Africa. The mere mention of the name unleashes a torrent of images - a turbulent continent ripe for adventure with more than a hint of danger. In all of our travels no other place seemed as primitive and untouched by Western culture. Whatever imagery you may have conjured from film or narrative, nothing prepares you for the vast beauty and heartbreaking hardship of this fascinating world. If you’re willing to endure long hard drives on rocky roads and some inconvenience, the payoff is immense.
The volatile political climate impacted our plans for this, our first, trip to Africa. Originally, we booked a tour to Zimbabwe for Victoria Falls, Zaire for mountain gorilla trekking and Tanzania for a photo safari. The horrifying conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Zaire that year (now Congo) meant that we’d have to wait for another opportunity to view the gorillas, so we settled on a Zimbabwe and Tanzania stew with a pinch of Kenya. Tanzania was far preferable to us than Kenya since it had ten times the park area and one-tenth the number of tourists.
If you’re needle-shy, the inoculations required for the trip might give you pause. We did our part to keep the pharmaceutical industry solvent by receiving eight to ten inoculations each. We were punctured like pincushions, but protected. In addition to taking malaria prophylaxis, we brought along unscented deodorant, soap, shampoos and lotions to attract less biting insects. An African safari is worth all of this effort and more.
Stu’s tips for photographers: Bring FAR more film than you ever think you will need. If you are using a 35-mm camera don’t foolishly buy 24-exposure film, use 36-exposure only. That way you will be changing film less frequently, and thereby missing fewer photographic opportunities. Not only will the mammals blow you away, the birds will captivate you. There are so many of them, and in such fascinating varieties, that if you didn’t think much about birds before going to Africa it is likely that you will return home a birdwatcher. Give consideration to bringing more than one camera so that you have a backup in case of failure, and if the cameras have interchangeable lenses and a different lens on each, you can quickly switch from one camera to another without wasting time changing lenses. Bring spare batteries. You will not be able to get any in the bush. And chances are that the longest lens you own will not be strong enough. We brought a 28-200 MM zoom on one camera, and a compact 500MM-mirror telephoto lens on a second camera. Those choices worked well, though of course the National Geographic photographers had lenses the size of our jeep.
We flew to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with a stopover in London, where our tour operator (Abercrombie & Kent) had arranged an airport day room so that we could freshen up before heading to town for a day of fun. Upon arrival in Harare we checked into the modern Meikles Hotel, sleek and comfortable with excellent food and service. Their concierge, a delightful, elderly Zimbabwean, arranged a taxi tour of the city for us. The driver took us to a stone carving center where graceful Shona sculptures are crafted, to the overlook from the city’s highest point, and on a general tour of neighborhoods and markets. Afterwards we walked around on our own, visiting their art museum and the adjacent park, which was teeming with locals enjoying the greenery. We had a lovely dinner in the hotel’s elegant restaurant, La Fontaine.
When we returned to the Meikles a few days later after our jaunt to Victoria Falls, the concierge saw our names and phoned us to ask how our trip to the south went. That night we ordered room service. It arrived in about 12 minutes and was as good as the meal we had in their fine dining room. Further, they had run out of the wine we ordered and substituted a better, more expensive wine at no extra charge.
Leaving the next morning we carried our own bags since we always travel light. The staff was quite upset that they did not have the opportunity to help us (and no, we did not feel that the issue was a missed tip). We sheepishly handed over the bags.
We flew to Victoria Falls and stayed at the Victoria Falls Hotel, which has a distant view of the falls from its terraces and selected rooms. Although our guide had a number of things planned for us the next day he left us to our own devices for the afternoon. Naturally, we immediately walked to the falls, noting signs encouraging us not to venture out after dark due to animal activity. Unlike Niagara, which falls into a quarter mile wide gorge, the Victoria Falls cascade into a relatively narrow gorge, churning up level 5 white water down the Zambezi, as well as an impressive plume of mist. Though not quite as high as Niagara, Victoria is several times wider, even in the September dry season during a drought year. Handsomely landscaped paths meander along the cliff park facing the falls with no concession stands in sight. We cringed while observing a few Japanese tourists ignoring warning signs and climbing over the low barriers to pose at the edge of the cliff with the falls behind. We especially enjoyed watching the entertaining antics of several clans of striped mongoose as they boldly raced through the shrubbery playing and squeaking.
