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Thrill of the Game | Family Safari in Tanzania

How do we get to Africa from here, and why? Here being the comfortably familiar place where we can drink from a tap, where there's no risk of malaria, and where we know what to expect in the morning when we go to bed each night. Still, as the parents of two typical teenagers who aren't particularly inclined to spend their free time with Mom and Dad, Dan and I felt compelled to bid up the vacation stakes.

But a safari did seem risky. While 16-year-old John, 14-year-old Lydia, and I are animal lovers, my husband has a limited attention span for any beast he hasn't put money on. And hadn't we already seen all the animals in zoos?But the landscape, the people, the sky—those we couldn't even imagine. So we took the plunge.

After calling several outfitters who'd been enthusiastically recommended by friends, we ended up signing on with Thomson Safaris: for a relatively reasonable price, they could customize a Tanzania trip for us. The director, Judi Wineland, devised an itinerary that included a night at a tented lodge in Tarangire National Park, two nights at a sumptuous inn on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, four days camping and hiking from Empakaai Crater to Lake Natron, and three nights at two luxurious camps in Serengeti National Park. We were greeted at the Kilimanjaro airport by Msafiri Msuri, a Tanzanian who would be our guide and companion for 14 remarkable days.

At age 40, Msafiri Msuri is trim and muscular; his close-cropped hair frames a soft-featured face brightened by good humor. He speaks fluent English and Swahili, some Maa, and the language of his Mrangi tribe. A veteran of countless safaris, he has even led groups up Kilimanjaro.

Msafiri delivered us to our hotel and returned in the morning for a briefing. Like a college dean explaining rules of conduct to freshmen, he discussed safari etiquette, such as not to scream when encountering lions or elephants. He seemed self-conscious going down his list, but it was the last time he showed any awkwardness either on the trail or by a campfire, through hours traveling rutted roads by Land Rover or during candlelit dinners served on fine china. We came to believe there was nothing he couldn't do, and nothing we couldn't handle as long as we were with him.

That first day Msafiri drove us through fields of maize and lazy cattle herds to the village of Sakila on the slopes of Mount Meru. "Should we wave?" Lydia asked, catching the eyes of workers on their way to the fields. Some of the passing faces revealed nothing; others smiled. When we waved, they waved back. At the village school we were welcomed by singing children in crisp white shirts and blue skirts or trousers that carried the scent of woodsmoke from cooking fires.

That scent mingled with jasmine as we hiked after lunch in Arusha National Park, following Msafiri down a jungle path into a ravine whose very air was animated by scattered sunlight and hundreds of yellow-and-blue butterflies. Black-and-white colobus monkeys looked down from the trees with impassive curiosity while boys filled plastic jerry cans with water from a spring to carry home on hand-hewn wooden scooters. "I feel like such a brat," John said, after helping the smallest boy push his burden up the steep, narrow path.

The following day, traveling southwest to Tarangire National Park, we stopped for provisions at Arusha's market. Stalls were filled with piles of dried fish and woven grass baskets overflowing with pink, red, and beige dried beans. When young men stared at Lydia, she took my hand and said, "I wish I didn't feel so out of place." But John found some drums and instantly recognized a prime reason for coming to Africa.

With every mile that we traveled into the wild we felt farther from home, like astronauts cutting the line to the spacecraft. As we drove past seven Masai warriors on bicycles, each of them draped in a red blanket, carrying herding sticks and spears, Msafiri surmised, "Someone's stolen their cattle." They would avenge the deed, an eye for an eye.

Soon we spotted zebras grazing. And "Gosh, isn't that an ostrich?" Down the road we were stopped by women eager to sell us jewelry. A flirtatious girl danced to demonstrate how her beaded collar responded to her movements, while John blushed. An older woman smiled into the car at me. I smiled back. Among the beads around her neck were a few house keys: precious jewels in a society without doors.

At every stop Msafiri asked after the general welfare of the village. He offered good wishes to a young man wearing a painted hide, on his way to claim his second bride. He reset watches worn proudly by warriors, who had received them from tourists in exchange for posed photographs. We were under such constant assault by the extraordinary that the familiar—a key, a Timex—seemed bizarrely out of place.

We soon realized that both Lydia and John would have to surmount their teenage inhibitions in order to enjoy themselves. In villages, shy Lydia and I were surrounded by giggling women who ran their fingers through our fine, blond hair. Lydia achieved celebrity status because of her mouth jewelry—or braces, as we call them in the States.

The light at the equator plays tricks on the eyes. With the sun setting behind them, animals looked like painted cutouts against a scenic backdrop. At Tarangire Safari Lodge we watched elephants bathe in the river while fish eagles soared overhead. Remembering not to shout, Lydia whispered, "Is that a real giraffe?"

We spent hours watching a troop of baboons as they made their way to their evening roost. Babies rode piggyback and pestered snarly mothers who'd had enough for one day. Youngsters practiced climbing and looking fierce. When I glanced over to see if Msafiri was getting restless, I saw on his face the expression of someone rereading a favorite book.

Over the course of two weeks, Msafiri led us from the level of "Wow! A hyena!" to an understanding of African wildlife. "He thinks he's hiding from us," he said of a young elephant behind a bush. Encountering a family of elephants, we learned that the males are kicked out of the herd at age 12. We concocted an image of the bachelor elephant's messy apartment: the spilled beer, the piles of smelly socks. And I started to think how I would miss John, only two years away from college.


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