Margaret and Dick   


October 2013: Serengeti learning and discovery

  A photo safari to east Africa had been on our list for decades.  We finally got there.  We went to Tanzania to see the animals and to experience the culture.  We left awed by the animals of all species living wild and free in the savagely beautiful Serengeti and by the diverse peoples of Tanzania working to overcome the ethnic strife common in tribal cultures.  

Margaret and I rarely travel with organized groups.  We made an exception for the Serengeti:  you can get eaten out there.  When old friends Peter and Donna proposed a safari with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), we jumped in.  We’re so glad we did!  We were in the capable hands of three driver guides.  Our group leader Alex earned our respect and admiration for his knowledge, sensitivity, and management skill.  He is Maasai, from a family that made the unusual choice of selling their cattle (the Maasai measure of wealth and worth).  Alex’s grandfather had recognized the reality of country’s evolution from the Maasai nomadic tradition to a new vision of protecting the abundant wildlife.

Alex helped our group see Tanzania through his eyes.  We knew he was boss.  Early in the trip, he explained the rule of order:  “When I say ‘Maasai man speaking!’ you must be quiet and listen.”  He did this with a high jump off the floor, the way a Maasai warrior peacefully demonstrates his physical prowess.  After that, Alex never did have to tell us twice to quiet down and listen.  “Maasai man speaking!” was enough to bring us to respectful attention.  When we encountered something unusual, important, different, or sexual, Alex would call out “learning and discovery!” to focus our attention.

We expected a fine animal viewing experience, but what we got was awesome.  The list is long:  thousands of zebras and wildebeest; hundreds of giraffes, elephants, buffalo, gazelles, and antelope; plus warthogs, lions, leopards, cheetahs, hippos, baboons and monkeys, cape buffalo, flamingos, ostrich, eagles, topi, mongoose, crocodile.  Birdwatchers would have another dozen species to add to the list.   

ti means “endless plain” in Maasai.  Each day we marveled at herds of zebra and wildebeest grazing together, slowly moving across the sea of grass dotted with acacia and baobab trees.  It’s a symbiotic co-existence of two very different animals.  Our guide told the Maasai story of why they get along so well.  In grazing, the big front teeth of zebras are good at cutting the long tall grass, and wildebeest graze the short grass that remains.  Zebras have better sight, so they see danger far away, but have a worse sense of smell than wildebeests. The wildebeests can smell where water is to be found, but it’s the zebra who remembers how to get there.

In this vast preserve, the laws of nature rule.  A zebra near our Lake Manyara lodge hobbled on three legs.  Its very presence proved that predators are less prevalent near a lodge guarded by Maasai warriors.  “Will somebody go out and splint the leg so it can heal?” we asked.  No, it will soon be dinner for a hyena.  There are no rescue veterinarians here.

  To see what is out there, you have to watch, just like to hear, you have to listen.  Our driver stopped the car on the Serengeti plain.  “What do you see?” he asked.  A little tree, a little ditch, wait! there’s the head of a lioness.  “What is she doing?”  Eating, apparently a warthog.  “Keep looking.”  At her side was a lion cub, also eating.  “What’s that to the left, not moving?”  Another lion cub, on its back with legs in the air, happily stuffed.  We eventually identified a lioness and three cubs, all well fed.  Thanks, mom! 
The leopards are more secretive and prefer to lounge on the branches of trees.  They blend so well you have to watch until your eyes adjust to their camouflage.  We saw eight in all, and four on one lucky day; there are only five hundred in the Serengeti.  In one case a mama leopard had dragged a gazelle up into the tree and was dividing it up for her cubs.  On one lucky occasion we saw a leopard in full view on a dead tree – a perfect cat-bird seat.  Ultimately they all act like kitty cats. 
We encountered a group of elephant mamas crossing a creek bed with their young.  The babies were almost hidden behind the protective circle of their legs.  One flapped her ears at us and made threatening motions until we moved the cars so the herd could cross the road.  Alex assured us that an enraged mother elephant could flatten a Toyota Land Cruiser without much trouble.  The elephant uses its trunk as a hand and grasps a bunch of grass or leaves to rip off and eat.  A baby elephant trying to wrap its trunk around a bunch of leaves looks as awkward as a human baby spooning food towards its mouth.
The hippo pool housed some fifty closely-packed beasts that looked like giant round boulders.  It’s an interesting symbiosis:  crocodiles protect the hippos, hippos poop in the water, carp gather to eat the poop, and the crocodiles eat the carp.  Any crocodile who misbehaved would immediately be exiled from the pool. 

A group of flamingos feeding in the water looked like a dance class.  Heads are down and submerged, swinging slowly like croquet mallets to filter out the tasty algae that make flamingos pink.

We watched the mating dance of two ostriches, ceremonially flinging their feathers like ballet dancers.  And when the male got the go-ahead, they mated right there on the dance floor.  It was  pretty clear the guy got the best out of that deal.  Learning and discovery indeed.

