It may be anti-climactic to be writing about our safari just now, with all the travel restrictions, bans, quarantines, and lockdowns out there, but I will resolutely press on with my narrative, no matter what. Plus, I have a lot of time on my hands to work on these posts! Let me begin by mentioning an Op-Ed piece in our edition of the NY Times, written well before the latest difficulties, by an activist who was, shall we say a little too frenetic, suggesting that people stop traveling by airplane in order to Save the Planet. (Guess what: he got his wish!) My off-the-top-of-my-head reaction was to envision the likelihood of the Schwartz family with their four children bicycling from New Jersey to Florida to visit grandma. (No!) A more considered response came a few days later by another interested party, who reminded one and all of the virtues of environmental tourism. The fact that folks would come from all over to gawk at exotic animals in far away places with strange sounding names – providing the local human population with a way of making a living – was keeping those exotic animals safe and sound. Otherwise, their habitats might well be turned into cattle ranches, because what the planet needs now, more than anything else, is another ten million burgers. Every day, that is.
I never expected that I would get to be an environmental tourist, but there I was, along with the rest of our group, getting ready to gawk at a bunch of animals – that is, if we were fortunate and the animals in question decided to show up the time we were there, which, we were led to understand, doesn’t always happen. A group similar to ours from Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours was in Tanzania two weeks before. The weather was uncooperative, and the wildlife failed to make an appearance. I may be giving away part of my story, but we were much more fortunate. Good weather and lots to see.
You would need more than our small group to make a go of environmental tourism, and, I am happy to report we were far from the only group there. (See below.) You also need a lot of cooperation from whoever is in charge. Unlike Brazil, where they’re intent on burning down as much of the Amazon as they can, the government in this African country is doing its best to keep the environment intact and to wage war against the poachers.
Before I go any further, let me show you a map on a sign in one of the rest areas we stopped at (‘You are here’). You see the Serengeti National Park (Serengeti, by the way, means ‘endless plains’ in Swahili), and you see some other places nearby with different designations. Conservation areas, nature reserves, and national parks all have somewhat different regulations and purposes, but as you can see, they all are part of the Serengeti ecosystem, which is “roughly defined by the area used by wildebeest during their annual migration.” Who would have thought that the wildebeests would have a say in the matter? Just so you know, this ecosystem is larger than the State of Israel, but then, a lot of places are.
There were other parks we visited in the same region, but I’m convinced these man-made geographical distinctions mean little to the birds and beasts involved. (For our purposes, we’ll ignore these distinctions, as well.) Nor are they cognizant of the extraordinary efforts being made to keep their habitat from shrinking or disappearing completely.
One thing that impressed me during our sojourn to the endless plains in modern-day Tanzania was the exquisite, delicate balance in the ‘Natural’ world when us bipeds don’t muck it up.
Every year, over a million wildebeests and a slightly smaller number of zebras migrate from the southern part of the Serengeti to the northern part and back again. It’s sort of a package deal. What happens is that the zebras start munching on the tall grass, and when it’s chomped down to a manageable height, the wildebeests go at it. Giraffes remain where there are trees; hippopotamuses where there is water. Elephants and buffalo hedge their bets; they’re OK wherever they are. Predators (lions, leopards and cheetahs) and scavengers (hyenas, jackals, and vultures) are everywhere, especially when the wildebeests are doing their long-distance traveling. Apparently, lots of wildebeests don’t survive the journey, falling victim to exhaustion, dehydration, drowning, and attacks by crocodiles in the water and the lions, etc. on dry land. Somehow, the population balance between the herbivores and the predators/scavengers in the Serengeti tends to remain the same, what with the birth rate of the first group and the ‘population control’ by the second.
Most of what I know about the Serengeti I learned over the course of several days sitting in the Land Cruiser, our de facto English-speaking ghetto. Some of it came from Cindy, using the notes at her disposal. But more often than not, she would turn to Moudi, our driver/guide for his input. Back in The Land, if we are going on a tiyul, there will be someone who drives the bus (who never says a word) and a guide (who more often than not never stops talking). However, on safari with four, six, or eight passengers in a ‘jeep,’ one person functions as both. (Just don’t call him ‘driver.’ One of the other two guides for our group took umbrage at that description. My parents spent $15,000 on my education so I could become a guide.)
Moudi didn’t say a word unless he was asked, whereupon he would tell you what he knew, which was a helluva lot, as he had been doing this work for a dozen years. Otherwise, he would be driving his vehicle through rough terrain, muddy and more-than-just-muddy paths (as in wannabe rivers!), and where there were no paths at all. Where others got mired in the muck, he maneuvered his vehicle through it all. He was constantly on the intercom with the other two guides from our group, and, whenever a ‘jeep’ from another outfit passed by, he would stop and chat with the other guide. The idea was to share information about what to see and where, so that we weren’t wandering aimlessly around the endless plains.
We would get in The Land Cruiser a little after 7AM, head out to our destination, and drive and drive and drive. We had scheduled stops for lunch and impromptu pit stops, but otherwise we stayed in our vehicles. (You do not want to get out and take a stroll through the high grass. No telling what is waiting out there for you. You want to eat lunch, not be lunch.) As you can see, the tops of these Land Cruisers can be raised, to allow a better field of view. Moudi, with his years of experience, had a fairly good idea of where to take us. Whenever we arrived at a traffic jam, he would find a way to ease his way into a good spot, so that we could photograph whatever it was that everyone else was peering at. Mind you, when I say, ‘traffic jam,’ I’m not being facetious. There were occasions when it took several minutes to untangle all the vehicles, going in both directions, that had stopped in one narrow road. Mercifully, the guys doing the driving all understand the need to cooperate so that the tourists all get a chance to get a ring-side seat – no honking, no yelling, unlike what happens in a certain country I won’t name.
To get a sense of how many tourists there are being ferried around the parks, preserves, and conservation areas in this one region of Tanzania, head over to one of the rest areas and observe how many folks there are from all parts of the world crowding the picnic tables. There is one dramatic difference between the rest areas here and the Richard Stockton rest stop on the Jersey turnpike or the one here on kvish sheish, and that’s the wildlife that would like to sample what you’re eating. Try protecting your sandwich from a vervet monkey. There was one rest stop overrun with these critters. Barbara learned the hard way not to turn your head away while you’re eating.
Bye-bye, half her sandwich. It’s true that you’ll find little birds looking for breadcrumbs in outdoor cafés all over the world, but not with the astounding assortment of colors we saw in Tanzania. Here’s one brazen little guy, but there were lots of others.
There’s a lot more to my story: people we met, lions we encountered, coffee we drank. Plus, lots more photographs. A lot of us are holed up in our quarters, trying to keep ourselves entertained. So you’ll have lots of time to savor this article and the ones that follow. And I’ll be having lots of time to write them.