Hangin' with Hippos and Crocs: Wild Africa Trekby Mark Goldhaber, staff writer
I stood atop the precipice above the hippopotamus pool, leaning forward to stare at the huge creatures just 10 feet beneath me. I had no fear of falling, as my tether "tail" attached my safari vest to a sturdy iron rail, so I just let my body hang forward with just the tether keeping me upright and atop the ledge. With the wildlife expert stationed at the pool explaining about the life and habits of hippos over our wireless headsets, I started to understand what all the fuss was about with the Wild Africa Trek tour at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
As my media tour group stared at the hippos, they stared back—apparently wondering if we had food for them. Looking down at the pod of two- to three-ton semi-aquatic mammals, we could also see the Kilimanjaro Safaris jeeps drive past on the other side of the pool. I felt a little guilty that the hippos were staring at us, giving the passing guests on the jeeps a better view of their hindquarters. The quality of photos that I was able to get from a much closer, unobstructed, stationary position was remarkable when compared to previous shots I'd taken from safari jeeps on that bumpy road.
A walk in the woods
Following a lengthy viewing of the hippos where our tour guides Lani and Lauren also took photos of us at the ledge, we returned to the path that we had entered through a gate along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.
Shortly, we approached the rope bridge that is one of the signature experiences of the Trek, and were joined by a third guide. The bridge criss-crosses the Safi River, which divides areas of the preserve. Lani took up a position at the midway station, while the third tour guide headed to the end of the bridge. Lauren attached our umbilical cord "tails" to an overhead cable one by one and let us head out on the bridge at intervals spaced far enough apart to give each of us our own solitary experience on the bridge. They all turned off their microphones so that we didn't have conversation over our headsets.
Get a sense of what it's like to cross the rope bridge with this video taken from a camera I wore around my neck. Video by Mark Goldhaber.
While the bridge bounced and swayed a bit, the tether gave a great feeling of safety and confidence, allowing us to enjoy the marvelous views of the flora and fauna below. At the midway point, the cable that our "tails" were attached to connected to a steel bar that curved above the platform and connected to another cable that stretched across the second span. While the tethers were a little finicky in negotiating the bar, it was not very difficult to make it around. The two guides at the midway point and the end of the bridge took photos of each trekker on the bridge as they approached each station.
Once we reached the end of the bridge and got our last photo taken, the guide at the end detached our tethers and had us go to a waiting area with an insulated jug of cold water and a few seats. After we had all assembled in the waiting area, our guides attached our tethers to another anchor rail, allowing us to hang over the edge of another precipice overlooking the Nile crocodile area.
As with the hippos, it was quite the experience to be just 10 feet above the large reptiles, that—belying their fierce nature—appeared peaceful as they relaxed in the warm sun, floating in the water and laying on the nearby rocks. The guides again provided interesting information about the crocs and answered whatever questions we had as we snapped away with our cameras while hanging over the ledge.
After we had wrapped up at the crocodile pit and refilled our souvenir Wild Africa Trek water bottles (after all, would you really want a water bottle that someone else had used?), we continued a little further along the trail to an overlook where we could see the main savanna for Kilimanjaro Safaris. Here, we stopped for a group photo.
Continuing just a short distance further, we arrived at our private safari jeep, which was equipped with seats around the perimeter so that everyone had an outside view of the wildlife. In an odd bit of serendipity, as we were preparing to climb into our jeep, I heard someone call my name from a passing Kilimanjaro Safaris jeep and looked up to see a friend of mine waving at me. It's a small world after all, even at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
After we boarded our jeep, we waited for a gap between the attraction jeeps and headed out on the safari trail. Unlike the standard ride, though, we were able to stop occasionally to allow for better photographs and more in-depth discussions (they must have arranged for a lengthy gap to appear to let us take our leisurely drive). Eventually, we turned off the main road onto a side road to approach the safari camp for lunch.
The camp consists of a building with restroom and storage facilities, a small pavilion to provide shade and shelter while dining, and a boardwalk that stretched from the pavilion to a point that provided great viewing of Pride Rock and the rhinoceros area. The pavilion area has wonderful views of the savanna, flamingo pool, and more.
Lunch featured a variety of African-inspired foods served in individual ramekins inside a pair of covered tins. One tin held ramekins containing curried chicken salad, fresh fruit marinated in mint and ginger, and prosciutto and air-dried smoked beef. The other tin's ramekins had sun-dried tomato hummus with toasted sesame seeds, marinated tandoori shrimp, and smoked salmon pinwheel with dill cream cheese over jicama-cucumber slaw, along with three mini pita rounds. In addition to water, there was a drink comprised of passion fruit, orange, and guava juice, which is also featured at various restaurants around Walt Disney World as Frunch, Jungle Juice, Lilikoi, and POG juice.
