September 2, 2014

A Grand Safari: Part Two

Explore Africa’s “Garden of Eden” and see the Great Migration, the annual movement of some 2 million animals.

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: A Grand Safari: Part Two
Karen Fox
A Grand Safari: Part One

Children of the Maasai

From the crest of a 1,200-foot hillside, I'm looking down at the Great Rift Valley, a geological wonder that stretches from the Middle East to Mozambique, in southeastern Africa. The valley is 4,000 miles long and 30 to 40 miles wide and is visible from the surface of the moon.

For 35 million years, the Arabian tectonic plate that includes easternmost Africa and the African tectonic plate that includes the rest of the continent have been drifting apart, forming this valley (which continues to widen) and resulting in the volcanic activity that created Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru and others. If the plate movement continues for a few million years more, East Africa will separate from the rest of the continent and form a new landmass.

I am poolside at the Lake Manyara Serena Lodge, just outside Lake Manyara National Park. We are surrounded by a dense tangle of trees, shrubs and flowering plants, with countless white butterflies in perpetual motion. Our second stop on safari is older and more rustic than the Tarangire Sopa Lodge, yet still comfortable and well-staffed and possessing a spectacular vantage point.

Three miles in the distance, Lake Manyara shimmers in the sun, reflecting white clouds and blue sky on its glassy surface. Through binoculars, I can see pink flamingos in flight over a green, swampy area bordering the lake. Up and down the walls of the valley, enormous marabou storks with wingspans up to 8 feet soar gracefully on unseen currents.

At the front of the lodge, hundreds of bright yellow weavers flit in and out of gourd-shaped nests that are open at the bottom. They sing continuously, a loud, cheerful chorus that would give the Tiki Birds of Disney World a run for their money. Also in the trees by the entrance to the lodge are a hundred hanging bats, wiggling and squirming and trying to catch some shut-eye amid the din.

We visited Lake Manyara National Park the previous afternoon, and near the main body of water we saw herds of wildebeest and buffaloes and pools filled with hippos. Much of the park is a jungle, deep and dark, with vine-covered trees and thick undergrowth. We found giraffes and elephants and monkeys there, and twice we were completely surrounded by baboons.

At the end of the day, the sun dropped behind the valley wall, and almost on cue, flying insects poured from the undergrowth. We raced along dirt paths toward the park exit, and in our headlights they swirled like fine snowflakes in a blizzard.

On our drive to Lake Manyara, we stopped at a Maasai elementary school. The Maasai are among the largest and best known of Tanzania's 120 tribes, famous for their colorful clothes and their resistance to all things modern.

The school was in dire need of virtually everything, and Tauck had suggested we bring supplies such as pens, pencils and paper. We placed our gifts in a pile in the dirt parking lot as the teachers came out to greet us. There were half a dozen concrete buildings housing nearly 300 children in first through seventh grades, with only five teachers.

There is no electricity anywhere on campus, so no lights and no bells. There are no books -- lessons are written on the blackboard and scribbled into the single notebook each student possesses. There is no school bus, and their parents do not own cars, so the children walk to school and back each day, rain or shine, as much as 10 miles each way. Some leave for school in the dark every morning and reach home after nightfall in the evening.

Many of the students have no food to bring with them, so every day the school prepares porridge made from corn in a concrete shelter, enough to feed everyone. The sight of that meal helped us appreciate the struggle that these kids must endure to obtain an education.

In Tanzania, children speak their tribal language at home, but in elementary school, they must learn (and are taught in) the national language, Swahili. They study English as a subject until the seventh grade, and those that manage to stay past that age are taught in English from that point on.

Due in part to their nomadic lifestyle, only a minority of the Maasai have attended public school, so it is difficult to convince them to send their children there. The annual cost of public school -- about $20 -- is also a barrier to many. By the seventh grade, the number of girls in class falls sharply, as most are forced into marriage by that age -- generally to a man who is older by at least a generation.

We toured the school and visited a class of fourth graders. Judging by all the wide eyes staring back at us, we must have looked as strange as giraffes (no, stranger) clomping into the room with our cameras and watches and sunglasses and safari clothes.

The children sang to us in English and showed us their notebooks, and we congratulated them on their fine work with words they could not understand. We asked them their names and showed them where we lived on the world map, and gradually, their shyness began to melt away.

