A blind safari – how on earth does that work?

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IMG_2642-copyA blind safari!” exclaimed friends. This was often the response when I said that I was going to take visually impaired people on safari to Africa. “Surely Africa is all about seeing things.” Funnily enough, I initially was inclined to agree but then when I really thought about it my first sense would be the sound of melodious honking hippos closely followed by the smell of the baked earth, then the feel of the warm sun caressing my face and then watching a lion cub discovering its surroundings. Seeing Africa is secondary, you really have to feel Africa first.

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about my first safari for visually impaired (VI) and blind people, I so wanted everyone to immerse themselves into Swaziland and to genuinely visit the Kingdom, leaving with happy and insightful memories and having experienced Swaziland in every possible capacity.

I had first approached Traveleyes after meeting Amar, the Director, at the World Travel Market, I genuinely believed that Swaziland was the perfect destination for his company. It had taken a few years for me to convince him that Swaziland was the destination that had variety, that was tactile and was where guests could have an African adventure of a life time.

I had meticulously arranged the itinerary and spent ages making sure that everyone got the most out of every single day. I had organised traditional experiences like going to a local village and visiting a Sangoma (a traditional healer), special safaris where there was emphasis on the sounds of the Africa bush and touching certain trees etc (it even involved picking up elephant dung and feeling skulls) and I also provided activities such as horse riding and visiting a local school for blind and deaf children. I really had managed to cram everything into the short 8 days they were in Swaziland! I was concerned that those that could not see would not enjoy the experience as much as those that could. How wrong I was.

I can honestly say that it was one of the most brilliant trips I have been on. Yes, it was a challenge, but a lovely new challenge, my vocabulary certainly increased no end with all the variety of descriptions that I gave, my impersonations of animals and birds improved no end, (well I thought they had anyway,) and the group dynamics was incredibly cohesive, it was like being with a group of friends who you have not been with for a while. Everyone immersed themselves into the trip and made sure they got the most out of every minute. It was an absolute pleasure to be on.

But what really made is were the Swazis. Everyone was so helpful and aware of the group, we were all in the same boat of never having worked with VIs before. The Swazis excelled themselves, I do not know of another nation that has the ability to man handle people in and out of vehicles and manoeuvring individuals over very uneven terrain and yet have the ability not to invade anyone’s personal space. It was extraordinary to watch.

Dumi, Sicelo and Sonnyboy were brilliant at getting people down to the ground to feel hoof and paw impressions and getting people to guess the animal. Sight was no way an advantage in the slightest! And I will never forget all of us smelling a tree to work out which part had been rubbed by a wildebeest – pressing our noses up to the trunk and taking large sniffs. It’s not often that you try and smell the sweat of wildebeest.

And then there was Jeluga, a very good friend of mine who is a Sangoma, who let the group touch the bones that he threw and to even feel his incredible traditional outfit made of impala skin, duiker horns, beads and warthog tusks. It is not often this is allowed. A real privilege.

The trip was an incredible success and I am looking forward to the next in 2017 – where I can perfect my animal and bird impersonations. I am off to practice now.

Jenny Bowen owns and runs Sense Africa, tailor-made safaris and African holidays. Read more of her blog posts here.

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