As the world reaches one year since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, C. James Dale looks back on his last major trip, an awe-inspiring visit to Tanzania’s most well-known national park in search of seclusion and unforgettable experiences.
As the late British writer and journalist Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “One cannot resist the lure of Africa.”
Visiting this dynamic and diverse continent is on almost every traveller’s top 10 list, a vibrant destination boasting stunning landscapes, myriad cultures and ever-evolving metropolises.
And for those planning a safari adventure, usually, the aim is to spot one if not all of the so-called Big Five: lions, rhinos, leopards, buffalos and elephants. Not so for my six-year-old daughter.
“I want to see a mongoose,” she intoned shortly after our Cessna C208B Grand Caravan touched down with a bump on the dusty, gravelly runway at the Seronera Airstrip in the middle of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My wife and I chuckled as we collected our bags inside the tiny arrivals lounge. Less than 30 minutes earlier, we’d been up in the air, craning our necks in the cramped quarters of the turboprop plane as we stared out the small windows to see the zebras, elephants and giraffes that dotted the landscape below.
Over the next few days, we would marvel over creatures great and small, not just during our hours-long explorations of the Serengeti, but also from our base at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti.
First, though, we had to meet our driver and guide for the journey – Elly, a tall and strong-looking man with an easy smile and relaxed nature. He led us from the airport to a cream-coloured four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser, beside which he’d laid out a spread that included fruit, cookies, mixed nuts, coffee and sparkling wine.
Our flight had only been a couple of hours long, so we didn’t need much time to rest and recharge. We indulged briefly, but then got going a short time later, eager to start our adventure.
“Stop the car. Get the camera,” my wife called out after only a few minutes.
Just off the road and on the grassland we saw herds of animals that would soon become familiar sights: wildebeest, buffalos and zebras. Snap, snap, snap. We started filling up the camera’s digital card.
Elly awaited our cue to continue driving, but then a couple of minutes later we stopped again to take in the sights: giraffes tearing leaves off trees, a crew of diffident dik-dik, a hyena soaking in a muddy puddle. The roughly one-hour drive took us almost double that to complete. We were already buzzing and we hadn’t even unpacked our bags.
Sanctuary in the savannah
Pulling up to the lodge, we looked forward to a brief respite. From our home in Singapore, we’d flown through Dubai and, after spending a couple of days in the futuristic desert city, jetted to the Serengeti via Zanzibar.
Our one-bedroom suite was a relaxing refuge and we rolled back the wall of sliding doors to reveal the view, a seemingly endless expanse topped by a bright blue sky dappled with fluffy white clouds. Rays of sun bounced off the surface of the small pool, which sat next to a set of cosy lounge furniture.
After unpacking and freshening up, we headed to the Maji Bar and Terrace for a simple lunch of pizza, mango-avocado salad, tzatziki and hummus with crudités and pita.
But we spent little time looking at our plates because the surroundings were so incredibly stunning. We were sitting on a semi-circular deck overlooking the infinity pool, beyond which lay a pond and the vast ecosystem of the Serengeti.
Our eyes were peeled for elephants, who were known to frequent the watering hole along with other animals. But the only close encounter we had was with little furry creatures known as rock hyrax or dassie, which scampered around us and almost seemed as if they wanted to be stroked and fawned over.
Our visit coincided with the tail end of the June to October dry season, just ahead of the so-called short rains that happen in November and December. The landscape was scrubby and dry, with fewer places to hide for its famous inhabitants.
We dropped by the Discovery Centre to learn more about the setting we were about to explore. Just outside, touchscreen displays help guests drill down on the different animals that call the Serengeti home, offering details about their lifecycles and behaviours.
There’s plenty to see inside as well, from animal skulls and other artefacts to the interactive map of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, which outlines the celebrated annual Great Migration of giant herds of grazers across Northern Tanzania and Kenya as the animals give birth, search for food and face perilous encounters with predators in a remarkable cycle that repeats year after year.
We’d often heard that it was an experience that forever lives in one’s memory and one’s heart, and so we were beyond eager to get started.
Rough road trip
The alarm went off at 6am and, after crawling out of the comfortable king bed, I pulled back the curtains of the suite to see the Serengeti still shrouded in darkness, a lick of light bleeding onto the dim canvas.
Through the night, all sorts of animals had sauntered by surreptitiously as we would soon find out. We were now getting ready to spend half a day searching for them via the dusty and pockmarked roads that sliced through the savannah.
But first, we had to go through our daily checklist: safari clothes (khaki, green, beige and neutral colours that don’t attract the attention of bugs or animals), insect repellant, sunscreen, binoculars and a ‘Serengeti Passport’ from the kids’ club so we could keep track of the animals we would spot along the way.
Next, it was time for breakfast, and as we tucked into the tasty offerings at the buffet we watched the sunlight fill the landscape and spied a hot air balloon floating out near the horizon, all the while wondering about the adventure that lay ahead.
