On Not Getting Eaten by Lions: Serengeti Safari

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
Trip End Jun 13, 2011

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I may or may not have a little reputation on my students' outdoor ed. trips as being the teacher who freaks out when she hears noises outside her tent.

But on all those trips in the San Jacinto mountains and in Joshua Tree, I've NEVER heard anything like the massacre that occurred outside my tent in the middle of the Serengeti. If you've ever wondered what it sounds like when a lion mauls another animal and when hyenas surround your tent, wonder no more. I can do a fun little impression for you when I next see you.

Before I describe that experience (which, by the way, terrified me more than bungy jumping, sky-diving, or swimming with sharks), I'll back up a few steps.... When Dan and I arrived in Moshi, I was practically bouncing off the walls--partly out of delirium from our long, harrowed bus journey but partly out of happy anticipation for seeing two of my Chadwick pals later that night. Summar and Patrick would arrive around midnight, and then the three of us would leave the next day for a five-day safari through the Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Tarangire Park, and the famous Ngorogoro crater.

We had such a happy reunion with the Chadwick chums, and then we left Dan in Moshi as we departed for Lake Manyara. As Summar, Pat, and I laughed and laughed about Chadwick stories and round-the-world trip tales, our guide Emmanuel tried to insert some history of the landscape we were whizzing by. I realized how much I'd missed the old pals; it was really, really good to catch up with some peeps who know me in my "other" life.

When we did manage to catch our breath from storytelling and look outside the jeep, we realized how gorgeous the scenery was. As we wove our way up into the famous Green Hills of Africa, the plains gave way to lush greenery enveloped by clouds. Then when we pulled into our first park, Lake Manyara, we were stunned by the beauty of the rainforest.

To our delight, Emmanuel popped the top of the Land Rover, and Pat, Summar, and I lept to our feet. We admired the baobab trees and laughed at the awkward baboons. There were some pretty vicious little guys; Emmanuel swore they were only playing around, but they seemed violent to us. We eventually wound our way out of the rainforest and onto the open plain once again, where we spotted Lake Manyara. The scenery was gorgeous, with the various shades of gray and blue in the sky reflecting on the lake. Zebras, giraffes, and buffalo dotted the landscape and were the immediate focal points for our snap-snapping cameras. I couldn't get over how cool it was to see the animals in their natural habitat: there was no fence keeping them in or out of any specific space.

The next day, after a night of Kili beer and more ridiculous stories, we headed to a traditional Maasai village. We'd seen some Maasai tribes walking along the road with their beautiful, bright robes and their spears, and we were really curious about them. So when Emmanuel suggested we pay to visit a small village, we jumped at the chance. Our guide, whose Maasai name translated to "Scorpion," was a lovely guy who ushered us into the village welcome circles. Pat was shown into the middle of a circle of men, who chanted and jumped with him, rhythmically, in the air. Summar and I were led to a circle of women, who placed beads around our necks and then chanted, jumping some more. I didn't care that this village was an obvious tourist spot for those on safari; we were lucky to be the only tourists in the village at that time, and the women's kind smiles--as we hopped in the air together--were lovely. As Scorpion then showed us into the thatched homes and the little schoolhouse, I felt so moved by the experience. Though the Maasai people are modernizing to some extent (they explained, openly, how they "import" the brightly colored plastic beads from the city, so the women can make their jewelry), they are also living quite a traditional life. They still migrate, with their livestock, twice a year. They still consume milk and blood as the main staple in their diet. And, as we later saw, they still send their young men out onto the lonely plains to undergo their rite of passage into adulthood. As our safari jeep careened around a beautiful mountain pass, we whizzed past four young Maasai boys walking into the wind. Their faces were painted with the patterns of their rites, and for just a moment they caught our eyes through the jeep's thick glass. For some reason, seeing their faces--and watching them watch us--was pretty powerful for me. Summar, Pat, and I fell silent, and I'll admit that I almost burst into tears. Maybe it was because we'd just been "welcomed" into the Maasai community in a situation that was comfortable, touristy, educational. The village and its people were preened for tourists. And then when we saw these young guys juxtaposed with our safari jeep...THAT seemed like a more genuine "Maasai-tourist encounter." And their stares were so sharp, so seemingly expressive of what they'd just been through: not only a circumcision at age 13, but also the experience of sleeping alone out on the plains and, if they were lucky, killing a lion--in some tribes, that's still an essential part of the rite of passage.

We continued along in our jeep until we reached the gorgeous Serengeti. I was so taken by the famous wide, infinite plains and the beautiful acacia trees. And the light--whether the sun was shining brightly or only barely reflecting off the puddles--was gorgeous. We all must've snapped a hundred photos of the landscape alone. And we were lucky to see all the animals we'd hoped to find! Lions, a leopard, a cheetah, zebras, giraffes, etc. The most amazing sites were seeing the different animals interact: watching a cheetah catch a gazelle and watching zebras guard a pack of migrating wildebeast from preying hyenas. Totally amazing.

The most noteworthy experience, however, was one that involved animals of the human variety. When we first arrived at our safari camp, and I learned we'd be sleeping in tents (with nothing but canvas between us and the lions), I was terrified. I like to consider myself a relatively adventurous person, but there were all sorts of cues in this safari camp that would lead me to believe that we SHOULD be at least a tad scared as we stayed here. Various signs warned us not to stray from the 50-meter perimeter inside the tents. And seeing hyenas' eyes glare at us as we ate dinner in the "mess hall tent" didn't help much. Nor did the knowledge--painfully obvious--that the three of us were the only residents staying in that camp for those two nights. And when Emmanuel told us that we were NOT, under any circumstances, to leave our tents at night (there were makeshift toilets within the tents themselves), that just about sealed the deal for me.

So when Summar and I first heard the cat growls and snarls--around 9:00 p.m., we started to freak out. And when we heard the all-out maul-fest around 2:00, then again at 3:00, and once more around 5:00, I thought I was going to die from heart failure. In retrospect, I realize we must have looked like a pretty ridiculous couple of gals, but those sounds were utterly terrifying. I should have captured them on my camera, but I was too scared to leave the "safety" of my blankets and reach for it in my bag. At one point, because we'd heard that lions stay away if they hear human voices talking softly, we turned on our head lamps and read aloud to each other from her guidebook about giardia, another lovely beast to fear on our travels. We also heard Pat, in his tent next door, alternate between laughing at the hyenas (who looked at him through his tent window) and crying out to us in fear. Around 4:00, there may have been a few expletives yelled from one tent to the other.

When we awoke the next morning, Emmanuel gleefully asked us if we'd heard the hyenas and the lion. He GRINNED as he asked us this. With bloodshot eyes, we told him why yes, we had. He just laughed at us and reminded us to stay inside our tents the next night.

Good call, Emmanuel. Thanks, bud.

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barb on

You three certainly had a memorable safari! Beautiful pictures, Kate! I wish I'd have been there.....

Nicole D. on

Sounds amazing... but where was Dan while you were having such fun adventures?

Uncle john on

Awsome pics!

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