SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania — I sat upright, completely awake, vibrations and deafening noise having disturbed my sleep. Faint tremors traveled from the ground to the legs of the bed, settling deep in my chest and reverberating through my skull. My brain screamed: “Get up and run or get up and fight!”
I reached for the only weapon I had, a flashlight. Rigid and still in bed, I pointed the beam side to side, up and down. I couldn’t find the source of the primal sound.
I took a couple of deep breaths and calmed down a bit, remembering I was on the first night of a two-week photo safari to three camps in Tanzania and one in Kenya.
I couldn’t get back to sleep. The roaring had seemed as if it were right next to my tent. The sound of fighting baboons I had heard since arriving was now replaced by an eerie silence sporadically interrupted by what sounded like a life-and-death struggle.
After a two-hour vigil, jet lag and exhaustion won out and I fell into an uneasy slumber. An hour later my butler woke me up at the predetermined time of 5:45 a.m. with tea.
I asked about the noise and he said, “Hakuna matata. It’s only lions nearby. Their roar travels far away.”
Hakuna matata? No worries? Did he mean not to worry. It’s only lions?
A short time later we went to meet our ranger, Joseph, who helped us into an off-road vehicle. When our party mentioned the commotion we had heard the previous night, Joseph said, “It was probably a kill.” Then he added, “Let’s go find out.”
A kill it was. We came upon about eight lions lying around the remains of a big buffalo. Not much was left except a bright red rib cage attached to some sinew and tufts of hair dangling from a scarred skull. According to Joseph, the kill had occurred only a couple of kilometers away from our camp and a number of lions had been involved.
We got as close as 15 feet to a lioness still gnawing at the carcass while another busied herself with the fallen animal’s tail. The connection with Africa’s wildlife and its majestic landscape felt simultaneously intimate and primal.
I never thought we’d get this close to the kings of the African predators. I had purchased a massive telephoto lens for this trip, which was too big to use in such close quarters.
This experience set the tone for the rest of the trip. Each camp had its own awe-inspiring moments, from the vast accumulations of wildebeests dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see to the fleeting image of a young cheetah running toward the shelter of termite mounds.
The number of wildlife I got to see and photograph exceeded my expectations. On our final day in Africa, at Batteleur Camp in Kenya, we went out one last time before catching the first of a series of small planes back to Nairobi.
When I thought I spotted the remains of a kill just 50-70 feet away from the camp’s gated entrance I asked the guide to stop our vehicle. He got out first to examine the remains: massive vertebrae and a stripped down pointy skull.
“A hyena kill,” he said, noting that the bone had been stripped of all the flesh and nothing left behind, no skin, no antlers. “This was probably one of the baby giraffes we were photographing yesterday,” he said, adding, “between 10 to 15 hyenas all attack at once and devour everything.”
I returned from the savannah with a newfound respect for nature and a yearning to return, cameras in tow, to once more experience wild Africa.