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Southern Africa: Afire with Nature

Forget Hemingway. Today, a safari is a getaway that can be done in just under a week in total luxury and without losing a bit of the sense of adventure. In addition to game watching, one can have a tour of diamond mines, and even gourmet dining among bountiful vineyards. Most safari camps are based in southern Africa, which was where DIANE SUSTENDAL began her trips, flying in and out of three units.The first of a two-part article.

DIANE SUSTENDAL

Getting to see a magnificent bull elephant like this one is quite easy.

THE Rover comes to a sudden stop. A hand goes up.

"There, just above the tree line," the commanding baritone voice says.

"Dust. Let's Go." Go we do. Turning off road at breakneck speed for the source of the dustup rising from the African savannah. Five pairs of eyes scan the terrain while careening in and out of fragrant, but at this speed, near lethal wild sagebrush.

Then everything — from the car our collective breaths — stops. Silence.

There is not even the sound of a shutter clicking. Not for a long, long moment.

The source of the dust, a huge herd of Cape Buffalo, has decided to meet us half way. Any one is fully capable of turning over our car. Joe, our tracker, estimates the herd at about 200 or so, excluding the calves.

Most are staring directly at us, with their massive horns lowered in a menacing posture. If this is their idea of a photo op, I'm not sure I've signed on for the right trip. I don't have enough testosterone.

Until this moment, my idea of safari is the one where Ralph Lauren trendy khakis meets Tom Ford's white-hot status Gucci yellow shooting glasses.

Romantic, chic and very "Out of Africa" ... sighting lion, elephant, zebra, giraffe, even rare wild dogs at a distance with a Robert Redford look-alike at my side.

This is a bit, no way more than I bargained for. This is Ernest Hemingway all the way.



The eco-sensitive base camp _ modern and native comforts in the wilds.

"Don't worry about the herd so much as the leader," says Joe, a professional tracker whose compatriot Onx Mange was recently named "Best Overall Guide for Botswana". "If he," pointing to a gnarly-looking beast with his nose flared, "decides to charge then it's trouble. If not, just fire away (cameras - not guns)." Fortunately, the leader became bored and signalled to the lot, nursing mothers and all, that it was time to move on. So, like a herd of elephants, seen later in the day, they meandered unfettered around the car. In Botswana, animals, from the smallest mongoose to the giraffe, whose head precedes him by some distance, have right-of-way.

In Hemingway's time, safaris were demanding, tough and took a month or two. Today, it's a get away that can be done in just under a week in total luxury without losing a bit of the sense of adventure. If you can stretch it to 10 days or two weeks, you can add touring diamond mines, helicopters over Victoria Falls, and gourmet dining among bountiful vineyards to the awe-inspiring game watching mix.

For big game hunters, honeymooners and retirees, safaris have always been prime destinations. Now, most, but not all, of the shooting is done with digital cameras.

A safari-goer is likely to be 25-year-old barreling through the savannahs at dawn or bungee jumping off some cliff, or, a 44-year-old and his wife who, unplugged from phones, e-mail and television, are getting to know each other again while staring down a herd of elephants or up at shooting stars so visible in the African night sky. Safaris are tacked on to a business trip, or, are part of a planned break in a long-distance travel.

Most safari camps are based in southern Africa, loosely described as any country on that continent located below the Equator. This means everything, from the climate to the way water runs down the drain, is reversed.

So when India is blistering hot, cool breezes are blowing from Johannesburg to the Cape of Good Hope, sunsets require sweaters on the savannahs of Botswana, and the icy drinks from tea to gin and tonic are waiting to be had while sitting on the perfectly manicured lawns of a historic British colonial hotel overlooking the thundering Victoria Falls.

From India, getting to any of the southern African countries best known for game-viewing is incredibly easy with many flights from Delhi, Mumbai and other cities to Johannesburg, the jumping off point of most safaris. There are wonderful lodges in South Africa, including Singita, in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve bordering Kruger National Park, and the Royal Malewane, tucked into the Thornybush Game Reserve on the western edge of Kruger.

The new Shibula Lodge in the Welgevonden Game Reserve is rolling in rave reviews. At any of these you are likely to see the "Big Five" (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Cape Buffalo, and Rhino).

But Botswana to the north offers something special: The Okavango Delta.

It's unspoiled, uncommercial and easy to get to. It has both a very stable government and economy ... Its government bonds are rated higher than Japan's just now.

