You’ll forgive me if I still occasionally scan the trees outside my house looking for a leopard’s tail swinging from a low-hanging branch, or peer into the high grass hoping to glimpse a lioness protecting her cubs. I might even aim for potholes on the highway, just to simulate the deeply rutted dirt roads that traverse the Serengeti.
Having spent one wild week – up to 10 hours each day – spotting big cats and other animals in the wilds of Tanzania, I guess I’m finding it hard to kick a few safari habits. No doubt about it, my heart remains overseas among the elephants, giraffes, baboons, and impalas that helped provide all of the highlights and unexpected encounters that made this particular dream vacation a reality.
Tanzania is situated in East Africa at the end of a 15-hour flight that, for my wife, two teenage daughters and me, included a layover at London Heathrow and a quick jump from Kenya. The country’s most famous geographical feature is Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s tallest mountain. In fact, down the road from Kilimanjaro International Airport, a snow-capped peak could be seen on the horizon.
Assistance with planning our early-July excursion came from The Africa Adventure Company of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Then, in Tanzania, Ranger Safaris supplied an English-speaking guide and a dependable 4×4 safari vehicle my family shared with a British couple that had signed up for the same basic itinerary.
The region’s rainy season had concluded in May, leaving us with endless clear, blue skies for our entire African odyssey. The vegetation was still mostly green where we traveled, but I was told that had we arrived one month later, the landscape would likely have appeared as splotches of yellows and browns.
Due to its location just below the equator, Tanzania was experiencing wintertime when we visited, so we knew to pack jackets. While daytime temperatures were usually somewhere between pleasantly warm and slightly hot, temperatures during certain nights turned downright chilly. Yes, the jackets proved valuable indeed!
DAY I: Arusha Coffee Lodge
On the way from the airport to our first night’s accommodations at the Arusha Coffee Lodge, we saw men herding cattle along the road, women filling jugs of water from common tanks, and large chickens scrambling to get out of the way of motorbikes that dodged in and out of traffic. We also saw a few hand-painted signs hailing Barack Obama. (The President and First Lady had apparently arrived in Tanzania at just about the same time as us – but they must have used a different airline!)
The Coffee Lodge was the first indication that our accommodations throughout the trip would be first-class. A gate at the top of the driveway opened onto a beautiful scene of some 30 quaint plantation houses spread among one of Tanzania’s largest coffee fields.
• Highlight: Finally arriving in Tanzania
• Unexpected Encounter: A gecko on the ceiling above our bed
• Word of the Day: “Jambo!” which is Swahili for “Hello!” (most often used in tourist areas)
DAYS II & III: Lake Manyara
Following a restful night that took care of our jet lag, we met the man who would be our guide for the remainder of the week – a native Arushan named Wilfred. After helping us load our duffel bags into the back of a stretched Toyota Land Cruiser that we would come to know very well, Wilfred drove us to Serena Manyara Lodge three hours away – a longer trip than usual because we often had to detour along dusty, boulder-strewn patches of makeshift roadway while maintenance was performed on the main thoroughfare.
Reaching the lodge, we found the payoff to be extraordinary: beautiful cliffside views of the lake below and comfortable, inviting rooms.
Our itinerary for the week began with one option that we had purchased beyond the basic trip package: a night safari through Lake Manyara National Park. We were accompanied by a driver, a spotter, and a rifle-toting ranger. The spotter sat over the front fender of the safari vehicle and carried a spotlight that he swept across the landscape, illuminating dik-diks, bush babies, two types of nocturnal mongooses, a porcupine, a genet cat, monkeys, and even a pair of hippos.
With the vehicle open on all sides, the night air chilled us enough that we pulled blankets up to our chins. At the conclusion of our 2-1/2-hour tour, we returned to our rooms just before midnight, stepped through the mosquito nets that encircled our beds, and quickly welcomed sleep.
The morning found us covering the same ground as the night before, but the experience was, well, as different as night and day. Animal activity greeted us just minutes into our journey along a narrow road bordered in spots by thick vegetation. As if in a dramatic scene from “Jurassic Park,” we felt the ground tremble slightly, heard leaves rustling, and saw bushes shimmering. Five elephants emerged, crossed right alongside our vehicle, and continued down an embankment to get a drink of stream water. Two dozen baboons, several with babies clinging to their mothers’ backs, then materialized from the brush and followed close behind.
