Virtual travel

The Big Five of virtual safaris: take a relaxing bush break during lockdown

Sanet Oberholzer tunes in for one of virtual tourism pioneer WildEarth's live-streamed game drives, plus rounds up other online animal encounters to try

12 April 2020 - 00:00 By Sanet Oberholzer
If you're lucky you could spot the big five on your virtual safari.
If you're lucky you could spot the big five on your virtual safari.
Image: Getty Images

It's 6pm on a Friday. You're halfway through your second sundowner, watching a giraffe lazily munch a juicy leaf. A monkey dashes past the game vehicle and you instinctively pull the bag of biltong closer to your chest. A message flashes before your eyes: battery low. Irked, you get off the couch, peek inside the fridge, realise no snacks have magically reappeared since the last time you checked and head back to your sunset game drive รก la maison.

Since practically the whole world has gone into lockdown, there has been a huge surge in virtual safaris. You can go on a morning bush walk with a friendly guide, enjoy a sunrise game drive in your fluffy pyjamas or reflect on your state of wellbeing as you watch an elephant quench its thirst or lion cubs scuffle in the dirt.

But virtual safaris aren't a new invention. Fourteen years ago, Graham Wallington and his wife Emily started WildEarth, a live wildlife broadcaster. Having started Africam before this in 1998, when the internet was just being introduced to the general public, Wallington is a pioneer in the industry with more than 20 years of experience in virtual tourism.

Infinitely enthusiastic about what he does, Wallington says the idea behind WildEarth was - and is - to connect people with nature.

"We recreate the experience of going on safari by putting a camera on the back of a game-drive vehicle in exactly the same position that a guest would be sitting and having an authentic guide drive around." In real time, viewers can ask questions via e-mail or WildEarth's social-media platforms and these will be answered by the guide.

We recreate the experience of going on safari by putting a camera on the back of a game-drive vehicle in exactly the same position that a guest would be sitting
Graham Wallington of WildEarth

The licence to broadcast these live safaris is sold to television networks across the world such as National Geographic, and even SABC closer to home. The revenue from this enables WildEarth to provide this content for free on channels such as YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and Periscope.

Apart from daily broadcasts from Djuma Private Game Reserve, which is part of the Sabi Sands Private Reserve, adjacent to the Kruger National Park, they usually also broadcast from a camp in the Maasai Mara in Kenya, though these have been temporarily suspended as it is currently in lockdown.

LIGHT IN THE LOCKDOWN

WildEarth is being very careful to comply with the South African lockdown regulations and for this reason is not visiting the neighbouring properties [as they normally do] during this period. Lockdown, however, is also providing new opportunities.

A recent partnership with &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve in Timbavati is offering viewers a change of scenery. "They have two white lion cubs, which we have been sharing with the world since April 1. We're helping &Beyond to turn those animals into the kinds of characters that the rest of the world will want to come and visit when they finally can travel," says Wallington.

A buffalo in the water.
A buffalo in the water.
Image: Getty Images

On one sunset safari this week, 11,300 viewers went along for the ride. Comments poured in from across the globe, from those who have a real-life safari on their bucket list, people who watch on a regular basis and many who have started watching since going into quarantine. "Goosebumps everytime. It never gets old," wrote one viewer in a Facebook post.

"Our animal characters are named and we keep revisiting them every single day. If we can get our viewers to understand that each individual animal has a life story and has challenges and opportunities, they stop seeing that animal as a representative of the species and they start seeing it as an individual being. It is at that moment that people have empathy for nature," says Wallington.

CUBS CAN CURE

Another viewer from the US was thrilled at the sighting of hyenas. One in particular, named Ribbon, was having a leisurely nap as the sun was setting. The six-year-old hyena had given birth days before and kept the audience in suspense as we hoped she might feed her cub, but she's a tease: not a single cub was in sight. Not to fret. A quick Google search revealed YouTube footage from WildEarth taken the day before. You'll be surprised just how incredibly cute a baby hyena is and the ability this little creature has to lift your mood.

Cuteness always has a way of stirring the spirits but at this juncture in our fight against Covid-19, I feel this hyena cub has a special power.

