We were totally unprepared for Africa. What are the “Big Five” African game animals? When we planned the safari two years ago with our friends – Jo, Ellen and Craig – we couldn’t name them. (The answer we learned was lion, rhinoceros, elephant, tiger, and leopard.) Did anyone feel that seeing the “Big Five” was a priority? Not really.
Our priority was “to experience this area of Africa, seeing animals and birds as one part of the whole landscape, and moving slowly through and learning from an excellent guide.” Clearly first-rate guides were a requirement for our group. That’s what we emailed to Mark Thornton, our choice for safari company, and rated the #1 outfitter by National Geographic Adventure. We wanted to walk, but we recognized that game drives would round out the experience. Two more friends – Betsy and Jack – joined the group the next year. We became a party of seven, booked for a June 2014 safari in Tanzania.
Two years after we put our plan in motion, we flew into Arusha on a little 12-seater plane. Time had arrived for our great adventure.
Chagamba and Mika greeted us as we crossed the runway from our plane. We wanted excellent guides – and we got them! Chagamba grew up learning to track from his grandfather in his Ikoma tribal area west of the Serengeti. He could read all the signs and knew just where to look. Tracks of several animals in overlaying patterns were no problem. He could look out into the distance and see waving grass moving and knew a lion was there – and this was without binoculars.
Mika is from Arusha and his family has been in Tanzania for 2 generations. He grew up in a family of safari guides. He has a broad understanding and love of the land. His knowledge is considerable. Both guides showed us the African landscape of which the animals and birds are a part of a large interdependent system.
Since some of our safari was walking, we knew that viewing animals might be limited. We expected to catch brief glimpses at great distances. Instead, we did see animals and many close enough to spend time quietly observing. On our first walk in Arusha National Park, we saw many animals but were taken aback to see a little dik dik not many meters away sitting in the tall grass.
On another walk, we watched a herd of oryx upwind of us. The herd eventually took off, but one lone juvenile had been at a distance and had not seen the rest leave. Now he was alone. We watched as he tentatively approached a herd of hartebeest. He looked at them; they looked up and saw him. All watched each other for a few moments, and then the oryx slowly approached and joined the group for safety.
We learned about more than large animals on this safari. Our guides pointed out the red-capped weaver and, later, we found even we could easily spot the weavers’ nests.
We learned how to identify animal dung – dik diks have a group latrine and giraffes have an interesting splatter pattern. Chagamba stopped the Land Rover so that we could take photos of the elephant dung that attracted butterflies.
On another drive, after Chagamba spotted a juvenile hyena not far from the road, he hopped out of the Land Rover and chased it away. He found a stick and hoisted up what the hyena had been chewing on for us to see: a lion skull.
Did we see any animals? YES! We counted up almost 30 – and 170 species of birds as well. Best of all, we learned about them and their environment – and a whole lot more – thanks to our guides, Chagamba and Mika.