushmen became as familiar to her as the local neighbourhoods of a town-child. Rather like a modern-day Rudyard Kipling (and his Jungle Book creation, Mowgli), Tippi not only made herself at home in the bush but also befriended its inhabitants, displaying unusual fearlessness to the creatures she encountered. Pictures of Tippi scaling the trunk of an elephant, reclining against the furry flank of a leopard and riding an ostrich depict a very unusual child. How cool that your best mate is a meerkat and that, barely knee-high to a grasshopper, you can tick off a leopard by tapping it on the nose and saying “stop that!”. Her mother, Sylvie Robert, developed the belief that her scruffy little rough diamond of a daughter could communicate with the animals and regarded them as her contemporaries. Not all children are Tippis but they all certainly have the capacity to be captivated by Africa and its wildlife. How tangible is the excitement of children when they first see the tent they will spend the night in, or the Samburu warrior who shows them how to shoot a bow and arrow, and the antics of geckos catching moths around a light at night! While Nintendo and the TV do provide handy distractions for kids, how can they possibly compete with excavating the tiny funnels of ant lions in the sand, or the excitement of hearing a hyena whooping at night? And, selfishly, how cool to benefit from a second childish euphoria while you watch all this as a grown-up? Furthermore, and probably stating the obvious here, but if the next generation don’t get to enjoy the barefoot freedom of wild places and develop an understanding of its importance for our future, how on earth can we expect them to take an interest in conserving it? Find out more about going on safari with your children. Check out some ideas for child-friendly trips to Africa. Check out Tippi’s web-site.
We curious humans can’t resist a pull towards out of the way places where the possibility of not seeing another person or car for days is just as enticing as the beauty of the landscape or the local wildlife. The journey, while possibly a tad more challenging, is often part of the adventure and makes it all the more special. From repeated experience, I can testify that a major schlep to reach a place almost always reaps massive returns (and you feel all intrepid and a bit like Ranulph Fiennes for a day or two). In the late ‘90s I took at trip on a ferry from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi to Likoma Island. Having travelled hard for a month through Mozambique, we decided that we’d earned a little luxury and splashed out on a first class ticket (all of about $20), envisaging a cosy bunk and a cabin cooled by the lake breeze. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that and first class turned out to be a hard bench on the open deck. Third class was down in the bilges with a lot of people, assorted livestock, bunches of bananas, pungent dried fish and sacks of rice. Luxury was clearly relative. The on-board entertainment consisted of watching the dugout canoes of traders pulling alongside as we chugged along. These boats were hewn from a single tree and some were vast – I counted a family of ten plus baggage seated comfortably in one. Sales were made to the passengers after noisy haggling and the dugouts paddled off as the sun went down. We disembarked in the dark at 4am. It was rather like the D-Day landings...lifeboats were lowered with a single kerosene lamp suspended from the prow. Passengers in the bottom of the ship fought with each other for space, behaving as if each boat was the last. Finally aboard our own lifeboat, we huddled in the cool of the early morning and listened to the gentle splash of the oars as we headed for the dark island. We sat on the beach and watched the sun turn the smooth lake to mercury as the sounds of the day reached us from the villages on Likoma. We spent several idyllic days camped in rustic thatched shacks on an almost impossibly picturesque beach, accessorized with promontories of big round boulders. We snorkelled in the warm clear water where colourful tropical fish swim, rivalling any marine reef (and lacking only the coral and saltiness of the ocean).
This little patch has now evolved into the beautiful island lodge of Kaya Mawa and Likoma is the jumping-off point for the equally special hideaway of Nkwichi (pictured above), on the Mozambique side of the lake. These are not the easiest places to get to but then again, that's half the appeal. That said, you can still enjoy the solitude and splendid isolation without slumming it on the deck of the ferry. Simple berths are available for the adventurous and there are also charter flights to the island. Find out more about the Lake. Check out Nkwichi - our featured hideaway. Find inspiration for other Wild experiences.
