ON THE SERENGETI, AFRICA -- I’ve gotten flat tires from hitting a pot hole, had a few fender benders, have run out of gas, had my car stolen and have gotten stuck in traffic, mud and snow. But this was the first time my vehicle got stuck in … a big hole dug by an aardvark.
We were an hour away from camp, on the Serengeti plains in Tanzania. There was no AAA to dig us out.
The three of us, the driver, my guide Kennedy and me, got out of the pop-top Land Rover and scratched our heads. It was sun up on the Serengeti, when lions are hiding in the brush, waiting to chase and kill something for breakfast. Zebras and antelopes and waterbucks and buffaloes grazing on the brush. To a lion, this is Golden Corral. Warthogs aren’t particularly attractive, but lions find them delicious.
While the driver and Kennedy shoved tree limbs under the back tire, I stood sentry, on the lookout for an animal that might be thinking, “Don’t these fools know the rules? Humans are supposed to stay inside the Land Rover.”
Kennedy was in good shape, but the driver was an older guy. I thought about that joke, “I don’t have to outrun the lion, I just have to outrun you.”
I recently spent a week in Kenya and Tanzania on safari, a Swahili word that means journey. It doesn’t mean hunting animals, especially now, because hunting is illegal in all of Kenya and most of Tanzania.
I went with Micato Safaris, a Kenya-based tour operator with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Talk about your once-in-a-lifetime adventure, this is it. Every step of the way is first class, from the moment your plane touches down in Nairobi, Kenya, to your face-to-face encounter with a lion born free in the Serengeti, to Micato owners Felix and Jane Pinto’s farewell hug.
At Amboseli National Park in Kenya, I checked into Tawi Lodge, which has 12 thatch-roofed cottages. The eco-friendly lodge is powered by wind energy and a solar generator. The teenager who carried my bags (they will not let you carry your own) gave me a quick tour of the cottage. The four-poster bed had mosquito netting around it. There was a deck wrapped all the way around. Every cottage faces Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.
My bathroom had a small window near the toilet, at eye level sitting down. It provided a perfect view of Kilimanjaro. I sat on my deck and watched elephants and zebras and gazelles. At night, I heard hyenas. It’s a little more cause for concern than your neighbor’s mutt barking in the backyard.
We saw our first zebras when the plane touched down on the dirt runway at Amboseli. Fellow tourists whipped out their cameras like paparazzi climbing over each other for photos of Kim and Kanye. Wild zebras! Horses with stripes!
Five safari days later, “Zebras?” Yawn. “Let us know when there’s a lion nearby.”
Micato provides an animal watching book, where you check off each different animal you see. Wildebeest, check. Giraffe, check. Impala, check. The park looks like a real-life Jungle Book.
Each morning, around 6 a.m., guests go for a game run in a Land Rover or Jeep. The Land Rover can pull up right next to a sleeping lion, barely 5 feet away. The lion pokes its head up, sees tourist paparazzi, and goes back to sleep. The lion is thinking, wake me when something I can eat walks by.
My favorite animal is the giraffe. They can grow as tall as 20 feet. They eat leaves off the tops of trees, where no other animal can reach. If Africa were a supermarket, giraffes could reach the air conditioner filters on the top shelf. Giraffes are beautiful, tall and sleek, graceful and aloof. They’re above it all. The driver pointed to a shape in the distance and said it was a giraffe. It looked like a tree to me. We drove toward it, and sure enough, a giraffe. It’s hard to blend in when you’re 20 feet tall.
The lion, Simba in Swahili, is the national symbol of Kenya and clearly the King of the Jungle. There aren’t too many Broadway plays about warthogs. Warthog is such an unfortunate name for an animal. The name is ugly coming and going. Wart … hog. But while the lion sells theater tickets, the baddest dude in Africa really is a bull elephant. “Nobody, not even Simba, messes with an elephant,” Kennedy said. By the way, the warthog is a lovable creature. They’re scaredy-cats, though. They are one of the few animals that run when they see a Land Rover coming.
