The safari is Tayâ€™s idea. Her childhood dream of seeing the plains and animals of East Africa was not realized during her two-and-a-half years in West Africa and this is her chance. Me, Iâ€™ve never considered it, donâ€™t really know what â€œsafariâ€ even is, except a used and abused Swahili word for â€œjourney.â€ Iâ€™ve mostly associated it with dweeby hats and vests, rich people in luxury camps, and some vague, Hemingway-esque romanticism that probably doesnâ€™t even exist. I also dislike safariâ€™s non-strenuous nature; i.e. you are not allowed to leave your vehicle in most National Parks (because of dangerous animals), and I envision being trapped in a metal box all week, sealed-off from so much Africa around me.
On the other hand, I love big, open spaces, preserved swathes of nature and wildlife; plus, the famous allure of Ngorongoro and the Serengeti is strong and I want to see them for myself. And, more important, how often does a guy have the chance to make his wifeâ€™s dreams come true? Her dreams are mine now, I know this, so I might as well enjoy them. And I do.
Our guide, Freddy, picks us up at the Zebra Hotel, we stop by Mohammedâ€™s office to settle accounts and take a last look at the Internet (which we wonâ€™t see for nearly a week, until weâ€™re in Mwanza), then pick up sundry snacks and medicine in Arusha and weâ€™re off, cruising due west. The big mountains (Kili and Meru) are swathed in clouds, but the landscape opens up amazingly and the red-blanketed Masai herdsmen add bright specks of color to the verdant green of the rains.
We talk with Freddy, getting to know this man who will have our livesâ€”and our comfortâ€”in his hands for the next six days. Conversation ranges from war and peace (â€œItâ€™s all just politics,â€ he says of nearly everything, including African genocide) to love and marriage. We explain how Tay and I are recently wed, traveling together and working together. He answers, â€œIt is because you are meant to be together.â€ Fred is 30, married, and has a one-year-old son. We forget we arenâ€™t in India or Sri Lanka and ask if it is a â€œlove marriage,â€ as opposed to an arranged union. He doesnâ€™t understand our cultural confusion, but answers easily, â€œYes, I love my wife.â€
We spot our first wildlife about 40 kilometers before the entrance to Tarangire National Park; a group of ostrich in the grass beyond a herd of cows. Freddy explains how the animals are free to roam between all the parks in Tanzaniaâ€™s wild north, and are protected by strong anti-poaching laws, no matter where they go. This makes the already grand scope of thousands of square miles of protected area even grander, as Northern Tanzania takes on a mythical vastness in my eyes and my mind, comparable to idyllic, seemingly infinite, openness of Americaâ€™s Wild West.
Entering Tarangire in the late afternoon light, the â€œgame viewâ€ begins in earnest, as the thrill of our first major sighting (a group of giraffe and a lone zebra grazing next to the road) quickly piles up with the rest. Elephant clans are everywhere, one of which sits in front of a beautiful backdrop of acacia trees, rolling plains, and to top it off, a rainbow. There are birds of crazy colors and sizes, hundreds of hoofed creatures of fantasy, bat-eared foxes, and, just as the sun goes down, the white flash of a leopardâ€™s curled tail as it disappears into the bush. Freddy stops, turns off the engine, and we stand up to wait in the growing darkness, peering from our safari-mobileâ€™s open pop top. The cat comes back on the road; it is too dark for photos, but the sight leaves us strung and excited.
The post-game thrill is amplified by the luxury suite we are show to at the Sopa Lodge, as much of an unexpected discovery as the animals. Deep inside the wild parkâ€™s boundaries, these are the fanciest accommodations weâ€™ve experienced in our entire year of travel (we were more than half-expecting a mediocre, unscrubbed fleabag room). Not only that, but because this is the low season, we are among only four small parties in this lodge with 75 rooms, dining virtually alone in cavernous halls built for hundreds, with wide, exquisite views of the surrounding bush.
We rest easy, rise early.