A few weeks ago I was offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to complete a long-standing bucket list item: an African photo safari. My new friend Vance from the USA who runs an intimate, very upscale lodge and an exotic species breeding operation in northern South Africa invited Carrie and me to accompany him on one of his regular visits to his “farm.” In fact, his farm is part of the beautiful 150,000 acre Madikwe Game Reserve near the Botswana border, site of the largest game translocation in history. He had promised that “once Africa gets into your heart, it doesn’t let go.” Turns out that would be an understatement. At first I gave the usual protestations that I have way too much going on in my life right now to take ten days out (non-stop blog posts, books, PrimalCon a week later, certifications, seminars, etc.), but I decided I simply couldn’t pass up this opportunity. After all, hadn’t I vowed a year ago to start playing more, and if this wasn’t play, what was? Moreover, here was a chance to literally go back to my Primal roots and do research for The Primal Connection. When he informed me that he even had limited Internet access (but only if you hike up the hill, because it’s not allowed anywhere in the lodge), the deal was sealed. A little work and a little play. Productive leisure is the term they use for it now, but it’s how I roll.
Our prep for the trip was easy: just a carry-on bag full of lightweight clothes in neutral colors. The best part was not having to bring hiking boots. Two pair of Vibrams were all I needed for footwear. I had been warned about the sickle bush thorns that are everywhere in that part of Africa, and that I would need thicker protection for walking through the bush, but a quick perusal of the Vibram site and a call to my friends at Vibram USA brought me some sweet Bormios, sort of a mid-calf, zip-up leather version of KSO Treks. (Over the next week in Madikwe, virtually every guide would ask where he or she might find a pair: it was as if they were designed for the bush. I could have sold a hundred pair). Even Carrie was able to fit ten days worth of travel into a carry-on bag, a first for her. And she also needed only two pair of Vibrams.
We stayed at HillHouse, a small, maximum 10-guest lodge designed by my friend’s very spiritual and slightly eccentric architect to blend into the natural landscape. The rooms and other amenities were five star and the meals not only gourmet, but very Primal as well. My favorite was the grilled kudu steaks with salad greens grown in a beautiful garden sequestered on the property a mile away from the lodge, but every meal was memorable.
An important aspect of Madikwe is that there are no tarred roads (as I am told you’ll find in other game parks). So the animals just treat the dirt roads as part of their playground (and when it rains, the game vehicles can get stuck, which presents some added challenges). The game sightings started literally the first ten minutes we were on the reserve and headed to our quarters, as a few elephants had decided they had the right of way on our road. During a brief stand-off with the mother in the lead protecting her newborn, I asked my host in a whisper if we were in any danger. He stared at the elephant, kept his hand on the ignition key and just said, “uh…maybe.” And so the week went. We were in the thick of it, and it was awesome.
A typical day began with a game drive before sunrise in an open Toyota Land Cruiser with a canvas sunroof. After a sumptuous late breakfast back at the lodge and some napping, swimming or work, there was also a late afternoon drive that included a stop for wine and snacks (a “sundowner”). Each time, within a few minutes of leaving the lodge, we would run into herds of impala, wildebeests, kudu, tsessebe, springbok, waterbuck, sable, zebra and all manner of other grazing animals. There was literally never a dull moment. Our very first night, we came across four lions finishing off a wildebeest they had killed earlier in the day. Carrie got to within maybe 10 feet for her best photo ops. When you hear a lion crunching on the ribs of a wildebeest, you do get the strong sense that nature is truly “red in tooth and claw.” Throughout the week we got up close and personal with giraffes and rhinos, spent an hour off-road in the midst of a herd of 60 elephants, watched for 30 minutes as a male elephant took a mud bath within 10 feet of us, crept down to the river to within 50 yards of seven massive hippos, twice had rare close-in daytime viewings of a herd of cape buffalo (50 or 60 of them) and had countless other delightful “primal meet-ups”. After dinner each night we’d sit and tell tales over a glass of wine around an open fire pit.
We spent a good part of one day visiting the nearby African village of Obakeng. Some of the Madikwe guides had started a program to train young people from the village to compete in the Comrades Marathon. Part of that commitment included planting and tending food gardens in the village or building a shelter in which the youngest villagers could be schooled. The effect these young athletes had on their community was impressive and heart-warming. Carrie spent the day photographing the beautiful young children in the village, almost all of whom were more than willing to pose. From the continuous smiles, I got the sense from these dirt-poor people that “happy” is truly the default setting for all humans. Sad that so many of us have lost that ability to be happy for no reason. Another of many little life lessons I relearned on our trip.
One of the many highlights was an evening flight 800 feet above the game reserve in an ultralight aircraft, piloted by Colin, one of the guides. It gave yet another perspective of how massive the reserve is and how tiny we humans are against it all. As the sun was setting and we landed, I had a real sense of awe at how humans have been able to not only survive in that landscape, but become who and what we are today. It was a fabulous week for Carrie and me and we returned as relaxed, refreshed and inspired as we’ve been in years.
If any of you readers have ever considered going to Africa and doing it in style, I highly recommend checking out HillHouse and the Madikwe Reserve. It is truly a luxury Africa experience. The staff will treat you like family (except that they’ll see to your every need!) and you’re likely to see more game in less time than most other areas. The lodge can only handle 6-10 people at a time and only for ten weeks a year, so plan soon, if you do intend to go.
On an unrelated note, this post also marks the official announcement of the Mark’s Daily Apple Resource page and our title sponsor Vibram. If you get a chance, check out the video I did explaining why I do the minimalist shoe/barefoot thing. As many of you know, I’ve been a huge proponent of FiveFingers for years. Now we’re joining forces to help spread the word.
Also on the Primal Resource page you’ll find my favorite books, movies, blogs and retailers related to the Primal lifestyle. I’ll be updating the page on a regular basis with new books, websites and other tools and products that may be of interest to you, so check back often.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and let me know what you think in the comment board!