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

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.

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.) 


Safari snapshots – up close and personal!

You don’t need your binoculars or camera … yet! Please join us for up close and personal highlights from our trip to Zambia and Botswana last summer, and a preview of the itinerary for Open Heart Safari 2014. Yes, we did track lions by foot and we saw lions just 100 feet from our hut. Yes, we did see a family of elephants walking along the riverbank in the moonlight. Yes, we did miss stepping on a black mozambique spitting cobra and yes, we did have a guide who pointed out the dangerous snake when it was safely on the other side of the path. Yes, we did meditate and do yoga in the company of baboons, ellies and guinea fowl. And, yes we will be doing the trip again. Our first events are in Berkeley November 3 from 4:30-6 pm and November 14 from 7-8:30 pm.

Email tom@openheartsafari.com for more information.

think about it!


Open Heart, Happy Spine!

Not many people return from a sixteen-day safari (and 30 hour flight) to Africa and get a clear bill of health from the chiropractor. But I did! As the yoga teacher of the Open Heart safari, I integrate easy, restorative yoga into our schedule as an antidote to the happy but somewhat long hours spent in jeeps in pursuit of amazing wildlife. The yoga time is customized to individual needs. I always include poses that strengthen the legs and loosen the pelvis; and add poses that mimic the animals we’re seeing.

Warrior pose is perfect for getting us to connect to the land and our bodies. It reminds us that the wild animals have their feet firmly planted, which makes all the difference when they have to spring into action.

Warrior Pose

Lion’s breath is a favorite for loosening the low back. It’s fun to let out a humorous guttural roar and get the chance to stick our tongues out at each other!

Lion's breath!

We also do made-up poses: pretending we’re elephants walking with low hanging trunks, monkeys playfully squatting and then stealing something to eat, and giraffes standing with legs splayed slowing moving the neck to the ground’s surface to get a drink of water.

Maybe next year we’ll create a series of safari poses!

Welcoming us!

When was the last time a group of adults was eagerly invited into a 9th grade classroom? Well, when we walked into the class at Kawaza Village, the students enthusiastically invited us to sit down and study with them. They were ready to learn and some asked us to test them in preparation for their qualifying exams. Most of the students I talked to seemed to favor math as they think it’s a subject that will help them gain employment. My sense is they also truly enjoy things quantitative. But, when they asked me to test my metal with trigonometry, I quickly offered Tom as a substitute. I’m glad to say he got the right answer!

What makes it Open Hearted?

Many people who go on safari learn about wildlife and habitat. But the people on the Open Heart Safari learn about local people and community. Most of us don’t really think about the fact that the animals AND the villages were there before the national parks and game reserves were created. And, yes, people and animals co-existed and people also relied on wild game for food. Truth is that hasn’t changed in many areas of Africa. What’s different is that foreigners came in, designated park reserves and evicted local villagers. They also turned game hunting into a sport, one with various prices depending on the type of game you want to hunt; and it became expensive for local people to hunt traditional foods. In Zambia, community people have control over the land on the perimeter of the national parks. They collect a share of hunting fees to cover costs of basic needs: schools, water and small income generating activities. Safari goers learn about poaching and habitat management but they never learn about the communities or the villagers who lost their homes. For me, knowing that game feeds hungry families gives new perspective about what happens when people impose national parks and hunting restrictions.