We took their pictures, and they crowded around our cameras to see their own images. Most seemed shocked to see themselves. My wife showed one curious young boy how to use her camera, then showed him the picture he had taken, which set off a stampede of giggling, 10-year-old photographers.

There were many peals of laughter in that damp, concrete bunker that day, and hardly a dry eye in our safari truck as we pulled back onto the highway.

Later that night, on the hard floors of tiny huts made of grass, mud and cow dung, the children of the Maasai would tell the story of the funny white people (wazungu) who had come to call.

Africa's Garden of Eden

Three million years ago, towering volcanoes pumped smoke, poisonous gas and asphyxiating ashes into the skies over what is now East Africa. One volcano rose miles above the plains and may have rivaled Mount Kilimanjaro in size until the upper two-thirds of the cone collapsed into the base. The Ngorongoro Crater was born, the world's largest unbroken caldera.

It is, to me at least, the most incredible place on Earth.

It's sunrise, and I am standing on the balcony of my room at the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, which is carved into the circular rim of the crater at an elevation of 7,500 feet. From this vantage point, you can trace the entire rim with your eyes. It is 15 miles across at its widest spot, and 12 miles at the narrowest. Above the far side of the crater, Kilimanjaro is clearly visible more than 100 miles in the distance.

The floor of the crater is 2,000 feet below me and encompasses more than 100 square miles of desert, grasslands, forests, lakes and streams. It is a contained ecosystem like no other, home to more than 25,000 large animals and the greatest concentration of mammalian predators in the world.

Ngorongoro has been called Africa's Garden of Eden and the Eighth Wonder of the World. It may be the only natural setting on Earth where one can see the "big five" (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) in an hour's time.

The previous morning, we descended into the crater on a narrow, twisting dirt road and spent the entire day there. We were quickly struck by the sheer density of animals. Much of the crater floor is flat with unobstructed views, and one sighting flowed into the next. We saw endangered black rhinos, hippos, lions, hyenas and jackals, and herds of wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and buffaloes. There is a large, shallow lake in the caldera, home to hundreds of pink flamingos.

We drove through Lerai Forest and scoured tree limbs for that area's most famous inhabitants, leopards. We didn't find any leopards at the time, but I couldn't help feeling that all I had to do was get out of the truck and let it drive away, and one would find me.

Something about Ngorongoro attracts elephants in their final days, and our guide believed the vegetation might be easier to chew. Elephants go through six full sets of teeth in their lifetimes, each lasting about 10 years. When the last set of teeth wears out, the elephant starves to death. We saw numerous old bulls in the crater -- crusty, lumbering, always alone.

The Ngorongoro Serena Lodge is a special place. The exterior is stone with wood decks overlooking the caldera, and the interior looked like an alpine lodge at a ski resort. The lounge and dining rooms were well-furnished and decorated with native art, with high ceilings, large windows and fireplaces to ward off the chill on a winter evening. The guest rooms were large and comfortable, and the food and the service were very good.

We had dinner as the sun set, then stood on the back deck looking out over the black crater. In the cool, dry air, visibility was excellent, and with no moon and no light pollution, the stars were brighter than I can remember seeing them. From our edge of the galaxy, the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way looked more like a cloud.

In the darkness below us, the predators of the night were stirring. Lions, leopards, hyenas and more were on the prowl, while others great and small hid or huddled together for protection and mothers kept their young close. The great hole swallowed the roars and the screams, but in the morning there would be fresh red markers on the floor of the caldera, grim testaments to the mayhem that was taking place.

For a short time, we could see a pinpoint of light down in the crater, slowly moving, and we realized we were watching the headlights of a vehicle of some sort. The only people allowed in the crater after dark are the rangers there to protect the animals from poachers, and we told ourselves that it must be rangers moving around on patrol.

Poachers have decimated the populations of cheetahs, lions, leopards and elephants, and they have all but wiped out rhinos in this part of Africa. There are only 66 of these prehistoric-looking animals left in all of Tanzania, a country twice the size of California, and 20 of them are here in this crater.

