Every weekend, I travel with my smartphone. I go on safari – to Kenya’s Maasai Mara or to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. My traveling companions, on National Geographic Wild’s Safari Live, are men and women driving rugged iron open trucks, keeping up a monologue and trying to keep an eye on the road, too – if there is any kind of road, at all. They are searching for the places where they may or may not see a leopard (which could be almost anywhere) or lions (who seem to have their favourite spots, on slightly higher ground) or anything else of interest. The eagle-eyed cameraman/woman perched in the back zooms in on a tuft of thick grasses or a huge termite mound to see what is there.
And so we travel, switching between two or three guides, who communicate with each other somehow throughout the programme, alerting each other when they are seeing something interesting. One minute we are in the jeep with the serious and bearded Scott in South Africa. Or perhaps we start bumping down the track with the humorous Brent (perhaps my favourite, with his sun-bleached hair and fascinating accent) and cameraman Jah in Kenya. Noelle is U.S.-born but has acquired a little African “twang” and is ever enthusiastic. “I’m in love,” she croons when she sees a lion cub. Jamie (a woman) seems completely content behind the wheel. They are never boring, but when the viewers fire questions on them online, they display the depth of their knowledge. They just know these animals, and love them.
These have been some of my favourite moments, recently:
A luminous sunset, with the shapes of trees painted against it. An elephant stands against the glowing light, like a statue.
A windy grassland, where several cheetahs (named the “five Musketeers”) are conducting an on-again-off-again hunt, stopping to fight among themselves at times. A group of several vultures stand a distance away – dark, patient. Did you know cheetahs are most closely related to mountain lions and pumas – animals of the Americas? Two are alert, eyes fixed; but the other three suddenly flop down on their sides, languid. OK then – the hunt is off, for now.
Mongoose trot around in the gloom, with eyes like small headlights.
A pride of lions, the young ones idling their time away and learning through play. The male does not want to be disturbed. The female simply tolerates them.
A baboon, sitting like a statue a few yards away from a small building, waiting for an opportunity to steal washing from the rangers’ line.
A hyena stalks through the scrub in the twilight, hunched, intent. He has purpose in every fibre.
A hippopotamus, looking impossibly huge and smooth and somehow very fearsome, wanders across the road in the night, the light shining on his enormous, flabby rump.
Sometimes the driver pauses, and we hear the sounds of Africa. This evening, after rains and in unusual humidity, we hear the chorus of voices: birds and insects, their voices amplified in the dim light. The peace descends.
I warn you – whatever your weekend routine is (I stay at home, mostly) – this programme is seriously addictive. I carry the safari around the house with me. When I see a dark shape on the road in front of the guide, I say to my husband: “Oh, what’s that!” I just don’t want to miss a beat.
By the way, my husband is not particularly fond of anything to do with lions or other predators. He is always afraid that they are going to go on the hunt at any minute, sinking their teeth into a dear little impala’s neck. Although he knows that the lions have to eat something, and they cannot survive by nibbling on strands of grass – he finds such scenes emotionally stressful. He likes his nature to be pretty. Last week, I enjoyed watching a female leopard digging up some leftovers she had buried, and chewing on a mouldy-looking piece of an animal’s stomach lining (and the leopard would not allow her anxious cub to have any!) Husband would have none of it. However, one is very unlikely to see an actual hunt taking place; although you may see a lioness with hunting on her mind, or a lion waking up and feeling hungry, or a young lion practising hunting techniques.
Do look at the Safari Live Facebook page. Brent missed a thrilling hunt this morning – a lioness killed a baby warthog, and her cubs joined in the meal.
This is what I love about the programme; not only is it actually happening now, but as in real life, it is completely unpredictable. The narrators themselves don’t know what will happen next, and along with the viewers, they get excited when an animal appears, off on its own business, apparently ignoring the human in the truck who is making a lot of noise – but no doubt, very much aware of the human, too. Then sometimes the guides will forget about the big animals and look at the strange and busy life of the dung beetle… which is enjoyable, too.
This is not carefully edited, with a scripted text. It is spontaneous. And so, every weekend we are transported. As I sit in my home in Kingston, a cheetah is getting ready to pounce in Kenya, and an eagle stretches its wings in a tree in South Africa.
As an orange orb hangs low in the sky, I realise that the show will soon be over. Sometimes it goes on after dark, depending on the conditions, with infrared lighting. And yet, I never want to leave. I would suggest the sunset hours are the best of all – that is, mornings in Kingston.
Check the website for schedules, and for clips from past adventures. Thanks to the wonders of technology!
Footnote: There was an uproar – including hundreds of thousands of petitioners online, including myself and many of my friends – when President Trump announced he would lift the ban on bringing “trophies” of African “big game” (how I hate that word “game”) back to the U.S. The President has apparently changed his mind (in a tweet) and I hope this gives him pause for thought (does he think?) So online petitions and “social media outrage” do work, even with Trump! His sons Eric and Donald Jr. are avid hunters, posing with dead elephants and the like. They are empowering Africans to support their cowardly, rapacious ways, and as a Reuters article notes:
Africa’s elephant population plunged by about a fifth between 2006 and 2015 because of increased poaching for ivory, a coveted commodity used in carving and ornamental accessories in China and other parts of Asia, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said last year.
Wildlife activists argue that corruption is endemic in impoverished Zimbabwe, and that money generated by big game hunting and meant for conservation has been diverted into the pockets of crooks and poachers.