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  • Writer's pictureJTF

'Twende:' Wild Africa Trek

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

The sun shines intensely in between the clouds, the sounds of the African market are lively. Drums and performers entertain a crowd with their bright, colorful costumes but even more radiant smiles. A small group of guests listens intently as a cast member shares a message behind a hemp rope. She is animated and fully engaged in her delivery, it is conversational and friendly. No one would ever know it is a practiced spiel. Except, she will repeat the same message just a few minutes later with the same mannerisms, tone, pauses, and jokes. Who can blame her, the safari experience is offered 8 times a day. It requires a level of skill that demands someone to remain in the position for a longer tenure than most jobs along the park.

She finishes her delivery, mentioning guests are given a water canteen for their excursion, and it is theirs to keep at the end of the day. Smiles shine bright as a male guest exclaims in joy 'that's great.' Here they are, about to embark on one of the most unique experiences of their lives. Yet, there is no match to the omnipresence of a metal canteen with the experience logo on its side. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that the bottle is not essential, but what it represents is. The souvenir is tangible, it can be returned to their original locations and showcased casually for others to see. To have the experience validated by others is indeed priceless.

The next group of visitors receives the spiel, the temperature is hot, and the humidity of Florida's summer is still intense even though September is in full swing. This, however, is a fact that you would never notice from the cast member delivering the message. She is just as animated, wholly engaged, and natural in her delivery once again. Completely unaware that her performance was already seen once before; she offers all sorts of miscellaneous information, and talks about the experience: length, requirements, waver, etc. It is also mentioned that a photographer will accompany the group, there is no need to take pictures, although guests are allowed to do so.

A lively excitement runs through the new recruits. Even better than a water bottle to take as a souvenir; are professional photos to be shared and posted all over social media for the world to see. The move is perfect for free advertisement and value for both guests and Disney. She completes her spiel with the water canteen remark and instructs the group to return in a few minutes closer to the start time. Finally, she encourages everyone to take a bathroom break. The experience is several hours long, and there will be no access to one until two thirds into it. It goes implied that guests are not allowed to go in the 'bush.'

Guests find shelter at a nearby souvenir shop where the AC is the reason most people go into the store in the first place, or at least one would think. Inside the store, it becomes apparent that the company does not mind offering the precious cool breeze without a cover charge. All registers are busy, and guests peruse the merchandise with a high level of consciousness, and actual delight. It is perhaps another case of tangible items to validate one's experience. Believing to be impervious to the inventory, some walk the store feeling as if they are getting away with something. In a land where everything has a price, the AC feels like a loot that is there for the taking. Still, no one escapes the machine; the store has a confectionary, and indeed something for everyone. It becomes evident that no one stood a chance, the battle was lost before it even began.

The time has passed, and the full group gathers behind the same hemp rope where another cast member awaits. She unlocks it, trying to sway onlookers and disoriented tourists that this is not the general entrance to the ride. She ushers the group in and begins another set of instructions. This time, she talks about safety, harnesses, and the waver, which sits prominently over the ledge of a podium counter with its jarring white paper on top. Everything is themed, even the combination lockers are a subtle beige, and the expedition post is made to resemble a structure found in the African continent.

The number of technical requirements makes it apparent that this is going to be more involved than just a stroll along the savannah. The waver is both the creation of an overly cautious legal department obsessed with liability, and a reminder guests will be held responsible for the consequences. Papers are signed, belongings stored inside the lockers. Group by group is weighed and measured for their gear. Excursion vests with a harness, an earpiece with a radio, a name tag, and at last the water canteen is gifted to everyone in the group.

It is finally time to begin the excursion, but not without taking a group photo of everyone in the pack. Jokes are exchanged in return for a smile: 'This is as fresh as everyone is going to look' says one guide. While a nervous guest murmurs: 'I guess this will make it easier to identify us if we get lost.' Dead was never mentioned in any of the pamphlets, one can hope at least. The group begins its move, and it is managed by two female guides with the one in the front directing the path and talking to everyone through their earpiece. Harness restraints in between everyone's thighs are becoming as uncomfortable as the lack of homogeneity between the visitors to the park. The guide quickly defuses the awkwardness by joking: 'I know everyone feels like people are looking at you, and they are, is okay, you can be celebrities for the day, feel free to wave.' Only one female in the group follows the command.

Through the Pangani forest, we are ushered into our first animal encounter. It is a group of monkeys that hangs at one of the perches; the guide wastes no time delving information about them. She shares facts, and also an essential piece of information about their operation as a whole. Dinsey's Animal Kingdom is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). It is an animal research and rehabilitation center first and a theme park attraction second. She explains that the animals are carefully scanned for genetical makeup. Then disbursed accordingly to promote the breeding of endangered populations with a limited amount of genetical lines. The level of care and research given in the facility is unparalleled, and perhaps the biggest reason to visit it. Animals are a joy to watch in their full glory, living in what to them is truly the happiest place on earth.

From the first enclosure, we are ushered through the aviary, the sounds and bright colors of the birds shine in the sunlight. From the earpiece, the guide mentions that while looking up, it is best to keep mouths closed, as no one wants a surprise to land in them. Beautiful cerulean blue and yellow birds chirp and work diligently to build upside down nests. The nests are tokens to attract females, and a male will build two or three of them to improve their chances of mating. While a vast majority of the animal kingdom lives in a harem, these birds face steep competition, and give new meaning to the term 'work for it.'

Through a winding path, we are ushered into a small clearing. In it, a fence is made to look like it is battered bamboo. In fact, it is a resin-coated creation that will outlast us all and sits quietly on a corner. The guides do a headcount and then open the gate. This is the first time the participants are behind the enclosures. A walk through the brush, and a few safety instructions to look where one steps occur before the first harness system appears. There is a large pond underneath, and the enclosure resembles that of the hippopotamus seen from the other side. Everyone is briefed on the use of the harness strap and lock, then hooked and asked to walk to the ledge of the cliff in an orderly fashion.

