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When a safari is more than a journey

I’ve just returned from a two week break in the Zambian bush. I spent the entire time helping out in a friend’s lodge on the banks of the Zambezi, greeting guests, hosting meals, running housekeeping and generally “playing” safari camp (which is actually one of my favorite pastimes!)

Yes, I took some time to enjoy a game drive or two, and went out on the river when I could. But most of the time I was working, for want of a better phrase, albeit mostly spending time helping safari-goers to get acclimatized and settled in and get the best out of their hard-earned holiday.

I’ve been playing safari camp like this at least once a year for the last few years – helping out in busy periods and generally having a ball immersing myself in camp life. Which is not for the faint of heart, let me tell you.

It takes a special character to live and work in the bush, and an equally special character to deal with people, all day, every day. So to successfully combine the two means that you have a doubly special character!

But what these little “breaks” do for me is help me to understand completely what makes a great safari, and how incredible Africa is when it comes to changing mindsets and people’s lives.

I’ve been fortunate on this trip to have spent time with three different couples on their first ever foray into wild Africa – safari “virgins”. And seeing the bush through their eyes for the first time again has been a revelation.

For hardened travelers like me, and indeed for those of us who are fortunate enough to have spent time exploring Africa’s beautiful wild places “on safari” we sometimes forget how truly special the first time we saw an elephant was, or our first encounter with a lion… We become accustomed to the sight of hippos out of water, and bored by impala, even though they are, in fact, a truly beautiful antelope.

So for me to vicariously see Africa again for the first time through the eyes of my guests has been a privilege, as has been the experience of introducing Africa and her cast of amazing characters to first-timers.

I’ve been fortunate enough to take this second-hand journey with many people over the years, courtesy of what I do for a living. And it rarely fails to move me, as Africa rarely fails to move first-time visitors.

But what has moved me the most over the last two weeks has not necessarily been the connection guests have made to the amazing wilderness they have voluntarily placed themselves in the middle of, but the openness and delight with which they have connected with the people who live there – the camp staff.

We tend to forget about the people side of a safari when we drone on and on about the amazing wildlife encounters we have experienced. But people are what make a safari truly special. The guides, the bar staff, the housekeepers, the cooks, the gardeners and boat crews, the drivers and waiters, the unseen faces who wash and iron the laundry, fix leaky taps and mend torn tent flaps, the storesmen who pack the cooler boxes for each activity and the maintenance men who keep the game viewing vehicles in tip-top condition against the odds!

So to see guests coming from all corners of the world and be completely bowled over by the wide smiles that greet them and to take the time to engage those smiles in active and entertaining conversation is truly wonderful.

It’s wonderful because it enriches both sides of the coin – the guests who leave camp after an average of three nights and who take with them the positive experiences, and the staff who wave them goodbye, glad that they have taken the time to come and visit and learn about their lives.

It’s this process of sharing cultures and experiences which truly makes safaris special. And which helps to ensure that the future of the wildlife which draws the guests to visit these far-flung corners of Africa is safe and secure. And of special value to every single person who works in a safari camp, from the humblest gardener to the most senior manager.

They all know the incredible power of Africa’s wildernesses and how vital it is that we preserve and protect them.

So, the next time you go on safari, pause for a moment to consider the incredible ripple effect your visit is having and take pride in the fact that your safari is SO much more than a journey.

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