A Soul-Stirring Week in Tanzania

by Emily Pennington
Elephants in Tarangire National Park (Photo by Matthew D. Hansen)

I fell into tears as the elephant plodded away, overwhelmed with awe.

By Emily Pennington — Elephants in Tarangire National Park (Photo by Matthew D. Hansen)

“The retired male elephants tend to come here to die,” explained Kelvin when our Jeep pulled alongside a lone grazing bull in the middle of the crater. I fell silent for a long while as the driver cut the engine, and the landscape grew so quiet that I could hear the delicate crunch of each bite of grass he grabbed with his trunk. Frozen and completely slack-jawed, I stared as the elephant gracefully shuffled towards me, pausing for a moment to look me dead in the eyes before crossing the road in search of greener pastures.

It’s hard to convey in words and images just how earth-shaking a visit to the mother continent is. Sure, we’ve all seen photos of lions and zebras and heard David Attenborough’s lilting British accent croon over videos of crocodiles hunting, but there’s something staggeringly different about experiencing it in person. The experience of getting so close to a lion that you can hear its sandpapery tongue lapping water out of a puddle rearranges your molecules in a completely new way. It gets under your skin and brightens your heart.

I fell into tears as the elephant plodded away, overwhelmed with awe. At our picnic lunch in the bush, the biggest shock of the day came when a female white rhino slowly ambled up a couple hundred yards from our table. She completed my “big five.”

As the afternoon intensified with the thrum of new Jeeps arriving from town, we made our way out of the crater to visit a traditional Maasai boma. Shimmying their technicolor beaded necklaces and wrapped in brilliant plaid blankets, the villagers greeted us with a special “hello” song. The men leapt into the air, then stomped back down on their makeshift tire rubber sandals to boast their virility and strength. One of the women took me by the hand as my group walked over to their circular mud homes, and I spent a long while transfixed by the elders weaving their intricate glass beads. Dizzy with so much novelty, I could hardly stay awake through dinner.

Even after all that, my tour had somehow saved the best for last. The next morning, we boarded a plane near Lake Manyara and soared over Tanzania’s vast rural sprawl before touching down in a surprisingly green Serengeti National Park (Serengeti.com), the product of recent rains. Famous for “the great migration,” an annual peregrination of nearly 2-million wildebeest and their calves between Kenya and Tanzania, Serengeti is commonly referred to as “the park where the big five roam.” The park regularly makes international top-ten lists, its name immediately conjuring images of vast plains with roaming herds of gazelles and cheetahs.

Sanctuary Kichakani Serengeti Camp (Photo © Sanctuary Retreats)

Sanctuary Kichakani Serengeti Camp (Photo © Sanctuary Retreats)

Our next two nights would be spent at Sanctuary Kichakani Serengeti (sanctuaryretreats.com), a roaming camp that can be broken down and reassembled at will, depending on the wildebeest’s dispersion. My lunch break left just enough time for an awkward bucket shower, in which I shouted temperature preferences to my camp butler, and he hoisted up large sacks of hot water outside my canvas tent.

Then, it began to pour. Anxious, I asked Kelvin if the deluge would negatively affect what we’d see on our sunset game drive. “No, not at all,” he said. “Rain is just a time for the animals to take a shower.” I should never have doubted him.

Male Lion in Serengeti (Photo by Emily Pennington)

Male Lion in Serengeti (Photo by Emily Pennington)

The great lion fiesta began immediately. A large pride with older cubs was lounging on the grass, mere minutes from our camp. Next, we stumbled upon a lone female with uncannily expressive eyes. Our Jeep turned north, towards a less-traveled corner of the park, and wheeled up to a large volcanic rock formation. From out of the bushes, a tiny mewing cub emerged behind his roud, bushy-maned papa, like a scene out of the Lion King. But my favorite encounter of all came just before dusk, when our eagle-eyed driver found a huddle of two-month-old cubs, playing and nuzzling their mothers as the sun hung low in the sky. All told, we saw 25 lions that day.

On our final drive the next morning, Kelvin seemed laser-focused on watching the migration of wildebeest crossing the notorious Mara River and spotting more big cats. We set off in a pair of open-air A&K Jeeps, paralleling the serpentine river for a long while before pulling up to a bluff and turning off the motor. We waited patiently for a gathering herd of wildebeest to cross from the opposite side.

In an instant, our driver lurched into action as a throng of other Jeeps surrounded us and sped forward to the crumbling edge of the cliff. The Mara had turned into a melee, as hundreds of frantic wildebeest galloped down the rocky slope and plunged into the water, dodging hungrily waiting crocodiles as they swam towards safety. As in Ngorongoro, witnessing the drama of the natural world happen in real time rocked me to my core. I was grateful that the afternoon would prove more mellow.

A picnic lunch overlooking the expansive savannah brought us face-to-face with a resting cheetah, lazily lounging in the shade to escape the midday heat. Our driver steered away from the more crowded plains to an empty landscape of pockmarked boulders and thorny acacia trees to try to find an elusive leopard. After nearly an hour of searching, I squinted my eyes as Kelvin pointed off to the far right, motioning for our drivers to stop the cars. A solitary leopard was stalking a small group of zebras, with her eye on a shaky-legged youngling.

She inched her way forward, taking her time in the eerie silence. Then, with the grace of an Olympian, she sprinted from the tall grass and narrowly missed her chance at a meal. This time, at least, the zebras could claim victory.

Serengeti National Park Lions (Photo courtesy of A&K)

Serengeti National Park Lions (Photo courtesy of A&K)

Dinner that last night was more celebratory than usual, and I leisurely sipped on an old fashioned as Kelvin spun tales for our group about the quick-legged cheetah and traditional Maasai village culture. Food was served buffet-style, with savory vats of scrumptious shepherd’s pie, mashed potatoes, and marinated beets. For dessert, a cream-topped brownie in miniature that I savored until every last crumb was gone.

Throughout my journey, it dawned on me that I had never once felt unsafe or out of place, a rare thing for a solo female traveler. I later learned that this is by design. Abercrombie & Kent is a member of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA), and, when hosting in more conservative countries, like many in Africa, they pride themselves on creating a safe cocoon for travelers, with private airport transfers, assistance with hotel check-in, and resident tour directors who are notified of travelers’ preferences and pronouns before they even touch down.

My heart was heavy as I woke the last morning. I didn’t feel remotely ready to leave the stirring mysteries my week in Tanzania had uncovered. After another bumpy ride in a tiny propeller plane, we touched back down in Arusha and indulged in a Tanzanian farewell lunch at the Elewana Arusha Coffee Lodge, complete with cornmeal, chapatis, stew, and a sweet citrus cake for dessert.

Plane flying over Wildebeest in the African Savannah (Photo by Kirill Dorofeev)

Plane flying over Wildebeest in the African Savannah (Photo by Kirill Dorofeev)

A week later, back in my apartment, I was still recovering from the physical and spiritual jetlag that the best adventures tend to exert on us. I was ragged and raw from the beautiful, overwhelming experience of so much nature and culture, and still reeling from all the magic. One thing’s for certain: even in my smog-choked hometown of Los Angeles, I’ll carry the deep joy of the trip with me whenever I glimpse a passing coyote or hear an unfamiliar bird song. The uplift of the Tanzanian wilds is stuck in my bones forever.

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