The Serengeti. I wasn't prepared... for the absolute, wild reality of it.
As we turned into the park, I noticed a group of zebras just... relaxing. By the side of the road. “Not in cages,” as my little student put it so perfectly.
The flat, infinite landscape. Formed several million years ago by ash from the eruption of nearby Ngorongoro, not much can grow in most of the Serengeti plains except for short grasses, which have no trouble taking root in the layers of ancient ash topsoil.
The Serengeti. Let me take you there.
Our truck rumbles down the rough roads. All the windows of the truck are down. Wind blows by us as we speed along, the wild, flat landscape speeding by. All of a sudden, brown figures on the side of the road. The large truck pulls to a stop. Wildebeast. Brown, hairy, majestic. They glance at us, then continue grazing.
We continue driving. We pull to another stop. Impala. Wild, long, curved horns. Brown with black and white markings – striking. Nimble on their feet. They pay no attention to us.
These animals aren't far away. They are right there. 5-10 feet away from our windows. We are in their home.
We keep going. There are so many wildebeasts and zebras, hanging out together. They typically migrate together, because zebras have excellent memory for migration routes and good vision; wildebeasts have good hearing and smell. They evolved in harmony to protect themselves from the many dangers of the Serengeti plains (lions, crocodiles, hyenas...)
A water buffalo. It turns its head and stares at us, posing, its massive horns curving upwards and framing its face beautifully. He is shy – he ambles away when our truck stops to look at him.
And then! A giraffe. I try and contain my high pitched exclamations of wonder. A giraffe is eating leaves from a tree outside our window. She is impossibly tall, with surprisingly nimble legs and a gentle, graceful neck. The familiar yellow and brown pattern suits her beautifully. A giraffe. When I was in school, we learned these animals were “zoo animals”. No. They taught us wrong. They are Serengeti animals. They are wild. I don't think I can ever go to a zoo now and not feel impossible sadness for the animals behind the cages, now that I have seen them in their homes. “Keep your voices quiet,” says our guide. “We don't want to scare them.” So we stand up in the truck, looking out the windows in silence at the giraffes eating grass on the Serengeti plains. They are silent, too. Magic.
We drive a little more (our guide urges us on – so many kilometres to cover before we reach our camp site, and we have to get there before dark). Suddenly the truck lurches to a stop, then backs up a couple of metres. “Cheetahs,” he says. “Under that tree.” And so they were. Relaxing in the shade; laying on the grass. I gasped and held my breath when I saw them. Our guide told us to take a good look and lots of photos, because this was one animal we were not guaranteed to see again during our game drives. I snapped a few photos, passed the camera on to J, and spent the rest of the few minutes staring in awed silence at the graceful animals in front of me. I thought of my father. He watches animal documentaries extensively. Cheetahs are one of his favourites, for their speed and grace. My eyes teared up. I soaked in every detail, memorized every flick of the tail, every roll in the grass, so I could bring back these details for him. I am emotional because the idea of my father ever traveling to Africa is an impossibility – half his body completed paralyzed by stroke when I was just a kid, he lost the ability to do so many of the things he loved. Maybe he loves the cheetah because it moves in a way none of us can.
We reluctantly continue our drive. Not too long after, our guide again pressed the buzzer that he uses to indicate to the driver (up front in a separate compartment) that he needs to stop for an animal. “A lion,” he says. Indeed it is. A female lion, by a tree. Still a ways away from us, she blends into the dry grasses incredibly well. Then someone else - “There's another one under the tree!” A male. Our guide shouts something to the driver in Swahili, and the truck veers off road into the plains. “He's going for it!” shouts one of our group members, half laughing. We rumble over even rougher terrain towards the lion, and then pull to a stop. The female slowly gets up and ambles away, limping slightly. The male remains under the tree, staring at us, not even blinking. We admire him with awe. The photos are snapping constantly. I try and get my few photos out of the way at the beginning, and then spend the remaining viewing time just... watching. I stare at the lion. He stares back at me (or so it seems). He is beautiful.
