“NAAAAAAANSTINGONYAMA BAGITHI BABA!” I belted the opening lyrics of The Lion King into my dad’s face when he announced he was taking us on safari. At 78, he was hardly a crypt-keeper—no walker with tennis balls, no real aversion to drafts, nary a cataract in sight. In fact, he recently got his first tattoo. But he wanted to see “the big five” (rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard, and elephant) with his grandchildren before he hit octogenarian territory, so off to Africa we went.
Two small things: I’m not into sun or animals. My complexion is what some people might call “ass white,” but I prefer “cadaver chic.” And regarding furry friends, I’m no Cruella de Vil, tap dancing on a zebra rug or sporting a Dalmatian coat. I just don’t go ballistic over Nat Geo.
This apprehension was amplified by the fact we were headed to Botswana, where we were instructed not to wear black. Climate change has resulted in a massive population of tsetse flies, which are drawn to dark colors. (If bitten, one can contract African sleeping sickness, which gives you something akin to narcolepsy, which, frankly, I think I already have.) Every single item in my closet is either jet-black, charcoal gray, or a combination of the two, so I’m already out of my comfort zone. I should add that small, rusty, Third World planes are my nightmare, and there are no alternative ways to access the camps. Next time, before I even think about boarding one of those death traps, I’m stealing my friend’s Xanax locket.
After the draining journey to the Okavango Delta, we were elated to be welcomed by rapturous song. The euphoric, warm staff of Belmond Eagle Island Lodge serenaded us with eight-part harmonies and amazing sound effects worthy of Pitch Perfect: Africa Edition. The lodge was built only with local materials by artisans from the nearby village of Xaxaba. After washing up and settling in, we went on our very first drive. I was outfitted like a late-in-life Greta Garbo who might burst into flames if she were touched by a ray of light. The “African massage” was bumpy and fun, and the views were so majestic that we didn’t even mind being jostled around by the jeep.
With each new creature we saw, I felt less like a jaded Manhattan hag and more like our wide-eyed kids. Breathtaking, majestic elephants. Herds of zebras (“Scalamandré in 3-D!”). Leopards that would make Dolce & Gabbana drool. A 13-foot crocodile (“Oh, look—two handbags, four wallets!” Kidding!). Two-ton hippos wowed us with their sheer mass, and thousands of monkeys dangling above us at every step. One simian posse of 20 or so was piled in my muslin hammock going totally bonkers and doing dives worthy of Greg Louganis as I freaked, watching them with an enthusiasm rivaled only by Aly Raisman’s parents. I thought surely one would splatter on the floor, and they’d be spatula-ing monkey guts off the wood deck. I suddenly got the “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” thing.
I also marveled at the breathtaking array of trees, with a few that are straight-up Game of Thrones–level in grandeur. Naturally, the New Yorker in me began to reveal herself as the week passed, and I got a tad less excited by the long drives where we only saw your basic Bambi-fest. My version of the classic supermodel line “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day” is “I don’t pull over for impalas.” I mean, really. Once you see 200 impalas, you’ve seen ’em all. Ditto baboons, which, by the way, have a serious case of resting bitch face.
My version of the classic supermodel line “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day” is “I don’t pull over for impalas.”
The highlight of the trip, though, was watching my dad zip-line above Victoria Falls from Zambia to Zimbabwe. He’d hesitated at first. He’s afraid of heights, and the decrepit equipment didn’t look like it would pass a safety inspection. “I’m no engineer,” he said, eyeing it suspiciously, “but this equipment doesn’t exactly seem first-class.” Would he be able to survive a fall?, he wondered. The zip-line operator shrugged. “There’s a small chance,” he said, “but it wouldn’t really matter, because the crocs down there are the real problem.” Good times. But once Dad saw my 10-year-old son, Fletch, suit up, he made his decision. My mom and I pounded mimosas, having full-tilt Jewish-mother panic attacks, but off they went, exhilarated and screaming, pants clean, as a double rainbow loomed overhead.
The Kids Are All Right
As the trip progressed through Botswana, we visited some villages to meet a few locals. We brought chocolate bars and art supplies for the children, who swarmed us with hugs and smiles, and my heart cracked wide open seeing their ill-fitting clothes. (Now I know where all the apparel designed for the losing Super Bowl team ends up!) They live in tiny huts that fit the whole family, even in a successful democracy like Botswana. However, despite the impoverished living conditions, they seemed 100 percent happy, affectionate, and preciously engaging. I didn’t see a single stressed-out pill-popping kiddo like the ones swarming New York City. I mean, I guess if you don’t have a toilet, you’re not worrying about how to score some extra Adderall, but there was a pure and magical joy infused in every corner we visited. My kids showed them how to fist-bump, but they showed my kids you don’t need much to be smiling.
As we were finishing a fireside dinner on the last night of our trip, we heard the distant singing of locals, who approached the fire holding hands and sharing their glorious voices with us. The sound is thoroughly original and ecstatic—it’s no wonder Paul Simon felt compelled to export a version to the U.S.
One by one, they took our hands and led us to dance with them under the stars. We all eventually formed a circle and, in the pitch black with the light of only a torch and the sky, my children, husband, parents, and I followed the local steps and held hands and sang along. Despite all the magical beasts we spied, my best memories of Africa don’t involve the Noah’s-ark population. What really struck me was the soul, the music, the warmth, the meals cooked with tender loving care—and of course, more precious than Botswana’s famous diamonds, time with my beloved family members, dancing madly to the pounding drumbeats.
Jill Kargman is a writer and actress based in New York