Thrill of the Game | Family Safari in Tanzania

Thrill of the Game | Family Safari in Tanzania

John Huba
John Huba
An African safari with the kids: it's not as daunting as it sounds. In Tanzania, three animal lovers (and a grudging dad) are initiated into one of the ultimate adventures

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.

Game drives are best in early morning and late afternoon so we took lunch and a reading break at midday. Over dinner, Msafiri talked of this country and its people. Was it his gentle influence that made our family so convivial?Or did the fact that we were all in this together—morning, noon, and night—make Mom's and Dad's flaws, standard fodder for complaint, merely part of the family package?"How flaky can you be, Mom?" Lydia asks with love and laughter in her voice, and no eye-rolling. We were enjoying each other and not a minute of it was wasted on me.

In the Ngorongoro Crater, guides reported mating lions, but by the time we arrived on the scene they'd fallen asleep. We contented ourselves with a sea of pink: a lake filled with thousands of flamingos. The air, unpleasantly perfumed by low tide and high sulfur content, hummed with the birds' mutterings. "Imagine if we had a firecracker," said a child in response to a wicked impulse.

On the eighth day, we drove swiftly over rough roads to Empakaai Crater. There we said good-bye to our Land Rover and hello to Solomon, the camp cook; and to Samwell, Marius, and Lakarai, the Masai who would lead us on the trek to Lake Natron while their donkeys carried our gear. After a feast of leek soup, beef sausages, potatoes, peas, fresh fruit, and cookies, we crawled into our tents for the night. Lying awake in my sleeping bag, our children nearby and the music of Masai conversation outside, I was reminded of the nights when I would hear the talk of the grown-ups downstairs as I drifted off to sleep.

In the morning we found ourselves on the rim of the crater, 10,700 feet above sea level, in brilliant sunlight and air so cold we could see our breath. Braced with coffee and cocoa, we huddled together looking down into the crater. A white cloud was caught in its circumference like the steam in our mugs. What paradise might that cloud be concealing?

To find out, we hiked down 3,000 feet through lush jungle growth. With us came Msafiri, Solomon, and Victor, the rifle-toting park ranger whose job it was to protect us should any charging buffalo suddenly appear.

On the crater floor we met three men who invited us to see their camp. "They're here for a hair-braiding ritual," Msafiri explained—a step on the Masai path to manhood. We followed them to a clearing where a young man, about 18, lay with his head on an elder's lap, patiently having his hair braided. A girl of 10 or 11, brought here to meet a man whom she would in three or four years marry, cried out when she saw us. John and Lydia looked miserable to be put in the role of invading monsters.

But another girl, Matai, greeted us with a smile that overcame my daughter's discomfort. Lydia removed her own necklace and clasped it around Matai's slender neck. Suddenly we felt like guests, not trespassers. That night, as Lydia and I lay near the fire, losing ourselves in the starry night, we thought of Matai. Would she wear Lydia's necklace to her wedding?What else would we leave behind or take away?

In the morning we began our walk along the cattle trails to the Great Rift Valley. By day's end we had arrived at the escarpment that looked over the valley toward the Kenyan hills. Invigorated by the view and the light, John invited me to run with him to higher ground. To the east was Ol Donyo Lengai, lit by the setting sun. To the west, the furrowed slopes of the escarpment stretched out in honey-colored light. Tanzania appeared around us, sewn into a pattern of greens and browns, stitched with Masai cattle trails, decorated by fields of maize and barley and the button domes of thatched roofs. To share this view with my son was a rare privilege. But I didn't ruin the moment by telling him so.

Another day's hike brought us to Thomson's Camp in the Lake Natron region and to some almost-cold and very welcome beer and soda hanging in a gunnysack from an acacia tree. We were also thrilled to find shower tents, beds raised off the ground, and our old Land Rover.

We shared the campground with a German tour group, camping South African families, and village children who came to gawk and trade trinkets. Lydia and I spread out a blanket to read on; we'd just opened our books when Marius and Samwell joined us. They wanted to give me a necklace, the kind that, as Samwell said, "the mamas wear to every important occasion: birthdays, weddings, when their sons become warriors." A gentleman dressed in yellow batik asked if he could sit with us, and explained that he had come to retrieve cattle the Masai had stolen. Realizing he would never get his cows back, he had stayed on just to be near them. He agreed, for a small fee, to take on the task of finding John a pair of Masai sandals.

As we sat in a circle and talked, a baboon wandered by. Outside the tent, Dan shaved from a basin set on a table, a Robert Redford moment from Out of Africa. When John put down his journal and went to bathe in the stream, a crowd of laughing Masai girls led the way. We were all doing precisely what we liked.

