“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, March 18, 2011

African Dreams

The setting African sun backlit the spreading acacia trees with a blood red wash. After a hard day of trekking over the Serengeti plains, all I wanted to do was melt into my canvas camp chair and mellow out. I had just slipped into a dreamy, staring-into-the-campfire reverie when the distinctive half-roar, half-cough of an African lion startled me out of my trance. Somewhere, just beyond the faint glow of our campfire, a lion was lurking in the waist-high grass of the savanna. The fading sun cast a cinnamon glow on the waving grass and I was certain that a huge maned male was going to lunge out of the grass and devour me. Of course, it didn’t help that I had watched “The Ghost and the Darkness” before setting out on this safari.

Needless to say, I didn’t get eaten by lions, but in Africa that is still a possibility. It’s this collision of brutality and beauty that draws visitors to the continent. And nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in northern Tanzania where three of the most evocative places in Africa converge; the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Olduvai Gorge.

Located at the center of these three areas is Lake Ndutu, an expansive soda lake on the edge of the Serengeti Plains. Lake Ndutu draws migrating animals by the thousands and is a prime wildlife viewing area for giraffe, lion, leopard, hippo, elephant, and the largest wildebeest herds on earth. Huddled on the shore of the lake is Ndutu Safari Lodge, a cozy enclave of gray stone and wood buildings. Legendary big game hunter George Dove originally established a bush camp here in the 1960’s. The lodge retains the humble feeling of its origins and it has become a favorite with visitors who prefer isolation and access to untrammeled areas to five-star lodging and luxurious trappings. The main building, dominated by an airy dining room and bar, is a low open stone structure with exposed beam rafters that faces the glimmering waters of Lake Ndutu. Small but comfortable stone cabins have replaced the original tents.

We first glimpsed Ndutu Lodge as our bush plane made a low pass over the dirt airstrip to shoo any wayward wildlife away.  We banked steeply, circled around and landed, coming to a stop in a swirl of dust. Our hosts, Paul and Louise White, loaded our bags and shuttled us to the lodge. The Whites are energetic and pleasant Brits who have found their niche in the African wilds. Paul is an outgoing fellow with a dry, understated wit. Louise is down to business, immediately taking us under wing, settling us into our stone cabins, and setting out our afternoon tea.

The Whites being Brits, they offer us afternoon tea, which we quickly gulp down—after all, we came to see animals-- before jumping into Land Rovers and bumping off into the Serengeti. Simply put, the Serengeti is Africa’s most spectacular destination, a bustling stew of wildebeest, zebra, lions, gazelles, giraffe, elephant, birds, Cape buffalo and dozens of other species of birds and mammals. At the height of the annual wildlife migration the nonstop parade of wildebeest and zebra followed by ever-attentive lions and cheetahs is unforgettable.

It’s mid afternoon, a sweltering and dusty day in the height of the dry season. The huge herds have left on their annual northward migration to the Masai Mara so our expectations for spying wildlife are low, especially in the heat of the day. We anticipate an uneventful drive into the interior with the hope of stumbling across animals later in the evening as the day cools and life stirs. But we’re barely ten minutes out of camp when two giraffes step out of a stand of acacia trees. Three kilometers further we nearly run over a lioness sitting alone in the middle of an unshaded savanna.

Paul heads for a nearby marsh, an oasis of green in the unending brown plains, where wildlife congregates in the dry season. Clouds of birds swoop low over the verdant grass and Paul is energized. Birds are his thing and he calls out several species in rapid succession--birds we’ve never seen before, and some we’ve never heard of--Secretary birds, Bustards, African kites, and on and on, colorful birds, colorful names.

OK, this is great, but this is Africa and we’re after the big guys. And then less than 100 meters away we come upon a herd of elephants, milling around the edge of the marsh, kicking up clouds of dust. We edge closer and suddenly out of the middle of the herd a juvenile bull, full of bluff and bluster, charges us. All I see is a massive gray hulk, huge ears flared out and a roiling veil of dust as he stampedes toward us, bellowing and shaking his massive head. We frantically dive onto the the floor of the truck. The bull stops thirty feet away and swings his head from side to side, very pleased with our distress.

