A Blind Man’s Trip Will Change the Way You Think About Safaris

A visually impaired traveler journeys through the wilds of Zimbabwe and discovers a side of the safari experience that very few know.

A Blind Man’s Trip Will Change the Way You Think About Safaris

The Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve is set on 124,000 acres of wilderness in the southern corner of Zimbabwe.

Photo by Cait Opperman

This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast!

As our land cruiser nosed through the brush, cicadas buzzed above us like power lines. My wife and I had been in Zimbabwe only a few hours. So far, our guide on our first safari drive, Alan, had already spotted several species of fleet antelope, and I was already concerned that for me—as a blind man—yes, this was going to kind of suck. I might as well be at a drive-in movie.

Here, you try: Close your eyes. Over there is a kudu, whatever a kudu is.

Welcome to a blind safari.

Dharmesh, the driver, stopped the vehicle. Alan suggested in his lovely baritone voice that we step out and stretch our legs on the dusty path and have a drink, or “sundowner.” Robert, our animal tracker, dismounted from his seat on the vehicle’s grill to pass around beer and snacks. In the distance, apparently, a giraffe could be seen slipping into the trees. Tracy, my wife, watched quietly as Alan began his work, describing the animal and its behavior and its place in the ecosystem of the locale, the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve.

My can of lager, because I could taste it, was more real to me than a giraffe.

How a blind man can be guided, how I might connect with unseen sights in an unseen place, would be Alan’s challenge for the next seven days. A few years earlier, he had guided his first blind client through a game reserve on the western boundary of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The experience had radically enriched his approach.

“Whether you’re sighted or not, the bush is overwhelming and confusing when you first arrive. It’s an onslaught of stimuli,” Alan told me. “But guiding a blind person helped me realize the significance, the depth, of our other senses. I could use them to enhance my voice as a guide. A taste, a sound, touching or holding something, these slow everything down to a different focus.”

A safari, by cliché and assumption, is overwhelmingly driven by photography. Tourists survey a living museum of wild animals and, as their primary experience, merely look at Africa through cameras and screens.

Zimbabwe is home to nearly 700 species of birds and 199 species of mammals.

Zimbabwe is home to nearly 700 species of birds and 199 species of mammals.

Photo by Cait Opperman

But with Alan at the helm, here I was, ready not only to experience what a safari might reveal to the full spectrum of sensory input, but also to try to deepen my own understanding of what it means, or can mean, to be guided. Being blind, I’m a bit of a connoisseur. Daily, I’m dragged and steered and told where and how to move, perpetually hitched like a wagon to the elbows of strangers. You could say I live in a chronic state of guidance. But getting around without getting killed isn’t anything like having a sense of place. Perhaps a professional guide could impart some of that. So far, I’d heard rumors of a giraffe and nursed a beer.

Suddenly Alan’s hand clamped my shoulder, communicating everything in a grip. Do not speak. Do not move. Adrenaline shot through me. We were in a clearing surrounded by bush and shadow and, well, something else. Something not-giraffe.

Silence, for the blind, is often the most terrifying sound. Alan’s grip firmed and pivoted me a few degrees to the right, aiming my attention like a satellite dish. At what?

“Elephant,” he whispered. “Twenty-five meters.”

I strained to hear it. To hear something. Was it moving? Had it seen us? Alan’s hand gently squeezed my shoulder, then again, and again, as if counting the animal’s steps.

Everything around us is a living, working system, not just a view.

“Fifteen meters,” he whispered.

I couldn’t hear my wife. I couldn’t sense where our vehicle was, or how far we were from its safety. Alan’s hand assured me we were fine for now, but it also implied, by its constant grip, everything could change in an instant.

“Ten meters.”

Finally, a faint noise. The plodding of a six-ton bull. Something I had never heard. An elephant’s loose-structured feet expand, landing with a small, dispirited squish, like the sound of spiking a semi-deflated football. Now I could understand how something so large could glide so quietly through the bush. Squish, squish, it lumbered toward us, deciding whether it would charge, or not.

Alan’s hand clenched harder. The animal had stopped. I could sense its stare, Alan angling my body towards its gaze. Neither I nor the bull knew what to make of the other.

Then, squish, squish, it stepped off into the bush and was gone. An odor followed. Wet earth, like parched land after a first rain. Later, Alan would explain that I had smelled the elephant’s method of cooling and hygiene. Mud retains moisture, so elephants coat themselves to stay cool. When it dries, they’ll scrape themselves against leadwood or baobab trees, the hardened earth taking parasites from their skin. An elephant waxing. I hadn’t seen that, but I’d smelled my way into something.

