To the best of my knowledge, except for some animal sanctuary in Georgia, the three animals named above do not reside together in any natural ecosystem. Africa is home to lions, Asia to tigers, and North America to bears, so I’m not sure why Dorothy and her friends were expecting to meet them on the yellow brick road. I guess in reality they didn’t really know very much about their environment.
And I guess I didn’t know very much about the wilds of East Africa either. When I moved here, I assumed that at some point I’d “go on safari” because there are certain things one does when one lives in certain places, and “go on safari” is most definitely something everyone does here. But I have to admit I had no idea what it really meant to “go on safari”. I couldn’t even have identified “The Big Five” (so don’t feel bad if you can’t either; you can read more about them here).
So, as you’ve probably guessed by now, we went on safari, and this blog post is going to recount that experience. I was going to title it “Self-Drive Safari Do’s and Don’t’s”, because although it was an incredible experience, especially the “self-drive” part, there were things I might recommend you do differently, depending on your perspective and your taste for adventure. Like do a little research ahead of time. And make some lodging reservations when you are in the middle of nowhere with limited options. But some people would disagree with me and say it’s all part of the adventure. It’s all about your comfort zone, and everyone’s is different.
Here’s how it all went down:
Our son Adam, ever the adventurer, had this idea that he and his dad would drive across East Africa, making a loop around Lake Victoria, safari-ing along the way, and crossing through Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and circling back home to Bujumbura. It was quite the ambitious plan, which eventually morphed to include only Tanzania. Forget about looking at a map; if you know anything about the roads around here, you’ll think it was a wise evolution of a plan.
So they headed east, and I was to meet them in Arusha for our climb of Kilimanjaro a few days later. For the general tourist, the Kili trip is often marketed as a week of safari, a week of climbing Kilimanjaro, and a week at the beach in Zanzibar. I guess we’ll catch Zanzibar another time.
The trip east was fairly uneventful (I think to Adam’s disappointment and Randy’s great relief), except for one small speeding ticket which Adam refused to pay unless they took him down to the local courthouse, which was what the ticket actually stated should be done. I still can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved that I missed that circus. (If you want details, contact Adam. He’d love to recount the story. “Eighty-eight.”)
So we met up in Arusha as planned and I had great plans for my one day off before beginning our hike. The plans went something like this: sleep in, breakfast, morning nap, lunch, afternoon nap, re-pack my kit multiple times, early bed. They had other plans. They had spotted this national park on the way over, and they thought we should go check it out. Since I am genetically and constitutionally incapable of saying no to any adventure, (some would say I have a bad case of FOMO*), I went along, although I had never even heard of this place.
And by the end of the day, I had a much better idea of what “go on safari” meant, and it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. I guess I pictured hours of driving around, patiently waiting to spot some exotic animal in field glasses, (well, I mean, the animal wouldn’t be wearing the field glasses as that sentence appears to read) and taking a few unidentifiable photos because our zoom lens wasn’t powerful enough to capture anything worthwhile, like the photos of the first time I saw a bear in Yellowstone.
But at least on the day that we drove around Tarangire National Park, it wasn’t at all like that. It was up close and personal, more like this:
The first animal we saw. We were pretty excited. Little did we know what was to come. Thing is, for no particular reason, I’ve never liked ostriches. But we were excited for our first spotting of an animal in the wild.
And then there was this guy:
Altogether, in the three national parks we visited, I can honestly say, without exaggeration, we saw thousands of wildebeests. Thousands.
And then we were treated to these beauties:
It was hard to chose favorites, because it was so awesome to see them all out in their natural habitat, but these guys were way up there. (No pun intended.) They are so much fun to watch, and especially to watch them run, which is so incredibly graceful–like filming someone in slow motion.
Now these kids in their striped pajamas were to me the most fascinating of all:
They seem so very horse-like (indeed, they share a genus Equus and a common ancestor), and it seems African civilization could have used a horse-like assistant, for transportation and agriculture as well as for their military, yet they have never domesticated the zebra. Why? I do not know, but ran across these interesting observations while investigating the mystery.
Then we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to see an elephant? And along come these big fellas:
We saw them far away, down near the river:
and causing a Tarangire version of a traffic jam:
And we saw them up close and personal, like this:
(Of the thousands of photos from five different cameras, this is one of my personal favorites. It was right about here that one of the tour guides in another vehicle yelled at us, in a language incomprehensible, something that we gathered through hand motions and context was ‘get back in the car’. However, the fine print in the park guide did not specify that we could not exit a vehicle; it just said that we couldn’t put ourselves in danger from an animal. I guess the definition of danger from an animal demands personal interpretation. This is not the closest encounter we had. Stay tuned.)
And then there were these wild animals:
Then towards the end of that first day, we came upon this scene. First we just saw the one lion on the right in this photo, obviously standing guard.
Then we looked a few feet over and we saw this whole pride hanging out in the shade under the trees.
Then we saw this guy going back and forth:
Then it took us a few minutes to figure out just what was going on: mealtime.
