A Safari is a journey.
Originating from the Arabic verb of ‘safar’ which translates roughly into -making a journey- the word was adopted into the Swahili language. From Swahili, it was introduced into English by 19th Century English explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton (no claim to Elizabeth Taylor’s eternal love)
Our earliest use of the word Safari happened strictly in connotation with the trading industry. Large caravans of traders traveling across vast plains, from settlement to settlement with tempting wares. It was a very profitable business at great scale, involving very valuable slave trade protected by huge crews of staff and infantry carrying arsenals of weapons through treacherous routes.
By the turn of the 20th Century openly trading in human slaves was no longer allowed. Long before the demise of slavery, however, colonialization would run riot throughout Africa. It brought with it the missionaries and the explorers and the naturalists and the hunters. And, as the infrastructure already existed, wily businessmen started turning their hands to selling adventure for its own sake.
The Safari quickly evolved into something we can almost recognize in its 21st Century format.
Early naturalists and explorers like William John Burchell, Thomas Ayres, and Gustav Adolf Fischer were eager to sign up, identifying animal species (named after them) along the way.• Burchell’s Coucal, Courser, Sandgrouse, Starling and Zebra • Ayres’ Hawk-Eagle and Cisticola • Fischer’s Lovebird, Sparrow-Lark and Turaco.
Of course, they had to bring specimens of their eponymous animals home and the hunting for science soon turned into hunting for its own sake.
Men like William Cornwallis Harris, Charles Baldwin, and Frederick Selous decided that it would be a fair game to pit animals against explosives. And then, brag about how courageous they were.
Carl Georg Schillings was a naturalist and a photographer disguised as a hunter. Maybe the first serious wildlife photographer, he documented wild creatures, alive and well, within their natural habitat.
In 1885 Sir H Rider Haggard published King Solomon’s Mines. It was the first English adventure set in Africa and the general public’s interest in the continent’s unexplored regions was excited.
The world’s love affair with Africa was official
Hemingway would combine his double threat prowess of hunting and writing to enormous effect. And to this day Hollywood continues to return to Africa.
Born in East Africa the earliest Safaris were extremely lavish affairs with hundreds of porters carrying all conceivable western luxuries across any terrain to provide hunters with a home away from home as they spent months in Africa.
On the 21st of April 1909, one of the most epic Safaris to date began.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit and scientist from the Smithsonian Institution landed in Mombasa where they were met by British hunters and 250 African porters and guides.
They would trek west along the Nile, across British East Africa, and into the Belgian Congo before heading northeast to complete their Safari in Khartoum, in Sudan. The Safari traveled by train, steamboat, horse, and camel. The camps were veritable tent cities with elegant latrines and Roosevelt’s tent had a hot tub and a private library.
President Roosevelt regarding rhino:
“The big beast stood like an uncouth statue … he seemed what he was, a monster surviving over from the world’s past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength, before man grew so cunning of brain and hand as to master them”
Roosevelt’s year-long Safari was undertaken in the spirit of science. The Smithsonian naturalists who accompanied him collected around 11,400 animal specimens which took eight years to catalog and we do indeed have many discoveries to lie at the feet of all these early hunters. When they weren’t killing defenseless creatures they also documented through watercolors.
And still, mass extermination was the name of the game. So, soon some individuals started thinking about the future and worrying.
The first spark of the conservation movement had been lit and over time the fervor would only grow.
At the turn of the 20th Century all camps were built with hunters in mind but by the mid-1920s the first of Africa’s national parks, Virunga National Park opened to protect the mountain gorillas. Sustainable tourism was suddenly a profitable business.
The concept of a modern luxury safari was born in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The latest direction is a move back towards the wilderness. Travelers are increasingly requesting simplicity and the opportunity to reconnect with nature.
Something that hasn’t changed all that much? The Safari fashion on this page.
The Safari jacket, multi-pocketed vests, and shorts that were first pulled out of trunks in the 1920s and 30s remain staples of the Safari circuit. Safari chic and Colonial dress continue to inspire the media, the public, designers and stylists.