We departed at 7.30am with Elly at the wheel, all of us scanning the savannah and my camera with its powerful zoom lens bumping heavily against my leg.
Wildebeest, gazelles and zebras were everywhere, sometimes lifting their heads to give us lazy, disinterested stares, unaware of their role in a cast of 1.5 million that, alongside hundreds of thousands of zebra and antelope, star in the largest remaining unaltered animal migration in the world.
As we rolled on, the facts and stories rolled out of Elly, who grew up in the Kilimanjaro area. He had encyclopedic knowledge about everything from the common eland antelope (“These are very shy and can jump five metres when chased by predators…”) to a solitary male African buffalo (“He’s isolated because he’s infertile…”).
Then, without notice, Elly pulled over to the side of the road to point out a parade of elephants, plodding slowly through a group of trees that some of them could easily knock down if they wanted to.
The ears of the adults and their young charges flapped rhythmically, generating body-cooling air currents that also kept insects away, the sun shining on their coveted ivory tusks.
The radio crackled with conversation between other guides as they shared information in rapid-fire Swahili on where the most sought after animals were from moment to moment. We were filled with feelings of drama and suspense as we pulled off the main road and crawled along smaller trails in search of our next sighting.
Along the way, we saw the long-legged secretary bird, which can stomp snakes to death with powerful kicks. Then there was the beautiful lilac-breasted roller, perched peacefully on a branch. Off in the distance, we spied a flightless ostrich, with its impossibly long neck protruding from its round body.
“They call the elephant’s trunk a ‘hand of wonder’,” Elly said after sharing details of their diet, size and lifespan. “It’s used for breathing, eating, drinking and washing.”
And while these great grey creatures, the largest land animals on Earth, were awe-inspiring to observe as they lumbered along, we soon found ourselves rumbling down the road again.
“We’re going to try to go to a place where we can see lions,” Elly promised as he steered the vehicle onward, the wheels sometimes avoiding enormous potholes, sometimes smashing straight through them.
Then suddenly, after going kilometres without seeing any other vehicles, we were in a traffic jam. Elly expertly twisted the wheel left and right as he got us closer to the main attraction, a small pride of lions feasting on the remains of a hippopotamus.
Three females, one with a radio collar around her neck, and a few cubs crowded around the carcass, mostly bones with bits of flesh on them lying atop a saggy pile of skin. The dead hippo’s jaw was wide open, the final painful cry of its life frozen in time. All around, cameras clicked as people captured the scene.
One of the females laid down, panting as the cubs pulled at her teats. Another lion, almost an arm’s length away, sauntered by the idling vehicles, unaffected and unimpressed by the assembled group.
Mindful of the time, we moved on once more. And good thing, too, because other wild cats were waiting for us.
Down a different road, we joined a convoy of vehicles racing toward the same place with a sense of urgency. Elly pointed to a tree where a leopard lay draped over a branch, napping as the day got closer to noon.
Then a short time later, we caught sight of a cheetah crouched at a crossroad drinking from a muddy puddle. It slunk away into the grass, but soon spotted a gazelle and gave chase.
For a few frenetic seconds, we were caught in the middle of a National Geographic documentary, wincing at the thought of witnessing a kill up close. But the gazelle managed to get away alive and the cheetah ambled along as it looked for its next opportunity to take down prey.
Learning, not just luxury
Despite snacking on nuts and cookies on the safari, we’d built up an appetite after spending hours crisscrossing the savannah in search of wildlife.
As we devoured our lunch, we chatted about the once-in-a-lifetime experience we had just shared and wondered what we might see on our next outing.
Our daughter was still hoping to catch a glimpse of a mongoose, but she’d also grown excited about the prospect of spending some time at the Kijana Klub (kijana is the Swahili word for youth).
The team was lovely and had a long list of activities for their enthusiastic charges to take part in.
One moment our daughter was making her own bright and colourful Tinga Tinga painting, the next she was off with two gentle Maasai staff who taught her how to make a fire out of elephant dung, showed her how to make a toothbrush out of twig and let her join as they set up a camera trap to record images of animals at night.
Whenever we weren’t on safari or sleeping, our daughter begged us to let her go back to the kids’ club, something that hadn’t happened on previous vacations.
We’d smile as she skipped down the hall to go spend time with her new friends, including the kind and friendly Kassi. With her occupied, we took the opportunity to learn about what the hotel has been doing as part of its commitment to the community.
The affable Ahmed spent some time explaining their efforts to stop snaring, still an issue in the Serengeti because poaching remains a persistent problem. Guests can also participate in research and conservation initiatives such as cheetah and lion watch programs.
Other work to help the environment includes increasing the hotel’s reliance on solar power, cutting down on single-use plastic with bamboo straws and wooden stir sticks and the installation of a water filtration and bottling system.
But the focus is also firmly on the people of the region, and Ahmed explained in detail the work the hotel is supporting to help young girls of the Serengeti who are fleeing female genital mutilation or FGM, a cultural practice that has been banned in Tanzania since 1998 but still continues.
