A heartfelt testimonial – the trip was everything I dreamed of, and more

Imagine going from a day of awesome safari adventures — getting up close to majestic animals in nature — to a day of genuine exchanges with incredible resilient local people, learning about the challenges they face, sharing a traditional meal of nshima eaten with your fingers, and finding yourself singing and dancing joyfully together. I loved that we often felt less like tourists than visitors on a cultural exchange. The whole trip unfolded in a magical, organic way, under the caring and competent guidance of Tom and Laura. Our total immersion in these environments would not have been possible without Tom’s extensive connections, insights, and knowledge of Zambia. Add in Laura’s enthusiasm, sense of fun, compassion and thoughtfulness, and you have the perfect guides for a rich, life-changing journey.

It’s hard to single out just a few things to praise. What stands out, however, is the sense of genuine connection made on many levels: connections within our group of good-hearted travel companions; connections through our interactions with inspiring local activists and community members who welcomed us warmly; and connections with nature itself, the awesome animals we encountered, the amazingly beautiful landscapes we entered, the breathtaking sunsets we witnessed.

I loved waking up to the morning sounds of the African bush. Even having to get up in the wee hours before dawn became surprisingly easy for a non-morning person! I awakened with excitement, eagerly anticipating the adventures the day would hold.

I loved the chance to communally reflect on our experiences in group discussions. I wasn’t sure initially about the circles, but now I’m a big believer. And after experiencing the same thrilling sights of nature, I discovered that sharing our sense of awe, amazement and delight made those feelings resonate all the more deeply.

This trip truly opened my heart and mind and touched me deeply like no other. It feels transformational in a way I can’t yet fully express. I know I’ll continue to be affected by Open Heart Safari as I integrate these profound experiences into my own life. I feel so much gratitude to you Tom and Laura for organizing and facilitating such an amazing trip, the trip of a lifetime.

Lizanne Avon, OHS 2016

More than a vacation!

Carol S., Berkeley, CA, 2016

This was definitely more than a vacation! I had thought about an African safari for a while, but this was the first one I learned about that made me feel excited enough to dedicate a good chunk of savings. The trip ended up surpassing my expectations – I loved this itinerary. I thoroughly enjoyed all the parts that originally attracted me, including the day and night wildlife viewing (in jeeps and on foot) with great guides, including Tom who brought several books along about the plants, birds and animals we would be seeing. Interactions with citizens of Zambia – such as a chief of a tribe, University PhDs who were experts on conservation and the environment, and youth and adult leaders from a township – and staying in national parks that were less crowded and in smaller, non-corporate accommodations were also pluses.  Thank you Tom for your great planning and good humor, and to Laura and my fellow travelers for making this an amazing trip which created memories I will cherish for a long time.  After seeing how essential a community waterbore is to having access to clean water, I am inspired to raise funds with my fellow travelers and alumni of OHS to build a waterbore in one of the communities we visited in Zambia   You are cordially invited to join us in supporting this worthy project!

 

–Carol S., Berkeley, CA, 2016

Zambia Water Project Fundraiser, Sat. afternoon, Dec. 3

We’re all looking for some light in dark times. Here’s an opportunity to be around some kind-hearted people.

Some of the folk who came on our Zambia trip this summer had their hearts opened and were inspired to do something in solidarity with the impoverished communities we visited. They are organizing a fundraiser to provide clean drinking water to one of those communities.

WHERE: Home of Varya Simpson, 1800 Yosemite Rd., Berkeley, 94707
WHEN: Sat., Dec. 3, 4-6pm
For more info, or to RSVP: contact tom[at]openheartsafari[dot]com            

RSVP if you can, so that we can have some idea of how many folk to expect

Here’s our travelers’ invitation: 

We had the good fortune of going to southern Africa this summer with Open Heart Safari, which was a greatly moving experience that has stayed with many of us. We have been inspired to raise money to bring clean drinking water to a community we visited, and hope you can us on Dec. 3, for some drinks, appetizers, and socializing, as well as a short slideshow and a little low-key fundraising.
 
The people we met in Zambia were so inspirational, hardworking and desperately trying to better their own situation. The poverty we saw was heavy, and our group feels moved to do something concrete to help. We learned that access to clean water is a huge challenge for the communities we visited. Basic necessities such as water and toilets do not exist for most people in Zambia. Women will walk several miles every day to the nearest borehole to fill large buckets of water which they carry back on their heads or on the back of bicycles just to have the water their families need for the day.