That evening we took a sunset boat ride on the serene waters of the upper Zambezi. We were thrilled at our first wildlife sightings - wallowing hippos, stealthy crocodiles, skittish antelope, belligerent Cape buffalo, colorful birds, and the biggest iguana we’ve ever encountered (it could no doubt get a three picture deal from Hollywood playing Godzilla). A few elephants had waded through the water and were peacefully grazing in the tall grass of an island in the middle of the river. The crew served cocktails and hors d’oeuvres as the sun dipped beneath the horizon setting the sky ablaze.
The following morning our guide took us on an official tour of the falls. He told us that although the falls are more sparse during the dry season, this is still the best time to visit since the voluminous spray generated when the flow is full obscures the view of the falls and soaks visitors on the path. We continued on to a crocodile farm where Barbara wrestled a hatchling into submission. We also visited a village where a chorus of local youths was singing beautiful harmonies. One of the highlights that afternoon was a flight-seeing tour over the falls, providing us with a spectacular perspective. From above you can see how an earthquake cleaved a huge crack through miles of flat terrain and the rushing river tumbles off the edge into the chasm.
That evening the hotel hosted a fascinating show of native dances and songs in a convincing faux native village setting. We saw some gorgeous masks and drums for sale, but they were quite large. The hotel was unable to help with packing and shipping and we couldn’t carry them, so we reluctantly passed them up.
The next morning we arose at dawn for a game drive with a local expert. A herd of zebra galloped by braying like mules, while a party of gazelles swiveled their ears like radar checking them out. As exciting as it was, it was just a teaser for Tanzania. We relaxed that afternoon at the pool, only pausing briefly to watch a troop of monkeys run through the cafe, raiding the tables for fresh fruit.
The next morning we flew back to Harare, and the morning after that on to Nairobi, Kenya. The city is not very appealing and a bit scary. We stayed at the posh Windsor Country Club, which seemed obscenely opulent for the locale. The best part of Nairobi was the beautiful small mahogany carving of a seated Maasai woman that we bought at an art gallery.
The next morning an A&K guide picked us up to take us on a four-hour overland ride through the savanna to the Tanzanian border where we had to change vehicles, driver and guide as well as pass through customs. While the guide handled the red tape we visited the shops and even picked up some attractive bead necklaces. We drove to the Mt. Meru Lodge at the western edge of Arusha where we met our fellow safari members, Julie and Sam - an unmarried couple from Washington DC, Masao and Irene - a delightful obstetrician/gynecologist and his lovely wife from California, and Betty and Sandy - a bright mother-daughter team of management consultants from New Jersey. We also met Elias our college-educated Maasai guide.
Lodgers at Mt. Meru Lodge are assigned a charming cabin, and meals are taken in the central building. The food was pretty good, but no match for what we would soon experience on safari. The lodge had fenced off many acres to showcase numerous large birds and some herbivorous mammals, including an oryx. While we ended up seeing most of these creatures in the wild, we had the good fortune to catch the elaborate ostrich mating ritual, initiated by a mesmerizing courtship dance, where the male sways his head from side to side while undulating his wings. It probably inspired the infamous fan dance that stripper’s perform.
The next morning we met our driver, Mgundi (whose family grows coffee on the slopes of Kilimanjaro), and boarded our Land Cruiser with Betty and Sandy. Elias alternated between the two vehicles. We chose the A&K Hemingway tented safari in Tanzania for many reasons, a primary one being the safari vehicles. Because there are only 4 guests in each (max. 12 guests on the safari), everyone gets a window seat and plenty of access to the top hatch for game viewing and photography. We preferred camping to lodges for the proximity to nature and atmosphere as well as the excellent camp food. We also liked the itinerary, which covered Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, all top choices. This tour prohibits smoking during game drives, which was important to us. The spacious tents were outstanding, featuring a verandah with comfy chairs and washstand, real beds, solar powered fluorescent lighting, vanity, en-suite composting toilet and shower.
