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The History of Safari - How it All Began

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The History of Safari - How it All Began
Throughout the 20th century, the safari has been popularized in film and literature through grand tales of adventure, romance and thrills. But just how long has this activity been going on? What was going on safari like 100 years ago? Read on to learn about where it all started …

First, the word safari originated from the word “safar”, which is an Arabic verb that roughly translates to mean “to make a journey.’” From there, you get the noun “safariya,” or journey and then to safari which is actually a Swahili synonym of the Arabic word. Clearly, in this original definition, you do not get connotations of tents, backpacks, hiking and Land Rovers that are currently associated with the concept of safari. Rather, in its original context, it referred to the long distances people would have to traverse for trade routes and so forth.

The earliest safaris recorded were primarily focused around the trading industry. With the Arabic and African cultures so closely connected during our early in human history, there would often be large caravans of traders traveling across vast landscapes to bring their wares from one city to the next. According to The History of Safari, Travel Africa, in the 18th century, trading was a profitable and successful business as many prized items -- and unfortunately, even people -- were sold and used for barter.

According to Gemma Pitcher in Tanzania’s Safari History, European safari caravans were large-scale operations that involved a huge contingent of staff and crew along with supplies and weapons. Some of these trade routes were rather treacherous, so skillful bartering and negotiating also played a crucial role in getting from point A to point B, especially when dealing with trading slaves.

Fortunately, the safari that was associated with slave trade ended before the turn of the 20th century, changing the purpose of safaris from a business focus to a fun adventure or exploration.  According to People Behind the Names, African Wildlife & Conservation, early naturalists and explorers like William John Burchell, Thomas Ayres and Gustav Adolf Fischer not only redefined the purpose of the safari, but were instrumental in identifying several species of animals. Their legacy is the great work they did during their exploratory travels, and of course, the animals that now carry their names:

• Burchell’s Coucal, Courser, Sandgrouse, Starling and Zebra
• Ayres’ Hawk-Eagle and Cisticola
• Fischer’s Lovebird, Sparrow-Lark and Turaco

Unfortunately, along with these great naturalists and men of science came the hunters, who revealed a more negative side of human nature -- the side that wants to rule and dominate. In some cases, the safari become associated with the “hunt”, that is, conquering the big unattainable wild beast and returning from the hunt with trophies ranging from hides, skins and heads, to an entire beast. Of great renown were hunters like William Cornwallis Harris, who not only hunted big game, but documented the hunts so that everyone would be aware of his courageous adventures into the African wilderness. 

Despite his fame for hunting, Cornwallis was also a keen observer of nature, garnering credit for his discovery of the sable antelope (aka Harris Buck). Oddly, his writings and watercolor drawings of the mother continent created a new sense of awareness and appreciation for the wildlife of Africa. Another great hunter/explorer was Frederick Selous, whose safari exploits in East Africa consisted of shooting elephants and collecting specimens for museums in Europe.

Ironically, it’s because of men like Seleous and Harris that the conservation movement ignited. This movement would ultimately sanction saving these pillaged areas of Africa and the native wildlife, allowing them to continue to exist unspoiled for future generations and leading up to today’s photographic safaris.

Eyes on Africa, an African safari company, boasts an extremely knowledgeable team of staff members, who are passionate about every aspect of travel to Africa, including its wildlife and safari destinations. When you're ready to plan your African safari, a holiday in Africa, or if you just have questions, please feel free to contact us toll free at 800-457-9575 or visit our web site at http://www.eyesonafrica.net/contactus.htm and complete an information request form.


Eyes on Africa was selected most knowledgeable Regional Expert for Southern Africa / Safaris by National Geographic Traveler Magazine, 20th Anniversary Special Issue, October 2004.
Eyes on Africa was selected most knowledgeable
Regional Expert for Southern Africa / Safaris by
National Geographic Traveler Magazine,
20th Anniversary Special Issue.

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