The morning drive along Ngorongoro southwest crater rim is nothing less than a trip through Rohan, the wide, rolling grasslands of Middle Earth. Rolling across the zebra and giraffe-studded hills, among Masai huts and herds, trying to take it all in: what we have seen, what we will see, and what is outside the open windows right now.
This vastness of space, this being able to see so far and so much at once, including storm systems on either horizonâ€”this is not entirely new for me, having traveled quite thoroughly in the U.S. National Park System. However, I have no experience with which to compare the wildlife aspect of Tanzaniaâ€™s parklands. That is, I have felt humbled by the land before, but never by so much sheer biomass. Thousands of furry, feathery, leathery, and precisely-patterned metric tons of flesh lumber in every direction; they fly overhead, call out from the bush in barks and grunts and growls; they stampede, they walk, they stand, and above all, they eat. In fact, except for the lions we see (all of which we find sleeping, stretching, or yawning), every creature is eating; mostly grass, sometimes flesh.
â€œSiringitâ€ is Masai for â€œLand of Endless Spaceâ€ and the Serengeti is indeed a large, formidable place, partly familiar from all the nature shows Iâ€™ve ever seen. The silhouetted umbrella trees and flat-topped acacias against a molten dayâ€™s beginning or end are images Iâ€™ve seen on TV, though that doesnâ€™t stop me from staring and clicking away. But the coolness of the air (it is rainy season, 1700 meters above sea level) is not what I expected of Africa, and it blows in gusts with strange sounds (birdsong Iâ€™ve never heard before) and smells (dust and wet grass and rain and dung), making it all quite different from the television screen.
We spend both of our evenings at the Serenera Wilderness Lodge at the west-looking rock-top bar and then stop in front of the fireplace for a few minutes to warm up before dinner. The hotel occupies a granite â€œkopjeâ€ overlooking the plains and the hotel grounds are alive with resident wild rock hyrax (an oversized guinea pig-looking beast), baboons, fuchsia-painted lizards, mongoose, large-spotted genet (black-and-white feline creatures), and all kinds of other critters who exist happily among the humans (as long as hotel doors are not left open).
Each new game drive is a shocker, the wildlife sightings nearly constant and always amazing, no matter what these creatures are doing. Freddy is super-tranquilo, patient, and knowledgeable, and we three genuinely enjoy each otherâ€™s company. He is the ultimate cool under pressure when our Land Rover bottoms out in the middle of nowhere and it is hours before help arrives to â€œunstuckâ€ us.
Our final drive across the western park plains is gray and rainy and long, and as we approach the Ndabaka Gate, we are treated to what Tay calls the â€œgrand finale,â€ a continuous stretch of animals gathered around a string of wildebeestsâ€™ in their local migration, including the face of a male lion poking out of a short, thorny tree.
The end of the safariâ€”1200 kilometers on the odometer since Moshiâ€”is downright anticlimatic, especially with the damp and the gray. When we reach Mwanza, all the budget hotels are booked, so we load our bags into a taxi which agrees to help us find a room. We fare Freddy well, shake his hand, and promise to stay in touch, all amid a cloud of uncertainty about the rest of the day and night and, even more disorienting, the utter disbelief at being back in civilization. We are amazed at how close so much bustling humanity exists to the wild.