africa

Last Full Day in Tanzania

IMG_6886 2On our last morning in Tanzania, we were greeted with another beautiful day, blue sky dotted with light clouds. We cleared out of our luxury tents and once again met Ammy at the Land Cruiser. It’s safe to say that we were not looking forward to the upcoming twenty-four hours of travel. We were all struggling with the notion that this awe-inspiring trip was over. And we were not ready to say goodbye to Ammy or the creatures we’d become accustomed to seeing over the previous week. I was emotional as we began our drive away from Lake Masek and tried to focus on seeing as much as I could before I could see it no longer.

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Fast food of the savanna

One of the most commonly sighted animals in the savanna is the impala. We had seen so many of them on our trip in large herds grazing among the bushes and trees, and on this morning they showed up for us again. On our first day on safari, Ammy pointed out that on their hindquarters there is a dark “M” shape. He told us that the impala are the McDonald’s meal for the leopards, literal fast food. We never did see a leopard on our trip, which means we will have to return and try again.

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Dik-dik seeing us off

As we drove slowly one last time through the area, we had our eyes peeled for dik-diks. They were the one creature we decided we had to see one last time. They must have realized this because they showed up for us. I think we saw six to eight of them before we hit the small airstrip nearby where we would catch our bush plane headed to Arusha.

The Ndutu air strip is what you imagine it would be…a long stretch of gravel where bush planes come and go every hour. When we packed for Africa, the one guideline we were given was to pack light because the bush planes have a strict weight limit. When we saw the planes, it made sense.

i-zKNk6Br-XLEventually it was time to say goodbye to Ammy. I struggled to hold the tears back. There are no words to describe what a wonderful guide and person Ammy is. He was so patient with our non-stop questions. His expertise, warmth, and kindness made our trip. One thing that happened repeatedly on the trip is that we would ask a question that we more or less were guessing at an answer for. If we were guessing right, Ammy would respond in his lovely Tanzanian accent, “Exaaaaactly.”  Five months later, Steve and I are still walking around our house now saying that word as if we are Ammy. His big heart and smile made a deep indentation in our hearts.

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Best. Guide. Ever.

I think all but two of us were a bit concerned about the bush plane flight. Our oldest had flown on a similar plane in Sri Lanka six months earlier, so he was trying to make us all feel okay about it. I’d never flown on an aircraft this small before, and I’d never taken off from a dirt runway. I captured this photo of my sister-in-law quite by accident, but it pretty much summarizes how we were all feeling as we were preparing to take off.

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Are we really doing this? 

Of course, airlines around the world operate small flights like this one daily without incident and everything was fine. It was something else, though, being in such a small plane and flying over the expanse of Tanzania. We flew over the crater on our way to Arusha, and it was humbling to see it from the air.

IMG_6926Once we were safely back in Arusha, our Deeper Africa driver took us to the Cultural Heritage Center before taking us back to Onsea House for an opportunity to have lunch, shower, and nap before our long trip back home. The Cultural Heritage Center was filled with creations by local artists, most of it for sale. There were some amazing treasures.

Exhausted and overwhelmed after such an incredible trip, we had our lunch on the terrace and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing before our trip to Kilimanjaro Airport. Joe took a dip in the pool. The rest of us showered after our dusty morning and repacked the best we could. Luke took the opportunity to be in the moment.

IMG_6960When our ride to the airport arrived, we sucked it up and headed for the van with all our belongings and the treasures we’d collected along our journey. While Luke was ready to return home and get back to his own room, Joe, our world traveler, did not want to leave. I had to agree. In the end, we were able to pry Joe from the railing on the condition that we agreed to return. Joe and I mused on the way to the airport that perhaps our next trip back would be to climb Kilimanjaro, as has always been my dream and is now his.

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Dragged kicking and screaming from Africa

When we had arrived in Tanzania, it was dark. We hadn’t been able to see Kilimanjaro. It was not visible when we headed towards our safari either. Sunset was approaching and we told the driver we hoped we would see Kilimanjaro. He told us it is often not visible because of clouds and air quality. Someone was looking out for me, though. As we got closer, the driver told us we were in luck. Off to the left side of the van, the mountain was visible. We all craned our heads to see it. I teared up yet again. The silly mountain took my breath away. Damn, Africa. You’re killing me.