We keep driving. More impala. The ever-present zebras and wildebeasts. A lion with a fresh kill. (He is just sleeping under a tree, guarding his half-eaten wildebeast). And then – elephants!
They are 40-50 feet away, but as soon as we stop the truck, the mother elephant trots over to investigate us. Her ears flap. Her babies follow. She eyes us, sees we are no threat, and resumes using her giant trunk to pull leaves from trees and eat them. My mouth is visibly open in wonder at this point. I am in Africa, in the wilds of the Serengeti, staring face to face at an elephant and her babies. She is so huge. I am so small. She has an entirety of the Serengeti plains to roam. And yet she's right here, in front of me. How many other majestic creatures like these are roaming in these endless plains? How did I get here, to this place so far from home, so often dreamed about? This is a place of fantastic documentaries and National Geographic magazines. And I am right in the middle of it.
|Giraffe at the visitor's centre|
We eventually make our way to the visitor's centre, to use the washrooms. We are about to go into the stalls when someone says nonchalantly, “guys, there's a giraffe out here.” We run out. There is a giraffe right there, calmly eating leaves off the tree and paying no attention to us. I can't contain my excitement, and try my best to contain my voice. So beautiful. So wild. So tall! Giraffes might be my favourite.
Such an incredible amount of close-up animal viewings, and it was only just the beginning. Never mind the rough bumpy roads that sent us bouncing all around the truck; the two window panes that we almost lost to the Serengeti roads if some of our tour members hadn't caught the glass in the nick of time; the tsetse flies that kept flying through the windows and trying to bite us; the dust film that coated everything.
We were there for the animals, and nothing else mattered.
We are seated around the campfire in otherwise pitch darkness. Our tents are set up for the night. Our guide stands up to tell us the safety rules. “As you know, there is no fence. We are in the animals' homes. You saw the broken trees as we came in – elephants did that.” He pauses to let that sink in. “You need to have your headlamp on you at all times and constantly scan your surroundings for animals.”
“That's a lion,” he says. It doesn't register.
“That's a lion,” he says again, and shines his light towards the trees behind us. A few of us glance, wondering what he means, if this is part of the demonstration of how to scan for danger.
He starts to walk a little closer to the trees, scanning. “You think I'm joking. This is serious. See, it's a lion.” A third time. We finally register. We quickly stand up, all shine our lights to where he is pointing his. Two yellow eyes, about 10 metres away from us, slowly moving horizontally away from us, shine back.
“Seeing is believing. Now you know what I say is true. Animals can be anywhere.” A minute later, the male lion appears and follows the female off into the woods. He tracks them with his light for a while, and then goes to sit back down and continue his safety briefing.
“Seeing is believing,” he says again, as we gingerly sit back down in our chairs, constantly glancing behind us with our lights. “Now you know what I say is true. When you go to the bathroom, you need four people. Not 2, not 3. 4. If you leave the door open for one second, a hyena can quickly go in. Two people go in, two people stay outside scanning.”
“If we saw a buffalo or elephant, I would tell you to run to the kitchen building. A lion is okay.” (None of us are really convinced).
“Sometimes, lions can sandwich between the tents. They think the tents are large ant hills and they can sleep in between them to protect themselves from the wind. When you go outside your tent, make sure you scan 180 degrees first with your light. Slowly.”
“That's a hyena,” he then says. This time, we all stand up immediately. Green eyes slink through the dark and away from the campsite.
We sit back down again. “I see some shoes outside the tents. You need to bring your shoes inside. (slight pause, then he says wryly -) ...unless you don't need your shoes. Then you can have an experiment. The hyena will come and take them.”
|Lion with a fresh kill|
He gives us some more safety information, and then we get the dishes washed and everything packed up for the night.
It's 1 am. I hear pitter patters outside the tent.
“It's just the rain,” whispers J.
Something pushes the tent gently against my feet; I hear flapping sounds. “What's that?!”
“It's just the wind,” J whispers again. “Go back to sleep.”Strange animal noises sound in the distance. I close my eyes, but every movement outside the tents makes them fly back open. My heart is pounding. Sleep doesn't come for a very, very long time.