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?