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Barely enough clarity or light for this photo, but still here it is

The driver stopped for us so we could take blurry and barely adequate photos in the waning light. Joe posed in front of it, an action he told me cemented his intention to return and summit it someday. It’s hard to describe how the sight of that mountain touched me. Sitting here with my laptop, I am overcome with the memory of my first glance at that peak. If I am never afforded the opportunity to follow my dream to climb it, I am forever grateful for the chance I had to see it rise above the clouds.

We arrived at the airport, filled out all the necessary forms, and made our way back onto a sizable aircraft that would fly us to Amsterdam for our return flights across the Atlantic and finally home to Denver. With full hearts, we said so long to Tanzania. Until next time….

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Wildebeest Migration – Tanzania

On our last full safari day, we had a singular goal. We were going to spend some time observing the migration. By this time on the trip, the thought of spending hours in the Land Cruiser was becoming less shiny and new. We adored seeing the animals, but we were growing weary of bouncing along the dusty plains. If our trip had been longer, we might have spent the day relaxing around camp instead, but we had one full day left and we weren’t going to squander it because our tushies were tired. After breakfast, we loaded up and headed out.IMG_6824We had to drive for a while, away from the lakes and the hill area, back onto the plains. Eventually, on the horizon we began to make something out, a line of marching creatures. Ammy told us that the wildebeest often travel single file because otherwise they would trample all their grazing land. And, sure enough, all over the plains we witnessed narrow animal trails leading to open land filled with fresh grasses where individuals would separate and graze. We cruised closer to them, causing some of them to run as they crossed in front of us, not wanting to break with their herd or be left behind. Video here. 

Wildebeest and zebra travel together. The wildebeest are great at finding water but their eyesight is poor, which leaves them vulnerable to predators. Zebras have great eyesight for spotting danger, but aren’t so adept at finding the water they need every day or two for survival. So these two creatures work together. Too bad groups of humans can’t figure out how better to work together for mutual benefit.

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Wildebeest and zebra…like peanut butter and jelly

I am known in my family for making animal noises when I see that animal. I blame it on the Fisher-Price See ‘n Say toy I had as a child. Because of it, I moo with greater frequency than most people. I am also the annoying person who ends up mimicking someone’s accent quite unintentionally. So imagine my glee when I realized that wildebeest sound similar to cattle but with a slightly different accent. When we would park to observe the wildebeest eating and playing, I would have to make gnu sounds to see if they would gnu back. They usually would. Here’s one time when my gnuing got them going…enjoy the sounds of the wildebeest.

After a lot of driving around (chasing a migration is a lot of work), we landed back at the camp for lunch. We discussed how we wanted to spend our last afternoon on safari. Half of our party decided they wanted to relax and unwind, and who could blame them after 8 days in a Land Cruiser? Steve, the boys, and I decided, however, that we had serious fear of missing out, so Ammy graciously took the four of us out for one last game drive.

We had in mind a trip to Lake Ndutu to see the flamingos so we started to head there and first happened upon a giraffe trying to get a drink, its crazy long legs making the simple task an exercise in grace and flexibility.

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Curtsey to get a drink

Eventually we made our way to Lake Ndutu to see the flamingos we’d not been able to photograph the day before on our way in. Lake Ndutu is a saltwater lake filled with briny shrimp on which both greater and lesser flamingos dine. There were many flamingos that day, but most were not close enough to photograph. Even when you can capture them, they are not the most helpful of subjects, their heads dipping under the water to feed.

IMG_6862 2As we were wrapping up our drive and heading back to our camp, Ammy drove us closer to the shore of Lake Masek where we were staying. Some wildebeest had been attempting to cross the lake the previous day. Most made it. Some were not successful, and their carcasses washed up near the shore opposite where they began their crossing. Along the shoreline, it was The Lion King all over again as we got to witness the end of the circle of life. Scavengers were doing their job, dining on the wildebeests who hadn’t survived their crossing. There were vultures and hyenas and those crazy marabou storks I mentioned in my last post. Did you know there are carrion storks? I didn’t. As my sister-in-law pointed out, that kind of puts a different spin on the whole idea of having a stork deliver a baby. It seems that could end badly. Still, the storks provide a necessary service. In the US, we might see an area where animals are repeatedly dying and think, “Whoa! We need to fix this.” In Tanzania, they choose to allow nature to do what nature does naturally. It makes sense. I think about the massive overpopulation of deer in some of our northern states, an overpopulation that now results in an appalling number of deer versus automobile accidents. Deer overpopulation occurs when you eliminate their natural predators, natural predators humans eradicated because they also occasionally gnawed on livestock. We interrupted the natural order to solve one problem and inadvertently caused another. Mess with Mother Nature and inevitably she will mess with you.

