For over six years, my really great teacher friend had told me about her amazing safaris to Africa…how close they got to the animals like no other company, and ‘check out these amazing photos of the cheetah on their jeep from a few years ago.’ In turn, I was in awe of course, but the worries were there….what would I do with my two children? Would I have to get shots? What about the expenses?
I was a single mom with 2 young kids and pets at home, a Department of Defense teacher living and working in Italia full time. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea of a safari to Africa. Even though I have traveled often, an African safari seemed like a distant, far-fetched dream. I had always loved animals and had even grown up thinking I would become a vet. For me, going to Africa on a safari was like number one on my bucket list, but I realized that I would have to patiently wait for the right time.
Last summer, my mom came to me and said, “Katrina, you can’t let another year go without joining your friend’s safari.” Hesitantly, six months in advance, I asked my children’s father if he would take them for a week in the spring so that I could go on my dream trip, and this time, everything was aligned because he answered simply, “Yes, of course!” I was elated to tears and wrote Ann right away saying I could go!!!! My kids were older this time, the timing was right! Woohoo!
Finally, the week of our safari had arrived! A total of nine of us- five teacher friends, 2 retired teachers and a nurse we had just met all met in Amsterdam to board our flight to Tanzania! We hugged and cheered as everyone excitedly met. For the next 10 days, March 30the to April 8th, we were to be embarking on a safari together!!! Thoughts raced through my mind….would we get tired of each other? Would one of us get hurt, sick, bitten, attacked? Were we really sleeping in tents with lions near our heads? Well…my friend Ann had always made it back, so we should be safe, right? I can admit now how silly that all sounds after coming back from the trip of my lifetime!
As we landed in the city of Arusha, Tanzania, my heart pounded with excitement. The heat as I stepped out of the plane thrilled me. The bright lights of the word Kilimanjaro on the airport seemed unreal, after growing up reading about that tall, African mountain only in books. Right away we met an ADS greet staff- Mathias, who took our filled-out paperwork (Bravo ADS for already getting this to us!) through the line to expedite the passport and visa control process.
A couple of nice vans picked us up and took us to a lovely hotel-here we began and ended our stay. It was so cool – we sat in a semi-circle formation and were welcomed so warmly by Mathias. He presented us with our a few very special African trinkets…with the individual beaded bracelets being so fun and cultural!!! We would proudly wear these everyday of our safari. I realized later how I loved these daily group meetings we had together, where we briefly went over the next day’s plans, the timing, what to bring, etc. I was so impressed! After the most delicious meal and some nice wine, we were relaxing in our gorgeous rooms, still pinching ourselves that we had arrived!
The first full day of the trip was set aside for shopping and seeing the city of Arusha- driving past the normal traffic, people, and sights of the city. We were taken to The Cultural Heritage Center where we could see African masks, wrought iron pieces, Tanzanite, jewelry, etc. I loved this experience because we got to peruse and see some cultural products all in one area. After some fun shopping, we had a nice cold beer- a Kilimanjaro of course- and a delicious boxed lunch provided by the hotel right there in the center. It was nice beginning and ending at this hotel, reorganizing our bags to bring along on safari and what we wanted to leave at the hotel to be picked back up at the end. That’s right…our safari journey was ready to begin!
There couldn’t be a better Easter gift than to wake up knowing you were going to fly over the beautiful landscape of Tanzania in a little plane and be out on safari for a week! We laughed as we boarded the 14 person plane, sitting directly behind the pilot. How cool it was to be up in the clouds, looking down over the vast crater/caldera, mountains, water holes, and tiny ants that were really the wildebeests from afar! As we were landing into the Serengeti National Park, we shrieked with excitement as we saw giraffes among the trees, elephants over the other direction, hartebeests. My first hartebeest… I had never seen one in person before!
I think we were the most fortunate safari goers ever….Right upon landing, Roman and Didah, our assigned ADS Guides, walked right up to us and introduced themselves to us with warm hugs…they were already family. They were authentically cheerful and enthusiastic from the start to the finish. For the next week, we were so lucky to get to trade off jeeps each day, getting to hear the insight, wisdom, and storytelling from both of them! I was so impressed.
