If you listen to the Internet, the best thing a trip can be is authentic. While all travel is special, there is nothing quite like the reverence a truly local experience receives or a fabulous trip to a genuinely unknown location. Bloggers and writers shares stories about the strangers’ weddings they’ve attended, the homes they’ve been invited into and the days they’ve spent in places that most people will never have heard of, let alone have visited. Package holidays, group tours and relentless itineraries that only cover a popular city’s most popular landmarks tend to be a little looked down upon.
If I’m honest, it’s easy for me to lapse into this way of thinking. If you consider yourself a traveler in any sense (I know, I sound like a dick, but bear with me) then doing super #basic activities abroad is something to be avoided. There are countless guides explaining exactly how to get ‘off the beaten path’ in all of the world’s most visited countries (though, in fairness, there are plenty of ‘most popular things to do in X’ lists too). I presume this comes from the common human desire to be different, to be special and not to be doing the same things everyone else does, even if those things are great. But as travel becomes more accessible than ever, finding these very unique, real experiences gets even harder. Many beautiful places are struggling under the weight of overtourism, and you have to go further and further afield to feel like your trip is somehow more meaningful and less like just a nice holiday than everyone else’s visits to that same place (the psychology of travelling in a world where much of the exploration has been done for you and shared digitally before you’ve even left is probably worth writing about, as is the exclusionary nature of seeing a distinction between traveler and vacationer. Anyway, I’m getting off-topic). The point I’m painstakingly meandering to is that there’s a lot of emphasis on things being authentic, real and raw, and when you’re talking about wildlife, that means getting as close to natural habitats as possible.
I had a lot of thoughts in Kenya about the nature of ‘wild’ animals. The animals we saw in Kenya’s national parks were wild, no doubt. Every animal experience you see is partly luck and partly down to the tracking skills of your guide and the other park rangers. None of it is staged. But of course, there are park rangers protecting the animals. There are designated paths for the cars to drive on and going off-road is strictly forbidden. In the more popular reserves, like the Maasai Mara, twenty Jeeps will often surround a sight like a kill and many of the animals are so used to cars that you have to beep the horn to get them to move out of the way. Trips like these are about seeing animals in their natural habitats – how natural is it for these herds to be surrounded by cars and safari camps? In contrast, while we were camping in Tsavo East, we only saw two other vehicles across four days. Our guide had to work much harder to track animals as there wasn’t a massive network of other groups sharing information. This meant that the animals were much more skittish, especially various antelopes and other typical prey. There was a clear distinction between the animals who were used to the presence of humans, and those who weren’t.
I suppose it made me think about what humans consider to be wild, and the very specific level of risk with which we are comfortable. These were wild animals, yes, but they still live in a park with borders drawn by humans, with roads marked out and strict rules about cars and visitors. I mean, we sat mere metres from lions. Lions! These are some of nature’s apex predators, and we sat next to them without a hint of trepidation. What does that say about the way we create experiences? We’d do something that could be incredibly risky – having a snack next to a hungry lion, for example – but we do it in ways that mitigate any real danger. This makes perfect sense, of course. No one wants to get eaten by a lion on holiday. But it’s not truly intrepid. It is very safe, and careful, and planned. Is it still, then, a wild experience? Even if the animals are technically wild, does it ‘count’ if the animals themselves are inoculated to the presence of humans and cars?
One morning, we took a walk through the reserve rather than going for a drive. We had a couple of park rangers with us, though it later transpired that this was mainly to protect any rhinos we encountered, rather than us. As we walked through the park, a lone male elephant started following our group. Immediately, you could sense the rangers’ senses heighten, and they started to move us away from the elephant, for our safety. We all felt very exposed, realising that if this beautiful giant charged at us, we’d be screwed. We are tiny, scrawny, slow beings, who are no match for nature’s biggest creatures.
I don’t want put ‘authenticity’ on a pedestal in this way, though I worry that I am prone to, because it reeks of elitism and an almost paternalistic sense of viewing communities and cultures abroad. I’m not even really talking about whether these are truly wild animals, or whether that matters. I just find the way that humanity interacts with nature interesting, because we are far too dominant and controlling to truly experience these animals in nature, given the risks it would pose to our weak bodies. It seems curious that going on safari is seen to be the pinnacle of animal experiences, especially compared to zoos, when, despite the stark, stark differences between the two, the park boundaries are still chosen and monitored by humans, and there are still strict rules around how these animals can be viewed. I know that much of this is about protecting the animals, but that still speaks to how humans have all but made the idea of the wild extinct. In order to keep nature safe from human infrastructure, it must be measured, analysed, fenced and regulated. We permeate everything. Safaris are as close to the true wildness of enormous animals that most of us can get, and even then we have managed to sanitise it to point of no risk, to the point where sitting next to actual lions is as relaxed as watching TV at home.
I don’t have a profound conclusion. I just wanted to highlight this element of wildlife viewing, and discuss the weird way in which humans manage to be part of these ecosystems, and yet somehow separate from them too. Everything we saw was amazing, but even more amazing should be that we could be so close to some of the world’s most powerful predators, in the middle of nowhere, and still be in control. Perhaps our current environmental challenges are the beginning of nature fighting back.