Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

Hanging with the animal paparazzi in South Africa

September 16, 2010 by Rolf Potts

If there’s one experience that stands out from the week I spent in South Africa, it was the time I sat in a safari-equipped Land Rover and watched two hippos get into a theatrical territorial showdown while my guide, Lembi, held forth for nearly 30 minutes on how it’s possible to assassinate people by slipping crocodile brains into their beer. For some reason, this mix of drama, absurdity, and charismatic megafauna encapsulated everything I’d hoped to find in the African backcountry.

Until this trip I had never been on a safari before. I’d been to places like Uganda and Ethiopia and Sudan (both as a journalist and a vagabonder) but I’d never gone to a game preserve and taken part in the most classic of Africa travel activities. As I’m sure is the case with many Americans, Africa was one of the first faraway lands I dreamed of visiting as a kid — the animals were the draw, of course — though my first few visits to the continent were focused on people and culture. On this trip I decided to leave the cities and towns and seek out the kind of wildlife that had captured my imagination as a child. Hence, my week in South Africa was less rooted in sober biological inquiry than in the simple desire to stare at amazing animals and hear cool stories about how they live.

The first leg of this journey took me seven hours northeast of Johannesburg, where I visited Kruger National Park and a number of private game reserves. South Africa is a huge country (roughly the size of Texas and California combined), and the avocado and orange-growing country I passed through en route to the safari reminded me of landscapes I’d seen in the American West. Winter was just ending in that part of Africa, and some of the mornings were so chilly I was forced to wear all my clothes at once. BootsnAll World Adventures set me up with a stay at Thornhill Safari Lodge near the Orpen Gate of Kruger, and I spent my days scanning the landscape for exotic critters while riding around in custom-designed wildlife-viewing vehicles (imagine a cross between a Land Rover and a small amphitheater).

Though I had a couple of different safari guides in this part of the country, my favorite was Lembi, a good-humored fellow who’d grown up near Kruger National Park, and shared all kinds of stories about how African animals live. In addition to detailing how crocodile brains can be deadly when mixed with beer, Lembi told me how (a) the elk-like waterbok have the power to make themselves smell like turpentine, which acts as an effective lion-repellent; (b) baboons have an affinity for eating newborn impalas; (c) ground ostrich eggshells can be made into a tea that cures the gout; and (d) if an elephant doesn’t shake the bugs off a tree before eating the bark, tiny ants might crawl up the elephant’s trunk, burrow into his brain cavity, and drive him to suicidal insanity.

As Lembi drove my fellow safari-goers and me through Kruger National Park, it was interesting to note which animals attracted the most attention from the various safari trucks. Zebras didn’t merit much attention, nor did impalas (unless they were being eaten by some other, more popular animal), but lions and rhinos and elephants invariably attracted a small knot of Land Rovers and rubbernecking tourists. In the African bush, value judgments on which animals are the most important seem to be pegged to the same system as red-carpet celebrities in Hollywood: The more people you have photographing an individual animal, the important that animal must be from a tourist perspective (and in a way, the classic African mammals are like celebrities, since they make regular TV appearances, and everyone can instantly recognize them on sight).

Along with lions, rhinos and elephants, leopards and buffalo round out what is known in safari circles as the “Big Five” — the elite group of imposing beasts that invariably attract the most attention from the animal paparazzi. Since I’m just as thrilled to see a giraffe or a wildebeest as an elephant or a buffalo, the “Big Five” distinction confused me at first — though I eventually learned that the animals in this group were selected years ago, on the basis of their deadliness to hunters. Still, I’ve never been one to trust the authority of list-based sightseeing standards, so I wound up following my whims and instincts in creating an informal tally of my personal favorite experiences in and around Kruger. At the top of my non-Big Five list were the male hippos, who — in what has to be the most endearingly adorable sign of aggression in the animal kingdom — declare their territorial intentions by facing their rivals and flipping their little tails back and forth in the water (often while pooping, so as better to spread their scent).

Check out the video above for a comprehensive take on my personal alternatives to the Big Five!

Note: The South Africa Safari, including my stay at Thornhill Safari Lodge came courtesy of BootsnAll World Adventures. Four days and three nights here (including all safari activities, meals, and ground transportation) starts at US$475 per person.

