We arrived at Tarangire National Park in time to eat our picnic lunch at the park entrance on a series of decks built around an immense baobab tree. A group of zebras mingled below us - our first animals! We popped the tops of the land rovers and started on our first wildlife drive. We saw all manner of beasts - gazelles, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, birds of all sorts, and elephants, including one that leapt out from behind a tree to trumpet a loud warning at us. The colors were a surprise. I had envisioned a yellow-brown landscape, but cloudy winter mornings kept the park green and lush even as the dry season was hitting full stride. Despite the bumpy roads, I couldn't stay seated. I stood in the vehicle as we rocked over the park roads, taking it all in.
Just before sunset we arrived at Kikoti Camp. Far from a rustic camp, it was luxurious beyond belief. My "tent" had canvas walls, a thatched roof, a wooden floor, a large porch with a view, large soft beds and a full bathroom with flush toilets. I requested a hot shower at reception and porters arrived with heated water to fill my tent's shower tank. As day gave way to darkness, Maasai guards appeared along the pathways to walk guests to and from our rooms, as lions routinely walked through camp. Dinner was served on a large open-area deck, and after dinner we gathered by the campfire to watch the stars. The Milky Way hung like a cloud of dust across the sky. Scorpius loomed over us with his long tail and stinger, and we could see the Southern Cross, which is not visible in most of the Northern Hemisphere - a clear reminder that I was in another part of the world.
After sipping coffee on the porch on this clear warm morning, I headed to breakfast. Throughout the trip, we were treated to hearty, filling morning meals like this that always featured eggs cooked to order, tasty sausages, sweet tropical fruits and fresh juices. Just as we left camp for the morning wildlife drive, we were confronted by a huge angry elephant. In the trees behind her, a small herd of females circled around a small elephant. This mama was ferociously protecting her baby, stamping her feet, trumpeting loudly and using her tusks to shake nearby treats. She stood not more than 20 yards away. Our driver Samson was nervous, having survived an elephant charging into his vehicle a few years earlier. He was not anxious for a repeat incident, so we didn't linger for long.
We spent the morning in the company of giraffes nibbling at treetops, Grant's gazelles eyeing us cautiously, and mingling herds zebras and wildebeest. The birds were an unexpected treat. They were colorful and ranged in size from starlings to ostriches. We saw a female ostrich doing the "broken wing dance" in preparation of mating. We drove on, but another car in our group witnessed the entire courtship, including the male dance and mating. Later in camp they did a very amusing reenactment of the dance display.
There were three Land Rovers, so we would split into groups of four for each drive. We mixed things up every time, with a different group and driver each time. I can't say enough wonderful things about the group of people I was fortunate enough to travel with. I was a solo traveler, but I was never alone. In our company were a doctor, a dentist, and a woman who could, in a pinch, land a small plane - all talents that could come in handy on a trip like this one.
Our guides were real experts, pros in their field. Abu, the head guide, was crazy about birds. Samson was the joker, playing little pranks. Kumbi made the best lion call. He could make a lion turn and look every time. All three were experts at spotting wildlife, whether off in the distance or hiding in the tall grass beside the road. The spotting award this day went to Mary, however. She found the first big cat, a female lion walking through the brush in the distance. A male lion lurked nearby. It was incredible how completely the cats would disappear in the tall yellow grass.
Back at camp we celebrated our first big cat over lunch. My dad would have loved it - they served mini pizzas. After lunch we sat to watch the birds that had gathered around a flat stone covered with birdseed. I feel asleep in a lawn chair watching the superb starlings and white-headed buffalo weavers flap about.
On our late afternoon walk, two guards armed with high-powered rifles walked in front and behind us. We saw lion footprints, but luckily nothing threatening crossed our path. We hiked to a large rock, and used ropes to climb up to watch the sunset. The hotel staff met us there with freshly-popped popcorn, beer and wine for us to enjoy as the sun slipped beneath horizon. We scrambled down in the twilight and our guides drove us back to camp.
Maasai Dinner and Night Drive
That night, dinner was served out by the large fire ring in the middle of camp. Maasai warriors sang and danced for us as we ate by candlelight. The chanting was a spectacular blend of voices, a single perfect sound. The warriors leapt vertically in the traditional competition. Maasai women find the highest jumpers to be the most desirable husbands.
With the food, wine and long day, we were all well exhausted but at 10pm it was time to head out for our night drive. Because Kikoti camp is outside the park boundary, we were permitted to drive at night and off-road. We climbed into an open-top jeep-like vehicle that sat all twelve of us, plus a driver and "spotter." Perched on a tiny seat in front of the hood, the spotter shone a large spotlight into the bush looking for the reflective eyes of nocturnal creatures. Chuck sat shotgun, literally, as he was handed a rifle to hold on to, just in case.
Within a few minutes we spotted a Honey Badger, and much to my surprise the driver plowed straight into the bush after it. It was exhilarating and more than a little scary. After that, we spotted little for the next hour. Most of us were slightly buzzed from the wine, so keeping everyone quiet was hard. Just as we were getting close to heading back, a leopard sprang into view. We quickly took off after it, so quickly that the vehicle hit a huge ditch that left us with banged knees and sent the spotter flying off his perch. It took a few back-and-forth maneuvers to get going again, and meanwhile the leopard was still nearby. I expected to continue on, but the driver resumed the chase. Suddenly the leopard turned and faced us, about 15 yards away. I was on the end, nothing between me and a deadly cat but the night air. After a few seconds, the leopard walked off and thankfully we returned to the road. Thrilling as it was, I assumed we were in no real danger. The next day I found out that as soon as the cat had turned, the driver had taken the gun from Chuck and aimed. Just in case.
Pumped from our rare close encounter, we opted to continue for another hour. We saw an aardwolf, mongoose, steenbok, jackal and the movement of bushbabies in a large tree. We returned to camp after midnight. For the first time since arriving, I slept solidly through the night, blissfully exhausted. >>