What I Learned on Safari
Globetrotter Leah Walker shares what it was like to walk in the footsteps of lions, zebras and elephants during her adventure in the Serengeti.
Though raised on the South Plains of Texas, where cotton fields are filled with cottontail rabbits and the most dangerous predator is a rattlesnake, I’ve put down roots in Paris, where French waiters and bureaucracy remain my most formidable adversaries. Serengeti National Park couldn’t be further from my routine, but that’s exactly what I craved.
Texas is a world away from Tanzania, but the flight from Kilimanjaro seemed familiar as we passed over the Serengeti’s vast, dry plains. It was August, and I’d arrived during one of the dry periods when the Serengeti is hot, much of the flora is dead or on the verge, and controlled burns light up the night’s onyx horizon, filling the air with a haze reminiscent of an old sepia photo.
Flying in among the clouds, though, Africa still felt like an exotic dream.
The striking of the wheels on the rust-coloured dirt runway jolted me into reality. Eyes wide, I was ready to absorb every experience the Serengeti had to offer.
Jambo! Greeting the locals
My first glimpse of the Maasai came upon arrival to Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti. Visually, I was fascinated with them – men draped in red-and-blue-chequered fabric, wearing shoes made from motorcycle tires, with rows of beaded jewellery on their arms and spears at their sides.
They weren’t actors hired to play roles for tourists. These Maasai, some with earlobes stretched and elaborate scarring on their skin, were the real deal.
“Jambo!” they said as they took my luggage. This Swahili word for “hello” would be part of my Serengeti soundtrack, along with zebras barking and elephants trumpeting.
Descendants of a nomadic tribe originating in Kenya, the Maasai now graze their livestock in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Before they marry, have children and achieve warrior status, Maasai men must go through several rites of passage. This once included lion hunting, when spear and shield separated an aspiring warrior from the Serengeti’s most feared predator. Today, it’s traditions such as the adumu dance that are still observed.
Athletic, rhythmic and symbolic, I watched this exhilarating dance at the Lodge’s Boma Grill. During adumu, Maasai men gather in a circle, chanting. Taking turns, young warriors move to the centre of the circle. With arms tight against the body and heels never touching the ground, they spring up and down, with the best and highest jumpers earning the admiration of the crowd.
Into the wild: Game drives in the Serengeti
The next morning, with the sun peeking over the Lodge, I embarked on my first of two game drives into the Serengeti.
As we rode through the plains, suddenly my guide, Priscus, stopped the sand-coloured Land Cruiser; silence and an early-morning chill filled the air. A seasoned guide and naturalist, Priscus had his eyes on a small group of Grant’s gazelles – Serengeti’s largest antelope.
Rather than grazing, they were frozen. There was a threat, and they could sense it. Priscus followed the gazelles’ line of sight, and in a matter of seconds, we spotted a hyena, jackals and vultures. All scavengers. There was a fresh kill, which meant a leopard, cheetah or pride of lions wouldn’t be far.
Here, wildlife and those who observe it remain in a constant state of awareness. Understanding the behaviour of one animal spills over into the behaviour of another. An entire scenario is can be unravelled from the pricked ears of an antelope.
In the footsteps of lions, zebras and elephants: A walking safari
A couple of hours before sunset, I was reunited with the Lodge’s naturalist and guide, Priscus. Along with Priscus, two spear-wielding Maasai warriors and two rifle-toting park rangers would accompany me on a walking safari into the Park’s plains. Vehicles in the Serengeti are limited to roads, so smaller details such as the flora, hyena tracks, 3-foot-high termite mounds and lion ant dens are easily missed.
We moved single file along a beaten dirt path through the open plains.
“Some animals walk on a trail, but not lions,” I was told. “If you see one fresh lion footprint then you better look around, because there are probably more. Look for bush, because they’re probably in the shade.” It was about an hour from sundown, and a chill ran down my spine at the thought of the hungry nocturnal hunters.
As bipedal creatures, humans are strange in the Serengeti. There was no way our presence would go unnoticed. “Elephants and buffalo are very strong, but they’re afraid of us,” Priscus said. “They don’t know how strong we are.” In the distance, a herd of 40 buffalo devoured their dry-grass dinner, though acutely aware of our group. These aggressive horned bovines would leave us alone as long as we stayed in the neutral zone.
With the Serengeti sun dipping below the horizon, the sky was awash with gold, followed by orange and red. We continued walking, with one of the armed rangers leading the way: “Do you hear the zebras barking? That’s the thing about walking, you can hear the sound of nature without the grrrrr of the Land Cruiser.”
Soaring above the Serengeti: An aerial safari
My last morning in the Serengeti was an early one, and I gleefully sprang from bed well before the sun. After an intimidatingly close look at the life of predator and prey, by car and on foot, it was time to take to the skies in a hot-air balloon.
The scorched plains passed below like an aerial scene from The African Queen. The feeling of weightlessness and the sound of silence were worth the 4:30 am departure from the Lodge. Mimicking the colours of the Serengeti, the green and gold balloon effortlessly floated low over the rugged terrain. Dawn was breaking, signalling the antelopes, zebras and warthogs to begin eating. Hippos returned to their muddy pools, and lions savoured the previous night’s kill.
The captain fired up the burner, enabling the 16-passenger balloon to climb higher. We soared alongside hawks and eagles, spotting the nests of African white-backed vultures. I literally had a bird’s-eye view of the Serengeti. The hour-long flight passed in seconds.
Despite the captain’s smooth landing, my feet were still off the ground – I was drunk with euphoria. A seemingly permanent smile on my face, I gathered with the other passengers for ceremonial Champagne and a traditional English-style brush breakfast.
I couldn’t have scripted a better ending to my Serengeti story.
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