Our goal is to raise $5,000 for Mnkhanya, a poor rural community we visited in eastern Zambia, to construct a borehole, a drilled deep well, protected against contamination by sunken metal casing and a concrete cover. Once the borehole is completed, the community maintains it–no maintenance costs are needed from donors.

We know this can be a financially difficult time of the year for many people, but any amount you can afford will make a huge difference in making this a reality. Your contribution can help, no matter how small.
 
If you are unable to attend, but interested in contributing, checks may be made out to Tides Foundation with ‘for Tikva Grassroots’ on the memo line of the check.  Contributions are tax deductible (the EIN for Tides is 51-01985-09). You can mail checks before Dec. 20 to Carol Suveda, 1535 Sacramento Street, Berkeley, CA  94702 who will forward all checks to the Tides Foundation in San Francisco at the end of the year for proper gift acknowledgment.   
No cost to attend on Dec. 3. (There will be a brief, no-pressure pitch.)
 
Your can rsvp by replying to this email. (It’s also ok to show up unannounced, but if we can have an idea of how many folk to expect, that would help.)
 
AND SAVE THE DATE: Open Heart Safari holiday party, Dec. 15, 7-9:30pm, Oakland.
More info to come in next post.

It’s 2 am and lions are calling!

Tales from the bush, Kafue National Park, Zambia

It’s true that I was riding in an open jeep at 2 am chasing after lions. And it’s true that it was a moonless night with a clear view of the Milky Way and the brightest stars I’d ever seen. And it’s true that we saw them – two huge male lions with bulging bellies moving swiftly down the road “patrolling” as they headed into the northern part of their territory. They were moving at a pace faster than I could run, they were sure and steady, and they paid no attention to us. Humans fear the unknown, but animals fear only what they know, says bush camp owner and lion tracker Chris McBride.

In this remote area of Kafue National Park with perhaps a handful of bush camps, animals see few humans or jeeps. McBride has been careful not to let animals get habituated to people; as a result, predators like the big cats don’t walk close to vehicles or linger lazily in full sight at mid-day as they do in other parks. In the McBride camp area, lions keep their distance. They give us a glance and they move on.

Our lion search adventure wasn’t haphazard, at least not from the “yes there are lions nearby perspective”. Most of us had been hearing roars since we went to bed around 9 pm. Chris must have determined that the lions were very close to the camp, hence the inspiration to go out looking for them in the middle of the night.  Even though I was able to get dressed in a few minutes, Chris and I did not move quickly. I was the spotter in the vehicle, meaning my job was to sweep a floodlight in front of the jeep looking for animals and literally searching for the lights of their eyes while Chris drove. The spotlight wasn’t working and we were a comedic team fumbling with the light jerking and halting and driving along the road. At the same time, I was being poked by a rifle that was on the seat, there to protect us and potentially to warn the animals away. (In truth, I don’t think I was being butted by the rifle but I couldn’t ignore its existence sitting next to me and I didn’t want to touch it or trigger it (ha, ha)). Chris managed to fix the spotlight and we were able to move along. Chris was able to see the lions’ tracks on the road. He soon spotted fresh poo on the road – a gleeful sight that indicated we were indeed on the lions’ path.

I was dubious that we’d actually see them as I attempted to keep the light moving above the hood (or bonnet as Chris would say) of the jeep, but it turns out the lions like to use the road for travel (!) Within 10 minutes we were right behind them. Two big beautiful full-maned muscular 500 plus pound Aslan and Chesterton named from the Narnia Chronicles. As Chris muttered “fabulous creatures, fabulous, fabulous” we followed them for a good half hour eventually going off-road until the brush became too thick for the vehicle. The lions didn’t seem to mind the noise we made mowing down trees and lumbering ahead (Chris often said, I’m sorry tree.) But our wanderings meant that we (read, Chris) had to find the way back to camp in the dark in an area with few landmarks. We were maneuvering through thickets crashing down small trees trying to avoid holes in the earth and searching for open spots where Chris might find the Southern Cross to get oriented. Every time we got to a clearing, Chris got out of the vehicle to look for tracks. We eventually found a line of stones that Chris knew went east-west and that allowed us to find our way in a southerly direction back to the camp.

We got back to the camp around 4 am, had tea, and went back to sleep.

Such is the rhythm of a true bush camp. You never know when it’s time for a game drive, so be prepared to dress quickly and don’t forget your flashlight, compass and GPS!

