The noise was wild and untamed—the primeval voice of Africa herself.
The full-chested roars of two male lions echoed across the plain, striking terror into their prey and pumping adrenaline into our veins. Nine-year old Annalyse slipped her tiny hand into mine and squeezed it. I squeezed back with a sweaty palm. Naturally our first reaction was fear. After all, my husband, two daughters and I were in a Land Rover with our torsos emerging from the open roof, nothing more than fifty yards and a jeep door between us and these fierce predators. We were close enough to see their individual whiskers and piercing amber eyes. The two males continued to greet each other with verbal ferocity as the morning air vibrated with their deep vocalizations. “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore,” whispered our sarcastic twelve-year-old J.C. “Keep quiet and don’t make any quick movements. They haven’t had breakfast yet,” Tanzanian guide Leonard said with the hint of a smile. Instructions understood; we remained still and silent, in heart-pounding proximity to the lions that strutted and stretched in the orange luminescence of the rising sun.
Soon our bellies growled and we headed back to camp for our own meals. Every day we kept a tally of the animals we saw; in addition to the lions, we watched twenty-one elephants ambling to the watering hole from all directions, leaping impala (we clapped for their high jumps), two loping hyenas, four comical wart hogs zigzagging through the grass with their tails pointing skyward, and dozens of zebra and Thomson’s gazelles—all before a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and cinnamon buns.
In our household we read every National Geographic Magazine with awe and envy. The stories and compelling photos of African wildlife as well as the discoveries of early man at Olduvai Gorge in the Rift Valley motivated us, as a family, to put Africa at the top of our travel list. I developed a sense of urgency when I read this phrase in a travel magazine: Tanzania is to wildlife, what Florence is to western art. My husband and I believe that the nuances of European art, architecture and history cannot be appreciated by young children. However, the pre-teen years are the perfect time to take a family safari in Africa.
Each day at dawn and again late in the afternoon we joined our Tanzanian guide and driver in a safari-ready land rover, and headed into the bush. Careening around termite mounds, up steep banks and down rutted slopes, we watched wildlife from a breathtakingly close vantage point. Sometimes we stayed with them even as they closed in on prey, other times we came upon them just after a kill.
The kids adored Leonard, the Pied Piper of African guides. They listened eagerly as he shared his extensive knowledge about the local mammals, birds and history of the Great Rift Valley; from Tarangire National Park to Olduvai Gorge, and the Serengeti to the Norgorogora Crater.
Prior to our African vacation we thought observing the big animals would be the zenith of our trip, however the camaraderie with our guides, and numerous contacts with the local people were equal highlights. One day we had lunch with Gebra, our Chagga guide, and his family in their home. Another day we visited a Masaai village where the homes were made of cow dung, the women wore massive bead necklaces, flies buzzed overhead and hovered around the children’s eyes. The village chief, wealthy enough to have two wives, took my husband aside for a private conversation, in which he offered him two goats for our oldest daughter.
Both girls kept safari journals. JC wrote: “Right before dinner we sneaked up to the roofless shower tent where Leonard was showering. We got a bucket of ice, filled it with cold water and I stood on a stool and dumped it over the top onto him. It was hilarious! He screeched and swore. It was awesome.”
“I drove for the first time today—across the Serengeti! Leonard took me out in the land rover and when I took the wheel we jerked and bumped through the grass. Mom and Dad applauded from the porch of their tent. It was so cool!”
On another page she described our visit to a country school where they met the pen pals they corresponded with for several months.
“Children attend this school because their parents are wealthy enough to spare them from working at home. Most of them walk two miles or more each way and they consider themselves lucky. And no one complains! The small kids were scared of us. One child touched my arm, then ran and hid behind his teacher. It wasn’t long before they were showing us around. Hollow cement block rooms with wood benches passed as classrooms and the wild outdoors served as a bathroom. Teachers stored the text-books in their office where they were proudly displayed. Then we all played soccer together. They played barefooted in their starched blue skirts and white blouses. We wore our special athletic shoes and they still pummeled us.”
“I was very impressed with Tanzania. The people were gracious and kind. Comparing myself to those who had so little, showed me how lucky I really am.”
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About the Author: Marybeth Bond, the Gutsy Traveler, National Geographic author of 11 travel books, featured guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and founder of the Online Travel Magazine www.GutsyTraveler.com She has been featured over 1,000 times on TV, radio and print. She is a Contributor to CNN, CNN Airport Network and CNN.com Speaker, spokesperson, author, travel expert, Marybeth, the Gutsy Traveler walks the talk. She's an adventurer; biked two months across the USA, traveler to over 90 countries, media travel expert for CBS News, CNN, ABC, NBC, NPR and National Geographic.