Today’s #FlashbackFriday recounts one of my best travel adventures ever: going on a wildlife safari in Africa!
After nearly two weeks in Kenya, Keith and I headed to Tanzania to experience our first safari, to see the famed animals of Africa in person, in their natural habitat. After a rather challenging, too-long overland bus trip from Mombasa on the Kenyan coast into Moshi, Tanzania to overnight, we were ready for our wildlife adventure. I suspected it was going to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life as our 12-seater plane swept over the Serengeti. As we descended toward the dirt landing strip, I spotted a herd of something (gazelle? wildebeest?) with one very unmistakable feature in its midst: the long, spotted, graceful neck of a giraffe stretching above the herd.
A giraffe. In real life. With my own eyes. Wow.
It only got better from there, and fast. After landing, we met our &Beyond guide, Medson, and loaded up into the heavy-duty Land Rover. Within five minutes of leaving the airstrip we spotted more giraffe, and crossed a small watering hole in which a group of hippopotamus were submerged. Next to the hippos were a family of baboons, who gazed back at us as curiously as we looked at them.
A few minutes later, we saw a couple of other safari trucks stopped ahead, all binoculars trained on a small thorn tree. Pulling up, we spotted a leopard lounging on one of the branches. Medson explained that the leopard was the only one of the native big cats that hunts primarily at night; this leopard would likely be in the tree all day, until nightfall.
With a start like that, so many animals within half an hour of landing, my excitement had already built tremendously; and the safari had just begun. Medson drove us to our camp for the next few days: the &Beyond Serengeti Under Canvas, a moving camp that follows the wildebeest migration from the south, up through the Serengeti and Maasai Mara into Kenya.
The next morning we started early, for a full day game drive on which we saw elephants, lions, gazelle, giraffe, impala, zebra, warthogs, flamingos, and one of the rarer sightings: a cheetah. Shortly after tracking down the wildebeest migration – a huge herd of more than a million animals moving in numerous long, long columns accompanied by zebra and gazelle – Medson spotted the cheetah off in the tall savannah grass, some dozens of yards away.
To our surprise, soon the cheetah got up and began ambling along – straight toward the road. He strolled boldly up to the edge of the road and sat down again, preening as if posing for our photographs. He rose again and crossed the road, right in between our Land Rover and the vehicle just in front of it. Then he began walking along the road in front of us, straight toward the endless column of migrating wildebeest and zebra some half a kilometer away.
For twenty minutes, we slowly followed the cheetah as he neared the herd. He was very close before the other animals caught wind of him; wildebeest began running, while zebras raised their heads suspiciously and kept their eyes frozen on the cheetah. We wondered if the cat, fastest land mammal on earth capable of reaching speeds up to 65 mpg, would try to pick off one of the babies. But eventually, he just crossed the path of potential prey as well, and continued moving.
This was just one of many heart-stopping moments we’ve had on safari; we have now made our way to the Ngorongoro Crater, an ancient volcanic caldera that is the only such crater on earth in which both animals and people – the Maasai – coexist. It is one of the richest, most biologically diverse areas on the planet, all within its own unique, perfect little ecosystem.
I have learned a number of interesting things on this safari experience.
#1 – Rainy Season is a Great Time to Visit
When Keith and I first began planning our trip, with its fixed dates, we were worried that the fact that May is the wet season in East Africa would put a damper on our trip, so to speak. We weren’t sure about how that would affect animal sightings or migration, and were prepared to potentially have a downpour every day.
But in fact, this has proven to be an excellent time to be here, and if I came back I would come at the same time again. It has rained almost exclusively in the late afternoon and at night; most all our days have been very nice. There are far fewer other tourists here than in the high season of June-August, during which we’ve been told that you can be surrounded by dozens of other safari vehicles constantly. The migration is very active, and one of the best side benefits is that the animals give birth mostly just before rainy season, when the food supply is plentiful. The only thing better than plentiful sightings of elephant, lion, giraffe and zebra are seeing them with their babies. I saw a nursing baby giraffe, and a lioness with her six lion cubs. Simply amazing.
#2 – Lions are Lazy
Or at least, they are in the Ngorongoro Crater. Here, where food sources are plentiful (not to mention basically trapped in the caldera), the roles of hyena and lion have reversed. While the lions do hunt some, the hyenas have really become the predators, and the lions have turned into the traditional hyena role of scavengers, stealing the hyenas’ kill from them frequently. All of the lions I saw were doing nothing but napping – not even bothering to move when our vehicles passed right alongside them.
#3 – There are Ostriches in Africa
Maybe most of you already knew this, but I had no idea these huge birds were native to Africa. The first sighting of them was an oddity to me, but they are fairly plentiful in Tanzania. The other bird life is exotic and plentiful as well, with dozens of brilliantly colored species along with birds of prey such as hawks and eagles.
This experience has definitely been a dream come true for me, and the days on safari will certainly be some of the most memorable of my lifetime.