 

What REALLY happens on safari

We’ll be starting Open Heart Safari 2015 on July 13, beginning our trip in Malawi and traveling as a group of eleven. Here’s the first anticipatory post as I get in the mindset to be on the watch for elephants, hippos, baboons and more… all within easy distance of my hut.

Yes, there are no fences around national parks in Zambia. That means you can count on seeing wildlife in your camp without even paying an entrance fee! So, look before you walk boldly down the path. And listen for rustling in the trees.

Yes, you will hear lions, elephants, hippos and other large mammals near your hut, tent or lodge. In fact, you might even hear stomach gurgling, farting and burping not to mention the well-known roars, trumpeting and grunts. 

Yes, you must stay inside your sleeping abode in the evening. Animals abound. They have sharper night vision than you do. Stay in bed- or peer out your window. 

Yes, you will relish waking up before the dawn. Most animals, including the big cats, sleep in the wee hours of the night, and nearly everything starts to stir as the morning light comes up. The bird sounds alone are worth waking for. So is the increasing activity and chance to see a cat with last night’s kill.

Yes, you can see wildlife anywhere anytime. That’s why most all lodges have staff posted near walking paths. You wouldn’t want to miss seeing a cobra slithering by or mistakenly step into the path of an elephant.

Yes, animals have predictable patterns and rhythms. So, when someone tells you that the elephants will be crossing the river at 7 am and 7 pm, stand the ready so you can see their traverse. And if the guide says that the leopard is likely to return in the evening to eat the impala it killed last night, plan on making the return trip as well.

Yes, you should always be prepared to go out for a safari ride. So, have your clothes organized so that you can get dressed with a moment’s notice. After hearing two lions some 50 yards from my hut, I was fortunate to see the two big males in the comfort of a jeep, in the company of my guide.

Yes, you can see animals hunting at night. Big flashlights don’t deter big cats from their instinctive hunting and socializing. In fact, they may walk right by your jeep heading in a straight line for a buffalo or a mate. Watching the choreography of a 15 cat pride is as good as it gets. (and in Zambia, yours may well be the only jeep… there ain’t crowds in their parks).

Yes, you will be delighted and surprised by the wonderful array of wildlife in your backyard and beyond your doorstep. So, keep your eyes and ears open and enjoy!

 

 

Tips to help you prepare for a safari

Watch your toes! In fact, the best way to prepare for going on safari is to get very good at paying attention.

Imagine looking out at a field of golden grass. Three foot tall grass as far as the eye can see. You’re in a jeep and your guide is tracking lions by following soft prints on the sandy road. He stops to get a better look at something in the distance. And lo’, you look down at the lovely yellow grass next to the vehicle only to spot two gorgeous golden eyes starting at you from behind a very hunched, possibly ready to pounce, leopard. Leopard in the grass sitting right next to the vehicle tire. Leopard in the grass moving so quietly you never heard him (or her) come close to the vehicle. No sound of the tail swishing in the of air, no foot steps through the reeds, no sound thanks to his stealthy walk and quiet tail.

You gasp (and so does your guide for that matter, only his gasp comes out sounding like he sighted the cat.) Look there, he says proudly. And everyone marvels at the gorgeous creature a few feet away.

How would you notice a leopard in the abundant soft yellow grasses throughout the savannah? They blend in beautifully. The best signs to look for are the white tip of the tail, the rounded shape of the ear, and the movement through the grass- all signs that take patience and attention to discern.

But you were tracking lion prints, you remind the guide. So, much as you have enjoyed the leopard sighting, you move on. The guide continues along the sandy road one arm draped around the right side of the steering wheel his head looking down for tracks and out across the plain presumably searching for tail tips (black for lions), round ears, an odd movement or perhaps the alarm calls of prey that have spotted threatening predators. You look out into the vast seemingly monotonous landscape- soft, muted yellows and greys, dull green bushes, dusty soil – the winter palette that drives animals to watering holes for lack of foliage and flowering morsels, the subtley hued landscape that is easy on the eyes while providing ample camouflage for everything from zebras and giraffes to lions and leopards. Nature is remarkable that way. Humans are the ones that stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a wonder we survive.

But pay attention, wake from your reverie gazing out at the soft expanse! The guide has spotted not one but three huge lions including a 500 pound male with a fabulous mane all of them nested in the high grass. He found them primarily by tracking and likely by having knowledge of animal behavior. Seeing them so completely enveloped in the grass gave me pause: I will never, ever walk alone in a grassy area in Africa, not unless I am with a guide.

