Leaving Timbavati was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It still is. Among other things, it meant missing out on baby impala season. That’s why I was thrilled to find myself in Pilanesburg National Park when the baby impalas were blooming in 2019. Here’s one to make you smile. Love.
I had one last epic monster of a safari planned before becoming a mama: Madikwe Game Reserve. Bliss. Five star luxury. Baby lions. The wildest elephants in South Africa. Love.
I also had one last doctor’s appointment before this Madikwe adventure. 24 hours before. And after she imposed a long list of restrictions on my pregnant body, I somehow let slip: “We’re off on safari tomorrow. That’s fine, right?”
“Yeah, please don’t,” was her curt reply.
But what she didn’t know was that only one day before, I’d still been working full-on as a safari guide in Timbavati, crashing ‘K14,’ my beloved Land Rover Defender through thick Lowveld bush, chasing after wild dogs. Like a boss.
One more safari wouldn’t hurt. Then I’d be finished. For now. Promise.
The next day, we packed up the new X-Trail with camera gear, binoculars and extra special safari clothes (because we’re geeks) and set course for Madikwe Game Reserve, stopping at EVERY SINGLE toilet along the way. I still felt confident at this point. As long as there were bathroom breaks, this girl could safari.
We arrived at Madikwe’s Wonderboom Gate five hours after leaving Johannesburg and I was bursting with anticipation (and bursting because it had been a whole 25 minutes since the last bathroom stop.) I know Madikwe so well. I’ve worked in Madikwe. But that was on the East side. Tuningi Safari Lodge, where we were headed was in the West. Totally new territory. And I couldn’t wait.
My mouth wouldn’t shut up as we travelled those first few minutes of wild gravel road. “This is so different!… I love this!… Ooooh, it’s like being on Mars!… Oh my gosh it’s a hornbill!… I’m so happy!… Best day ever!…” For someone who literally LIVES on safari, there’s still nothing that gets me more excited than yet another safari. And so my wonder continued…
Until the first teeny tiny bump in road.
“Yep, I’m going to die.” I announced, clutching for the hand grip above my head, to stabilize my broken body as the X-Trail lurched sideways.
The euphoria I’d felt upon arriving melted away in an instant when I realized that I wasn’t going to be okay. Why are doctors always right? Driving myself as I always did as a guide, I could control and anticipate bumps in the road, even when I wasn’t driving slowly – something I didn’t realize I’d been subconsciously doing for months to protect the little cubs in my tummy.
And now here I was on safari. And I wasn’t going to be going on safari. I wasn’t fit enough. No chance.
This happens. I’ve seen it many times over the years. When people have gone and booked the safari trip of a lifetime, only to get sick or injured (or knocked up) at the last moment. What to do? Cancel? Postpone? Go anyway?
So I wanted to write this blog about how to make the absolute most of it when you’ve been sidelined on safari. It’s possible. And it’s awesome.
Shall we roll on with the advice?
Tip #1: Enjoy the communal areas of the lodge
I was blown away when we first set foot in Tuningi. It was BEAUTIFUL. Safari lodges generally are. But most people never really get the chance to properly appreciate that beauty or all the fine little decor details that go into lodge design. Between those early wake up calls, game drives, long, luxurious meals and late nights at the bar, a safari can sometimes seem like one big blur.
When you have to skip out on the game drives, there’s suddenly time to sit in those big comfy chairs and explore those neglected books in the library. Go wild in the gift shop. Buy the t-shirt.
Tip #2: Enjoy your room
Run a bubble bath. Read the book you’ve been dying to finish in it. Have an outdoor shower. Sleep in the cosy bed. Chill on the balcony. Admire the bird life. Hammer the mini bar. Order room service. A safari, even one where you’ve been sidelined is still a holiday so make the most of it.
Tip #3: Meditate
Meditation. It’s the ultimate way to be present. As much as I always try, safari drives are almost never a meditative experience. They have a sad tendency to pass by too soon. The time you’re not on drives can be spent living in the moment. Beautifully. Peacefully. You could find yourself connecting with nature in ways you didn’t think possible. It’s lovely. And if you’re missing the safari drives for medical reasons, any little moment of quiet is going to go a long way towards healing.
