A young Thompson’s gazelle quietly flips her tail, her ears perking up listening for danger. Sensing nothing, she lowers her head and returns to grazing on the dry grass, long enough to hide a stalking predator. At this time of the year, the end of the dry season, the grass on the plains has baked to a soft wheat color, just about the same color as the fur of a hungry lioness. But the sun is too hot for a chase and most of the resident cats are lounging in the shade of a sausage tree, so for now the gazelle are safe. There is a rumble in the distance and ears perk up again; our attention turns from the gazelle to the approaching land rover cruising down the track in the distance. As it draws near we see the vehicle pulling a billowing cloud of dust behind it which threatens to envelop us, so we duck into the safety of our own safari car, the pinkish dust passing over the exposed roof. The gazelle, grazing too close to the track, springs off her agile legs and gracefully gallops off into the plains to join others in her herd. Further afield we see two elephants pulling up grass with their dexterous trunks. Beyond that, a vast grassland extending to infinity. We are in the Serengeti.
We arrived here Thursday morning after driving from Karatu and through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. NCA is literally in my backyard, just 50 meters from my office window at school yet as many times as I’ve wandered through the forest in my village I’d never gotten the opportunity to see the impressive Ngorongoro Crater, just 9 miles from where I live here in Tanzania’s northern highlands. Luckily just as I finished my very last day of teaching a friend and her visiting parents were going on safari and so generously invited me along. Together we entered the conservation area and stopped to enjoy the view of the colorful caldera (crater is a bit of a misnomer), a depression created millions of years ago when the volcano collapsed in on itself. Today, the 12-mile wide caldera, in the midst of a chain of extinct and collapsed volcanoes along the edge of the Great Rift Valley, is home to thousands of animals, more densely packed than anywhere else in Africa. At the bottom of the crater is a clear blue lake to provide them with ample water, and along the crater walls is a lush green forest providing food even in the dry season. The crater is a paradise for elephant, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, antelope, crocodiles, lions, hyenas, dik-dik, ostrich, hippo, servals, jackals, wild dogs, cheetah, leopards… you name it. Veronica and her parents had descended into the crater the day before, so on this morning we simply took in the view, and from 1800 meters up on the rim we gazed over 12 miles of a green and blue depression surrounded by nothing but sky.
We continued around the crater, heading northwest toward the Serengeti, passing the dry, dusty plains surrounding the mountain. This is the land of the Maasai, a semi-nomadic tribe living in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Traditionally they subsist primarily on cattle milk and blood, wear a few layers of red cloth, and decorate themselves with beaded jewelery. As boys they learn to become either cattle herders or warriors; if they choose the latter, they must spend weeks living in the bush without food or water, searching for their subsistence on their own to prove their worth. These days a Maasai can choose a third path: to enter mainstream life in Tanzania, to go to school and become a teacher or a businessman or a politician. You can usually spot these ones in the towns, as they look no different than any other Tanzanian save for their stretched earlobes, once heavy with beaded jewelery, a vestige of their upbringing which many have chosen to leave behind. Often, however, you will see a Maasai wearing his red shuka cloth, carrying his herding stick, driving a motorcycle down the highway towards Arusha, a reminder that old habits die hard and change comes slowly. In the conservation area, however, Maasai are seen flagging down safari cars, asking for food or water, offering to show their homes and their ways and their dances for a fee, and thus their dependency on tourism has begun. For thousands of years Maasai have lived off the land but as your average tourist invades their home carrying with him a charitable heart and a disposable income, he doesn’t realize the harm that he could be doing to the traditional ways of the Maasai. But while many Maasai have resisted the Tanzanian government’s attempts to merge them into mainstream society, others enjoy the middle-ground, supplementing their lives with handouts and food scraps.
Gradually the land flattens and we see less and less Maasai. We pass Oldupai Gorge, the site where Louis and Mary Leakey discovered fossil remains of early hominid species. This is the place where man was born, where our species transformed to bipedalism, where our brain size increased, where we began eating more and more iron and protein, strengthening our capacity for learning and intelligent thought, before we spread out among the continents. The place where we made the dichotomous transition from beast to man, and forever changed the fate of the earth.
