Tenting in Tanzania

This article, about my African camping safari, appeared in the Los Angeles Times in August of 1999.

We drove across a dry riverbed, then up a slight embankment into a wall of dense shrubbery. Our Land Cruiser weaved through the bush in a snake-like pattern, emerging moments later onto a huge expanse dotted with dozens of umbrella acacia trees.

In the knee-high grass to my right, something moved. It was a kori bustard, as big as my Australian shepherd. I grabbed my camera and leaned out the window while the others stood on their seats to photograph the bird from the opened roof. As soon as I zoomed in on the bustard, our guide whispered, “Don’t move, don’t move.” So, naturally, I moved.

Slowly lowering my camera, I looked toward our guide in the front seat. That’s when I saw it through the windshield, and my mouth dropped open. Standing not five feet from our right headlight was an elephant the size of a bungalow.

From my seat behind our guide, I saw only the elephant’s upper legs as he towered above our Land Cruiser. My body froze and I noticed the abrupt silence, except for the kori bustard calling, “ooomp-ooomp,” in the distance.

I was reminding myself to breathe when I looked over at my friend, Mandy. She had taken the “don’t move” command literally, and so stood frozen in a half-squat on her seat. Just her head peeked out from the roof, her eyes riveted on our visitor.

The six of us waited for the elephant to make a move. Nobody spoke, nobody stirred. Except me. I quickly decided I hadn’t traveled 8,000 miles to Africa to miss capturing a photo of an enormous bull elephant — so close I could practically count his eyelashes.

As the elephant inched closer (if inching is possible with elephants), I steadied my camera while lowering my head to glance up at him from my open window. He seemed wider than our Cruiser, and a good four feet taller. The bull, raising his massive trunk high in the air, directed it toward us. Our guide whispered that he was trying to smell us to learn who we were. Apparently, elephants have very poor eyesight.

John, in the seat behind me, stood frozen. His six-foot frame extended above the roof hatch, putting him almost eye to eye with the bull, who had moved to our side of the car. When he gingerly reached his trunk toward John’s face, I was envious. John, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm, and rapidly ducked back into the car.

Startled, the bull abruptly drew back his trunk, flapped his ears wildly, and trumpeted louder than a brass band. Then he was gone — but not before I got the shot of a lifetime: an entire frame capturing the head of a curious Tanzanian elephant, black pupils set within deep brown eyes.

So began our 12-day safari in Tanzania, East Africa.

Sharing the same dream, Mandy and I wanted to observe wild animals in their natural habitats — but not as typical travelers, staying in hotels and sitting in packed buses. We wanted an affordable, off-the-beaten-path camping safari, where zebra outnumber tourists and roaring lions substitute for alarm clocks.

Our research led us to Tanzania and the Kibo Safari Company, but still, we set off with few expectations of what we’d actually see.

Tanzania is a republic with 25 regions and a population of more than 30 million. The diverse countryside has an altitude that ranges from sea level to 20,000 feet. There are said to be 129 recognized tribes, the Masai being the best known. Although Swahili is the official language, English is widely spoken.

With more national parkland than almost any country in the world, Tanzania has retained about 25% of its roughly 365,000 square miles for ecology and wildlife conservation. The humidity is low, and even at its warmest, temperatures rarely climb above 80 degrees. Nighttime temperatures dip to around 50 to 60 degrees — perfect for a camping safari.

Realizing that a safari adventure begins long before you’ve laid eyes on a dik-dik, Mandy and I spent a few days prior to safari in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. We were able to acclimate ourselves to the time change while experiencing the style and excitement of urban Africa.

We hired Oscar, a young Kenyan taxi driver, to shuttle us to the usual tourist spots. He drove a 1950s turquoise Lancia with shredded seats and doors without handles. I had grave reservations when we needed a push to get started, but Oscar’s engaging smile put us at ease. He defied the odds by constantly driving with an almost empty fuel tank, and I often found myself watching the gas gauge instead of the scenery.

We visited DaphneSheldrick’s animal orphanage, where we witnessed the bottle feeding of a pair of 20-month-old orphaned rhinos. We hand-fed free-roaming giraffe at the Giraffe Centre, and walked through the home of Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa). The City Market was a trove for African carvings and jewelry. Here, Oscar came in very handy, fending off numerous solicitors.

Leaving Nairobi, our bus broke down (not uncommon) on the 156-mile ride to Arusha, the “safari capital of Tanzania” (population 150,000). The bus radio was broken also, so our driver had to catch a ride back to town, two hours away, to retrieve another vehicle.

