We booked our safari through the helpful folks at www.Fortes-safaris.com. Aruna, the woman who patiently answered Mohit’s countless emails was wonderful. We booked a five day, four night safari through Lake Manyara Park, Ngorogoro Crater, and Serengeti National Park. We had our own private 4x4 jeep with a top that popped up so that we could stand and get eye-to-eye with elephants and giraffes. Our driver Abdul was the strong silent type- though he didn’t talk much over the five days we spent with him, we slowly learned bits and pieces of his life in Arusha; his two sons, his desire to pay for them to attend international schools where they would learn English, his purchase of a plot of land and plans to build a larger home for his family.
I had no idea that we’d be able to get so up close and personal with the animals! Or that we’d see them in such incredible abundance. Without planning to be, we’d lucked out and were smack dab in the middle of the zebra and wildebeest migration. As we drove across the endless plains of the Serengeti, we’d frequently drive right into the middle of a herd of thousands and thousands of animals. They’d scatter in front of us, dashing across the road. When Abdul turned off the engine to let us take in the scenery, the silence was broken by the endless grunting and bellowing of wildebeest talking to each other. We noticed that the zebra like to stand in groups, each animal resting its head on the back of another animal, so that it looked like they were hugging.
We watched an elephant use his trunk to tear apart a tree a mere ten feet from our car. He was happily crunching on entire branches despite the fact that they were covered in inch-long thorns. I had no idea elephants ate so much wood, I always pictured them eating leaves and grass. His skin was thick and wrinkly, and hung in folds around his knees. He waved his huge ears to swat away flies.
After a few distant lion sightings using our binoculars, we finally got to see a male lion up close and personal. He was lying in the grass in the shade of a small tree, and we were so close to him that I could see his chest rise and fall as he panted in the late morning heat. Flies buzzed around his eyes and around the bloody trampled grass a few yards away. Lying next to the lion was a half-eaten wildebeest carcass. We could smell the sweet-rotten smell of the fresh meat from where we stood in our jeep.
I could hardly believe the lion had killed a beast bigger than us a few hours earlier and that he now laid there there so sleepily, hardly noticing that there were three safari jeeps carrying a dozen people crowded around him. Thanks to a particularly bad movie that I watched on the only English TV channel available at one of our hotels in Guatemala (starring Bridget Moynahan and called “Prey”), I imagined what I’d do if he suddenly jumped on top of our car and reached his huge paws through the open windows, deciding that he was ready for another snack. Later, we found a pair of lions, male and female, sleeping off their full bellies in the branches of a tree. Abdul also pointed out a lion sleeping in the shade of a huge boulder.
Just after leaving our safari lodge to head out one early morning, a giraffe surprised us at the side of the road as we turned a corner. He was standing in the fog, bending his head down and curling his pink tongue around leaves to rip them off a bush. We stopped the car, turned off the engine and whispered to each other but the giraffe still stopped chewing to turn his head and stare straight at us, looking annoyed that we’d disturbed his breakfast. I wondered what we looked like to him, this boxy white animal with black rubber feet and three tiny little heads on its back?
We parked beside a shallow hole filled with water the color of chocolate milk. There were grey bumps in the water with little pink nostrils, and every once in a while one of the hippos yawned wide or rolled over to wave four stubby legs in the air.
We also saw ostriches and gazelles grazing, tiny little deer (the size of a rabbit!) called dik diks dashing off to hide in the trees, circling vultures, grunting warthogs, skulking hyenas, far-off rhinoceros, three different kinds of monkeys, pink flamingos, buffalo, a leopard sleeping in a tree, a pair of cheetahs moseying through the grass, a baby crocodile, and a whole pack of some ferret-like rodents.
And most improbably, we almost ran over two of the most deadly snakes in Africa (a black mamba and a puff adder), one trying to swallow the other in the middle of the road. Our driver Abdul was so nervous about being close to the black mamba that the minute the snake started to slither to the side of the road, he threw the jeep into reverse and screeched off down the road backwards in a cloud of dust. Kim was paranoid for the rest of the day that the snake had somehow found its way into our car and was waiting to slide out of a door panel…
We also visited a Masaai tribe. The Masaai live a semi-nomadic life and cling to the traditional ways in which they’ve lived for millennia. They build their homes out of sticks and stucco them with cow dung. We went inside one hut and the blinding midday sun disappeared- it was extremely dark, with just one small hole in the roof for smoke from the cooking fire to escape. We sat on a low bench covered with a smooth cow hide that served as a bed for at least four people each night. The homes were arranged in a circle around a shade tree, and the complex was ringed with a fence made from a tangle of thorny branches meant to keep out lions and other predatory animals. We gave the village a generous donation, but I still feel bad remembering the wide-eyed baby swaddled on his mother’s back in a sling, staring at us as flies crawled over his face. In choosing their traditional ways, the Masaai are missing out on many of the benefits of slowly modernizing Tanzania.
Since we were visiting the parks during low season (rainy season? I think the endless blue skies were interrupted by only one brief passing shower), we were able to splurge and stay at the “luxury” Serena lodges located right inside the parks. We paid a fraction of the price that the lodges demand in high season. We enjoyed an afternoon swim in an infinity pool with a view out over Lake Manyara, we ate too much each night at the dinner buffet, and we enjoyed two evenings with bottles of South African wine watching the sunlight in Ngorogoro crater disappear.
Finally, four and a half months after we left, we boarded a return flight bound for Boston.