Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Why Not Just Go To A Zoo?"

Jenny Carless is filling in for Supriya this week. Jenny is a nonfiction writer, amateur wildlife photographer, and novelist-in-training who last blogged with us in May.
I don’t think my favorite vacation destination—going on safari in East Africa—is particularly unusual. But based on some of the questions I’ve been asked, I’ve learned that others do! Here are a few examples …
Why not just go to a zoo?

Yes, believe it or not, someone did ask me this—with a straight face.

Aren’t you scared …

I get many versions of this question!

… to sleep in a tent by yourself with wild animals all around?

I’ve never heard of anyone being attacked in a tent in the night. (Feel free to set me straight!) Still, this is the question almost everyone asks.

What's there to be scared of?
Photo (c) Jenny Carless

Whether it’s true or not, a guide told me this on my first trip, and I choose to believe him: Lions and other wild animals don’t “get” the concept of “inside.” They can smell you, but if the tent canvas is there and they can’t see you—or an obvious way in—they don’t try. After all, why bother, with all those tasty gazelles, zebras, and wildebeests all around?

… of the spiders and snakes?

Yes, actually, I am. But there’s not much I can do about it—and if I’m going to get any sleep at all, I have to buck up and deal with it.

One of the wonderful things about my favorite camps is that they send someone in to check our tents while we’re having dinner. (I think of this as “spider patrol,” and it is much appreciated!) So, the worst I have to contend with are a few (admittedly, sometimes ginormous) spiders and things like millipedes. I try to get the big spiders out, but if I can’t, as long as they’re not on the tent ceiling hanging over my head, I force myself into “don’t think about it” mode—and I remind myself that it could be worse: I could be dealing with Australian or Hawaiian critters!

…and I don’t get into bed without doing a thorough spider/scorpion check. I learned this lesson the hard way on my first trip!

… to be in Nairobi?

Simply the mention of Kenya’s capital tends to make friends and family nervous. The first few visits, it was vague terrorist warnings. Last year, Somali rebels. (Last October, I had to text my family three nights in a row, after grenade attacks, to confirm that I was fine.)

Still, I quite like Nairobi. It’s loud and colorful and filthy and a tad overwhelming; it has incredibly friendly people and some who give me really nasty looks. But I can say the same for several large European cities that shall remain nameless.

The next-best thing to mother's milk
Photo (c) Jenny Carless

And Nairobi has some wonderful places to visit. On the wildlife side, the DavidSheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues and rehabilitates orphan elephants (typically victims of poaching), and the GiraffeCentre is involved in educating children about wildlife and helping to rebuild the population of endangered Rothschild giraffes.

At the Giraffe Centre, you can learn about and feed giraffes

…to visit Gorilla Forest Camp?

Gorilla Forest Camp, in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, is a lovely spot—but one with a grisly history: Years before my visit, rebel Rwandans attacked guests there. Several friends called me insane, but time had passed, that area was considered safe at the time, so I went.

Silverback, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Photo (c) Jenny Carless

I didn’t want to miss seeing mountain gorillas in their world. Slogging through steep, swampy, you-can’t-get-through-here-without-a-machete rainforest was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done (a little embarrassing to admit after Alli’s post on Tuesday!)—and scarier than staying at the camp, in some places—but so worth it! I saw an entire family of gorillas at play and watched a silverback snacking away happily on nettles—a magical experience.

I didn’t have an “up close and personal” experience like you’ll see in this video, but watch it to see an amazing human/gorilla interaction. I can’t be sure, but this video looks like it’s at Gorilla Forest Camp. I guess I was there on the wrong day!

So, these are some of the reasons I go to East Africa on vacation. I suppose unusual is in the eye of the beholder. Do you go on vacations your friends think are scary?


  1. Many of my friends think every trip I take to Iran is scary. I didn't mention this in my post on Monday, but I get questions similar to yours all the time: "are you sure it's quite safe?" Though no one has ever yet asked me about scorpions or other poisonous creatures. :) Thanks for sharing these fascinating stories with us, Jenny.

    1. Hi Heidi,
      You're welcome!
      I think it's so sad that, because the two governments don't like each other much, it makes a trip to Iran somewhat intimidating for most Americans. Let's hope that won't be the case forever ...

  2. Jealous, jealous, jealous. Seeing gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda is number 1 on my dream travel list.

  3. Hi Edith-
    It is pretty amazing, I must say. Definitely one of my most memorable experiences to date. I watch that video of the gorillas grooming the man and wonder how I'd have felt in his shoes--probably terrified on one hand, but what a privilege!

    I hope you're able to visit the gorillas some day!