Africans often say “just a little problem” and we all seemed to adopt that attitude. Emptying the bus, we waited on the side of a vacant road that stretched beyond the horizon. Before long, the 16 of us were no longer strangers. We met a man from Australia who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, four Colorado ladies headed for safari, and a high school teacher from Nairobi. We shared food, exchanged pictures, and swapped adventure tales.

In Arusha, we met our guides, native Tanzanians, Hagai and Salim (pronounced “Hey-guy” and “Sa-leem”) and the rest of our group — seven other Americans. Leaving town in two Land Cruisers, we passed rows of one-room, windowless huts that housed large families. Neighbors and friends congregated outside on dirt porches and in front of markets. Countless emaciated stray dogs wandered alongside the road.

The further we traveled from Arusha, the more tribal Masai we encountered. Men wore the traditional red robes, sandals, and beaded jewelry. Masai children herded cattle and women carried bundles of sticks on their heads. Young boys with white-painted faces and black robes walked for miles celebrating their new warrior status. The flat, dusty landscape was dotted with individual villages: straw huts encircled with fences of thorny bushes. The center hut housed the husband and was surrounded by the huts of his wives, children, and other family members.

Driving into Tarangire Park, home to 9 ecosystems, we encountered 11 different species before reaching our campsite. The lush terrain was punctuated with rolling hills brimming with rich green shrubbery and ancient baobab trees. Overwhelmed, we took pictures of anything that moved.

Baobab tree

Our five-man crew preceded us, setting up camp on the rim of a riverbank above miles of brush. In the distance, a Masai village sat nestled in a small clearing. Before dinner, Mandy and I decided to take a stroll around our campsite.

Our tented toilets consisted of  buckets with toilet seats placed over two-foot holes (called “short drops”). Tented showers were spouted three-gallon buckets hanging from poles. This was my kind of camping: cots with foam mattresses and wool blankets, hot water bottles, bedside tables, chairs on the tarp porch, and individual water basins. Our shower water was heated, and our clothes were washed and folded. We were really roughing it.

Our guides, human encyclopedias of wildlife information (Kibo requires they attend East African Wildlife College), managed to find many camouflaged animals. Our first day out we were fortunate to see a leopard sleeping in a tree, the legs of his consumed dinner — a gazelle — dangling from a branch. A lone giraffe and some playful warthogs hung out near a water hole. Zebra huddled next to wildebeest.

Feeling as if I were in a National Geographic film, I stood on my seat and leaned out of the roof hatch. As a herd of elephants meandered by, the breeze became ripe with the scent of their dung. A sudden coolness enveloped the dusk as acacia trees became silhouettes against the rose-tinted sky. We headed back to camp and I stood all the way, letting the sights, sounds, and smells of Africa pass through me as the sun slipped behind the horizon.

Back at camp, we relished warm showers, then sat by the evening bonfire burning next to the riverbank. The stars looked as if they belonged in a planetarium, their size and brightness stunning. We sat under the Milky Way and munched popcorn while recounting stories of the day.

As a vegetarian, I feared our menu might feature roasted impala and rack of warthog. But our chef, Estomiy (pronounced “Ess-toe-me”), created many diverse and incredibly delicious vegetarian meals.

Our candlelit dinner, as we gratefully learned, always began with one of Estomiy’s delectable soups. Tonight’s was onion and basil, followed by black beans, coconut rice, vegetable-filled pastries, roasted pork, corn, avocado and tomato salad, fresh-baked bread, and bananas foster for dessert. Any plans to lose weight on this trip diminished with every bite.

In the morning, lion paw prints across our porch tarp inspired Mandy and I to make an immediate search for our porta-potty. It seems the basins outside our tents were a source of curiosity for many animals. Spotted hyena found them irresistible. Even when empty, the basins proved too tempting for the mischievous hyena, who often dragged them away at night, prompting a morning basin hunt.

Hagai recounted a night on safari when he heard slurping noises outside his tent. Slowly unzipping his window cover, he witnessed seven lions lined up in single file, waiting to take their turn at his water basin.

In the afternoon, we hiked with a Masai warrior. Hagai translated while “Noah” showed us handmade beehives hanging from trees, revealed bundles of dried and wrapped riverbank reeds used for the village roofs, and identified numerous paw prints in the dirt. On his hip, Noah carried the sword he had used to kill a lion that attacked his father’s cattle.

