Today is a day to make memories. We’ve scheduled a trip to the Serengeti National Park, and as you know, the service provider has graciously volunteered to send larger vehicles than we need, so that there are 6 extra seats, which they’ve said we can fill with children from Tumaini. We’ve chosen the 5 oldest children and Ferdinand, the home’s manager, who has never had an opportunity to see his own country’s greatest treasure and likely never will unless someone buys him a ticket. The safari company will also pay the park admission fee for the Tumaini Six. (It’s a lower rate for citizens, but still high enough to be out of reach for this group.)
Profit-making that gives back. Good for them. The company is Serengeti Passage and Safaris Ltd., and if you’re in a position to give them some business or know someone who is, you should. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask for Ben Mongitta.
When I wake up around 5, the boys in the house are already active. And not just the 3 who are going with us—pretty much everyone is awake and chattering, excited for the unprecedented opportunity made available to their housemates. When I walk across the campus to the guest house in the dark at 5:50, I see the headlights of the two vehicles at the front gate; they’re half an hour early. This is one well-run company.
One final run through the extensive checklist—does everyone have sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, a camera, and optional money for souvenirs at the gift shop? Do the girls have congas? (That’s a wraparound skirt, which can be opened out and used for a privacy shield if we need to use it and the back of the vehicle as an emergency loo out in the field. It sounds like we’re placing the responsibility on the girls, but truth is, they’re the only ones with wraparound skirts, so they’re supplying the whole crew.) Do we have plastic bags for trash, toilet paper, food, binoculars, field guides? Ferdinand has money for bottled water, which we’ll pick up along the way.
We load the two cars—Toyota Land Cruisers with 6 and 8 seats respectively, really solid, 4-wheel-drive safari vehicles with pop-up tops for easy viewing. Trucks, really. One has a built-in electric cooler in the back, and they both have inverters for 220V household current. Nice touches. The driver of the vehicle I’m in introduces himself as Vincent. I’m overjoyed to hear that; Ben, at the office, said he’d try to schedule Vincent for this trip, and Beth says he’s very good. The driver, of course, functions not only as a driver but a guide; he’s the guy who finds the animals, and a qualified one is worth the whole price of the trip.
The children chase the cars as we leave the compound, cheering and wishing us—but especially their 5 colleagues—well. It’s still dark, but we don’t doze on the way through Mwanza; we’re all too excited.
It’s more than 2 hours to Serengeti, with a brief stop in the last large town before the park to get some boxes of bottled water. Finally we see the entrance, announced by a large billboard with the name of the park. Since two of our group—Jon and Abbie—have Bruins t-shirts, we stop to get a “Bruins sighting” photo in front of the sign, being sure to include the very manly vehicle and Vincent. Then up to the gate itself, where we get out for a last shot at the choo until the end of the day, and for Vincent to pay the entrance fees.
In we go. Almost immediately Vincent begins spotting and pointing out game. Baboons, wildebeest (these will turn out to be the most common game of the day; we decide to start calling Will “Will da Beast”), zebras (these British-influenced speakers of English use a short “e”), impala (we see one who’s lost one of his horns; we call him “Corkscrew.” Oddly enough we see him again on the way out of the park at the end of the day), gazelles (both Thompson’s and Grant’s), water buck, a herd of about 40 ostrich (Vincent tells us it’s unusual to see such a large herd at this time of year), cranes, herons, beautiful iridescent blue birds with orange bellies, who briefly fly alongside the vehicle. Animals are everywhere as we bounce over the grassy plain. It’s migration season, and we see large herds of zebra stretched out for miles on both sides of the uneven dirt road. After lots of looking, standing on the seats, craning our necks, we see giraffe feeding in the tall trees, and near the river—and in the river—we see hippos, mostly just their nostrils hovering at the top of the water.
I’m not expecting to see lions. They’re here, but they’re not people people, so to speak, and seeing one or two is relatively rare; you might see just a couple of ears, or a tail sticking up out of the grass. Well, the highlight of the day happens just before noon, when Vincent is maneuvering the vehicle over some pretty rough ground—4 x 4 territory—and says quietly but excitedly, “Lion! Under the tree!” We see a large male sitting serenely in the shade. When you have no predators, serenity rules. Soon we see the female sitting nearby, and both our vehicles pull up and stop, shutting off the engines, incredibly close to the two, easily within 50 feet. We’re joined by 3 or 4 vehicles from other groups. We all sit silently, watching, not believing what we’re seeing. As the female slowly gets up and walks toward the male, Vincent whispers, “They’re going to mate.”
Well, apparently Vincent really knows his lions, because that’s exactly what they do. So, folks, your sons and daughters have now seen lions mating in the wild. From 50 feet away. This trip is turning out be a lot more educational than any of us planned.
We see the male chase away another male, and Vincent says he thinks the male we’re seeing is the new one, who has just expelled the former king. I have no idea how he knows.
