asilia africa

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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Coffee, Dik-Dik, and Lake Manyara National Park

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Caffeine addicts rejoice!

I remember before we left for our Tanzania trip, my sister-in-law asked my husband if he thought they would have decent coffee where we’d be staying. We giggled a bit before he assured her our caffeine needs would be more than adequately met with tasty coffee.  At the Asilia properties where we stayed, Little Oliver’s Camp and later Namiri Plains Camp in the Serengeti, they brought it to our tents every morning on wooden trays so we could enjoy it while we readied for breakfast. There are days when I wake up at home now and look forlornly around the room in the sad realization that no one has brought my coffee in. Dammit.

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Zazu and Mrs Zazu have breakfast with us

All good things must come to an end and so, after our morning coffee and a delightful patio breakfast where a pair of hornbills came to steal some food, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts. I will not lie. I legit cried as we pulled away from Little Oliver’s Camp. I cannot state highly enough what a magical place it is. The quarters are luxurious with no attention to detail spared, and the outdoor showers are the stuff of dreams. The main lounge area is stunning and comfortable. The food is delicious and served in large quantity along with wonderful wine and cocktails. The people working there are the best. You go to Tanzania for the animals and the experience but, make no mistake about it, the kindhearted and gracious people will convince you to return.

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Everyone came out to say goodbye

This day, we would drive head out of Tarangire National Park, visit Lake Manyara National Park, and eventually land at our next home, the Plantation Lodge. It would take several hours to exit Tarangire, so we left early to ensure we’d have time to stop and view the abundant wildlife on the way out.

One creature we loved seeing was the dik-dik, a small, territorial antelope. Yes. Such a thing exists. Steve, the boys, and I became obsessed with these little guys, forcing Ammy to stop over and over so we could watch them defend their territory with their tiny horns or dart off, stop, and then eye us suspiciously. Most people go to Africa and go crazy for cheetah or giraffes. Here we were, losing it over 11 pound antelope. But, look at this photo and tell me you blame us.

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Female dik-dik….try not to fall in love

We had seen a few giraffe at a distance during our time in Tarangire, but on our way out of the park on New Year’s Day, we saw over 40 of them in the span of only a mile. We watched a pair battle each other with their long necks. We saw one bend at the knees to eat grass and saw others stretch to reach the tips of the treetops to grab the most tender bites of acacia leaves. Ammy said he hadn’t often seen them together in such large numbers. We joked that perhaps it was their annual giraffe convention. It felt like they were coming out to see us off.

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After bidding a fond farewell to Tarangire, we headed to Lake Manyara where we expected to see zebra, wildebeests (aka, gnus), and cape buffalo. The first thing we encountered in the park were baboons along the road. Baboons are fun to watch. They, like the elephants, are always up to something. Anywhere you park, you must roll up your windows because they are opportunists. On more than one occasion we saw a baboon dive into a vehicle and make off with food. I couldn’t decide if I thought they were creepy with their huge canine teeth or adorable with their mischievous and spunky personalities.

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Not long after beginning our drive though the park, the sky opened up. It was the only time on the trip when we endured a sustained daytime rain. We closed the roof and tried to take photos out the windows. The area around Lake Manyara is marshy, and I was grateful for the Land Cruiser as we passed through some standing water. As the rains began to lighten, we saw some zebras that looked as if they wished to switch places with us in our dry vehicle. I started speaking of them with the traditional British accent because zeh-bra sounds much more dignified.

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That face, though

The wildlife to be seen here is impressive: elephants, hippos, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, and all types of water birds. Because the weather wasn’t in our favor, we didn’t spend much time in this park but I believe it would be worthwhile to give another shot at a later date.

We headed out towards our next lodging, stopping at a shop filled with locally crafted items. There were paintings, carvings, and all manner of beaded and other textile gifts. We had fun choosing special treats for our family back home. And Steve did his best to barter lower prices. In the end, I think he felt he could have done a better job and saved us some money. I told him that we were helping the local economy and, let’s face it, could spare a little extra for people who didn’t have nearly what we do. It’s all good.

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Ammy turned off onto a dirt road that wasn’t marked and we bounced our way back a few miles to our final destination of the day. As we pulled up the long road towards our lodging, it was obvious we were in for a treat. Plantation Lodge is set on a hill, the entire property shrouded from view with greenery. We pulled up to a parking area and got out of the Land Cruiser. After climbing some stairs to reach the property, I began shaking my head. Ahead of us lie perfectly manicured lawns, all manner of tropical plants, and white cottages with heavy wooden doors. Arbors were covered in flowers, plumeria bloomed everywhere, and several cats lounged lazily in the shade of day waiting for their night shift to begin. Were we really in Africa? This was my second choice lodge for this portion of the trip, and I found myself glad we’d landed here. It was clear we were in for a treat.

We settled into our rooms, took some time to wander the property, and grabbed an evening cocktail before dinner while the boys took to the pool. It’s such a pleasure to travel in a way that affords complete relaxation. Because Deeper Africa took care of every last detail, we were able to show up and just be in the moment. I breathed deeply that afternoon with my cocktail in hand, sunglasses on my face, and the promise of another wondrous adventure day on the horizon.

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Living the dream

Tarangire National Park

After our first incredible day on safari, I thought nothing could compare. I was wrong. On day two of our sojourn, New Year’s Eve, our hosts raised the bar. This will live on as one of the favorite days of my life ever. And, to be fair, I’ve lived a fortunate life, have traveled to four continents, and enjoyed many “once in a lifetime” experiences.