We had seen four rhinos, all from a great distance, standing motionless and staring out at nothing. It was almost as if they were aware of their dwindling numbers and tenuous footing in the modern world, and it's sad to think that they and all of their kind might soon exist only in books and museums.

Ngorongoro is only a short distance from Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey discovered 2 million-year-old bones and tools from what some believe were the earliest humans. I had to wonder if our group had come full circle to cross paths with our most ancient ancestors. Did mankind originate here, and if so, were our forefathers drawn to the permanent water sources and abundant game of the crater 10,000 centuries ago?

I tried to picture them on the floor of the caldera. Would they have ruled a night like this, or would they have hunkered down in fear?

Regardless of the answer, I was grateful to be up on the rim looking down, in the early part of the 21st century.

The Great Migration

Leaving Ngorongoro Crater, we drove into a desertlike region devoid of any trace of modern civilization. Our four safari trucks were balls of swirling dust as we arrived at a remote Maasai village, where mud huts were arranged in a circle and surrounded by a barrier made of thorn-covered branches. A sandstorm was subsiding as we exited our vehicles, and every person and thing in the village wore a new coat of dust.

The Maasai chanted and sang for us, then showed the men in our group how to throw a spear while the women learned a traditional dance. Despite strong gusts of wind, Maasai warriors built a fire using only sticks, in less than two minutes. They invited us into their homes, each of which was about 8 feet by 8 feet and less than 4 feet high. We visited the village "school," a blackboard under an acacia tree, where the youngest children sang their ABCs to us in English.

Then we were off to what the Maasai call Siringitu, the place where the land goes on forever. I've heard about the Serengeti all my life, and more than anything else, it was the world's most famous game reserve that brought me to Tanzania.

At the southwestern entrance of the park, the land is flat for as far as the eye can see, with few trees or bushes and grass that bakes brown early in the dry season. There is little cover for the animals and none for giraffes, which looked like poles far out on the plains.

Fires are set at this time of year to control the insects and to clear the way for fuller new growth when the rains return. We came across these intentional burns several times during our four days in the Serengeti, sometimes coming close enough to smell the smoke and see the flames.

Three hours into the park, the land began to roll and the trees became more plentiful. We came to a small stream lined with foliage, which we followed for miles. We saw our first leopard resting on a limb near the water, and more animals of every type.

We happened upon a very skittish herd of zebras at a watering hole. They were barking and snorting and obviously distressed, and as our safari truck approached, they parted to reveal the carcass of a freshly killed zebra, which had not been eaten.

Our guide explained that lions usually need to rest after the exertion of a kill and return to feed when they have regained their appetites. We parked less than 10 yards from the animal and waited. Within minutes the nervous zebras disappeared, and we spotted two female lions slinking slowly in our direction in the tall grass.

The first lion to reach the edge of the clearing paused briefly and walked casually to the zebra while surveying the surroundings, including our truck. She began to devour the zebra, so close to us that we could hear the sound of the skin tearing and the flesh being ripped from the bones.

Leaving the lions behind, we bounced along a dusty road as the land turned more rocky and rugged and spectacularly beautiful. We rounded a turn to find a sea of large animals pushing through the trees ahead of us.

We had located the Great Migration, the annual movement of 2 million animals (including 1 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras) through Tanzania and Kenya, driven by seasonal rain and drought. We stopped our truck and let the noise and the dust and the movement surround us. This is why we came to Tanzania in June -- an experience that is unlike anything else on Earth.

We spent two nights at the Serengeti Serena Lodge, a comfortable compound of round guest bungalows with open-air dining rooms, swimming pool, TV room and a computer with an Internet connection. The lodge is perched on a hilltop, surrounded by tall trees, and from the pool I could see giraffes and elephants in the valley below.

As with all the lodges we visited, the staff was well-trained and hospitable, and they quickly mustered an armed response when Cape buffaloes wandered through the grounds early the first evening we were there. Fortunately, the animals left peacefully.

On our first night in the Serengeti, I closed the mosquito nets and lay in bed recalling how the gentle zebras had mourned their fallen comrade. I was reminded of an old African proverb that I had read before leaving the United States:

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.

Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.

It does not matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle... when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.

