She struts across the savannah, attitude on full display. At around four feet tall and ten pounds, she’s not the biggest thing out here, but she has swagger and a killer kick. I watch her chase several immense vultures off a carcass, just because she can. This is the most unique bird of prey in all the world—crane-like long legs, a bare red/orange face, hooked beak, and crazy black feathers on the back of her head. Over the course of ten days, I see about a dozen of these entertaining birds, sashaying across the most wondrous place in all the world—the Serengeti in Tanzania. The secretary bird is one of 201 bird species I record on my Sep 2019 trip with my 29-year-old daughter Daisy.
But did you see lions? This is what most people ask. Only 84, including two cubs that ambled across the road in front of the vehicle. Most were so close we didn’t need binoculars. Mating occurred mere feet from us. “Goodness!” my daughter exclaimed.
We all have our favorite animals—mine are birds and elephants. I adore elephants; they were my late husband’s favorite animal. I whisper to our daughter several times as we coo over the babies with their tiny noodle trunks that don’t quite work, “Your daddy would lose his mind.”
One day, while moving to the next camp, we come very close to a herd of about 10 elephants. The matriarch pauses, a few feet from the front of the vehicle, and watches us, ears slightly fanning. We make direct eye contact for several seconds before she turns away. I don’t know why, but I start to cry. The world can’t be such a horrible place as long as these beautiful animals are in it, and I’m honored to be one of a privileged few who has seen them living free. We all need to work harder at protecting them. If you buy ivory, you’re as guilty as the poachers. Full stop.
I knew my life would forever change the minute we stepped off the bush plane, on the grass strip in the north Serengeti, and my daughter pointed down at the mud and exclaimed, “Those are hippo prints!” Our brains were immediately on biodiversity overload. Look at that! Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it! Wow! Look how cute! Quick, over there! Look to your left! Can you believe it? Did you ever think you’d see one of those? Hello, sweetheart!
We’re living a real-life nature documentary. There are babies everywhere—baby zebras, baby giraffes, baby elephants, baby warthogs, baby hyenas, baby lions, baby cheetahs, baby vervet monkeys, baby Thompson’s gazelles, baby baboons, babies babies babies! And there are rock hyraxes. We can’t get enough of those cute faces. We find bush hyraxes at the airport. More squealing ensues.
My daughter snaps so many pictures the click of the shutter becomes a constant hum in the background. Though she isn’t a birder, she gets excited about the incredible diversity of colorful birds around us, even identifying many herself. There are so many stunningly gorgeous lilac-breasted rollers with their pastel plumage, we develop a joke that it’s no big deal, just another roller (though really, it is).
I often say I’m the world’s worst birder, but it didn’t really matter because our guide was an expert birder and naturalist, a local Tanzanian with a degree in wildlife management specializing in human/bird conflict. It wasn’t an accident that we were paired with Russell. African Dream Safaris had our backs from the minute I called about the trip in the summer of 2018. They still had my name from when I spoke to them about 14 years ago.
My Africa trip was a long time in the planning. I have three science degrees; I know how to do research, particularly when so much money is at stake. I checked out every safari company. I read the reviews. I called. I looked at brochures. I did some self-reflection. What kind of experience do I want? Being on a bus with 30 people held no interest for me. What about a small group tour with 8 or 10 people? My daughter and I discussed it at length. Maybe I should go on a birding tour, I told her, but she wanted hyenas and bats (two of her favorites) and all the other amazing animals, especially primates and rhinos. I wanted elephants, not just birds. We decided we wanted to see the Serengeti with just the two of us and a guide, and we wanted the luxury of staying for hours and watching a single animal if we desired.
Africa Dream Safaris promised that, plus the best guides in the business. I was skeptical, but took the plunge and sent them my life’s savings. They gave us Russell and a truly impressive Toyota Land Cruiser with a pop-top for spectacular viewing. Best. Money. I. Ever. Spent.
I want to tell you about the other animals, that it wasn’t a static thing, that there were amazing dynamic interactions. I want to go on and go about the almost two million wildebeest and zebras we saw gathering around the Mara River, and then crossing. And the hippos. And the cheetahs. And the three black rhinos with park rangers protecting them and a plane flying overhead. And the Cape buffalo that corned the lions on the rocks when they tried to attack a calf. There were vervet monkeys grooming right in front of us. A male ostrich did an incredible mating dance. There were blue monkeys scampering around the vehicle. We laughed over Thomson gazelles stamping their front hoof quickly in an attempt to shake the flies—an impatient-looking gesture we termed a tiny tommie tantrum. I want to tell you about the birds and that I saw a flock of 60 East African crowned cranes (my number one bird), but I know if you’re thinking of going that you want to hear about logistics.
I knew I’d fall in love with the Serengeti. I love wild places and work in the U.S. to protect public lands, but I didn’t know how much I’d love the people of Tanzania. Everywhere we went, the locals greeted us with “Jambo! Jambo! Welcome to our country. Please tell people about us.” I’ve lived and traveled around the world and without exception, the Tanzanian people are the friendliest I’ve ever met. They shake your hand. They want to chat. They’re warm and beautiful and kind, even at the airport. Their conservation work is truly impressive.
