A wheelchair among lions

African savannah as far as the eye can see, lions roaring in their hunting-ground, elephant herds at watering holes, the capital Cape Town with its famous landmark, Table Mountain, and the Cape of Good Hope: All these conjure up adventure stories that most of us know only from TV. And yet, as Rudi Ofer reports in HANDICAP, you can experience it all first-hand.

2004 brought good news for me; wildlife safaris in one of the most beautiful animal paradises on earth were now going to be open to wheelchair users! Could this mean that I would be able to realize my long-cherished dream and find myself face to face with wild beasts? I decided to take the risk and booked an eleven-day guided group tour to Botswana and Cape Town.

At the airport, we inspected the vehicle that was going to take us into the wilderness with some skepticism. Were we really about to venture into such rough terrain, far from civilization, in our wheelchairs? But our fears proved totally unfounded; the all-terrain vehicle, which had been especially adapted, offered top-class comfort. It sported two double-doors and a ramp to facilitate boarding. We had the choice either of remaining in our wheelchairs (with anchoring) or transferring to one of the comfortable seats. And the extra-large windows guaranteed an unobstructed view of the animals.

Up close to the "Big 5"

Just the transfer to our first camp in the middle of the Moremi Game Reserve made us feel as though we were already on safari. Unspoilt nature, beautiful baobab trees, and suddenly, right by the side of the road, two enormous elephants that gave us a somewhat puzzled look. It was only later we discovered that Botswana has no fences around its wildlife reserves, and man and beast share the same living space.

We would happily have driven on, but of course we needed to sort out our accommodation. On our arrival at the camp, barrier-free tents were pitched for us. The special luxury tent measures 6 x 4 m (approx. 20 x 13 feet) and provides plenty of room for moving around on wheels. The beds in the tent were of a height that made it easy to transfer from the wheelchair. And - the tent had an accessible shower room/WC so there was no need to leave the tent at night, and we were able to sleep in total safety. Since the tents could be pitched at great speed we were extremely mobile and were able to choose the nicest locations in the Moremi Game Reserve for a good night's rest.

The next day, my long-awaited dream came true ... after a substantial and lovingly prepared breakfast, we set out on our first real safari. We were on the lookout for the "Big 5" (lion, rhino, leopard, buffalo and elephant), driving first along some rough dirt roads, and then across country into the wilderness. As if to welcome us to his part of the world, a huge rhino had posted itself in the shade of some acacia trees. Mike, our guide, stopped the car, and we started frantically taking one picture after the other. After we had all calmed down a bit, Mike explained that rhinos can hardly see anything at all, they simply follow their sense of smell. That means that if you're brave enough you can sneak up very close behind them - against the wind of course - without being noticed. However, none of the group was quite brave enough to risk provoking this huge animal.

We drove on, and it wasn't long before a herd of playful springboks and gnus blocked our way. It was great fun watching these jumping springboks, constantly fighting duels with each other to prove their strength. After a little while they let us pass, and we drove on to the next waterhole. I don't think I will ever forget what I saw there; under the protective gaze of a group of bull elephants, two small baby elephants were spraying water over each other through their little trunks. It was really something special to see this amazing natural scene from only thirty feet away! We just couldn't get enough of it and needless to say took lots and lots of photos. We hadn't been there very long, when a couple of spotted hyenas joined the elephants, trying carefully to quench their thirst.

Fit for a wheelchair, and totally safe

Even sleeping in the camp was a very special experience, being that close to nature. From the safety of our tent we were able to hear the lions roaring, and the different calls of zebras, hyenas, elephants, birds and many other wild animals. On the third evening we had the good fortune to see a herd of about 40 elephants passing our campsite at hardly any distance at all. No use in pretending that we didn't feel a bit queasy about it, but thank goodness none of them seemed interested in staying the night in our tent.

The extent of your disability is quite irrelevant on safari. There are no barriers for electronic wheelchair users, although the number of disabled users is restricted in any safari group. Mike's philosophy is to take both disabled and non-disabled people on his safaris, including wheelchair users and their assistants. A jeep offers enough space for two wheelchair users and eight "pedestrians"; if required, an extra vehicle can be added to make room for up to 14 people. Mike keeps the groups deliberately small in order to create a family atmosphere and ensure that everyone gets individual attention.

Author: Rudi Ofer