Confession: I’ve had songs from The Lion King stuck in my head all weekend.
When I told my grandmother that I was going to Tanzania for three months to work for an NGO that seeks to empower disenfranchised women and youth in their local context, she was definitely supportive and excited for me. But all she really had to say in terms of what I’d be doing there was that, if I can, I must go on a safari. When her and my grandpa went, they had loved it. I remember being a little put out; I was going to a foreign country to work, and my social scientist brain made sure that mantras about ethical volunteerism ran through my head on hyperdrive in the months before I boarded the plane.
Grandma (I know you read these): I’m sorry.
We went on safari.
The other girls and I still haven’t done a whole lot in terms of our projects (a mixture of “Tanzanian time” and also the four of us being spread across three projects), and all four of us are also a little tight financially. So we decided that a safari would be our splurge. Our vacation.
We planned four days and three nights, so we’d make it through the Serengeti and to the Ngorongoro Crater, and then back to Mwanza via the Serengeti again. We camped to cut costs. We badgered Jibraan, who owns the safari company we went with, for discounts and advice (he was very helpful). I wrestled with being pulled away from our search for venues and sponsors for the Mikono Yetu event, but reasoned with myself that it was really just a long weekend, and we haven’t gotten into a routine quite yet anyways. Best get it out of the way now.
We hit the road Friday morning. We just got back, mid-afternoon on Monday.
I wouldn’t trade those four days for the world.
The Serengeti is absolutely stunning. It’s about a two-hour drive south-east from Mwanza, and mostly grassland. We’re in Tanzania through the dry season, so it’s not as dry and dusty here as it could be (yet), but it’s still pretty dusty. The dirt roads through the national park are narrow and bumpy, some more trodden than others. Upon entering, I couldn’t get enough of the scenery. You can see forever in some places, it seems, the vast plains stretched out before us only interrupted by short trees and patches of wildebeests. It was so surreal that we were here.
A Canadian girl hanging out in the Serengeti.
After only a bit of driving after entering the park on the first day, we drove past a group of zebras and wildebeests. I made a fool of myself, shamelessly snapping picture after picture and breathing “animals” but I’m over caring about how I’m perceived at this point. We spent the rest of the afternoon of Friday driving around the park, slowly making our way to the campsite. We saw so many animals, shooed away so many flies, and I managed not to get sunburned.
I said I would cry when I saw an elephant. Not completely true, but also not completely false.
Henry, our stellar guide and driver, brought us to a body of water where we could see some hippos and crocodiles. While snapping pictures and trying to will the hippos out of the water so that we could see more than their ears, Henry mentioned that there were some elephants on the other side of the trees opposite to us. I think I stopped breathing for a moment. Sure enough, we could see two elephant heads peak out on the other side of the river, eating leaves. Camera zoomed in, I took as many pictures as I could, until someone poked my shoulder and motioned to our right. An elephant was making its way to the river. I was looking straight at a real life, wild elephant. I was so happy.
It was also apparently not a huge deal. We saw many elephants this weekend, all of which I was excited to see and count as new friends (“nakupenda, tembo”). We were on the road for the sunset, and then made our way to the campsite to sleep in tents, in the heart of the Serengeti. Crazy? Yes. Apparently the only danger was if we had food in our tents; hyenas are determined little things if they smell food. Every noise we heard that night was a hyena in my mind, but luckily we didn’t run into any unwanted visitors.
On Saturday, we all got up and went for a game drive at 6:00 am, in time to see the sunrise. It was so peaceful. We saw the first and only male lion, perched at the top of a rock gazing across the plain. It was times like these that I felt very happy to have a camera with me that took decent pictures even when zoomed in (thanks Rachel, I owe you one).
We then joined a crowd of safari cars grouped around a tree — and a couple of leopards. One was sitting in the tree, the other on the ground. This one walked so close to the car. Having so many people around, binoculars and cameras glued to their faces (we probably looked the same), kind of took away from the experience, though. It felt a little more akin to a zoo.
