Last updated: 06:30 PM ET, Sat May 09 2015

Dispatch: Meet Botswana

Features & Advice | David Cogswell | May 07, 2015

Dispatch: Meet Botswana

Safari brochures tell about the inclusions of a safari package, the activities, the skeletal structure of the itinerary, but I haven’t read in a brochure about the kind of experience I had on my first night in Botswana.

I arrived at Leroo La Tau safari lodge in the afternoon just in time to participate in the afternoon game drive. When the sun went down we stopped for the customary sundowner cocktail, then returned to the lodge and while we were waiting for dinner we suddenly heard voices.

It was a vocal ensemble singing a chorale piece in flawless four-part harmony, with melodies and countermelodies bouncing off each other in a joyous polyphonic rapture.

As I looked to the source of the sound I saw a procession of about 20 people marching in a rhythmic procession around the corner of the building and into the front door of the restaurant. As they stepped by us in time, one by one you could hear each person’s individual part as they passed.

They all seemed to be overflowing with joy and pleasure in the singing and performing for us. It was perfection, but this was no hired musical group. It was the employees of the lodge, all the people who make the operation work, in housekeeping, food service, front and back office functions, everything.

At the lodge they perform their various functions, but every one of them can sing and knows exactly their part and when to come in. It is technically very complex music, but forget about technicalities – it is the spiritual joy it communicates that is its true value. It practically lifts you off your feet. Coming out of nowhere, as it seemed at the time, it was a shock, a very pleasant surprise.

The voices filled the room like a church, and enveloped all present in a sound that seemed like it came from the mouths of angels.

African choral music is some of the most spiritually moving music that has ever come out of any civilization. To the employees of Leroo La Tau it was as natural as breathing. They all performed it as if they were born to it, and they were. This is Africa.

There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. It is hard for tour operators to tell people what is in store for them in Africa because it is really impossible to transmit the experience to people who have not had the experience.

The procession of singing people was the prelude to a theatrical presentation of a traditional African wedding. It was a light-hearted, humorous presentation, tongue in cheek throughout. But though it was comedy, it did present the true story of how traditional African weddings in Botswana are conducted.

Every stage of the wedding ceremony was marked by a different song, performed by the choir of employees. Everyone knew every song and sang their parts perfectly. And people acted out the parts of the different participants of a typical wedding with uncles and cousins and an old man and an old woman who occupied a position of honor in the wedding. The acting out of the roles and the narrative were hilarious and everyone, actors and audience, laughed together.

This is as much a part of the African safari experience as seeing elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and leopards.

The standard introductory package for Americans visiting South Africa is a city/wilderness combination with a few days in Cape Town soaking up the culture and then a few days at a safari lodge seeing the wildlife. The general idea is you go to the city to experience the culture and you then go out to the wilderness to experience nature. But it’s not really divided that way.

It is not only in the cities that you find culture. The safari lodge experience is a powerful cultural experience.

As powerful as the experience of African wildlife is, when you are on safari you experience the natural world as it is presented from within a culture. The wildlife is made available to you through a safari lodge system run by Africans in Africa.

In fact, most of what you experience on safari is not, and cannot be presented in brochures. If it could be, I guess there would be no need to go on safar. You could get it all out of a book.

It is the indescribable things that really create the zap of the experience. Nature always produces novel, unprecedented events, and all those unexpected individual incidents will be the marrow of the experience that is implanted in you forever.

It is the rare sighting of a leopard as she slinks gracefully by a few feet in front of you, but it is also the oddity of termite mounds that look like temples and are some of the largest objects visible on the flat landscape. It’s the things your ranger guide searches diligently for, like a pride of lions, and it is also the things you don’t invite, like the monkeys, squirrels or birds who hang around the outdoor restaurant waiting for an opportunity to steal your food.

I have known some people who are so armored and so set in their ways that they are impervious to almost any experience, but for most people, the safari experience is one that will change you. Seeing the power and majesty of nature in action in Africa is something that can change the way you order your world.

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