It was like being in a zoo, but the humans were in the cages (cars) and the animals were free.  Humans grouped in cars are not part of the animal’s context, so we become invisible.  The same applies to humans in tents.  Leaving your tent during the night was strictly forbidden:  lions and hyenas could be heard all night, and there was plenty of scatological evidence of cape buffalos.  The penalty for a nighttime stroll, assuming you survived it, would be a trip to the airport at daybreak.

We frequently hear about intertribal conflicts in countries surrounding Tanzania:  Central African Republic, South Sudan, Congo, Kenya, and Rwanda.  Tanzania stands out as an oasis of inter-tribal accommodation.  The country’s first president, Nyere, set the stage by insisting on a common language and common goals to make this new country work for all tribes.  We saw it daily in the interactions of our three driver-guides:  Maasai, Bantu, and Iraqw.  Swahili, the common language of East Africa, is a thread that stitches together dozens of tribal cultures.  Swahili is a flexible language that brings in new words as needed.

Cultural visits are a part of every OAT itinerary.  Our favorite was a visit to a Maasai village, which provided a lesson in living simply but successfully.  The family compound is a circle of mud huts topped with thatched straw roofs, all surrounded by a modest animal-deterring fence.  The communal outhouse stands well outside the perimeter.  The village chief’s motorcycle is parked outside, inconspicuous until you note its incongruity.

No electricity in evidence, no running water.  “Those mud huts look sort of hot in summer, no?”  Actually, the mud hut is very cool in the hot weather, Alex assured us.   We went inside and met with an ancient expert midwife.  The gloom gradually gave way as our eyes adjusted.  Young men and kids peeked in as we talked. 

Furniture in the huts consists of bed mats, a few stools, primitive cooking pots, and a cell phone with solar charger.  A dozen kids played happily around the compound, and they are communally raised by the village women.  All children attend elementary school, thanks to an accord between the Maasai elders and the central government.  The wives ceremonially dressed our women in the Maasai skirt and scarf, and taught them how to dance and sing (lots of laughs here), and how to thatch a roof and repair a mud wall with a mixture of mud, straw, and dung.     

Our men, meanwhile, got to stand around carrying the Maasai staff and look important.  They tried to teach us the characteristic leap of the Maasai warrior, but there was really no hope.  

Before the trip, I was afraid that eleven days in country would prove to be a very long visit, but the jam-packed schedule passed quickly.  Each day deepened the appreciation of Tanzania and especially of the Serengeti.  Whenever we encountered something unusual, important, different, or sexual, Alex would call out “Learning and discovery!” to focus our attention.  We saw how thousands of animals, predator and prey, could coexist in the delicate balance of nature.  Some get eaten, most get fed.  We saw how diverse tribes could co-exist, forming a pocket of stability surrounded by countries torn by ethnic rivalries.  Listen and watch.  Learning and discovery. 

Why Margaret has no story from Tanzania

We got a lot of flak because we went on safari and didn’t write up a “Limoux” story about the experience.  Dick succeeded, belatedly, in working up the story above.  I am, instead, explaining why I have no story.

We toured Tanzania with Harvard-era friends Peter and Donna and ten of their friends.  Thanks to Peter’s efforts eighteen months earlier, we were able to book a private tour with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT).  Eleven days on the ground had sounded like a long trip, but we loved every minute.  Expert guides in the Serengeti and Tarangire National Parks and Ngorongoro Crater pointed out wildlife that we could never have found on our own.  Visits to Maasai and Iraqw communities showed us aspects of the culture that we could not otherwise have accessed.  A visit to a local school, complete with one-on-one interactions with the kids, was great fun.  It was, quite simply, the perfect trip, and you should go.  OAT is a perfect choice, provided that you’re ready to spend a few nights “under canvas” with only a (very upscale) safari tent separating you from the wildlife.  But I have no story.

Frequent readers of Limoux stories know that they are about misadventures more than adventures.  The broken-hearted girl looking for her lost love, Jean-Marc, in the mountains.  People getting gored by bulls; bulls getting killed by people.  A shouting match with the hotel keeper who wouldn’t let us leave his decidedly downscale rooms.  Airport security guards shaking us down for baksheesh.  An afternoon lunch that becomes a lifelong memory.  These are the stuff of Limoux stories.  Sometimes we write stories along the lines of “first we did this, then we did that, then we did this other thing”, which either get thrown out or we publish them knowing full well that they are really boring.

Limoux stories also require lots of leisure time – cafes and restaurants for brainstorming, evenings for writing – to pull a story together.  A well-organized tour allows just enough downtime to be ready for the next activity.  And ideally there would be a twist, element of surprise, or irony.  These are not characteristics of organized tours, and in fact you pay them well to avoid those situations. 
But we did take a lot of photos.  Here are links to flickr sets of Margaret and Richard (people and animals).  Enjoy!

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