An Eye-Opening Serengeti Safari
Eli has a smile that would shame the noonday sun. It breaks through the morning darkness; I recognize him before I recognize anyone else at the early campfire. “Good morning, Eli,” I say, and he says the same thing, always, “Are you ready? Good to go?” sweetly, in his Tanzanian accented English.
We get up early in the Serengeti in Tanzania; it is barely light. If you have neglected to set your alarm, it does not matter; you will wake to the unzipping of tents and the voices of your neighbors. “Could you hand me my flip-flops?” “I need to help with breakfast, I’ll see you there.” We are camped in a close semicircle; we know who is snoring and who is giggling in the night. I know that everyone will hear me when I get up to look at the moon casting shadows between the evenly spaced acacia trees. They will hear me rustling in the grass as I use my flashlight to pick out the reflection of hyena eyes.
In the morning, we shuffle to the fire. The park prohibits exploring before the sun is up; darkness belongs to the animals. We drink coffee and eat cereal and wait for the light. Eli smiles and shuffles in his down jacket and when we are ready, after fetching water bottles and sunscreen and snacks and running to the loo one last time, “Please, wait just one minute!”—we climb into his jeep, hitting our heads on the door jamb, our knees and thighs on the metal seat rails, our elbows on the edge of the open roof and sometimes, each other.
We are bundled up—I am wearing long pants and a heavy wind-stop fleece, zipped all the way up, the hood over my head. The wind comes in cold as we race along the dirt road out of the campground, but as the light comes up, so does the temperature: a degree of brightness, a degree of heat. The morning air smells good because it has rained, the grass is damp, the dust is down. We have not yet left the access road for the campground when we make our first stop. “Giraffe!” one of our group shouts, and Eli smiles, and slows down, and then stops as we all stand to look. The giraffe pauses, and looks back. “Ima answer your questions,” I imagine her saying, “but first, I’m gonna finish these acacia leaves.”
Eli waits, and if we are too long with the cameras, he turns off the engine and lets us stay in the quiet, only the noise of the giraffe pulling on the thorny tree. After the right amount of time, he speaks. “Good to go?” he asks, and we are; he knows this. He restarts the engine and I pull my sleeves down over the backs of my hands and we race toward the open grasslands.
We do this over and over for three, maybe four, hours. Eli drives and we look, scrubbing the horizon with our eyes. Zebras and gazelles and hartebeest and wildebeest are easy to spot; they are everywhere, spread out across the flat, open land. We see a line of cheetahs striding through the knee-high gold grasses. Eli stops the car and we watch. The zebras watch, too; they stand perfectly still save for their ears, which track the cheetahs like radar dishes. “Cheetahs don’t hunt zebra,” says Eli, “too big. They go for smaller animals, gazelles…” The zebras don’t seem to know this, though. I cannot see their eyes underneath the black and white face paint, but their ears remain alert, tilted towards the three—“No, maybe it’s four, I think I see a fourth one…”—cats.
The sun gets higher and the day gets hotter. I take off my fleece and roll up my pants. I wear a baseball cap to shade my eyes, but it doesn’t protect my ears from the brutal overhead sun. By the end of day three, my ears are red and blistered on top and they hurt like hell. My eyelashes fill with dust and I can feel the grit of the Serengeti between my teeth. We stop. We look. We take pictures. Eli smiles and asks, after the right amount of time, “Good to go?”
An Afternoon Rest Out of the Midday Tanzania Sun
When the sun is high, we return to camp. Midday is no good for game spotting. The light is flat, and it is too hot. The animals are napping and we do the same, or we read in what shade we can find, or we sit, sweating in camp chairs, drinking not cold enough soda and talking nonsense. I look up and see a long line of zebras just beyond the trees that pretend to demarcate our campsite and then my heart stops and I raise my hand and point. “Elephants!” We all stand and lean toward them, slightly. Then I race to grab my camera.
We walk through the sharp grass behind our tents, 15 yards, maybe 20. A family group is grazing just beyond a dry creek bed. There is a big female, a matron, with impressive tusks, scratching a tree. They stay close together, mostly, save one slowpoke at the back who wanders down into the dry creek bed, closer to where we stand, whispering. They are quiet, the elephants are. I can hear them exhaling; I can hear the swish of air behind their great ears as they flap. When they walk, there is no noise from their steps; the giant pads of their feet are silent on the gritty soil. They take their time, not looking at us, and we stare, open-mouthed, not nearly as quiet as the elephants, while they move slowly out of sight.
When the shadows are longer, Eli reappears. We drive, again, and we see a leopard and more cheetahs and I laugh at the zebras taking dust baths, rolling on their backs, their hooves in the air. We look over a pod of hippos, submerged, their eyes, nostrils, and ears just above the water line. “Hippos get sunburned,” Eli reminds us, “so they stay below the water line.” There is a huge male in this harem of hippos. He surfaces when he tries to climb on top of one of his ladies. There is a great deal of bubble and splash, and then, the water flattens and the hippos return to twitching their ears, the rest of their giant gray bodies still below the green water.
There are lions at the side of the road. They sit in the grass yawning, blinking at the jeeps, and then disappearing into the sea of gold. We can see them when they move. We stand, transfixed, shooting photos. My camera is the loudest noise around, clicking and whirring as I shoot frame after (mostly useless) frame. I can’t hold the camera steady enough because even though the jeep is stopped and everyone is still, my hands are shaking with excitement.
The afternoon folds into night, the light drops, I zip myself back into my fleece. We see a redheaded zebra and a giraffe walking with great purpose as though they must get home before dark. “We need to get going,” says Eli, mindful of the park rules, while trying to indulge us as we take photo after photo after photo of the sun dropping beyond the darkening horizon. We drive, again, back into camp, and the next day we will start over. We do this for three days. We drive, we look, we return to camp, we rest and eat.
After the last morning drive, we fold up camp and Eli shutters the roof on his jeep. We load our camping gear into the back and take our seats. “Are you ready? Good to go?” asks Eli. We say yes, we are ready.
But I’m not ready; I’m not ready at all. I did not get a good look at that tiny black-faced monkey racing away from the road, her baby clinging to her belly. I am not done watching the warthogs run on their short, funny little legs. I am not done examining the sharp patterns on the zebras. I have not solved the riddle of the topi, its peculiar long face a mask of black and reddish brown beneath a set of sharp horns. “In migration season,” Eli says, “you can sit in the jeep for hours waiting for the animals to pass. They surround you. You cannot go anywhere until they have cleared.”
Eli smiles. The jeep races forward; the dust flies behind us. “You will come back,” Eli instructs me. And I nod my head. We go, whether we are good to or not.
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Explore the Serengeti and other splendors on a GeoEx safari.