On the half-day drive to Lake Eyasi, the “forgotten lake” located at the southern border of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we interrupted the bumpy, dusty ride with a picnic. Local Masai boys watched from a distance as we ate cheese and fruit, fresh bread, barbecued fowl, and delicate pancakes filled with rice — foreign to their diet of beef, blood, and milk.

At Lake Eyasi, soft-spoken Salim reminisced about the time two playful cheetah cubs jumped onto his vehicle. As they wrestled, one cub fell through the open roof, landing on Salim’s lap. Startled, the cub jumped for the passenger side window but slammed into the closed glass, falling back on Salim. With one quick move, Salim opened his door and jumped out, quickly followed by the cub, which scurried into the bush. Unfortunately, his passengers missed it. They were huddled, faces covered, on the car floor.

At daylight, we met with Mamoyo, a member of the Datoga tribe living near Lake Eyasi. Mamoyo directed us through miles of barren landscape to the Hazda (known as “bushmen”). Among the last of Africa’s hunter-gatherers, the Hazda live primitively, under hollowed-out bushes and with few possessions.

Listening to three men talk in their “clicking” dialogue, we watched them start a fire with sticks and a stone. Later, some of our group joined them on a dik-dik hunt, but I couldn’t bear to see “Bambi” speared, so I stayed behind — and silently rejoiced when they came back empty-handed.

Hazda are always on the lookout for food, and even the tiniest boy carried a wooden spear. It was the first time I’d seen a three-year-old permitted not only to carry a large, sharp stick, but actually encouraged to run with it.

Hazda making a fire

At the Ngorongoro Crater — a 12-mile-wide extinct volcano — Kibo’s private campsite sat at the Crater rim. We looked out over 102 square miles of lakes, grassland, ponds, and tree-studded meadows. It was breath-taking. At 7500 feet above sea level, it was chilly at night, so thermal underwear came in handy.

The Crater campsite was the only place we needed armed guards. They protected us at night, not from the wildlife, but from local Masai who were known to cut through the tents to steal camper’s possessions.

An estimated 30,000 animals live in the Crater, including the diminishing rhino. Pink flamingo by the hundreds, pools of hippos, lions lounging in the sun, and vervets clambering up trees, confirmed why it’s called the “Garden of Eden.”

Our last destination, the Serengeti, refers to a Masai word meaning “endless plains.” About the size of Connecticut, the Serengeti is Tanzania’s largest national park, and home to one of the greatest concentrations of plains animals left on earth.

Entering the Serengeti from the southeast, the terrain was like a newly harvested wheat field in Kansas — miles of horizontal landscape with hardly a tree in sight. The deeper inside we drove, the dried grass became taller and acacia trees more abundant.

The Serengeti is dotted with rock outcroppings, called “kopjes” (pronounced “copies”), made of ancient granite left behind after centuries of soil erosion and weathering. Stopping to picnic near one cluster, we were innocently devouring our lunches when Salim calmly mentioned that spitting cobra often hid among the rocks. We were out of there within minutes.

Continuing our game drive, we searched for non-spitting wildlife. No such luck. Before long, we encountered about 50 baboons leisurely walking toward a pond. In no hurry to move, they gradually parted to the sides as we slowly drove by. One adult — a baby clinging to her back — stopped, turned, then spit in our direction before proceeding toward the water.

Camping in the Serengeti is incomparable. So remote was our site, we were in awe that Salim and Hagai managed to find it each day. We joked at their directions: left at the gazelles, then right at the buffalo; but we were never lost. After 10 hours of game viewing, it was a welcome sight to see the crew standing by with hot shower water. Estomiy, with his ever-present smile, was busy preparing the evening creation, complete with a marble cake for John’s birthday.

Our last night camping we fell asleep to the sound of crickets singing and hyenas laughing. A pride of lions living next to our campsite growled throughout the night. Twigs cracked and I sat up in bed to see Mandy peeking out through the screen window, motioning for me to join her.

A spotted hyena, faintly illuminated by the moon, was curled up on our porch tarp. Transfixed, we watched in silence as he slept.

By morning he was gone — and so were the water basins.

3 thoughts on “Tenting in Tanzania

  1. Boy that sure brings back great memories. I still consider that trip, the trip of my life. I have yet to have another adventure that can top that (although the kayaking with the Orcas came pretty close). Thanks for letting me relive our African safari through your story.

    • I feel the same way. That was my favorite trip of all time, followed closely by the Orca trip. We’ve had some great adventures. Look forward to sharing more…

  2. Wow, I’ve been reading the blogs for the past hour plus. This is one of the best trips I’ve been on via reading. Thanks for all the chills, thrills and just plain adventure.

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