The first time I landed on African soil, I had this weird thought that I’d come home. It was as if on a cellular level my body recognized humanity’s ur-home, where the first hominids stood erect some 1.5 million years ago before roaming the planet. And when I came face to face with a lion—I in an open 4X4 safari vehicle and the king of beasts not even two feet beside me—I felt a flash not of fear but of connection, in recognition of a brother from another mother, Earth.
More than any other continent, Africa strips away the unessential, makes one think big thoughts, and makes visible the grand sweep of humanity. Here are a few experiences that have put me there.
(A version of this article was first published in the May 2019 issue of Signature Travel Network’s magazine.)
The Great Migration
It is no doubt one of the greatest shows on earth, the movement of millions of wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope from the fields of the Serengeti in Tanzania to the grasses of the Maasai Mara in Kenya and back again in a never-ending circle of life. There are many ways to experience the migration, whether viewing newborn calves and lion kills in Tanzania from December to March, observing animals congregate in ever larger herds in the northern Serengeti in June, watching dramatic crossings of the Grumeti or Mara Rivers in July and August, or seeing the feeding herds and the predators that follow them in the Mara from September to November. I’ll never forget hours of waiting rather impatiently on a bluff overlooking the Mara River. One moment the wildebeest and zebras were serenely chewing the cud on one side. The next moment—seized by some collective switch of the brain—thousands made a mad dash to the other side. Twenty minutes later, as inexplicably as it began, it stopped. It was one of the zaniest things I’d ever seen.
Morning Coffee Overlooking a Watering Hole
I challenge you to find a more relaxing way to ease into the day than this. A gentle knock on the door, a tray with a red thermos and a small plate of salty-sweet cookies. The pop and steam and aroma of your preferred beverage (strong coffee or British-style tea) as you twist off the cap. You sit in your canvas camp chair, cover your legs with a red Maasai blanket, and sip and watch life’s rich pageant unfold before you. Elephants take long, leisurely drinks with trunks. A giraffe lowers its neck, gangly front legs an inverted V. A few antelope take furtive sips. A kingfisher alights at the edge of the table, eyeing your cookie crumbs, as unseen other birds trill and warble. The rays of the rising sun hit your skin and you breathe deeply. There will be a huge and hearty spread of eggs, meats, cheeses, yogurts and granolas in the main lodge. But it can wait a little longer.
Sundowner on the Savannah
Evenings in the African bush have their own special magic. What is “happy hour” in every other corner of the world is, on safari, transformed to something else entirely. Sundowners can be elaborate affairs: You might be whisked to a remote riverbend in Zambia to find camp chairs in the shallows facing west, and a candlelit table laden with an eye-popping array of drinks and bites. There is nothing to do but wade in and gaze at the fade of day. It can also be impromptu and simple: The vehicle stops in the middle of the grasslands by an acacia tree; the guide pulls out a cooler from the back, throws a tablecloth onto the hood, places bowls of nuts and plates of cheese onto it, and offers to fix your drink of choice. If you’re a purist, you’ll ask for a gin and tonic, with historical roots dating to colonial days when British soldiers chose to mix their quinine-laced tonic (a malaria preventative) with widely available gin, also said to have healing properties. Bottoms up!
The Smoke That Thunders
It’s not the widest or tallest, but Victoria Falls, without a doubt, reigns supreme. You can hear it, starting from about a mile away. As you get closer you can see it, smell it, feel it, even taste it. Its width spans about a mile—a jagged line across the Zambezi River—and drops about twice the height of Niagara into a gorge, propelling mist into the air. You can access the cataracts from either Zimbabwe or Zambia. Many tour operators include a day at the falls as part of a longer itinerary, in which case you’ll be taken to park gates and guided in. There are other ways to experience the falls: by luxury dinner train over the Zambezi River, on a micro-flight tour, or even via a bungee jump. There is the hotly debated question, which side is better? Conventional wisdom says the Zim side is more picturesque, though I will say that if you want to be one with the falls, to feel it as well as see it, the Zam side may give you a more visceral experience. Save yourself the indecision and do both, as I did.
Other experiences in eastern and southern Africa have moved me. A hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti. The tough (for me) trek up one of the world’s largest sand dunes in Namibia. The two-hour hike up Table Mountain, which not only offers panoramic views of Cape Town and the South Atlantic but the arresting sight of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for almost two decades. And in a coastal town of Kenya, my return after many years to a school in which I had volunteered during university days and where I reunited with the headmistress, who pulled out a scrapbook and pointed to a fading picture of my younger self.
There I was, home again.