With my group of friends in the jeep, I volunteered to keep careful track of the plants and animals check-off list (because I’m a nerd like that and love to learn the names), so I know for sure that every time I asked for the name of the tiniest creature, bird, reptile, tree, plant, mammal, etc…they both knew the names immediately. Not just the names, but the behaviors of the animals to look for, the adaptations, how it has changed over time. I learned more on this trip than I have in a long time!
Our two awesome guides knew to leave right before sunrise, to get the early start to see the animals in action, and where to go off the beaten track to catch surprises. By the end of the trip, I learned that every day is full of surprises and what you’re going to see. But I do know we had some of the best viewings ever!!!
To mention some of our spectacular sightings, I’m still in awe: to get to see a herd of elephants with young calves in toe within the first 5 minutes in the Jeep on day one; two different leopards sleeping elegantly in trees; 5 minutes from our camp, over 40 lions taking turns feeding on their buffalo kill from the night before with the vultures and hyenas pacing around us; cheetahs taking a breather before the mother ripped open the skin to let the two teenagers eat first; a pride of around 16 lions curiously strolled past our jeep, with a couple stopping to gnaw on our jeep’s grill and another marking its territory on the jeep right in front of us…well, wow! Our guides were not in a hurry to cut our ‘gaming’ short, but instead, taught us to patiently wait for something special to come while expertly and respectfully approaching magnificent animal behaviors.
The two different camps chosen for us were beyond special and incredible. Can you imagine hearing you’re going to sleep in tents near lions and all the nature of the Serengeti? Well, what an experience! I loved how we were first greeted by the entire camp staff with fresh juice and warm, moist towels to wash the dust off our faces and hands! I loved how we would meet as a whole group to be welcomed by the camp’s manager, to hear when the hot water for the showers would be provided, and then the plan for the campfire and dinnertime. So hospitable and private, so welcoming. I loved the rule that we would always need to be accompanied by hotel staff to and from our tents after dark. We felt informed, cared for, and safe.
Lastly, the tents were so cool~ comfortable canopy beds, flushing toilets and showers inside. The tent’s netting provided a breathtaking view straight out to the plains and sunset without the risk of mosquitos, and outlets allowed us to recharge our cameras and phones for the next day. To our surprise, after we were escorted back to our tents at night, hotel staff had left hot water bottles in our beds and the canopy bed’s mosquito netting down. The camp experience was exciting (think strange sounds of lions and hyenas during the night), and at the same time, comforting and cozy. Not to mention, the food was exceptional!
One of my most favorite memories was the opportunity to visit a Maasai village. Growing up, my passion had always been about other cultures, languages, ways of life. I studied sociology, anthropology and archeology in college. I dreamed of one day becoming an ethnographer, working out in the field and living amongst other cultures. I later became an elementary school teacher, not an ethnographer, so to get to experience the Maasai culture up close was extraordinary for me!
I was captivated by the beautifully decorated people wearing bright reds and blues. My heart pounded in excitement once again as five of us were approached by the greeters, one being the chief’s son. Face to face, I snuck peaks at the large, open oval spaces in the ear lobes, the beaded jewelry on the necklaces, the leather, slip-on shoes they all wore. Never before had I seen any tribal culture like this in person, only in my anthropology books or in National Geographic documentaries.
Next, around twenty villagers headed our way, separating into female and male sides, and they broke into a rhythmic welcome song for us. The voices and shouts echoed in the hills around us, the men paraded around us, chanting, as the women stood in line, moving their shoulders up and down, causing their beaded necklaces to rise and fall in rhythm as well. Next, they placed beaded necklaces over our heads, grabbed our hands, and made us a part of their women line during the next song. Our guide Roman watched in delight, knowing we were so happy and having fun. They gave us other incredible experiences like watching them start a little fire from sticks, showing us the inside of their typical living quarters- huts sealed together from cow dung, a small fire letting off smoke through the center hole in the hut.
