My First Safari
Many years ago I decided to change the way I approached travelling. I wanted to venture off the beaten path, journeying to remote areas filled with spectacular natural beauty and wildlife, and where I could truly experience the culture and traditions of people so different to me. Before setting out on my first expedition of this kind, I was full of nerves. Would it be too different, this world so far away from my everyday life?
My journey would take me to Africa, specifically Tanzania, and my guide and companion would be Mikel, a true travel expert with passion and knowledge who, years later, would become my husband, and companion in life as well as in travel. This would be the first journey of many together over the years, and the start of an ongoing expedition that still hasn’t stopped.
From Madrid, we flew to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro airport via Amsterdam, an 11 hour flight without time changes. I spent many of these hours, thinking of what I’d find at our destination, and wondering what the next days had in store for me.
Finally we touched down at a small airport – we’d reached our destination! At immigration I was asked to show my vaccination card and pay for a visitors visa which was then promptly stamped in my passport. It was now official; my first African stamp! Very soon I would add those for Congo and Rwanda, but that’s another story.
Our Safari started the very next day, early in the morning. As we were travelling in the rainy season in May, the weather was warm and clement, and we climbed into an open sided 4X4, ready to see all the national park had to offer. The first park we visited was Tarangire, famous for its baobab trees and the herds of elephant common to the area.
And, talking of elephants, It wouldn’t take long until I had my first brush with these majestic beasts. Looking to my right from the safety of the 4X4 I could see a full herd only 10 meters from where I was sitting. My heart was pounding, I’d never seen such beautiful wild animals so very close.
Over that first day in the park we saw giraffes, ostriches, the adorable miniature deer known as dik-dik’s, weaverbirds and more.
The day lasted until late after lunch, when we retired to the campsite to get some rest. I still remember the incredible views, stretching down to Lake Tarangire, which gives the park its name. I’ll never forget the night we spent there, under a starry sky that seemed to go on forever. A glimpse of the literal heavens, that I couldn’t stop gazing into.
Another early start the next day took us north to Lake Manyara National Park. Here, I got to see hippos in the wild for the first time, as well as giraffes, buffalo – very different to the one’s I’d seen in the Americas – hundreds of flamingo, and one, solitary black rhino. The memory of that rhino has stayed with me, knowing that, to our shame, her species is almost extinct.
Continuing with our route, we stopped to rest at a Masai village. Here we met the local people, tall and thin tribesmen and women, dressed in bright reds, blues, pinks and purples, with their distinctive traditional necklaces, bracelets and earrings. The Masai live in ‘manyattas’, compounds of single story huts made out of branches, mud and cow dung.
We visited during a traditional celebration and watched them dance in a distinctive style where they jumped ever higher into the air. The Masai that jumps the highest, proves their strength and virility.
From the village we headed to our campsite for the night, on the Serengeti. That evening’s sunset was like something out of a movie – a giant red sun, that slowly sank beneath the skyline until the savannah was plunged into darkness.
Another early start. I’d begun to realise that the best time to see the animals was early in the morning, while the air was still fresh and cool. At midday, the animals look for shelter from the sun, resting until the late afternoon, when once again they start to roam.
We made our way into the Serengeti National Park, a unesco world heritage site and a protected biological reserve. Serengeti is characterised by its endless rolling plains, that in the rainy months are lush and green. It’s at this time of year when mighty herds of gnu, zebra and Thompson gazelle make their migration to the south, in turn attracting the attention of hungry lions, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards.
This landscape is almost overwhelming in its size, the diversity of its wildlife and its sheer natural beauty. Setting out to explore, the first animals we came across were the endless herds of gnu and zebra. This was ‘the Great Migration’, one of the wonders of the natural world, when more than a million animals cross the plains. I felt privileged to witness it.
Over the next few days, we’d come across many of the big cats in the region, and my first sighting was of a lioness. We saw her hiding in the grass by the treeline, and followed her as she rose, and walked to where her cubs were. Further down the path we came across majestic males, calling to females in heat. We also saw some svelte and beautiful cheetahs – the fastest animal in the world – almost close enough to touch.
Next we set off in search of leopards. Harder to spot due to their hiding in trees, after much searching and waiting, we finally caught one, lounging in some tree branches. The experience of seeing this beautiful animal was more than worth the wait.
The highlight of the trip however came the next day. Our guides had tracked a lioness that had caught a buffalo, and we went to witness the feast. We saw her and her cubs devour the beast, heard the crunching of the bones as they chewed. It was an unforgettable scene, watching nature at its most elemental and wild. To top it all off, that same day I saw the biggest and clearest rainbow I’ve ever seen, stretching all across the savannah.
The final stage of our journey took us to the Ngonrongoro crater, one of the world’s largest dormant volcanic calderas. This natural wildlife reserve is considered the smallest geographical area where you can see the ‘big five’: lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. And we saw them all!
At the end of the day we retired to our campsite, nestled on the slopes of the crater, and with some of the best views a traveller could want.
That night would be my last on safari. Or on this safari at least. More than a journey, it had been a life experience, where I’d discovered a new world – that paradoxically had been there all the time, even before humans! Before this trip, I’d thought that this world was too distant, too far removed from my everyday life for me to enjoy, but I was wrong. I realised on this trip that I am part of this wonderful, fragile planet which was inviting me to discover, care for and respect it. This trip really changed both myself, and the way I saw the planet we all share. I couldn’t be happier to have lived such a unique experience and, most of all, the realisation that there is so much else out there to explore.