ARUSHA NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania — Seeing me fumble for a seatbelt in his Land Rover, safari guide/driver Peter Kibwana (cq) advises, “You don’t need to worry about using a seatbelt: You are in the bush.’’
I’m setting out on my first game drive in the African bush. 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 national parks and game preserves, grazing on the grass and trees or on each other.
Thus, I was unprepared to see, perhaps 20 feet away, a leopard on a tree branch. She was dining on her kill, an oribi antelope. I could hear the leopard rip the oribi’s flesh, see her lick a bloody area on its haunch.
Nor was I prepared to watch, from about 35 feet away, a parade of 16 elephants heading toward a water hole.
And I never imagined having to swivel in my seat to take in six young lions near another water hole:
In the shade of a tree, three were chewing on parts of a wildebeast. Another lion was dragging a zebra’s haunch away from the water. A fifth lion crouched to get a drink, temporarily ignoring the remnants of a wildebeest carcass lying behind him.
All the while, the sixth lion, a young male, patrolled the shoreline, effortlessly keeping from the water hundreds of thirsty but wary wildebeest. 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 driver/guides during a nine-day trip through northern Tanzania’s bush country.
Many of these guides have spent years in college studying wildlife management. Thus, while driving their safari clients around, the guides decipher shapes, movements and sounds, then explain what and where that critter is.
Considering its noises and even the direction it is facing, a guide can tell if this animal is issuing a caution to its mates because a predator is nearby.
The guides often imitate animals’ sounds, explain their habits and daily activities, and flip open illustrated wildlife catalogs for their passengers.
Vehicles of choice are Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers — rugged, open-sided, 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 hot air balloons, most visitors ride in the specially reinforced vehicles.
Herbivores are the most frequently seen: wildebeest, zebra, elephant, Cape buffalo, giraffe, various antelope species — which are the most likely to dash away, occasionally with graceful leaping.
Still other, less-numerous, critters accent the viewing:
A lone hyena, cautiously stepping about a water hole before bending down to drink. Four hippos climbing out of one pond and waddling, single-file, to another. A family of baboons, an infant clinging to its mother. Slinking or dashing about are black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes and mongoose. Ambling ponderously, a rare black rhino.
On the prowl with Laser Eyes
And a variety of birds unknown to our hemisphere – ostrich, tawny eagle, lilac roller, secretary bird, gray crowned crane, the oddly named kori bustard – stalk the prairie or fly over it.
The guides are remarkably sharp. I nicknamed Lazarus, Laser Eyes, after he spotted that leopard and her kill in the tree, later found an adult male lion relaxing in a depression 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 Brit managing one of the camps, was driving us down to cross a dry creek bed when we startled an old bull elephant.
He stared at us and, to my alarm, Sam turned off the ignition.
I gauged the distance to the elephant and tried to calculate how quickly the Land Rover engine would turn over, move us across the sandy bed, then up the slope of the opposite bank.
Both my concern and mental math were unnecessary. The bull, probably pushed away because he was too old to defend his group of females against young males, was more hungry than he was angry at our intrusion. He returned to eating leaves.
Taking it pole pole
On another trip, 50 years or urban driving experience made me doubt the guide’s driving ability. As we approached a steep, deeply pitted river crossing I thought, “Good lord, those ruts could swallow a motorcycle!’’
But the driver easily maneuvered this way and that to skirt the worst of the grooves in the sunbaked soil. Same process going up the other side.
Our reward? Nothing, at first. But then we found lions dozing in the grass beneath a tree.
This happened in the northern reaches of the Serengeti National Park, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. At 5,700 square miles, Serengeti is about 60 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park and is one of Africa’s most-famous game reserves.
The word Serengeti comes from the language of the native Masai tribe and means “endless plain,’’ though it is also translated to the more picturesque “land that goes on forever.’’
It certainly seems to. It stretches to the horizon, seeming as flat as any farmer ever plowed. Sometimes the landscape is dotted by a single tree or granite boulder.
