Going neutral on safari
It was to be my first safari experience. On assignment as a freelance travel writer, I was preparing to pack my bags and head to Botswana in Africa.
With the ability to take a ‘plus-one’ travel companion, I invited my sister Felicity along to join me. Her husband agreed it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and so, it was settled – we were heading to Africa – and the elephant, giraffe and lion emojis started flying in texts between us.
I began to make plans for the important business of travel, such as checking passports, luggage, foreign currency, visa requirements and medical vaccinations. But soon, my Vintage Travel Kat mind naturally turned to the other pressing matter involved in such a trip – “what was I going to wear?”
My sister, Felicity, was one-up on me in this department, as she started to message me photo after photo of her new safari wardrobe – a leopard-print bucket hat, animal print sneakers and even a khaki-coloured travel diary.
Barely able to sleep with the excitement, Felicity had read through all the travel documentation provided by luxury tour operators Abercrombie & Kent who we were hosting me as a journalist.
Reading the dress code suggestions out to my mum over the phone, the paperwork clearly stated that guests should wear neutral, earth-coloured tones to blend in with the environment and to avoid bright colours so as not to stand out to the animals. Conveying this to our worry-prone, elderly mum, she shrieked – “Oh god, someone better tell Katrina NOT to wear bright colours – or she’ll be eaten by a lion!”
What can I say? Mum knows me quite well because I have to admit, up until that trip, I didn’t own a single piece of khaki-coloured clothing in my wardrobe (save for a pair of Zara olive-coloured jeans, but even they had a strip of gold rhinestones down each leg seam).
I immediately conjure visions of my vintage icons and what they may have worn on safari. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton secretly remarried for the second time in Botswana in October 1975, staying in the same national park and region that we would be visiting – Chobe National Park, home to the largest elephant population in the world.
Grace Kelly’s prim and proper outfits from the 1953 movie Mogambo, also starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner flash before me, with her crisp white shirts and khaki skirts.
I recall my father’s classic 1970s safari suits – one in baby pink and another in pale blue. Ah, you’ve got to love the 70s!
I buy myself a few key, safari-appropriate items to wear – some new, and some from op shops. I go for linen shirts in natural colours and can’t resist a khaki, safari-style silky shirt. To top it off, the classic, plaited brown leather belt also becomes a first in my wardrobe, and for true vintage measure, I throw in a few accessories of my favourite retro scarves, costume jewellery and even a cravat my father wore on his honeymoon in 1963.
Arriving into Botswana is surreal. We flew from Sydney to Doha; then through Johannesburg before arriving at Kasane International Airport in Botswana. As the plane edges lower to the earth, all we can see is vegetation and the vast Chobe river in the distance.
“Look out to the left,” the pilot announces over the loud speaker. “There are about 50 to 60 elephants on the banks of the Chobe river – what a marvellous view!”
We squeal with excitement – little did we know that we’d be having close-up elephant encounter after encounter throughout our trip, in such close proximity that we can see their eyelashes.
From the airport, we are driven by our guide Cavin in an open safari vehicle, passing antelope and dancing yellow butterflies on our way to our accommodation – the five-star Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero. We turn off the main road and head through an off-road track before arriving at our lodge where we are greeted by staff, handed a cool towel and offered a welcome drink of ginger, lemon and honey on the deck as we view the Chobe river in the distance, while baboons bound past on the property’s lawn.
We are shown to our quarters and reminded to keep our doors locked at night – the baboons are apparently curious creatures.
Neutral colour tones and natural finishes create an ambient space. A huge bath-tub is elevated on a platform in our bathroom, where an African bowl of bath salts sits atop a side table, from which we can scoop out the soaking salts with a wooden ‘giraffe’ spoon.
Felicity goes about her business of unpacking – I’ve never seen so much leopard print in my life. She had drawn the line at buying a leopard-print backpack specially for the trip, reluctantly packing her husband’s very practical but no-so-chic luggage backpack.
