We’ve had this day scheduled for a Serengeti trip for months now. Time to do it.
I’m up at 5:20 for a 6 am departure. We got the food bags ready last night—one duffel bag for each vehicle—and the vehicles are on time, so we make quick work of getting aboard. I’m delighted to see that one of the drivers is my old friend Vincent, who’s taken me on 2 of my earlier Serengeti trips and who has a reputation for being among the best. Any good safari driver has a lot of skills: he’s at least bilingual, an excellent driver and mechanic, good people skills, good zoological and botanical knowledge, and he has to know the park like the back of his hand. And the Serengeti is a big park–about the size of Maryland.
I take the shotgun seat in Vincent’s vehicle, while Jonathan, Sarah, and Bethany take seats in the back with 4 of the Tumaini children. Vincent’s second is Dennis; Jojo, Rachael, and Lora board his vehicle with 3 Tumaini children, and Mama Nursi rides shotgun. The rest of the children cheer us off like Crusaders off to retake Jerusalem from the infidels.
It’s dark when we leave the compound at 6:15, but by the time we get to Mwanza (which is nowhere near Phoenix) at 7, it’s light. The city is busy with people scurrying to get their dukas open. We head northeast out of the city and in the next hour find ourselves farther and farther into the bush, where the road’s shoulders seem just as busy, filled with pedestrians and bicyclists carrying large gunny sacks of charcoal or grain, or plastic jugs to be filled with water at the nearest stagnant pond. In the villages that dot the way, fires are burning the rubbish of the day before. There’s Nyanguge, and Mugu, and Katanyega, and finally Lamadi, the big one, just before the main western entrance to the park. It’s not yet 9 am, and we’re here. That’s good time.
Vincent and Dennis need to clear some paperwork in the office, and we all have to sign in on a sheet that calls for a lot of information—pretty much everything except next of kin, which, come to think of it, they might oughtta add a column for. We have a little time to use the facilities—both Western and squatties available, to suit your preference—and to stop in to a couple of small souvenir shops. One of them has a little coffee shop attached, and Jojo and Lora head there immediately. I get a nice Serengeti T-shirt—with all these trips to Africa, I don’t have any kind of T-shirt from here—and I encourage the Crew to buy something now, since we probably won’t want to take the time to stop on the way out. The prices are very good, and we line up to help the proprietor with his presumed cash-flow problem.
The last ritual before we pull into the park is the raising of the roof. Seriously. These safari vehicles have a pop top so you can stand up on the seats and take photos. Then the gatekeeper walks the gate open, and we’re in.
I’ve told the kids not to expect to see much for the first hour or so; the real treasures are deeper into the park. So we eat mandazi to pass the time. We can see several areas where they’ve done controlled burns to clear the brush; forest management people have learned from the big Yellowstone fire and others that a good burn is really necessary to healthy forest growth. This isn’t exactly a forest, but I assume the same principles apply.
As I suspect we would, we see wildebeest first. They’re everywhere in the Serengeti; eventually you don’t even look twice when you see one. They’re a bizarre-looking creature—I like to say they look like they were designed by a committee—with front legs that appear to be too long, giving them an ungainly gait. (That feature will become significant later in the day.) You often see wildebeest with zebra, and we see quite a few of them early on as well. Then a couple of grey herons standing in the road directly in front of us; they take flight as we approach and glide effortlessly along with us, eventually turning out over the grassland and flying out of sight.
There are several kinds of monkeys in the park, and we see some moving through the grass beside the road and occasionally perching in the trees. The baboons always look the most comical. I think I see a dikdik—that’s the smallest deer in the world—but Vincent tells me it’s a jackal. Stupid 61-year-old eyes. Then deer of several kinds, both antelope and impala. (We never do see any Thompson’s gazelle, of which there are many here.)
Then, up ahead, a good-sized herd of zebra crossing the road; they get spooked as we approach slowly, and then skitter out of the way. I discuss with Vincent whether they’re white with back stripes or black with white stripes. Vincent says the latter; I disagree. “Look at their takos, man; they’re solid white!” (Now you know that tako is the Swahili word for buttock. At dinnertime, for obvious reasons, we prefer to use the term tortilla when the subject of Mexican food arises.) Vincent won’t budge.
Off to the right, about half a dozen giraffes, including a couple of young. Giraffes are funny; as long as they stay still, they look stately and elegant, moving their heads in the high branches to feed. But as soon as they start to run, they look clumsier than the wildebeest. (Reminds me of an old girlfriend or two.)
We’re getting pretty well into the park now, maybe an hour and a half in, and close to the river, which of course attracts a lot of game. Sarah suddenly blurts the magic word: lion! Oddly, Vincent hasn’t seen this pair first; he backs up slowly, and there they are, lounging in the shade of a large bush. They’re about 10 feet from us; they get up slowly—with no predators, they feel no fear; there’s a reason Simba is called “the king of the jungle”—and circle our vehicle, actually brushing against it some as they take another position in the shade. We turn off the engine and sit in silence, watching.
And then they mate. Right there in front of all of us. The 2013 team saw that here as well, but we weren’t nearly this close; we are literally right next to them. Vincent says softly, “If you want to die, get out of the car.” We all decide not to; no discussion required.
After a time of respectful silence, we start up the engine and work our way around for about 50 yards, where we break into a prairie clearing and come upon a seemingly endless herd of wildebeest and zebra, part of the annual Great Migration. Near a bush lies a dead zebra, recently killed. And in that bush is a lioness and 2 of her cubs. She’s probably part of the male lion’s pride, and she’s resting after having made the kill. It occurs to me that if we’d been here a few minutes earlier, we might have seen the kill, but nobody ever gets to see that, right?
