The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
How a ‘mindful’ safari helped ease my anxiety
Worn out by everyday life, Simon Parker found solace on the gentle waters of the Zambezi River, enjoying the quieter rhythms of the African bush
With the pontoon’s outboard motor off, we surrendered ourselves to the gentle will of the Zambezi River. Slowly we began to float – at barely one knot – downstream. High above us, yellow-billed storks circled in the lava-lamp bubbles of a thermal. Stowaway monarch butterflies and red dropwing dragonflies rested at the bow of our boat, then skipped onwards across the soupy water. On the mustard-flowered branch of a “scrambled-egg tree”, a Verreaux’s eagle eyed up its next meal: a monitor lizard, a rock hyrax, or maybe an unsuspecting baboon?
Silent and soothing, “drifting” is such a new concept in Zimbabwe’s Kariba Gorge that this was, it transpired, the very first expedition of its kind. “I think hearing is our least appreciated sense,” said Rob Janisch, my guide and self-coined “travel alchemist”, who devised the concept with the British tour operator Africa Exclusive. “When we kill the engine and surrender ourselves to silence, it immediately transports us to a very present state, perhaps even the embryonic stage. I think this will work really well with device-heavy people, because you are forced to disconnect. It makes you see that going slowly, nowhere, is a nice thing.”
Akin to the rubber-ring “tubing” offered in the likes of Thailand or Laos, this easy-going alternative is a lot safer, and with fewer anklets and Chang Beer T-shirts. Drifting at less than walking pace, without Wi-Fi, electricity or mobile phone reception, it left me with no choice but to detach, hesitantly, from the rest of the world.
In my recent book, Riding Out, I wrote about having suffered with anxiety and a racing mind for most of my adult life. The internet, smartphones, rolling news programmes and social media feeds are – on the whole – terrible for my wellbeing. Of course, I know all this, but it does not make them any less addictive. Often, it can feel as though my brain is skipping through channels. I struggle to focus on one thing at a time. Millions of Britons feel the same way, and doctors are prescribing more antidepressants and counselling sessions than ever before. Poor mental health now costs the British
economy £120billion per year – amounting to some 5 per cent of GDP.
It all seemed so far away on the lazy ripples of the Zambezi. By fully giving myself up to silence, in an isolated African gorge, I remembered just how wonderfully therapeutic silence can be. It meant I could hear the echoes of whistling fish eagles, the splash of crocodiles sliding into the water, and a bull elephant scratching its hairy rump against the trunk of a tamarind tree.
The so-called “mindful safari” concept is starting to pop up more and more in Africa. Lodge owners and operators have, quite rightly, realised that two four-to-five-hour game drives per day, for a week or two, can leave departing guests feeling more exhausted than when they arrived.
“We try to do more for our guests than just tick off animal sightings,” said Grant Cumings, owner of the Chiawa and Old Mondoro camps, in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. “People are on holiday, and what they need is an escape from the busy schedules they have left at home. The five senses, he says, are crucial to disconnecting. “Our ethos is to take a step back. To look, smell, listen, breathe and even taste. We try to touch on all the senses, not just
the visual. We have had people come here and say this trip has changed their lives and the way they look at the world and themselves.”
Safaris are expensive, and unsurprisingly most people are desperate to take hundreds of close-up animal photos to pore over in the future. But with Grant’s words ringing in my ears, I decided to do something very odd indeed: a game drive without my phone or camera.
Out on the drive, we found impalas, elephants, bee-eaters and bushbucks, all bathed in a photogenic golden light. At first, I felt restless and fidgety. Like a smoker craving a cigarette, I didn’t know what to do with my hands. While everyone else in the Land Cruiser fiddled with their f-stops, ISOs and shutter speeds, I grew oddly jealous.
But slowly, and miraculously, the envy was replaced by a perverse sense of smugness. By not solely concentrating on the visual, my nose was awakened to the intense musth of a bull elephant and then the minty aroma of wild basil. My ears tuned in to birdcalls that I had never heard before. Even the omnipresent red dust now had a taste: something like baked potatoes with a sprinkling of topsoil still left on their crispy skins.
Of course, it turned into one of the most memorable game drives I had ever been on, epitomised by the dusk sighting of two lionesses and their four mischievous cubs. For 15 minutes we watched them frolic in a bundle of paws and tails before snoozing like tabbies on a living-room sofa.
Unlike the rest of the group with their photos and footage, all I have of the drive are memories. But I do not see that as a negative. The Zambian bush is a constantly moving scene, made up of infinite and ephemeral moments. Attempting to capture every tableau is a fool’s errand.
On a nearby walking safari I strived to let the landscape not just wash over me, but through me, then back at camp I used the Wi-Fi for online yoga classes, while resisting (not always successfully) the temptation to check my emails. Ironically, safari lodges can make me feel like a caged animal, surrounded by wild beasts, but Chiawa’s jungle gym and swimming pool were a godsend for letting off steam.
The greatest experience of the whole trip, however, came on my final afternoon at Chiawa, when I jumped
‘Our ethos is to take a step back. To look, smell, listen, breathe and even taste’
into a Canadian canoe with guide Chris Farao and paddled, slowly and silently, down a Zambezi side channel teeming with life.
If I had gone to Africa to find “presence”, then this was the Holy Grail. Just a few millimetres of fibreglass separated us from dozens of 12ft crocodiles and hundreds of hippos, each weighing around a tonne and a half. Around every bend and bank, something new and fascinating appeared.
“Just stay still and calm,” said Chris, as we floated towards a herd of elephants enjoying a sunset drink. Soon the beasts were towering above us: four-tonne mothers and their calves not much bigger than dogs. Ears flapping, trunks slurping, they looked up: our eyeballs locked with theirs. My life was in Chris’s hands, and the elephants’ feet. A minute felt like an hour.
But perhaps for the first time in years, the noise in my mind fell completely silent. My entire universe was the river, and we were its only inhabitants. Soothing and restful, quiet and calm, going slowly, nowhere, really was a therapeutic thing.