Tip #4: One word – SPA
Does your safari lodge have a spa? If so, make it a spa break! Get a massage or a facial. Have one of those aromatherapy bath thingies. Manicure. Treat yo’ self. If your lodge has a spa, you don’t really need any of this advice because you’re on a ‘spa getaway.’ Embrace it.
Tip #5: Let the wildlife come to you
Is there a hide or a waterhole right there at the lodge? Are there any nature trails within the grounds you can explore safely at your own pace? Maybe all the birds like to drink from the pool at a certain time of the day or the waterhole attracts thirsty buffalos. Find some great spots and stake them out, because you actually have the time. Let the wildlife experiences come to you! At Tuningi, I spent hours by the pool watching the birds bathing and drinking. It gave me a chance to work on my bird photography too. And get this – the local klipspringers liked to hop onto the lodge’s roof! You can’t tell me that’s not entertainment… The underground hide gave me some of the most exhilarating elephant encounters of my life. Even just lying in bed as the sun set, listening to nightjars was pure magic. There were certainly afternoons when I had better sightings than my boyfriend on his safari drive.
Also, do you know how many times I’ve set off with my guests on a safari only to get really, really far away and have the lodge radio in that a leopard is drinking at the lodge’s waterhole? So. Many. Frustrating. Times. It happens.
Photos I took while I wasn’t on a drive:
Tip #6: Look for the small stuff
Yep, you can let the wildlife come to you on a ‘safariless safari,’ but you can also go looking for drama. Tiny, tiny drama. Safari lodges are full of hidden hunters – geckos looking for moths on walls; antlions setting traps; bushshrikes going in for the kill; caterpillars obliterating leaves. Not only are the tiny things a lot of fun, but also extremely photographable. The guys on the safari drive saw the leopard make a kill? It’s okay because you got the shots of a lifetime when that mongoose attacked that scorpion.
Tip #7: Make some friendly friends
While all of the other guests are on their drives, why not strike up a conversation with staff? South Africa is bursting with friendly people who love to talk about their families and their hopes and dreams. And a lot of them work at safari lodges. You never know who you’ll meet or what common ground you’ll find. Be mindful though – during safari drives staff left over at the lodge either have a job to do or are on a break. And while most will want a great chat, watch out for cues that say, ‘this is my ME TIME.’
Tip #8: FOMO is a NO GO
Let go of the fear of missing out. It’s not always easy to hear about what everyone saw on the safaris (and they WILL tell you), but you’re having a different experience by staying behind. It’s every bit as lovely and enriching. Instead of mourning for what you’re missing, be excited for what everyone (including you!) is seeing. I loved hearing my soulmate’s stories about watching lion cubs and tracking leopards. I was thrilled for him and it went a long way towards making the trip special.
Tip #9: Don’t be tempted to ‘do it anyway‘
I’ve been a guide for years and years and years. I’ve taken out the guest who’s just had a hip replacement and had to watch them suffer through excruciating pain because they needed to head back to the lodge but were too afraid to disrupt the experience for everyone else. I’ve driven WAY too many people suffering from stomach bugs. Way too many. In my experience, these are the people most likely to assume they’ll be fine and go on a drive anyway. Wrong. Do you know what it’s like be on safari in a vehicle where the floor is just one deep sea of vomit? Do you know what it’s like to hose said sea of vomit from the floor of a Land Cruiser? I do. I’ve also driven the woman who has just found out she was pregnant and panicked her way over every little bump, fighting back the tears. Also, that’s been me. It isn’t worth it. It’s almost never worth it. Make your memories as positive as they possibly can be in the circumstances. That usually means staying behind at the lodge and avoiding the temptation to ‘try.’
Zee Conclusion: No downers. Only uppers.
It sucks. I’m sorry. Truly. You spent a fortune to head out on safari and this might even be a once in a lifetime deal. But remember this: it’s true that we create our own happiness. We choose to take a less than ideal situation and look for the sunny side, of which there are many, especially in the African bush. Don’t you want to punch me right now? But it’s true. You can have a brilliant safari even when you’re sidelined. I did. And I know plenty of others who have too. Take my tips and run with them. Create your own. Find your own joy. Make precious memories and all that mush. Smile, sweet Safariosophers.
Have you been in that situation? Have you got any tips to share?