She had argued that she needed the backpack, only taking a small, pink leather handbag aside from her luggage. “You can’t go on safari with a Mimco handbag!” he had admonished her, convincing her to also pack his daypack. She didn’t want to admit it, but his non-matching, off-theme, sturdy backpack turned out to be highly functional during the trip.
Within three hours of arriving in Botswana, we see antelope, a crocodile sunning itself on the banks of the Chobe river, impala, baboons and herds of elephants splashing themselves with water and then spraying dirt on each other’s backs to cool down.
On our first night, a river cruise at sunset on the Chobe river was awe-inspiring. I’ve always loved elephants but seeing them in the wild, including little babies sheltering under their mother’s tummies, was magical. As we drove through the dirt tracks to reach the river, we would come so close to the elephants, never once feeling unsafe under the trained and expert leadership of our Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero guides. As Cavin explained, animals are protected here in the national park and are very used to humans, never having felt threatened by them. But even so, there are certain measures of respect and precautions our guides take to never cause any distress to these magnificent creatures.
On our first full day of safari, Cavin pays our park entrance fees and then promptly turns the truck around and drives out of the park gates.
We’re all a little confused.
“I have a surprise for you,” he says. “Hold on tight,” and with that, he accelerates and we go flying through the narrow bush tracks. I’m silently grateful that I’ve worn a vintage silk scarf to hold my hair back.
Suddenly, we come to a stop on the tracks where another vehicle is just ahead of us on an adjoining track. Cavin turns off the engine.
“You see there?” he asks, pointing towards thick scrub. We’re still not sure what we’re looking for and then, out of the greenery emerges the unmistakable print of a leopard.
I can hear Felicity gasp as I ready my camera. It’s not one leopard however, but a male and female pair, as they slink across the path in front of us.
Our first 10 minutes of safari and we’re treated to this? We cannot believe our luck, as we soon learn that to spot leopard at all can be rare but to spot a pair together? Even more so.
We see hippopotamus in the river; warthogs; more baboons; several of the 2,800 bird species in Botswana (my favourite: the colourful, Lilac Breasted Roller). We chance upon a group of giraffes in a field munching from the Zambezi teak trees – and it feels surreal.
Day three in Botswana dawns and we meet Cavin over a gourmet breakfast at our lodge.
I’m wearing a black and white polka dot head scarf which I want to check with Cavin is within the safari dress-code.
I’m reassured it’s fine – better, he tells me, than my white shirt I wore yesterday! I didn’t realise I’d make a safari fashion faux-pas, but as Cavin explains, white IS a bright colour that animals can see. The idea is to blend into the vehicle and the grass, which is why neutral and khaki are the go-to safari colours.
So, white is not alright – but what Cavin doesn’t understand is that in my wardrobe of rainbow colours, white IS a neutral colour! However, I heed Cavin’s expert advice and my white shirt with my Grace Kelly vibe doesn’t make another appearance on safari. Tip for future safari-goer’s: save white for the lodge only or leave it at home.
Our drive today reveals even more wondrous wildlife experiences that leave us pinching ourselves. We find more giraffes in another field, this time a pair mate before our very eyes. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. We also come across a pair of lions mating during breeding season – keeping a respectful distance, we watch in silence.
Later, on our sunset drive, we find another male lion with his entire pride. The experience was incredibly moving and I’ve written a detailed account about that emotional moment here.
On our final morning in Botswana, wearing my father’s vintage cravat and wondering how Cavin is going to possibly top all that we had seen, we find a field of zebras accompanied by a wilderbeast, a warthog and water buffalo. Their black and white stripes glisten in the sunshine against the green reeds.
As I’d been warned, Africa has got under my skin and this adventure of seeing multitudes of wildlife in their natural habitat has changed me profoundly.
I think of Liz and Richard all loved up here, bunkering away from the press; and Prince Harry as a young boy taken here just weeks after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, by the founder of Abercrombie & Kent, Geoffrey Kent.
It all makes sense – Botswana is the kind of place you lose yourself, only to find yourself again.