This morning I rode an African elephant. Until now this experience featured on the anti-bucket list...something I intended never to do before I die. I have quite strong opinions about the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity and gaining commercially through rides and teaching them tricks. However I decided that getting on my high-elephant about it in a state of relative ignorance wasn’t very fair. I did some research and decided that Safari Par Excellence seemed like a company with integrity and so opted to go and chat to the folk that work with the animals and experience this popular activity for myself. After the fact, I am still not sure how I feel. Undoubtedly, it was surreal to be so close to these huge animals in such a peaceful context; the cool, tough, bristly hide beneath my fingertips, the smooth groove worn in one solid piece of ivory, the proffered trunk seeking treats, the immense size, the improbable eyelashes. You get an intimate sense of “moving with the herd” and from this vantage point, can enjoy the scampering of the youngsters as they indulge their curiosity and the interaction between individuals. For an animal close to three tonnes, it is astonishing how silently it (or indeed a whole herd) moves through the bush, sensitive pads moulding over the uneven ground with infinite care. An interesting observation was that of the relationships between handlers and their animals. Clover, originally a zoo-keeper from the US and now in charge of this project, says she’s noticed the subtle body language of an elephant towards someone he doesn’t like, and the flirting that one female reserves for a particular handler. The handlers are rigorously trained and anyone who doesn’t make the grade or gel with the elephants falls by the wayside. Interestingly, many of them are Zimbabweans who have also left their homes and families for a new life. Whether the elephants enjoy being ridden or not is unclear but it is hard not to admit that they do seem fairly happy. In between their two rides a day, they go out into the bush to be elephants. One of the females left for eight months only to return pregnant to the habituated herd where she gave birth. Two of the elephant here have bred while on the project which is often taken to be a sign that they are content. Not too long ago, the herd returned from their foraging with a youngster in tow. He had been orphaned and is now growing up with his new family and treats the handlers like his bipedal buddies. I guess I still think that wild animals should remain wild and being able to be so close perhaps dispels a little of the magic. I hope that the operation of elephant safaris remains in the hands of a very few responsible people of high integrity. There is no doubt in my mind that such projects should only serve to give a home to animals that would not otherwise make it in the wild and under no circumstances should wild elephants be captured for commercial purposes. At the end of the day this is going to be a very personal decision and while some people might find it a life-changing experience, others may never quite get used to the idea.
I was speaking to the guys from Nomad the other day and they were telling me about an interesting conundrum they've had to deal with recently. One of the main attractions around Chada Camp is the elephant who regularly drift through camp hoovering up the seed pods from the various large shady trees that the camp is built under. These eles are usually polite and well behaved; they've been coming here for ever and the presence of the camp is of little interest to them. But recently they've been causing problems by tearing the canvas fly sheets of the Chada tents. At first it was assumed this was an accident, although elephant are well known for their dexterity and often happily pick their way between guy ropes with no trouble, so it did seem unlikely. A tailor was called for who meticulously sewed up the fly sheets. But sure enough, just a day or so later, it happened again. This pattern was repeated several times, until the guilty elephant was caught - "red trunked" - resting his tusks on the taught flysheet at the back of the tent and gently pushing down to rip the canvas. Clearly no accident, so what on earth was he up to? The guys in camp went over and over this, but there seemed to be only one possible answer; They like doing it. And it seems as though the noise that the ripping canvas makes is just too much to resist (bubble wrap anyone?)... Seems like a reasonable explanation, but that left quite a challenge for the camp crew. There's only so much sewing up that you can do. So what is the solution? This is where I think it gets particularly good: the solution they have come up with is to replace the torn sections of the flysheet with strips of canvas held in place with...wait for it...velcro. Job done, the elephant still gets the very satisfying noise of the tearing velcro and it's a simple job to patch up when they get bored. I have a feeling this may not be the last installment of this story, but will keep you posted.
“The back end of the lion is in the ladies toilet.” I grew up believing this parental fable, and rather like the tooth-fairy, I was embarrassingly old before I reasoned otherwise. Each time I went into the Ladies toilet at Muthaiga Country Club in the leafy suburbs of Nairobi, I looked for the hind-quarters of the rather mangy, moth-eaten and irregularly stuffed half-beast that occupied a glass case at the end of the long corridor. To be fair, there was always a locked cupboard in around the same place where the animals backside should have been...so it was just possible, but admittedly unlikely.