Our cubs are going to be birdwatchers. Right from the beginning. Sure, they’re not even born yet, but I’m already working every angle to ensure their future as bird nerds. While other babies look at board books that teach them to say ‘cat’ or ‘puppy’ or ‘cow,’ ours will be learning ‘crested barbet’ and ‘lilac breasted roller.’ While we’re at it, ‘black throated wattle eye’ and ‘chestnut vented tit babbler.’ If you’re going to do something, do it properly.
They’ll be the obnoxious four year olds on a safari who know EVERYTHING. “Sorry Mr. Safari Guide, but that’s not actually an olive thrush — look at the MALAR STRIPES.”
Or they’ll rebel against me in the ultimate way and won’t care about nature and will instead be interested in creepy dolls and pointless iPad games. *shudders at the thought*
But I’ll give it my all. And now I’ve got the best possible weapon at my disposal: Faansie’s Bird Book.
Before this book was launched a few weeks ago, I had already purchased a few bird books for the babies. Struik’s ‘My First Book of Southern African Birds Volumes 1 and 2’ are lovely books with big bold pictures and facts in Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans, as well as English. We’ll get a lot of use out of them for sure. But they’re limited. SO limited. What happens when we’re out birding and we hear our first scaly throated honeyguide? That’s not in the books, along with about 680 other birds we could come across as we adventure through Southern Africa.
I could hand the kids my copy of Roberts (okay, one of my many copies of Roberts) or let them play with the excellent app, but that’s a little… boring. Do they really want to know that the yellow breasted apalis gleams 81% of its food items from leaves? Probably not. Yet.
I imagine they’ll want to know how cool a bird is, how many points it scores for rare it is, whether it’s likely to try and steal food from the braai and whether it pees on itself. That kind of thing.
Faansie Peacock, the birding legend behind Chamberlain’s LBJ’s, saw a much needed gap in the market for a full sized, totally comprehensive (he rightfully calls it ‘fully fledged’) field guide that doesn’t over complicate things and makes birds super fun. Even larks. Faansie’s Bird Book is as big and has as many pages as the rest of my ‘adult’ bird books. 722 birds in total. In that sense, I feel like this book treats kids with the dignity they deserve for being tiny humans who can absorb more information than we as adults could ever dream to. It doesn’t talk down to them.
Instead of ordering the birds in the book based on the latest DNA discoveries, the book is divided into sections that make sense, like runners, sleepers, suckers and plungers. Like, ‘what’s that bird doing? It’s walking? Cool, let’s try the walkers section first.’ The sections are colour coded too. If that’s too complicated, the whole book uses the rough size of a dove as a benchmark. Is the bird bigger than a dove? It should be somewhere in the first half of the book. Smaller? Try the second half. Winning.
Scattered throughout the book are little snippets of information and quick questions designed to make kids think about what they’re seeing. Faansie’s brilliant drawings of each of the birds really help to highlight the defining features and subtle differences that lead to frustration-free identification. I’ve already used the book to successfully settle a rock thrush identification issue. Faansie makes it clear and simple. Thanks for that.
As a competitive little bunny, I’m crazy about the points system in the book’s ‘Bird Nerd Game.’ I’m yet to tally up the points from my own life list, but I’m going to. I’m curious, okay? Kids can even take their point totals and post them to Faansie’s official website where they can see how they compare to other tiny twitchers. I love this! And my kids will WIN. #overachievingmiddleclassmom
But let’s just cross out the ‘for kids’ bit in the title for a moment. I’m a FGASA Level 3 safari guide and I’ve learned new things I’ll be able to share with safari guests, whilst paging through this book. And I can already see the ‘Cisticola Help File’ on page 349 replacing two of my LBJ books. Everyone needs a Cisticola Help File. Also, separating the ‘creepy crawly warblers’ from the ‘woodland warblers’ and ‘wetland warblers?’ Genius. And very, very helpful, especially for someone who still has a tendency to give up on warblers rather than take the time to work through the possibilities.
Even better, my boyfriend insists he’s not a birder, but admits his experience with this book is turning him. He likes that the Pel’s fishing owl we saw a few months back gets him 20 points. And the way the birds are organized in the book makes way more sense to him than Sasol or Roberts ever will. It’s meant he can jump straight to the ‘favourites’ section and start brushing up on the exciting and colourful birds that act as gateway birds, eventually leading to full-on addiction. This book has given me a birding buddy for life. Yay! I’m sure we’d both agree that we’ll be happy to be seen in any bird hide with this book in our hands, even if the kidlets aren’t with us.