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  • zoya

    Africa is the famous for the wildlife and just love to go on the wildlife safari in Africa that will be amazing experience for sure.

    http://www.journeytothejungle....

  • Enjoying the time in South Africa in vacations will make your trip unforgettable one...The cities like Cape Town famous for its besutiness as well as fro the beaches too...Whereas animal lovers can visit the Kruger National Park to enjoy the wildlife safari...

  • Jacob

    Best video yet! Well done on everything so far.

  • So glad to find someone else interested in animals beyond the Big 5 tick list.

    #6 - The no-name bird is a Yellowbilled Hornbill - one of my favourite bushveld characters :)

  • Excellent report...great video! Love the passenger door "technician!"

  • Hey Shane! Oddly enough, I have Rolf on video getting into the truck, and you can see that the door is already broken. But I still like to blame it on him.

    As for the Vetkoek and polony chips...well, they were pretty disgusting.

  • Shane

    Hey Rolf and Justin

    Great to see the safari video completed. Wasnt it Rolf who broke Robert's door? Oh and where are the chips?!?!? Vetkoek and polony anyone?

    Good luck on the rest of the trip

  • I support the No-Baggage 9 initiative! :) They all seemed pretty cool, and it looks like fun.

  • Worldtraveler2

    I absolutely LOVE your posts and videos! So envious....would love to get some tips from Justin on how to shoot videos and edit! On our RTW trip last year, we had our video camera stolen, so we used the video from the camera but it was not as good quality. For an amateur photographer, what type of video camera to you suggest?

  • sfshug

    Your travel posts are fantastic! Thank you again for sharing your adventure!

  • This is totally fascinating. I know it's a test for the products, but the standard of your writing and filming is just so high too.

  • W2best

    What foldable keyboard is Rolf using?

  • Kerry Dirks

    Appreciate all the hard work you guys put into conveying your experiences of everyday life during these travels. The taste of the many environments, cultures, peoples, etc. really demonstrates how small and yet wonderful the world really is ... the song 'what a wonderful world' sung by Louis Armstrong comes to mind. Can't wait for the next video story blog. Agree w/prior post, get a roll of camouflage duct tape for the jeep.

  • I wanted to tell that guy that doing bodywork is more about looking at what's wrong and thinking about how to make it right, than it is just persistently banging on something.

    Also, #7 "forgot to write down the name of this bird" was great.

  • Yeah, and the humans as wildlife in their own way cracked me up as well...

  • vKafe

    Any else think "duct tape" at the end of the vid?

  • Awesome Rolf, glad ot hear you didnt attempt t go caveman on one of the big 5 and end up on the mantle of the MGM lion.

  • Erin

    I have to admit, the last two videos have been hilarious! Setting the no baggage thing aside for a minute, have you guys started to get a little slap happy from the rigors of your travel? In all seriousness though, these last two videos were so much fun to watch! What a treat! Thank you!

  • Hey Erin, thanks!

    Yes... we definitely get a bit slap-happy, especially after a long day of shooting or traveling. We typically edit late into the night, and usually by the time we're finished I'll be giggling like a school girl when editing out the gaffes, bloopers, (I plan on doing a blooper video at the end of the trip) and second takes. That's how I know it's time to get some sleep....

  • I can't wait to see the blooper reel! :D

  • billy7

    One of the best travel series I've seen. I am enjoying every episode. Thank you and great job, you guys!

  • Thanks Billy!

  • Jim

    Rolf and Justin---

    Great stuff for those of us vicariously traveling with you. Thanks.

    How are the pants doing? With one pair I expect they are getting dirty. Do you wash them at night as well, and being cotton, are they dry by the morning? And is the pit stone effective? Maybe you should ask Justin.

    Be safe, and thanks again.

  • Psquared

    Are there any advantages of the stone to deodorant or is it mostly a novelty item? After using it, would you take it on another trip or continue using it at home?

  • I can confirm that the pit stone does indeed work.

  • jaq

    Hi Guys- Another great segement. The safari guide "fixing" the jeep door at the end was fantastic. It made me think of the Family Guy gags where the humor is found in the extended duration and repetitiveness of some mundane act. Well done.

