“The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa – for he has so much to look forward to.” Richard Mullin
Africa in winter smells like spearmint and I hope that I never forget that sweet scent. I want to carry Africa with me for the rest of my life.
I’ve been home from my safari for almost eight months now, but I’ve been reluctant to write about my experience. I suppose in part because I don’t think I possess the words to translate the images in my head into sentences, but also for a surprisingly selfish reason. I just haven’t felt like sharing. I feel oddly protective of these memories – they feel rather sacred to me and I have wanted to keep them close in a secret place – like old love letters in a box.
You see, Africa was a cliché come true. It really was the trip of a lifetime – one I didn’t know I needed until I traveled 7,843 miles to Arusha, Tanzania. I’ve never been a bucket list kind of person, but thankfully my dear wife is, and Africa was at the top of her list.
But let’s get back to my selfishness. Africa was so magnificent, and I want you to love Africa, too, and I’m certain I’m not a good enough writer to adequately convey its magic and mystery. So, I will borrow generously from some authors who did find the right words. Like Ernest Hemingway who said, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”
That’s how I felt every morning in Africa and that’s saying a lot because my luggage for the two-week trip never arrived. Two weeks. No luggage. I went on safari and my bag, thanks to a careless man in the Amsterdam airport, went on a boondoggle to a conference in the Netherlands and then on to London for several days before returning to the United States. My bag – and the small stack of brand new Columbia safari shirts which have no place in my real life – were waiting for me when I returned home.
I will admit to being a lifelong over-packer. I like choices – it’s as simple as that. And I loathe people who brag about traveling light like it is some sort of virtue. But guess what? Africa was so amazing that after my initial breakdown after learning that I would be wearing the clothes on my back for two weeks, I got over it. I’m not going to lie – the breakdown wasn’t pretty – yes, there were tears – but I ran through the stages of grief quickly and landed on acceptance after our first day on safari when I looked way up into a giraffe’s eyes so close that I could almost count her eyelashes. Choices are overrated. Giraffes are not.
My good attitude was tested on the second day on a long game ride. We stopped at a spot that had restrooms and a safe space to stretch our legs. Throughout the day we had seen navy and black flags tied onto trees like a target. Someone in our group asked our guide what they meant. He explained, “Those colors attract the tsetse flies and help keep them off of us.”
Any guesses on the colors of my one outfit? Yep. Navy shirt, black pants. What could go wrong?
Here’s the other problem about writing about Africa. It’s like going to IKEA for the first time. You have a list of things you’re looking for – say a duvet cover and a shower curtain – and you leave the store four hours later with a basketful of whimsical dessert plates, five picture frames, two vases and a jar of lingonberry jam because, what the hell, you’re at IKEA. The store is so vast that you are completely overwhelmed as you hunt for that perfect bedding and you wind up dizzy from walking around in circles while coveting dozens of other tchotchkes you never even imagined existed.
Africa is just like that only without the baby strollers. I arrived with my list – the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and water buffalo. Well, I got them all – four of the five on the very first day! But I also got dozens of other “finds” that I never knew I needed – like a dik-dik. Don’t even. A dik-dik looks like a miniature deer but it’s actually a small antelope and is the cutest thing you’ve ever laid eyes on. They hang out near the lodges for safety – they’re so tiny that the locals refer to them as “cheetah snacks”. The circle of life can be cruel, my friends.
The British travel writer A. A. Gill observed, “You either get the point of Africa or you don’t. What draws me back is that it’s like seeing the world with the lid off.” I think I got it or more accurately, it got me. Big time.
I love Gill’s analogy of the lid off. Viewing Africa up close is a rush of amazement and awe. You see it, but you also feel it – down to your spine. If you ever saw the stage version of The Lion King, you might have an inkling of what I’m talking about. Remember the stunning first ten minutes of the show when the giraffes and zebras and company parade onto the great plains of the stage against the backdrop of a burning African sun? The music swells and you feel your heart expanding. Being on safari in Africa feels like that on steroids – with a lot of dust thrown in.
I cried almost every day – not in a boo hoo way, but gentle tears of joy and wonder and a good dose of gratitude. And I wasn’t the only one. On one of our first days out, we came across a huge migration of zebras and wildebeests – they often travel together because zebras can see very well while wildebeests have a keen sense of hearing. Together, they have a better chance of warding off predators. On this day, the chorus line of animals went on for miles at a noisy but peaceful pace. Our driver, the marvelous Edwin, had the wisdom to just turn off our Land Cruiser and let us watch in silence. It was a reverent interlude and needed no narration.
Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, captured the glee one feels in Africa when she wrote, “There is something about safari life that makes you forget all of your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne – bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.” All these months later, I’m still nursing an Africa hangover.
This is where I get stuck – trying to describe how big Africa is. We spent most of our time in three areas –Tarangire National Park (an area of 1,100 square miles), the Ngorongoro Conversation Area (3,202 square miles) and Serengeti National Park (12,000 square miles). The name “Serengeti” is translated from the word the Maasai used to describe the area, siringet, meaning “the place where the land runs on forever”.
And believe me, it does. There were times when I could look in both directions and not see anything but the plains and a single tree. Oh, the trees of Africa! I didn’t realize how smitten I was with them until I got home and started editing my photo roll. So many tree snaps and it pained me to delete any of them. The trees are so distinctive: the iconic baobab, favorite high fiber snack of elephants; the sausage tree that looks like, well, a tree with big rolls of salami hanging from it and attracts baboons and many birds because of the sweet blooms it drops when it flowers; and my favorite, the lovely acacia tree, which sometimes whistles when the wind blows.
One feels very tiny on safari – especially when you’re around so many elephants. Even the baby elephants seemed ginormous. Sweet factoid – mama elephants are some of the best mothers in the animal kingdom. And you see this every day on safari. They are very affectionate with their babies and terribly protective – which we witnessed one day when our vehicle got what Mama thought was too close to the herd and she gave us a “fake” rush and a loud chorus of trumpeting. We all leaned back in the cruiser – as if that would save us. Mama don’t play.
One of my most favorite things on safari was learning the names of different groupings of animals. I don’t know who gets credit for this clever nomenclature, but it absolutely delighted me. Here are some of the best:
A flamboyance of flamingos.
A crash of rhinos.
A cackle of hyenas.
A business of mongooses.
A bloat of hippos.
A leap of leopards.
A dazzle of zebras.
A confusion of wildebeests.
An obstinacy of buffaloes.
And my absolute favorite – a tower of giraffes.
We saw them all and so much more – birds, crocodiles and lizards, too. We even saw animals post-safari when we were back in the safe confines of our lodge. As we arrived at each destination, our greeter would review important information including the admonition to not go down to dinner without an escort from someone on the staff. I thought that was a little much until I opened our lodge door on one of our first evenings to find two warthogs darting across the path. And one night while dining outside on a terrace overlooking the pool, we saw two Cape Buffaloes stroll by. None of the locals ever got too excited because they know the bottom line – the animals were here first.
And here’s perhaps the most wonderful part of all – the animals know that, too. All the areas we were in have been protected for years and years, so none of these animals have ever been hunted or harmed by humans. I can’t tell you what they were thinking when they looked at us – sometimes curiosity, often a blasé whatever, but never fear. And that’s why those interactions were so sacred. We weren’t enemies. I was just a guest with orchestra seating at the Great Migration – a spectacular show that has been running even longer than The Lion King.
“To witness that calm rhythm of life revives our worn souls and recaptures a feeling of belonging to the natural world. No one can return from the Serengeti unchanged, for tawny lions will forever prowl our memory and great herds throng our imagination.” G. Schaller
The sign on the door to the Visitor Center at Serengeti National Park reads, “Welcome to the Serengeti, the Last Eden”. And that’s exactly what it feels like – you are at ground zero of creation and it simply stands you still at times. On so many of our game drives, I would just gaze out at the beautiful, untouched land and the cacophony of all those exquisite creatures and wonder two things. One, how can this really exist and secondly, how did we screw it up so badly? I’m certain God is somewhere in the answer to the first question, but I don’t have a clue as to the second one.
We were sad when it was time to leave Africa. We would have been even sadder had we known it was going to take us 52 hours to get home, but on the bright side, I didn’t have any laundry to do the next day.
I’m trying to be cheeky because I still get a big lump in my throat when I think of never seeing Africa again. It is an expensive and expansive journey and most folks never get to go – and there are so many other places to see. But Africa puts its mark on you in an utterly transcendent way that I will never be able to convey with words.
There is an African proverb that says, “The eye never forgets what the heart has seen.”
May it be so.
I had the good sense to marry my bucket list.