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Welcome to an exciting podcast episode where Zander Sprague and Warren Pearson delve into the epic adventures in Africa. As a private safari guide and naturalist, Warren shares his unique perspective on what makes a journey truly epic. From encountering a leopard’s unexpected interaction to the mesmerizing sight of lions in repose, this episode explores the transformative power of African safaris. The discussion emphasizes the significance of patience in wildlife encounters and highlights the profound impact Africa has on individuals, fostering a sense of belonging and change.

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An Epic Journey To Africa With Warren Pearson, Part 1

I am joined by my good friend Warren Pearson from South Africa. We’re going to be talking about epic in Africa, how Warren and I know each other, some of our epic adventures, and how epic Africa can be. Warren, welcome.

Thank you, Zander. It’s good to be here.

I wanted to start to take a moment and explain what an epic journey means to each of us. I have to be honest; epic is a word that I first started using with Epic Journeys with Warren because Warren is a naturalist and a private safari guide. He makes unbelievable trips with people to share all of the magnificence of the African continent with people, and he does such a great job. I’ve known Warren for many years, and it’s amazing. Warren, why don’t you start off by taking a moment or two to talk about what an epic journey means to you?

An Epic Journey

An epic journey is something that fills your soul. It’s something that is completely different. Zander, you know me. If everyone goes left, I go right. Anything that is unique and fulfilling, you come out at the end of it, and you feel whole as a person. Everyone will have different definitions or ideas of what epic is to them.

I was talking to a colleague and a friend, saying, “What do you like to do? What safaris do you like to lead?” I was like, “I like to lead these ones where people go into, or people haven’t been to, and you’re going into these areas that are untouched as you could possibly get them. It’s areas where people are scared to go into or political situations are unstable.” That’s where you get the most enjoyment out of seeing these places.

  

EPIC Begins With 1 Step Forward | Warren Pearson | Journey To Africa

  

I was talking to a friend about a reserve or a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I love and is called Virunga. If anyone has Netflix, search Virunga, and you will know what I’m talking about. That is epic. It’s big and beautiful. It’s far away. It’s not on people’s minds. People want to talk about it. Before this lockdown happened, I was in Chad visiting a park there called Zakouma. Most people go, “What’s in Chad? Why go to Chad? It’s a desert.” It’s the most epic adventure anyone could ever take. That would be my definition of epic.

When I think of an epic journey, I think of something that changes you. Sometimes, you’re aware that something’s going to be an epic journey, and you will be changed, but oftentimes, you have no idea. I went on safari in South Africa in 1998 before I met you, Warren, but not many years before. The experience of being with all of the animals and being close to them was unbelievably epic because I would never have expected that you could drive up into the middle of a bunch of sleeping pride of lions and have a lioness on the left and on the right. They don’t care. I’m sitting there having my own panic attack. I’m sitting in the back of the Range Rover, and I’m like, “I’m far away from the Ranger. If something goes wrong, they could jump up in a second.” They don’t.

I’m sure a lot of the audience has seen movies where they’re in Africa, and they’re showing it. It’s different when you see it in person because the camera only captures this and all of that. An epic journey for me is when you’re done, you are changed. Every time I’ve been fortunate enough to go to Africa, I come back changed.

Africa does that to you. I’m not saying that as an African. It’s the one thing that anyone who’s been on a safari comes to realize that they will leave, and they do leave a completely changed human being. For most journeys that people take, whether it’s to Europe or wherever it is in the world, a journey should change you. It should make you see the world in a different place and find your place in the world.

Anyone who’s been on a safari leaves a completely changed human being.

Africa does that the best. Everyone talks about coming home to Africa. All humans originated in Africa, and that’s been proven. You have this sense of belonging when you come here. This is the most hospitable continent. A lot of people are scared of this dark continent story. Africa changes you, and it’s epic. Africa is an epic destination to come. If you are coming here several times, every single time, it changes you. You know that. You’ve come many times to Africa, and you keep wanting to come back. It does something good.

I first met Warren in 2001. On our first 30 minutes into the game drive together, we found these five lion cubs. They were tiny. They were six or eight weeks old.

Their eyes just had opened. I would probably say within a month or 4 to 5 weeks old. I’m trying to remember. It’s a long way back that I’m trying to remember.

I remember it clearly. Here we are. We find these two lionesses and five lion cups. They’re tiny and cute. We pull up. We’re giving them the appropriate space because they’re small. The lion cubs were curious. They came right up to the Range Rover. At one point, I had one of the lionesses practically walking, almost touching me as she walked by the Range Rover. It was incredibly epic. From there, I had many years before I was able to get back to South Africa, but I came back with my parents and daughters. I introduced Africa to my 8 and 10-year-olds. I’m fortunate to be able to do that. They love going on safari, which is great.

