When the Serengeti Comes Calling

Sometimes when traveling, you must break the rules and push your boundaries beyond your regular limits  in order to truly appreciate the world. This is what I learned during my first full year of post- pandemic travel.  I had five trips on the books with Overseas Adventure Travel, including Safari Serengeti, and a two-week independent trip to Hawaii which ended just before leaving for Nairobi to begin the Safari, first in Kenya. My travel schedule was filled to the brim. Every trip was scheduled with just a few weeks in between the next, at most. I was squished inside the airplanes for each of those flights as well. I had left my comfort zone behind and packed Covid test kits and KN95 masks in its place.

The very first trip I wanted to take to Africa when I first started traveling with Overseas Adventure Travel was to the Serengeti. Exotic sounding and distant beyond my imagination, it seemed to call out to me. However, having done no research on Tanzania, and the discovery that I cannot tolerate any of the anti-malaria medications available, I went to South Africa and Swaziland during their winter instead, when malaria wasn’t an issue. I thought one Africa trip with a smaller safari would satisfy me until I saw flocks of birds flying across the African sunset while on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe. That was it for me. I would find a way to return to this mysterious sounding land and explore the endless plain that is the Serengeti. There was an undeniable romance to Africa that took me beyond my typical travel boundaries. For some reason, it kept calling out to me.

Enter Father Time, who solves all problems. Between the current ravages of climate change, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in significantly slowing malaria transmission in Tanzania by breeding malarial mosquitoes with non-malarial mosquitoes, and other NGOs educating the locals in the use of bed netting and insect sprays, malaria has slowly ceased to be an issue in Tanzania. So, I booked the OAT trip for a departure during the dry African winter, sprayed my clothes with Permethrin before leaving, and planned to use insect repellent daily. I made all these plans as I quietly waited for Covid to dilute itself from our lives. After so much death and Illness during the pandemic, travel was a reminder of living.  Revenge travel, as it turned out. I was certainly doing enough travel in one year to make up for over two years of having my wings clipped. 

As is often the case with anticipatory travel, the Serengeti came as a surprise. This was another stretching of my boundaries. I was used to more cultural trips in all my decades of travel, and sights filled with beauty. The Serengeti’s endless plains weren’t particularly scenic. It consisted of dry grass, and dusty, bumpy roads beyond comprehension. And the bumpy roads that we drove on for nearly three hours on a single stretch weren’t the ” Masai massage” as we were jokingly told, but certainly required one later in the trip. There weren’t any paved roads, and off-road driving is illegal there. But should any vehicle drive off- road which creates a small, grassy path, that becomes a legal road. So, in the Serengeti a traveler can’t even say,” I thought off- road driving was illegal.” When a driver does it once, perhaps to fix a blown tire as is so common there, that suddenly becomes a road.

So dry, bumpy, and endlessly dusty roads across the vast plain, with animal sightings perhaps miles apart, became what I had come to see. While the Serengeti ecosystem isn’t geographically beautiful, there are sparks of beauty that caught my attention, such as the blue- green sedge grass in the Ngorongoro conservation area; the flocks of pink flamingos and white storks and other birds such as the lilac breasted roller; the Secretary bird with its fancy head dress; the Southern Ground hornbill with the red bill and often strikingly red chest; and the ever present blue starling. But ultimately, I concluded that’ seeing beauty is not what the Serengeti was about. The Serengeti is a concept, like America is a concept, but this endless grassy former home to the Masai people evokes images of life, death, and survival on the open plains. And that struggle for survival, among plants, animals, and the indigenous Masai tribes, is a metaphor for life in general I discovered, with Cape Buffalo and lions sleeping outside my tent, leopards in trees not that far away. 

During their dry season coupled with a drought, we were not inundated with animals in the Serengeti ecosystem which consisted of the Masai Mara National Park, the 12000 square acres of Serengeti National Park, and the Ngornogoro Conservation Area. The plains were often intermingled with regular sightings of giraffe, topi, antelope, ostriches, and Thompson gazelle among many other regulars. The watering holes where they’re typically found are drying up, so the animals were forced into other areas. We literally saw elephants digging their own watering holes where none existed, and mother elephants were teaching the babies how to dig for water. But we did see a pride of lions feasting on an elephant that had apparently died of natural causes. We were told a research team was due to evaluate the cause of death after the vultures and hyenas had cleaned the carcass the lions had left behind – nature’s food chain in action. We may have even seen some evolution taking place when we saw a small lion called a caracel take down a much larger gazelle or antelope. The entire field of gazelles and antelopes stood in attention with ears up as one of their own lost the battle for life in a fight my trip leader said was unheard of. The caracel is typically nocturnal and feeds on birds, I later learned. We saw something very different in the light of day, as the caracel dragged its prey into a hole.

