Tanzanian Safari: The Journey

We arrived in camp after more than 31 hours of travel. Passing from Denver through Amsterdam and Arusha — from big and coolly dessicated jets to a small stuffy 5-seat plane. During the chartered Cessna session of our trip, the last hour from Arusha to the Serengeti, we could see for miles around. The tectonic plate that separates East and West Africa, dotted with volcanoes and Maasai villages in their little circular clusters.

As we moved farther from the capital city into the plains we could see farms, the once nomadic population trying to cultivate the lands but without the techniques and knowledge they need to preserve it. Slowly building on a huge desert, despite the efforts of educated local conservationists. Despite, or maybe because of everything they’ve gone through, the tribes are resistant to the modification of their culture. Our guides tells us it’s because they think in terms of the present, instead of working for the future.

We land on a small airstrip and then take the dusty road into our camp, surrounded by green broken only by masses of grey — the kopjes, or maybe a herd of elephants.

The camps are stunning, with big olive tents scattered in a clearing of thorny acacia. They’re furnished with dark woods and precisely positioned furniture, tables immaculately set in the dining room with shining 

dishes. The scene has got a Colonial elegance that is beautiful, but discomforting if you dwell too much on its historical context. There’s a cool breeze and at least five different birds calling out in different tunes.

At night we would gather around fires set in the camp, enjoying snacks and drinks with the sunset. We would let it get dark and watch the Milky Way and Orion’s Belt, but feeling the absence of a North Star, we’re in the southern equator. Then there would be dinner, the most important part almost always being the soup — a cream of a different vegetable every night, accompanied by bread baked in a converted metal school trunk. During our meals we listen to long-winded stories from our guide, about the founding of Tanzania and his youth growing up in the plains, hunting birds and befriending Maasai.

In the darkness after dinner we were led back to our tents through the pitch dark, our way lit only by a single lamp placed in front of each tent’s opening. It took me some time to grow into loving the tent at night. There are zippered canvas windows in the sides that can be fully opened, and it took me almost the entire time there to brave doing it at night. If you wake in the dark, you can shine a flashlight into the bushes and be greeted by dozens of pinprick light points, reflected eyes staring back at you. The longer we were in the camp, the more the animals became acclimated to our camp, creeping closer and closer.

You spend the nights in the open air, listening to mysterious animals brush by the tent with crackling footsteps. Sound travels strangely through the thick night. Half the time it sounds like there’s something right next to my tent and seconds later it’s a block away. And the calls of each animal could be anything. I’m convinced that there’s a nearby pack of lions or jaguars when in reality, I find out the next morning that they were elephants. 

When confronted by our nighttime stories, our guide tells us that there’s no reason for an animal to come into the tent — humans aren’t exactly the top of their food pyramid, but I can’t help have visions of lions invading my tent at night because I smell uniquely delicious to them.

We spend long mornings bouncing around in the big green Range Rovers. I sit in the afternoons sketching the scenery until dusk, or reading.

In the second camp, after we moved through Olduvai and NgoroNgoro to the plains in the south, in rained. And in Africa, the thunderstorms mean business. The sheer volume of water, driven into our camp with hardly a warning, filling up our tents from the bottom and through the sides. I stayed inside and watched a herd of impala running by, leaping to escape the thunderbolts. There are times when it clears for just a couple of minutes, like being in the eye of a storm, before the rain comes back.

The last night I finally slept with the windows completely open. It was almost a full moon, and I could see the trees silhouetted against the dark sky, the big shape of the tents and the glowing of the lanterns along the path in front of them. I hear crickets and the sounds of the boys, the camp’s caretakers, getting things done before going to bed. Every once in a while the whoop of a zebra or the crackle of a tree frog, the hooves of a wildebeeste. It was warm out, I could smell the detergent they use for everything. It felt timeless, like I had been there forever.

See also: Ngorongoro and Tarangire, The Maasai, The Serengeti