Every time I take a trip with Warren, we put an epic one, epic two, and epic three. We’re working on epic four. I’m not sure when that’s going to happen, but it is happening. It is like coming home. When I get out to East Africa on the plane, it changes you. When I get to Chad or up to Virunga, that will be a different experience. All of it is going home. Warren, you have a plethora of stories. Can you share 1 or 2 stories that you think might be interesting about experiences you’ve had?

Animal Behavior

There are many stories. The stories come from a question that normally gets asked. What happened with this? What was your most scary moment? How did you get into what you’re doing? Do you believe animals are anthropomorphic? There are many questions that get put out there. This is where the stories then come from.

I’m trying to think of one interesting one. The one that comes to mind in this situation comes down to animal behavior. It’s something that I love. I love learning about animal behavior. I constantly find myself learning more about animal behavior. The only way you can do that is by spending time with animals. I’ve read many books, but it doesn’t do it justice.

I remember this one instance. I was in the vehicle sitting in the safari vehicle. I’m in the driver’s seat. The driver’s seat doesn’t have a door. We had our doors taken off. A lot of people thought that was crazy. The reason we have that is because it’s easier for us as naturalists to keep getting in and out of the vehicle all the time without having to open and close the door.

I can’t remember the buildup to it, but I remember the end of it where this female leopard was walking through the grass towards us. She was perpendicular coming at us, and she was quite a long way off. I was expecting her to walk in front of the vehicle and carry on past us. The grass was long. I could see the tips of the grass wavering and moving. This leopard started to walk right up to where the running board was. The running board is where you step up onto the vehicle. I’m talking 30 to 40 centimeters, not even from my leg.

This adult female leopard ended up looking up at me. She looked directly at me and turned her head. She did the most amazing thing, which I was not expecting. She chuffed at me. When a large cat chuffed, it’s when they’re accepting of something. They know you. They’ve accepted you into their world or lives. This leopard tilted ahead at me and chuffed at me.

I’m skipping a small section here before I go any further. I was always working with a tracker. A tracker is someone who would typically sit in the front of the vehicle. I was fortunate enough. He grew up in the area. Their whole life was spent tracking animals. They would track animals by their footprints on the sand by sounds, smells, or any sign.

My tracker, who grew up in this area, was one of the original trackers of the area that I was in. I was still young in those days. I wasn’t experienced in this. I was learning a lot still. He said to me, “The one thing you never do is never look a leopard in the eyes. Never take direct eye contact with a leopard or any big cat.” Being young and naive, I was like, “I’ll listen to you. You’re the expert. I’m not. I’m learning from you.”

There was something at this moment that when this leopard walked up to the vehicle, I don’t know what it was with me, I made the decision to look this leopard in the eyes. I looked at my tracker, and my tracker was parting his face away. There was something in me. I don’t know what it was. I looked at this leopard, but when I looked at this leopard, and before she chuffed at me, I smiled.

This is subsequent to the whole experience. I smiled with my mouth closed. I smiled more with my eyes. I wasn’t wearing glasses at the time. We are one of the only animals in the world that smile, showing and bearing our teeth, which, for most animals, is a threat display. I looked at this leopard, who was 30 centimeters from me. I smiled with my eyes on my face as much as I could without showing my teeth. That’s when this leopard tilted her head, looked at me, and chuffed at me.

She did something interesting. She looked past me. I could see her looking at my tracker. He was not having eye contact. The interesting thing came into it. The guest that I had that were behind me was a lady. She looked up at this lady. She snorted and gave a growl. I said, “Turn your head and look away.” The leopard stopped and looked back at me because I was watching them the whole time, and at no time during this interaction did the leopard seem like it wanted to jump on the vehicle to attack. It was completely relaxed. The tail was down. The ears were relaxed. It was purely in the face that and the vocalization.

This leopard looked back at me and looked at me in the eyes. She turned her head again and chuffed at me a second time. She turned away, walked off in front of the vehicle, and went on. I turned around immediately to the lady sitting behind me. I said, “What face were you pulling? Show me what you were doing when that leopard snarled at you.” She was showing her teeth. It was almost a scared look, but the leopard took this like, “I don’t like what you’re showing me.”

It taught me an interesting lesson about animals. There are two lessons. The main one is that they read our facial expressions. That’s how animals communicate with each other. They use facial expressions a lot of the time, particularly cats. If you have domestic cats, even if you have dogs at home, if you watch carefully, they use their facial expressions and eyes to communicate with us. Unbeknownst to us, that’s what we do to animals. That was a big lesson.

Animals read our facial expressions. That’s how they communicate with each other.

