Our first stop of the day was Oldupai Gorge, where the Leakeys discovered Homo habilus, the progenitor of modern man. Since there was no excavation going on at the time, it looked like an ordinary valley, but the small museum gave us a feel for the work that had been done there. Next we visited a Maasai village and paid $10 each for a tour. The villagers danced for us and then brought us into their homes. Low round huts built of thatch and cow dung, they are empty of all but the most basic possessions - a hide to sleep on, a jug for water, a small fire. I was uncomfortable there, again feeling like a gawking tourist and wondering if we were seeing a true picture of Maasai life or a show put on for gullible tourists.
The small children were delightful with their smiles and heartbreaking with their ragged clothing and infected eyes. We took pictures with our digital cameras and showed them the resulting image, which brought squeals of joy. I noticed an older woman looking on curiously, so I took her picture to show her. Her expression became one of absolute amazement. Her hand covered her mouth in disbelief. She pointed at the small screen and smiled. But when she tried to show another, that woman turned away angrily, as if rejecting the seduction of modern technology. With that exchange I was reminded that there is no one true and authentic "Maasai life." As with any group, individuals behave and think in unique ways. Some are welcoming, others wary. Some see opportunity in the interest given to their heritage, others remain resentful of the outsiders' intrusion into their village. I left with a better understanding of the dilemma trying to preserve a traditional culture in an ever-changing world.
At the entrance to Serengeti National Park we stopped for a picnic lunch as dozens of superb starlings begged for scraps as we ate. We walked up a rocky overlook for our first glimpse of the Serengeti, named after the Maasai word siringit, meaning endless plains. A pair of agama lizards sunned themselves on the rocks. The female was gray-brown, but the male was resplendent with bands of magenta, orange and deep blue. Lizards and other small animals live in these rock outcroppings, or kopjes (pronounced "copies") that dot the plains. They are among the oldest rocks in the worlds. Predators also take advantage of the higher vantage point for scoping out game, but we didn't see any. Yet.
The Serengeti is known for its big cats, and not far into the park we came across six juvenile lions sleeping under a tree. Several vehicles were stopped nearby, and one van without four-wheel drive became stuck. When driver got out to assess the situation, the young lions perked up, looking just like house cats eyeing a small bird. When the lions got up, the driver quickly returned to his vehicle. The curious pack crossed among our vehicles to an open field, and when they were a safe distance away, the driver freed his vehicle with the help of our guide Abu. By then mama lion had appeared, aroused by the movement of the youngsters. A large male also lurked nearby. Luckily the vehicle was freed without incident. The extra expense of booking with a reliable outfitter that promised four-wheel drive vehicles in good condition suddenly seemed very worth it.
The Serengeti had an entirely different feel from the wooded Tarangire and the desolate crater. In places the golden plains extended beyond the horizon, broken only by the isolated umbrella acacias and kopjes. In other spots, small ponds were surrounded by lush green vegetation, looking every bit like the oases they were. We spotted a young Nile crocodile in one pond, and at another hippos stood outside the water, a rarity in daylight. Close to the water's edge dense clusters of palm trees grew, causing speculation as to how they got there. After we had ruled out African swallows, our guide explained what instantly seemed obvious - the trees grew from seeds in elephant dung, which accounted for the tight clusters.
Our final lodge was the best yet among a group of overwhelming accommodations. The rooms were a series of round stone huts with thatched roofs. The spacious open-air lobby and dining areas were supported by large carved figures. I went for a refreshing swim in the cool waters of the vanishing-edge pool, and returned to my room just in time to see the sun set over the plains. As I sat on the balcony beneath the flaming sky it finally sunk in where I was. In Africa, on safari, like I had dreamed for over a decade. Days filled with the wildest of wildlife. Nights filled with more stars than can be believed. And evenings filled with quiet brilliance.
The night we a 60th birthday celebration for Chuck, the charismatic surgeon from Charleston. The staff brought out a cake and sang the Jambo song. Chuck was adorned a toilet paper headband and sash that read "Dung Chief" in honor of his trip-long obsession with photographing every type of animal dropping. We sang a parody of "The Beverly Hillbillies" in honor of our new friend, and played a few games. The hotel manager came in second place in the limbo contest. Chuck seemed to enjoy the festivities. They sure were fun to plan. >>