Stunned, we drive a short distance to a little picnic area, where we eat the sandwiches and other things we brought along. We can’t believe what we’ve just witnessed. And the day’s only half over.
Just the other side of where we’re eating is a herd of zebra. It occurs to some of us that the lions might have some interest in that, but they don’t seem to.
After lunch we travel widely through the park, finding a large group of hippos in the river, just lying in the slow current or basking on the bank. A couple of the little ones seem to have difficulty getting along, but their combats are short lived.
We stop by a hanging bridge (“Warning: Max 4 Pax”) and all cross 20 or 30 feet above the river to the other side. There’s not much there, except a nice swinging vine that we all try; then back across. I try to cross without ever touching the handrails; Vincent, 30 feet behind me, bounces up and down to try to get me to grab for them. Nope, Vincent. You’ll have to do better than that.
But Vincent has a single goal in mind; he’s looking for elephant. We seem to have a lot of trouble finding any. He takes us through fairly thick underbrush, back and forth alongside the slowly winding river. We see lots of trampled places, and a whole lot of elephant scat. Something’s got to be generating all of that. But no luck.
Then he whispers, “There he is!” We look to the right and see an old bull lumbering along. Vincent maneuvers the vehicle around clumps of tall grass so we can get a better view. The bull eventually wanders into a place Vincent doesn’t want to go, and we watch him go out of sight. One of us comments that it’s odd that he’s all by himself.
Well, at least we’ve seen one. We head back through the undergrowth, winding to avoid obstacles. I ask Vincent if we’ve seen everything the park has to offer in the line of good-sized land animals. Rhino? None in Serengeti, he replies. There are cheetah and leopard, but they stay pretty low during the day. Then, again the whisper: “There! On the right!” I count one, two, three, four, five, six elephants, four quite large and two smaller, one apparently an adolescent. Both vehicles stop, and we turn off the engines and sit in the silence, watching. They’re grazing, apparently ignoring us. Then the adolescent, as though he knows what the odd creatures in the funny cars want, eats his way in the direction of the second car, stopping maybe 10 feet off to one side, giving them full side and front views, munching contentedly. Even the cameras, busily taking pictures, are silent. We sit in silence for several minutes, taking in the beauty and grandeur of the moment.
Finally they wander back out of camera range in the undergrowth, and we fire up the engines and continue retracing our steps. We stop for a few minutes at a bend in the river, again watching the hippos bask in the sun. There are 6 or 7 vehicles lined up enjoying the view.
The mention of cheetahs has constituted a challenge in Vincent’s mind. He converses with another driver, who has heard about one along a river not far away, so the three vehicles head over there and slowly move along, searching through the brush for a lounging cheetah. After working up the stream and back down again, we just can’t find one.
It’s about time to start the 1-hour drive back out of the park. As we work in that direction, Vincent sees another herd of elephant—40 visible, with evidence that there are more behind them. He maneuvers to the best viewing spot, and we watch from 40 or 50 feet away while the column moves stately, grandly, in a straight line toward some certain destination. There are several juveniles in the group, one of them very young and very tiny, next to his Mom. Another several minutes of watching and savoring every sense and every second. Then, as the herd is leaving, Vincent starts the car, guns the engine, spins the tires, and heads aggressively for the last cow, the rear guard. She spins around, faces us directly, and the ears come out perpendicular to the head, in a sign of hostility. I’m standing next to Vincent, my head out the top of the cab, and I’m suddenly face to face with an angry mother elephant.
“Vincent! What are you doing?”
“Take a picture!” he laughs.
His job is to get us photo ops. He sure got us one.
Mom and I look each other over for a minute; she decides I’m no threat and heads away. I’m relieved. So to speak.
So now it’s time to go. We whiz by with a called greeting to Corkscrew, the one-horned (antlered?) impala and arrive at the gate around 5. Down the road just a way is a restaurant, gift shop, and toilet, which we stop to use. Several of us buy cold soda, and then of course we have to stay to drink it, because you can’t leave with the bottle.
As I expected, everybody’s bushed. (Pun completely intended.) All of us—except Vincent, thanks to a can of Red Bull—sleep for most of the way. When I wake up, it’s dark, and we’re on the outskirts of Mwanza. Through town, out the other side, down the bumpy dirt road, and home. When the gate attendant opens to let us in, it’s after 8, and all the kids are supposed to be getting ready for bed. But here they come, in their pj’s, running across the campus to greet their older colleagues who have just seen their first safari. They’ve been asking “When will they be home?!” for 3 hours or more.
We thank our drivers, say goodnight to the kids, and head for the house. Boy, are we tired. A nice shower would be nice about now. Ooops. Water’s out. Well, that’s a bummer. Beth sends kids to bring buckets of water, and we get enough to wash the dishes and provide a few bucket showers to the girls.
Mostly we just want to go to bed. So we do.