A phrase visitors learn is the Swahili pole pole (po-lay po-lay), meaning “Take it slowly, slowly.’’ Which is how most game drives proceed — the ride, not the destination, is the objective.
Adjacent to the Serengeti is the 16- by 21-mile Ngorongoro Crater, a vast volcanic caldera. There is permanent water in the crater, which means it has green grasslands year-round. Water and food draw animals.
So Henry, my driver on this day, took us across the crater in a leisurely 2 ½ hours – pole pole — during which we paused to watch and photograph herds of zebra, Cape buffalo, wildebeest and elephant.
Right place at the right time
Now that was a game drive. But a visitor doesn’t always need to leave the lodge or tent-sided camp to see animals. A large bull elephant had more or less adopted the posh-for-the-bush Ngorogoro Crater Lodge, wandering quite close to the dining room doorway one night and into the staff office parking lot the next morning.
And no sooner had I finished lunch by the infinity pool – not all amenities are missing in bush accommodations — at the splendid Mwiba Lodge than I counted about a dozen elephants coming to drink and bathe in one of the natural springs.
Called “ellys’’ by the guides, this group was below the porch around my villa, constructed against granite outcroppings. Within minutes another six ellys came along to squeeze out the earlier crowd.
Elephants, of course, are on the traditional safari bucket list, The Big Five, along with lion, leopard, rhino and Cape buffalo. On my trip, I saw them all. And only the rhino was in a number so small that I could keep track: I saw just one of these rare creatures, from a great distance.
My only disappointment was that I was not in Tanzania between June and mid-October, the traditional period of the Great Migration. This is an epic event.
After the rainy season and the birthing of offspring, an estimated 1-million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra, 300,000 antelope and many other herbivores — and those carnivores that prey on them — move north toward the now-greener plains grasses that can reach 4 feet tall.
Seeing “a kill’’
Even viewing tens of thousands of these animals pass by within a few hours is often not the high point for safari-goers. Instead something from humankind’s early years takes over – we watch for predators to grab their prey.
Actually seeing “a kill’’ while on a game drive is usually being in the right place at the right time. 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 crossing spectacle can last four hours, drawing dozens of safari vehicles to nearby bluffs.
The crossings can be so mesmerizing that the visitors may forget to watch without looking through a camera viewfinder.
Too bad. While their still images and videos can amaze their friends or YouTube viewers, the safari-goer himself may have missed the thrill of appreciating, live, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: A convenient approach to tour the several parks in northern Tanzania, which are relatively close to the southern border of Kenya, is to fly from the U.S. to Amsterdam, and then on to Kilimanjaro Airport, in the city of Arusha. The city is within an hour’s drive of Arusha National Park. Another possible route from the U.S. flies through Istanbul.
ON THE GROUND: You will need to arrange your safari details before buying the plane ticket. I traveled with Epic Private Journeys (http://www.epicprivatejourneys.com), which operates customized safaris: “We ask first what animals the guests want to see, then what their budget is, then what else they might want to do, such as a hot air balloon trip,’’ explains Epic guide and company executive Rod Barbour. “Then we match the animal areas and the variety of lodges to the guest’s budget.’’
The alternative to customizing a la Epic is to find the companies that operate small chains of bush camps, perhaps lodges in three or four locations. A typical safari-goer from the U.S. would be here for nine days and would usually be moved, either on the ground on in single-engine planes, to at least two camps.
Prices can easily run $1,000 a day, per person; that would include all meals, most beverages and game drives. But all levels of comfort are available, from tent-sided camps with chemical toilets to villas with solid walls and both indoor and outdoor showers. Or maybe you’d like to splurge on a nine-day helicopter safari, for about $45,000 per person.
To help you plan, rather than just using your search engine, consult a knowledgeable travel agent – someone who has been to Africa more than once. I met three of them on my trip:
Cathy Holler, firstname.lastname@example.org
Katja Casson, email@example.com
Steve Jermanok, firstname.lastname@example.org