In retrospect we feel that we made the best choice. The food in camp was excellent, despite the fact that conditions were crude. Picture duck a l’orange as good as you’d get in a French restaurant and freshly baked bread. The 11 camp staff members couldn’t do enough for us, and we had a personal tent attendant who filled our water basin and shower bag, brought wake-up coffee and pastries, and gathered clothes that we left on our beds for washing and ironing.
The naturalist and drivers were incredibly knowledgeable. Mgundi, while navigating the cruiser over rocks and ditches, could spot a bird on the wing out of the corner of his eye, identify it, and then accurately tell us the plate and page numbers where we could find it in the Collins bird book provided in the vehicle. The Land Cruiser, equipped with extra cushions, bean bags to steady cameras, naturalist books, bottled water and Kleenex, was comfortable and perfect for the task. This is in stark contrast to the minivans that can seat nine, with some people not getting window seats, and only 4 or 5 able to stand up at a time for viewing/photos under crowded conditions. Additionally, the vans provided less opportunity to spot game while driving (they’re lower than the Jeeps, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers), had uncomfortable seats (we tried one for a few hours on highways back to Nairobi), and seemed far more prone to gathering road dust inside. Our naturalist and drivers always seemed to know where to go to see at least several new animals or behaviors on every one of our two dozen or more game drives. Comparing notes with people on other tours visiting the same parks around the same time revealed that they saw far less than we did.
We arrived at the first game park, Tarangire, well before lunch and were immediately awed by the graceful, beautifully marked impala (animals, not Chevrolets), troops of baboon, and a herd of wildebeest that decided to run across the road only one or two meters in front of our Land Cruiser. And this was just on the way to our first campsite. We arrived at the campsite to find about eight large green tents lined up a few meters from a river, a grand setting between the water and the sprawling acacia trees. We unpacked and then went for our first of many extremely fine meals. After lunch we received a lecture on proper safari behavior. Runners are encouraged to forego the exercise since running is a sure way to attract predators. We went on our first game drive in the late afternoon when the heat of the day was abating.
We saw such a profusion of fabulous animals and behaviors that we really can’t remember specifically what we saw on the first and second days. We got very close to lions, Cape buffalo, elephants, giraffes, zebras, baboons, blue monkeys, several species of antelope and gazelle, and many exotic birds. The tiny dik dik was our favorite antelope, about a foot tall with large appealing eyes and skinny legs. Cape buffalo are the most dangerous of all African animals, followed by hippos, but, despite their tough reputation, they look more comical than fierce since their horns curl up like a stereotypical Dutch girl’s hat. We were on an incredible high returning to camp from that first game drive after seeing so many animals up close and in their natural habitat. That night lions visited the camp, rubbing against the canvas tents to scratch themselves like big house cats. It was both scary and thrilling, though none of us ventured out for a peek. At times like that you really appreciate the en-suite toilet, venturing out at night to answer the call of nature might just put you too close to it. The next morning while dressing we were amused by the sounds of twigs being thrown onto our tents by monkeys cavorting in the acacia trees overhead.
The game drives were very long, but not in the least exhausting or boring. Typically, we’d be awakened with a gentle knock at our tent at 6:00, accompanied by the delivery of morning beverages and excellent freshly baked goods. About a half-hour later we’d have breakfast, and then leave on the morning game drive just after dawn. The morning game drive would last until lunch time, but sometimes we wouldn’t get back for lunch until as late as 2:00, since we were having so much fun seeing wildlife. After lunch we’d read, rest, write postcards, etc. until the afternoon game drive that usually lasted from 4:00 until dusk. The sunsets were spectacular silhouetted by the craggy acacias. After showering and changing, we’d gather around the campfire to swap tales or enjoy lectures on the Maasai, Tanzania and wildlife over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Elias had some captivating stories. We’d then repair to the dining tent for a multi-course gourmet dinner with wine, linens and silverware. After dinner we’d read for a bit, and drift off into deep, satisfied sleep, lulled by sounds of nature.