We’re expecting twins, so we’ve bought them each a copy. People always expect twins to share stuff – birthday parties and personalities and matchy matchy clothes, but they’re their own little people, and they’ll inevitably have their own bird lists. Sharing a bird guide is totally out of the question. So we already have the books, but the question is now whether those books will survive mom and dad’s thorough usage until the kids have hands big enough to grip them. Probably not. And then we’ll be happy to buy two more copies. And when the kids have chewed up those, we’ll gladly buy two more.
I have dozens and dozens of wildlife guide books. And not one has come close to impressing me like this one has. That’s why I’m writing about it. Buy it for the littles in your life. Or for yourself. And whether you’re a new birder or a total expert, you’re not going to be disappointed. I promise.
Where to get your little mittens on one (or three): Buy direct from the author himself at www.faansiepeacock.com. Each book is R490 including delivery in South Africa, which is truly bargainous. If you buy two copies, it’s R880 and if you buy 3 (like we did) you’ll save R200 and pay R1270.
You’re watching a great big herd of buffalos saunter towards the waterhole. Inevitably, at least one of the dagga boys pauses in front of the vehicle and gives you… the stare.
Then prepare for it. Because it’s going to happen—
“Ha ha ha. He looks at you like you owe him money. Ha ha ha.”
And that’s when you want to smack the guide in the back of the head. Not too hard. Maybe just smack his baseball cap off. Sometimes it’s not even the guide who says it. Sometimes it’s a guest who might have heard it on their last safari, from their last guide who deserved to have their headwear knocked off. But as it is with zebra crossings and waterbuck toilet seats and Impala McDonalds, someone WILL SAY IT.
I don’t say it. Instead, I like to get my lovely safari guests to really look at those buffalos. All of them. In fact, look into a sea of buffalo faces and you’ll recognize people you know. Crazy? A little. But try it. Trust me. Look for the individual quirks in each buffalo, because they’re there. I can’t think of an African animal more typecast than the great Cape Buffalo, Syncerus caffer.
That big old bull isn’t looking at you like you owe him anything. Actually, he’s probably rather pleased with himself if you think about it; he’s with his friends, surrounded by hot mama buffalos, about to indulge in a nice, cool drink of water. He’s having a great day. And you can see it on his face if you look for it.
Okay, so Safariosophy’s been a little boring lately. Not a little boring. A whole lotta boring. Unless you follow me on Instagram. Why aren’t you following me on Instagram?? But I promise a change is coming…
Tons of new content is in the pipes and ready to burst in the next couple of weeks, but for now, enjoy this snap of Miss Marula yawning on a broken Knobthorn Tree earlier this week. Looks like she’s getting fed up waiting for some Safariosophy action too. Or not.
Stay tuned y’all!
I recently spent a night in Thornybush game reserve with a great friend. And I got to be a safari guest. Doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’m on top of the world. You know you’re hooked badly when you’re favourite thing in the world is a safari. Job? Safari. Home? Safari. Holiday? Safari. Happy place? Safari.
And yep, I’m one of those people who would (and did) stop my guide so that I could watch starlings and francolins. Because they’re just so. Darn. Pretty.
Right? We see Crested Francolins every day. They wake us up in the morning with their cutesy but grating duets; they run in front of the car at least twice on every safari drive, earning them the nickname ‘kamikaze chicken;’ and they’re considered, well, kind of boring.
But when was the last time you really looked at those striking feathers? Or admired their adorable beaks? Or giggled as they rifled through elephant poo looking for goodies?
I absolutely loved having the chance to photograph this Crested Francolin in Thornybush.
My safari advice: Pause. Look. Love.
Because there’s NOTHING ordinary out here. Or there. Or anywhere.
Happy World Pangolin Day!
Except it’s not World Pangolin Day. It was. About a week ago. On the 17th of February. But that’s how long it takes to upload a blog article on the WordPress app. Thanks WordPress!
But, I kind of love that I’m posting this after the fact. Because like Valentines Day and Easter and Thanksgiving and all of those other days that are meant to make you think of something really important for just one day, there actually shouldn’t be just one day. We should be celebrating pangolins and partners and pilgrims and pancakes every single day. Right?
