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Circle of life: Tanzanian safari offers animal & cultural encounters

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A male lion in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, above, keeps a watchful eye on the photographer, who perhaps ventured a bit too close to his perch atop a plain’s kopje.

I’ve had a certain 1980s rock song lodged in my head for months. As if summoned, the lyrics burst forth from my lips whenever my husband and I discussed plans for our Tanzanian safari.

“I bless the rains …” I sang, undoubtedly off-key.

Cue the marimba.

Despite my excitement, I managed to suppress my serenading during our eight-day safari through Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater and the Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Serengeti national parks. Instead, I settled for honking back at the migrating wildebeest we encountered and chanting with the Maasai, the indigenous ethnic group known for checkered red wraps, intricate beaded jewelry and elongated earlobes.

Tanzania – along the tourist circuit at least – is a country of smiling, welcoming people, the kind who invite you into their mother’s stick-and-dung home and matter-of-factly explain how to barter cattle for wives.

“If you have more cow, you have more wife,” Emmanuel said during our cultural debriefing within his mother’s humble abode.

Emmanuel’s father, the village chief, had enough cows to purchase seven wives, and he fathered 43 children before passing away last year. He lived to see 93 years, a miraculous feat considering most Maasai men subsist on a strict diet of goat and cow by-products: meat, milk and blood. Little else is sanctioned; fish resemble snakes and cannot be trusted, and vegetables amount to mere livestock fodder. Emmanuel, a veterinary student, enjoys produce when away at school, but he doesn’t dare tell his family.

And then there’s the whole circumcision thing. Traditionally, both boys and girls undergo the procedure, though female genital mutilation is officially outlawed in Tanzania. Circumcision ceremonies take place just before sunrise – without sterilized surgical tools or painkillers.

“It makes them be very strong men,” Emmanuel said. “They need to be very strong, because the day of circumcision for the boys, they don’t allow them to make noise or shaking. No. You have to be brave. Brave man.”

Encountering elephants

Matt and I journeyed to Tanzania to witness the Great Wildebeest Migration and photograph the big cats, but it was the elephants that ultimately earned our affection.

Our first close encounter occurred on the day our driver/guide introduced us to Lake Manyara National Park in northern Tanzania. While steering his Land Cruiser along a dense forest path, Hurbert suddenly hit the breaks to accommodate a herd crossing approximately 30 feet ahead. Matt and I stood on our seats and observed the scene through the Cruiser’s open pop-top roof: Though already safe among the vines on the far side, one cow whipped around and returned to the center of the path. She stared at us. As a smaller female and a calf trotted by, their 4-ton protector lumbered toward the Cruiser. She came close enough to fill my camera’s frame and then closer still, causing Matt and me to draw back into the vehicle. Finally, she shook her enormous head in warning: Back off. We did.

It was Emmanuel’s brave Maasai countrymen who safeguarded us from the wild beasts of the Serengeti. Armed with mere clubs, they escorted us between buildings after dark and stood vigil throughout the night to ensure that the lions we heard huffing in the distance didn’t venture into camp. Within 5,700 square miles, the national park includes an estimated 4,000 lions, as well as 2 million wildebeests, 300,000 zebras and 500 species of birds, according to the World Heritage Convention.

Frenzied scavengers

The Cruiser was parked on the banks of a crocodile-infested Serengeti watering hole when the CB radio system sputtered in Swahili. Hurbert didn’t bother to translate, but I knew to abandon my roof perch and sit. We were soon bumping and bouncing down a dirt path, a cloud of dust following in our wake. Ahead, a line of zebras a hundred strong culminated in a shallow pool. Some of the animals appeared to be drinking, but others galloped around the pool, braying in fear. Hurbert drove on.

The lioness made the kill and fed first. We found her licking her paws, red staining her muzzle. We continued up river to where two juvenile lions, a male and a female, feasted on baby zebra before an audience of hyenas. The frenzied scavengers moaned and chattered and excreted ropes of viscous saliva.

“Watch,” Hurbert said. “When the male lion leaves, hyenas take over.”

And they did, rushing the young lioness the moment her partner withdrew. She slinked away with an annoyed growl, and the pack set to work.

  This was my first safari. Since booking the trip earlier this year, I had silently grappled with how I might respond to such a sight should we encounter it. Now that the moment had arrived, I discovered the photographer in me could objectify the red mass in my viewfinder. But basic humanity eclipsed and clenched my stomach whenever striped skin or a miniature hoof became visible.

  It was the vultures that calmed me. Their sudden arrival on scene, their circling of the hyenas like the hyenas had circled the lions, served as a reminder.

  “It’s the circle of life,” Matt said later in a moment of levity.

  Ah, a new earworm.


Journey through Tanzania - Images by Los Altos Town Crier

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