Dishes for lunch include (bottom tin, clockwise from bottom) curried chicken salad, prosciutto and air-dried smoked beef, and fresh fruit, and (top tin, clockwise from bottom right) sun-dried tomato hummus, smoked salmon roulade with dill cream cheese over jicama-cucumber slaw, and marinated tandoori shrimp, with mini pita rounds. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
The metal tins, ramekins, juice cups, and water bottles make for a very shiny table. Each lunch table also has two pairs of high-powered binoculars for enhanced wildlife viewing. Photo courtesy of Disney.
While we were eating, we were also free to roam around the safari camp and look at all of the various animal habitats. The views were spectacular, and the leisurely viewing opportunity was extremely peaceful yet exciting. There were some high-powered binoculars for us to get closer views of the animals, and the time at the camp came to a close much too soon. We returned to our jeep for the last part of the safari ride back to "civilization."
But again, we didn't just take the beaten path. At one point, we pulled onto a side road and stopped to let some Kilimanjaro Safaris jeeps pass us and so that we could get a good look at some of the jungle cats in the forest. Since we were stopped, we were able to move around the jeep to get a better look at everything. We then continued on the side road to join up with the main path near Pride Rock, where we stopped to get really great views (and stable focus) on the lion and lioness atop it. We continued our ride along the end of the safari path to an unload station for our excursion jeep.
Returning to civilization
After disembarking, we returned to the departure point where we were told that a portion of the cost of the tour would be donated to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. We were all named Conservation Heroes, given a Wild Africa Trek DWCF Conservation Hero button, and given the opportunity to choose which DWCF project our share of the donation would go to. After a final group photo with our guides, the tour was over and we returned to the park. After returning home, we received a CD containing all of the photos taken by our guides during our trek, as well as some stock images of the tour.
If you are a nature enthusiast, this is one tour that you will really enjoy. You get plenty of unhurried time to observe the animals from close up, you can have your questions get answered by a wildlife expert, and you have some great opportunities for some amazing wildlife photos. (And the food's really good, too!)
After your entire tour group has arrived at the assembly point, you'll go to the outfitting station where you'll stow everything that can't go on the trek with you in a locker and get your safari gear. At that time, you will also get a name badge, a water bottle, and a headset radio to allow you to hear your guide regardless of how far apart you are on the walking trail.
You will not be able to carry anything loose on your trek. Cell phones and other portable media will have to remain in a locker unless they can be clipped to your vest. At minimum, your shoes should have closed toes and a back strap. Flip flops are explicitly barred. You should wear long pants or shorts. Skirts and dresses are not recommended, partly because the safari vest also straps between your legs, which could prove extremely uncomfortable.
Tours depart multiple times per day from the base of the huge baobab tree to the right of the Kilimanjaro Safaris queue. At the time that I took the tour last year, the assembly point and outfitting station was behind the Tusker House Restaurant, but it has been moved for two purposes: That area is being prepared to host the Festival of the Lion King show (which will move to clear space for construction of Pandora: The World of Avatar), and the new location allows tours to depart more directly onto the trail instead of having to parade through the village of Harambe between the outfitting station and the entry to the trail.
Wild Africa Trek is a three-hour walking and riding tour through the "Safi River Valley" portion of the Kilimanjaro Safaris forest and savanna, open to guests ages 8 and up (those under age 18 must be accompanied by a participating adult). Minimum height for the tour is 48 inches, and guests must weigh between 45 and 300 pounds with their safety harness gear on. If you're a "guest of size" as I am, don't worry about everyone finding out how much you weigh. When they put the safari gear on you and have you step on the scale, the weight appears on a readout behind the counter and can only be seen by the guides. Note that, if you are of sufficient size in any dimension that you cannot completely zip up the safari vest (which comes in multiple sizes), you will not be able to participate on the trek.
You do need to be able to walk cross-country for a good distance, as the walking portion takes you quite a ways along small hills in and out of foliage. You should also be comfortable with heights and relatively surefooted to travel across the unsteady rope bridges.
Disney also recommends that you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure; heart, back or neck problems; motion sickness or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure. Expectant mothers should not participate.
As with all tours, you should try to arrive a little on the early side. It will take you approximately 10 minutes to walk from the turnstiles to the check-in location. The tour will take place rain or shine, unless there is severe weather or lightning. If you don't show up for your reserved tour time or if you cancel less than two days before your reservation, you'll forfeit the entire price of your tour.
The cost for the Wild Africa Trek is $189 per person, and includes the guided tour, lunch, a souvenir water bottle, a photo disc of your group's trek, lockers, and use of the safety gear. Some discounts are available. For reservations, call 407-WDW-TOUR (407-939-8687). For more information, see the tour page on the Walt Disney World website.