It is one of those surreal moments. I am typing ‘zebra1234’ into my phone, to get online to tell the world that I just left where I am. Yet, if I look up from my phone, I can see one, two, three, four and more zebras coming down to the river to drink.
Sitting on the banks of the Boteti River in Botswana, I start to wonder if being social, on social media, really is that social. When you are thinking how to take the most striking photo, how to word your hashtags or who to tag, it’s a totally solitary experience. This is all in the name of getting the most comments or likes – again a solitary experience, as no one is going to be impressed but you.
With my head down, looking at my phone, I start to think how different my first experience of arriving at camp – some 20 years ago – was from today. When I arrived, I was taken in by the views and the elephants down by the waterhole, with the poor camp manager trying so hard to grab my attention for just a moment to give me the safety briefing. Now people arrive at camp and ask “Do you have Wi-Fi?” whilst reaching into their pockets and pulling out phones. Still, the camp manager ends up doing everything possible to grab their attention for just a moment.
I remember the wonderful moments of interacting with the camp staff and playing postman to their letters, which they had spent time writing by hand. After chatting with the all-important barman at sunset and him finding out where I was heading next, I would soon have a line of staff asking if I could take his or her letter. The letters would need to be dropped off at one of the camps I was visiting and given to a brother, mother, husband or wife who worked there. Now that tradition has passed, with the internet taking over. With WhatsApp and Facebook ever present, letters and playing postman seems but a distant memory.
Soon, I leave the Boteti behind and move on to a mobile camp. Here, the closest thing to 3G or 4G is wondering whether or not to have another G&T. It is wonderful to be so detached from the world. I cannot check emails, post on Instagram or look at the news. It is perfect.
It reminds me of when I was in the Republic of Congo, during the American presidential elections last November. We were sitting in the middle of Odzala National Park, a 14-hour drive from Brazzaville, with the nearest form of civilization hours away. Yet, somehow, we had Wi-Fi and we found out who the next leader of “the free world” was. Instead of enjoying the most amazing thunderstorm that we were taking shelter from, we changed the conversation and with this the mood altered. I was annoyed that our escape from the world had been broken by a simple breaking news update.
Chatting with camp managers that I have met during my trip in Botswana, they too have said how things have changed and that Wi-Fi has become both friend and foe. The camps are not, strangely enough, as social, as they used to be. Guests are sitting with their heads down, looking at their phones. They are distracted at dinner times by messages coming in or are simply just staying in their rooms so they can spend more time online.
Camps and lodges are trying different ways to offer clients the best of both worlds, whether that is offering Wi-Fi for a few hours a day or setting up a Wi-Fi tree that is located away from the views. Both of these are attempts to try and limit your time with your head down and not interacting and reacting to your surroundings.
One camp in Kenya offers, what I think is the perfect solution. When you ask if the camp has Wi-Fi, the answer is yes. And soon enough you have a four-legged, furball, called “Wi-Fi”, bringing you a stick to throw for him.
My advice to you whilst on safari: time is precious, holidays even more so. Therefore, #lookup, #putyourphonedown and #enjoythemoment, as it will be over before you know it.