Alan’s grip on my shoulder finally loosened, and a quick pat of assurance told me everything was OK now. Nothing to see here. I was, in a word, awestruck.

“Well,” he chirped, “that doesn’t happen every day.”

The art of the Shangaan people inspires the decor of the Singita Pamushana Lodge in Zimbabwe.

The art of the Shangaan people inspires the decor of the Singita Pamushana Lodge in Zimbabwe.

Photo by Cait Opperman

Singita’s Pamushana Lodge is, by all sensory metrics, a stunning nest of luxurious thatched villas atop the sandstone cliffs of Malilangwe Lake. This game reserve, formerly a commercial cattle ranch, sprawls across roughly 130,000 acres and remains privately owned and operated by a nonprofit trust. The land itself has rewilded, thick with mopani and acacia groves, dry riverbeds, and rising stone bluffs. Caves and rock paintings can be found, too, evidence of the land’s human occupants in centuries past. Revenues from photographic safaris like ours fund the trust’s wild game conservation efforts. A sampling of notable resident species include rhinos, both black and white, lions and leopards, African wild dogs and cape buffalo, cheetahs, baboons, wildebeests and hartebeests and, of course, elephants. In addition to our guide, driver, and tracker, the reserve employs biologists and includes an on-site lab, as well as an anti-poaching force. Whenever we stepped from our Land Cruiser, Dharmesh would radio central command to record our location, as the security team would find and track any unreported human footprints. Mornings at the lodge begin early. The aspiration was to be on safari by sunrise. Most large animals would be on the move by then, in search of water before the day’s heat could stamp every living thing into lethargy.

“Today,” Alan posited over breakfast, “perhaps we should try our luck at the blind.”

Yes, the blind guy was going to—a blind. But this blind referred to a semi-underground hideout, like the ones used by hunters. Pamushana had constructed one next to a shallow seasonal pan where water, and animals, naturally collected. It would allow us to get close enough that I might smell and hear any number of thirsty species, from zebras to hippos to elephants, within a mere few feet.

Alan’s style of guiding was to set a soft goal for the day—in this case, to check out the blind—but to take the long way, leaving our experience open to whatever caught his attention. We’d barely descended the sandstone heights of the lodge when Alan flagged Dharmesh to stop the Land Cruiser and strolled off into the bush. You know, like he was popping into a convenience store, not a forest that could conceal a lion’s jaws.

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“Here, take these,” he said as he returned to the vehicle. He handed Tracy and me some leaves. “Crush one between your fingers and touch it to your tongue.”

My reflex was to ask what we were about to taste, and why. Nobody wants to close their eyes and put an unnamed unknown in their mouth. But I didn’t ask.

I shoved leafy bits into my face. Instantly my tongue went dry. Ridiculously dry.

“That’s from all the tannins,” Alan explained. “This is the leaf of a mopani tree. Now you know why most animals don’t eat them. Except elephants.” Given the tonnage of greenery they consume, it makes sense that elephants would possess the digestive capability to tolerate a nasty plant that attracts few competitors. “Now we also know what animal we’re likely to find in a mopani grove and why.”

He handed me another leaf, this one attached to a twig and nestled tightly among short, sharp barbs. Acacia. Whereas the mopani protected itself biochemically, by taste, the acacia deterred predators with pain. Imagine, Alan noted, that you are a blunt-nosed browser, such as a rhino. To get between the barbs for the leaves would be nearly impossible. Giraffes, on the other hand, have long, narrow faces and long, narrow tongues that nimbly work between thorns. Where you find acacia, you find giraffes.

More than getting a botany lesson under the sun, I was learning about a way of guiding that begins with the animal’s own sensory experience. Leaves are food, so Alan had us approach them by taste and touch. Because most safaris work toward a photographic goal, the tendency is for guides to simply point to a distant scene and label it with names and facts like captions. Over there is acacia. Giraffes eat those. That’s a mopani tree. Elephants like those. But Alan wanted us to experience the reality that everything around us is a living, working system of taste and tactile strategy for survival, not just a view.

Soon we stopped again. “Give me your hands,” Alan said.

I couldn’t help myself. “What is it?” I asked. Something in his tone made me wary, as if he knew better than to tell me what he’d found.

“Just feel this. Hold this,” he insisted. “It’s really something.”

Please don’t let it be a snake, I thought.

He dropped into my hands a rough and fibrous ball, the size of a melon, of what felt like steel wool. I couldn’t guess what it was as I rolled it around between my palms. Nothing snakey, that was for sure.

