Today’s the big day. Leaving at 6; I hit HQ at 5.45 and everybody’s up, dressed, and getting the food ready to go.
The safari vehicles don’t show up until 6.30. Mildly irritating, but not a big deal in the long run.
It’s about a 3-hour drive north and a little east of Mwanza to the park. We stop briefly in Lamadi, the last town before the park entrance, so the drivers can get bottled water for us and lunch for themselves. Jonathan, our driver, tells me he’s got chapati and tilapia, and he’ll be very satisfied with that when lunchtime comes.
Another couple of kilometers to the park gate, where there are toilets—both Western and “local” (squatty)—and a couple of gift shops. While the drivers are checking us in, I encourage the crew to use the facilities and to survey what’s in the gift shops; we’ll plan to stop for purchases on the way out.
And into the park we go. This is my fifth time in, and most of the trips start with an hour or so of boredom, maybe some birds or a monkey or two or an impala, but not much out this close to the gate. But we’re not 15 minutes in when one of the boys spots elephants—one of the 2 or 3 biggest game prizes. They’re 100 meters or so from the road, but we have binoculars and get a good look.
Pretty soon we’re seeing the first of many groups of wildebeest and zebra, which for some reason tend to hang out together. A flock of white egrets is scattered among them. Then a bunch of game in the deer family—antelope, impala, water buck, Thompson’s gazelle. And ostriches.
Then over to the river, which tends to draw a lot of game, as you might imagine. We’re looking for crocodiles and hippos, which we see, and especially lions, which we don’t. That’s disappointing; their usual haunts are just empty. Well, in game parks you have to take what you get; the animals do not view you as customers.
As we’re working our way toward the airstrip, where we’re planning to eat lunch, we suddenly come across a group of 7 giraffes, including a nursing juvenile, and 15 or 20 zebra. As with other sightings, we stop, turn off the vehicle, and get very quiet, just watching. The animals appear to be used to the idea of safari vehicles, and for the most part they’ll just keep doing what they were doing. Giraffes are a strange combination of stately and awkward; they look like they shouldn’t be able to run, but they move with quiet grace reminiscent of a queen.
There’s an airstrip where we usually eat lunch. There are clean, modern toilet facilities and several picnic tables and a shelter, plus room to park the vehicles, so it’s an ideal location. Several other safari groups have the same idea. We break out the sandwiches and various snacks—granola balls, popcorn, banana bread and muffins, pineapple, and other stuff—and chow down. The crew—and the 5 Tumaini children–are chattering about what they’ve seen.
After lunch we roam the park. I know what the drivers are thinking: we need to find the animals we haven’t seen yet; anything else we see along the way is secondary. So we cover a lot of ground, oddly zipping past groups of game species that we’ve already seen. We do see a large herd of zebra—probably 100 or 200 animals—which is very impressive. You see that kind of thing a lot during the migration season, but this isn’t the ideal time for it.
But Jonathan is on a mission—he’s looking for lions. We drive and drive across miles of grassland that all looks the same; several of us actually fall asleep.
The guides work together; they’ll stop and talk when they meet each other on the roads, sharing locations of various animals. They’ll supplement that with frequent phone calls, even between competing companies. They all know that it’s in everyone’s best interest to produce the goods. Jonathan’s talking too, but nobody has info on the lions.
We’re out in the middle of nowhere when he alerts, like a pointer. He grabs the binoculars and stares off across the grassland. I look where he’s looking and see nothing. He starts driving in the direction of a lone acacia tree (that’s the “Lion King” tree that you always see pictures of). As the distance closes, I still can’t see anything.
We’re within 50 meters before I see what he saw from a kilometer away: lions, sitting under the shade of that single tree, panting and trying to keep cool in the midday heat. I’ve never seen so many lions together in one place. I count 16; Jonathan counts 17. I’m going with his number.
We drive right up next to them. One stares me in the eye from 15 feet away, eventually looking away in apparent boredom. Lions have no predators, you know; they’re the king of the jungle—and of the savannah.
We sit, taking pictures in stunned silence.
As we drive away, I ask Jonathan if he’s ever seen a pride that large. Yes, he says—42 once. But this is the second largest.
Well, we’ve seen everything there is to see, except the leopard, and hardly anybody ever sees one of them.
It’s an hour drive back out to the gate, where we arrive about 4.30 and I give the crew time to hit the gift shops. T-shirts, wood carvings, soapstone carvings, jewelry, lots of other stuff. They spend some time and money.
Then the long drive home, as the sun sets ahead of us. Most of us sleep for a good portion of the journey, especially after dark.
As we drive into Tumaini around 8.30, the children come out as though we’re returning from victory in battle, to welcome us home. They gather around us, hugging us as though we’ve been away for days, wanting to see photos and ask questions.
Eventually we work our way up to HQ, where the dresses have arrived, so there’s more excitement. I guess we’ll be wearing new duds to church tomorrow.
A quick debriefing. We’re all tired—it’s amazing how tired you can get sitting down all day and dozing off at regular intervals—so I disband the group early and we all head to bed.