Anyway, on with the story. And it’s about pangolins. So hold on Little Safariosophers and turn your aircon up, wrap a scarf around your neck and imagine you’re with me on a cold June afternoon safari…
I’ve just pulled in to a leopard sighting. It’s not just any leopard sighting either. Two big leopard brothers are up in a tree, just above our heads, sharing a kill – incredible by any safari standard. I position the Land Rover in a great spot below the tree and switch off the engine.
“Wow…” I find myself saying. Because what else do you say when you’ve just been dropped into an experience like that? Safari is all about those moments. The ones you never could have anticipated five minutes ago. But somewhere else on the reserve another guide was having one of those moments too and my radio suddenly came to life.
Radio dude: “Um… You guys won’t believe this. I have a Pangolin here.”
I had waited my entire career to hear those words or better yet, to utter them for myself. And it was happening. Right now. Under these leopards.
When Radio Dude went on to announce the location, my heart stopped. I didn’t know the reserve well just yet, but I knew that I was close. I was probably the closest person. Me. And I was sitting under a tree full of leopards and my guests were just beginning to settle into it. What should have been a dilemma, turned out not to be.
“We have to go.” I said. I remember saying it flatly and without much emotion. My little pangolin-obsessed brain couldn’t deal with what was happening. “Just trust me.”
Now this is where I got lucky. I had awesome guests. Really awesome guests who didn’t question a thing. And even though I never tell my people where I’m going, their attitude to the news was like, ‘cool, another adventure!’ This is when most would point up at the tree and say, “but… but… but…”
And with a flick of the ignition, the leopards were in our past. The next few minutes were totally surreal. I was driving to a pangolin. I didn’t for a moment let myself believe it would still be there, even though pangolins aren’t known for their speed and agility. It would be gone. Something would happen and it would be gone. No pangolin. But what if? What if it was still there? What if after all these years…?
“Is it really still there?” I asked on the radio as I approached the spot.
Radio Dude laughed. “Yeah, keep coming.”
Oh my Moose.
The best moment of the entire experience wasn’t the moment I pulled up alongside the pangolin and laid eyes on this magical creature for the first time, it was when one of my guests said, ‘wow, is that a pangolin?!’ You don’t expect American college kids to get it. And they did. They knew. And I got to share this with them. Love.
The next fifteen minutes kind of went by in a blur. My teary eyes didn’t help. The pangolin was cool, showing us total indifference. Just how I always wanted a pangolin to be, if that makes any sense.
And that’s my story. I’ve seen a pangolin. Just one. And I don’t expect to see one again.
Why the pangolin? What makes it that special?
Well it’s rare. Very very rare. Their population density is low to begin with, even though they’re spread out all over Southern Africa. It’s a miracle that they even find each other to make pangolin babies. Sometimes they don’t.
And sometimes they don’t because the pangolin is one of the most poached and trafficked animals on the planet. Like rhino horn, the pangolin’s scales are used in fake medicine and as ghastly ornaments. Pangolin flesh is also eaten by monstrous individuals who consider it a delicacy. Ew.
Unlike the massive rhino, the pangolin is almost defenseless. It curls up into a scaly ball when threatened, which helps them in the face of curious lions or leopards, but evolution didn’t anticipate greedy humans, and a pangolin’s go-to defense strategy is no match for us. Since 2011, it’s thought that more than 10,000 pangolins have been slaughtered. 10,000! And in reality, it’s probably a lot more. Pangolins are going extinct quickly. It doesn’t help at all that most of us have never heard of them.
There are lovely people at places like pangolins.org and the African Pangolin Working Group, who are trying hard to give us all a pango- ducation. Pangolin-ducation? Nope, that didn’t work. But if we don’t tell the world about pangolins soon, they’ll be gone before most of us ever had the chance to get to know them. That’s an unbearable shame.
So let’s get acquainted with these quirky little animals with the crazy scales and the insanely long tongues. The ones who run about bizarrely on their hind legs, gobbling up zillions of ants and termites. I love that I share my planet, and indeed my mammalian ancestry with something that fabulous and eccentric. And you should too.
So try and tell the next person you see about pangolins, even if it’s going to make you look really weird. The pangolins need you to be weird.