Bush Baptist wrote:
the overseas visitors I spoke to at a wedding last week thought it was magic. But they weren't there for the rejuvenating bush experience, but just to tick off the marketed 'big 5'.
Indeed, and there's the rub: there is a huge market for the make-believe & line-'m-all-up wilderness experience that many lodges offer.
The simple fact is that the majority of people who go on safari are very casual about it. They are not fanatical nature lovers who spend every free moment in the bush. To them, a safari is just two or three nights out of a much longer itinerary, the kind of thing you do since you are visiting South Africa anyway. The greater part of their vacation they spend sipping wine in the Cape; dashing down to Cape Point; driving the Garden Route; zipping through Swaziland in a single day; visiting Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum and Voortrekker Monument, etc.
Such peoples' interest in and knowledge of the (African) natural environment is limited to what they have seen on Animal Planet and National Geographic Channel. They are looking for a one-off "been there, done that" experience, and are happy if they get pictures of the B5 to show off back home.
It is hardly surprising that game lodges try to offer a product that caters to such expectations. That boils down to striving to show the guests the animals the “need” to see within the time afforded in a two or three night stay. That not only requires habituating animals almost to the point where they become semi-tame, but also materially altering the natural environment by the excessive provision of water, bush clearing, constructing a very dense network of tracks, etc. In other words, providing the game viewing that guests expect means taking wilderness out of the equation.
Some lodges also try to broaden their appeal (or justify astronomically high prices) by adding gimmicks such as spas, offering six-course gourmet dinners, and so forth.
I should hasten to add that not all lodge visitors fall into the above category, and that there are lodges which at least try to temper expectations and avoid that pernicious B5 focus. That does mean rowing against the stream, or focusing on niche markets such as birding or walking trails.
The B5-in-a-jiffy type safari is also a typically South African product. I think there are two reasons for this:
- SA has much more to offer than only game viewing, so it attracts a lot of tourists who do not come only, or even primarily, for a safari. Tourists who go to e.g. Botswana or Zambia will do so because they are keen on viewing wildlife, there is not much else to do in those countries. Lodges in those countries will offer a product to match.
- Game reserves in SA are often far from pristine. Even the large national parks have tar roads, power lines, light pollution (the mine at Phalborwa!) dams and waterholes galore and other reminders that civilization is never far away. In other words, it is hard for SA game reserves and NPs to sell a “true wilderness” type of experience. I’m one of the biggest fans around of the KNP, but it ain’t no Okavango Delta, nor is it Kafue, nor Luangwa, just to name a few examples.
The SA lodge industry had to find a viable market segment to compete in, and came up with the speed dating safari, as well as the “luxury getaway with the B5 thrown in for free” concept.
Whether this has been beneficial for the natural environment and its wildlife is debatable. I would say that it has in some ways and not in others, but that’s another story.