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Q: How can I take a safari in Africa without being a millionaire?
A: At first it seems hard to believe that a little drive through a park where you watch rhinos and impalas and elephantswild ones, no zookeeper to pay, no food to buycould cost so much. No wonder there's a stereotype out there of your absurdly rich, stodgy, mustachioed dweeb coated in khaki who bellows things like "Oh look, Mrs. Barneby! A grey cuckooshrike if I ever saw one!" But not all safaris are created equal. If you are up for a little adventure and can do away with pillow mints and 18,000 support staff jumping at your every whimin short, if it's the animals you want to seethen listen up.
Northwest of Durban, South Africa, in the heart of the Zulu homeland, you'll find a small, not-so-famous park called iMfolozi. Here you'll find thorned bushveldt, umbrella acacias, rolling dusty hills, and lots and lots of rhinos, lions, elephants, leopards, and buffalos (not the "home on the range" variety, but the type that's mean and crabby with big curly horns). It's one of the few parks in the country where you can actually hike along game trails and camp out wherever you'd like. Of course, your group is led by two Zulu park rangers armed with huge rifles and who know the park, animal behavior, and can help keep you safe. You should know, however, that this is not a luxury tour. You'll be hot and sweaty, have meals cooked for you over an open fire, and drink purified river water. But it's a guarantee that you'll come face to face with animals on their own turf: an exhilarating feeling. Pop around a bush and there might just be an elephant nibbling on leaves, a herd of giraffe walking down to the river for a drink, or a hyena snoozing in the shade. I was there in March and had a black rhinovery endangeredcome within 12 paces of our stunned group before the beast realized what we were and ran away through the brush. We saw no fewer than five of these.
Nights are when it really gets interesting. Instead of sleeping in a hut or back at a lodge, you pitch camp next to a water source and build a fire. The animals don't know what to make of fire, so they'll stay away. But that means you'll take turns keeping watch to make sure the fire stays lit. During my trip, we were assigned to take an hour per person for each watch. But when I heard the lions calling back and forth, saw countless shooting stars, and marveled at the fact that we were right there, face to face with such big game, I decided to keep watch for nearly three hours. By far the coolest backpacking experience I've had.
Gibela Safaris, based out of Durban, is run by an affable man named Elmar who specializes in arranging such tours. He'll pick you up in Durban and take you out to a Zulu lodge, Simunye, near the park for the first night. There, you'll stay in stone cabins or contemporary Zulu huts at the bottom of a gorge, drink homemade beer, and eat outside on gorgeous wood and stone tables. From there it's off to the park for three nights. Total cost, about $700, not including the two tons of film you'll certainly burn capturing the perfect rhino-at-the-river shot. (Gibela Safaris, www.gibela.co.za, 011- 27-31-209-7005) Planning a trip of your own? [ask the AA]