Saturday, 6/14/14

Safari!

We’ve been looking forward to this for some time. The entrance to Serengeti National Park is more than 2 hours away, which means we ought to head home by 4 pm to avoid driving after dark; and that means we ought to get there first thing to have the benefit of a full day hunting wild game. So the drivers show up at 6 am, and we’re ready to go.

Load up lots of water, the PB&J sandwiches for lunch, mandazi for a morning snack, bags of popcorn, reference books, binoculars, and most important, people. We have Abeli, Ferdinand’s assistant, who is the staff member chosen to go this year. I give him a safari hat donated by the BJU Bruins, and he looks great in it. 4 girls and 5 boys from Tumaini, filling the empty seats for free. Then our 13, and the 3 drivers: Edward, who is the guide; Samuel (not the dog); and Francis. 7 in the first vehicle, 8 in the second, 8 in the third, with the 4 Tumaini girls squished into the 3 seats in the back row.

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And off we go, in the morning darkness. North on the dirt road to Sweya, where the first church in our network was started, and where the pavement starts, right next to Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT). There’s a lot of pedestrian traffic around, even at this time of the morning: people walking to catch the dala-dala to town, runners from the University doing their road work, people walking bicycles loaded with yellow plastic jugs of water. Gotta start the day with a full supply of water, or nothing else (bathing, cooking, laundry) gets done.

Through town as the sun is coming up, and then north toward Serengeti. This is the main road from Mwanza to Nairobi, which is the hub of East Africa, so there’s a lot of traffic, most of it trucks. The 2 primary means of traffic control are speed bumps and traffic circles, because both are effective, and neither requires any electricity.

To my surprise, everybody in my vehicle is awake, watching the early-morning scenery. Edward and I talk for a while; I learn that he’s been guiding safaris for 20 years; he has 3 grown children, the youngest in university in Dar. Eventually the conversation trails off, because driving in Africa requires pretty much all of your attention. More on that later.

About 8:30 we reach the last significant town before the park, and we stop so Abeli can get the children some chai. Most of the team takes the opportunity to buy a soda. As is standard practice in the dukas, some are in plastic bottles and some in glass. You can take the plastic ones with you, but you have to drink all there is in the glass ones, because you have to leave the glass bottles behind; the vendor pays a significant deposit (about 25 cents) on each bottle. One of the girls has a Coke in the old-fashioned glass bottle and wants to keep it; with sign language I manage to ask the lady at the counter how much it costs to keep the bottle. 300 shillings. OK.

Chai and chapati safely in the children’s gizzards, we remount and arrive at the park in about 10 minutes. Right turn and down the entrance road to the gate and the registration desk. It will take the drivers quite a while to get us all signed in, so I point the folks to the American-style toilets back to the right, and they’re immediately interested. Then there’s time to take some photos by the gate while the drivers get the roofs raised on the safari vehicles, so we can stand on the seats and get a really good view.

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In we go. One of the problems with game parks is that often most of the game are quite a ways from the gate, so you drive several miles without seeing much. But the kids are all standing, gazing, eyes sweeping the horizon, looking for anything at all. There’s a brilliant blue bird with a reddish breast, sort of like a robin, and then we come across a bunch group herd whole passel of cranes just standing in the road; as we approach they lazily spread their 3- to 4-foot wings and take flight.

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OK, here’s the thing. I don’t know the proper collective nouns for all those groups of animals, except for a murder of crows, which I don’t expect to need to use. So from now on if it’s a bunch of land animals, it’s a herd, and if it flies, it’s a flock. You grammar Nazis can just deal with it.

Off to the right we see our first good-sized game, a small herd of wildebeest. They’re so funny looking, I’m surprised they reproduce. Then a couple of zebra, a few ostrich, and several impala—one of which, if I’m not mistaken, is a ’67 straight-six. Another impala gets spooked and runs parallel to us for 100 yards or so, the picture of bounding grace, then crosses the road right in front of us and gets some distance off to our left. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. But in general, pickings are pretty slim for the first couple of hours as we move away from the border of the park. Some of the kids are concerned, and I have told them that it’s theoretically possible to drive around all day and see nothing; but I’ve also told them that’s extremely unlikely, because these guides are professionals who typically do this several times a week, and they’re in radio contact and tell one another where the game are. So we’ll just need to be patient.

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Eventually we start to see larger numbers, including Thompson’s gazelle, buffalo (that’s real buffalo, with the funny-looking horns, not American bison), giraffe, and part of a zebra / wildebeest migration that includes several hundred animals.

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Then I recognize the lie of the land; it’s the area where we saw the lion pair last year. A few seconds later Edward whispers, “This is lion country.” And then I see two other safari vehicles over on a rise, and I figure we’ve found them. Sure enough, there’s a large male and 2 females, sitting grandly in the shade of some bushes. Lions face no predators, you know, so they’re generally unafraid; they just sit and act calm. And these lions are clearly used to the virtually constant daytime presence of safari vehicles; our 3 cars pull up and turn off their engines, and we just sit quietly, taking pictures and drinking it in. Soon the male rises and ambles downhill, where another male sits under a tree. I ask Edward, “Is there going to be a fight?” “No,” he says; “”they’re family.” We sit for several minutes and then move on.