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Marabou storks

Ahead of us on the road where we were watching the vultures, storks, and hyenas at the all-you-can-eat wildebeest buffet, one hyena laid down to rest in the afternoon shade. Something about the way she was positioned, head on her paws, eyes barely able to remain open, reminded me of our dog. I decided that people who don’t like hyenas are people who don’t get hyenas. They’re actually quite likable once you get to know them.

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Spot

We called it a wrap on our day and returned to camp disappointed that our safari was over but grateful for the opportunities we’d had. We got cleaned up and headed to the dining area for drinks and one last dinner with Ammy. We would miss him too. I wasn’t looking forward to saying goodbye to any of Tanzania, landscape, animals, or people.

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Africa family portrait

That night, as I curled up one last time under the mosquito netting we had grown accustomed to, we were once again serenaded by the hyenas. I had to wonder if one of them was the little lady we saw waiting on the road. In the morning we would pack up and head back to Arusha and then finally return to Kilimanjaro International Airport for our flight home. I didn’t want to leave, but the thought of perhaps at last catching a glimpse of Kilimanjaro gave me something positive on which to focus as I drifted off.

 

 

Onward From The Serengeti To Lake Masek

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On the road again

All good things must come to an end, and so it was with our time on the Serengeti. As our trip began to wind down, the reality of leaving Tanzania in a few days time began to weigh heavy on my heart. An African safari, like a trip to the Galapagos, is one of those things people call a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sad truth of it is, though, that I had left the Galapagos wanting to return, and the same thing was feeling true of Africa. Still, we had two days of exploration left, so I tried to shut it out of my brain and live in the moment.

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I can’t decide if it’s their tiny ears, they dark eyes, or the face markings that get me

On our way out of the park, we stopped to watch our cheetah friends one last time. The momma in me stood in solidarity with this momma and recognized the hard work she had done to raise these four cubs. Cheetahs have a tough go of it on the Serengeti. While they are fast, they are not as formidable as other big cats and often lose their prey to other predators and scavengers. So, I took a minute to be proud of this momma for all she had done to help ensure the survival of her family. I took a video of them so I would always have them, and on we went, passing some reedbucks who posed for us on a termite mound as they kept watch for predators.

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In the national parks in Tanzania, tourist vehicles pay for an allotted time in the park. We had two days in the Serengeti. We had to be out of the park at a specific time or we would be charged for another day. Day passes for tourists are not cheap, so guides have to plan carefully to keep you on schedule for your departure. Ammy was working to get us out of the Serengeti on time that morning but, as we passed a rocky outcropping, we spied on top of a rock a momma lion and her cub. It was our Lion King moment. I imagine Ammy, silently defeated, was doing the math in his head, trying to determine how long we could sit and watch these lions. But, come on. Lion King.

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Little Simba on top of Pride Rock…am I right?

As soon as Ammy was able to pull us away from this scene, he began hauling it out of the Serengeti. I’m talking like 45 miles an hour on dirt roads for an hour. The top was still open, as were some windows in the heat of the late morning sun. After a while, it occurred to me that the breeze I was enjoying in my hair might not be such a bright idea. I tried to cover my head with a scarf, reminiscent of the women in movies in the 1960s riding in convertibles. Still, later it would take me 20 minutes of painful and painstaking work to comb the knots from my hair. For the record, Ammy did get us out of the park in time…with six minutes to spare.

We were headed towards two lakes in the northern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek, the latter of which would be our home for two nights. This is where the wildebeest migration is at this time of the year, and we were hoping to witness some of it. As we grew closer to the Ngorongoro region, we began seeing more wildlife, cape buffalo and elephants, along with wildebeest and zebra.

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Take a picture. It’ll last longer.

I never stopped being amazed by the elephants. African elephants are massive. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how big they are until you are right there with them. This photo offers a little perspective. This big guy was crossing behind the Land Cruiser. Imagine if he had been next to it.

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We humans are tiny

We finally wound our way back into the conservation area. While we were confined to roads as much as possible in the Serengeti, Ammy was free to go off road here to get us into the wild and closer to the animals. This was our first opportunity to approach the migration and witness it first hand. It’s hard to get a scope of the migration on the ground. It’s even more difficult to capture it with a lens or even a video. Still, we tried.

