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In a land of the big five

A magical safari in Tanzania, where majestic animals roam freely and the grasslands stretch out like a vision of eternity

In a land of the big five
Giraffes at a water reservoir at Serengeti National Park. — Photos by the author

I flew to Tanzania, Dar-es-Salaam, via UAE from Islamabad. Sorting out the visa was a bit complex though. At first, I was told that you don’t need a visa with a Pakistani passport and then, with only a few days remaining, I discovered that I did indeed need an invitation letter authorised by the ministry of home affairs. My travel agency managed to sort this out at the last minute.

I visited Tanzania in August 2016, and the weather at this time tends to be hot and dry. Malaria is still a big problem in Africa, so I had to start my malaria medicines a few days before taking off. People who had travelled to Africa before forbade me to pack clothes in dark colours — absolutely no blacks, no dark blues or reds. These colours attract mosquitoes so you need to be extra careful, they said. They also suggested I pack ankle-high outdoor adventure boots. Why? Because, they said, if you step on a scorpion, these ankle-high shoes will save your life.

This was not the most encouraging introduction to Tanzania!

Then came the hard task of finding such boots in Pakistan for women. I visited stores selling adventure footwear in Islamabad but couldn’t find any practical enough to carry and wear. I did, however, get a super useful half-sleeved khaki hunting jacket with almost 20 hidden pockets and a cool khaki full-shaded hat. My clothing was all breathable, mostly khaki pants and cotton shirts due to the weather and the nature of the expedition.

I had never travelled to Africa before but it did not strike me as unfamiliar; having grown up watching film Out of Africa several times and reading books by Chinua Achebe, and more recently Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Even from these remote interactions, I found Africa enchanting, colourful, bare, vast, harsh, exotic and mysterious.

I truly believe that everyone needs to go to Africa, and feel the magic. As Hemingway put it “If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa”.

It is an endless vision where one is unable to make out any direction or bearing. If you stopped and stepped out in the plains without a local guide, you would have no idea where you are as there are hardly any markers, such as trees or pastures, differentiating the land.

The real journey started in Kilimanjaro where I got my own safari jeep and driver/guide. Safari driver/guide tend to be extremely knowledgeable. Mine was well-versed in local flora and fauna. I could ask anything about a tree, a shrub or an animal, and he was able to give me quite a bit of information and history.

Umbrella-of-thorn-tree-Serengeti  National Park

The initial drive through Kilimanjaro is super interesting because, above the gently rolling hills, one can see the snowy peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, its slopes and glaciers shimmering above the rising clouds. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet (5,895 metres), and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Seeing it from a distance, one is mesmerised by its beauty, and the majesty with which it dwarfs all that it surrounds.

A cheetah enjoying the shade at Serengeti National Park.

A cheetah enjoying the shade at Serengeti National Park.

Serengeti National Park area covers almost 14,750 square kilometres; or to put this in perspective, the park area is almost 1/5th the size of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The name “Serengeti” means “the place where the land runs on forever” or “extended place”. This makes it the greatest wildlife-watching destination on earth. So, when you start the drive in the national park area, Serengeti’s grasslands stretch out like a vision of eternity. It is an endless vision where one is unable to make out any direction or bearing. If you stopped and stepped out in the plains without a local guide, you would have no idea where you are as there are hardly any markers, such as trees or pastures, differentiating the land. While driving around, I quickly lost my sense of direction. I was unable to tell whether we were moving forward or backwards or passing the same tree again and again. This has a very unique disorienting effect on your senses.

On the vast plains of the Serengeti, the nature’s mystery, power and beauty surround you like a few other places. It is here that I had my first experience with wild animals roaming freely… giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, hyenas, buffaloes, gazelles, hartebeests, impalas, klipspringers, and duikers. I had never seen big animals like lions, cheetahs, and elephants outside the zoo, and didn’t realise how majestic and proud these animals look in the wild — how spirited they appear in their natural element. It’s a treat and a privilege to be in their presence. I was truly able to relate with Hemingway’s “magic”.

A lion at Ngorongoro crater.

A lion at Ngorongoro crater.

Here you realise how torturous it must be for an animal to be in captivity. After witnessing this, I recalled the pitiful conditions of our local zoo in Islamabad. I am not sure what children learn from watching dejected, lethargic, and struggling animals. After seeing this place, I can tell you that animals in the wild are literally a world apart, and even the best zoo facilities can’t recreate the conditions and experience of the wild.

The next day, after a half-day game drive at the Serengeti, we drove to the Ngorongoro Crater, where the surrounding highlands form one of Africa’s most beautiful regions. Volcanic craters form stunning backdrops to some of the most fertile grazing grounds in Africa.

Zebras at Ngorongoro crater.

Zebras at Ngorongoro crater.

It is the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera, and home to the highest density of big game in Africa, including ‘Big Five’. The reason for all this abundance is the presence of water, both from the permanent springs that sustain the swamps, and the rivers fed by run-off from the crater-rim forests. The crater itself is 19 kilometres in diameter, and almost 8,000 square kilometres in area. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered to be one of the seven natural wonders of Africa. As a result, entry to the crater is strictly regulated, and vehicles are given only a few hours inside the crater.

Once inside, the landscape and the abundance of wildlife is overwhelming. It’s simply “Wow!” Here, I saw a magnificent lion walking on the unpaved road. It stayed on the road for almost a kilometre surrounded by jeeps. The drivers were immensely respectful of the animal. They did not honk or try to intimidate them. They would pass the lion at a safe distance, park 1/4th of a kilometre away from it, and turn off the engines. This way, we crossed the path of the majestic lion at least three or four times.

View of pink  flamenco.

View of pink flamenco.

At one point the lion came so close to our parked jeep that its tail was almost inside the car’s window. It was an incredible spectacle to witness. Despite being surrounded by so many vehicles, the lion kept walking proudly, gracefully, unhurriedly, and totally uninterested in us.

My sighting of a black rhino (a member of the Big Five and an endangered species) also happened at Ngorongoro Crater. The crater houses only 20-30 black rhinos, and each one of them is under a park ranger’s 24-hour watch. When a black rhino crosses the road, the ranger stops traffic on both sides until it has moved to a safe distance. I was lucky that I was carrying my 200mm-300mm camera lens, and was able to watch it well even from a distance.

Baloon-Safari-Serengeti National  Park. copy

I found my African safari very rewarding. It is an incredibly unique experience —not always easy. When embarking on a safari, you need to start your day at around 4am. You need to develop a very high tolerance for dirt because by the time you finish your day, you are covered in another layer on top of your clothes, and only a shower can reveal the real you again! Tsetse flies bite you no matter which sprays you carry, and no matter how covered you are. At times, a game safari will feel like a boot camp.

But despite this, each day when you wake up, you feel alive and ready to be surrounded by the magic of it all again.

Dr Saadia Refaqat

saadia writer
The writer is a Sr. Economist at the World Bank, Islamabad. She is a also a Fulbright scholar and a Commonwealth scholar.

One comment

  • Very informative and interesting account. Did you do this remarkable journey on your own? How many days should one have to get an authentic experience? What should be the ball park figure for budget?

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