Wellness coach Nikki Temkin explains, "Being in nature is healing and used in stress management. During lockdown, being able to 'get out there', even in a virtual space, can be very relaxing. And to be reminded of the world outside, the natural world which still exists and keeps on going despite everything, is comforting."

Wallington concurs. "A children's hospital in Ohio discovered that when kids or adults are undergoing chemotherapy, if they watch our live safaris it completely distracts them and vastly reduces the pain and discomfort that chemotherapy causes."

Following this, WildEarth expanded their network and they now work with 10 other hospitals across the US. "What we've found is that there is a huge amount of healing that comes from this. People's cortisol levels drop, they become more relaxed and it's just a real process of healing," says Wallington.

SPIKE IN SOUTH AFRICA

Apart from their partnerships with hospitals, WildEarth has a special mission to reach children. Teachers can register to the live safaris and the first 45 minutes of the daily sunset safari are dedicated to answering questions only from children.

When SA went into lockdown, several teachers shared messages on WhatsApp groups to encourage parents to watch the live safaris with their children. Following this, the percentage of WildEarth's South African audience increased overnight.

Within 48 hours, between March 31 and April 1, the percentage of WildEarth's South African audience jumped from 5% to 65%. They now have five times more audience in South Africa than in the US. Before this, 75% of WildEarth's audience were in that
country.

Other game reserves have similarly reported huge interest in their live safaris. In the first week of SA's lockdown, Tintswalo Safari Lodge started running virtual safaris in the Manyeleti Game Reserve. "Not only are we bringing the bush into the minds and hearts of our viewers, but we are also out on the reserve as the eyes and ears to potentially help with injured animals or to report to the reserve management anything that is going on," says Alistair Leuner, Tintswalo's regional general manager.

He says they have been blown away by the support their live safaris have received and his hope is that they will inspire South Africans to consider Tintswalo as a holiday option post-lockdown.

The travel industry is reeling. While the immediate focus is on keeping the lights on and staff paid, long-term concerns are not a distant thought.

Wallington says "live safaris" and "virtual tourism" are buzz words at the moment and that these kinds of innovations are going to be huge. "It could be a very long time before this industry recovers. I think that virtual tourism is going to be a huge part of the future."

While these virtual safaris don't necessarily pay the bills, they at least offer a semblance of normalcy. They give us a sense of the outside, of the wisdom of nature, and they continue to inspire and urge us to dream. In a time when crazy is the new normal, that means a lot.

THE BIG 5 VIRTUAL SAFARIS

1. Wild Earth Drives take place in Djuma Game Reserve in the Sabi Sands Private Reserve as well as in &Beyond Ngala Private Reserve in the Timbavati, both adjacent to the Kruger National Park. They're live at 6am - 9am and 3.30pm - 6.30pm daily and really manage to create the feeling that you're on the vehicle too. Send questions via social media and the rangers will answer you there and then. See djuma.com/djuma-waterhole or wildearth.tv/safarilive.

2. Tintswalo Safari Lodge: Head guide Neil Jennings and regional manager Alistair Leuner film their daily drive in the Manyeleti Reserve in Mpumalanga, then edit the footage into a six- to eight-minute video and post it on social media. Find links to all their channels at tintswalo.com/safari.

A leopard spotted at Tintswalo Safari Lodge.
A leopard spotted at Tintswalo Safari Lodge.
Image: Tintswalo.com

3. Shamwari Private Game Reserve's head ranger Andrew Kearney is doing a series of "lockdown" episodes, with highlights from his daily walks and drives, along with other titbits such as insights into life at the Eastern Cape reserve. Links to all their channels at shamwari.com.

4. Motswari Private Game Reserve in the Timbavati has two guides patrolling daily, and they film their drives and post highlights on Instagram

5. Singita Sabi Sand is live-streaming game drives by resident photographer and former guide Ross Couper twice daily on Facebook and Instagram. Their Instagram feed is also worth scrolling through for its phenomenal collection of photos from several lodges in Africa. Links to the channels are at singita.com.