We had always planned to take a safari on our trip, but didn’t book one in advance. We weren’t sure about our itinerary, and couldn’t decide whether to do one in South Africa or head up to Kenya or Tanzania. A safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park would be logistically easier for us (since we were already going to South Africa), while choosing Tanzania would allow us to see the famous grasslands of the Serengeti – but it might be both hot and wet.
By December we still hadn’t booked anything, and realized time was running out. After lots of research, debate, and general procrastination we decided on Tanzania for the chance to see the grasslands. A well-timed marketing email from a safari company offering a significant discount helped seal the deal.
Now we just had to get there. Africa is huge – nearly 4 times the size of the contiguous US (and bigger than Russia and Canada combined). Most countries are still developing, and the infrastructure isn’t great. Direct flights are few and far between, and long connections are the norm. Finding flights from Cape Town to the Serengeti region was a challenge. One option was priced attractively but required a 3:30am connecting flight. Nope – we’re not that adventurous. Another option required going out of our way to Ethiopia, with a 12+ hour layover. And so on. We finally found an itinerary that took us through Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, where we spent a sweaty, miserable afternoon the airport’s sweaty, miserable old terminal. The “restaurant” offered warm beer and a handful of aging, gas station-quality samosas. We survived the 6+ hours on Pringles, WiFi, and a moderate amount of intra-familial bickering.
That night we landed tired but optimistic at the Kilimanjaro airport, the main airport for the Serengeti region. Our checked bags showed up on time, our tour company’s driver was waiting for us, and we’d have the next day to relax at the pool bar before starting the safari the following day.
Our safari group was quite small – just our family and a lovely older couple from South Carolina. We felt a bit bad for them – who would want to take a trip like this with someone else’s family as your only company? – but they were delightful people and excellent sports about being with a family. It didn’t hurt that they had plenty of experience with kids through teaching, foster care, and raising their own families. We got lucky!
The safari itself started with a short flight in a very small plane to a grass airstrip that’s not on the map. From the plane we could see wild animals, and we were all quite excited by the time we disembarked.
Our guide for the week met us at the airstrip in the customized Land Rover that would be our second home for the next week. The Land Rovers had been extended to add more seats, but the defining feature was the popup roof. We would spent plenty of time standing up to get a 360-degree view of the environment.
My first impression of our guide was he’s quite gruff (I suspect he was a Marine drill instructor in a past life), but he turned out to be excellent. He’s been doing this for more than 20 years and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s flora, fauna, and geology. Equally important, he knows where to find the animals. Thank you Harrison!
We then had our first “game drive” on the way to the first of the 3 camps where we’d stay during the week. On a game drive, you look for game (animals). This was quite easy, as they were everywhere: impala, gazelles, giraffe, wildebeest, and more. Lauren observed the animals here are as common as squirrels back home. (Seth H: I saw an actual bouncy thing. They really do go straight up. Sadly no giraffes driving trucks).
We arrived at our camp near the Kenyan border in time for lunch. Our accommodations were large 2-person tents, each with a full queen bed (or 2 twins) and an en-suite bathroom complete with a shower. The shower was a showerhead attached to a bucket of hot water, and worked surprisingly well. The tents were at least as big as our bedroom at home and much nicer than the tent camping I’m used to from Boy Scouts! Excellent meals were served in an even bigger dining tent. Our group of 6 shared the camp with a group of about a dozen people that happened to be affiliated with the local zoos near our hometown. Small world!
