What do you actually pay for when you go on safari?

Mocked-charged by an old buffalo.

1936187784On an off-day during July I jumped in a Land Rover and set off into the National Park – camera, coffee, bird-book, bino’s.

After being entertained by a troop of baboons and mocked-charged by an old buffalo I was fortunate enough to spot a leopard sleeping in a gully. This was before normal ‘safari time’, and I decided to stay for a while and wait for the late-afternoon game-drives to start arriving – just to see how other lodges and camps do things – it was fascinating!

The latest Dolce & Banana African-safari line.

3504026025First on the scene was a bedraggled old safari-car. The driver pointed to the hidden cat, announced “leopard everybody, leopard” and then continued the discussion he was having with his spotter (it involved Chipolopolo, the Zambian soccer team) before the leopard interrupted them. He did not switch off his engine, gave his guests two minutes to take photos, then sped away.

2771596631In contrast with the first game-drive, the second guide approached the sighting very cautiously and professionally, switched off the engine, and in the 15 minutes or so that they spent there, gave his guests fantastic insights into the leopards of the Luangwa Valley, continually asking whether they had the best angle for photos.

Next, a safari-truck carrying at least 20 people arrived in a cloud of dust – one of the highlights of my afternoon was watching these safari-goers play musical chairs in order for everybody to get to the correct side of the truck to see what everybody else saw. When a brief but diabolical fight broke out among the guests, the guide decided he had had enough and drove off. That is when a brand-new spick-and-span safari vehicle arrived. Guests were clad in what I assumed was the latest Dolce & Banana African-safari line. They had camera lenses longer than my arms and the one lady sported a pair of pink binoculars. And exactly there, while feeling a little inferior with my knock-off sunglasses and small camera, watching a leopard being as majestic as any sleeping cat can be, I wondered: What do people actually pay for when they come on safari? You see, the difference in price between the four safaris I just described is immense, but yet they all saw the same leopard…


2985111486I understand that people prefer to pay differently for different services when they travel. Sea-view villas or garden-view bungalows. Air-conditioned coaches or a bus with chickens and goats tied to the roof. But the safari industry is little different. The product that we sell – wild animals, a sleeping leopard in this case – should determine whether or not guests go home satisfied. Why then can you pay $150 per person per night sharing or $900 per person per night sharing during the Luangwa peak season, inclusive of meals, safaris and accommodation, if there is no size-difference in the 2760202157leopard that we all saw? These camps and lodges all do game-drives in the exact same area so the exclusivity-argument, for the sake of this newsletter, is void.

The $750 difference then comes in with the lodge or camp you are staying at. It is the difference between: “How would you like your free range eggs done this morning sir? Poached, fried, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, scrambled, deviled, sunny-side up, sunny-side down, sunny-side-on-the-side? On brown or white toast?” and “Here’s some toast – please ask if you need extra margarine.” Some people prefer having someone pack their bags for them on the day of departure, and others don’t. Some people mind having three different shampoo brands available at the lodge, while others really do not care bringing their own.

See 1 zebra, get 1 free.

2341777390Metaphorically speaking, is the difference between butter and margarine really worth $750?
I can already hear a counter arguments: If you go and watch a Justin Bieber concert, you also pay between $50 and $150 per person depending on whether you want to see him in actual size or as a little spec on the horizon of a football stadium. And don’t even let me get started with how expensive that is (for two hours’ worth of boy-wonder music) compared to going on safari, which will cost you way less on a per-hour basis! But back to my point – we all saw the same leopard, doing the same 3214445162thing, at the same time of day, from the same viewing-point and under the same weather conditions. So, where did my $750 go?

Where do we go from here? It’s safe to assume that, luxury lodge or backpackers camp, people pay to see animals. So, just like I would pay $1 to download one Justin Bieber song, why not introduce a pay-per-sighting package? I’ll call it the “pay-per-puku plan”. A large-elephant bull is worth Five Kwacha and a small one Three Kwacha – please do not forget to tip the guide that will actually have to get out of his car, measure the tusks of the border-line big ellies and make it back into the car in one piece, just to make sure whether you should be charged K3 or K5. A lion can be 10 Kwacha, although discount will apply for sleeping lions. See 1 zebra, get 1 free. If you spot a leopard before the guide does, you get a 50% discount coupon for the bar. It might be the only structure in the world where a dead-impala hanging from a tree branch might be worth more than a live impala grazing next to the car. There will be no money-back guarantees on cloudy sunsets – “Acts of God” will apply.
But no, soon the guides will start claiming commission on each animal seen. Guests will arrive back from a night drive claiming “we did not see a single animal – only the ‘for free’ zebra!” and then my whole pay-per-puku-plan will be down the drain along with the financial well-being of the safari industry.

Not brand new, but it has four wheels!

3470399559My $750 is still not back in my wallet – my pay-per-view idea did not hold water. And now I can hear you ask: “What now?” Well, let me introduce you to a small owner run camp in amongst all these various option. It is called Wildlife Camp and for $220 per person per night you get a proper bush experience. For your money, you’ll get standard chalet accommodation – nothing fancy. You also get three hearty meals each day, even though the eggs might not always be free-range. You get outstanding service. You get a location a little bit further away from the local towns and villages. You get to go on a well-maintained (not brand new, but it has four wheels) safari vehicle with a passionate and knowledgeable guide. You get to go on an overnight walking safari. You get the freedom of the Luangwa Valley and all her inhabitants, and who knows, maybe you’ll also be lucky enough to spend some time with a sleeping leopard one of these days!

Moment of the month.

2138563962July’s best moment is made up of a selection of sightings over the past month. Here is “The life and times of Limpie Lion”

The story of Limpie Lion is an amazing one! According to the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), Limpie was born in February 2008. In August 2011 he was severely injured on his front-left leg, probably during a buffalo hunt, and was immobile for well over a month. According 1824620310to ZCP the lion was “not capable of standing on that leg at all, but managed to limp to kills which other lions made nearby.” Everybody feared the worst for Limpie during this time, and on a couple of occasions he bravely fought off hyenas trying to kill him. But he survived and in October 2011 he started walking again, slowly but surely.

Today, his front left leg (it’s swolen on this photo) still tells the story of his fight for survival nearly two years ago, but he is in immaculate condition and has been seen mating with females in Wildlife Camp’s main game-viewing area. Even though this area is dominated by a coalition of three males, Limpie – widely considered to be a lone nomad – gave them a run for their money during July.

His pure grit, guts and determination definitely deserves a mention as some of the best moments we had in July. I was lucky enough to spend quality time with him and a mate earlier in this month, and uploaded the full album onto our facebook page at www.facebook.com/WildlifeCamp

That is all for this edition of Wildlife Camp’s newsletter.

Kind Regards from all of us.


A couple of post scripts.

2151215592· At the end of the day, when you go on safari, you pay for moments that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s up to each individual to decide how much they are willing to pay for food and a bed in-between these moments. This newsletter is meant to take a tongue-in-the-cheek look at the safari industry. There is space for all shapes and sizes in the tourism industry, and this letter does not intend to step on any toes.

· The $220 mentioned is an indication. Please e-mail Retha at info@wildlifezambia.com for official rates and information.

· I truly hope that none of my friends ever see that I Googled “Justin Bieber concert tickets” – they’ll never let me forget that!