We’re in Arusha National Park, Tanzania. Seeing me fumble for a seatbelt in his Land Rover, safari guide/driver Peter Kibwana advises, “You don’t need to worry about using a seatbelt. You are in the bush.’’
I’m setting out on that dream of a lifetime — a game drive in the African wilderness. I quickly understand the chance of a collision between vehicles is zero, but what I don’t grasp — can’t possibly grasp — is that the hours-long trips are about the creatures that roam thousands of square miles of parks and preserves, grazing on the grass and trees, or on each other.
Thus, I was unprepared to see, perhaps 25 feet away, a leopard on a tree branch. She was dining on her kill, an oribi antelope. I could hear the leopard rip the small antelope’s flesh.
Nor was I prepared to watch, from about 35 feet away, a dozen elephants parade past, toward a water hole.
And I never imagined having to swivel in my seat to take in six young lions near another water hole. Three were chewing on parts of a wildebeest, another dragging away a haunch, a fifth lion crouched to get a drink. And the sixth lion patrolled the shoreline, keeping from the water hundreds of wary wildebeests. His muzzle was soaked in blood, so the lion wasn’t hungry, safari leader Rob Barbour explained; he was merely practicing his stalking techniques.
Go to college to go outdoors
I met Rob, Peter (everyone in Tanzania is on a first-name/nickname basis), and other guide/drivers during a nine-day trip through northern Tanzania.
Many of these guides have spent years in college studying wildlife management. Thus, while driving their clients around, the guides decipher shapes, movements, and sounds, and then explain what and where that animal is. The guides describe animal habits and flip open illustrated wildlife catalogs for their passengers.
Vehicles of choice are Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers, both rugged, open-sided, and open-top vehicles that require some agility to clamber into the third and fourth rows of seats. Each row is built several inches higher than the one in front of it to provide better lines of sight.
Although animal viewing can be done on foot, mountain bikes, horses, and even hot air balloons, most visitors ride in the specially reinforced vehicles.
Herbivores are the most frequently seen: wildebeests, zebras, elephants, Cape buffaloes, giraffes, and various antelope species. We also saw a hyena cautiously stepping about a water hole before bending to drink. Four hippos climbed out of one pond and waddled, single-file, to another. We even glimpsed a rare black rhino.
And a variety of birds unknown to our hemisphere, such as the ostrich, tawny eagle, secretary bird, and the oddly named kori bustard — one of the world’s heaviest flying birds — stalk the prairie or fly over it.
On the prowl with Laser Eyes
On these adventures, I quickly ascertained that the guides are remarkable. I nicknamed Lazarus “Laser Eyes’’ after he spotted that leopard and her kill in the tree, and later found an adult lion relaxing in a tree-shaded depression simply by noticing the lion twitching its ears to get rid of flies.
Still, even the bush veterans can be surprised. Sam, a 24-year-old Britain managing one of the camps, was driving us down to cross a dry creek bed when we startled an old bull elephant.
Missing one tusk and its ears ragged from years moving past the acacia trees’ big thorns, this fellow was no more than 20 feet away, stripping leaves from a tree.
He stared at us and, to my alarm, Sam turned off the ignition.
But the elephant was more hungry than he was angry at our intrusion, and returned to eating leaves.
Taking it slow
Spotting animals is a combination of luck and the guide’s skill. After a lengthy ride bouncing over ruts, for instance, we came upon numerous lions dozing beneath a tree. This happened in the northern reaches of the Serengeti National Park, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site measuring about 5,700 square miles. The word Serengeti comes from the language of the native Masai tribe (“serengit”) and can be translated to land that goes on forever. It certainly seems to stretch, seemingly flat, to the horizon.
Not so with the adjacent Ngorongoro Crater that’s part of another UNESCO site, Ngorongoro Conservation Area. UNESCO names Ngorongoro Crater as the world’s largest unbroken caldera. There is permanent water in the crater, which means it has green grasslands year-round. Water and food attract animals.
So Henry, my driver this day, took us across the crater in a leisurely 2-½ hours, or “pole pole” in Swahili, during which we paused to photograph herds of zebra, Cape buffalo, and elephant.
Right place at the right time
Every day brought memorable moments, when there are no fences, moats, or windows between you and the wildlife as you would find in a zoological park back home.
For those who can travel between June and mid-October, you can take in the epic and
thrilling wildlife migration. After the rainy season and the birthing of offspring, an estimated 1.5 million wildebeests, zebras, antelopes, and other herbivores — and the carnivores that prey on them — move toward the greener plains grasses, which can reach 4 feet tall.
Seeing a kill while on a game drive is usually a matter of chance, but during the migration, the hoofed stock crosses rivers in places they instinctively recall. And just as instinctively, huge crocodiles attack the helpless animals.
The crossings can be so mesmerizing that the visitors in dozens of vehicles may only watch them by looking through their cameras’ viewfinders, and that’s too bad.
While their still images and videos can amaze family and friends, the one on safari may have missed the thrill of appreciating a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Robert N. Jenkins is a contributor from St. Petersburg, Fla.
BEFORE YOU GO
A convenient approach to tour the several parks in northern Tanzania is to fly to Amsterdam and then on to Kilimanjaro Airport, where you can transfer to the city of Arusha (an hour by car). In addition to a current passport, U.S. citizens are required to have a tourist visa.
A typical safari-goer from the U.S. would be in Africa for nine days. Prices can run $500 to $1,000 a day, per person, depending on quality of lodgings and the number of internal flights. Rates usually include all meals, most beverages, and game drives.
AAA’s preferred travel suppliers for wildlife safaris are African Travel and Micato Safaris. Contact your AAA Travel agent for more information. View a list of offices to serve you is or visit AAA.com/travel.