“Rhino poo,” he said.

I swear I could hear him smiling. Then he laughed.

Singita Pamushana Lodge overlooks 130,000 acres of protected land.

Singita Pamushana Lodge overlooks 130,000 acres of protected land.

Photo by Cait Opperman

But you have to pause and appreciate such an act of bravery. Really. Imagine the potential offense of taking advantage of my blindness for a joke. So many people treat me like a child, or a fragile soul. Yet Alan had already figured me out. At least well enough to know I wouldn’t get upset when handed a ball of rhino poo. In addition to interpreting nature, a good safari guide must also interpret the other people in the Land Cruiser. Our destination that day, the blind, was nothing like the structure I’d imagined. In my mind’s eye, we would crowd behind a lean-to, perhaps a wall of branches and logs among the trees, from which we’d spy on animals. Instead, we entered an entire room of comforts dug into the earth next to the water, its conical roof perfectly resembling a massive termite mound. A few steps down and through a door, we were shown into a lounge, complete with couches and a restroom and snacks, where we could wait for wildlife to arrive. Dharmesh and Robert opened the windows, two long slats that squinted from ground level, with no screens, no barricade from whatever might visit the watering hole just feet from us.

The potential dangers of this were real. Dharmesh told us they once found a six-foot black mamba snake stretched out behind the couch cushions.

I had just started to doze a little in the dusky cool when Alan whispered, “Rhinos are coming. Two. A mother and calf.”

When you are a blind man strapped into the tracker’s seat on the grill of a Land Cruiser, you feel as if you are floating through the air, because you are.

I jumped to the open windows and listened. Soon I heard a snort and some stamping in the mud, all of it just a few feet away. But the water was also being upset somewhere to my right. A splashing, distant, then closer. “Uh-oh,” Dharmesh whispered. “Hyenas.”

I felt a familiar tickle in my spine. The tension that precedes violence.

Three hyenas approached as the rhinos continued to drink, unfazed. I feared that, at any moment, the three could attack, or chase, or scare the rhinos. If you can’t see, your awareness hangs on the slightest changes in rhythms, maybe of the hyenas’ feet, of their breathing, anything that might indicate where the situation is going. One hyena groaned, low and loud and clear, and then drank.

For now, little seemed to be happening in the peaceful distance between species, including us.

So many people go on safari with the desire, above all else, to see a lion. If you ask Alan, however, it is the least interesting purpose to have. Lions sleep most of the time. What is to be taken, to be remembered, from that? Here in the blind, the hyenas just feet from the rhinos, I stumbled on my own purpose, or a hope to guide me. I wanted to hear a hyena laugh. It would be a trophy of sound. My audio postcard, something so rare and otherworldly and off camera.

But the hyenas wouldn’t give a peep. Shortly after they arrived, they finished drinking and darted off into the hills, but not before the biggest one dropped the nastiest, most eye-burning carnivore fart ever blown into the face of a blind man. It was as if she knew I wanted to hear her laugh, and instead mocked me by obliterating my sense of smell. The stench was so foul and expansive in the blind that we were driven out and called it a day.

As we left, the rhinos continued to drink, as they will.

Our villa at the lodge, inspired by the mortarless stone walls of the royal palace of Great Zimbabwe—the now ruined 11th-century capital 100 miles north of Singita Pamushana—had few right angles. Pillars and rounded corners softened any edge. I often pinballed off them and was sent randomly wandering our cool, snaking rooms, lost and disoriented. At least I knew that we faced the lake. When confused, I listened for the hippos below our deck. Their old-man grunts and guffaws were my North Star. Every morning I awoke to their sound, and to the birds. Four percent of the world’s species are represented on the reserve. Imagine the variety and volume that creates. I would notice a specific call, and Alan would affix a name. Bulbul and oxpecker, quelea and ghost bird. My favorite quickly became the go-away bird, whose cry literally mimics a plea to, yes, go away. On the thatched roof above our breakfast table, we heard the foraging of hyraxes, creatures something like a marmot or a prairie dog, their name something from the pages of Dr. Seuss. I relished the pleasure of so many new and strange names, their peculiar sound and shape in my mouth. My own call. My own guffaws and song.

Malilangwe Lake is home to hippos, crocodiles, and a variety of fish and water birds.

Malilangwe Lake is home to hippos, crocodiles, and a variety of fish and water birds.