FGM is carried out on thousands of girls during “cutting season” in December. It can cause infection, infertility and even death. Some people still believe girls who don’t go through FGM will be promiscuous or bring bad luck to their communities.
The reality is that the painful procedure, performed without the use of anaesthesia, has no health benefits and is something girls try to escape, some of them seeking refuge in the safe houses the Four Seasons supports.
A journey and a destination
The entire stay at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti reminded me of the other experiences I’d had with the luxury brand, from a tented camp in northern Thailand to a bespoke cruise between two resorts in the Maldives.
It’s a journey and a destination.
One morning you’re bumping along a road with binoculars and cameras at the ready to capture can’t-miss moments.
Then in the afternoon, you’re in the spa getting a much-needed deep tissue massage, the therapist using a wooden baton known to the Maasai as rungu to rub baobab oil into your tight muscles.
Before sunset, a dip in the chilly pool can be followed by cocktails and light snacks. At night, we went to Boma Grill to sit at a table surrounding an open-air fire pit, feasting on grilled dishes infused with local flavours and enjoying a Maasai performance filled with cries and gravity-defying leaps.
Another evening, we had an incredible dinner in the wine cellar, a private, multi-course meal that included spectacular South African wines.
One night after our daughter was asleep, we sat on the terrace and stared up at the stars, which shone brilliantly in the sky given the almost complete absence of light pollution.
My wife was uneasy, though, feeling exposed to the elements given we were literally right in the middle of the Serengeti. I laughed it off as she retired ahead of me, but went back inside soon after.
Later, we found out her misgivings hadn’t been misplaced. When our daughter checked the camera trap with the Kijana Klub staff, we discovered that a number of animals had walked right past our suite around the same time we were on the terrace, including a lion and a leopard.
Back on safari
The main attraction, though, is the safari, and while bumping around for hours on the road can be tiring, we were always keen to get out for another in-depth survey of our surroundings.
Elly, our trusty guide, took us in a different direction for our last trip and just as it felt like we weren’t going to see anything but wildebeest and zebra, we rounded a bend and came upon a group of mostly young male lions lazing about in what appeared to be a food coma.
For a moment, we had the scene to ourselves before other vehicles pulled up to watch members of the pride preen each other as they lounged in the shade of a tree.
We’d been fortunate enough to see the majority of the Big Five, but one animal remained elusive.
“Do you ever see rhinos?” I asked Elly, hopefully.
“Rhinos are very hard to see now because of the poaching,” he said.
So in compensation, at least in terms of size and scale, Elly drove us to a river that was absolutely heaving with hippopotamus. The pod at the Retima Hippo Pool sat and soaked in the excrement-filled water, sometimes jostling roughly for space as birds perched atop their backs picking off ticks and other insects.
As we watched these 1,400-kilogram to 3,200-kilogram animals while away their time, we were sure to stay far away given their reputation as the world’s deadliest large land mammal.
On the banks of the river, crocodiles snoozed in the sun on what must have been full stomachs as less than a kilometre away a long line of wildebeest slowly made its way down a hillside to cross the waterway.
It’s the part of this enduring migration that kills thousands of these animals every year, either because they slip and drown or because they are snatched by the sharp-toothed crocs.
In this instance, the crossing appeared to be going smoothly, which worked out well for us given we weren’t thrilled about the prospect of explaining this Darwinian drama to our six-year-old.
However, she was too focused on what she had yet to see to even notice. She hadn’t forgotten about mongoose, banded or common dwarf. Nor had Elly. He pointed out a termite hill. “Mongoose like to stay here,” he revealed. No luck, though.
Given the high density of these animals in the Serengeti, we were wondering why we hadn’t spotted at least one during our morning safaris.
Then in the last hour or so of our final game drive, our luck changed. There it was: a mob of mongooses, squirrel- and ferret-like animals that seem cute and cuddly, but can attack and eat venomous snakes.
We snapped a picture and despite the myriad photos we took during our trip (which, by the way, you can enhance and touch up with an on-site specialist at the hotel), the print of a mongoose standing up on its hind legs holds pride of place in our daughter’s bedroom.
My enduring image, though, will be the wild encounter we had on our drive back to the Seronera Airstrip.
It had already been an emotional goodbye, with our daughter crying as she contemplated leaving the staff members who had connected with her, doted on her and had given her heartfelt gifts.
Then there’s the idea that a bucket-list vacation is just that: something you’ll only do once in your lifetime.
And so the nostalgia was already setting in as we sat parked on the side of the road staring at a herd of elephants that stood like a grey, fleshy wall just a short distance away staring back at us in solemn silence, the quiet only disrupted by the clicking sound of our camera.
It’s one photo, though, that I don’t have to look back on. The image, the smell, the sound, the feeling – all of it is seared into my brain, a souvenir of the Serengeti, a moving memory of amazing Africa I will carry with me always.
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Lead image: Safari at Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti © Richard Waite/Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti