African Dreamsby Mary Hartman
Across the grasslands, far into the night, arose the muted roar of a lion. Closer in, a hyena howled, joined soon by the yip-yip-yips of the jackals.
Then calm. In this tranquil setting - the animal chorus on the wane - I slipped off to sleep.
But sleep that night was not to be. The clock said 2 when I leapt from our bed and nearly leapt out of my skin. Without warning, through the tent's canvas walls not five feet from our bed, had come three thunderous barks from what sounded like a giant baboon.
And, in that instant, thanks to one rude primate, the tranquility of this night was gone.
This was Africa, although not exactly the Africa of our dreams. We were camping in the heart of the Great Serengeti Plains, in a "basic" tourist tent that included a shower and flush toilet! Still we were living close to nature - just how close, until that instant, I had not realized.
The baboon incident - from which I did not fully recover until the following afternoon, and only then thanks to a soothing glass of Tanzanian wine - was but one of a dozen unique African safari experiences. Few of them were expected, but all (even the barking baboon) were embraced as part of a grand adventure.
Participating in what was billed as "The Best of Kenya and Tanzania," 13 of us had flown into Nairobi and dispersed into the countryside to see if all we had heard about East Africa were true. Would we really see "zoo animals" in their natural environment? Did traditional peoples still live in primitive huts and herd cattle over the African countryside? And, more practical, would weather in January along the Equator be cool? Should we bundle in layers?
Preparing for the trip, my husband, Barrie, and I pondered these questions. We came home with answers and with a sense that we had stepped back into a primordial place - Planet Earth as it once had been, where animals roamed free and where a people lived close to the land. (And, where sweaters in January came in very handy!)
Yet, as Barrie observed, the trip was much more. "Many go on safari thinking they will see only animals," a personal concern, as he wondered just how many giraffe and zebra he could ogle over before wearing thin at the ritual. "But, a safari is much more," and he ticked off the extras: visiting with Masai and other tribal peoples, appreciating the scenery, absorbing African village life and enjoying the safari camps and lodges.
Then came those magical African moments: From Sweetwaters Game Reserve, a coral sunrise over Mt Kenya, illuminating the plains below and etching the lacy umbrella acacia trees black against an orange sky.
At Amboseli National Park, the wonderment as our safari van was stopped when 200 elephants ambled across the road before us, Mt. Kilimanjaro standing guard behind.
Ah â€“ But Amboseli brings up another safari fact of life: East African roads. Roads are an issue for those traveling by land between game parks. (Some safaris are strictly fly-ins. African grasslands are lined with bare-bones airstrips, always close to safari camps or lodges.)
We, however, chose Overseas Adventure Travel, a company that uses land-travel. How else can one see a foreign country up close - the villages, children waving from roadsides, young herdsman guiding cattle and goats to pasture? And, isn't this the only way to experience the roads, er, two-lane tracks with craters large enough to swallow a safari van? Generously, that's how our group described the 50-mile trip into beautiful Amboseli. Driving into Tanzania's Gibbs Farm wasn't much better - we danced the rhumba all the way. My husband, who faced prostate surgery after returning home, had another take on East Africa's roads: "Surgery will be easy," he quipped, "The prostate's already dislodged."
But, arriving at Gibbs Farm was worth every bump. "A Garden of Eden" is the only description of this verdant place. Here, fig trees and crimson-colored Heliconia - the stunning tropical plant dubbed "hanging lobster claw" - framed our cottage's doorway while, for miles beyond, rich green coffee plants rolled across fertile hills.
The farm is a refuge for safari-weary travelers; we stayed two days wishing it could have been two weeks.
Other highlights included:
Sweetwater's Reserve, Kenya: After a four-hour drive (more bounce, bounce, bounce) north of Nairobi, a giraffe poked its 19-foot self above the bush as if to say "Welcome." Giraffe, we learn, need a 25-pound heart to pump blood to their extremities and special valves in their arteries to keep them from becoming dizzy when bending to drink. Giraffe weren't the only celebrities at Sweetwaters. Poco the chimp and his pals - all rescued from cramped cages and other beastly circumstances - roam a 107-acre sanctuary here.
