Going Solo – On an African Safari

By on December 6, 2013
sunset on a river in Africa

By Louise Hoole –

Planning a holiday alone?  Louise Hoole explains why African safaris make the perfect sojourn for solo women of a certain age.

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion,” philosopher Henry Thoreau once said, and for three decades I have found myself pretty much agreeing with him.  Now, with middle age fast approaching and the old derrière expecting a bit more from life than a root vegetable to sit on, I have found myself asking why it’s not possible to have both: perfect solitude AND a velvet cushion?

Paying heed to the siren call of soft furnishings doesn’t mean you’re past it … does it?  Can’t a woman of a certain age treat herself to glorious alone time in an isolated wilderness AND be comfortable doing it?  My desire to investigate whether Thoreau’s maxim might be improved upon is what has brought me here, to one of the most remote camps in Africa, Jongomero, to share a 22,000 square kilometer national park with several million animals and nine other guests.

writing table on Safari camp

Photo Credit: Selous Safari Company

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as a writer, I’m constantly searching for ‘splendid isolation’.  Writers are known to be misanthropic curmudgeons, irascible, prickly in company and probably best kept away from the public.  But what has become increasingly clear during my 13 years of travelling around Africa, searching for the sequestered pearls of the continent, is how many women now choose to travel here on their own.  It’s no longer just the young backpackers hoping to climb Kili or snog a Maasai, nor the gap year students volunteering in orphanages, nor the NGO workers travelling on local dala dalas to practice their Swahili.  Today, turn up in some of the most out-of-the-way locations on earth, and you’re likely to find a professional older women sitting at the bar being shown how to mix a dawa.  These are women with a very clear idea of what they want and don’t want from a holiday: adventure without danger, dirt or disease; passion fruit panna cottas not mealy pap; glamour but not glitz.

camp tent in Selous

Photo Credit: Selous Safari Company

“I always choose boutique bush camps like Jongomero when I travel on my own,” Inge tells me.  “I love the peacefulness and the solitude, but I also like the fact that I’ll have someone to eat dinner with.  Family-run Jongomero prides itself on an en famille atmosphere.  It’s not intrusive: everyone understands if you want to be left alone, but if you like having someone to ooohhh and ahhh with over your first lion, or to swap safari stories with whilst the sun is going down, there’ll be someone around.”

woman walking out of camp tent Selous

Photo Credit: Selous Safari Company

 

Jongo dining

Photo Credit: Selous Safari Company

Inge travels solo at least once a year, usually when her husband is on a golf tour.  But our fellow guest, Sally, is taking her first ever holiday alone, here in Jongomero, having recently lost her husband.  “It sounds silly,” she says, “but the thing I was most dreading about travelling without my husband was walking into a dining room on my own.

It’s ridiculous to worry about that at my age, I know, but the thought was so intimidating, it almost stopped me coming away. I love that here someone collects you from your tent, escorts you to the table, and that you mix with the other guests at mealtimes, if you choose.”

“Nothing makes you feel worse than eating alone in anonymous restaurants,” Inge agrees.

 

“My husband died last year,” Sally continues.  “He always organized our holidays and chose where we’d go. And usually that would be to a beach, or to a ski slope. After I lost him, and the initial grieving and adjustment was over, I began to remember who I was again.

My daughter asked me: Where do you most want to go on holiday? What do you want to see? Where did you dream of going before you met Daddy?  And I found myself saying: Africa; I always dreamt of going to Africa. I actually surprised myself when I heard that come out of my mouth: I’d almost forgotten about that desire.  But I booked and here I am.”

Like Sally, the spur for Caro’s solo holiday was also sadness: in her case a drawn out divorce.   “It went on for a long time, and absorbed all my energies. It was a fight and after it was finished I felt exhausted, but also as if I didn’t know any more who I was, where my home was, what I should do. I felt I had to prove something to myself, to show that there was life beyond. And booking this safari was the first step. It was the first fun thing I had done for a long time.”

Death, divorce or the desire for distance from a golf-obsessed husband, may be very different motivations, but they have all brought us here: to a joyous lunch table in Jongomero where the spectre of unhappiness seems long since banished.