As teachers we were thrilled to also visit a small one-roomed schoolhouse, and when we requested a song, the children repeatedly sang out Swahili words which our guides told us later meant, “We love our teacher, we love our teacher…” Ha! After buying some beaded trinkets to support them, we boarded our jeep once again just as rain started to pour down on us. We giggled with excitement, debriefing on each of our individual experiences and what we learned, since we had each been assigned a different host’s hut and stand. We couldn’t stop laughing about how we were pulled into the shoulder dance, how funny we must have looked with our typical American tennis shoes next to their sharp reds and blues. I had so many questions for our guides, and both were able to thoughtfully explain different aspects of the Maasai culture. Didah being half Maasai, was able to give us firsthand accounts of certain experiences, which I found very interesting. I made a note to learn more about this beautiful culture in the future. What a cultural loss it would be if the Maasai’s ways would dwindle out in the future.
One amazing side trip we made was to Dr. Frank’s medical clinic. We learned that Dr. Frank was a man who had once had a life-threatening scare while climbing Kilimanjaro and was nursed back to health by local Tanzanians. After that, he decided to give up his medical practice in California, and he and his wife sold all of their belongings and moved to Tanzania to try to give back. They wanted to help rural villagers learn more about healthful practices and together with doctors in Tanzania, provide a higher level of medical practices to the people. It was super cool to find out that ADS makes contributions to this organization, which provides locals and visitors safer medical assistance.
Also, on two different nights, ADS brought in two different guest speakers to share about their studies and protection efforts for the cheetahs and lions of the Serengeti. (And to think that we had just seen so many of these beautiful cats during our day excursions! On the same day we saw over 50 lions, we heard about how they identify individual lions by the markings above their whiskers and how to tell their ages by the fullness and color of their manes and by their pinkish to black noses. I loved how we all started pulling up our photos that we had just taken, asking them to identify this lion and that lion, and testing our knowledge if they were about 2 years or 5 years or 7 years. What an authentic learning experience, one that inspires me to learn more and push for their protection in the future!
When I returned from this dream trip, my Pops asked me over the phone, “What were your top moments?” Where would I begin? When we were landing our little plane into the Serengeti and first saw elephants and giraffes just roaming around freely? How about when my heart pounded out of my chest in excitement as the Masaai tribe sang out a loud, booming, rhythmic welcome song to us as we arrived to see their village? Or when I laughed until I cried as we watched again and again a video of 5 of us attempting the shoulder/necklace dance with the beautiful Masaai people?
I also think of my nine safari friends and two ADS tour guides and jeep drivers- Roman and Didah- as we rode back in silence to the hotel that last day, thinking how close we had become, all the laughter, all the experiences along the way, and how hard it was to say good-bye. Or the cheetah and lion specialists sharing about their incredible causes to help the animals of the Serengeti, made my heart ache to work in a similar field. What about that time around sunset when we went off-roading, our guides telling us we were about to witness something amazing- a huge lion pride of maybe 40 or 50 with their buffalo kill, vultures and hyenas waiting their turns to feast?
I haven’t even mentioned how delicious the food was- the Indian flavors, curries and rice, the creamy morning oatmeal, the sweetest fruit I’ve ever had. Or how about how we slept cozily in canopy beds, inside amazing tents with mosquito nets, with warm water that they had brought in, and the sounds of lions and hyenas in the early morning? Or how I honestly became addicted to that feeling of wind rushing in my face as my feet balanced on the seats allowing me to look out of the top of the jeep while it was moving?
I loved watching near and far for the clues and traces of animal behavior around- from Dung Beetles to the Big 5! We’re talking a 360 degree view of the Serengeti in all directions, acacia trees and wild grass, brightly colored birds. What about that breathtaking moment in the crater/caldera when lions curiously strolled past our jeeps, paused and looked straight up at us as we stood frozen, and then they gnawed on the jeep’s grill?
I honestly can’t say I had one favorite moment because there were so many that took my breath away! I loved the entire experience, from the second I signed up with ADS receiving organized information until the hugs we exchanged as we departed from our guides and group. Because at that moment, I became so sad…sad that the trip was coming to a close, that I would have to leave this spectacular country with warm, hospitable people and majestic animals. Bottom line, I am beyond happy that I did not wait another year for such an awe-inspiring experience. My heart is full.
Mission Viejo, California
Safari Dates: March 30, 2018 to April 08, 2018