At Sweetwaters, we watched stately marabou storks drop in. "The 747 of birds," Barrie remarked, noting their 8-foot wing span.
Amboseli National Park is home to hundreds of elephants. Blessed with a keen sense of smell and a great memory, they form families for life, except for aging males. Several times in Amboseli and elsewhere we saw old tuskers off by themselves, usually in fields of tender grasses that would sustain them until their time was up. An old fellow might be approaching 80 years when, at last, he'd lie down and die- alone. How very sad, we thought.
At Amboseli, a broad, flat expanse, we first met Masai peoples. Young warriors swatted away velvet monkeys, who swarmed around the lodge hoping, we assumed, to confiscate a piece of fruit or slice of cake from the buffet. Not so! "They'd just as soon run off with your purse and bag as look at you."
So, while the Masai kept the monkeys at bay, we had a field day photographing the little imps.
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania: Unlike Amboseli, this is hill country, a rolling landscape covered by bush, acacia and 600-year-old baobab trees. More than 32,000 zebras roam here, each uniquely striped - no two are alike. Zebras show a concern for each other, a principle of caring from which humans could learn. We often observed them standing in pairs, heads-to-rumps, each animal swishing its tail to keep flies off the other's face.
Tarangire features the creme' de la creme' of camps, a row of upscale tents overlooking the beautiful Tarangire River Valley. Sitting on our veranda, we watched giraffe families below, loping from tree-to-tree browsing on ever-abundant vegetation. What a kick to see giraffe babies chomping at eight-foot bushes - just their height!
Ngorongoro: An unbroken crater formed two-and-one-half million years ago, this basin holds 20,000 animals. Among them are cape buffalo, the ogres of the safari kingdom. "These guys would just as soon take you out as look at you," Leakey, our knowledgeable guide said.
It was on the crater's rim that we visited a traditional Masai home crafted from cattle dung. Once in the tribal compound, it began to rain, "Come in, stay dry" said Moroki, a 27-year-old Masai man with two wives. Thus, six of us squeezed into Moroki's "kitchen," a firepit in the middle of a 12-square-foot cow dung house. To the right was a small area for newborn calves - to keep them safe at night and to help them bond with owners who one day will herd them. To the left were "beds" for five, skins stretched over poles. The house was dark, windowless. I pointed my camera in the direction of Moroki's voice. Amazing! An image resulted!
The Masai are beautiful people, yet we wondered how they stayed alive, or - more to the point - how we'd stay alive living their lifestyle. Traditional, rural Masai subsist primarily on milk mixed with cow's blood, along with meat. "The African version of the Atkins' Diet," quipped one traveler. And, from another, after his visit inside the hut, "We couldn't wait to get there and we couldn't wait to leave. Motel 6 never looked so good."
The Serengeti: The annual wildebeest migration is legendary, but where do they roam? These gangly looking creatures follow the rains, always searching for greener pastures. November through January, a million and a half of them reach the southern Serengeti. And, in another example of animal symbiosis, zebra wander with them. Seems that zebra are blessed with great eyesight and wildebeest with keen hearing, thus the animals cooperate to head off a key predator, the lion.
Wildebeest, animals who legend says are assembled from all the unwanted parts of other animals, accounted for one of our noteworthy adventures. Driving through grasslands, amidst a massive herd of these creatures, our trusty little safari van suddenly went "kthunk." We weren't going anywhere - we were embedded in a five-foot-deep aardvark hole well-hidden by the tall grasses that had beckoned the "wildees." "Can't find an aardvark anywhere," grumbled Alan, one of our travelmates, "but we sure found where he lives." Thanks to radio communication, another van came to the rescue. With one lunge we were out of the hole and an hour later were bumping over the grasslands again.
And, so the trip went. "Bring 30 rolls of film," we were advised, and most of us complied, shooting it all. And, why not? Whenever again, would we see these beautiful creatures roaming their native surroundings? And, never would we be satisfied seeing them penned up as "zoo animals" or performing unnatural stunts in a circus.