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Driven by purpose…a need for water

The numbers of wildebeest and zebra are unimaginable. You’d think you’d seen the last of them and then you’d round a bend and there would be a line of hundreds upon thousands more. This was our first taste of the great migration and our first understanding that we would not be able to grasp its immensity, no matter how hard we tried.

Our travels off road through the savannah eventually took a toll on our ride, and we ended up with a flat tire in the bush. The day before we’d stopped multiple times to assist another safari vehicle by providing spare tires. This day it was our turn to be stricken with a punctured tire. Ammy worked quickly to get us back up and at ’em, though. I enjoyed that bit of time on the ground in the bush a lot more than Ammy did. Joe and I found a huge snail shell while out looking for rocks to keep the Land Cruiser from rolling off the jack. Never miss out on the opportunity to enjoy unexpected downtime. You never know what you might find.

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Hazards of off road travel

We were back in hillier territory now where the foliage was more abundant. We began to see impala and dik dik and giraffe again. It was a welcome change from the endless plain. We drove past Lake Ndutu and saw flamingos and other shore birds before climbing up a hill and landing at our next lodging, Lake Masek Tented Camp. This was the final stop on our grand tour, the largest of the camps where we would stay. It was also the most modern of our lodgings, with rooms equipped with telephones (you still have to call for your nightly escort to and from your tent) and bathtubs. We joked that, after where we had been, this was on the level of the Disneyworld Animal Kingdom Lodge. It had every luxury a westerner would want in a resort room. We were back in the land of hairdryers. To me it felt a little bit like someone was trying to break us back into our cushy lives back home. And I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.

On our way to dinner, I caught this marabou stork perched upon a dead tree near our tent. These guys are something else. Can’t wait to tell you about them tomorrow.

IMG_6803 2Once it was dark and we were settled back in our tents, I thought someone turned on an ambient creature-noise machine. We were up on a hill with the lake below us, and the sounds coming from the surrounding bush were magnified. I spent about fifteen minutes standing in my pajamas on the screened-in deck trying to capture the yips and cackles of hyenas on my phone, but the darn hyenas became shyenas each time I pressed the record button and they stopped their vocalizations. They were mocking me. You’ll have to trust me, though. I’d travel to Tanzania again just to hear them sing me to sleep.

 

 

A Day In Serengeti National Park

This day we awoke before sunrise to get onto the endless plain early. We packed breakfast along with us and loaded into the 4×4. Of course, none of this would have been possible if pre-dawn coffee hadn’t been delivered to our tent.

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Another gorgeous morning in Tanzania

The first things were saw as the sun rose were giraffe eating from the acacia near camp. But, we’d seen giraffe. We were in search of cats so we carried on. We drove in exhausted, early morning silence as Ammy listened for radio chatter. Finally he spied a couple vehicles and we found what we had been seeking…a large male lion.

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Sweet face but those paws, though…

Nothing can prepare you for the size of these beasts. They look innocent enough as they are just waking up, but we decided we were happy for our enclosed vehicle. We hung with this guy for a short while until he decided it was nap time again. There’s not much fun in staring at a sleeping lion.

We drove without much luck for a bit so we decided to stop for our breakfast. The beautiful thing about the Serengeti is that it is wide open. When the grasses are short, it’s easy to see a good distance. So, after Ammy made sure the coast was clear of predators, we took our breakfast outside the Land Cruiser and once again felt the immensity of the plains and our relatively small place on them.

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More coffee in the chilly early morning

After closing up breakfast and moving on, we came upon our cheetah friends from the day before, the momma and her four growing cubs. Even when these guys were doing nothing, I still enjoyed watching them. Maybe because there were four of them. Maybe because I was impressed with their mother. Maybe because they are just too cute. Maybe because I kept waiting to watch one sprint off, the fastest land mammal on the planet. Or maybe simply because I love things with dots.

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Dotty things

Later Ammy was able to find us a pair of male lions guarding their kill. Ammy explained that both males and females hunt. They guard their kill in the same way. A pride will bring down an animal and then take turns feeding and guarding their prize. Some members of the pack will go off in search of shade or water and others will stay to protect what is theirs. Lions are rarely challenged for their meals. We watched as hyenas, jackals, and vultures stood at a safe distance, patiently waiting for the lions to decide they were finished. This was a fresh kill. Scavengers would have to wait a while.

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The reality of life on the Serengeti…lions are king

The lions were relentless in their desire for the shade afforded in the areas around tourist vehicles. They were completely unfazed by engines and the movement. When we would have to move on, Ammy would start the car and we would slowly edge away from the lions and they would be exposed to the sun once more. I imagined them mentally cursing us for denying them their shade.