We ate breakfast and departed to the Ngorongoro Crater, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It’s a wonder indeed. Going from the Serengeti to the highlands of Tanzania (populated by the Masai tribe) was fascinating. The crater itself was amazing to see, as we descended from thick greenery to the enclosed grassy plain. We saw flamingoes, wildebeests, zebras, a rhino (from very far away, that blob is a rhino I promise), and found ourselves in front of a group of female lions with their cubs (!!!). We then made our way back up to the camp site. The time limit for being inside the crater is six hours, so the camp sites are all on the rim of the crater.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t see animals after we left the crater.
Getting to the campsite, Iris, Nuri, Samira, and I buckled down in the safari car for a bit. Samira and I weren’t feeling well (we’re suspecting food poisoning, it wasn’t fun), and because of the altitude it was getting pretty chilly. There was a group gathered around the kitchen building taking pictures, we assumed of the scenery.
It wasn’t the scenery.
Two elephants plodded into our campsite. Iris and I ran out of the car, alternating taking pictures of each other with the elephants, showing how close they were. We were quickly told to get back; elephants can be fast if they want to be. As I write this I get excited all over again. If five-year-old me knew that in the future she’d have an elephant in her campsite, she’d go crazy.
21-year-old me went pretty crazy.
The next morning, after bundling up and getting a pretty good sleep (despite feeling sick and once again being worried about four-legged visitors), we had breakfast and then departed for our journey back through the Serengeti. During breakfast we were visited by another elephant; this time I took picture proof at a safer distance away.
We made it to the Serengeti at around noon, giving us plenty of time to find animals before setting up camp for another night. We saw lots of animals again. It was fantastic.
By this time I think Henry, our guide, had decided that despite our silliness we were pretty decent Canadian-folk. The fact that Samira speaks Swahili and Iris, Nuri, and I try to speak as much as possible probably worked in our favour. He answered all of our questions in detail, told us his favourite animal, and genuinely tried to show us as many animals as possible, as close as possible.
Henry is also the gutsiest person I now know.
After seeing a lioness stalking a group of zebras from afar (she was unsuccessful), Henry drove us past some hippos and onto a stretch of road that was more overgrown. He told us to be quieter. We found ourselves a couple of metres away from three lionesses. Out came the cameras. Out came Iris’s selfie stick. The lionesses were so majestic and big, lazing around in the sun. One got up and walked away. One got up and returned with her cubs. We were ecstatic. Henry started the car again as they walked away in a group. He went back to the road. Then he turned onto a different one, where we saw the same group of lions. He had followed them. The cubs looked back at us, bold and curious.
It was so neat.
We drove around more, looked around more, and ended at our campsite around 5:00 pm. The other girls and I hung out for a bit, ate dinner later than any of us wanted to, and headed to bed. I hardly slept; the tarp on our tent kept blowing in the wind and hitting the tent right beside where I was trying to sleep. We woke up, had breakfast, packed up, and hit the road one more time. On our way out, we saw giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, hyenas, birds, and a plethora of others. We hadn’t seen a cheetah yet, though. Cheetahs are Henry’s favourite animal.
Henry spoke with a few other safari drivers passing by. One of them had seen a cheetah a little ways from us. Once we got to where the cheetah reportedly was, the other safari car driver that was there told us that there were cheetahs, but they were laying down. We couldn’t see them. So Henry turned off the radio, told the other driver not to tell anyone else, and drove a little off the road.
The three cheetahs that were hiding got up. They looked so powerful and lean. We didn’t stick around; we snapped a few pictures and then left them in peace.
I’m tired and my face is a little sunburnt. There is a thin layer of dirt resting on my skin (I decided not to brave the showers). My fingernails look disgusting. And I’m pretty sure there’s elephant poop on my shoes.
I also feel really unprepared for this week in terms of work. I’m volunteering, and experiencing the “pole pole” kind of lifestyle in Tanzania (“pole pole” means “slowly,” and represents the way of thinking here pretty well). But I’m still struggling to fully justify taking four days off and away from work and internet access, only three weeks into our time in Mwanza. I’m a hard worker, and take pride in that. I’m also a hard worker that allows herself free time (although arguably not as frequently as I should). This should be okay. It is okay, according to our partners. I know Maimuna won’t care.
Maybe I’m just uneasy about work in general. It’s not about being MIA, it’s about how I still haven’t found my footing, and where my particular role falls. I can’t bring myself to consider our safari unjustified, I am very happy that we decided to go.
I had a blast on safari.