There is this thing called mal d’Afrique, an indefinable feeling of loss that compels visitors to return to Africa time and again. A state of mind actually, it is nevertheless real and infectious.
Theories about the cause abound: it is a taste for dust; it is the alteration of one’s vision, becoming preoccupied with distance, far horizons, the sense that you’ve stepped into a place of endless pristine wilderness; it is the feeling of detachment, your spirit telling you you’ve found a place to linger; or maybe it is your inner being recognizing the birthplace of its origin.
One thing is certain: much like the common cold, there is no cure and the best you can do is treat the symptoms. And, so it was that, seeking some relief, I headed to Tanzania for a first-time visit to the Serengeti.
The excitement of returning to Africa notwithstanding, a trace of uncertainty hung over me as the twin-engine, 18-seat plane (known as the ‘bus’ by safari camp workers) from Arusha, Tanzania’s ‘safari capital,’ made its way to my first stop. I fretted that the Serengeti, a fixture on most everyone’s “Places to Visit in a Lifetime” list and the subject of countless television documentaries, might not live up to all the hype.
As the plane banked hard to begin its alignment with the airstrip’s dirt runway, I gazed down on the vast plain. The mid-morning sun sparkled in pinpoints off the plain, a sure indication that the heavy rains of November recently had flooded this area of the Serengeti. Nevertheless, beside the airstrip a small herd of giraffes languorously strode among nearby trees, grazing on leaves, and beyond them, the odd wildebeest stood impassively. These sights were the salve for my long-raging case of mal d’Afrique, and I grew confident that the Serengeti, home to the largest mass of free-ranging animals on earth, would, in fact, be all it’s touted to be.
After deplaning, I was directed to a car for a short hop to the Grumeti River Lodge, a tented camp tucked away in a remote valley in the western corridor of the Serengeti. Those who have yet to visit Africa are advised to forget whatever association camping brings to mind. This is something quite different. Although it offers only canvas walls (and at the same time all the varied magical and romantic sounds of the African bush), Grumeti in all other ways proves luxurious. Consisting of 10 spacious tents on raised concrete platforms set under makuti (palm frond) canopies, Grumeti Camp provides discreetly separated tents, each with a well furnished deck and interior, king-sized bed, overhead fan, electric lights, ensuite bathroom with hand basin, flush toilet and al fresco shower open to the stars and the occasional curious vervet monkey.
But best of all, the camp abuts a pool that supports a resident pod of hippos and casts an atmosphere of sheer in-your-face Africa. So while the manager advised me of the camp rules upon my arrival, the most important being never, ever leaving your tent after dark without a staff escort, the hippos serenaded with a cacophonous chorus of snorts/grunts/bellows and harrumphs.
Safari camps are nothing if not ultra efficient, and after the recitation of the ground rules I was told to grab my photo gear, to not worry about my bags and to hustle to a vehicle that would catch me up with a game drive already in progress.
Within minutes we spotted an idling Land Cruiser that held a middle-aged couple who appeared, from a distance, to be involved in some odd religious rite as they flogged themselves with horse tail swatters. After hopping into the new vehicle, sitting down, and immediately sensing pricks through my clothing, I realized they were gamely trying to ward off tsetses, those nasty biting flies that have retained their modern morphological form for about 34 million years.
Following introductions all around, Waziri, the driver and guide, posed the question guides will ask all new visitors prior to their first game drive, “What do you wish to see?”