“Did you hear the lions last night,” our guide Frank asked us at breakfast Friday morning (6/21).
Incredibly, I didn't. Knowing that we were going to rise before dawn, I had taken the first sleeping pill I've consumed since arriving in Africa, and I'd inserted my protection against Steve's snoring: earplugs. When the SEVEN lionesses and their cubs strolled through the staff quarters, roaring (at least four times, loudly, according to the group of jolly Germans who provided details at the next evening's campfire, I snoozed right through it, as did Steve, despite the fact that only a thin layer of canvas separated us from all the ruckus (which apparently was resolved when one of the staffers got in a truck and drove it toward the pride to scare them off.) The next night I slept both drug- and plug-free, but all was quiet. To my regret.
I've had some great experiences on camping trips, but in general, I'm not crazy about camping. The dark, the cramped quarters, the separation from washroom facilities — I can do without all that. When we've stayed in spartan little budget hotels on various continents, I frequently have reflected, “At least it's a lot better than camping.”
But camping while on safari can be another world altogether, a dreamy, pleasure-filled realm. I've stayed at four such places in my life (one in South Africa and three here in Tanzania). The South African one and the first two here came close to my idea of paradise. All had huge tents erected on and/or around platforms that held big comfortable beds with soft linens, electric lighting, civilized toilets and wash-up areas, and auxiliary furniture. Because they were tents, you could zip down big expanses of the canvas, lie in bed, and take in the natural world through the mesh “windows.” Food in these places is always served in a central lodge or mess area, and our meals have ranged from okay to excellent.
For our last two nights on safari, I'd chosen the Serengeti Kati-Kati tented camp. It gets excellent reviews on Trip Advisor, and Frank, our guide, had expressed strong approval of it at the start of our trip. But when we arrived on Wednesday night, I felt a twinge of disappointment. This was the most basic of the tent camps we've experienced. Although the tents and their covered verandas were the size of modest California bungalows, the ceilings weren't as high as in the other places. The floors were simple canvas, and after dark the only sickly light came from two bare LED bulbs suspended from the ceiling and powered by a car battery. Each tent had its own toilet, but it was situated over a chemically sanitized drum in the ground, and we were only able to shower after requesting that one of the staff members haul a 20-liter bucket of hot water to the rear of our tent, fill a receptacle, and hoist that up so that gravity would make it flow through a shower head controlled by a simple on/off valve..
Still, the Kati-Kati grew on me. Sitting around the bonfire before dinner gave us a chance to interact with other travelers, something we've had little of and have missed (perhaps my only complaint about this whole trip). The food was extremely good — some of the best we had anywhere. The simple camp beds were well padded, warm, and cozy. And the simplicity of the accommodations suited the location — close to the center of one of the biggest and most spectacular wilderness areas on the planet (Serengeti National Park).
Serengeti comes from a Maasai word meaning “endless plain.” At the park headquarters on the eastern side of the preserve, there's a rock outcropping that visitors are encouraged to climb. From the top of it, it's clear what those Maasai name-givers were thinking. In every direction stretched a featureless, flat expanse of grassland. It looked dry, the color of sand, as the rains stopped a good 6 weeks ago. But otherwise, it was indistinguishable from an ocean.
The only way visitors may explore the park is in a 4WD vehicle driven by a licensed guide. With Frank at the helm of our Land Cruiser, we only had a couple of hours of game-drive time on Thursday afternoon (6/20). But in short order, we came upon a couple hundred zebra grazing together. We stopped to photograph a solitary hippo ripping off great mouthfuls of tall grass; they usually do this only at night. We snapped at warthogs and giraffe and a huge group of elephants. And as the sun was sinking, Frank spotted a distant tree where a leopard was lounging — the last remaining member of the so-called Big Five that Steve and I still had not seen (the others that we'd already checked off being elephant, rhino, buffalo, and lion).
On our last day with Frank, we rose before dawn. Game driving is a strange pastime. You bounce and rattle over the dirt trails, and by afternoon, every encounter with another vehicle means immersion for several seconds In a thick cloud of yellow dust. For me, going out first thing in the morning feels thrilling and fresh, but after hours and hours, it can start to feel a little tiresome. To avoid that, I've found that the best approach is to surrender to the flow of it; turn off any thought of passing time; remind myself that it's all about the journey (the safari), not any destination. Each time you come upon a particularly beautiful vista or a particularly arresting group of animals, if feels like a surprise gift.
Hippos and wildebeest aren't among the Big Five, but they were my biggest game-driving gifts Friday. Before this trip, I never associated hippos with the plains of the Serengeti, but it turns out there are bunches of them in the national park, and they're easy to find en masse. Around lunchtime, Frank took us to a particularly notorious pool where what looked like several hundred hippos were crammed into a pool about the size of a football field. It was a staggering sight — a mega-mosh-pit of hippos sleeping not only side by side but on top of each other. The penetrating stench of concentrated hippo urine and dung hardly bothered me, I was so mesmerized by the animals' comic postures; by the constant splash of water kicked up by their stubby tails; by their alien honks and growls and blurps.
The wildebeest were another matter altogether. We weren't just looking for any specimens but, rather, for wildebeest engaged in the great annual migration that the species is known for. These animals have made a stupendous recovery, increasing in the past 50 years from only about 125,000 to the 2 million estimated to exist today. The sight of hundreds of thousands of them moving across the Serengeti plains is said to be one of the greatest spectacles of nature.
The problem is that, because it's a natural phenomenon, it doesn't run like an airline. Where the mass of the herd may be in any given week may shift from year to year, depending on the rainfall. Knowing that, I months ago resigned myself to the possibility of seeing little during the two days we would be in the park. Still, my fingers were crossed.
The reason we rose so early Friday is because Frank had conferred with some of the other drive/guides, and he thought our best bet was to head west to an area known as the Musabi Plain. We drove and drove, and for a long time we saw only scattered clusters of wildebeests. But finally we turned a corner and came upon something that looked like a freight train but soon became recognizable as wildebeests, galloping in a line that stretched as far as the eye could see.
We watched them for a long time and continued to stop and see more as we drove on. In some spots, we found thousands of them, scattered in every direction, mostly grazing but in some cases kicking up their heels in frisky displays. Mixed among them were zebras, who tend to migrate alongside; apparently they have good memories and are gifted at remembering the migration routes, while the wildebeests have a mysterious genius for knowing when to move. At one point, we seemed to see this in action, as the pack of grazing wildebeests thickened and then began, once again, to surge onward.
It reminded both Steve and me of drawings we've seen of the American bison moving across the Great North American Plains. There were 20 million of them at one point, before our forebears wiped them out. Frank said what we were seeing this morning was the stragglers. The majority had passed through several weeks earlier, and had we been there then, we would barely have been able to see the grass for all the animals.
Still, we hadn't slept through all of it.