Adrift Over the Serengeti

The sun had not yet risen when I helped my new friend Ruth into a sideways compartment of the hot-air balloon basket and climbed in beside her. I had asked Ruth to be my partner for two reasons. First, she reminded me of my mother, and second, she was the smallest person there.

Our gondola was on its side, on the ground. We lay on our backs in the twilight, hearts pounding, with only our heads outside the basket. My wife and son worked their way into the compartment directly below us, and six more pairs of people situated themselves for the launch.

It took powerful fans about 20 minutes to inflate the balloon with unheated air as it rested on the ground. When the group was ready for take-off, our pilot started the kerosene engine and sent a 10-foot-long burst of flame into the center of the envelope.

As the air heated, the balloon began to rise, pulling at our gondola, which was still tethered. At the right moment, the tethers were released and we dragged along for a few feet as we slowly tilted into an upright position. We were aloft, drifting over the Serengeti, when a pale sun appeared on the hazy horizon.

A safari is one adventure after another, but for many of us on this trip, the balloon ride over the Serengeti was the most anticipated feature of the vacation. The operator, BalloonSafaris.com, has two 16-passenger balloons that are launched each morning before sunrise, year-round. The company is well-established and professional, and the cost was included in the price of our Tauck safari.

For an hour we moved with the wind, climbing to 500 feet to see broad panoramas and dipping down to treetop level for a better view of vultures in their nests or hippos in a pond. The ride was smooth and silent except for the occasional "burn" to slow our descent or start us gently rising.

As we neared the end of our ride, we passed over herds of wildebeest and zebras, all moving in the same direction -- column after column of animals, in lines that stretched as far as the eye could see. We had caught up to the Great Migration, and our pilot announced that we were going to land nearby.

Our balloon touched down in tall grass, where we toasted our survival while we waited for the trucks to catch up with us. This was the first and only time during our safari that we were out in the open, surrounded by animals and away from our vehicles. We tried to capture the majesty of the passing migration with our cameras before moving on to a full English breakfast in the bush.

Accommodations on a safari can range from traditional hotels to lodges with bungalows or even tented camps -- fixed or mobile. I can see advantages to each kind, but it was our last stop in the Serengeti -- the tented camp -- that was the most memorable.

Kirawira Tented Camp is not your average Boy Scout setting but a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. The camp consists of a tented lodge with comfortable seating for 30 and a large mahogany bar, a tented gift shop and two tented dining halls with white-gloved waiters.

There are about 25 guest tents on raised wooden platforms, each with two double beds, mahogany-paneled bathrooms and marble countertops. Other than the floors, the tents are of canvas, with mosquito-net windows and a front door that zips open and a wooden front porch.

This was the only place we stayed without phones in the rooms, so the morning wake-up call consisted of a soft and cheerful "Jambo, good morning" delivered by a camp employee from the front porch, along with a pot of hot coffee and sweet rolls. After dark, animals would roam through the camp, so an armed escort walked guests from the dining halls or lounge to their tents.

On one game drive from Kirawira, we found 16-foot crocodiles on the banks of the Grumeti River. These crocs are among the largest on Earth and are big fans of the Great Migration that brings tasty wildebeest and zebras to cross this river. We stepped carefully onto boulders that extended into the water, looking for a better vantage point for photographs.

It seems that whichever way you look on a crocodile-studded river, there is the unshakeable sensation that crocs are sneaking up behind you from the opposite direction. Picture taking went like this: click, look around, click, look around.

We left the Grumeti in the late afternoon, and in that clean, dry air, you could smell the rain coming. After a brief shower, the clouds parted and one of our guides spotted a cheetah in the wet, golden grass.

Cheetahs are the fastest animals on the planet, capable of hitting 70 mph over short distances. They are sleek and powerful and graceful, and unfortunately they may also be a vanishing breed. We watched and photographed until the sun turned red and dived behind the acacias.

Back at Kirawira, we dined under canvas, and from our perch high on a hill, we watched flashes of lightning from distant thunderheads as they rolled across the Serengeti.

The Grand Design

Near the end of our safari, we saw an enormous Cape buffalo alone in an open field. As we drew closer, we could see he was walking slowly and continuously in a circle about 10 yards in diameter. Cape buffaloes can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and are so strong that it takes three lions to bring one down, but something obviously was not right with this one. I asked our guide what was causing this strange behavior.