Along the same vein of wildlife toilet humour, a guide recounted an incident in the Ngorogoro Crater many years ago where a lady guest had been bursting to relieve herself throughout the morning’s game drive but refused to visit a bush. He stopped at the Park toilets on the floor of the crater and the lady hastily disembarked and dashed in. Within seconds, she reversed with equal pace and executed a spectacular re-mount of the land-cruiser through an open window. Sauntering after her was a large lioness who had been posing on her hind legs with her front paws on the sinks admiring her reflection in the mirror. Possibly the bush would have been the better option? Sometimes one’s position on a bush toilet is the best place you can be in a certain situation. Guests safely dispatched on an afternoon game-drive in Botswana’s Linyanti wildlife area, another guide took his book to relax on the “throne” of the mobile tented camp. This consisted of a wooden box over a shallow hole, crowned with a toilet seat and screened from the camp by foliage alone. Absorbed in the plot, it was the unexplained raising of hairs along the nape of his neck that made him look up. Twenty metres away was a lioness with her belly to the floor, creeping intently toward him with her head low and shoulder blades riding high on her back. Instinct alone made my friend leap to his feet and, throwing his book high into the air, waddle aggressively towards the stalking lioness shouting “Shoo! Shoo! Get lost...go on!” which she promptly did, fortunately. Knees shaking with relief, the guide returned to camp like a high-speed penquin, still with shorts firmly around ankles, much to the amusement of the camp staff.
I must first apologise for the recent lack of “Letters from Zimbabwe”. The last few months have taken me elsewhere in southern Africa. However, I thought I’d share last weekend’s local adventure with you...more for those interested in life in Zim and not so relevant for the safari boffs. I think we can probably all agree that the 1950s was not a decade which stood out as a shining beacon of architectural and design prowess...not the sort of stuff one would want to preserve for posterity. In fact, it’s hard to think of another decade which produced a more generally awful look. Having said that, there do seem to be the faithful folk to whom this era (bafflingly) appeals. At the centre of a steep, green whirlpool of tea fields in a deep cleft of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, lies the Aberfoyle Country Club. One of those classic colonial relics, the club is a slightly surreal little blot in this maze of winding roads, dense indigenous forest and tea bushes. Throughout Zim’s recent tricky period, the Country Club has staggered on, offering a weekend getaway to the dwindling outdoor enthusiasts, keen golfers and people who would simply like to relocate their beer-drinking to somewhere more picturesque. Lush forests bursting with biodiversity harbour waterfalls, exotic birdlife and intense tranquillity. One of the owners is an avid collector of anything 1950s and, immensely proud of this museum piece, regularly procures and ships “collectables” to be displayed in the club. Dark panelled rooms with retro-glass and mismatched furniture are highlighted here and there by a black and white portrait of a well-coiffed and be-pearled dame. The collection includes, rather oddly, three pairs of narrow ladies shoes from that era which are exhibited in the washroom. There remains an ornately carved billiards table alongside a line of fairly utilitarian rooms that overlook a small but beautifully clipped fairway. Blissfully isolated from WiFi and mobile phones, it is a genuine time-capsule. Once a bustling social hub for the white community of the Honde Valley, the club is now gathering itself to face a renewed demand from domestic tourists of all cultures. Rather rough around the edges, the Club feels as though it is pondering how best to tackle this great leap forward into the fast-paced new millennium which does not sit entirely comfortably with its heritage. It seems to me that this same predicament is shared by many people and places in Zim.
