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.