    Rolf, I asked the following in another blog section, so sorry for the repeat, but I am following your suggestion to repost questions... So thanks in advance.

    What is your process for writing the blogs? Do you use your analog notebook and then transcribe or do you write directly into your ipod? Do you find the creative muse works better one way or the other?

  • DADFAP

    A great take on the "popularity" of the animals on the veldt. You are right, there's so much more, the big 5 are the mega-stars but the smaller, more elusive animals give you a bigger buzz when you finally see them!

  • I really enjoy your video's, thanks for the great work!
    As a traveler I also enjoy making my own travel video's but of course I don't have a camera man like Justin to help me out. Maybe Justin has some tips on how to make great video's as an amateur film maker on the road?

  • Hi Martijn... thanks for the kind words. I could put a post together with tips on shooting video if there were enough interest...

  • great video! so cool that you got to see cheetah! :) I was in kruger about 6 months ago, we didn't see any cats, but we saw a ton of giraffe and elephants. did you notice how the giraffe seem to always pose for photos? I'd have to say the hippos were my favorite (though I also thought they were one of the big five until a tourist shop corrected me ;-) ).

    I think "interestingness" of the animals is gauged based on how common they are (in addition to if they're a big 5), and impala and zebra are all over kruger.

  • kdt

    I continue to be hugely impressed with these posts. I can't imagine how much work goes into putting these excellent videos together while you're on the road, and your written posts are truly enjoyable. Safe travels, and keep up the great work!

  • Thanks kdt!

  • SCOTTEVEST, Inc

    Tomorrow night at midnight Eastern Time I will be interviewing Rolf Potts about his adventures via video chat and will be posting the interview. If there are any questions you would like me to ask, please hit me back. Here are some off the top of my head:
    Have you had any problems with airport security or otherwise? I would expect that having no bags when traveling would trigger a higher level of scrutiny.
    What one item do you wish you brought that you didn't bring?
    What has been the most surprising part of the trip so far as it relates to traveling with no bags.
    How is the SCOTTEVEST clothing holding up generally? Any ideas on how we can improve?
    What advice do you have for any future No Baggage Challengers, as we do plan on doing this again and again?
    If you had to do it again, would you?
    Any other ideas would be appreciated. Thanks.

    Sincerely,

    Scott Jordan, CEO
    www.SCOTTEVEST.com
    scott@scottevest.com

  • Jim Fox

    Scott,
    I'd love to know more about how Rolf feels the no baggage aspect has allowed him to blend in or adapt to the cultures in which he finds himself immersed.
    Thanks,
    Jim

  • Gregg nicolson

    Scott, This challenge is ace, really really enjoying it.
    Do you think that an idea for future scottevest jackets could incorporate some sort of solar charger., or have a panel for the power monkey explorer or something so that future"no baggers" (sure to be a recognized term in the oxford dictionary by next year) ..could charge ipods/iphones etc etc as they travel.just a thought.
    Gregg

  • Now THIS is an idea I can get behind ... I already love the ScotteVest products I own, and I'm planning to add more soon ... but a way good solar charger is a truly brilliant idea. I had been looking into backpacks with voltaic cells, but already didn't like carrying a bag if I didn't have to ... now I see a great alternative. let's hope it gets tried by the innovators at SeV!

  • Wow - another great video. You guys are amazing. I visited a friend in Tanzania in 1999 and we did a safari tour - part of the trip on the plains, and part in the Ngorongoro Crater. I, too, enjoyed all of the wildlife - giraffes were so amazing... I think we were most excited about finding a Cheetah resting during the heat of the day. She was pregnant, still having to hunt, solo, in that heat.

    An unexpected moment even more memorable than the wildlife was coming back down out of the crater. Switchback roads, lots of pedestrians and bikes... we stopped on that dangerously narrow road so our tour guide could buy a live chicken that was being transported in a basket on the back of a bicycle. That chicken purchase turned out to be a good thing, because when we stopped in one of the towns our tour guide had his wallet stolen. After tracking down the police, who did not have vehicles, he ended up paying them to investigate... buying their services with the chicken as money. No Baggage Nine - I Love it!

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