She slowly rises, leaving the cubs behind, and crosses the road just in front of us to where the bulk of the herd is. They’re skittish and begin to run; she leaps into full pursuit and chases a dozen or so animals down into a ravine. Vincent guns the engine, and we don’t even have time to realize that we are literally chasing a lion who’s chasing something big and probably about to kill it.
We lose her in the underbrush but soon see that she has taken a wildebeest slightly up a hill from us and dragged him into a thicket. Vincent works us around to the other side, where we’re above her and can see better what she’s doing. Somebody in our vehicle comments that the wildebeest is moving and clearly not dead. We watch him stagger to his feet and then begin to run up the hill right in front of us. She pursues him, leaps on his back, digs her claws into his shoulders, and drags him down, literally 15 feet in front of our bumper. She seizes his throat in her mouth and expertly cuts off airflow in his trachea, eerily looking straight at us with her golden eyes the whole time. After some time he goes limp, and she pulls her second kill into the shelter of the scrub.
We realize that we haven’t breathed in a really long time. I’m stunned. We’ve just seen something that millionaires pay to see and don’t; something that National Geographic photographers capture with absurdly long telephoto lenses, and this happened almost literally right in our laps. Vincent is ecstatic. He tells us what we already know: you just don’t see this. It happens all the time, of course. But not right in front of people. “You are very lucky!” I reply, quietly, “God is good.”
It’s not yet 11 am. What are we going to do for the rest of the day?
As we drive away, we see 2 vultures perched in acacia trees, waiting patiently. They can’t approach either kill now without the lioness chasing them off. But eventually there will be opportunity.
The Serengeti is a sanctuary, but only from us. It’s the Real World in every other way—the fallen world, a place of violence and death. And the matter-of-fact cleanup afterward, as all interested parties get their share of the carcass, and fellow wildebeests and zebras stand a few feet away, grazing. I wonder out loud if they say, “Hey, did you hear what happened to Charlie?”
There’s more to see. Several times we stop by various sections of the river, seeing hippos—or very small portions of them—as they keep cool in the river, and crocodiles. Neither of these animals is to be messed with; hippos, surprisingly, are judged by people who think about such things to be the most dangerous creatures in Africa. A visible reminder is the carcass of a zebra floating in the river next to the croc who took it. Other zebras are trying to cross the river—it’s necessary as part of their migration—but they keep backing off, the males barking their loud warnings.
We come across other kills, some covered with vultures who are fighting each other for pieces of the action, others pretty much all consumed but still reasonably fresh, and yet others desiccated and bleached, negative monuments to the survival of the fittest.
Eventually we stop for lunch at the airstrip, where there are nice clean toilet facilities and picnic tables. We break out the duffel bags, and I learn that during the earlier excitement Jonathan has stepped on the Zip-loc™ bag of bananas. Hmm. Banana pudding. That may come in handy. We eat the PBJ sandwiches and more mandazi, and there are carrot sticks. I watch the children—and Mama Nursi—as they eat the sandwiches. This American staple is not at all what they’re used to, but they seem to enjoy it.
Back into the vehicles to explore the area north of the airstrip. The first sight we stumble into is a herd of elephants, including a very large bull, several cows, and quite a few little ones. Well, relatively little ones, if you know what I mean. Like the lions, they’re fairly confident; they do have natural predators, but their size is their most significant advantage, and they know we’re no threat.
I recall for Vincent an experience we had in 2013, when we were idling just to the side of a very large cow and her baby. Vincent gunned the engine, spinning the tires, and the cow whirled to face us, ears full width in the classic sign of aggression. I blurted, “Vincent! What are you doing?!” And he said, “Take a photo!” He laughs when I remind him of the story. He’s just a working man trying to do a good job for his clients.
Throughout the afternoon there are more of the kinds of animals we’ve seen before, and a few new ones as well: buffalo (not American bison, but buffalo, with horns that make them look like middle-aged women with 1930s hairstyles), warthogs (I refuse to call them Pumba), cranes, superb starlings (that’s their name). I find every year to be the same in one respect; by about 3 pm, you’re just completely overwhelmed sensorily, and you start to shut down. Oh, look, a crocodile. Yawn. A herd of zebras sniffing the wind. Snore.
At 4 we head out of the park and reach the main gate by 5. Paperwork done, we head for home. As is always the case, I fall asleep for a good portion of it. I come to as we’re approaching the north end of Mwanza, and the team members and children in the back are telling jokes and stories, laughing, hooting, having the time of their lives. A joyous end to an evocative day.
We pull into Tumaini after dark, and after house devotions, when the children are supposed to be in bed. But you can’t keep these children in bed when their family members return. They swarm the 2 vehicles and escort their colleagues to their houses in triumph. Ferdinand asks what we saw, and Jojo shows him video of the lion kill. He can’t believe what he’s seeing. We drop in on Beth and tell her the stories, and she can’t believe ‘em either. What a day.
Back at the house, we grab what’s left in the duffel bags and then close the evening with a prayer of thanksgiving to God—for his power and wisdom as demonstrated today, even in a broken form of His creation, and for his kindness in allowing us to participate in a spectacle we will never forget.
Church comes early tomorrow. The Crew practices their special music, and we head for the rest we need.