Our guide Russell, a local Tanzanian from the Bantu tribe, was courteous and kind, really listening to us and treating us with respect. His conservation ethics matched ours, and his sense of responsibility to the animals, his country, and to us was apparent in all his actions. When you’re out on the Serengeti for 12 hours, using the “bush bathroom” is unavoidable. That means squatting behind the vehicle. Russell never made it weird and was extremely considerate of our needs during the entire trip. We never once felt uncomfortable around him. American men, take notes.
Russell asked us what we wanted to do for the day and then offered suggestions based on our interests. We took picnic lunches in the vehicle each day because we wanted the freedom to follow the animals. Russell cleaned the Toyota and stocked up the refrigerator with soda and water nightly. He even had chocolate. He listened to us, he joked with us, he laughed with us, and by the end of the trip we’d developed several inside jokes.
It was a tearful farewell when we said kwaheri to a man who’d become a friend and mentor. Daisy and I learned much from him and appreciated his patience as we bungled our way through bird identifications. Imagine being stuck in a vehicle for 10 days with two ladies who coo and squeal over every single animal? Even bats. Did I mention Russell’s skilled, safe driving?
Africa Dream Safaris put the entire trip together for us and even put us in contact with Cathy King at King Travel to arrange for airline tickets. On the day before we left, British Airways cancelled our return flight due to a strike, but Cathy handled it expertly, rebooking us on another airline and securing a refund. From the minute our plane touched down in Nairobi, Africa Dream Safaris made sure we were escorted through the entire holiday. Kosen was the wonderful guide for our two days in Nairobi, and we’re thankful for his kindness and laughter.
We never worried about logistics or transportation. We lost track of the date because we were living in the moment, busy squealing over the incredible animal diversity and interacting with the friendly people. Africa Dream Safaris pre-trip book—dubbed by us as the “little brown book”—was invaluable in packing and preparing. Dawn Anderson put up with numerous phone calls from me during the year after we booked; she never failed to answer questions and offer advice.
While on safari, Daisy and I frequently shook our heads about people in other vehicles. Clearly, they hadn’t read the little brown book. Why else would we have seen one lady with a sleeveless one-piece yellow romper with oh-so-tiny shorts? Hello? Bush bathroom problems! We saw false eyelashes, full makeup, updo’s, and blue clothing (yikes, tsetse flies like blue!) Why oh why would people wear jeans while on safari? We were grateful the book contained guidelines for tipping. We occasionally overhead folks from other safari companies expressing confusion. We would smile at each other knowingly. Thanks to Dawn, we were prepared.
Often, we passed other safari vehicles. The big buses didn’t venture where we did, but a couple times we passed them on the main roads. We were glad we weren’t on them. I had to wait 14 years to afford Africa Dream Safaris, but it was worth the wait. The expression “you get what you pay for” is rather cliché, but clichés are such because they’re generally true. This will likely be my only trip to Africa, and I would do it exactly the same way again. Zero regrets.
We had our favorites like best tented camp (Mara River Camp), best coffee (Arusha Coffee Lodge), best shower (Gibb’s Farm), best picnic lunch (Gibb’s Farm), best staff (that one was literally a tie with every single place we stayed), favorite chef (Mara River Camp), best place for elephants (Tarangire), best place for cranes (Ngorongoro Crater), best birthday party (Seronera Sametu Camp), most secluded (Ngorongoro Lion’s Paw Tented Camp), most rock hyraxes (Central Serengeti and Maasai kopjes), best happy hour (Maramboi Tented Lodge), most beautiful room (Gibb’s Farm), most comfortable bed (Maramboi Tented Lodge), best night-time animal sounds and bats (Seronera Sametu Camp), best breakfast (Palacina Hotel in Nairobi), best lunch (the one with Kosen in Nairobi, under the trees at a local outdoor restaurant), best dinner (Gibb’s Farm wins again), most wondrous place in all the world (the Serengeti). The tented lodges were not camping in the traditional sense; this was glamping with comfy beds and flush toilets.
My final bit of advice is this. Go on safari with someone you’ve traveled with and are compatible with. I went with my best friend, who also happens to be my daughter. Perhaps you should not go on safari if you’re pregnant, have back troubles, are deathly afraid to fly, get car sick, are overly fussy about food, aren’t interested in animals, or not willing to be a bit adventurous. I also question whether children younger than high school age should go on safari. Sometimes it’s OK to leave certain activities exclusively for adults and older teens.
Dress appropriately and pack light for your safari; if it doesn’t fit in a carry-on, repack. Be safe and get your vaccines. Buy trip insurance. Bring money for tips; the Tanzanian people depend on it so please be generous. Read the little brown book. And most importantly, leave your phone at home or at least disconnect from the internet during your safari. We saw one young teenage boy in another private safari vehicle, wearing headphones and playing a handheld game, while elephants grazed a few feet away and a go-away bird chattered from an acacia tree.
Embrace the experience, all of it, and be present in every single moment. Wrap your entire being around the journey and be joyful that you get to see this truly magical place. Look at the stars while listening to the grunting sound of wildebeest and the distant roar of lions, watch the sunset and the sunrise on the Serengeti. Then, come back and be an ambassador for Tanzania and the wild creatures that need our protection. Donate to nonprofits that help Africa.
Story by Carol Fiore. https://carolfiore.com/
Photos by Robin Fiore
Safari Dates: August 28, 2019 to September 09, 2019