Tanzania: exploring the real ‘circle of life’

Three zebras traverse the Serengeti plain.
Three zebras traverse the Serengeti plain.

As I descended into northeast Tanzania and watched the Serengeti plain come into view through the tiny window of the little Cessna plane, I embarrassingly admitted to the person beside me that The Lion King had shaped everything I knew about Africa.

I also admitted I had no idea what I was getting into.

There were 20 of us in total, including four guides, a family of six from Chile, nine people from the Toronto area and a man from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s biggest city. We had all come to Tanzania to safari.

The youngest child in our group, Luis Ignacio, sauntered over to me and pulled out the biggest hunting knife I’d ever seen, which he had brought from Chile in order “to fight the lions!” I made a mental note to sit beside him in the safari Jeeps.

We watched the planes leave us behind, and then hopped on the vehicles and entered the grassland, leaving the last public washroom in the dust.

Searching for the “Big Five”—lions, elephants, leopards, Cape buffalo and rhinos—was like playing a game of bingo. Right away we spotted zebras, giraffes and warthogs. After a while, the animals even started showing a little personality.

I watched a baby elephant grab its mother’s tail while walking on steep ground. I laughed at baboons squabbling with each other and screamed when a black mamba quickly scurried in front of our Jeep.

I rooted for a male giraffe while he persistently courted an indecisive female, and I watched lions hug each other after a family reunion while we fixed a flat tire on the way to Ngorongoro. But I didn’t win safari bingo: I didn’t spot a rhino. They’re almost extinct and the small handful left in the park was living in a remote area, where park wardens hoped they were mating.

After long and dusty days on the road, we would often find ourselves at the campsite trying to outdo each other with the animals we’d seen that day.

By 5 p.m. the sun would set and by 6 p.m. our group would gather around the bonfire and drink wine. This was one of my favourite parts of the day.

While sitting around the fire, I felt secure in my little circle of friends and family. One of the guides would sweep their flashlight through the surrounding grasses and illuminate all the sets of animal eyes that were silently watching us. It was eerie.

Sleeping at night was an adventure in itself. There aren’t any campgrounds in Serengeti National Park, so we pitched our tents on the side of a hill. They were roomy with two single beds and a toilet in the back. Strung around my bedpost were a whistle and a big machete. The first night I slept with one in each hand.

All night, animals wandered in between our tents. I would lie in my bed, my eyes open, listening to my heartbeat exploding out of my chest while something—I usually imagined a lion—was sniffing around on the other side of the thin cloth separating us.

One night I even found myself an unexpected bed buddy: a lizard, who had been crawling under my back trying to get comfortable.

My favorite memory of Africa, however, happened the day before we left the Serengeti for Zanzibar.

We were out on an early morning drive and the dirt roads were empty of the usual binocular-and-Tilley-hat caravan. Out of nowhere, our guide swung the jeep right off the road and up a steep hill. We were breaking the rules, but he said he had heard some bones crack.

Sure enough, when we came over the crest of the hill, a group of lions was ripping apart a fresh wildebeest, no more than three meters away. They looked up at us with their bloody chins, wondering if they would need to share.

At this point I made eye contact with one of the females. It didn’t last long, but it gave me goosebumps. I don’t think it affected her quite the same way, as she just looked away, ripped out a leg joint and started chomping again.

Tanzania is a beautiful country. Sitting on the edge of the Ngorongoro crater, with its monstrous walls and dry soda lake, was a truly humbling experience. I hope to return one day.

While on the safari, I realized how perfectly the planet could function without humans. In true wing-man style, giraffes kept watch for predators in the distance, while impalas watched for those stalking nearby.

Even trees were covered in sharp thorns, and on the off chance an animal still found a way to munch on them, they would secrete a bad-tasting oil.

The great circle of life, baby. Disney taught me that much.

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