On cue, a hippo makes its way through the water pulling his face and mouth above it at the fascination of everyone involved. The guide begins to explain facts about the animal, his name, that he is a male, the smallest one in the facility, and soon to be shipped for breeding to another zoo. A bucket with lettuce sits next to another guide, and it is obvious our new friends know it means food. A guide explains that to prevent the animals from becoming bored. They are moved among different enclosures throughout the day, and he just arrived in this new locale. He is alone because of temper, as he is unable to relate to the other males. Because of its small size, it ranks low in the hierarchy of hippos within the reserve. He keeps rising above the water, and without warning lifts its tail projecting an explosion of feces and urine into a nearby island.

Everyone gasps both in shock and curiosity. The guide explains that he is marking his territory, and because of his small size and alienation among the herd, he is very territorial. One has to wonder which one came first, the isolation, or the behaviors that possibly promote it. The guide goes on to explain the occurrence is so common the keepers have nicknamed the event a 'dung shower' which fittingly refers to when an animal defecates and urinates at the same time.

Now that we have been acquainted with the new rules of operation within the animal kingdom. The guide feeds the rest of the lettuce and begins to usher everyone back to the other side of the U shape system where everyone's harness is attached to. Everyone is unbuckled and guided through the brush into another harness system. This time Nile crocodiles lay below. The same drill, no 'dung shower' only exciting facts about the species and some of the traits of the facility and the animals are shared as well.

For the last and final harness system, Disney has upped the ante. It is determined to offer a wow factor to an experience that is worthy of both their name and price tag. Above the landing, in a small platform reached by a metal latter. One of the guides explains the hooking process and then what will happen as everyone is required to go over three bridges that appear to be in disrepair. From a distance, they seem to be neither high nor challenging to cross. She finishes her spiel, and ask if anyone would like to volunteer to go first, an eager hand raises and she straps the first one in the group.

It becomes apparent once in the contraction that it is designed to engage participants, and get a bit of adrenaline through their veins. Small steps, followed with more significant jumps, are required to complete the task. The views are breathtaking, and the vantage point from above is one of those memories designed to last a lifetime. Everyone carefully makes it through the bridges, holding to metal ropes, and looking down and around to the surroundings. A photographer eagerly tries to capture shots of the participants. Some of which work to disguise their awkwardness in the hope of a bold shot. No one falls, and the entire group begins to make it through the end of the system safely, hyped, and accomplished at the new feat. Once everyone has gathered, the guides usher them out and take them to another landing where a truck awaits for them. Everyone is asked to remove their harness and gear, return their headpiece and radio, and hold to their canteen, and phones carefully.

In the truck, an iced towel is given, and everyone is allowed to sit for the first time in a couple hours that obviously felt like a couple minutes with the excitement. The towel brings soothing relief from the heat and a sense of luxury to the experience. If one is not careful, it can easily be forgotten that everyone is in the park, and not somewhere far into the African wilderness.

Guests are ushered this time through the open lands of the savannah, giving them a chance to experience wild painted dogs, elands, giraffes, Patterson gazelles, and more. The truck stops close to the best sights, and participants are given both a privileged view as well as personalized information about the animals and savannah. It has been a busy mating season, and 6 baby giraffes now roam throughout the land. It is a unique joy to see the animals in such high-level care, and glistening in their coats. Stresses of the African Serengeti is not something they have been made aware of. The guides explain how it is actually more important to keep the animals engaged and challenged. Giving them food, training, and promoting mental gymnastics to avoid sedentary behavior and keep them motivated.

The next stop is the elephants, and over a small hill in the savannah, a structure offers shades and a welcome oasis to make a picnic stop. Once unloaded, guests are offered the chance to use a proper bathroom, and a chilled water refill, this is provided by a water cooler hidden behind a themed brush and bamboo enclosure. Everyone is encouraged to walk around the deck. Upon everyone's return to the main area, the only thing picnic about the entire set up is the table cloths, they are checkered red and white. Yet, the whole place feels more like an oasis, complete with expansive views over the savannah.

Everyone is handed a metal tiffin and tumbler. Over a table, a beverage station is set up with chilled jungle juice (a concoction made to be addictive). Inside the chilled tiffin, two containers separate an array of different sample foods. It is easy to settle into the chair, sip the chilled elixir, and immerse in the moment. A very welcome break, after what now has been close to 3 hours on the trek. After finishing the treats, and offered one last glass of jungle juice, everyone is ushered back into the truck and the ride continues. There are more facts and animals, and everyone's biological clocks begin to activate. After the rush of bridges, sugar from the juice, and savory meal, a mellow feel has taken over the majority of the truck.

It is becoming apparent our experience is coming to an end, but the guides wish to impart one more token to everyone. Disney created a conservation fund, from which a part of our package purchase has been devoted to (percentages are never disclosed). We will be handed a rock at the end of the trek, and have the opportunity to put it inside a box with a carving image of an animal. We can choose our favorite animal or the general conservation fund. It is an excellent way to create engagement, promote conservation, and give everyone a chance to feel they have made a difference.

The entire experience is filled with delight and small details that create value to support its premium. To have the opportunity to see the animals receive such a high standard of care. It makes it easy to enjoy the trek without feeling a ping that exploitation or abuse is infringed on any creature in the name of entertainment. The excursion is layered, customizable, unique, and worth everyone's time. During the journey, different Swahili phrases are taught, and two of them appear appropriate to bid farewell to this fantastic experience. Asante Sana (Thank you) and Kwaherini (until we meet again), anyone that has taken the journey can only hope they do.


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