The languid, blood red African sun dipped under the horizon over the Ngorongoro Crater. In the fading light, I could still see herds of animals, too far away to make out at this distance, moving in unison towards a snaking river that cut through the crater floor. The sounds of birds and monkeys filled the air as I took my glass of Amarula on ice and cheersed my mother on the luxurious terrace of the Ngorongoro Crater Wildlife Lodge.
I never would have gone on this trip by myself. Backpackers are a funny bunch. Restrained by budget, travel philosophy, carbon footprint limits, or other idealistic parameters, they (we) espouse the idea that the journey is the destination, and the grittier the journey, the realer the trip. Luxurious ensuite bathroom? Who needs it! Fancy dinners? More like street meat! Short-haul flights? Blasphemy! So, when my parents announced they were coming to visit me in East Africa, I had to rapidly shift my travel paradigm.
Mr. and Mrs. MacNeill, as enthusiastic and open-minded as they are, aren’t really the backpacking types. They’re also not the international travel types – my childhood consisted of a series of Great Canadian Road Trip excursions from our home in Canada’s North that made Edmonton seem like the big city. With my parents making a huge leap out of their comfort zone to visit, I vowed to make it the trip of a lifetime.
Our first day in Arusha consisted mostly of driving, from the sprawling city of Arusha through the northern Tanzanian highlands. Red earth, wide savannah vistas dotted with distinctive acacia trees – it doesn’t get much more Capital A Africa than northern Tanzania. As the late afternoon light waned, our driver spotted a cluster of vehicles near a stream and headed over to investigate. Our first Serengeti wildlife sighting? A pride of over twenty lions, including two males and playful cubs. Speaking of the backpacker paradigm – the lineup of safari vehicles taking turns observing the group would have made most backpackers cringe. But in the moment, all I could think of was how awesome it was to be sharing the experience with my family.
The Serengeti ecosystem is truly huge (30,000 square kilometres, to be precise, including both the Tanzanian and Kenyan sides). It includes a wide diversity of habitats, which is what makes it one of the world’s great wildlife viewing destinations . It’s one of the only places where seeing the Big 5 (lions, elephants, rhinos, cape buffalo, and leopard) is almost guaranteed. The Serengeti is also host to the largest on-land migration in the world, known simply as the Great Migration. Beginning in July, over a million wildebeest, accompanied by some 750,000 zebra, head north, moving with the availability of grazing lands, to return the following November with the rains. The migration is taxing and includes birth and death of hundreds and thousands of wildebeest. By my count, we were missing the Great Migration (one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world) by a matter of weeks, but you can’t have everything. Long story short – the Serengeti is famous for a reason.
Our lodge was in the middle of a kopje, a cluster of granite acting as an outpost for vegetation (and thus, herbivores) in the middle of the sweeping plain. On our first day, we saw hundreds of zebras and wildebeest, more lions, elephants, giraffe, warthogs, and more ungulates than I could ever remember to name. The name Serengeti comes from the Maa language of the
Masaii people. In Maa, “Serengit” means “endless plains.” The Serengeti deserves its name, with rock outcrops, massive termite mounds and herds of animals the only things that break your gaze between you and the horizon. Our first day left us with three of the big 5 crossed off our list, just leopards and rhinos to go. Our second day was hugely successful – including a baby cheetah and a lion in a tree – but devoid of leopards and rhinos. As a chronic listmaker, I felt our trip would only be complete if we saw the big 5.
Day three delivered – a big leopard, violently gnawing off an antelope’s head in a tree – which was truly amazing (and also disgusting).
On our way out of the Serengeti, I saw a black shadow on the horizon. As we got closer, I realized what we were seeing was a massive herd of wildebeest. Not just a massive herd – a gargantuan herd. We were seeing the beginning of the Great Migration. A plain that, two days before, had been a sweeping expanse of grasses dotted with the occasional termite mound, was full of wildebeest and zebra, shoulder to shoulder on either side of the road. We drove through the horde of creatures, marveling at the sheer magnitude of it all. We agreed that night, over Amarulas (East Africa pro tip: drink Amarula, it’s like fruity Bailey’s with more of a kick), that even if we didn’t see a single animal on our next (and last) day, the trip would be considered a resounding success.
A short distance from the Serengeti lies the Ngorongoro Crater, our last stop before heading back to Arusha. The crater was formed millions of years ago when a volcano (probably the size of Mount Kilimanjaro) caved in on itself following an eruption. The crater’s steep walls form a natural enclosure for the lazier animals (more active animals manage to get in and out). It’s fertile valley floor and regular water sources are a smorgasboard for large mammals, which in turn provide a buffet for predators like lions and leopards. Lush, fertile and absolutely abundant, the crater is truly a world wonder of biodiversity. And, to my everlasting, list-loving happiness, we completed our big 5 checklist. Black rhinos are classified as critically endangered, and the fact that Ngorongoro’s population of 24 of them is considered relatively healthy will give you an idea of why. They’re notoriously elusive (though not elusive enough for poachers, who’s desire for their horn has pushed them to the brink of extinction). At first I thought what I was seeing was a large gray rock in the distance, but as it moved, I caught sight of the horn that has caused this creature almost irreparable damage. We never got a great look, but seeing an animal that could be gone in a matter of years was a humbling experience and the perfect way to end the trip.
The shift in my thinking about traveling has stuck with me. Left to my own devices, I probably would have done a budget, two-day safari in a smaller park, or skipped it altogether, saving my money for a few more days in a different country. Not doing that gave me a trip of a lifetime. To all those who shun family vacations for solo backpacking ventures, to you I say: give it a chance. Seeing a monkey sneak into an occupied hotel room and try to snag the glasses off the face of its hysterical occupant would be hilarious anytime – but its all the better when its your mom.