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Off for our adventure

We awoke early to breakfast with the morning plan being a guided safari walk. We were outfitted with gaiters to protect our legs and feet from acacia thorns and bugs, stainless steel water bottles and holders, and horse-tail swatters to discourage biting flies. Our guide drove out a short way from camp begin our walk. Before we had left the security of the vehicle, we were debriefed on safety. We would be walking with our guide who was carrying a high-powered rifle and a park ranger who had a fully automatic assault weapon. Realizing we would be on the ground with creatures larger, bigger, and faster than us that could stomp, gore, claw, kick, bite, and ingest us if they felt threatened was intimidating. We were not to speak unless directed. We were to remain in a single file line. We learned hand commands meant to keep us safe if wildlife grew agitated or aggressive. If an animal charged, we were not to run. 

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Single file, folks

The first thing we spotted was a mating pair of tortoises. A bit later we noticed females and young elephants grazing. In the other direction, two bull elephants were doing the same. Our guide was careful to check our position and the wind direction so we would not be detected. We walked silently through the bush. The flies were relentless in heavily foliaged areas, and the swatters were a godsend. We saw ostrich, varieties of antelope, and warthog, and fortunately did not encounter any predators. We stopped to identify a buffalo that had been killed, its bones scattered by scavengers.

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Skull of a female cape buffalo

Of the creatures we found, none were more shy than the antelope. They watched us warily from great distances and were only able to be photographed decently with my husband’s high-powered camera lens. The warthogs were the most fun to be around because, while still reticent, they were animated, curious, and checked up on us often.

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The common hartebeest flanked by two more rare oryx

We somehow wandered right back to our vehicle, although I had no clue how given our circuitous route not following any given trail. I was grateful the guides hadn’t had to use a weapon, although they admitted they rarely had to. Through extensive wildlife safari training and experience, they know how to keep people and wildlife safe.

That afternoon, four of the six of us went out for a drive and were treated to an elephant extravaganza. We encountered several herds up close. Their bodies were tinged red after time in the water followed by a roll in the earth to smother the ticks they regularly acquired. Some scratched themselves on massive, abandoned termite mounds. Some used their trunks to cover themselves in dirt. Being this close to an elephant, close enough to see her eyelashes and be dusted with the dirt she threw on herself, was a gift I will never forget. (Video here)

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This is everything

I was not prepared for Tanzania to be as beautiful as it was. The short rains of November and December had created an environment that was fertile for grazing with short grasses that offered us unimpeded viewing of the creatures who call this place home. We had flawless weather (warm days, temperate nights, very little rain) and the benefit of an endlessly green landscape. I was awestruck by the scenery.

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Oh…Mother Nature. You are such a show off.

As we were driving towards our evening plans, we witnessed large family groups of elephants trumpeting and beating either a hurried rush towards a sunset get together or a hasty retreat from some unseen predators. Ammy told us he had not seen so many groups exhibiting this same behavior, and he had no idea what might be the cause. I wish I had photographs of it but, because of the distance at which the elephants were and the fading light of day, it was not to be captured. Still, as a lover of these grand beasts, I felt as if someone had commanded them to put on a display just for me. Over a hundred, perhaps several hundred, were all on their way their way somewhere with great purpose. Maybe it was the beginning of their New Year’s Eve ritual. Who knows? It was my Day of the Elephants and my heart was full.

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One herd headed off towards the sunset

Ammy told us it was time to move on and began driving with serious purpose as the sun began to sink on the western horizon. At last we rounded a bend and I understood what his rush had been. Sundowners! I’d read about this, but honestly had no idea the level to which this tradition was taken seriously.

Sundowners are drinks at sundown in the bush. I saw several safari vehicles congregated near a set up of camp chairs with a table and a makeshift-but-well-stocked bar. I couldn’t help myself and uttered to Ammy several statements of disbelief and joy. What? Are you kidding me? This is nuts! You guys are unbelievable. 

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This is how cocktail hour is meant to be lived 

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What’s your poison?

Karen, my sister-in-law, popped open a bottle of champagne they had on ice for us. This was accompanied by freshly made potato chips and followed by made-to-order drinks of our choosing. Our oldest son, who is only 17, was treated to a glass of champagne too, making him feel extra special. And while we stood there sipping our drinks, the sun went down in a spectacular flourish of yellow, orange, pink, red, and violet.

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Africa…you charmer

After dinner, our final event was a nighttime game drive in an open air vehicle. With the use of high-bean flashlights, we watched a genet climb stealthily through tree branches, hoping to capture a bird who was perched there. We also saw a variety of mongoose on the prowl. And while the creatures were not as generous with their time or numbers as they had been earlier in the day, the experience of driving at night, seeing stars which we had never seen in such multitude, was unforgettable. We might as well have been the only people on the planet. So far removed we were from our usual lives at home, from the bustle of cities and relentless visual noise of light pollution and the distraction of electronics and to-do-lists.

We returned to camp overwhelmed by our day and settled in for late dinner around the campfire. Every new year should begin from this point of peace and oneness with nature and Mother Earth. Every new year should begin by taking a moment to inhale and exhale consciously and appreciate the current moment. The future is not a guarantee, but a wish. Live now the wind whispered to me through the trees.

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Fireside contemplation with a full belly and a glass of South African wine