Just before exiting Tarangire for our next destination, eagle eye Stu spotted lions at a zebra kill right by the side of the road and alerted Mgundi. The drivers pulled over so we could watch as several females and their 6-mo. old cubs gnawed at the carcass. When they had their fill of zebra du jour, the mothers groomed the cubs with their large pink tongues. We were close enough to the pride to hear the cubs mewing and purring. One cub walked under its mother’s chin to rub its back, illustrating behavior shared among all cats, large, small, wild or domesticated. After they were well groomed they all went to sleep, many on their backs exposing their protruding stuffed bellies. Ours were the only two vehicles in the area for 45 minutes, and the cats totally ignored us although we were right beside them. At one point a sedan pulled up about 30 meters away. A party of four got out of the car to see what we were watching. Instantly the ears of the lions stood up and they all snapped their heads around, their muscles tensing, their full attention focused on the interlopers. The humans, suddenly realizing their risk, clambered back into the car and drove away. Quickly. We doubt if they stopped before arriving at the ocean, several hours drive away. Elias told us that as long as you remain in the vehicle, the animals perceive you as a part of it, so you’re in no danger. Outside the car, you’re a snack.
Fully exhilarated by the lions we settled back to enjoy the memory and the scenery on a long drive where we ascended to 9,000 ft. to a coffee plantation and lodge called Gibbs Farm. Between encampments we’d stay at a lodge to give the staff time to move camp to the next park. We settled into spacious and very attractive rooms. Vivid wild and cultivated flowers adorn the public areas, attracting hordes of small bright-feathered birds, including several lovely species of bee-eaters. We took an interesting walk past fields of coffee plants and were surprised to see that the beans were bright red on the vine. They darken when roasted. We stopped to admire the view from the top of a dramatically high waterfall on our way to an elephant slide. The mammoth creatures climb the mound to enjoy a salt lick, and then slide down the clay embankment back to the ground. Along the way we found some handsome, long porcupine quills, one of which now resides in a decorative box on our living room coffee table. When we got back to the lodge, a puppy entertained us. The dogs are always taken inside just before dark so that they don’t end up on the menu of the local leopards.
The next morning we headed back down the mountain, passing the Mosquito River and into Lake Manyara National Park. This park is renowned for tree-climbing lions, who hang out up there to escape pesky insects. They say it’s the only place in Africa where you can regularly see lions in trees, and though we saw some lounging on branches, most were firmly terrestrial.
We made a brief stop at our camp then went on a game drive. Before long we stopped at a small glen just in front of dense forest. Elias had spotted some eight-week old lion cubs, gamely toddling out of the woods under the protective eye of their mother. Soon another lioness began wandering down the road in front of our Land Cruiser, just as a giraffe came the opposite way towards our rear bumper. They passed one another, barely taking notice. All the while, blue monkeys played in the trees and the young cubs ventured further into the glen. It was almost too much to absorb all at once, a wilderness version of a 3-ring circus.
That afternoon we struck out in another direction, eventually encountering an immense flock of greater flamingo, an inspiring sight with their graceful necks and flamboyant rose-colored plumage. On the way there we got to observe some interesting giraffe antics. A pair of adults were "necking," which has a different connotation for giraffes than for humans. Males fight for mates by slamming their necks into one another, like adolescents in a mosh pit. At a waterhole the giraffes splayed their legs awkwardly in order to lower themselves enough to lap up the water with their long black tongues. A six-week-old calf accompanying a female was so young that the velvet was still plainly visible on its short, knobbed horns. Even the baby giraffe was over six feet tall. Adults can tower up to 15 ft.
