Have begun the process of planning a trip to Namibia and beyond next September/October. Very early to start I know but we want to fly on points and Aeroplan Business Class points bookings, even this far in advance, are scarce and require convoluted itineraries.
I have a ton of points that I want to burn and then will never bother with Aeroplan again. Reasons why to follow in another post when I'm feeling appropriately cranky.
Last night I was leafing through a NY Times Sunday magazine, one of a stack that had piled up when we were in France, and came across the following article by Helen Macdonald. I'm quoting it in its entirety as I was strongly caught by its message and I really wanted to share it.
NY Time Magazine Oct 11, 2015:
By HELEN MACDONALD
"I’m sitting with eight other tourists in an open-topped Land Cruiser driving on dirt roads in the Sabi Sand, a group of private game reserves on the southwest border of South Africa’s two-million-hectare Kruger National Park. It’s a landscape of splintered trees and pale acacia thorns, drifts of sand glittering brightly with quartz, and it is full of wildlife: We’ve seen leopards and hyenas, muddy groups of wart hogs, innumerable birds and antelopes. After years of watching wildlife documentaries, spotting animals from the vehicle is a thrilling but disconcertingly familiar experience. Not only do they exactly resemble the ones on TV, but when Jonathan Vogel, the game ranger at the wheel, starts to talk about the animals, his expert tone makes me think of voice-over narration. While I’ve never been on safari before, and though I traveled here to watch animals, I’m spending a lot of time trying to make what is happening seem real.
Safaris are built on a series of vast contradictions. Though the Sabi Sand, for example, is considered a pristine wilderness, it is crisscrossed with dirt roads and dotted with camps offering tourists accommodation and twice-daily game drives. The wildlife that roams within its unfenced interior is absolutely wild, and yet among the most watched in the world. And while people travel here to observe animals, not hunt them, most are keen to collect sightings of those species renowned in the 19th century as being the most dangerous to stalk on foot: the big five of lions, leopards, buffaloes, rhinos and elephants. Animals that hunt other animals are the biggest draw here. ‘‘If you want to come for predators, I think the Sabi Sand is definitely the place,’’ Vogel explains. ‘‘It’s not just that they are beautiful, but they are entertaining and interesting. The big herbivores, they’ll just go out, eat a little bit, play around, but the predators, I mean, they’ll stalk, they’ll fight, they’ll mate; everything is unique.’’
We’re in luck. As dusk falls, we pull off the dusty road and cut the engine. A spotlight held by our tracker, Derek, plays across dust and dry grass 20 feet away onto something that looks like a pile of dirty beige suede. Slowly it resolves into a sleeping male lion. His eyes are closed, his mane a bright tangle of fur and shadow. I stare at the prone form. Despite the spotlight on his face, a host of glowing smartphones, the excited voices of my fellow passengers and the insistent peeping of autofocus locks, the lion doesn’t wake. He reminds me of the trophy photographs of the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer that I saw online this summer; after killing a lion known to safarigoers in Zimbabwe as Cecil, Palmer’s grinning face was seen behind another dead lion he had posed for the camera. It spurred outrage and a white-hot debate over the morality of big-game hunting. What I am doing watching this lion is nothing like trophy hunting, I tell myself, though some part of me isn’t sure.
Trophy photographs seem to most of us an anachronistic display of imperial masculinity and colonial appropriation, and the outrage that followed the death of Cecil the lion demonstrated our keen desire to distance ourselves from everything these photographs evoke. But the way safaris work in our culture makes me wonder about that distancing. Safaris offer close-up, once-in-a-lifetime views of animals in the wild — but at the same time they are deeply embedded in colonial iconography and in structural inequality. It is hard not to recall that when Kruger and other game reserves were founded, they were cleared of their original human inhabitants. A game ranger at another camp told me that when you drive around his area, you can still see the old stones where grandmothers once ground meal. Though these days some local communities do benefit economically from safari tourism, the Kruger region has a history of human dispossession and erasure.
Tourists come for a luxury version of an imagined safari past — lamplight, dinners around the fire, safari clothes, Champagne and photographs of only the most photogenic of exotic animals. It’s possible to try to see the luxury safari as a kind of playacting, a kind of sumptuous ‘‘Out of Africa’’ dreamscape. But are we innocent visitors to this place? Our appropriation of the landscape through photographic safaris is just as bound up in those old colonial structures as trophy hunting is, even if the animals we shoot don’t die.
The lion we are watching raises his head. His nose is dark with old scars, one pale eye discolored. So close to a woken lion, some part of me quails. It is unnerving. I know the lion won’t attack us, but somehow shouldn’t he — shouldn’t we — acknowledge that he might? Vogel turns to us from the driver’s seat. ‘‘See his eye?’’ he says. ‘‘This one, I call him Terminator.’’ Within yards of the animal, I expect to exchange a glance with him. I expect that there’ll be a moment, together, of accepting the fact of the other’s presence in this place. But he looks past us; strobed with camera flash, he begins to walk purposely away. We switch on the engine and follow.
Something about this pursuit feels distasteful. If lions are celebrities, they have their paparazzi too. But there are other uncomfortable analogies: the military-style vehicles, the spotlights, the khaki safari garb. The lion known as Terminator is lying down again, and we are even closer to him now. I can see, even without binoculars, a pale claw wound in the fur above his left nostril and the slow movement of his side as he breathes. I feel vaguely betrayed by his proximity. I think I want it to be harder to see a lion.
Perhaps I am still stuck in that old notion that dangerous wild animals are things to test ourselves against, to be tracked and located through skilled subterfuge and careful field craft. But on reflection I don’t think that is the root of my ambivalence. It isn’t that he is too easy to see. It is that he doesn’t appear to see us at all. The lions here are so utterly habituated to people that they choose to ignore our presence entirely. ‘‘All the animals here have already been born with the vehicles,’’ Vogel later explains. All the same, it is highly unsettling when a wild animal fails to look back at us and acknowledge our existence; not only do we recognize that we are not influencing his behavior, but we also start to wonder if we are here at all. I wonder if this is what spurs our desperate urge to take photographs. If a lion refuses to meet our eyes and grant us the authentic personal encounter with wildness we hope for, we can at least turn it into something we recognize and understand: a lion on-screen.
Suddenly I don’t want to look at this lion anymore. Instead I watch the bright staccato of moths dipping and circling in the dusty air around the headlights and see that amid them is a tiny, rising point of reflected light that is so bright and slow and small it is impossible to know what kind of insect it is. I stare at it, transfixed. It is so much more mysterious than the lion. Perhaps it is compelling because only I can see it, and — in the words of the poet R.F. Langley — I know that ‘‘it will never be seen by anyone who has words again.’’ It is entirely inhuman.
It dawns on me that this is a much better way to think about the lion; as a creature that is precious not because of its place in our human imaginations, not because it relates to human concepts, but because it denies them. There is a lion reality that we cannot access. We live in different worlds, and we cannot really ever meet. It is a poignant yet oddly heartening thought. But then the lion raises himself onto his haunches, shakes his mane, stands in the lights with his head lowered and makes a small, deep growl. His jaws open, and steam rising from his mouth, he lets out a vast, low and terrifying sound that I can feel in my rib cage and sets the whole vehicle vibrating in sympathy. In that instant, my human musings fall away; after all my ambivalence, this roar has taken me into the lion’s world, rendered me a being without thoughts, a being of flesh and fear, terror and simple awe."
Comments on the NY Times website landed on both sides of the divide and while I take issue with a couple of her arguments, on balance I'm very much in agreement. So......planning the trip will require some thought . Interested in your comments.