Naturally Mindful on Safari

It’s the latest buzzword, but what does ‘mindfulness’ actually mean in the context of a safari holiday? William Gray explores the mental benefits of connecting with nature, and suggests a new approach to adapting this on safari.


First published in Travel Africa



There’s a widely accepted daily routine when you’re on safari: predawn wake-up call, quick cup of tea, morning game drive and back to camp for brunch; relax during the middle part of the day, then head out again for a late-afternoon game drive, stop for sundowners then return to camp for dinner. Nothing wrong with that you might think. After all, this game drive-siesta sandwich is designed to synchronise with when wildlife is likely to be most active (or not). Photographers love the low, golden light at the beginning and end of the day and the fact is, we’ve come to expect this all-inclusive bundle of daily activities on safari.


Have you ever wondered, though, what it might be like to just sit. And look. And listen. Instead of gulping down that cuppa and driving noisily into the sunrise, imagine a similar wake-up call, but just settling into a chair outside your tent. Your senses immediately start to fine-tune to the environment. As the dawn chorus swells around you, it’s more than just a backing track. Rising above the nocturnal beat of insects and frogs, a pair of African scops owls purr into the darkness. Then doves, bulbuls, robin-chats and francolins start calling. You have time to decipher each one. Was that a ground hornbill adding its tenor voice to the avian crescendo? Suddenly you pick out another sound, more distant, but throaty and urgent. Lions roaring at dawn? The hippo chortle is unmistakable. So too is the go-away bird that you can just begin to make out, perched at the top of a nearby acacia, silhouetted against the tangerine shreds of sunrise. As light seeps through the bush around you, sight and smell begin to connect you even more intimately to your surroundings. Tendrils of mist squirm above the hippo lagoon, while the sun’s warmth fills the air with heady aromas of wild basil, baked dust and fresh elephant dung.


Emotions and olfactory memories are stored in the same part of the brain. They’re intimately connected and bonded for life. Every time I get a whiff of warm earth or herbs, no matter where I am in the world, the ‘scent emoticon’ that’s locked in my mind always makes me think of Africa. I have also filed away ‘sound emoticons’ of Africa. Mention Cape turtle dove to me, for example, and my head immediately fills with its gently chiding call and an image of the African bush, quivering in the heat haze. Even as a professional photographer, I would argue that capturing these memories of sound and smell are just as important as committing the African dawn to film or pixels.


Liberating yourself from technology – smartphones, cameras, drones – and simply giving yourself time to observe is so important. It’s more than just a digital detox. You see more and learn more. Linger in that chair throughout the morning and you’ll be enraptured by things that only fill two-minute snapshots on a game drive. Shy animals, like bushbuck, might tiptoe around your tent for hours. The daily dramas around a waterhole will ebb and flow right in front of your eyes – pulsing flocks of sandgrouse and red-billed quelea, mud-bathing elephants, bush-raiding baboons…


By focussing on your immediate neighbourhood, you also synch with its circadian rhythm. Casting the odd glance at the riverbank in front of your lodge in between scurrying off for your next game drive, you might get the impression that nothing much happens there; that it’s not frequented by wildlife. I remember spending the large part of 24 hours sitting quietly beside the Limpopo recently and not only getting to know the local water monitor’s foraging habits, but also being captivated by a weaver bird’s architectural genius in plating the framework of its nest. Yes, there were long moments, hours even, when the whole stretch of river seemed deserted. But then I would catch movement out of the corner of my eye and find 20 elephant trying to slip past on the opposite bank. My vigil was rewarded late in the afternoon when vervet monkeys flushed a leopard from hiding and I caught the briefest, shadowy glimpse of the cat skulking away, tail twitching. As night fell, the frog chorus was positively techno. A porcupine shuffled past my feet and the stars filling the wedge of sky between my little stretch of riverside forest were so bright they cast a strange silver glow on the water’s surface.


I’m not suggesting that you should stay put and plant yourself in a chair every day you’re on safari. Of course you’ll want to explore different habitats, track down dangerous species like lion and feel the suspense of not knowing what’s around the next bend – all of which require getting in a safari vehicle, or joining some other expert-guided activity like walking or canoeing. But try it for just a day and you will not only feel instantly relaxed and in tune with nature, but you may well be amazed at what you see, hear and smell. Remember to adapt your itinerary accordingly. Rather than spend a night or two in one place before dashing on to the next, trying to cover as much ground as possible, consider booking four or five nights to really connect with a place. It is a holiday after all.


Empty spaces, clear heads

A safari, by its very nature, can be anything but calming. Have you noticed how, on a game drive, your eyes are constantly roving the bush, latching onto any sign of movement or any shadow that might morph into something rewarding like a big cat. There’s a constant stream of new information to process from your guide; you’re worried about missing a photo opportunity and you’re feeling physically drained from continually flexing your back and legs against the bucking motion of the vehicle. Just as many people would quite rightly label all this as ‘exciting’ there’s a case, now and then, for escaping the mental and physical stimuli of a safari and seeking refuge in Africa’s empty spaces.


The sky is an obvious place to start. You can lose yourself in an African sky, your mind flitting through whispy strands of cirrus or carried away on the serried ranks of stratocumulus. Watch a single eagle or vulture pirouette on a thermal against a deep cobalt sky and you can almost fall into a trance.


But it’s at night that the African sky quite literally shines. The NamibRand International Dark Sky Reserve was only the second place on earth to receive ‘gold tier’ designation in recognition of its exceptionally dark, clear night skies. To lie on your back in a desert like the Namib and watch the stars come out is not only hypnotic, but it also disconnects you, blanking out every stressful or distracting element on earth and focussing your entire being on the beautiful, alien, bewitching cosmos. Your guide might want to show you how to use the Southern Cross and pointer stars to locate due south, or flash a laser torch at the Magellanic Cloud, Coalsack Nebula or Omega Centauri. That’s all fine and fascinating. But don’t let science take over.


On my first visit to Botswana’s Makgadikgadi pans over 20 years ago, I remember my guide telling me to walk into the night, on my own, and keep walking until I couldn’t hear anyone or anything, then lie down on the salt pan and look up. To this day, I have never seen a more vivid night sky, the Milky Way so intense and ‘close’ it felt like I could scoop it up in my arms. It was both humbling and spellbinding – nature’s best form of meditation.

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