Later in the day, our guide got excited when we were approached by a mama giraffe and her young daughter. Every time he saw any signs of wildlife’s “next generation,” Wilfred spoke happily of great prospects for the future.
After lunch, we endured our longest drive of the entire trip. During the jarring, five-hour trek to the Sopa Serengeti Lodge, I constantly heard stones ricocheting off the underside of the vehicle’s floorboard right beneath my feet. I could taste the dust in my nose and throat. Yet, as uncomfortable as this might sound, my two daughters thought the ride was exhilarating. They enjoyed every bump and sway!
Upon arriving at the lodge, we knew to take showers before the hot water would be turned off for the evening (an energy-saving effort). Our dinner, as we had come to expect for most meals taken at the lodges, was served buffet-style and featured everything from goat meat and ugali to green banana soup, as well as more traditional American fare (even “Maryland chicken”).
In our rooms, there were no clocks, no phones, no TVs. Just quiet comfort.
Days II & III
• Highlight: A long look at hundreds of animals mingling alongside Lake Manyara, once described by Ernest Hemingway as the “loveliest” lake in Africa.
• Unexpected Encounter: A bat hanging above our dinner table on the dining deck
• New Word: “African massage,” describing the back-breaking jolts that result from driving on unpaved “roads”
DAYS IV & V: The Serengeti
Our only full day in the Serengeti, which hosts the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world, found us back in the Land Cruiser for more than 10 hours, with a brief stop for a picnic lunch beside a large pile of boulders known as a kopje.
The list of animals we encountered throughout the day included lions (13 of them in one pride) and leopards (a mother and cub lounging together in a tree). We also glimpsed a cheetah and a massive crocodile. The only downside to the trip was the inevitable traffic jam of a half-dozen safari vehicles that accompanied many of the significant animal sightings.
Wilfred, who has been a guide for 10 years, told us that his love for wildlife grew out of an early passion for birding – a skill that he demonstrated frequently while on safari. Of course, he was also quite accomplished at picking out barely visible signs of all types of creatures, not just birds, from behind the wheel of the Land Cruiser. On several occasions, he pointed at what seemed to be nothing and then described where we should look. Sure enough, the head of a big cat, hyena, or buffalo would soon pop up.
Back at our lodge at nighttime, guards walked us to our rooms, just in case any animals decided to leave the nearby woodlands and grasslands and investigate their human neighbors. Occasional roars, screeches, and bellows could be heard faintly in the distance: sweet music for falling asleep.
The following day started well as we observed a 15-minute standoff between a lioness, cheetah, and hyena. The lioness came into view first, moving along the base of a hill and scattering a group of gazelles nibbling on grass nearby. Then we spotted the well-fed cheetah lounging in the shade of a tree about 100 yards away. Stationed between both cats, the hyena probably saw the cheetah as a possible meal, but must have felt outclassed by the lioness and ultimately disappeared. Finally, the cheetah caught scent of the lioness, decided to lift her loaded belly off the ground, and also left the scene. The lioness only walked briefly in the cheetah’s direction before plopping down in her own patch of shade, apparently content to wait for easier prey.
All of our safaris took place on protected lands, but the national parks and conservancies we visited did not have fences to keep the animals in. Thus, we would often get great views of wildlife just beyond the properties’ borders. On this day, two male lions attracted a lot of attention as they relaxed right beside the road leading away from Serengeti National Park.
A stop at an actual Maasai village was next on our agenda. Into a circle of huts we strode, joined by three other Land Cruiser-loads of tourists. There was no electricity, no running water, but we occasionally saw a cellphone in a villager’s hands. My daughters were given necklaces to wear as they participated in a dance with the village women. We were also shown colorful displays of homemade jewelry and knickknacks, from which we picked two bracelets and handed over $30 in U.S. currency.
The temperature dropped significantly as we left the Serengeti, climbed 7,800 feet above sea level, and checked in at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, perched on the highest point of an inactive volcano’s rim. From a rocking chair next to a floor-to-ceiling window in my room, I could look out over the crater, admire a brilliant sunset and imagine the many wonders I would see during the next day’s safari.
Days IV & V
• Highlight: Watching a hyena overtake a young gazelle after a long chase (’tis the circle of life, after all!)
