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An African Adventure

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Written by Pam Sievers with photos by Kathy Lindahl.

Is it really a vacation when you get up every morning by 5:30? Where you ride in a vehicle for 10 straight hours, jostling over rutted roads, dried up river beds and expansive plains? Where your bathroom break is the patch of parched land behind the Land Rover? Where you eat dust with your lunch every day? Where your shower water is delivered directly from the camp fire? Where you can drive for hours and hours, never seeing another vehicle, creating your own roads along the way? Where you use rock formations as points of orientation? Where you are escorted back to your tent after dinner because animals are roaming freely nearby? Where you shake the dirt and dust from your clothes because you are putting them back on the next day? Where you say good bye to pavement and all commercial venues, not to be reunited for nine days? Where you are still swabbing dirt out of your ears 3 days after you return?

It’s the vacation you need if you want to:

  • spot the “big 5” – leopards, rhinos, lions, cape buffalos, elephants in just 3 days;
  • witness tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra, in a single line that extends to forever, creating a shadow where the earth meets the sky;
  • laugh at a pool of 200 hippos enjoying their early morning play;
  • smile as the giraffes munch on the trees next to your tent;
  • chuckle when mama elephant gives her calf a gentle nudge to get back in line;
  • marvel at the “step in time” movements of flamingos as they search for food;
  • escort a lioness to a nearby rock as she takes the road and forces you to the side;
  • witness mother leopards and cheetahs teaching their young cubs the art of survival;
  • watch in amazement at the effortless synchronized swimming of pelicans;
  • giggle like a 12 year old the first time you spot the blue balled monkeys – they are brilliant blue, trust me;
  • observe the taunts of lion cubs as they play with each other, mother watching from a distance

Probably as memorable as the sights were the sounds we heard.

  • the loud crunch of teeth on bones and laughing cackle of hyenas as they completely and recklessly devoured a fresh kill;
  • the mating roars of both the male and female lions – 3 times in 20 minutes, 20 feet from the truck;
  • the movement of tiny legs as the dung beetles rolled their new home;
  • the muffled hoof beats of running wildebeests as they crossed the road in front of us;
  • the flap of the vulture’s wings as they challenged hyenas for carcass remains;
  • the gentle swish of water as the giant crocodile took an early morning glide;
  • the snorts, grunts and groans from the warthogs, wildebeests, and hippos;
  • the zebra that mimicked a pesky barking dog;
  • the rhythmic breathing and munching of the elephants who nibbled on the grass alongside our tent in the middle of the night, and the knock knock of their tusks along our tent posts

We traversed the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania with their “vast expanses of highland plains, savanna, savanna woodlands and forests” in a one and a half ton, 7 passenger Land Rover with the canvas top rolled back for maximum viewing. We stood and looked out over the top whenever we could, and I became one with my hat very early on. There were just two of us on our own private safari, and I’m glad it was just us – it would have made “nature breaks” all the more challenging. We traveled light – just 3 changes of clothes in our carry-on luggage; we had laundry mid-trip. Foolishly, in about hour 6 of the first day, I asked if I could just get out and take a little walk to stretch my legs. Clearly, I’d already lost my mind – no, I couldn’t go out for a little walk – I was in one of the world’s largest playgrounds for some of the world’s fiercest animals. So for the next nine days, I took my walk between the other 6 seats in the vehicle.

Alex, our 55 year old guide was fabulous and along the way, we learned a lot about his life in Tanzania. He was warm and funny and could predict the movement of animals to position us for maximum viewing. He could spot the bat eared fox and mongoose when we only saw grass. And when he saw a cheetah laying atop a termite hill a good couple of hundred meters away, off we tore over the bumpy earth, creating our own path amidst the dust, bugs and branches. The last day, he treated us to a special tour of the local market back in Arusha where he and his family buy their bananas, cassava, fish and beef. It was fun to meet the locals who regularly sell to him and he was one proud tour guide.

As much as this was about spotting and watching the movements of magnificent animals, it was also a huge lesson about culture for me. Included in the safari was a visit to a Maasai village or boma. I’ve long had a distant fascination with these nomadic people, and I was really excited for this. The homes are made of grass and cow dung and the beds are suspended animal skins. Young women are the builders. The village we visited had about 15 homes, all in a circle, all with their openings facing south to protect against strong winds. The herd of cattle and goats are brought into the middle of the boma for safe keeping.

But their practices are very difficult for me to comprehend – their diet consists primarily of milk, meat and blood; they circumcise both boys and girls in their mid/late teens; they drink of the same pond where they and the animals bathe and play. English and math are the only 2 subjects taught in the pre-school we visited, with the boys and girls separated on different sides of the room. When the cattle have exhausted the grazing opportunities on the surrounding land, the Maasai leave and find another area to make home for a while.

The trip was phenomenal. We stayed in 5 different places – two were gorgeous lodges that took your breath away. Two tented camps – luxury tents on platforms with ample verandas offering gorgeous views and all the comforts from home. For some unknown reason, I also selected a mobile campsite, with raised beds, shower water that was hoisted up on a pulley and a small/ chemical toilet that rocked on the uneven ground. A staff of five took care of all the cooking and the booze was free. If ice had been available, they could’ve lost money on me those two nights.

We were constantly reminded of the laws of nature and I understood and appreciated them very easily. The decisions of man however were much more difficult – watching a young elephant struggle after getting its trunk caught in a poacher’s snare, and driving past a broken down van succumbing to the weight of its 22 passengers, many of them children. I cried that night but was relieved to learn the next morning that the camp ranger had given them aid during the night.

We wanted to see the great migration and we did. This annual migratory movement of more than 2 million wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelles is considered one of the greatest shows in nature. And for nine days, they let us be a part of it. The bruises and bites are healing. The sandy feeling has finally left my teeth, the dust no longer lingers in my lungs, the sunburn has faded, and I only have 2 more doses of my anti-malaria drugs to take. The memories continue to flood my senses almost every hour. It was a trip of a lifetime.

For more writing by Pam Sievers, see her blog at My Patchwork Journey.