On a morning game drive we stopped at the edge of a clearing when two huge elephant cows emerged from the bush. During the next few minutes a herd numbering 100 or more, including many very small calves, followed them. The females surrounded the young protectively. They seemed to be heading in the direction of the river so we followed at a respectful distance. One of the female guards must have thought that our distance was not quite respectful enough so she trumpeted a warning and charged us, her enormous ears framing her face like giant fans. We stopped, allowing a few dozen more meters to separate us from the herd. This seemed to satisfy the rear guard and she backed off. Elias, who lives nearby, said that this was the largest herd he had ever seen at Lake Manyara and felt that it provided evidence that efforts to preserve the elephants are succeeding, at least in Tanzania.
After lunch we returned to a large hippo pool that we had seen on our way into the park. 50 or 60 of these behemoths crowded the banks, grazed, and cooled off in the water. Some remained submerged with only their tiny ears, eyes, snout and nostrils telegraphing their presence. Occasionally a male would challenge another over turf or females, opening their cavernous mouths wide to display their powerful teeth. Adults can weigh in at a massive 3,000-4,500 kg., though calves weigh only 27-50 kg. at birth. As with most animals, the young are adorable and we got to see several of them shadowing their mammas, or riding on their backs in the pond.
Before dinner that night Charlie, the young man who served us drinks and snacks around the campfire, appeared in a tuxedo. We made such a fuss over him that he wore the tux during cocktails for the rest of the trip.
The next day we got to meet Elias’ wife and two of his children who’d stopped by to see him off. We left Lake Manyara bound for the incredible ecosystem of Ngorongoro Crater. Two and a half million years ago the volcano, which was probably the tallest peak in Africa, blew its top. The resulting crater is 20 KM across with steep 600-meter high walls. It’s big enough to contain its own highlands, lowlands, wetlands and plains, and since it has water all year round it is home to many species of game, large and small. Chances are you’ve seen a Nature special or Discovery Channel program about this site, extolling the diversity and abundance of its animal life. Years ago the Tanzanian government permitted camping in the crater but determined more recently that the ecosystem might be too fragile to permit the intrusion. Consequently, visitors must overnight outside the crater. We stayed at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, perched on the rim of the crater with a commanding view of the reserve, though it’s impossible to view any animals in the crater from that distance. However, there was large game on the property, including a Cape buffalo and a small herd of zebra, which grazed just outside our bedroom window. The Cape buffalo had all of us nervous, but we were assured that as long as we stayed on the paths the buffalo would not bother us. That held true during our visit, but we still wonder just how risky it was.
That night Elias introduced us to Tepilit Ole Saitoti, a Maasai friend who had written a superb book on his people, illustrated by a fine photographer. The book was too large for us to buy locally and have the author inscribe, since we didn’t want to lug it around for the rest of the trip, but we bought a copy at Rizzoli when we returned home. The writer dined with us, spellbinding us with his resonant voice and gripping stories punctuated with hearty laughter. He seemed to take a particular liking to Stu (partly due to Stu’s inimitable sense of humor), often clapping his shoulder during the meal, and embracing him warmly before leaving.
Early the next morning as we headed into the crater some school children crossed the road and walked beside our Land Cruisers to shield themselves from the bull elephant meandering towards them. Bulls have been known to strike out at humans for unknown reasons. It took quite some time and effort to descend the crater, winding along switchbacks on the steep slope. We packed lunch so we wouldn’t have to return to the lodge, allowing as much time as possible for game viewing. This was the first place that we saw lions mating. The act is brief and perfunctory, but it is repeated 30, 40, 50, or even 60 times during the few days that the lioness is in heat.
Since there was plenty of lion chow (zebra, wildebeest, gazelle and antelope), there were plenty of lions (by the end of the trip Elias had counted 82). At one point we saw a mixed brood of young cubs roughhousing in the early afternoon heat at the base of a tree while the older and wiser lions napped. The cubs were comical with their mock battles, especially when one would strategically climb the tree to pounce on one of the other cubs.
