Mat Dry is an American on an unusual mission: to re-invent the African safari.
Long dominated by hunters and suffused with colonial nostalgia, the African safari needs more than a makeover. The “great white hunter” was discarded along with many other tropes of exploitative colonialism. Dry, an Arizonan and a former tennis pro, discovered the African bush, then worked as a guide for one of South Africa’s leading tour companies. In recent decades, a new generation of safari companies have stripped out hunting and killing, redefining the safari as a pro-conservation pursuit that puts bearing witness to wild animals at the center of the experience.
The problem, of course, is cost, and also comfort. These safari are expensive: for the rich, if not the super rich. And the bear the stamp of colonial nostalgia because often — whether in the Masai Mara in Kenya or the Okavanga delta in Bostswana — animal lovers from Europe, the U.S. and Asia are kept far away from “wild” Africans. Only Africans employed directly in the safari experience are encountered. These safe, sanitized Africans, while earning a deserved good living, reinforce the perverted sense that people serve as backdrop to wildlife in Africa.
Dry rebels against this form of safari. While preserving the love of big animals, he’s managed to drive down costs, through clever deals with suppliers and his own penchant from roughing it. In his deftly written memoir, “This is Africa: true tales of a Safari Guide,” Dry recounts some his fascinating, romantic adventures in the bush, both with humans and wildlife. In person — and I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting him — Dry presents a pragmatic vision of how safaris for “the rest of us” might become more popular.
Dry’s secret is “overlanding,” taking large groups in a single bus or truck across vast areas. His capacity for camping in the African bush seems second only to Hemingway’s, whose novel, The Green Hills of Africa, immortalized the sublime encounters between man and nature on the African savannah.
I do not know whether Dry’s delicious dream of an African safari for “the everyman” (and woman) will become a reality. But I do know this: my wife Chizo and I will join him someday on one of his quixotic journeys. Until then, I will visit with the stories derring-do in his charming memoir.