To celebrate our cleverness in arranging this perfect vacation, we hiked up a mountain path to a waterfall surrounded by palm trees. While we frolicked in the cascade, Samwell sat on a rock, checking his finances with a solar-powered calculator.

Early the next morning we said our good-byes and drove off with Msafiri for four days of game viewing in the Serengeti. The sun burned through the mist to reveal the wide grass plains and the brilliant blue of African forget-me-nots. As the long drive wore on, we lost ourselves in books, card games, occasional bird sightings. Under normal circumstances each of us requires a daily dose of solitude. For two weeks we'd been within arm's reach of one another, but there was no bickering or door-slamming. We were castaways in an unfamiliar landscape so glorious and vast that our children found room to be themselves and to enjoy our company.

And, finally, we had the Serengeti. Large herds of zebras, giraffes, and wildebeests gathered wherever there was water. We surprised crocodiles asleep on the riverbank with bellies so full of wildebeest that they couldn't move. A hippo startled us by splashing into the water six feet from where we stood. And then there were the lions, rulers of the Serengeti's vastness.

Our lodgings in the Serengeti were just as lush as the surroundings. At Klein's Camp and at the Kirawira Tented Lodge, candlelit dinners were accompanied by excellent South African wines. But as we approached our journey's end, the children were beginning to fade. John's stomach felt "weak," and he declared himself homesick. Lydia started humming theme songs from her favorite sitcoms.

On my last day it occurred to me that, as a family activity, a safari was much like a rainy-day jigsaw puzzle. Our abilities were equalized, our discoveries instantly shared: Here's a bright-red piece—that's a Masai warrior. Here's a lilac-breasted roller, a baobab tree, a bat-eared fox. The puzzle was Africa. What a joy it had been to work on it together.

REBECCA OKRENTis writing The Food Lover's Guide to New York,to be published by Little, Brown.

Medication: You'll need shots for yellow fever, hepatitis A, and meningococcus. An oral polio vaccine is also recommended. A regimen of anti-malarial pills should be started one week before your trip and continued for four weeks after you return—depending on your doctor's advice. Talk with your doctor about what other prescription medication to pack.
Gifts: Thomson discourages handouts, but you will need to offer something to villagers if you want to take pictures of them. I suggest the material the Masai use for making jewelry: glass beads and 14-gauge copper wire.
Supplies: Pack lots of wet wipes and waterless hand sanitizer, bandannas to keep the dust out of your mouth, sunglasses, binoculars, and the kind of flashlight that straps to your head for reading in the dark. Also handy: lens cleaner, and duct tape for fixing anything that breaks. Take twice as much film as you think you'll use. And to keep the kids engaged, pack their own cameras, binoculars, journals, game and bird lists, and drawing materials.

Given the demands and expense, few people advise taking a child under 10 on an African safari. The following companies are all accustomed to setting up trips for families. Besides game drives, they might plan visits to schools and markets, camel rides, tree planting, and the like. Remember: a safari is primarily a spectator sport, so if your children like to be part of the action you'll want lodges with swimming pools, and places where the kids can run free.
Thomson Safaris (800/235-0289) will customize a trip to your family's interests and pocketbook. You can also travel with a group on a scheduled departure date at a reduced cost. Group rates for a two-week Tanzania safari are $5,720 per adult, including airfare from New York or Boston (a private safari is $5,990), and $5,220 per child. (Rates are high-season: June‚August and December.)
Tanganyika Safari Co. (800/242-8185) specializes in luxury tented safaris in Tanzania. The rate per adult in a group of 8 to 12 is $6,000 for 12 days (airfare not included); children 12 and under pay $3,600.
Abercrombie & Kent (800/323-7308) has a 15-day Kenya Family Safari (in groups of 24 or fewer) that includes visits to local villages and a Masai school. Rates are $4,240 per adult, $2,740 for children under 12, without airfare.
Micato Safaris (800/642-2861) offers a 14-day family safari through Kenya that allows kids to feed giraffes and learn tribal dances. The price: $3,675 for adults; $2,585 for children under 12 (internal airfare included).
Rascals in Paradise (800/872-7225) organizes two-week group safaris in Kenya and 15-day trips in South Africa. Children are entertained with storytelling, tribal dance lessons, and school visits. Prices (not including airfare): in Kenya, $3,850 per adult, $2,595 for children under 18; in South Africa, $10,995 for two adults and two kids 11 and under.
Grandtravel (800/247-7651), which promotes vacations for grandparents and grandchildren, has a 15-day Kenya Adventure Safari, with trips to game parks and archaeological digs. Rates (including airfare from New York) are $7,595 per adult, $7,250 for children 12 to 17.

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