Our first picnic lunch in the crater was by a scenic soda lake in which flamingoes and other aquatic birds fed and rested. One unwary flamingo failed to notice the silver-backed jackal slinking through the brush and was abruptly taken. Once the jackal made its move, it was over in the blink of an eye with a burst of flying feathers. Then the victor had to defend its meal against a pack of hungry fellow jackals.
As we tooled down the road, a massive black rhinoceros with horns over a meter long jaywalked in front of our Land Cruiser. Mgundi called her "Daughter of Agnes". Her mother, whom locals had dubbed Agnes, had been well known in the park for the exceptional length of her horns as well, and they cost her her life at the hands of poachers. The guides were worried about her daughter’s safety. The black rhino is endangered, the white rhino, which is better protected, is vulnerable. Black and white rhinos are both gray, though the white is a bit lighter. The name white rhino originated from a misinterpretation of the Dutch word "weit", which means wide in Dutch but white in Africaans and referred to the wide square upper lip of the rhino. The black rhino, in addition to having a prehensile upper lip, is smaller, more aggressive and solitary, and a better swimmer than the white. Despite their bulk, a black rhino can run up to 40 miles per hour, so between their poor eyesight, speed and antisocial nature, they can be risky to approach. Shortly after Agnes disappeared into the forest, we saw an old elephant with the longest tusks we had ever seen. Another animal at risk from the unscrupulous.
The next morning we were driving down a narrow dirt path bordered by golden grass taller than our truck. Suddenly we spied a mother rhino nursing her three-month-old calf in the road ahead. We maintained a cautious distance but were still close enough for a thrilling view. The mother is fortunate that the youngster didn’t have much of a horn yet. When the baby was sated, they ambled off into the brush and we continued on our way.
We spent our last afternoon at the Crater visiting a nearby Maasai village. The Maasai, semi-nomadic ranchers, are strikingly handsome people, tall with elegant bone structure. They adorn themselves with marvelous necklaces, bracelets, earrings, belts and headdresses crafted of multi-colored small beads, and elaborate coiffures, often tinged with ochre. The men wear traditional bright red toga-like garments called shukas. The boys tend the cattle and men provide security and demonstrate bravery as warriors, as well as creating spears, shields, machetes, clubs and other implements. The women assume all domestic chores, including building the mud huts they live in. They also do all of the beadwork. Ceremonies celebrating rites of passage, such as circumcision (for both sexes), achieving warrior status and marriage are very important in their culture. Lion killing is a key part of the warrior ritual, but rules must be obeyed. Female lions are not killed and concern for lion populations has lead to more emphasis on group hunting rather than individual hunts. While we normally like to eat local specialties when we travel, a Maasai delicacy is cattle blood, so we skipped it. The Maasai have adapted to water shortages by drinking available fluids. We were graciously invited to enter some of the homes and were treated to a tribal dance performance, in which the men jumped straight up as high as possible with spears in hand. We found the people to be very gracious. That evening, Elias told us about his own warrior initiation.
The following morning we stopped at Olduvai Gorge ("The Cradle of Mankind") in the Great Rift Valley, a 30-mile long, 295-foot deep trench in the Serengeti Plain of significant archaeological importance. It was here that Richard and Mary Leaky discovered important remains of our genetic ancestors, including the skull of Australopithecus-Zinjanthropus boisei, who lived in the lower Pleistocene Age around 1,750,000 BC. A few Maasai were selling handicrafts and we all indulged. We bought a graceful baby bottle fashioned from a gourd and a tobacco holder made of a thick hollowed stick, both decorated with leather and beads. One woman bought a lovely beaded necklace. Elias was surprised and upset to see that it was being sold since it had great spiritual meaning to the Maasai, and its sale indicated that its owner had been desperate. We were disappointed that after Elias mentioned it to the buyer, she continued to wear the necklace. We feel that she should have been sensitive enough to pack it away until leaving East Africa.
As we traveled through Africa, we were amazed at the sheer beauty of the landscape and the people. Lithe women, wearing intricately patterned and vividly colored fabrics wrapped around their heads and bodies would stride through villages effortlessly balancing baskets on their heads or selling wares in the market. Although many areas were parched since it was the dry season, there were miles of lush forest and exotic flowers.
