Many of you are wondering how I’m getting such detailed shots of African animals while on safari. I do have a telephoto lens and use it as we approach in case the animals shy away. In the vast majority of our approaches, they do not and I can switch to my regular lens. Yes, the animals really are that close. Close enough to brush the sides of the vehicle sometimes. Close enough to touch if I were incredibly stupid. The reason we are having such close encounters is not that the animals are tame. And it’s not that they are used to humans. We are at Singita Sabora Grumeti, which is a 360,000 acre private reserve with only a few small tent cabin “hotels” on it. In fact, since it’s the low season, we happen to be the only visitors in a camp with nine cabins. So we are in an area where animals have relatively little human contact.
The reason we are able to be so close has to do largely with the animals’ vision and depth perception. Most see in black and white and are more attuned to seeing movement than fine details. Although they can see our safari vehicle and smell us — or the mixture of bug spray, sun cream and sweat that we must give off — they don’t perceive us as anything flesh and blood. They see a large profile thing — which to them could be a rock or a bush or a hillock — without distinguishing individual elements inside. Now, if I were to step out of the vehicle, I would immediately be pounced on by a lion, gored by a Cape Buffalo or perhaps trampled by an elephant. It gives one pause. (The only animals who can perceive us as individual humans while inside the vehicle are our cousins, the baboons, who scream and shake their fists at us whenever we invade their space.)
In the case of the prey animals, they seem to have a comfort zone of about 50 feet. Consistently we can drive only about that close before they shy away. We can even drive through a running herd and they will continue on their path while leaving that 50 foot buffer around us. However, once we reach a safe place on the plain and get out of the vehicle to stretch our legs, the animals instantly pull back in a circle of more than 200 yards from us. Ironically, when lions have made their kill, the prey animals continue grazing calmly but watchfully at a distance of about 100 yards. The lions are full and occupied and herd life goes on as usual. The fact that the herds pull back so sharply at the sight of us, demonstrates how dangerous a predator they perceive us to be.
That’s not to say that you are always safe in a safari vehicle. The Cape Buffalo shown above are notoriously aggressive and dangerous. They always look like they woke up to a bad hair day and things went downhill from there. Of all the animals we’ve seen so far, they and the elephants have been the ones to face the vehicle and take some menacing steps forward. Giving the animals an escape route on their side and backing up a bit reassures them that we’ll stay off their lawn. All bets are off if you get into the personal space of a bull elephant “in musth” or between a mother elephant and a tiny calf. Every guide will tell you a story about knowing someone who was charged by an elephant or buffalo to the point of impact with the vehicle. Hopefully, the story will not involve your guide, as that would mean you have a particularly foolish guide.
Adas has an encyclopedic knowledge of Serengeti animals and their behaviors, an acquaintance with most of the resident animals of the park and a deep love for all of nature. In his careful briefing before we took our first game drive, we got the impression that he would rather lose a tourist than have one of his beloved animals hurt, bothered or inconvenienced. Adas told us that last year a Chinese tourist walked from our tent to a nearby water hole to take a close-up of a Cape Buffalo who was bathing. Instantly, three guides jumped in safari vehicles, rode out between the tourist and the buffalo in an attempt to head off a charge. They yelled for the tourist to get in a vehicle, but the shutterbug refused, saying he wanted to get a picture. Adas told the tourist to give him the camera and he’d take a nice picture of him getting killed by a buffalo. Adas explained he would get us as close to the animals as he could but that would be determined by the animal. If the animal was uncomfortable or distressed, the animal would dictate the distance, no matter how much we demanded to get closer. We’ve been good with that plan.
Although we trust Adas completely, that doesn’t mean we haven’t had some tense moments. This morning we spent several hours watching the unfolding of a drama including lions, hyenas, and a Wildebeest kill. (And that whole adventure will get its own post.) A pride of three lionesses and about eight cubs were just finishing off a dinner of freshly killed Wildebeest when we drove up. We watched them eating, then observed the lionesses rounding up their cubs and heading them toward a sheltering bush area for the day. They were particularly insistent as a large group of Hyenas were muscling in on the kill. A group of cubs walked so close to the vehicle, I could have reached out to pat one. The lioness who was behind directing them walked up to the vehicle and put her paws briefly on the front of the hood. Then she walked by, brushing close to the side and shooting us a long contemptuous look. In a completely open vehicle and with about a foot between us and 300 pounds of muscle, sinew, teeth and claws. I thought about what would happen to me if a San Francisco Playgroup Mommy thought I was too close and too interested in her offspring and tried to calculate if a lioness could be that protective. Andy said he was just frozen madly repeating in his head, “Don’t look at me, Lion. Don’t look at me. Don’t make eye contact.”
In the wonderful, semi-formal syntax of Swahili English, Adas, before every game drive, tells us the agenda for the day.
“Today, we will be respecting the animals.”
Yes, we will, Adas. Yes, we will.