This Dave Barry column originally ran July 24, 2010
Here's how I pictured my African safari: I'd sit inside a sturdy, enclosed, animal-proof vehicle, and I'd be driven around to picturesque places to observe exotic creatures participating in the Circle of Life by eating each other.
In other words, I expected to be entertained, but safe. And I did feel safe, for roughly 30 seconds. Then things got dicey. What happened was, my family and I had just been dropped off with our luggage at the entrance to Londolozi, a lodge and game reserve next to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. We were being greeted by a staff person, when all of a sudden there appeared, about 50 feet away, an elephant the size of Cincinnati. (I am exaggerating, of course: Cincinnati is nowhere near as big as this elephant.)
The elephant was trying to get past an electrified fence, into the compound. It was being quite persistent, but I assumed there was nothing to worry about.
Then the staff person said, ``We need to get out of here right now.''
``What about our luggage?'' asked my wife.
``He doesn't want your luggage,'' said the staff person.
We abandoned our luggage and hastened into the lobby just as the elephant got past the fence. Fortunately, it couldn't get into the lobby. There were monkeys in the lobby, but they weren't a threat to us; they were there to steal food.
We later learned that this particular elephant is called Night Shift, and that he's always getting past the fence. Other animals also routinely get into the compound, including leopards and lions. We were not permitted to walk to our room at night without a staff escort, who kept shining a spotlight around. He told us that if we encountered a large animal, we needed to remain still and not run.
``What happens if we run?'' we asked.
``If you run,'' he said, ``we are all dead.''
The next morning we went outside to discover that Night Shift had deposited an enormous mound of poop outside our door. This is the safari version of a mint on your pillow.
The actual safari was not quite as I had pictured it. Instead of an enclosed vehicle, we rode in a Land Rover with low sides and no roof, so we were basically sitting outside, totally exposed, like human hors d'oeuvres being carried around on a large, four-wheel-drive tray. We had two guides, Alfred Mathebula and Bennet Mathose; they had a rifle and a machete, and they were very firm on the point that we should not get out of the Range Rover. I definitely didn't want to get out of the Range Rover. I wanted to put the Range Rover inside a larger, safer vehicle, such as a tank.
I felt better once we headed out onto the savanna, where it became clear that Alfred and Bennet knew what they were doing. We'd be zooming along a dirt road, and suddenly they'd stop and point to a small patch of dirt that to me looked exactly like all the other dirt in Africa. But Alfred and Bennet could tell at a glance that it was a footprint, and they knew not only what kind of animal made it, but also its gender, age, hobbies, credit rating, Twitter name, etc. Sometimes they'd follow the tracks, and when they spotted the animal -- usually a half-mile before we could see it -- they'd drive off the road and, by creeping the Range Rover along in stealth gear, get us amazingly close.
We got close to elephants, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, buffalo, warthogs, wildebeests, hyenas and thousands of nervous deer-like critters that belong to various species but all fall into the biological category of ``lunch.'' But the animals we got closest to -- a few yards away, and sometimes closer -- were the leopards and the lions. At first this seemed insane, since these are the animals best equipped to convert us into jerky. But the big cats pretty much ignored us and went about their business.
For lions, their business consisted of sleeping. They were sprawled all over the grass, looking like the morning after a fraternity party. I half expected to see empty Budweiser cans. The sleeping lions actually looked kind of cuddly, especially the younger ones.
``I want to hug one!'' exclaimed a member of our party.
``We will come back in the morning and fetch your shoes,'' replied Bennet.
The leopards were more active. We spent an hour following a male leopard known as Camp Pan, who would stop every dozen yards or so to spray aromatic liquid from a large scent gland on his butt. This was his way of marking his territory. Or, he was just proud to have a large scent gland on his butt. I know I would be.
We saw many other amazing natural sights, including a pair of hippos doing it in broad daylight, stark naked. If you ever have an opportunity to witness this very special event, rip out your eyeballs.
But just about everything else we saw was fascinating, and often heart-stoppingly beautiful. So I strongly recommend the safari experience. It's great family fun, and there's absolutely nothing to be afraid of, except being eaten or trampled to death. Long after you return home, you'll think often of your African adventure, because of the wonderful memories in your heart. Also the elephant dung on your shoes.