Africa had been on my dream travel list since I was a teenager. In December, through the kindness of my unfathomably generous adopted parents (aka, in-laws), I departed Denver with my family and our carefully packed and weighed bags, bound for a safari in eastern Africa. Three flights and twenty-four hours later, our 777 touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport after dark. We deplaned via two sets of stairs and made our way across the tarmac to the small airport. I’d made it.
That night our travel company, Deeper Africa, had us booked into a small hotel in the nearby city of Arusha as the jumping off point for our safari. We hopped into a van that had been arranged for us and made our way there in relative silence. Exhausted, we stared out the windows into the night. As we bounced down the dirt roads, I was struck by how dark it was. Although we were approaching a city, there were no street lights. Dim lights illuminated just a few facades of gas stations and small shops along the way, and motorcycle headlights provided the only proof of other motorists. It was Saturday night, though, and off the road we saw villagers congregating and enjoying their night out.
We arrived at the small boutique hotel, Onsea House, and a large staff grabbed our bags and offered us hibiscus tea. Eventually we were settled into our rooms. It was humid with a temperature of 75 at midnight. Even with the windows open, without our western luxury of air conditioning, we laid atop our mosquito-netted beds and struggled to drift off, wiped out yet too excited about the upcoming adventures to ease into sleep.
The next morning at breakfast, we were at last able to appreciate the summer beauty of Arusha. From the patio where we had breakfast, we gazed upon Mt Meru, a dormant volcano, which at almost 15k feet stands taller than all 58 of the Fourteeners (the nickname for peaks over 14k feet) back home in Colorado. Its immensity was shrouded by low morning clouds. Around us, flowers bloomed on bushes and palm trees swayed in a light breeze. Standing there, taking it all in, it felt more like an island in the Caribbean than what I had imagined for Tanzania.
After a European breakfast, we met our travel guide, Ammy. He had arrived in the safari Land Cruiser, our transport and adventure base for the next eight days. Ammy is a big man with an even bigger friendly smile and deep laugh that made us feel immediately at ease. As soon as our gear was loaded, we were on our way to Tarangire National Park, full of questions for our guide. We learned that Arusha was home to approximately 400,000 people, a fact which boggled my mind when I considered how dark it had been upon our arrival. So used to city lights we are.
The initial highway out of Arusha was paved. We drove out into the vastness of the countryside, lush greenery giving way to more sparse vegetation that reminded us more of home. Small homesteads and villages dotted the countryside, while Maasai wearing their colorful cloaks and holding tall wooden walking sticks stood among herds of goats and cattle alongside the road. This was what I had imagined Africa would be.
As we grew closer to Tarangire National Park, the landscape again changed. As December is the end of the short rains, the area was green with low grasses and leafed shrubbery. There were more acacia and baobab trees here. The wildlife began to appear. While Ammy checked us in at the park entrance, we wandered around the visitors area and saw some black-faced vervet monkeys sitting on a branch. While we were enthralled with them, they could not have cared less about us. One monkey, in fact, was too interested in his own blue parts to notice us noticing him.
We slowly made our way along the dirt road in the park, winding towards the camp where we would spend the next two nights. Close to the park entrance, we saw group after group of warthogs, a creature I never thought much about before but immediately came to love, their tails with long hair at the end serving as little flags by which you could spot them as they ran through the grasses. The Swahili word for warthog is ngiri, but to me they will always be Pumba.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in a campground (yes, campground) in the park. There were a few families from Italy who had pitched their own tents there. With the number of wild creatures in the park and no fences to keep them out of sleeping quarters, we decided early on that we felt much safer staying in larger structures than your typical two-person REI creation. I mean, at least an elephant wouldn’t accidentally crush our tent underfoot, right?
Tarangire National Park is 1,110 square miles, so it’s just a little bit smaller than Yosemite National Park in California. Without paved roads in the park, travel can be bumpy and slow going. This makes the drive through it ideal for spotting its many protected creatures. On safari, it is a game to see who can find new wildlife first. And, yes, eventually on a safari trip you do get to the point when you are saying, “Oh, more zebra over there. Yawn.”
It wasn’t long before we sighted our first elephants. I’d like to say that seeing an elephant family in the wild is not a big deal, but that is a lie. The elephants were a non-stop delight for me. They are far and away my favorite wild animal, and seeing them where they live happily protected was something I will never forget. Ammy told us that the animals in the park have no fear of the vehicles, so they are generally unfazed when you pull up near them and just go on about their business. This makes it easy to observe their behaviors and witness their interactions with each other. Only once did an elephant group decide they weren’t thrilled with our presence, and then they let us know by appearing agitated (flapping their ears, tossing their heads, becoming vocal) and we respectfully moved on to another group.
On our first day on safari, which was really only a half a day because of the morning drive from Arusha, we logged an impressive seventeen new animal sightings, including ostrich, jackal, cheetah, baboons, mongoose, cape buffalo, giraffe, and several different species of antelope. And Ammy patiently answered every single question we had about every single thing we saw.
Finally, he had to drag us away from wildlife viewing because we were expected for dinner at our lodging. So we accepted that we would see more animals in the days to come and drove straight on to Little Oliver’s Camp. Little Oliver’s camp has only five luxury tents, so it is smaller and more intimate than many safari camps. I had seen photos of it prior to our departure, so I thought I knew what to expect. What I experienced upon arrival, however, was well beyond my wildest expectations. If I ever make it back to Africa, I will be staying at Little Oliver’s. It is one of the most special places I have ever been. I teared up when I stepped onto this deck. I tear up now remembering that moment.
After an incredible dinner, it was time to rest up. As the sun set on our first full day in Tanzania, I knew we had only scratched the surface of our experiences here. More to come!