Tanzania – They say that some things need to be seen to be believed, and the Serengeti is one of them. The most famous game reserve in the world, Serengeti National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to 3 million animals, including 3,000 lions. It is called one of the 10 natural travel wonders of the world, where the animals roam freely.
In Swahili, “safari” means journey, and “Serengeti” means endless plain. Everywhere you look – from the safety of a Land Cruiser with a pop-up top – there are elephants, giraffes, zebras, antelope, warthogs, serval cats, hyenas, buffalo, hippos, monkeys, guinea fowl, mongoose, impalas, baboons, and too many unusual birds to name.
Not to mention lions and leopards, cheetahs and crocodiles.
And the babies. So many of each species, from the fuzzy zebras to the playful lion cubs to a rare glimpse of a baby leopard high on a rock with its mother, and newborn baboons cradled on mom’s chest or riding on her back.
The Land Cruiser came with Frederick Mesoya, our ingenious driver and guide. Frederick would pull over to the side of a nearly impassable dirt road, point, and say, “There’s a lion under that acacia tree.” We couldn’t even see the tree, much less a lion that blends in with the wheat-colored plain. Frederick would hand us the binoculars and sure enough there was a lion, a football field away.
By the end of our Tanzanian safari, which lasted a week and included time in three other reserves, we had seen 61 lions.
In the Serengeti, my husband, our son Nick, and I were booked into a tent camp in the middle of the park. Because we humans are guests in the animals’ vast home, we weren’t allowed to leave the reception tent — that houses the bar and occasional WiFi — after dark without a guard. Armed with only a flashlight, which he shone right and left off the path, the guard escorted us home. A hyena stood just outside our zipped tent, about 5 feet from us. The next day, there were paw prints all around.
One night, sitting at a fire pit outside the reception tent, my husband heard the roar of a lion and, according to witnesses, could have qualified for an Olympic dash. The next day, the guards confirmed the lion but said it was at the far end of the series of tents, and was merely claiming territory.
I had my own close encounter. Late one afternoon, a warthog crossed the path just in front of me as I left our tent. Neither of us was bothered by the other. Hakuna matata.
Most days, we left the lodge by 8 a.m. and didn’t return until 5 or so. There was a good buffet breakfast, the camp would pack us a box lunch, and Frederick would find a shady spot for us to eat — usually in the vehicle. Dinners were also buffet.
Showers are a whole other story. You “order” one ahead of time, the water is heated and brought in a bucket outside your tent. You step into the shower area — inside your tent — pull a chain, and down it comes. You get 10 liters per shower. I went a week without washing my hair, just relieved to get the red clay dust off my skin.
Often as we pulled into camp, a graceful giraffe would greet us. At night, the stellar South African wine helped as we fell asleep to animal sounds.
One day, we saw a near-kill, but thankfully the impala outmaneuvered the lion. Later, we saw a hyena devouring a gazelle; you could hear it crunching the bones. Finding a kill is supposedly a safari thrill, but no thanks.
It was fun to watch baboons and observe how like humans they are: mothers grooming babies, a couple going off to mate, a male challenging another male, the young ones pulling each other’s tails.
Late one afternoon, instead of seeing hippo eyes, backs, and rumps in watering holes, we were thrilled to see these 2-ton beasts lumbering on land. We loved the elephants, majestic, matriarchal, and maternal, and so very smart. We learned that zebras rest their chins on each other’s backs, the better to spot a predator.
That night at the fire pit, the camp manager told us about escorting some tourists back to their tent last year when he spotted a pride of 30 lions close by. “I told them it was hyenas,” he said.
Throughout our safari we saw other vehicles, though the area is so vast you don’t much notice them. But when we spotted a bunch of them at a clearing, Frederick drove over. There, strutting around the jeeps were a couple of lionesses. Then a male lion brushed right by my door. I’m glad Frederick had ordered us down from the pop-up roof. Lions can jump and climb; we had seen one resting in a tree.
You can’t go to the Serengeti without also seeing the Ngorongoro Crater. Another of the world’s best wildlife sanctuaries, the crater was once a mountain as big as Kilimanjaro. Millions of years ago, it imploded and is now the world’s largest volcanic caldera.
This is Maasai country, home to the nomadic people who herd cows and goats, their bright wraps a colorful splash among the earth tones of nature. We stayed at a lodge on the caldera rim, and the next day drove down, down, down into the crater where we saw more lions, jackals, and hyenas. Buffalo and their hefty babies crossed in front of us, as did a warthog that actually had a cute young’un, and a zebra with a long-legged toddler in tow.
Frederick was determined to find us the critically endangered black rhino, and we did spot one, briefly and through binoculars.
We hated to say goodbye to Frederick, but it was time to turn from plains to sea. We took a short flight to Zanzibar island, off the Tanzanian coast in the Indian Ocean. During a few days at a beach resort with the clearest blue water, we hired a driver to take us to The Rock, a restaurant perched atop a coral rock in the sea.
Since it’s about 30 yards offshore and it was high tide when we went for lunch, a boat met us and in one minute, we were climbing stairs up to The Rock. Reservations are required, and they serve in two-hour settings, the better to get customers out there — and out of there. The seafood was good, the drinks stellar (try The Rock, a bright green blend of vodka, passion juice, blue curacao, lime, and sugar). After, we sat on the windswept deck and enjoyed the 360-degree view of water and land.
When our two hours were up it was low tide, and so we walked back to shore on sand bags and then a flat coral walkway.
Our last stop was Stone Town, the ancient spice crossroads of Africa, India, Europe, and Arab influence. Once the world’s largest producer of cloves, Stone Town still offers plenty of spices, and we bought vanilla, cloves, ginger, and saffron.
The majority of residents are Muslim. We heard the haunting call to prayer several times a day and marveled at the ornately carved wooden doors. In Stone Town, it’s respectful not to wear shorts or short sleeves.
The place is a maze of small alleys; take a GPS. (Thank you, Nick.) Stone Town is the birthplace of Freddy Mercury, and we ate lunch each day at Mercury’s restaurant overlooking the water, with its dhow boats for hire.
One morning, we took a boat to Prison Island, a 25-minute trip. Now, it’s a protected refuge for tortoises, the longest-lived species. Their ages are painted on their backs, and the granddaddy is 194 years. They roam about freely, and will happily munch on cabbage from your hand.
It was hard to leave this bucket-list trip. Now back home, I can hardly believe what all we saw and did. But I have pictures on my phone, and seeing is indeed believing.
Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.