Honeymoon Snapshot: Out of Africa
In Ernest Hemingway’s time, safaris were demanding, tough and took a month or two. Today, a safari is a honeymoon done in just under a week in total luxury, without losing a bit of the sense of adventure. If you can stretch yours to 10 days, you can add a tour of Victoria Falls and gourmet dining among bountiful vineyards near Cape Town to the awe-inspiring game watching mix.
For many, a safari offers a once-in-a-lifetime journey, all the romance of Out of Africa and Ralph Lauren scenarios accessed by small planes and jeeps, wrapped in eco-friendly cottages done up as tents with gourmet dining. Unlike in Hemingway’s time, most of today’s shooting is done with digital cameras and camcorders.
It is every bit as romantic and thrilling as one can imagine; a good deal more action packed than any movie. Today’s safari-honeymooner may be found barreling through the savannahs at dawn, bungee jumping off a cliff or, unplugged from phones, e-mail and television, relaxing while occasionally staring down a herd of elephants or looking up at shooting stars visible in the African night sky.
Most camps are based in southern Africa below the equator. This means everything, from the climate to the way water runs down the drain, is reversed. When New Orleans is blistering hot, sweaters or wool shawls at sunset are required in Africa.
Getting to there is easy. Flights from New York, Atlanta and Chicago touch down, often with no transfers, to hubs such as Johannesburg, South Africa, the jumping-off point for safari-goers in search of spotting the “Big Five” (lions, leopards, elephants, café buffalos and rhinoceroses) at well-known lodges in South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia.
Botswana, to the north of South Africa, offers the Okavango Delta, which flows into the Kalahari. It boasts game observed in three distinct eco-systems. It has a stable government and economy (its source of wealth is conflict-free diamonds). The Orient-Express Group, Holland & Holland and Butterfield and Robinson are “name brand” outfitters who offer single-package, multiple-location trips. (I opted for the Orient-Express, which owns our local Windsor Court Hotel.) Dealing with one company that handles paperwork, visas, cars, transfers, game drives, guides, transfers in and out of camps in small planes can be seamless.
One stays in a luxury “tent” – actually an air-conditioned and heated cottage with shower, tub, toilet, dressing room and a very romantic tented bed all done up on the inside to look like a traditional camp. The limit of one soft-sided bag per guest is less of a hardship when one discovers there’s no need for dressy clothing and the exceptional laundry service. There are swimming pools for human guests and watering holes for the others. Campfire areas are places to gather before breakfast on chilly mornings and after dinner, gents seem to take great pleasure sitting with a Cuban cigar in one hand, a fine port or brandy in the other.
In each camp, a central lodge serves as living room, dining room, bar and general meeting place. Besides comfortable seating, deck chairs stretch out to watch sunset or the nocturnal movements of the animal kingdom. There are books, maps, telescopes and ledgers for guests to record distinctive markings of elephants. The closest thing to a television is a video that allows guests to review film shot that day. Amid the luxury, one learns not a single nail is used in the construction of the camps, every building can be taken down and within two seasons nature will reclaim the land without a trace.
In addition to the food, wine and luxury service, safaris offer a newlywed couple chances to see animals in their natural habitat – and there’s plenty to see. At Eagle Island in Botswana, wetland areas are explored in a mokoro, a small, pod-shaped two-passenger boat, pushed by pole or paddle. One can spot a lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Botswana or the very rare sitatunga and red lechwe antelopes native to the area. In the winter, water rises to considerable heights but when the water is low enough, elephants can be found cooling off in the late afternoon sun.
Khwai sits on the edge of Moremi Wildlife Reserve. Here, game drives can begin before dawn and end late at night when lions, leopards and cheetahs are on the prowl. Night drives are exhilarating, exciting and somewhat scary as plains, brush and trees are scanned with large flashlights to spot roaming animals. At night, the sounds of Africa are amazing: A lion’s roar shatters silence. The harmonious clacking of antlers usually indicate antelope sparring or at play. Elephants trumpeting can be heard for miles. The hyena’s laugh is, well, not funny. Even ostriches squawk as they make their way across the sandbelt to open marshlands and savannahs dotted with acacia, baobab trees and wild sage bushes.
During the day, many animals take to the water or settle in the shade of bush where little disturbs them. From 10-feet away, you could watch three lionesses and their cubs blissfully napping or have a heart-stopping encounter with a herd of over 200 Cape Buffalo, whose pounding hooves shake the earth and menacing stares might cause the guide to caution against so much as a whisper or a camera’s shutter snap for fear of a charge.
Chobe National Park, our last destination, is a semi-arid wilderness. At winter’s end, its bleak landscape looks like the backside of the moon. A brilliant blue sky suddenly turns black, blue, pink and purple. Lightning strikes and hail-sized raindrops pelt tents and ground. Then, as quickly as it has begun, it’s over, leaving watering holes filled for elephants that move from one to another, crashing tree limbs, fences and just about anything in their way. With their poor eyesight and keen sense of smell, they can get dangerously close. Then, as if by committee, in long lines one will follow another toward a single watering hole as if it’s happy hour at mud hole 11.
While they’re having their drinks, most humans are ready for “sundowners,” post-game drive drinks served from the back of a jeep. Or, perhaps you’d prefer a gin and tonic in a hammock, swinging from a cabin porch. The latter is a blissful spot for a nap or to watch giraffes graze on nearby trees as springbok (South Africa’s national animal) leap past.
From Chobe, you can drive to the Zimbabwe-Zambia border for a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world. Why not fly through seven rainbows over the falls and over the place Sir Cecil Rhodes once met up with someone and asked, “Livingstone, I presume?” Brave sorts can go white water rafting and bungee jumping in the falls. For the less adventurous, try a cool beer on a slow-moving boat down the Zambezi River and a quick flight to Cape Town for two fast-moving, trend-spotting days where your attention will be divided between shopping at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and wine tastings in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl.
The well-kept secrets are the individual cottages, tucked away on the property of the Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel. Each has its own floral motif, book-filled sitting room, fireplace, small kitchen and private garden. The cottages seem to sit right under Table Top Mountain, which overlooks the skyline of what’s certainly South Africa’s most beautiful city. From the top, one has a sweeping view of the Cape of Good Hope.
Today, a safari is an easy, yet extraordinary, adventure. The ecosystems of Botswana, the jaw-dropping Victoria Falls, the hipness of Cape Town … each place has a rhythm of its own. A safari is a place to discover, renew, respect and rest. Isn’t that what a honeymoon is meant to be?