Photo by Cait Opperman

When you are a blind man strapped into the tracker’s seat on the grill of a Land Cruiser, you feel as if you are floating through the air, because you are. And dangling out in front like that, you are really just a hunk of bait. Or at least that’s how I felt. I wasn’t forced to this perch, mind you. Alan was cool with me taking over Robert’s post, and was curious what would happen if the tracking were turned over to my senses. On the third day, we began motoring through mopani groves and along riverbanks, and I became increasingly aware of myriad odors, some bold, some subtle, but all of them coming at me with Alan’s descriptions of the quickly shifting landscape. Perhaps I smelled dying yellow grasses, then suddenly the sour chemical of umbrella trees, their canopy passing above, then just as suddenly gone, all smells lifted, replaced by the breezy blank of an open, sandy flatland. As I inhaled the air, suspended on the tracker’s perch, my mind’s-eye image of where we were grew clearer and clearer, and more alive, than ever before. Soon I could raise my hand, flagging to Alan inside the Cruiser that something was disrupting the smell of the land, something that might be of note. A few times I noticed the same thin marbling in the air, a faintly sour streak, sweaty like a horse. Moments later, off in the trees, perhaps 50 yards away, Alan saw the giraffe. How rare it is that I guide anybody. Not that I was very good at it. Mostly I flagged the same pungent smell, only to be told I’d stopped us in the middle of another rhino latrine.

But I didn’t catch a whiff of anything before Dharmesh slammed on the brakes one afternoon. Alan immediately reached through the lowered windshield to where I sat on the tracker’s seat, and clamped my shoulder. You know, the way he had when we’d faced down an elephant. This time I was alone in front, and exposed.

“Black rhino,” he whispered. “Just be calm.”

We didn’t want to startle it. Quick movements can alarm a rhino enough to charge. Black ones, in particular, are nervous and prone to acting out. So Alan began to whistle like a bird, letting it know we were here, small and unthreatening. It turns out rhinos are nearly blind. Wouldn’t that be funny, I thought, the blind goring the blind?

I heard it take a step. A snort. It was coming closer, curious. And closer. A few more steps, then it rushed at us, but stopped short. Sweat slicked my back. The rhino was perhaps 30 feet in front of me, staring me down, with nothing between us. No smell helped me track its movement. No sound hinted at what it would do next.

The rhino and I just hid in our blind silences.

Then it took off for the safety of the bush, exit stage left.

And I retired from my experiment as a tracker.

On one of our last days, the call I’d been hoping for came over the radio. Five hyenas had been spotted with a kill in the water near the blind. At that moment I was on my hands and knees tracing the shape of a fresh leopard track Robert had spotted in the sand. We were more than a half hour’s drive from the blind. The hyenas could easily scatter before we got anywhere near. Then again, if they did run off, we could try our luck tracking. It was a question of every safari’s diminishing resource: time. Burn an afternoon chasing nothing, or run after a specific experience and forsake others along the way?

We loaded up and took off in pursuit of hyenas.

The spotted hyena is the only hyena species that laughs.

The spotted hyena is the only hyena species that laughs.

Photo by Cait Opperman

By the time we arrived at the blind, things had escalated. Yes, the hyenas were still in the water with what looked to Alan like the leg of an antelope, possibly a hartebeest. But a pack of African wild dogs had gathered at the water’s edge. The species is nearly extinct. Only 50 dogs live in the entire reserve, and more than 20 of them were here, closing in on the hyenas to either take their kill or pick a fight. The air smelled of blood. Hundreds of queleas, tiny birds, tornadoed above the dogs in a humming swarm. The wind from their wings blew in my face. Soon there was a howl. Then a rumbling groan. And another. Warnings from the hyenas. Then I heard it. Their nervous laughter cut through the air. It was like a forced chuckle after a bad joke. Suddenly, an explosion of water and splashing as the wild dogs attacked. They rushed in on the hyenas, trying to disable them, mobbing, circling, confusing them from every side. The cries of wild dogs are the most alien noise I’ve encountered, like a chorus of twittering computers. Vicious, the dogs bit. The hyenas bit back and laughed, or, wounded, squealed like pigs in slaughter. The sound at times grew so intense that I wanted to turn away, as if I couldn’t bear to look.

All of this went on, the dogs circling our Land Cruiser, the hyenas fighting, the chasing, the noise, for hours. It wasn’t pretty, no. Or so I assume. But I can say I listened, as did Alan and Tracy, Dharmesh and Robert. We listened and we knew, given the dogs’ near-extinct status, that we were experiencing one of the rarest sounds in the world. In fact, their fight may have been the only sound of its kind made on earth that day.

And I can still hear it.

This story won Gold in the Foreign Travel category of the 2017-2018 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition, overseen by the Society for American Travel Writers Foundation.
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