The second lesson in that was where you hear guides in vehicles around Africa that will say, “Don’t worry about us in this open vehicle because the lion or the leopard seizes the silhouette of a vehicle. I’m sorry, but that’s the biggest rubbish I’ve ever heard. You’re talking about an apex predator that has the most acute vision in the natural world, much better than ours. You’re telling me they’re looking at a silhouette, and they’re not looking at us. They can see every single one of us. They can see our ears, eyes, and lips moving. They can see all of that happening.

That was the other lesson because up until that point, I was also taught. They said, “They see the silhouettes of a vehicle.” That day changed that for me. These animals see every single person sitting in that vehicle. They see your eyes and facial expressions. That sits here for me. It’s an experience that I treasure to this day because it’s the only time I’ve ever had any animal that’s chuffed at me. I like to think that the leopard knew and recognized me, even in the short period of time that I’d been working in that area. I had seen her quite a few times. It’s a beautiful experience. I completely and utterly treasure that to this day.

I haven’t had something like that. However, when we were on safari, it was epic two. We were at Londolozi Game Reserve. It’s outside of Kruger National Park. It’s a fabulous place. It’s my favorite game lodge that I’ve been to. We were with a mother leopard and her sub-adult daughter. She wasn’t their daughter, but the daughter was large.

There are two things in the story. The first was this young leopard was in a tree at one point. She was in the tree right in front of us. We’re sitting here. She almost looked like she was going to jump onto the hood. I remember you telling us, “Everyone to be still. We’re not quite sure what she’s going to do.” If she had jumped on there, she would’ve been centimeters away from you because it was on the front of the vehicle, but she didn’t. They had killed an impala, and they went off to nap. It is incredible to be with the big cats, but I can tell you that after about ten minutes of watching a leopard sleep, it’s watching a cat sleep. It isn’t necessarily the most exciting.

For me, I could watch it for days.

We sat there. We were patient. One of the key things is that when you’re on safari, patience pays off. Here’s how it paid off for us. We watched and sat with them while they were sleeping for a good 45 minutes. The mother got up, walked away, and came back dragging. Five feet away from us, there was a tree. I have a video of this where she’s bringing the impala up the tree to get it away from the other predators that may want to eat it.

That was such an incredible and epic display of beauty and power. Even though all the guts had been pulled out, it was still 80 pounds worth of animal in her mouth. She’s climbing up the tree. That happened because we were patient. We waited. Everyone else had left. After that, we started to hear all the sound, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. As we were leaving, we discovered that there was a crocodile. That was one of the biggest. It had to be about 3 or 4 meters long. Its head was enormous. It was in this riverbed where they had killed the impala. It was eating the entrails, but the primordial sound of that in the dark. Even Warren, with all of his experience, was like, “I’m not quite sure what that was.”

That crocodile sound is not a sound you hear often at all. It took both our tracker and me by surprise, but what is that? What I love about what I do is I’m learning every day. I’ve been doing this for many years, but I’m still learning. I’ll go to a new place, and you’ll see a different type of animal behavior. You’re like, “I’ve never seen that before.” It’s an epic experience of constantly learning. That’s what I love about it.

Be Patient

You hit the nail on the head. If I could say to anyone reading this, if you go on safari, whether it’s your first time or you’ve been before, and you go back, be patient. If you don’t have patience, I almost want to tell people, don’t go on safari because we’ve seen it where vehicles will come in and go. I said, “Just because nothing is happening at that moment when you want it to happen, nothing is going to happen. Let’s go look for something else.”

If you don’t have patience, don’t go on a safari.

I’ve had it a few times where people say, “Nothing is happening. Let’s look for something else.” I’m like, Nothing else has been found that we know of with the people that we’re working with. We’ve got this beautiful sizing thing in front of us. Yes, they might be sleeping. They might not be doing much, but let’s experience and enjoy this moment where we are and what we are.” I can put money down that every time I’ve been patient with something, we’ve seen the most amazing things. Patience does pay off.

There are times when you are patient and nothing happens. I didn’t say nothing, but we sat for 45 minutes and watched the lions sleep. That was cool in and of itself, but they didn’t do anything else. You decide that you have to go or you have to move on. It’s getting dark. It’s time for you to get back to the lodge because you got to eat. I’m on this epic quest to try and determine how many days you need to be on safari. I’m coming to the conclusion that there isn’t an answer because every moment you are out on a drive is incredible. You don’t want that to end.

You’re asking the wrong person for that question.

There are many experiences with you, Warren, that you and I can talk about for hours. This will have more than one of these episodes where we’re talking about how epic Africa is. It seems it is a big trip. I’m not going to say that coming from the West Coast of the United States to go to Africa is a big undertaking. With every person I’ve met, I can talk about safaris all day long, how awesome they are, and how excited I am. I’ve had some friends who went. When they got back, I couldn’t wait to talk to them. They’re gushing as much about how incredible it is. I can explain it very eloquently. There’s something to be said for experiencing it.

 

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