Wildebeest for lunch, anyone? Ah, the circle of life. We felt so privileged to be party to this little feast; it wasn’t to be our last.
And finally we saw these ferocious looking dudes right as we were circling back to leave:
Little did we know they were the first of so very many cape buffalo we would later see.
And in addition to the animals, which is of course, what you “go on safari” to see, there was the beauty of the landscape:
And the brightly colored birds:
And the famous baobabs:
(If you don’t know about the baobabs in your life, you should read “The Little Prince”.)
And that was Tarangire National Park, the first of three.
From there, Adam and I headed out to conquer Kilimanjaro (which you can read about here). Upon our return, we continued on our self-drive safari at Ngorongoro Crater, and another amazing day. Again, hard to pick a favorite, but this place was amazing. We headed out early thinking daybreak was the best time for animal viewing, not really knowing what to expect from the “crater”. Our early morning started in the mist:
We got a little view down into the crater:
then headed down into the crater for an eventful day:
Another traffic jam:
Male and female he created them:
Great view of the crater lake at the end of the dry season. You can’t tell from this photo (and the roads don’t go any closer, because presumably in the wet season this lake covers the whole area), but the dots you see are hundreds and hundreds of flamingos.
And no words will do this photo justice:
Nor this one: (I have friends who think warthogs are cute. Really??)
A little baboon grooming session:
And then came one of the highlights of the day:
We came upon these guys with their heads down in the grass and barely discernible; they were so well camouflaged. Had we not seen others cars stopped, we might have missed them.
We made another loop and circled back to see this guy seeking some shade:
And then this beautiful moment:
These were the only maned lions we saw in the three parks. I could go on with the lion pictures forever. It was so hard to chose the best shots of the hundreds we took.
Then we saw this herd of cape buffalo charging, and figured there must be a reason:
And sure enough, we circled back again to watch a lioness take down the slowest cape buffalo from this herd. It was quite a ways from the road, and while we watched it for over an hour through the field glasses, unfortunately the photos didn’t do it justice. She did chase away three of these opportunists:
After the cape buffalo stopped struggling, she rested for quite some time, then feasted on the most treasured delicacy. If you’re familiar with Rocky Mountain Oysters, then you can guess what she devoured first.
After this exciting event, we caught a rare siting of the critically endangered black rhino, one of the Big Five:
And so we drove up out of the crater, got lost but eventually found Olduvai Tented Lodge, one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed, where we spent the night and were treated to a sunset walk led by our very own Maasai warrior.
In the morning we made a quick stop at the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leaky excavated the famous hominin footprints
then headed on to the Serengeti, the largest and probably the most well-known Tanzanian safari destination.
Each of the three parks we visited were different, and incredible experiences, and special in their own way, but the Serengeti was most noticeable for its vastness, its variety, and its sheer numbers. We saw dozens of species of animals we could neither identify nor had we seen previously, as well as herds of wildebeests and cape buffalo and Thompson’s gazelles numbering in the hundreds, sometimes thousands.
These peaceful guys were lounging alongside the road just after we entered the gates, as if they were assigned the welcome committee duties:
We saw so many thousands of gazelles, it feels wrong not to include them.
There were multiple types, each with different, but distinctive markings.
Now I know I must bring this blog post to a close, and I hate to shortchange the Serengeti, so I’ll end with this Close Encounter of the Third Kind. There is a river that runs through the western part of the Serengeti, and although the road parallels it, it doesn’t come very close to it except here.
Periodically, there were vague dirt paths (OK, maybe we made some of these paths up) that could bring you all the way up to the river. So off we went, in search of our last predator, the crocodile. Before we found any crocs, we saw this scene. Now coming from Bujumbura, the land of the hippos, we don’t get overly excited about seeing them, but the sheer numbers here are incredible. Every dot you see in this photo is a hippo.
And then we found this croc shoot, a place where they slide down into the river:
We navigated down dirt paths a few more times, caught a few sitings of some babies, some crocs off in the distance, and even some crocs and hippos hanging out together. (Who knew those two lived together in harmony?)
Then we drove up to find three large crocs sunning themselves on this bank. Immediately two of them jumped into the water and swam off, but one stayed to taunt us:
As we drew nearer, he grew a little more threatening:
We took advantage of some photo ops while he stood his ground and smiled for the camera:
We made a little lunge towards him and he showed a few more teeth. (It is worth noting here that the “we” refers to the two people in the photos above. During this entire scene, Randy is sitting in the car just this side of a heart attack.)
We made a final threatening move in his direction, and off he swam. Chicken. I couldn’t believe we’d had a showdown with a croc and won!
And the last scene we saw as we drove out of the Serengeti to begin the long drive home was this hyena taking advantage of someone else’s work. It takes all kinds.
The circle of life continues, and the three of us made it back to Bujumbura, safe and sound, with a new appreciation for the wilds of East Africa, and for the splendor, the beauty, the magnificence, and the variety of God’s creation, as well as the inability to ever see wild animals in a zoo again.
*FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out