 

A healthy respect for the wildlife in Tanzania is important. It’s easy after days on safari to get a false sense of security being around these creatures because they seem to care not a whit about your presence. You pull up near them and they cast a glance in your direction and go on about their business unperturbed. Still…they are wild creatures and, although they seem unimpressed and uninterested, you are the interloper. Only once on safari did we witness an animal become aggravated by human presence. And that instance was enough to remind us to watch our behavior.

A couple from England, who were also staying at Namiri Plains camp and with whom we’d had dinner the night before, were viewing a pair of male lions when we pulled up to observe them as well. The lions by then had settled in the shade of their open-air safari vehicle. And for a period of time they lie there, peaceful and still. The woman was taking pictures with her iPhone and, feeling a bit emboldened by the lions laissez-faire attitude, leaned out of the vehicle a bit more to get a closer photo of the lion less than a few feet below her. Without warning, the young male lion abruptly leapt to his feet and let out an impressive, sonorous roar in her face. It happened so quickly none of us were able to get a photo of the incident. The woman later recounted her story and said the lion was close enough to her face that she felt and smelled his breath. Yikes.

Ammy explained that almost all animals you encounter on safari will give you a warning. That lion was letting her know her intrusion was not welcome. He easily could have taken a swipe at her and caused much greater harm, but there was no need. She had gotten his message and probably had the heart rate to prove it. The only animals, Ammy cautioned, that are unpredictable and will not give you a warning are the cape buffalo.  They may look like mellow cows with large horns, but they have a short fuse and will attack when they’ve reached their limit. This reminded me of the bison in Yellowstone and how nearly every year some naive tourist is gored when they get too close. Wild animals are wild, people.

As we left the lions behind to head on to our next wildlife adventure, my son asked if I could help with this epic photo. How could I say no to his meta moment?

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A lion saunters off in Africa while Toto sings Africa

While big cats are the highlight of the Serengeti, there are birds to enjoy as well. We saw a flock of lovebirds resting on a dead acacia tree among its thorns. We also saw several kori bustard birds. These are the largest flying bird native to Africa, weighing up to 40 pounds. They are something else.

The rest of the day was filled with female lions. Five of them lounged around their recent kill while scavengers lurked nearby. They effectively surround their food, making it impossible for the scavengers to invade without risking peril. You simply don’t mess with the lions. Here is a video these five lionesses with their kill on the windy Serengeti, vultures watching from the background.

As we headed back to camp late that afternoon, rains were on the distant horizon. Bit by bit we watched this rainbow form from the two sides and eventually meet to create this wonder. My sister-in-law captured this panorama photo of incredibly Mother Nature.       I know, right?

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On The Road To The Serengeti

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The next morning we headed out to Serengeti National Park. It takes several hours to reach the Serengeti from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Along the way, we passed many Maasai. The Maasai are the only people allowed to live within the conservation area, and these people originally called the Serengeti home but were relocated to the crater area when Serengeti National Park was created. In order to protect the area, only the Maasai are permitted to graze livestock and they are allowed to cultivate only the foods they need to subsist. Tourist-savvy male Maasai youth adorn their faces with white chalk used traditionally for a coming-of-age ceremony and stand along the roadside willing to pose for photo ops if you offer cash. While the Maasai have been forced to abandon their pastoral, nomadic ways so that their children can be educated in accordance with Tanzanian law, the government has made some concessions to allow them to continue with many of their traditions. Contemplating how the Maasai have been treated in contrast with how the Native American tribes have been treated in the United States gave me something to do on the drive. My son found another way to shorten the drive.

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As you get closer to the Serengeti, the vegetation decreases substantially. Shrubs and trees are few and far between, while grasses dominate the landscape. Serengeti means “endless plains.” It’s a fitting name. After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the photo op entrance to the park, took a few quick shots, checked the tire pressure, and resumed driving into the park office and gift shop.

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While Ammy was off conducting official tourist business, the six of us followed a short trail up a rocky outcropping to get a view. Along the way, we happened upon several mwanza agama lizards. Who knew?

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How amazing is this little guy?

