Accompanied by the three babus, Sam (babu Thomas’s son), and Sandy, we head off to Tarangire National Park. Guides Dennis and Rajai will transport us, and in Rajai’s Rover we speed over some of the bumpiest roads I’ve yet encountered. I make a mental note to wear a sports bra on all future safari drives. Spanning 2850 square kilometers, Tarangire was named for the river that runs through it, but because of the dry season, the name seems misleading. Peppered with huge baobab trees, the thick, knobby trunks of which are plentiful in water, the park’s many baobab bodies are mutilated, practically destroyed: the work of the numerous elephant population. Quickly, we realize we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
It’s just like you imagine it. Tens of off-road vehicles scouring potholed, dirt trails that run through fields of tan and emerald, raffia, camouflage, and sandy brown hues. The flattened acacia tree silhouettes mark the only elevations in these open spaces. Like in the movies, the Rover rooftops pop up, and standing up (while bracing for dear life) during the rides is the only way to experience the journey. Since you can’t get out of the car in the parks, the visual of people in floppy safari hats sporting binoculars and Canon camera straps is in abundance. It’s a “Where’s Waldo” adventure with animals: impalas, dikdiks (yes, really), zebras, elephants, giraffes, warthogs, and baboons are in supply in Tarangire, and the highlight of the day was, as promised, the elephants. These regal beasts came right up to the Rovers, stomping their feet in mock-charge before showing off their grand, elongated tusks.
“Let us go find something else special,” Rajai would proclaim after we’d oogled an ostrich for far too long. And, off we’d go. By day’s end, our hair was frosted shades lighter in dust. The corners of our eyes had blackened, and the layer of chalky film on our faces created shadows around our noses, on our upper lips, and under our eyes. White shirts turned beige, and if you didn’t shut the Rover window at the passing of other vehicles, your sinuses were absolutely done for.
Maasai Wanderings, our tour outfit, had a tagline that claimed to “rough it in style” and it delivered beautifully. After Kilimanjaro, I made no secret of my desire for some good digs and some serious pampering. Our male counterparts were all backpacker types and it followed that the running joke was that they had entered “Marie’s World,” on safari. Make no mistake, I was proud to welcome them into Marie’s World. All of our lodges served multi-course meals, stocked wonderful South African wines, greeted us with hot towels and passion fruit juice, and sent us off after huge buffet breakfasts.
Regardless of accommodations, I still stuck out as a city slicker. I burned myself refueling the fireplace in our Tarangire bungalow; I spent a night (or two) awake in terror when mongooses found their way into our Serengeti mobile luxury tent; ditto the bats. To everyone’s amusement, my fearful shrieks were breakfast table banter. After Kili and the Serengeti, I’ve had my fair share of natural living for a while.
The Serengeti lived up to its fabled hype. Meaning “endless plain” and clocking in as the biggest East African National Park, our time there was unreal. In addition to the animals in Tarangire, the Serengeti delivered hyenas, jackals, buffalo, gazelles, ostriches, hippos, and so many cats. Simbas, or lions, seemed to have gotten the memo we were passing through and, one after another, came out to say hello. Their camel colored coats slunk through the shadows. The slow, rocking prance, the menacing roar, and the gaze of rapt attention when interested in the surrounding wildlife, hypnotized us all.
As if daily lion and lioness chasing wasn’t enough, Rajai, in a gesture of ultimate off road safari spotting, brought us up close and personal with not one, not two, but three cheetahs. The fastest animal on the planet (running up to 70 mph) their long, sinewy bodies were on display as they played cat and mouse with us. The cheetahs were easily our safari highlight.
The only drawback to the Serengeti was the minor meltdown of my camera’s memory card. Which led to a minor (okay, maybe a major) meltdown of Marie. With a few too many Zen-positive believers in my Rover, I had to swallow my tongue repeatedly until Darryl and Tom’s chants of “using my eyes instead of my camera” or “thinking positively and waking up to a working Nikon” became too much to bear.
“I use my photos to recapture detail in my writing,” I snapped at Tom. “A camera is an electronic machine, it doesn’t fix itself overnight by channeling happy thoughts,” I spat at Darryl. Max, luckily, wasn’t drunk on The Secret and got spared. I sulked, refusing to engage in lo-pard spotting through the binoculars for the rest of the afternoon. Sandy, the memory card doctor, came to the rescue later that night and commiserated with me. “There’s nothing fun about working through other people’s vacations, and then having your process fail.” Thank you, Sandy. Five weeks, one Bad Marie episode. Hey, it happens.
The last day takes us down into the Ngorongoro Crater, a 600-meter deep collapsed volcano of 2.5 million years ago. Here, we’re spotting for rhinos. Endangered, all are tagged in an effort to breed them back to viable numbers. While the rhinos are in hiding, the wildebeest are out in force. These sad-faced sacks look almost mythical, and their migratory parades across the crater inspired some of the best shots my now-functioning Nikon captured during safari.
As we barreled back to Arusha over the whacked out safari roads one last time, Darryl and I are relieved. We didn’t realize we’d be, quite literally, sitting on our asses for five days straight. After Kilimanjaro, such lack of movement wound up being a blessing and a curse, and we’re ready for a little change of scene. Good thing we have a flight to the island of Zanzibar tomorrow.
A whole different kind of ass-sitting: the beach kind.