Seeing the "Big Five" in the wild consistently holds a top spot on many a traveler's bucket list. And it deserves every top 10 list it has ever made.
But what many travelers to Africa overlook is an even more exciting opportunity -- meeting fellow humanoids who still live communally, who still hunt and gather and who still paint their torsos with butter fat and ochre body paint. Africa has more than 400 tribes and while many members have jumped onto and are even helping steer the capitalist bandwagon, there are still pockets of tribal people who practice their ancient customs.
And if you think it's a privilege and honor to see a lion in the wild, try spending a couple nights in a Himba village as I did on a recent safari in Namibia.
I knew going in this trip was going to be different. Aabadi Safaris, unlike many safari companies in this striking country that sprawls the coast just north of South Africa, is owned and operated by a Namibian woman named Meke Imbili.
When I jumped into her van, she was tucking into a smiley, a fire-roasted sheep's head complete with brain and eyeballs. It's called a smiley because its burned-on-the-brai lips pull back into an eerie grin. Meke was aware her cuisine might not go down well with Westerners, at least those not watching horror movies, but when I showed interest, she offered a bite (I politely declined) and told me she supplements her safari income by roasting these juicy heads (the cheeks, I'm told, are primo) for friends.
Her non-smiley-eating safari customers, of course, get ample encounters with leopards, rhinos and elephants, but, most importantly, they get the rare chance to camp with tribal Namibians. I camped in the Kunene region with the Himba and, in the Otjozondjupa Region with native San, the politically correct name for bushmen who have inhabited this part of the world for some 30,000 years. Meke also showed me their many rock paintings, scattered throughout caves and rock shelters in Damaraland.
While the rock paintings -- including the famous White Lady who, turns out, is actually a male shaman -- don't move around, the semi-nomadic tribes we visited aren't so reliable.
Just getting to the spot where the Himba tribe was holed up weathering yet another drought took six hours, a couple flat tires (suffice it to say, there are no roads) and enough jostling that I felt no guilt in foregoing the Stairmaster that some tourist destinations offer and this one, of course, didn't.
Come to think of it, this destination also didn't have a bed or running water. It seems the chief, who had kindly agreed with Meke to open his village to a stranger, got so caught up in saving his herd of cattle that he had taken them into the hills in search of water, forgetting to tell the rest of the tribe that they should expect us. Not that I blame him. Government officials were notorious for not following through on their promises to send help and replacement parts for no-longer functioning wells. Many well-meaning government types, I was told, get halfway there, pop their second spare tire (a necessity mandated by Namibian law) and turn back around to Windhoek or Swakopmund.
I'm happy to report that we did not give up. And Israel, my trusty guide, had a tent and a cot at the ready. The village even came up with a program to "entertain" the weird American who didn't understand a word of the Otjihimba they spoke. Luckily, Israel, who was Herero, a close tribal relative, could understand enough to translate. The best I could figure is their dances around the okuruwo (fire) had to do with honoring some god named Mukuru and, of course, their ancestors.
Because of the harsh, ornery desert climate, Himba men and women go topless. They also paint their bodies and braided hair with a reddish mixture of butter fat and ochre, possibly the world's first sun block. Beaded ankle bracelets protect their legs from venomous bites.
Too bad they didn't have bracelets or some other protection from the German colonial forces that, in 1904, did their damnedest to wipe them out along with the Herero. German military commander Lothar von Trotha poisoned their water holes and ordered his men to shoot on sight.
More recently, these proud people have been wrangling with the government over a hydroelectric dam that would end up flooding their ancestral lands.
So, sure get out there and take a photo of a rhino and an elephant before it's too late. But just remember, there are other endangered species in Africa, as well.