How to prepare for safari?! My advice: hire a guide. But until them, develop your observation skills. Practice looking for contrasts in the landscape whether shapes, color, movement, sound, or tracks. Slow down and pay attention.

Another Oakland Presentation Coming Feb. 18, & Announcing February Discount

For anyone who couldn’t make our January presentation in Oakland, we’re doing it again.

WHEN: Wednesday, February 18, 7-8:30 pm<Mail Attachment>
WHERE:  Glenview neighborhood of Oakland
RSVP to tom@openheartsafari.com for location
 
As always, bring friends, and pass the word to anyone else who might be interested.
Light refreshments will be served.
 
NEXT YEAR’S TRIP
Open Heart Safari to Zambia: July 18-31, 2015
Optional extension to Victoria Falls and Botswana: July 31-August 4
 
DISCOUNT IF YOU SIGN UP BY FEB. 24.
 
This will be the fourth time my wife Laura and I are leading ‘Open Heart Safari,’ a 2-week trip to Zambia for a small group (max 10 participants).  The principal focus is on visiting national parks to see the wildlife (which is quite spectacular, if I may so), but this is not your typical safari.  Our intent is to visit Zambia and its parks in a conscious, mindful way.  This means three main things to me: (1) We slow down: We seek to open more deeply to the land, the animals, and the people through simple mindfulness practices, including yoga and short meditations. We stay in remote natural areas – not surrounded by other tourists. There are opportunities to track wildlife on foot, and view nature from a small river boat.  (2) We connect with the realities of African life: We spend time with rural and urban communities. We learn about conservation issues, including tensions between international conservationists and local people who may be displaced or have find their livelihoods disrupted, and about efforts to develop a more community-led approach to conservation. We learn about the faces of rural and urban poverty, and meet inspiring activists working for social change. (3) We regularly participate in group sharing circles to reflect on the impact of what we are seeing and learning.  We discuss such topics as the impact of being in the close presence of wild animals, how we relate to local people, the discomfort of the contrast between our privilege and the lives of the people we meet, how we can be of service.  (And we have a lot of fun.)
 
More background about us: I (Tom Bennigson) have been traveling to Africa since 1979. I have participated in field studies of African wildlife, traveled with indigenous Ethiopian tribesmen to learn about community conservancies in Kenya and Namibia, and met with numerous grassroots NGOs to establish a small grantmaking program in Zambia. (Day job: public interest attorney.) Laura has worked with environmental nonprofits for many years, and has also worked in rural development and sanitation and adult literacy; she has a degree in international development.  Her warmth and skills as a certified life coach, certified yoga teacher, and trained facilitator of expressive movement help to create an intimate container for the group.
 
The people who have come on our trips so far have unanimously reported that they have been profoundly impacted.  Read what they have to say.
 
 

Appreciation for Open Heart Safari 2014

I finally got around to putting up testimonials from participant’s on last summer’s trips.  You can read them all here.  Here are some high points:

“A spiritual journey in Africa.”
–Sheila O.
 
“I still have a hard time finding words that are powerful and profound enough to describe my experience, though the phrases ‘life changing’ and ‘soul touching’ frequently appear….  I can’t imagine myself traveling any other way after this amazing experience.”
–Ling Z.
 
“This trip more than any other is one that I cherish and remember with joy and fullness….  It’s a sacred trip.  You get to know people deeply quickly, and get to know things from the heart.”
–Eleanor D.
 
“This was such a deep and moving experience for me….  It’s hard for me to imagine that we could have had as rich and full an experience without the insights, guidance, connections and organization offered by Tom and Laura.”
–Liz B.
 
“I am forever grateful to Tom for so carefully putting together a journey that surpassed anything I could have imagined.”
–Renee B.
 
“It was more, much more than I anticipated or expected.  Thank you all for experiences to ponder this lifetime.  Overflowing heart.”
–Jeanne R.
 
No other trip compares. I got to connect with the people and the animals on a level that I couldn’t have anticipated….  Thank you Tom and Laura for all your efforts, beautiful dispositions and open hearts!!!”
–Rachil W.
 
It was amazing to watch the wildlife and meet the people, and to experience that in a community that was a safe container with committed people. It was so satisfying and fulfilling. I was just blown away.”
–Scott W.
 
Thanks to my trip with Open Heart Safari I’ve felt a connection to the earth and to other fellow earthlings that leaves me with something very, very peaceful and very still.”
–Jeanne T.
 