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We’re near the river now, and soon we see hippos, crocodiles, and a number of cranes and other fishing birds. We’re getting a good collection.

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It’s about 1 pm, time for lunch. Edward takes us to an airport, of all places—Serengeti Airstrip B, where there’s a little snack bar, a few shaded tables, and most important, American-style toilets. We break out the sandwiches and cookies and enjoy lunch. There’s an odd-looking plane parked there—looks for all the world like a King Air, but it’s a single-engine. I walk out to the end of the strip and think about the kick my Dad would have gotten out of putting a Cherokee Six or a Cessna Skymaster in here. And what you could have seen flying in!

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Soon we’re back in the vehicles and hunting some more. We see an exorbitant number of lions—Josalyn counts 17. And considering that some groups go all day without seeing more than the swish of a tail in the tall grass, that’s really remarkable. Then we’re tooling along a road when Caitlin barks, Edward slams on the brakes, and right there, maybe 20 yards from the road, is a cheetah, just lazing in the sun, all by himself. He poses for us for a while, feigning disinterest. We see a herd of impala about a quarter-mile off, and I find myself wishing he was hungry. Sounds terrible, I know, but that would have been something to see—the fastest land animal on earth versus one of the fastest of the deer family.

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Along the way we stop at a footbridge, with a sign that says, “Warning: Max 4 Pax.” That “Pax” means “persons,” and we observe it carefully as we cross. A couple of the team have some difficulty—not with actual safety, but with their own fears—but they make it across. It’s just 10 feet or so above the water, but it does feel rickety, as footbridges are wont to do, and there are hippos just downstream—and, to the surprise of some, the hippo is considered one of the most dangerous animals on the continent. There’s a vine on the other side of the river, which of course everybody has to swing from. Then it’s back across for the final sprint in our hunt.

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There’s just one more animal missing from our collection. Well, technically, there are 3 significant ones. There are rhino in Serengeti, but they’re in the crater, on the other side of the park, so we knew we weren’t going to see them. And there are leopards, but nobody ever sees them. Hardly. But where are the elephants? They’re the largest land animal in the world, and I know there are whole herds of them here; we got in the middle of one last year. Edward knows it too, and he’s doing his very best to find them. It’s past our planned departure time of 4 pm, but he’s on the radio and stopping to talk with the driver of every safari vehicle we meet. After one conversation in Swahili, he sets off confidently in one direction, and I figure he’s got a hot lead. Soon we see another vehicle, and he says, “Elephants!”

And he’s right. A bull, 2 or 3 cows, and several juveniles of a range of ages. We get some good photos before they saunter off.

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Done. We head for the gate, with Edward driving like the biblical Jehu. We’re there about 6, which will put us home after dark. But we really can’t leave without visiting the gift shop, for 2 reasons: our kids want to buy—in many cases for some of you—and the proprietor doesn’t often get a shot at a group of interested buyers this large all at the same time. We have a chance to make his day, and we do.

While the rest of us are waiting outside, we get a pleasant surprise, a brief rain shower, accompanied by a well-defined rainbow arching right over the park office building. A fine conclusion to a delightful day.

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By the time we leave the park, it’s pretty much dark, so I’m glad we have seasoned, professional drivers for the long ride home. Driving after dark isn’t much of a deal in most of the US, but in many other countries it’s just plain not recommended. Sometimes that’s because of criminal activity—robbers will set up roadblocks and relieve you of your valuables if you stop, and shoot at you if you don’t. You get some of that over the border in Kenya, but it isn’t really a problem here. The real problem here is just the way the roads are. I’ve mentioned that there are pedestrians everywhere, as well as bicycles and motorbikes. None of the bicycles have reflectors, and the pedestrians are invisible as well. The road conditions are variable, and you often have to dodge potholes. And drivers routinely pass against on-coming traffic, expecting both the vehicle they’re passing and the on-coming vehicle to pull into the breakdown lane to open up a virtual lane for them to occupy. This all works reasonably well in the daylight, but at night, when you can’t see well where the non-motorized traffic is, you have a recipe for disaster. At one point Edward pulls to the left (we drive on the left here, you know) to get out of the way of an on-coming semi, and suddenly there’s a bicycle right smack in front of us. Providentially, he’s able to swerve to the right and avoid killing the poor guy just as the semi clears us, so no harm done. But that’s as close as I’ve ever come to seeing somebody die in front of my vehicle, and I spend a little time afterwards meditating on how I’d feel knowing that the fact that I brought a team to Africa led to somebody’s death. That is not what I had in mind.

But by the grace of God, the cyclist lives today. We arrive in Mwanza a little before 8:30 pm, and I’m surprised at how active the town is. There’s more traffic than I’ve ever seen during the daytime, and the markets are just hopping, and lights are flashing, and people are running everywhere in the streets. We manage to wend our way through and arrive back at Tumaini about 9 pm, moments before Beth gives up all hope of ever seeing us alive again. We have everyone we left with, and all of the reference books, and all of the binoculars and their pieces, all in working order. Now that’s a successful safari.

Not surprisingly, we all decide to just go to bed. Riding around looking at animals is hard work.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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