Landing at the air strip at an airport near Arusha, Tanzania, I did not know what to expect on our 12-day photo safari. The itinerary outlined where my mother and I and our companions would go, with beautiful names laid out in flat black and white letters on a page: The African Tulip, Tarangire, Serengeti, Ndutu, Ngorongoro Crater. These word did not prepare me for the wonders of our journey.
I did not anticipate the heady smell of tropical flowers that greeted us when we opened the car doors at our hotel that first night, or the musicality of Swahili and the laughter of children playing in the neighborhood. The sounds of insects cut brightly through the night. The first morning, upon opening the window, birds calling in a foreign language greeted my ears, reminding me we were far from home.
Growing up in the western United States, I have visited some of the most pristine wilderness that America has to offer. I’ve hiked the mountains in eastern Oregon, the Northern Cascades and the Olympic Mountains. I’ve been to one of the places with the most wildlife left in the continental U.S., Yellowstone National Park, where I saw buffalo, elk, deer, moose, bear, snow geese, otter, beaver, eagles and more.
So when we arrived in Arusha and started on our trip, I expected that it might be similar to Yellowstone. We would see some animals, at a distance, if we were lucky. My hope was to see at least one lion, at a distance, if we were lucky.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see such an abundance of wildlife and wilderness.
After leaving Arusha and arriving in the national parks, most of the time when the vehicle stopped to look at animals, no human-made noise marred the landscape. The still air allowed us to hear the sounds of an elephant’s footfalls, the low purr of a lion, the fighting call of impala.
The animals we saw weren’t on display. They lived their lives before us while we watched from a distance. Herds of hippos sleeping in a pond. A group of male impala chasing each other to compete for mating rights. Wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, which means “endless plain.” Zebra barking dog-like warnings at one another. Bat-eared foxes stalking their prey.
We saw hyenas, jackals, lions, leopards, cheetahs, hartebeest, gazelles, eland, crocodiles, Cape buffalo, black rhinos, mongoose, chameleons, lizards, monitor lizards, giraffes, baboons, vervet monkeys, dik diks, hyrax, leopard turtles and warthogs.
At night, from our perch in a Land Rover, we saw a bush baby, a genet, a spring hare, porcupine and a pride of 16 lions that included four cubs.
And the birds! My god, the birds. There were big, brassy birds such as ostrich and marabou storks, secretary birds, African crowned cranes and Kory bustards. There were birds of prey like the tawny eagle, the African fish eagle and water birds like the Nile geese. There were small jewels like the hornbill, the oxpeckers, the lilac-breasted roller. There were birds with interesting names, like the red and yellow barbet.
Our first taste of the adventure that awaited us came when we arrived at Tarangire National Park and drove through the gates. I scanned the savannah, looking for wildlife. Finally, someone spotted an elephant off in the distance, walking through the golden grass. Seeing this animal moving freely in the wilderness brought tears to my eyes. I remember thinking that if I saw no other animals the whole trip, that that one glimpse of an elephant was enough to justify the days-long journey to get there.
Not long after that, we saw another elephant a little closer. Then another one even closer. Finally, we saw one this close:
I held my breath as I gazed at this beautiful creature. I could feel my heart pulsing. I could hear the elephant’s steps and breath and the flapping ears. In the meantime, the elephant proceeded about his business as if we didn’t exist.
This encounter preceded almost two weeks of nonstop wonder. I will share what I can with you here, and I will try to do justice to the awe-inspiring sense of this place.