At the onset of the rainy season, the eyes in Botswana turn toward Angola. Angola's rainfall determines the flood levels of the Okavango Delta. The waters enter the delta's far northern reaches in early January, then slowly filter though the papyrus and reed beds until they reach the extremities of this 18,000 square kilometre alluvial fan.

There they are absorbed into the Kalahari desert.

The floods are not like the monsoons. To maintain the water's clarity and purity, this wilderness area employs ingenious purification methods. If you think of the massive banks of aquatic vegetation that remove suspended sediment as the delta's lungs, then the islands that dot the landscape could be considered its kidneys.

Salts that can harm the environment if allowed to build up are filtered through the process of evaporation and transpiration by huge trees found on the islands. As a result the islands slowly, but surely, grow.

As the bush takes on various shades of green, the parched winter landscape becomes spring oasis. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than at Chobe, Botswana's first national park and one of the few places in the world where one can see lions swimming.

The scent of rain on the breeze triggers a zebra migration, which sees thousands of the skittish animals undertake the journey from Linyanti in the northwest, though Chobe and on to the Mababe depression in the southeast. Along the way, they feast and mate until the onset of autumn (March - April) when their drive turns northward once more.

While it's a time of plenty for the zebra, it is equally so for extravagant numbers of prey and predators. And though the zebra and elephant are not natural enemies, neither being food for each other, there is often a power struggle for both the water and the grasses that are essential to both.

At 1700 is rush hour at the Chobe's main watering hole near the Savute Elephant Camp. During the dry winter months, there are on average, about 50 elephants in the immediate area. At 1800 it's an elephant cocktail party as the numbers can swell to 90. This equates roughly to 250,000 kilograms of elephant consuming an estimated 15,000 litres of water at one sitting, or should I say standing? The numbers go up in the wet seasons of May to November.

Savute is one of the three camps managed by "Gametrackers". For the past 10 years, it has run some of the most discreetly lavish, eco-sensitive camps in the delta. Individual, personalised itineraries, well-trained trackers and exceptional game viewing locations have earned it an enviable reputation.

Part of the Orient-Express Group, "Gametrackers" interfaces with a network of luxury hotels, so travel planning can be a one-stop affair.

Our 10-day safari began in Johannesburg with a regular commercial flight to Maun, Botswana's capital. From there we flew in and out of three camps in six-seater planes which fly low enough to observe migrating herds, but without frightening them.

There was a post-safari return to "civilization" at the grand old Victoria Falls Hotel, in Zimbabwe, two days in Cape Town at the venerable Mount Nelson, and a relaxing overnight at The Westcliff in Johannesburg which allowed for a wine-soaked farewell dinner, and, next day, a much-needed swim and massage before the flight home.

Other highly regarded safari outfitters in Botswana and southern Africa include Abercrombie & Kent, Kerr & Downey. and Mountain Travel/Sobek.

"The Okavango Delta has three very different eco-systems which host over 1,100 species," explained Guy Dudley, a `Gametrackers'' manager and head naturist. "The game viewing is both spectacular and varied. We are careful not to tax these treasured eco-systems. We use no large vehicles, power is from a generator that runs only during the day, and we limit our number of guests.

"At the Eagle Island camp , in Xaxaba, our maximum number is 24 guests in 12 en suite tents. And, there are never more than five persons per game viewing vehicle." The settings are natural ... but this is hardly "roughin' it." The décor varies camp to camp but at each, the tents are built in a similar fashion. Free-standing and air-conditioned, the canvas tents are constructed within raised thatch roof, teak-floor cottages. Each has a generous verandah from where you can watch game move in and out of the camps. Ceiling fans move the breeze both inside and out.

The "tents" feature colonial-style, king-sized beds draped with romantic mosquito netting and footed with a long handsome bench of one sort or another. A simple desk invites the lost art of letter writing on the handmade paper or in a journal. Deep, overstuffed chairs, good reading lamps, straw rugs and native basketry had the sort of "Out of Africa" feeling I was looking for.

A large dressing room, huge shower with endless supply of hot and cold running water, double sinks and indoor plumbing are all hidden behind the bedroom suites.

Plantation chairs and a hammock (perfect for afternoon naps — except for when I had to shoo a baboon out of mine) are part of the verandah's decor. There are no locks on the doors. A brass pug does the important job of keeping monkeys and baboons out of one's rooms, luggage, camera bags and toiletries. Daily laundry service makes the "one bag per person"' restriction, as necessitated by the small plane transportation, easy to handle.

(To be continued)

Diane Sustendal is an international freelance writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to

The Hindu. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The Associated Press, Vogue, and Town & Country Magazine. She may be reached at sustendal@hotmail.com

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