Harford County professor and wife lead safaris to wildlife preserves

LURE OF AFRICA

August 08, 1993|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

It's a long way from the rolling hills of Harford County's farmland to the dust and heat of the Serengeti plains in East Africa.

But Howard R. Erickson is equally at home in both.

For the past 17 years Mr. Erickson, a wildlife biologist, has been leading safaris into the remote and nearly inaccessible wildlife preserves where Africa's last great migratory herds still travel.

"It's exhilarating to feel that you are immersed in this rich landscape -- it's a Utopia for anyone interested in wildlife," Mr. Erickson said. "Everything is natural, there are no fences, few people, few roads -- it's big sky country, endless plains and so clear that it is easy to see for 30 to 40 miles."

His wife, Katherine Erickson, who has been accompanying him for the past seven years, agreed. "The sky just goes on for ever and ever, and at night the stars are like large, clear-cut diamonds, there is no light pollution -- it's absolutely magical," she said.

Each January and often again in late July, the Ericksons return to that magic, taking a group of about 20 people and sharing with them their encyclopedic knowledge of the land.

"It's the dry season, the rains have stopped and grass isn't growing -- that's when the herds are most concentrated and drawn like magnets to the rivers and watering holes," Mr. Erickson said.

Mr. Erickson, 63, a professor of zoology and ecology at Towson State University and a founder of the Baltimore Zoological Society, fell under the spell of Africa in 1967. He was the chief zoologist traveling with a group to Liberia to trap animals and bring them back to Baltimore to upgrade the city's zoo.

Nine years later he escorted his first group on a safari. Initially the tour was arranged as a travel-study trip so that his students could see first-hand what they were reading about in school -- the flora and fauna, geology, tribal customs and social mores.

But the annual trips halfway around the world became so popular that Mr. Erickson decided in the mid-1980s to open them to the public.

Today the wildlife safaris are operated by the Ericksons from their Pylesville home as a business, Adventure Safaris, a division Environmental Studies Inc.

Though the business is not a money-maker, the Ericksons usually clear enough to pay for their fare, a reward for long hours spent organizing the trip and for sharing their knowledge and experience.

The Ericksons are completing the itinerary for next January's excursion, which will take them to Nairobi, Kenya, and the wildlife reserves in Tanzania. They also plan to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, which, at more than 19,000 feet, is the highest peak in Africa, to fly into the land of the mountain gorillas and relax on the unspoiled beaches of the Indian Ocean. The cost of the three-week trip is about $4,500.

Steven and Jane Witt of Bel Air, who went on January's safari, had nothing but praise for the Ericksons.

"Howard and Kathy are excellent trip leaders," Mr. Witt said. "They are very accommodating and helpful, and Howard has a tremendous knowledge and insight of not only the animals of Africa, but also the countries, its people and history -- we never lacked for information."

The Ericksons escort the group throughout the safari, but also give travelers a lot of freedom, and itineraries are altered to accommodate individual needs, Mr. Witt said.

Before embarking on the journey, the group is prepared by its escorts. The Ericksons provide a long list of reading material and sources, show slides and give packing advice.

'Beyond all expectation'

"But no matter how much you read about the land, being there is beyond all expectation," said Mr. Witt, 46, director of community and environmental health for Anne Arundel County. "Being there is a huge jump from reading about it -- you just can't experience Africa, its environment, people and culture, without actually being there."

Knowing what they will encounter whets travelers' appetites, Mr. Erickson said.

When the travelers arrive in Africa, they find the adventure begins slowly -- teasingly, Mr. Erickson said. Leaving Nairobi for the isolated and vast wildlife preserves in Tanzania, the group encounters its first antelope, then spots the silhouette of a giraffe's neck.

Once in the reserves, the twice-daily game runs begin. Riding the mostly unpaved and dusty roads in minivans with pop-up roofs, the travelers are ready to capture the spectacular view on film: tens of thousands of wildebeest, zebras, impala, wart hogs, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, and lions either parading by or grazing just 50 feet away.

Nights are spent in lodges, which can range from tentlike to very luxurious. Buffets laden with ethnic and international food are prepared by local staffs.

After spending evenings listening to lions roaring, hyenas laughing and elephants trumpeting, the travelers awaken to the melodies of countless African songbirds greeting the dawn.

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