The Serengeti is a vast plain comprising over 30,000 km of land sprawling north from Tanzania into Kenya where it is renamed the Maasai Mara. There are no boundaries for the animals, but humans crossing the border must submit to customs and immigration inspection. On the drive to our campsite we were wowed by the wildlife, including huge herds of zebra, gazelles and wildebeest. One day we’d love to view the great wildebeest migration, when the ungulates move en masse seeking water and grass. All that meat on the hoof invariably attracts predators who stalk the herds.
Unbelievably, this campsite was even more stunningly situated than the others. Rocky kopjes (small isolated hills) punctuated the flat, acacia-studded veldt. You could just picture a cheetah reclining atop one surveying the field. Several Maribou Storks, sizeable carrion eaters with black and white plumage, congregated at the edge of camp. Hyenas romped around the camp at night, another incentive for remaining in your tent. The hyena might be the only animal more repulsive than a warthog, which is so ugly it’s almost cute. The hyenas’ powerful jaws enable them to devour their prey bones and all and hyena packs often muscle in on cheetah or lion kills.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the game drives. One morning we observed a National Geographic photographer in his van training a howitzer-like lens into a nearby tree. Elias figured that he must have found something special, such as a leopard. Leopards are masters of stealth, and fairly rare to see, especially up close. For the time being Elias directed us to a nearby pool where the wallowing hippos resembled semi-submerged boulders. Oxpeckers and egrets perched on the exposed mounds of their backs. After the National Geographic photographer moved on we positioned our Land Cruisers under the same tree and scanned the branches above. We didn’t have to look very hard. A 150-pound male leopard slumbered three to five meters above us across the crook of two thick branches. Awakened by the sound of all our camera shutters, he sleepily looked around, yawned, and went back to sleep. We’re not sure if we prefer the full frame photo of sleepy leopard or of yawning leopard, which shows his impressive set of choppers. He was the first leopard we saw in the Serengeti, and as it turned out, only the first of four.
When we reserved our safari we arranged for a dawn hot air balloon flight over the Serengeti. When the morning of the flight arrived we were torn. Prior to our trip we had no idea that the game drives would be so fabulous and we didn’t want to sacrifice one. But then again, what could be more romantic than to take our first hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti? About 45 minutes before dawn Mgundi took us to the balloon launch site where we found the partially filled balloon lying on its side as gas jets slowly swelled it with heated air. We met the pilot, a delightful Australian with a keen sense of humor (now that we think of it, that describes many Australians), and another six passengers, four British and two French. While waiting for the fill to complete our pilot briefed us on all we had to know to ride the balloon safely and in comfort. Soon we were able to climb into the wicker gondola, which was partitioned in six sections large enough for two people each to stand in. We began our ascent just as the sun peeked over the horizon. Most of the time the flight was blissfully silent, interrupted only by the comments of our fellow passengers and our pilot. But periodically the pilot decided that we needed more altitude, so he opened the valve to let more gas into the burner, which added hot air to the balloon and created a loud whooshing sound just a meter or so above us.
The breathtaking views and heady sensation of floating above the earth were unsurpassed. For the first time we could see the patterns of the herds as they prowled the plains. We spied into the nest of a vulture, watching as a parent fed its scrawny chirping chicks. Eventually the fun had to end and the pilot set us down gently, right next to the road where his support vehicles were lined up and expecting us. We suppose that the landing could have been dramatic if there were high winds, but under those conditions we doubt that the pilot would have taken us up.
The ground crew gathered up the balloon while we were lead a couple of kilometers away to a clearing beneath a tree where a champagne breakfast was set up with fine linens and silver service. A striking, tall Sikh, dressed in white traditional garb with a gold sash, presided over the serving staff. During breakfast we discovered that the French couple was unable to communicate with the rest of us as they spoke little English, which explained their silence. Barbara chatted them up in French, making them feel much more comfortable. As breakfast progressed the pilot regaled us with stories about prior flights. He had a hilarious one about Michael Palin and his production crew who took a balloon flight during one of their globe-trotting TV specials. Robert Redford was a passenger and when the pilot advised the other passengers not to fawn over him too much, they responded by not talking to him at all, even to the point of not returning his greeting as he boarded. Even funnier were his stories of inexperienced travelers doing foolish things on safari, like poking lions with a tent pole.