Sitting around a campfire at Ngerende Island Lodge, Kennedy explained how animals are predators and every animal is constantly nervous for its safety. I asked him, of the hundreds of different animals we saw that week, not counting newborns, how many could I beat up? He said maybe a gazelle, “if you caught it from behind.” Think, what are my chances of catching a gazelle from behind? They’re not called gazelles because a newspaper guy from Texas can chase them down.
There was a small moment, a gesture, that left its mark on me. During a game drive, Kennedy stopped the Land Rover, walked about 50 feet, picked up a stray paper cup, and put it in his pocket. He got back in and never said a word. Kenyans, especially those in the tourist trade, respect nature. Pretty neat.
Kennedy taught me a few Swahili words. “Jambo” is “hello.” “Hatari” means “danger.” You might want to say “asante” when somebody helps you. The locals appreciate that. It means “thank you.” And for dealing with roadside souvenir salespeople, absolutely say “duka,” which means “Can I have a discount?” Whatever the salesman asks for a carved elephant, you come back with half that amount. Then you start dickering.
Ngerende Island Lodge in Masai Mara is an incredible, over-the-top, luxury resort. Outside the main gate, a group of young Masai men welcomed us with a dance. One by one, they took turns jumping. They had some serious ups. A Masai teenager can impress a girl by jumping higher than the other guys. Since Masai are allowed to have many wives, jumping is important. They wore traditional Masai clothes, a red cloth wrapped around their torso and over one shoulder. I noticed one of the dancers wearing a belt. I looked closer. It said “Obama U.S.A.” President Obama’s father was from Kenya.
My cottage had three enclosed sides. The side overlooking the Mara River was open. Down below were hippos, sitting in water all day. At night, they’d leave for a few hours and search for food. But all day, I heard the hippos burping and splashing. I got used to it. They’re funny looking. And, I’m told, mean.
Each cottage gets a personal butler. My butler was a young woman named Faith. She gave me a walkie-talkie and said whenever I needed anything, just call. While I was at dinner, she filled my outdoor bath tub with bubble bath. Each afternoon, when I returned from a game run, there would be a happy message spelled out in flower petals on my bed. She’d write, “Have a long life” or “This will be a lovely day.” And each morning, I’d rearrange the flower petals to say something like “Tell the hippos to shut up.”
During dinner, when Faith brought my pea soup, she spelled “Ken” in yogurt. At home, when I hit a drive-though, nobody’s spelling my name in french fries.
We hopped a prop plane and flew into Tanzania. The “airport” at Singita Grumeti Reserves is about the size of a phone booth. Kennedy said we were landing “at Terminal A.” Kennedy had some good lines. The dirt roads are full of rocks and holes. Car passengers shake like dice in a Yahtzee cup. He called the bumpy ride an “African massage.”
PEEPING TOM MONKEYS
I stayed one night at Singita Faru Faru Lodge. Again, more elegant and gourmet than I’ve ever experienced anywhere. My lodge had an outdoor shower built into a cliff, facing a river. Across the river, I could see monkeys playing in the trees. I’m not comfortable taking a shower outside, and I definitely didn’t like those monkeys staring at me.
I had dinner on a ledge above the Serengeti plains. During migration, a million animals will move across the landscape.
My favorite, and most challenging night, was spent at Singita Explore, a tented camp in Serengeti National Park. The camp relocates every few days to be near the migrating animals. They have a lot of room to relocate. The park covers 5,700 square miles, bigger than Connecticut.
This camp is for people who want to be partners with nature. Because I knew I was leaving the next morning, I was good with nature for one night. Dinner was memorable. We were given sticks with fresh dough stuck on the end, like marshmallows or a weenie roast. We “baked” bread over the campfire.
We had lamb chops and peas and parsley potatoes. The sky was blacker than I’ve ever seen it. There was no smog or neon or car lights, so when a shooting star crossed the full moon, it looked like Star Wars.