The Makgadikgadi is inextricably linked to Jack Bousfield, in whose memory the famous Jack’s Camp is named. Admittedly one of the more barking characters that you could hope to meet, Jack arrived in this part of the world during the more wild and woolly part of the nineteen hundreds when it was actually a necessity to be one sandwich short of a picnic to make it in Africa. His resumé includes a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for killing 53,000 crocodiles, surviving seven plane crashes and being gored by at least one elephant. An extreme kind of person well suited to an extreme place. The Makgadikgadi Pan is about as far removed from your stereotypical safari experience as you can get. Viewed from the lofty vantage point provided by Google Earth, the pan appears as a white smudge to the southeast of the rich greens and blues of the Okavango Delta. On the ground, the glaring flatness stretches to the horizon and it is possible to see the curvature of the earth. Around the edges of this once great lake, the vegetation struggles to regain its tenancy - coarse grass, stands of palm and rugged bush.
As you can imagine, there is a certain knack to survival in the middle of this hostile environment but this doesn’t mean that there is nothing to see. In fact, the tougher the environment...the more interesting the beasties and this gives the Makgadikgadi a special story-book quality; rather like stepping through the looking-glass. Of a morning you might be foraging with a family of meerkats or tracking the strange brown hyena on foot alongside the intuitive San bushmen, sinuous and clad in little more than a small leather kilt and ostrich egg beads. Areas of the pan host colonies of vivid pink flamingos. Scattered fossil sites and ancient human habitation allude to the indelible history of this place. You should come to the Makgadikgadi with an open mind and be prepared to be surprised on a daily basis. There’s very little in this world that could compete with unrolling a bedroll amid towering baobabs on the lunar rock kopjes that mushroom from the pan, or the sense of freedom imparted by riding a quad-bike hell-for-leather across the vast emptiness. It’s just one of those things that you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. The camps here are also far from ordinary. Jack’s is famous for its museum-like collection of weird and wonderful objects. San Camp’s stylish simplicity lends itself to its lovely location without detracting one iota from the natural beauty. For a more laid-back experience, Meno a Kwena lies between the Delta and Makgadikgadi. For safari ideas from Natural High that include Makgadikgadi, click here. Search for camps and lodges in the Makgadikgadi and Kalahari. Find out more about the Kalahari, when to visit and other useful articles. Image courtesy of San Camp
Sometimes you have those dinner guests that seem to have the manners of an animal, need a great deal of elbow room and possess the appetite of an elephant. And sometimes that dinner guest actually is an elephant. The latter is true of today’s lunch at Chiawa Camp in the Lower Zambezi National Park. “Shorty”, as he is affectionately known, is among a number of local eles that makes it clear that elephants have right of way and that humans occupy this shady ebony grove as tolerated guests. It’s clear who the landlord is. Shorty’s particular brand of topiary doesn’t make for elaborate landscaping and there is a line item in the camp’s accounts for “Elephant Damage”. Whilst finishing off our lunch, we watched as his gentle progress around the camp’s foliage took him within half a foot of the main lounge. We took in the details of his lengthy eye-lashes, rough creased knees, and endlessly mobile trunk without the aid of binoculars. I was astonished to see him place a foot on the ground, feel a spiky twig with the very sensitive sole and gently reach under the foot to move it away with his trunk before putting his full weight on the foot. To be not five metres away from an animal that is so relaxed but still so wild is a real and unusual treat. Chiawa enjoys the regular patronage of a number of elephant, hippo, birds and other animals. There is frequently an elephant on the footpath to the guest tents, where a favourite rubbing post gets a great deal of attention. Fortunately there is always someone around to deliver you safely home.
