The word safari was first used in English in 1859 by Richard Burton, whose interests and skills were remarkably wide-ranging. Among the high points of his experience were a visit to Mecca in disguise as a Muslim in 1853 (when discovery of his true nationality and faith would have led to execution), an exploration of Africa funded by the Royal Geographical Society between 1856 and 1860 and the translation and publication of 1001 Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra in English.
It was in his reports written in 1859 on the African travels that Burton used the word safari, which is derived from the Swahili for “journey”. Originally a safari was classed as a formal expedition for hunting or scientific purposes, but with such bestsellers as Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines the word was increasingly used in the context firstly of adventure and later of tourism.
Whereas the shooting in Africa was once done with guns, it is now generally done with cameras. The wide open spaces of rural Africa make for striking cinematic setting, and when Cinemascope technology revolutionised wide-screen filming in the 1950s Hollywood headed for the dark continent. The 1955 movie Safari was an ideal showcase for Kenya’s natural beauty, and moving forward to the 1980s the Oscar-winning Out of Africa was a feast for the eyes and ears, with ravishing scenes of colonial hunting territory attracting almost as much attention as Meryl Streep’s Danish accent.
Today the Safari is among the most popular choices for those seeking an “experience” holiday. Popular packages include the opportunity to see herds of elephants at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, amazing varieties of wildlife from one Masai park to another, and breaks that include the spectacular views of Victoria Falls. The fact that many species live under threat of extinction adds a poignancy to these tours. 19th century explorers such as Richard Burton could look upon Africa’s wildlife in wonder, and while the passing of time has made it more accessible it would be a sad irony if we reached a point where there was little left to see.
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