That’s enough elephant viewing for us for a while so we’re off across the plains again and as we pass under a spreading acacia I see—no I sense—a presence overhead and look up into the piercing yellow eyes of a leopard crouched on an angling limb. I yell for Paul to stop and we skid to a halt directly under the big cat. If the cat wanted, he could hop right into our open truck. He decides differently and scampers down the gnarled trunk and disappears into the golden grass. The odds of seeing a leopard are slim; we see two before the day is over, plus hippos, foxes, cheetahs, dikdiks, impala, and enough other animals to call the day a complete success.

At dusk we head back to the lodge and a delicious meal of fresh salads, wine, tender beef tenderloin, and desserts. Ndutu Safari Lodge may have its roots as a hunting camp but there is no corner-cutting here, the service and food is first-class. While we eat small genet cats scamper over our heads on the rafters. Later, over drinks around the campfire we hear the nightly serenade of the lions in the darkness. Paul points out the constellations, weaves tales about wildlife encounters, tells lies, and keeps us laughing with a string of jokes that we’ll forget by morning. Conversation wanders to the next day’s itinerary; we’re heading to the Ngorongoro Crater, where Paul assures us we’ll see more wildlife than we ever thought of seeing today.

He’s right. As we drive up to the rim of the crater, a long, slogging climb that rises out of the Serengeti, the land gradually changes from savannah grassland to volcanic hills. We pass Maasai tribesmen herding their cattle, their bright red robes bringing welcome relief to the monotonous brown scenery. This is a sparsely populated area but the imposing Maasai seem to dominate the landscape. We round a curve in the road and two young Maasai stand on the roadside, faces starkly painted in black and white, a looming and eerie presence. The painted faces are part of the Maasai coming-of-age ritual, young men on the cusp of manhood.

We finally crest the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and spread below us, as far as we can see, is a vast concentration of wildlife, 250 square kilometers of zoological paradise. Thousands of ant-sized dots (we are still 1500 feet above the crater floor) are telltale signs of herds of wildebeest, zebra, and impala. Too many ants we think; there can’t be that many wild animals here. But as our Land Rover grumbles and bucks down the narrow rim road to the crater floor, the dots become larger and we can begin to make out distinct shapes: Cape buffalo, Thompson’s gazelle, eland, more variety and numbers than we had dared hope to see.

Ngorongoro is a constant stream of African vignettes. A daft lioness stalks and then charges two massive adult Cape buffalo who initially flee and then, coming to their senses, turn on their attacker and chase her off. A drying waterhole, one of the few remaining open bodies of water in this dry season, has become a grim charnel house of dead and dying animals. A large family of hippos dominates the shrinking open water. Around the open water is a large ring of deep and entrapping mud and in this mud is a scene of sickening carnage. Hippos, Cape buffalo, and zebras have become mired in the thick muck as they try to reach the water for a drink. Hyenas have waded in to feast on the trapped animals and have themselves become victims. Vultures swoop in to pick at the dead and the dying. It is a sad and sobering sight and another reminder that this is not some amusement park but Africa at its rawest.

Such tableaus are contrasted with scenes of captivating beauty and thirty minutes later we watch a troop of more than one hundred baboons parade single file past our truck while a huge bull elephant thrashes nearby, furiously tearing arm-thick limbs from an acacia tree. The show never ends and before the day is over we have spotted extremely rare black rhinos, a family of cheetahs sitting atop a termite mound, herds of wildebeest and zebra, huge flocks of brilliant flamingos.

On the way back to the lodge, we pass by the Olduvai Visitor Centre, snuggled in the middle of the Olduvai Gorge, made famous by anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey who found evidence of 3.7 million year old Australopithecus Afarensis. This could be the cradle of human existence and standing at the bottom of this 300-foot deep, 30-mile long trench it is impossible not to be awed by its meaning.

Our last night in the Serengeti I was gripped with a sense of melancholy, knowing that the next day I would be leaving Ndutu. But then I remembered something a British mountain climbing guide once told me. “Africa never leaves you,” he said “Once you visit you leave a part of yourself there.”

He’s right of course, Ndutu is unforgettable, a dreamlike memory that I return to frequently.

(This article originally appeared in Marco Polo Magazine)

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