I’ve lengthily extolled the virtues of taking to the bush on foot but today I discovered a new pleasure; cruising the banks of a river by canoe. Part way through a long safari and at the end of a tiring day of travelling, I was feeling a little fraught and probably slightly ambivalent about venturing out within an hour of arriving at a new place...my beautiful tented room at the Chongwe River Camp and its quite extraordinary view was calling. The Chongwe River is a tributary of the mighty Zambezi at the point where the Zambezi National Park borders the Chongwe GMA (Game Management Area). Winding gently down from the ripples of the escarpment, the Chongwe is a pretty cool little spot. At this time of day it is particularly attractive as the light softens and the river takes on the colours of the trees and sky. It’s hard not to concede to such an all-encompassing peace and quiet. Fortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to nod off (which may have led to a disappointing capsize and a humiliating return to camp). There was no shortage of things to see on our gentle late afternoon paddle. We floated past steep sandy banks in which white-fronted and carmine bee-eaters throng by the thousands to make their nests at different times of the year. A small breeding herd of elephant ventured down within fifty metres or so, with a tiny calf no more than a couple of months old. The assorted nostrils, eyes and ears of a pod of hippo watched our progress with interest but didn’t seem inclined to dispossess us of our transport, likewise the couple of crocs and a terrapin. As the sun dipped below the escarpment, a giant eagle owl called from a large tree and we witnessed the aerial displays of a number of different species of kingfisher and a multitude of other water birds. A fish eagle even gave us a private fly-by. Troops of vervet monkeys and baboons watched us watching them. I think that canoeing makes a great change from being bounced around in a vehicle with the noise of the engine and the dust which can get to even the most seasoned safari veteran after a while. The quiet, the quality of light on the water at that time of day and just the gentle sounds of nature make you naturally want to switch to a lower gear, cease the chatter and just absorb the world around with heightened senses. Click here for a little video...and pay attention to the sounds! Incidentally, as I write this now, I am sitting in my room in Chongwe listening to a veritable cacophony of sound; lions roaring not far away, a hippo grazing about five metres from my room (I can see him by torchlight), an entire pack of hyena whooping over the river in Zimbabwe and all the other unidentified sounds of the African night....not sure there’s much sleep on the cards tonight!
I think I may have to redefine my own personal idea of luxury. “Luxury” may have to shed the connotations of king-size beds in favour of a bedroll under a mosquito net. I may need to do away with haute cuisine and replace it with hot tea, vaguely smoky from the camp-fire, drunk from a tin mug with bare feet in the sand as the sun paints the sky with a palette of colour. I’ll definitely swap satellite TV for the night-time entertainment provided by leopard calling just a few hundred metres from camp, elephant moving by in the starlight and lion roaring in the distance.
Sound good? This morning I woke up after a night spent in the Luwi Riverbed in South Luangwa National Park. After setting out for a two hour walk from Nsolo Camp yesterday afternoon, we found our supplies had been neatly left for us in a broad bend of the sandy river. As the sun went down, my guide Innocent, scout Batwell, camp chef Jason and myself, unrolled our bedrolls and hung mosquito nets over sticks we found in the riverbed. The little wooden box crowned with a toilet seat was discreetly positioned behind a large hunk of driftwood...I regarded this a little dubiously...it looked like the kind of arrangement to induce stage fright.
The camp-fire was built swiftly and soon we were sitting around it and watching as Jason started to prepare chicken, foil-covered potatoes and maize meal with a tomato and onion relish. The lingering dusk gave way to wall-to-wall sky lit by a Cheshire-cat moon and masses of stars. The creatures of the night began to call all around us; a leopard sawed only a few hundred metres from camp. Somehow, simple meals become the best you’ve ever tasted when prepared and enjoyed in such a magical place. It was with deep contentment that I let my feet burrow into the soft sand and traded wildlife stories with the lads.
Feeling weary after long hours walking in the bush, I crawled between the crisp sheets and toasty blankets of my bedroll and enjoyed the view of the stars. The men sat around the fire quietly chatting and laughing. Every now and then one of them would get up and stoke one of the fires that surrounded us, letting any passing beasties know that this was a no-go area. Batwell spends much of his time on patrol and is used to waking up automatically every half hour or so. I slept in spells too, tuned in to the orchestra of night noises.
I woke as the sun rose and joined Jason by the fire as he brewed tea and toasted bread. Over breakfast, we shared stories of what we’d heard during the night. Lions had been calling in the distance and a herd of elephant crossed the river just below the camp-site. A hyena had ventured close to investigate our leftovers and Batwell and Jason had chased it away with a flaming log.
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is a raw African safari experience which will put everything you thought about camping in a new light. Click here for a short video interview with my guide, Innocent, all about the sleepout.