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The Big Five: is it worth it?

By | Friday, 10th June, 2016

The first time I went to South Africa I was 18. My girlfriend (now wife) and I borrowed a car from a friend that he had bought for 1 rand, which at the time was about 10 pence or 20 cents.

It wasn’t great. The gear stick refused to move into second, the accelerator pedal was a rod of metal and the speedometer was perpetually stuck on ‘10kmph’ – meaning we had to gauge our speed while travelling beside other vehicles on the freeway.

This all proved problematic when we did a self-drive through Kruger, with nothing but a charging elephant to compare to, and especially tricky while trying to get to the gate before closing time. I am slightly embarrassed to say, while attempting to optimise our speed between not too fast but still fast enough so we made it out of the park in time, we eventually got a ticket. Alas, behind every speeding ticket is a terrible excuse.

I mention this now not through some drawn out penance, but rather as a means of illustrating the fact that, according to a recent South African National Parks (SANParks) article, there’s been a significant rise in the number of speeding cases, road rage, congestion and general traffic-based incidents within its parks, particularly Kruger.

This said, SANParks have attributed these findings not to a rise in the number of people taking self-drives in dangerously old and decrepit cars, but in the increase of guests using apps to share data about the whereabouts of large game – typically the ‘big five’ – and rushing to each site, bringing about increased incidence of traffic collisions and roadkill. Hapilo Sello, managing executive of tourism and marketing of SANParks, says:

‘As an organisation we appreciate the fact that technology has evolved and that guests are taking advantage of it, however this is compromising the values of good game viewing in national parks… SANParks holds a leading position globally in the conservation of bio-diversity and the management of eco-tourism; it would therefore be regrettable for SANParks to turn a blind eye to trends that reverse the gains made in these fields.’

In recent years there has been an undesirable rise in aggressive advertising of tick-list safaris, which puts pressure on ground operators to come up with new, innovative ways for guests to tick said items off, hence the creation of apps. In my experience safaris based around tick-lists are just a small part of what travelling the wilds of Africa are all about.

The big-five, afterall, are historically based on the five game species most difficult to hunt and kill, which doesn’t easily go hand in hand with conservation, nor, as you may have gathered, JbD’s ethos (that’s not to downplay the potential excitement of tracking down and spotting the aforementioned, which can form the makings of an unforgettable trip, but just something to bear in mind).

SANParks are currently looking into legal means that would inhibit the use of sighting apps. I’m sure after their recent trip to Botswana, Jamie and Hannah would tell you the benefits of ‘making a point to have no 4G signal anywhere whatsoever on safari’. This was certainly the case in southern Ethiopia on a trip Will and I recently took.

To finish, I’m sure a lot of you would agree that the best part of any adventure are the brief unplanned moments – climbing trees to spot forest elephants for example, coming face to face with hyenas in the dead of night, witnessing a honey badger and lion fighting in the restroom, or spotting Africa’s rarest canid after popping out for some bird watching.

So, something to consider if you’re going on holiday soon: there’s no app for the accidental, the unexpectedly wonderful, the spontaneous, one-off thrills that Africa likes to chuck into the mix when on safari. Go with an open mind (and a closed laptop) and, whether you’re ready or not, the adventure will come to you.