"He is sick," Raymond answered. "He is old and not healthy and the herd has left him. The lions will kill him."

We had seen lions that day not more than a mile in the distance, and as I looked at my companions I could see we all wished we could do something to help the poor fellow. But that was impossible, of course. We were witnessing another part of the cycle of life, as we had when we watched point-blank as the lions devoured the zebra. The buffalo's odd, aimless march would attract the lions that would end its suffering. It was nature's way of turning the page.

It was about this time that I began to understand what the guides had been telling us, that the genius of nature is everywhere you look.

Sharp-eyed zebras travel with wildebeests, which are known for their keen sense of smell, because they fear the same predators and each compensates for the other's weakness.

A black-faced vervet monkey screeches a warning to its family in one of three distinctly different tones, depending on whether the threat comes from an eagle, a snake or a leopard.

Elephants grieve when a member of their small family dies, and will stop to gently touch the skull and tusks with their trunks, long after scavengers have picked the bones clean.

Even plants have defense mechanisms honed over the eons in the fight for survival. An acacia tree releases tannin when its leaves are eaten by giraffes, which temporarily ruins the flavor and drives the giraffes away. Giraffes get a snack but don't eat enough to kill the tree, which lives to provide nourishment for many years.

There is a system to it all, rhythms and rituals, a grand design.

And in the Serengeti, one's loss is always another's gain.

On the final morning, we left our tents at Kirawira and drove reluctantly to a landing strip and waited for our 18-passenger Twin Otter to arrive. It was a glorious, sunny day as the plane touched down on the grass and dirt and taxied up to our line of duffel bags. We said goodbye to our guides and soared into the bright blue African sky.

En route to Arusha, we buzzed an active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai (Mountain of God), and I took some pictures from my seat behind the captain. Then it was on to KLM and our long voyage home.

It's been five months since I left Africa, and sometimes I can hardly believe I was ever there.

I am profoundly grateful to our Tanzanian guides -- Samuel, Bariki, Raymond and Pallangyo -- for their insight, unfailing good humor and patience with our endless questions. Their understanding of the history and botany and zoology of Tanzania was all the more impressive by virtue of how well they explained it all in their third language! If a copy of this letter finds its way to you, my friends, asante sana.

Thanks to our talented Tauck tour director, Susan. This was my first experience with escorted group travel and it could not have been better, and much credit goes to Susan for her skill at organizing and leading.

And finally, thanks to Tauck for the many fine touches they added and for making such an exotic experience both carefree and comfortable.

I expected that I might feel guilty intruding on the privacy of the animals in the bush, but I came to realize that properly managed tourism is the only way these precious and endangered game reserves can be protected.

In Tanzania, park fees from people on safari pay the rangers that protect the animals from those who would hunt them to extinction for fun and profit. The government does an excellent job of minimizing the impact of the tourists.

One of the things I paid close attention to was the degree of fitness required for the safari itself. Not counting the pre-safari hike on Kilimanjaro, which was not part of the package, there was very little walking involved in the trip. The most strenuous activity was standing on our seats with our upper bodies through the openings in the roof as we bounced along in rugged terrain. However, standing was entirely voluntary, and had we chosen to remain seated, as some did, there would have been no physical exertion whatsoever during the game drives.

Among our group was an 88-year-old man traveling solo who seemed to be enjoying himself enormously and had no problems. Herb, you are an inspiration to us all.

Today in Houston, cars rush by on the street below and another day in the office blurs into the rest. But on the far side of the globe, the moon has risen over Ngorongoro Crater and predators are on the prowl. Elephants thrash through the bush behind the Tarangire Sopa Lodge, and red-robed Maasai warriors watch their cattle under the twinkling lights of the Southern Cross, spears and knives at their sides.

Stars and sky, wind and rain, the hunter and the hunted.

Tanzania, may you long endure.

Finding your safari: Visit Vacations To Go to see rates and departure dates for the 11-day "Tanzania: A Grand Safari" and other Tauck safaris.

You can view safari itineraries ranging from budget to luxury, and check rates, at www.AfricaSafari.com. Or, call (800) 291-3346 to speak with one of Vacations To Go's safari specialists.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2006 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 291-3346 for current rates and details.


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