The road straightens and flattens, and soon we pass through the arch declaring the land ahead Serengeti National Park. At the gate Maasai casually stand, waiting for nothing, simply passing the time on their side of the gate. They do not live in the Serengeti, do not mingle with ostrich and hyena and elephants passing their homes in the night like they do in Ngorongoro. We pass under the arch and the road continues forever ahead. In the distance the horizon undulates with the humidity and it’s difficult to tell if those silhouettes in the distance are gazelle or if I’m imagining things in the heat. At one point I think I see a lake near the horizon but then I realize it’s the sky and I can’t discern where the land ends and the sky begins. After an hour or so of driving I can’t tell if we’ve covered 10 miles or 100 miles, the landscape seems completely unchanged from when we entered the park.
The name Serengeti is a corruption of the Maasai Siringet, meaning endless plains. The Serengeti is a vast expanse of grassland, impressive for its sheer size, 5,700 square miles of unchanging plains extending from the National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya. Cruising down the dirt track toward the center of the park, Veronica and I stand up in our safari car, our bodies emerging through the exposed roof and we enjoy the breeze and even the dust and we take in the sights. We spend the afternoon searching for game and come across gazelle, antelope, several herds of elephant, a giraffe so close we could almost touch it. Lionesses nap under the shade of a yellow fever tree, nursing two cubs, and a short distance away rest two males with their soft, fluffy manes. Hippos cool off in the pool of a river, a baby crocodile sunbathes on a small grassy island. Huge secretary birds wander the plains, and a female ostrich shows off its feathers to a nearby male. Zebras cross the road, Grant’s gazelle gallop in the distance, and suddenly a cheetah darts across the road, two cubs following behind.
After several hours of driving in circles seemingly everywhere yet nowhere, it’s time to retire for the night. Veronica and her parents stay at an expensive safari camp, and I’m happy to pitch my tent in the public campground. I wake up in the middle of the night, poke my head out of my tent and gaze at the stars, too afraid to risk walking around and meeting a hyena or worse, an elephant in the campground. I rise early in the morning and walk around the perimeter of the camp, a field maybe 200 feet in diameter crowded with 40 or 50 scattered tents. The only thing separating the camp from the animals is a few trees and shrubs and through the brush and the pre-dawn darkness I see a lone buffalo munching on grass. I promptly decide against a morning run and head back to my tent, brush my teeth, have some coffee, and pack up.
Friday morning we enjoy a few more hours of game driving then retire to the airstrip, a field of gravel in the middle of the Serengeti. Nobody checks my baggage or even looks at an ID as I climb aboard a Cessna Caravan 208B, a tiny little 12-seater that will drop me off at the airstrip in Manyara, a field equally as small and unprepossessing. I’ve been wanting to take a tiny little plane like this for a while and with this trip I’ve checked a few more items off my Tanzania Bucket List. After 35 minutes we land in Manyara and I procede to make the 10 mile hike uphill to my village. Exhausted from the afternoon equatorial sun, I quaff three Sprites and promptly fall alseep as soon as I make it home.
The Serengeti was an amazing place, one of the most impressive I’ve ever been. Not only is the scenery starkly beautiful but just being in the middle of the vast expanse of grassland, with animals hiding around every corner, is to be in the Africa many of us dream about. The Africa where survival is precarious and one can never know what the day will bring, the Africa where man evolved in the hot sun under the baobab tree. During my two years here I’ve learned a lot… about man and nature, about the people in Tanzania and the tribes who, since colonialism, have left their traditional ways and now dream of a life not unlike your average American, who see that a different type of life exists and imagine that life to be infinitely better than their own. The more one moves towards the modern life, the more one leaves nature behind. Seeing the Serengeti, the landscaped which has remained unchanged for hundreds of years and the wildlife living the way nature intended, the primordial way of life, is a reminder of what life really is, and a reminder that we are all here simply to survive. Man is not so different than beast. Man evolved to survive. Skyscrapers and spaceships and iPods and microwave dinners are a byproduct of us forgetting that we are alive because Mother Nature allowed it, not because we learned to overcome and to defeat her. Being in this setting, in the expanse of the Serengeti plains in East Africa, helps you to see the essential, to begin to scrape off a little of the shell of existence in which you currently live and chisel it down to the core, to re-examine the values that guide your life and drive your daily decisions.
I think that’s enough philosophizing for now. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll save my energy and let you imagine for yourself.