That first afternoon we were joined by a Maasai guide who gave us a tour of a traditional Maasai home made of wood, mud, and animal dung. We were greeted by several women and a gaggle of children. We’ve all seen images in print or on TV of African children covered in flies. We see the flies and think the kids must in desperate need of help, unable to spare the energy to swat them away. It’s a compelling image – great for fundraising. While there’s absolutely no question that there are many impoverished children in Africa, we saw a different and unexpected side of these images. Our visit to the Maasai village was attended by about a dozen little kids who came out to see the interlopers with the funny-colored skin, strange hair, and odd clothing. The flies came with them, crawling around on heads and clothes. There was nothing wrong with the kids as far as we could tell; they seemed happy, healthy, well-fed, energetic, and generally full of life. Despite a language barrier we managed to play a game of giving each other high-fives, which had them giggling. Another guest had them in guffaws using Snapchat filters on his phone. As for the flies? Well, there are a ton of flies everywhere and they’re not harmful. It’s not worth the effort to swat them away.
We visited a local health clinic, where we spoke with the doctor and learned about challenges (and successes) in providing medical care in the bush. The clinic appeared well stocked, and Lauren, with her background in public health, was happy to see posters on the wall exhibiting disease reporting guidelines and a patient’s bill of rights.
The rest of our week was focused on the animals as we criss-crossed Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. We had a couple of walks in the bush, led by local guides who grew up here. They know every plant and animal! Other days we spent a great deal of time in the Land Rover, which proved equal to the challenges of bumpy dirt roads and plenty of mud from recent rains.
There was plenty of wildlife. Zebras and wildebeest were plentiful. We drove through one herd of zebras that stretched from horizon to horizon. I have no idea how to judge its size. 10,000 animals? 100,000? We saw many smaller herds of gazelles and impalas, their tails frantically wagging back and forth like hyperactive windshield wipers.
Cats were harder to find, but we found them. One morning our guide brought us to an abrupt halt and whipped out his binoculars. A few seconds later: “There is a leopard in the big tree in the distance.” The tree was hundreds of yards away, and through a telephoto lens the big cat was just barely visible lounging atop one of the branches. I have no idea how he spotted it while he was driving. Jack’s post about the safari has a picture; if you zoom in you can just see the leopard in one of the lower branches.
Another day, we got word over the radio of a cheetah nearby. We soon found ourselves in the middle of a triple row of vehicles all trying to get a good view of the endangered cat. We eventually got to see the cheetah and her 3 cubs from fairly close up. Again, see Jack’s post for a couple pictures.
Lions were easier to find. One pride hangs out atop a local rock. The male was asleep, and mom kept an eye on us as her cubs played in a cave at the base of the rock. Another pair of females relaxed in the shade of a bush nearby. We were amazed at how close we got to them. Little did we know that a few days later, one would be close enough to touch! There is a group of 5 males (brothers) in the Ngorongoro Crater who hang next to one of the roads. As we stopped to marvel at the big cats, one of them walked right by the open window of our Land Rover. I could have easily reached out to pet it. Wow!
Other highlights included:
- Herds of elephants
- Birds! I never thought of the Serengeti as a place to see birds, but there are some spectacular birds (not just ostriches!)
- Jackals and hyenas
- A serval, which looks a bit like a large house cat
- Families of warthogs. They look rather silly as they trot through the grass with their tails held high
- Several pools of hippos, two of whom got into a fight. They are treated as the most dangerous animal in Africa.
On one of the last days, we even got to see a pair of rhinos. Sort of. There are rhinos in the Ngorongoro Crater, but rangers won’t tell people how many so as not to attract poachers. In another case of how-did-he-see-that, our guide found a pair of them from at least a mile away. At that distance the huge animals weren’t more than a dot, but through binoculars or a telephoto lens we could clearly make out the horn when they turned their sides to us. We weren’t able to approach them any more closely because the roads in that part of the park were closed (you have to stick to the roads). While it would have been nice to get a closeup, the rhinos probably don’t need more humans bothering them.
The week went by in a flash, and before I knew it we were back at the Kilimanjaro airport for the next leg of our trip. The Serengeti is astonishing in its diversity and fecundity, and I feel incredibly lucky to have seen so many unique plants and animals in their home. The Serengeti hasn’t been ruined by humans yet, and I’m hopeful that with long-term planning and good management, humanity will continue to protect this ecological treasure.