• Unexpected Encounter: One of the Maasai tribe elders showing me his red-tinted tears, which was the result of a diet consisting largely of blood and milk
• Word of the Day: A.L.T., which stands for “Animal-like thing” and means any rock, log, tree branch, or other object that fools observers into thinking it’s an animal
DAY VI: Ngorongoro
Described as the largest inactive, intact, and unfilled caldera in the world, Ngorongoro Crater is now home to the rare and elusive black rhino, one of which we saw from a range of about 150 yards. Encountering the rhino meant that we had spied at least one representative from each of the so-called “Big 5”: buffaloes, rhinos, elephants, lions, and leopards.
Midway through the afternoon, a lioness padded right past my open Land Cruiser window, well within petting range were I crazy enough to extend my hand out toward her. Wilfred explained that human scents are mostly lost among the smells of fuel, oil, and other vehicle odors, and thus the lioness wouldn’t recognize me as an easy meal as long as I stayed put.
Our last sighting of the day was a slender, long-legged serval that pounced on something while we watched it maneuvering through high grass. You might have thought the animal was a large-eared house cat playing with a ball of yarn.
• Highlight: Dozens of zebras and wildebeests welcoming our vehicle into the herd
• Unexpected Encounter: A hippo that frequently poked its head out of the water near our lakeside picnic location
• Word of the Day: “Dazzle,” which is a collection of zebras. And we sure saw a dazzling dazzle!
DAY VII: Tarangire
On the drive to Tarangire National Park, our final safari stop, we pulled off for petrol and the Land Cruiser was immediately swarmed by villagers hawking drums, woven baskets, wooden kitchenware, and other items. A boy of maybe 10 or 11 came to my window and asked in English where I was from. “America,” I said. He smiled and responded excitedly, “Obama country!”
After a little bit of touristy shopping at the African Galleria Tanzania in Manyara, we arrived at the park and began what would become a two-part expedition. After a morning spent admiring countless baobab trees, elephants, zebras, and gazelles, we enjoyed a buffet lunch and a dip in the pool at our fifth home in seven days. With evening approaching, we went back out and watched the trees for signs of beret monkeys and large birds, including a red-billed hornbill much like Zazu from Disney’s “The Lion King.”
At this point, we were getting the sense that the British couple with whom we had been sharing the Land Cruiser was growing tired of the long days and lodge-jumping. For our part, as we stared up at the hundreds of stars that filled the African night sky, we couldn’t help but feel excited about what the next day held in store.
• Highlight: A brilliant, fiery sunset as seen through the bare, root-like branches of a baobab tree
• Unexpected Encounter: An extended family of 21 fluffy hyrax that lived just 40 feet from the door to our lodge
• Word of the Day: “Asante sans!” which means “Thank you very much!”
DAY VIII: The Return
Before leaving Tarangire National Park, Wilfred took a slight detour toward a parked safari vehicle filled with excited spectators gazing across a nearly dry riverbed. In moments, he spotted the mane of a male lion waiting in tall grass until an elephant vacated the area. As soon as the coast was clear, the lion ambled down the river’s muddy bank, crouched low, eagerly lapped up some water, and then headed off in a new direction. It was an unforgettable sight on which to end our amazing adventure.
From there, the same detour-laden thoroughfare that had carried us to Lake Manyara a week earlier now brought us back to the Arusha Coffee Lodge, where day rooms had been prepared for us so we could rest before starting our trip home. This was a good thing, since we ended up having to endure a cancelled Kenya Airways flight out of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, which is high on my list of least favorite airports in the world.
Before leaving the Coffee Lodge, we warmly thanked (and tipped) Wilfred for all of his hard work as a driver, guide, spotter, and all-around helping hand. At one point earlier in our African adventure, I had asked him if there was a message he hoped to convey to the tourists with whom he interacted. Knowing Wilfred’s respect for the environment, his concern for the wildlife, and his excitement at seeing younger people like my daughters take an active interest in the places we had visited, I figured that there wouldn’t be a simple answer to my question.
I could see him considering all of the options for a few moments, but he soon came upon one clear response: “For many people, a trip here is a once-in-a-lifetime dream; I want their dream to come true.”
My wife, daughters, and I returned from Africa feeling like we had, in fact, lived a dream. Without a doubt, we left our hearts, and perhaps a few slipped discs, on the rutted dirt roads of Tanzania.