Over a bottle of chilled sauvignon blanc, we swap stories with the other guests about how we came to be in one of the most remote national parks on earth. A group of giraffes look on as we are served a double-baked cheese soufflé; an eagle circles overhead as the lamb is carved, and an elephant trumpets the arrival of the papaya and lime sorbet.

“What has done wonders for my soul,” Sally explains, “is just being a part of this beautiful wild world for a while, and at the same time feeling so cared for, so looked after.  When did someone last bring you a cup of tea and warm apricot biscuits in the morning? Slip a hot water bottle into your bed, whilst you were gazing at the stars? When did a Maasai last escort you to dinner?”

They laugh.

“It’s been a long time,” Inge quips.

More laughter.

“Probably the last time I came to Jongomero, in fact.”

There’s no denying that being in the wilderness puts everything else into perspective. “How can you be sad when you have seen lion cubs playing?” Caro asks. “When you’ve seen a baby giraffe take its first tentative steps.  When an elephant has smelt you on the wind and turned to look you in the eye.”

elephants view on Safari

Photo Credit: Selous Safari Company

“Karen Blixen said that you know you’ve truly alive when you are living among lions,” I tell them.

They nod.

So if you want to know what has made this safari in Jongomero perfect then you need to know it’s a combination of things: the pristine wilderness; the G & T’s in front of huge red African suns; the whoop of the hyenas as you lie in bed at night; the staff that smile as if you were the sun. It’s also having the time just to be quiet: to watch the landscape pass as you drive out at dawn, to look at the hippos in the river, to lie on your veranda at night and dream of the future.

hipppo on Safari

Photo Credit: Selous Safari Company

There were a few moments when I wanted to share the wonder of it – with a brother, a mother, a friend, or a lover.  But there were many more moments when the pure unadulterated joy of lying in an eight-foot wide bed with a hot water bottle warming my toes and a cup of tea in my hand watching a dazzle of zebras amble across sand rivers was simply enough. Alice Vandal once said that you can stretch to your fullest in lands like these, and not touch any edges; that there’s no dream too big for the wilderness. And I have to agree. I fell asleep each night spread eagled with a huge smile on my face, because everything felt right.  Felt complete.

Where to go:  Tanzania still only has a million tourists a year, and most of them go to the north of the country.  The country’s undiscovered southern circuit is therefore blissfully quiet.

What to see: Millions of animals, including some of the continent’s most endangered species.

What you won’t see: Other vehicles, other tourists: your closest guests in Ruaha are 70 km away.

How to get there: Fly Emirates or Qatar from London to Dar es Salaam (c. 12 hours), then take a short flight on Coastal Aviation (www.coastal.co.tz  to the Selous or to Ruaha  (65 minutes and 2.5 hours respectively).

Where to stay: Selous Safari Company has three boutique camps in the south of Tanzania. You can combine the gloriously isolated Jongomero in Ruaha National Park, with sumptuous Siwandu in the Selous Game Reserve, then have a couple of days chilling out on the beach at Ras Kutani (see www.selous.com for details on all camps).

Book through:  Rainbow Tours (rainbowtours.co.uk).

Special offers: Rainbow Tours is offers solo specials in Tanzania during certain months (you’ll want to contact them directly for special pricing).  Prices start from £3,890pp and include flights, transfers, concession and park fees, full board, game drives, walking and boat safaris.

How to prepare: Log onto www.travelhealth.co.uk to find your closest travel clinic. They can advise you about inoculations and malaria prophylaxis. British citizens can buy a visa on arrival ($50) or in advance from www.tanzaniahighcommission.co.uk.

What to take: Camera, binoculars, earthy-colored clothing, sunscreen, insect spray, something warm for the evening.

 

About Louise Hoole

Louise Hoole is a freelance writer working in Tanzania. Her first novel, Black Rock, based on the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte on the remote island of St Helena, will be published by Barranca Press in April 2014. Louise has also written several non-fiction books, including Seven Wonders (about the World Heritage Sites of Tanzania); Talking to the Ancestors (about African art); and Mud, Pirates, Jellyfish and Gas (about deepwater oil and gas exploration). She is currently working on a collection of poetry and a book about whale sharks. She loves sailing, savannahs, safaris, swimming and Tom Waits. For more information, please see www.louisehoole.com

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Going Solo – On an African Safari