Thank you for convening this amazing experience….  The trip the two of you convened is, I think, a way of experiencing Africa in a really rare way….  Your open hearts invited us to open our hearts to the people, land and one another – in addition to the beautiful wildlife.  This experience has indelibly changed me.”
–Bonnie W.
 
And, while I’m at it, a few highlights from our first two trips:
 
“The most emotionally moving experience of my life.”
–Red B., 2013
 
“I just want to express my gratitude to you for running this trip and inviting me to be part of it.  I has had a very profound impact on me….  I am definitely still deeply affected and unusually open to whatever is and whatever comes next ….  Now at the end of the trip I feel a major transformation in my life has been catalyzed.
A year later: Remembering our time in Zambia still reliably brings me to a more peaceful, grateful, grounded state.”
–David M., 2012
 
“Tom and Laura really care about Africa and they care about you having an authentic experience of it.  Every game drive, every meeting, every encounter, is infused with their enthusiasm and heart ….  Open  Heart Safari will change your life in subtle and profound ways.
–Jean B., 2013
 
I want to thank you Tom and Laura for really putting together a thoughtful interaction with the environment and culture. I want you to know I had an incredible time….  How I relate to my world has changed.”
–Dove R., 2013
 
The safari experience exceeded our lofty expectations. South Luangwa National Park is teeming with incredible animals — so abundant, varied, natural and free, beautiful, graceful, powerful, funny, accessible and exciting….  What sets this safari apart, though, is the human interaction, both with the local people and with our travelling companions.”
–Steve H., 2012
 
For me the trip was invaluable.  I am changed and grateful….  I would follow Tom Bennigson anywhere.”
–Patti B., 2013
 
It’s such a crazy experience to see a wild leopard just a few feet from your jeep – it was so magnificent & moving, I almost cried….  This really is a once in a lifetime experience, and I really think going with Tom and Laura is the best way to do it.   I was able to experience Africa on a deeper, more meaningful level.”
–Katie H., 2012
 
Read all the testimonials here.
 
 

Open Heart Safari presentations: Oakland Jan. 7; SF Jan. 13

We invite you to join us for pictures and sounds of African wildlife, and tales of our travels in Zambia and Botswana.  Help us celebrate our amazing 2014 Open Heart Safari, and hear about our plans for 2015.  Light refreshments will be served.  Bring friends, and pass the word to anyone else who might be interested.  All are welcome, but please let us know if you plan to attend.

 
OAKLAND
WHEN: Wednesday, January 7, 7-8:30 pm
WHERE:  Caldecott Properties, 5251 Broadway,
Oakland 94618
(Near corner of College Ave.)
 
SAN FRANCISCO
WHEN: Tuesday, January 13, 7:30-9 pm
WHERE:  Russian Hill neighborhood
RSVP for location
 
RSVP or FOR MORE INFO
Email tom[at]openheartsafari[dot]com 
 
 
NEXT YEAR’S TRIP
Open Heart Safari to Zambia: July 18-31, 2015
Optional extension to Victoria Falls and Botswana: July 31-August 4
 
Zambia offers some of the greatest density and variety of wildlife in the world, far from the crowds of tourists you’ll see on most safaris.  We visit remote natural areas, accompanied by highly trained guides, with special opportunities to track lions and leopards on foot; float by hippos, crocodiles and elephants on a small boat; and get close views of animals hunting by night.  In addition we get to stay in a traditional local village, help facilitate youth activities in a poor urban neighborhood, and meet inspiring activists for conservation and social change.
 
Open Heart Safari seeks to offer something different from conventional safaris.  We approach the magnificent animals and their habitats in a spirit of reverence, and approach the people and their culture with respect and interest.  We do it all in a small group, opening to the incredible experience with frequent short simple meditation and yoga, and regularly processing our experiences together in sharing circles.  And we have fun.
 

Holiday Party–December 18

Come celebrate with us at our first ever official annual Open Heart Safari holiday party!  Bring your friends, and pass the word.

Candle lighting, music, pictures, stories, improv games, sounds of the bush, refreshments ….
 
Thursday, December 18: 7-9:30 pm.
3392 Adeline St.—look for the red metal door.
Berkeley, CA 94703
 
No charge for admission.  Feel free to bring refreshments or games or chanukiahs (nothing required except a festive spirit—or your best attempt).
 
RSVP to: tom@openheartsafari.com
 
******************
 
Mark your calendar for our January slideshows (more details to come):
 
Oakland, Jan. 7
San Francisco, Jan. 13
Sonoma County, date tbd
Santa Clara County, date tbd