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 for location
As always, bring friends, and pass the word to anyone else who might be interested.
Light refreshments will be served.
Open Heart Safari to Zambia: July 18-31, 2015
Optional extension to Victoria Falls and Botswana: July 31-August 4
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.

WHEN: Wednesday, January 7, 7-8:30 pm
WHERE:  Caldecott Properties, 5251 Broadway,
Oakland 94618
(Near corner of College Ave.)
WHEN: Tuesday, January 13, 7:30-9 pm
WHERE:  Russian Hill neighborhood
RSVP for location
Email tom[at]openheartsafari[dot]com 
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:
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

Open Heart Safari 2014 was a powerful and profound experience.

Two months after returning home from our third Open Heart Safari to Zambia, I am still – in the words of one our participants – “struggling to find words powerful and profound enough to describe the experience.”

Of course, the wildlife viewing was spectacular.  

Even when we didn’t have our binoculars out, like the afternoon we came up on a gorgeous large male leopard relaxing in the shade, as we were lazily returning from a soak in a natural warm spring. Other highlights included:

  • Wild dogs: we saw them on walking safari at a remote bush camp on the Kafue River.Wild dog, Kafue National Park No other human beings for miles. Wild dogs are rare and seldom seen – in my many visits to the African bush, this was the first time I’d ever seen them anywhere.
  • A pride of 15 lions hunting buffalo in the evening. With no other vehicles around, we were able to watch the young males racing ahead, while other pride members  waited alertly to share in the kill.  (They didn’t – the young ones struck out that evening.)
  • Three cheetah devouring a recently killed impala … the day after our guide told us we would not see cheetah in that area.
  • Getting startled by an impala leaping out of the trees with a leopard on its tail.
  • A large herd of the rare and beautiful sable antelope.
  • A giant python right by the road.

 And every day: elephants crossing the river right in front of us, passing through our camp, strolling by our morning meditation; thousands of hippos in the river, some of them wandering through our camp at night; herds of impala, buffalo, puku, zebra, giraffe, warthog, kudu…; regular sightings of the reclusive and beautiful bushbuck; the constant presence of baboons and vervet monkeys; more kinds of spectacular birds than I can name.

Our community visits were amazing.

From rural villages to urban squatters’ settlement, we were warmly welcomed.

  • In a remote village in eastern Zambia we were received by Chief Mkhanya and his entourage at his palace, learned the protocol of meeting a chief, and discussed issues of westernization and tradition, climate change, and economic empowerment.
  • We were hosted by a women’s group in an informal settlement in Lusaka (Zambia’s principal city). We learned about African urban poverty and local people’s initiatives to empower themselves, saw new waterless public toilets (where recently there had no sanitation, leading to severe cholera outbreaks), shopped in the market, and were invited to women’s homes; there was also singing, dancing, improv games, and lots of laughter.  One highlight was watching the “elder” of our group, a 78-year-old California woman bond with a local woman in her 70s – with no shared language, they wandered through the streets holding hands and laughing.
  • We met an elder of the Bisa tribe, who was instrumental in restoring the elephant population of North Luangwa, and we learned about the human costs of park development – his community had been involuntarily displaced.
  • We met activists in conservation and economic empowerment from different parts of the country (including the only Zambian ever to win a Goldman Environmental Award), and learned about their efforts to preserve indigenous culture, and to promote community management and control of resources.

 The quality of the group experience was remarkable. 

After three pre-trip conference calls, our fellow travelers arrived feeling that they already knew each other, and were ready to jump right in, open their hearts, and connect.  Two weeks later, so many tear-filled good-byes, warm hugs, people making plans to return to Africa.  Six weeks after the trip ended, they organized a reunion in Oakland – almost everyone attended.

 Before the trip, our group had researched and organized gifts to bring: nondeflatable soccer balls, solar-powered calculators, bras for teenage girls….  Even more powerfully, they brought their own gifts.  Songs to share and wanting to learn local songs, so our meetings with local people were filled with singing and dancing.  Two acupuncturists brought their needles, and offered relaxation treatments to our group, and to community groups we met with.  Another traveler brought songs to share and and the desire to learn local songs to teach children back home.  Others brought their skills at group facilitation, environmental engineering, and public speaking.  And so our meetings were filled with warmth, singing and dancing, relaxation, and substantive exchanges of ideas.

 Our days began with short meditations and poetry reading at dawn. We did yoga at river stops and tea breaks and with a giggling audience of village children. Our meditations were punctuated by the sounds of the bush: the whirring of birds, honks of hippos, shrieks of monkeys, and leaf munching of all too close elephants.   Throughout we shared our impressions and reactions in circles that were deep, warm, teary and memorable. In the words of one participant, “this was such a powerful experience that it was enriched and heightened by sharing it so intimately with the group.  For me, it really was too much to take in and hold just on my own.”

 Oh, did I say we had fun?  So much laughter, long conversations. delicious meals (believe it or not).  To quote one more participant once more: “We had a lot of fun together, laughed a lot and bonded closely – all enhanced, in turn, by the magnitude of what we were experiencing together.”

 For me personally, I experienced deep satisfaction at our closing circle, hearing our travelers describe the experience as life-changing, and realizing that what had manifested was so much what I envisioned six years ago when I first thought of organizing a group trip like this.


Join Us at Pt. Reyes Seashore, Sat. Sept. 27

Open Heart Safari presents:

Open Heart Safari – Pt. Reyes National Seashore.  Enjoy one of California’s wild and beautiful places with an open heart. Offered by Open Heart Safari leaders Tom Bennigson and Laura Paradise, the day is designed to help you slow down and touch into a place of reverence and awe in the presence of wildlife and the natural landscape. We hope the retreat-like feel of this daytrip, including time for quiet reflection, meditation, guided walks, and discussion, will deepen your experience of the land, the animals, and yourself.

Saturday, Sept. 27, 10:30 am – 6 pm
Cost: $30
$50 for two – so bring a friend!
Half price for alumni of one of our Africa trips.

Cost can be credited toward a future Africa trip with us.

Please bring your own lunch, and comfortable walking shoes.
We will meet at Pt. Reyes, but we can help facilitate car-pooling.
For details, RSVP to

Spotting a giraffe!

We have already spotted a giraffe in Lusaka! (Hint: it’s not real. But stay tuned, in a few days we will be seeing towers of giraffe live in the bush.)