Once we’d had our requisite picnic lunch, we pointed ourselves in the general direction of our camp for the night, hoping to spy some big cats along the way. The Serengeti landscape took some getting used to after all the lushness of our previous locales. We joked that it reminded us of Wyoming or eastern Colorado, which is to say it was familiar but not in the best way. After a while, we began to hear radio chatter from other guides and Ammy started off towards them. I had no idea how Ammy knew where to go. I mean, sure, he’d been doing this sort of thing for 20 years, but the rough dirt roads were not marked in any way. There were no landmarks by which to guide yourself. I started to wonder if we would get lost and pondered how many Lara Bars I had in my pack for emergency sustenance. Finally we saw a few other Land Cruisers and drove to them to get a closer look at what they had discovered. Lions!

I’m not sure what I expected when I thought about seeing lions in their natural habitat. I suppose I imagined they would be more entertaining. Aside from the fact that they are potentially lethal, lions are not all that interesting. Once you accept that they aren’t going to break into the vehicle and eat you, you settle into the reality that they are cats. They sleep. A lot. When they’re not sleeping, they’re resting. When they’re not resting, they’re lazily eyeing the horizon for their next bite of fast food. With a proper meal, they can go days in between hunting. And so they sleep. Without an abundance of trees, they find relaxing in the shade under safari vehicles a welcome respite from the African sun. After a while, all their yawning was making me yawn. We moved on to see what else we could find.

Because it was migration time, we began to see large herds of wildebeest and zebra. We finally got the opportunity to observe some hyena too. They are much more reclusive than I expected and went out of their way to avoid us. Perhaps they should be called shyenas instead? While we continued along the road, we looked for ways to amuse ourselves in the vastness of the endless plain. Karen did some tree posing with a tree.

At long last we found what I had been waiting for…cheetah. As big cats go, cheetah are my favorite. They are long, sleek, fast, and cute as the day is long. And, let’s face it, they are not nearly as terrifying as other big cats. That afternoon we found a mother with four cubs. Ammy said she was a good mother because it is hard to keep four cubs alive. We watched her begin stalking, considering taking off after some potential dinner, but in the end she decided against it. Cheetahs know their limits, and they won’t waste their energy chasing something they don’t stand a chance of catching. With four cubs to feed, this momma had to make wise choices to ensure their survival.

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Winners of the prize for Cutest

As the sun began to slip towards the western horizon, we drifted into our next camp. Namiri Plains is another camp run by Asilia Africa, the same company that operates Little Oliver’s. Unlike Little Oliver’s, however, Namiri Plains is a mobile camp that changes locations as the migration moves through. The tents here were traditional tents without thatched roof coverings and stone floors. I could not wait to check them out. After a quick meet and greet with the staff, we were guided to our tents.

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Are you kidding me?

I haven’t spent much time extolling the virtues of glamping in Africa. It is something else entirely. It was hard to fathom that you were in the middle of the Serengeti. The hot water came courtesy of solar panels, and the water was always Africa hot. The tents were private, incredibly spacious and comfortable, containing a bed, a seating area, a desk, a vanity with two sinks, a flushing toilet, and not one but two showers…indoor and outdoor. There was plenty of indoor lighting and even power strips for charging cameras and phones. And the views. Sigh.

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Our sleeping quarters in the Serengeti

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The view from our bed

We finished settling in and headed off to share dinner with the other camp guests. This camp was bigger than our last one, so we had the opportunity to dine with other tourists. Again the food was delicious and in no short supply, and they went out of their way to cater to my gluten sensitivities. I remain awe of how the Tanzanians can provide this level of hospitality in a mobile camp in the midst of an endless plain.

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By the time we finished our meal and had some campfire time, it was nearly dark. One thing you are not allowed to do while on safari is walk without camp staff to or from your tent between dusk and dawn. At night, we were escorted back to our tents by a member of staff and a Maasai warrior. There were a couple Maasai tribesman who patrolled the camps at night, keeping an eye out for potential danger. They did not carry guns, only walking staffs. They understand the animals, and the animals understand them. We were told that the lions know that they Maasai are danger to them. It was easier to drift off to sleep at night in the land of big cats knowing the Maasai had our backs.

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Tanzania, Baby!

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.

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Arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania

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.

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Hotel room at Onsea House in Arusha

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.

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Mt Meru in the early African summer

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.

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Ready to hit the road in the Land Cruiser

 

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.

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Countryside near Arusha

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.

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Caption this

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.

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Warthog family grazing in Tarangire National Park

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?

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Yes. Wine with lunch on safari. Spoiled rotten.

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.

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First glimpse of many, many elephants

Here is a short video of our first sighting.

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.

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Early sunset on the deck

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Our “tent”

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!

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Acacia trees at sunset