June 13, 2019, Seronera Valley, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. It was a fitful and exciting night. I could barely sleep in our tented lodge through the sound of roaring lions wandering around Sametu Camp. From 2am to 4am, I lay awake wondering what I would do if a lioness chose to approach my dear cub (AKA my teenage daughter).
We left Sametu Camp after a late breakfast on a morning Safari. As the day progressed, the glaring sun began to beat down upon us as we shifted uncomfortably in our seats from the dry heat. My daughter and I had already chugged down the first of many Stoney Tangawizis for the day. Our throats burned from the refreshing and sharp ginger taste.
Our knowledgeable guide, Russell, pointed out various animals to us during the Safari, particularly birds. Birds: we have officially fallen in love with them, except for my daughter who is preoccupied with lions.
Around midday, we spot two cheetah brothers some 300 yards away. After clicking a few photos, we were ready to move on. Russell’s instincts are supreme though. He notices that one of the cheetahs is walking in our direction (OK, I guess this is how it ends). We realize it was hungrily eyeing a small wildebeest on the other side, and the second cheetah was crouching behind.
With a bolt, our vehicle jerks forward as we make a rocky three-sixty. Russell says, “It is time to get closer and just watch, and just be quiet” Get closer to what? He drives as fast as he can through the uneven and unpaved track with bumps and all. All done in a matter of a minute, he positions us few yards from the wildebeest.
Our hearts are racing, and my daughter is shaking her head in disbelief. Our vehicle inches closer until we are only a few feet away from the scene. One of the cheetahs pounces on the wildebeest. It holds it down, jaw clamped on the jugular, as the wildebeest struggles for its final breath. The two cheetah brothers then viciously tear at the creature’s flesh.
Our daughter can’t believe we are actually seeing all this. She sits down and starts looking at a book to distract her. Our hearts are pounding, literally. The cheetahs continue to feast as we drive away in awe, amazed at what we witnessed; something photographers wait for days or even weeks to record footage of.
One can’t script something like this, let alone plan for it. You can however set things up for the possibility of such an experience. It definitely starts and ends with picking the right safari company that has knowledgeable on-the-ground staff who strive to delight. We learned about ADS due to their “World’s Best Safari Outfitters” award from National Geographic. A private safari is not cheap, but worth every penny.
Sharon and Michael built an excellent itinerary after several consultations. They hit the mark on every aspect. We wanted to be on our own schedule, set our pace, and get close to the bush. They put us up at tented camps – in the bush – right in the middle of it all. We had a great safari vehicle, rugged and new.
We were also fortunate to have an outstanding guide, Russell. To start with, he had a great attitude. He was courteous and super flexible with our constantly changing plans and our desire to stop and see so many inane things! He indulged our ignorance.
Russell definitely taught us things about the bush. He regaled us with stories from other safaris, changed a flat tire going down to the Crater, stocked up the vehicle cooler with Stoney Tangawizis, and so much more. Above all, he kept us safe and comfortable for 9 days.
My tryst with the idea of Africa started when I was ten years old. This was back in the ’70s when my dad and I watched old African Safari movies. Since then, I always wanted to go to Africa.
It was however not until 1996 that I made my first trip to Kenya and Tanzania with an old college friend. I was 28. No other place till then (or since then) has captured my imagination in a visceral manner. To know that such places even existed on the face of this earth, and then to see them, was magical.
After I met my wife, I knew I wanted to take her there. We wanted to wait until our daughter was old enough to appreciate such a trip. I hoped they would experience their own magic. As we started planning our trip, I did worry that perhaps things will have changed since my trip in 1996. Maybe there would be less or no magic left at all. I finally returned to Tanzania this June with my wife and daughter. ADS helped recreate that magic for my family – the anticipation, the excitement, and the actual trip – in ways that words can’t describe.
The tented lodges were an experience onto themselves. The people at the lodges were super accommodating. The lodges were literally in the middle of it all; right in the bush. They were rugged with a hint of luxury; just the right amount of electricity, showers that left you wanting and satisfied at the same time, and a small glimpse of what old-time safaris might have been like.
We were served wonderful and fresh meals, with special vegetarian preparations for my wife. The vegetarian dishes ended up being so good that all of us (including Russell) started having more and more vegetarian meals - We enjoyed every camp we stayed at thoroughly, but especially Mbalageti Lodge and Sametu Camp. The staff in both places exceeded our expectations. The interior of the suite at Mbalageti was absolutely stunning, decked out with beautiful artwork on the walls, candles, and rustic furniture which added to the cozy feel. The restaurant staff at Mbalageti were delightful and willing to engage in conversations, answer our questions, and tell us stories.
On our last night at Mbalageti, ADS actually planned a surprise sun-downer in the bush equipped with snacks, drinks (gin/tonic for me), and an armed park ranger nearby (ready to act, just in case, really!). Back at the lodge that evening, they then proceeded to treat us to a dinner on a private deck next to a campfire.
At Sametu camp, we were greeted by their warm and enthusiastic staff. During our stay, not only did they keep us safe, warm, and comfortable, but also kept us entertained and made us laugh. On our second night, they set up a campfire and served us drinks and S’ mores, right in the bush. During dinner on our third night, the entire crew came out with a bottle of champagne and a specially made vegan cake while singing and dancing in celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary.
Oh, and the migration? We started our trip in the western most part of the Serengeti since the migration was expected in that part of the park in June. The day after we arrived at Mbalageti, we went on an early morning game drive on the plains. We crossed the Mbalageti and Grumeti rivers couple of times. We saw herons, hippos, giraffes, several birds, and groups of wildebeest and zebra. To be frank we were somewhat disappointed. We really hoped to see the “migration”.
We got back to the lodge that evening and had an early start the following morning. Imagine our surprise when we woke up the next day to find 1000’s of wildebeest and zebra on the plains – as far as our eye could see right from the balcony. The migration was here and happening right in front of our eyes. The herds has moved into the plains overnight on their migration circuit.
We also went on a balloon safari, saw the “Big 5”, saw hippos hanging out in pools and rivers, lions napping on trees, a myriad of beautiful birds, and much more. The balloon safari iseverything it is made out to be. The sight of giraffes, hippos, elephants, vultures, gazelles, and much more from the air is unforgettable.
We even had a curious lioness strain its neck to look up and follow the balloon as we drifted above. The pictures from the balloon – especially the one with the lioness looking up at us – were priceless.
Thousands of years back our ancestors left the leafy forests to live in these plains. From there early humans migrated to every corner of the planet and we became the alpha predators that we are today. When you go Africa you reach back in time to a place where we all come from. You certainly return changed.
There is tug at your heart – a sense of connection and belonging that is hard to describe – perhaps because when you go to a place like that, in a sense go back home. And, we can’t wait to go back there again.
The Potharlanka Family
Safari Dates: June 9, 2019 to June 19, 2019