We rejoined our safari group after breakfast and were able to enjoy the remainder of the morning game drive. The only animal on our favorites list that we hadn’t seen yet was the cheetah. We could tell that our guides were actively seeking them, since we’d overhear the Swahili word for cheetah (duma) when they questioned other tour guides and drivers that we encountered. We finally found one during the game drive that afternoon, lounging in the grass. Seeing only one cheetah, and not getting to see one run, was our only real disappointment during the three weeks we were in Africa. Seeing cubs would have made us ecstatic.
The next day we had lunch at a fancy lodge spectacularly situated atop a large granite outcropping. The best part was not the fine lunch overlooking the herds on the nearby plains, it was the delightful rock hyraxes that inhabit the rock crevices and were scampering all over the kopje. These gregarious little fur balls are said to make excellent pets because they love to cuddle with humans on cold nights. On the same rocks we also saw interesting half-meter long agama lizards. Bright green with red heads, they looked as though somebody dipped one end into a bucket of green paint, and the other end into a bucket of red paint. During lunch we were also amused by a small troop of baboons scavenging for food on the terrace.
We took our final game drive on the way to an airstrip to catch a plane back to Arusha. We were fortunate to see a pair of springbok males run towards one another and butt heads to win the right to sire the next generation. The thunderous sound made us wonder why the animals weren’t knocked out cold. One of Stu’s pictures captured them locked in conflict at the moment their heads met, their bodies suspended above the ground. A few minutes later we spotted a pair of huge owls, an unusual sight during the day. Then it was off to the Beechcraft B90 for the flight over craters, mountains and plains back to Arusha.
Arusha was charming. After a brief car tour to get our bearings, Elias set us loose on the town to tour and shop on our own. Masao and Irene found many interesting things in a shop owned by an Indian entrepreneur. Their finest purchase was a superb light blue emerald-cut Tanzanite stone that they set in a ring upon returning home. We enjoyed one last lunch as a group in a nice hotel. An A&K manager showed up to determine our satisfaction with the tour. Interestingly, we had all become so fond of Elias that we resented his being sent to the other end of the room while Management asked us about him.
After lunch we piled back into the Land Cruisers and headed for the Kenya border. Elias accompanied us to the border where we had to go through customs, and change vehicles and drivers. For some unknown reason we were separated from our safari pals and placed in a van with another safari group for our trip back to Nairobi and the Windsor, where we would freshen up and have dinner before catching our flight home. Unfortunately, a power outage killed the dinner plans, but we were still able to meet up again with our safari buddies. After that we bade sad farewells. We ended up taking a trip to China not long after that with Masao and Irene and are still in touch.
We really liked a Shona verdite sculpture we saw in a sculpture gallery at the Harare art museum, but we did not buy it when we were there. Before going to Africa we were advised not to ship items home from Africa, since they might not ever arrive. However, while waiting in the Harare airport for our flight to Nairobi we met a young B.F. Goodrich sales rep whose territory was Africa and the Mideast. He advised us that he often shipped things home to Ohio. After returning home we wrote to the museum about the sculpture, including a photo we’d taken of it, and arranged for it to be sent. The sculpture arrived about one month after we ordered it, though the package looked as though it had been opened, inspected, and sealed up again.
We should add a word about tse-tse flies. In our ignorance we expected them to be small and pesky, like gnats. They’re humongous and deliver a really nasty bite. Fortunately none were carrying sleeping sickness in the areas we visited. Despite the tse-tse flies, we still don’t know how it’s possible to visit Africa and not want to return over and over. Barbara’s busy researching and we’re eagerly anticipating our next amazing African adventure.