I woke up in the Serengeti. It was the perfect summer day resurrected from childhood memory- warm sun on my arms and the smell of grass carried by a light breeze. We were driving down a dirt road that stretched into the horizon. The day felt timeless.
I ended up on safari in Tanzania as a result of a Living Social ad. I’d opened an email about discount vacations expecting to see trips to Mexico and Europe. What caught my eye was 10 days in Tanzania, airfare included, for $3,500. It seemed like a pretty good price, but it was expensive enough that I couldn’t think of any family or friends who I could convince to go with me. Nobody I knew was especially interested in investing that much in travel.
I could have convinced my dad to go with me. The trip had elements he would have loved – wild animals, tents, hot air ballooning, and snorkeling in Zanzibar. But my dad was gone. Twenty months earlier he died of pancreatic cancer. I lost not only my dad, but also my backpacking and camping buddy, a fellow adventurer, and the one person who believed I could do anything I set my mind to do (regardless of how unrealistic). In a world without him, could I manage a solo trip to Africa? Had I recovered enough to begin to be brave again? My mom said yes and a friend advised me to honor my dad by resuming activities he would have loved, so I paid my deposit, bought a safari hat, expanded my khaki pants collection, and upgraded my camera.
To start my “trip of a lifetime,” I flew to Arusha, Tanzania. During the 20-hour flight, I met a few of the people I’d be spending the next 10 days with. We were a group of 12, all from the United States, ranging in age from the mid-thirties to late-sixties. There were married couples, friends traveling together, a father/daughter/uncle family group I envied, and me. I was the only solo traveler.
It was 10:30 pm when we emerged from the small airport into the dark African night. We trailed after our guide through the sparsely lit dirt parking lot to a van. Driving to our lodging, we made small talk –sorting out relationships, expectations, and disproving or verifying the snap judgments we were making about our fellow travelers. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement in the periphery of the headlights and yelped. Was it a lion? Nope, just a stray dog. We were in a good-sized town, which turned out to be full of dogs who barked most of the night.
As a solo traveler, I was rooming alone, which is distinctly disadvantageous when you arrive in a foreign place in the dark, find you are staying in a hut on a steep hillside, and your flashlight is still packed. My snake phobia compounded my nervousness. “Hotel” staff had handed me a key and pointed me toward a hut door as they were helping others with their more voluminous luggage (worth more of a tip than my lone backpack). A foot or so above the handle of the door, I could see a dark shape about eight inches long and a few inches wide. It was an animal. Maybe a lizard? It didn’t move. I inched the key toward the door, pausing frequently to assess the position of the animal. The grating of the key against the lock didn’t seem to disturb it – still no movement. Ever so slowly, I pulled the door open just wide enough to slip into the room, then I slammed it shut! Flipping on the lights, I exhaled, and checked the room for snakes before setting my backpack on the bed.
There wasn’t really any cause for concern about snakes – I was just extra cautious. I’d read a blog from a guy volunteering at a remote outpost in Kenya who found a cobra curled around the toilet one night. It took me many days to let go of that mental image. In the entire 10 days I was in Tanzania, I did not see a single snake. In the light of day, however, I did get brave enough to look for the animal that had frightened me the night before. It was a beaded chameleon nailed to the door as a decoration.
There are probably as many types of safaris as there are places to go on them. This adventure involved long, all-day drives every day as we made our way in Land Rovers with pop-up tops from Arusha to Lake Manyara to Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti and then back to Arusha for a quick flight to Zanzibar for beach time. We were each assigned to a vehicle with a driver, who was also our wildlife guide. We’d roll into a lodge right before dinner, stay the night, and leave after breakfast for the next leg of the trip. While this was a great way to see a lot of territory, it didn’t give me enough time for in-depth exploration. For example, in the Serengeti, my tent was on the far edge of the camp facing the plains. It was so wild there that I was given a whistle for calling an armed guard to escort me to the dining area. That was the night we were all jolted from sleep by a hyena chasing prey around camp. I wanted to spend multiple days here – it was a wrench to leave after just 10 hours.
While I expected to see giraffes, zebras, and lions the moment we left the airport, Africa isn’t a zoo. It took a few hours of driving the next morning before we spotted wildlife. We stopped on the side of the road so the guides could change a leaking tire. All 12 of us tourists stood on the tarmac watching, when one of the guys spotted a giraffe head over some trees in the field behind us. Then we spotted another. And another. And a few zebra. Despite being told to stay on the road, we climbed over the ditch and began walking toward the animals with cameras in hand. We got a ways into the bush before the guides realized we were gone and began yelling at us to get back in the vehicles. You shouldn’t just walk off into the bush.
Later in the trip I was reminded again just how far I was out of my element: I was looking across the veld thinking how nice it would be to run through the grass when I spotted lion ears.
I’ve read that many people on their first safari take hundreds of photos of animals as a way to prove what they are seeing, as if without an image, the sighting didn’t happen. This is certainly true of my experience. It was surreal to see these animals in the wild. I shot photo after photo.
A camera lens, however, can limit your view. It confines your experience to a small square. Late one day, as our driver was rushing to our next lodge, we spotted a few elephants not far from the road. Begging him to stop, “just for a minute,” we took photos of the small family. While everyone was oohing over the baby, I looked up from my camera and saw that this small group was part of a much larger herd of about a hundred walking along the horizon. It was an awe-inspiring sight that is one of my favorite memories of the trip. Sharing stories at dinner, I discovered that most people missed seeing the larger herd because they were so focused on the few closest to us.
A safari is as addictive as gambling. It is the routine of driving interrupted by an adrenaline rush of seeing an animal. Like a slot machine, you can’t really predict when your efforts will be rewarded or what that reward will be. Taking a shortcut, we passed a tree with a cheetah and cubs playing in the shade. My first lioness stared deep into my eyes as goose bumps rose on my arms. A leopard lounged gracefully on a tree limb. Animals were my jackpots; I was hooked on safari life.
I traveled to Africa in an attempt to jump-start my life after my dad’s death. It was more effective than I imagined. Like John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, I had come home to a place I’d never been before. In the three years since returning from Tanzania, I’ve spent a month in the bush in South Africa, two weeks driving through Namibia, and leave again in a few days for Zimbabwe and Botswana. My original “trip of a lifetime” was just the starting point.
(All photos courtesy of author.)[Editor’s Note: Technology gods willing, the author will send photos and stories from her upcoming safaris in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana to McCall Digest, so check back for more in coming weeks.]