Africa has never really lost the aura of mystery that surrounded the "Dark Continent". Early explorers carried home sketches of creatures so fantastical that the good citizens of Holland, England, France and Portugal came to believe that Africa was a land populated by myths and legends where anything was possible. Today, Africa is still an unfamiliar destination for many travellers, which gives rise to naive questions that are, in the glory of hindsight, quite funny to an experienced traveller.
After 20 years in African travel, we’ve fielded some giggle-worthy gems, very often from travellers who've gone on to become safari aficionados and our good friends. While our safari experts take every question seriously, we did share a few grins with our long term clients looking back at their early correspondence with us. With their blessing, here are the 10 funniest questions we've been asked, the answers they expected, and the answers they got... Enjoy!
1. Will I be able to swim with hippos in Botswana?
What Maria thought we'd say: Absolutely! They are large, gentle water creatures who'd love a friendly pat from a passing swimmer.
What we did say: For your own safety, please do not attempt to swim with hippo. They are highly territorial, very fast despite their bulky size and fairly bad tempered creatures with large tusks. Hippo are responsible for more accidental human deaths in Africa than any other animal. Your professional guide will always take every precaution to keep you at a safe distance from hippo where you can observe them or pass them without antagonising them in any way.
2. I've got this really neat pink jump suit - can I wear that on safari
What Cheryl thought we'd say: Since all animals are colour blind, it really doesn't matter what colours you wear on safari.
What we did say: Animals are very sensitive to contrasting colours because they stand out against the greens and browns of nature - this helps predators hone in on prey and helps prey identify the predators stalking them. Every creature you see in the wild, even a stripey zebra, is as well camouflaged as nature can make it for its natural habitat. When you wear bright or contrasting colours, you stand out in a way that says "I might be tasty and easy to catch" to a predator or "run away I'm such a good hunter I'm not even trying to sneak up on you" to everyone else. We recommend that you pack light, comfortable clothes in neutral colours for game viewing activities, avoiding anything bright, white or sparkly.
3. We are really afraid of bugs: how likely are we to encounter them on safari?
What they thought we'd say: Africa is about the big cats, elephants and buffalo - very few bugs here, unlike Australia where every tiny creature wants to bite or sting you.
What we did say: Africa is like any other country: there are bugs of all descriptions, most are harmless, some not. Safaris take place in wild places, much like Yellowstone or Yosemite, so be prepared to come across a fair share of bugs, especially common fellows like flies, spiders and moths. If you travel during the rainy season, there are beetles, flying ants and creepy crawlies in abundance, most of which are harmless. Pack an insect repellant that is gentle on your skin so that you can apply it twice daily and let your guide know if you have any specific insect fears, such as spiders.
4. Do you put all the animals in cages at night?
What Judy thought we'd say: Yes, the Kruger National Park is similar to Disney World's African Safari experience where cleverly hidden fences keep wild animals contained.
What we did say: The Kruger, like large tracts of Alaska, is a vast wilderness. Together with several private concessions, it constitutes 2.7-million hectares of fauna and flora, forming one of Africa’s most bio-diverse protected territories. There are no internal fences so the wildlife can roam freely and live entirely natural lives. This means the predators feed on the plains game, who feed on the abundant grasses, and we human guardians try to interfere as little as possible in the natural order.
5. I'd like to go to Vic Falls for the day during my Kenyan safari.
What Bill thought we'd say: That's a great idea - consider it done.
What we did say: Logisitically, a day trip to Victoria Falls from Kenya requires you to take both international and regional flights. Regionally, you fly between your safari location or the Falls and the nearest international hub for the long distance journey between East Africa and southern Africa. Purely from a flight schedule perspective, it's not possible to get to the Falls and back in a day. There is so much to see and do at the Falls, you need enough time to fully enjoy it. If your heart is set on combining the Falls with your Kenyan safari, we recommend you visit it before or after your East Africa leg and give yourself two to three days to make the most of Africa's Adventure Capital.
6. Can we reduce costs by excluding all meals at the safari lodge and just grabbing MacDonald's while we're game viewing?
What they thought we'd say: Absolutely - you can also use the in-room take away menu to order in fast food.
What we did say: Your safari takes place in wilderness areas. This means there are no retailers or restaurants nearby and your lodge restaurant is the only dining option. Aside from the logistical restrictions preventing you from ordering fast food, it's worth considering that most fully inclusive packages are very good value for money. This is as true for activities as it is for meals and beverages. Safari lodges tend to have superb executive chefs and, considering they have to import all their ingredients from remote locations, their kitchens deliver excellent, wholesome cuisine in generous portions. Many lodges include local wine, beer and soft drinks, which often means award-winning South African vintages and craft beers.
7. Where do hippo lay their eggs and can I see a nest?
What Mariam thought we'd say: They lay their eggs on floating papyrus islands, and you will be able to see one of these nests on a walking safari.
What we did say: Despite being waterbased creatures who spend their days snoozing in rivers, hippo are actually amphibious mammals. They are fascinating animals, perfectly adapted to their habitat of swampy rivers and open grassy plains. Hippo cannot breathe under water but their nostrils are able to open and shut, allowing them to take quick snorts of air every five to six minutes while remaining submerged for up to 30 minutes. They do not have nests or lay eggs but give birth to live young on land or in shallow water. Hippo calves are gorgeous little things that can suckle from their mothers underwater. Hippo live in pods of up to 60 creatures and are very territorial about the lagoon or stretch of river they inhabit.
8. Can we pet the lions like that chap on the You Tube video?"
What George thought we'd say: Yes, if you sign an indemnity form and listen to your guide's instructions, you can pet a lion.
What we did say: The YouTube video shows an animal behaviouralist interacting with captive lions in a small, private sanctuary where he has habituated the pride to his individual presence over many years. The reason the interviewer and cameraman do not enter the enclosure with him is because the lions will consider them as intruders and attack them. The average adult lion is about 150kg of lightening fast killing machine that is highly protective of its young and its territory. There is a reputable lion sanctuary in Victoria Falls offering walking safaris with lion cubs and their handlers. These cubs were born in captivity and have been so extensively handled by humans that their natural instincts are subdued until they reach adulthood. Please never attempt to touch or approach an adult lion under any circumstances. While game viewing, the lion perceives you as part of the safari vehicle, and therefore part of a large harmless creature that does not smell edible and to which they are accustomed. If you leave the vehicle or hang out of it to touch them, you become defined as a separate, threatening thing and constitute either a threat or an easy meal... a tragic outcome either way, for you and the lion.
9. Will we have to participate in any rituals that involve cracking open a live monkey's skull?
What they thought we'd say: The monkey skull cracking ritual is entirely optional - if you don't want to participate, just let your guide know.
What we said: Lucky for all the monkeys out there, the story about Africans ritually cracking their skulls is an urban legend. Africa's sustainable wildlife heritage is a testament to successful conservation that rewards rural communities for protecting their wildlife and allows natural rhythms to unfold with as little human interference as possible.
10. Be honest, do giraffes hunt in packs and eat impalas?
What Melody thought we'd say: Yes, it's true. They are cunning predators who use their superior viewpoint and tree-like camoflage to sneak up and snatch impala from their herds.
What we said: Giraffe are gentle giants living in close-knit family groups. They are often found near impala and other antelope because they are also browsers and strict vegetarians. Giraffe use their height advantage to reach the succulent new leaves on the uppermost branches of trees. They are such ambling, peaceful creatures that their collective noun is a congress of giraffe. We promise... they never hunt anything other than fresh, delicious acacia buds!