But as we watched the food chain in action, there was something comforting about the order we observed; first the kill, then the feeding (we saw both lions and cheetah as primary predators, with often two involved in the kill so one could watch out for other predators). Once the predators settled underneath a tree after their kill and feeding time, the scavengers followed predictably. In one case we saw dozens of vultures circle overhead, with a hyena close by. They all shared in the food.

The wildebeest too, in the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, are as regular as clockwork, as they follow the rain along with zebras and gazelles in their annual migration. The migration typically reaches its peak in August as they cross the Mara River, the border between Kenya and Tanzania, in dramatic fashion. While I missed seeing the regularity of the Mara River crossing, I saw them cross the plains at least six times, twice from our Serengeti campground.  They crossed in large herds which reminded me of waiting for a train while we were driving. I kept pointing out where the caboose was!

Because of climate change, and rain falling in different directions at unexpected times during the dry season, the wildebeest were often confused and changed direction as they slowly followed the herd in search of the next rain. But nature in all its glory takes many forms. I may have had a lion sleeping next to my tent for four nights in the Serengeti, and I may have experienced the crossing of these herds of animals, as well as enjoying watching playful monkeys outside my door, but one should never forget to look to the heavens on a trip like this. Because one night, sitting around the camp fire, under a sky so clear we could see the Southern Hemisphere constellations, we were also treated to  a full view of the Milky Way. The Universe had been looking on in supervision all along, it seemed, to ensure nature’s sense of order and balance was complete. From the Earth to the Heavens, I was able to experience nature’s finest hours and make comparisons to my own life. Surely, I had to re-evaluate my own personal boundaries, it seemed, with all of nature’s drama taking place before me simply because I had stepped outside of my zone.  

When we left our Serengeti camp for the next part of the adventure with our Safari duffels in tow, the camp staff sang the Swahili song “Hakuna Matata” and danced joyously as they bid us farewell. I was surprised at my emotional response, with tears literally in my eyes until our vehicles drove us from the camp. We have so much, an embarrassment of riches by comparison, and they have so little. Yet the people who helped us in the Serengeti cooking, cleaning, providing water for the showers, and making sure we were safe coming and going to and from our tents in the dark, were always thoughtful, kind and friendly. I even observed Kenyans and Tanzanians cooking in their villages or on street corners for whomever was hungry and needed to eat. In East Africa, their communal spirit is enviable. Whether they worked in the tourist industry and went home to villages I had seen along the way , or were nomadic locals who rebuffed our offer for the donated water filters we tried to give them because they had not been educated in how to drink clean, filtered water, there was a quiet dignity to their lifestyle.

American conservationist and writer George Schaller may have summed up my experience best when he  wrote, “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.”

I I adore travel to the edgier countries in the world. Listening to the Masai talk about their often-barbaric customs yet simple way of life was like a fine glass of wine to me.  My time spent at the National Museum of Nairobi before I started the safari may as well have been at the Louvre. My next Paris probably won’t be in France, but more likely in Sri Lanka, Central India, or another African nation. Travel places us on the road to our own personal transformation should we open ourselves to it. When I arrived back home in Los Angeles, something felt different. Los Angeles hadn’t changed. I had.  I had traveled at a unique time in human history, and everything about the trip, from worrying about Covid and malaria, to learning to travel for a month with 33 pounds in a safari duffel that I thought I may never even see again given all the airport and luggage craziness, had stretched my Inner Traveler to a new limit. Not to mention the destination itself. But feeling and experiencing the comfort of nature’s order firsthand, from heaven to earth, was an unexpected gift. I have yet to figure out what I can give in exchange.


2 thoughts on “When the Serengeti Comes Calling

  1. I enjoyed this so much, Jann. I feel like I know you; we’ve traveled to so many of the same places and both prefer the roads less traveled. Safe journeys and keep writing these great remembrances.

    Liked by 1 person

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