"I'm going on a tented safari to Tanzania," I tell a friend.
"Tents? Isn't that dangerous?"
"I certainly hope so."
"What do you mean you hope so?"
I explain that I don't want to be just another khaki-vested, pith-helmeted, camera-toting animal voyeur, peeping at various bestial goings-on from the safe confines of a minivan and then going home and telling everyone how wondrous it was to see so many zebras and wildebeests and lions in one place. Excuse me, but I can see that in a zoo--without having someone inject six vaccination needles into my arm, without suffering malaria-pill side effects worse than malaria itself, without passing through seven time zones, and without hearing the three most dreaded words from a Tanzanian customs officer: "Please follow me."
No, I want a different safari experience. I want something exciting to happen that will sear me to the very heart and soul of Africa and its denizens. If I'm going to fly halfway around the world and be surrounded by millions of dangerous wild animals, I want something to scare the dung out of me.
I arrive at Kilimanjaro Airport on a pleasant September evening and meet the 17 members of my tour group. Elias, our Tanzanian safari escort, greets us and we're driven to our tented camp in Tarangire National Park. An awaiting staff greet us with "Karibu!" ("Welcome!") and hot towels. Our bags are whisked to our assigned tents and I meet my roommate, Mike, a retired deputy sheriff from Missouri.
Our tents are arranged along the banks of a dried-up riverbed. Since we chose to visit during Tanzania's spring, or dry season, we've missed the luxury of a bubbling brook to lull us to sleep at night. But we've also avoided having to deal with mud, monsoons and centipedes the size of Cohiba cigars. Every two tents share a shower and a commode behind them. At one end of camp is a dining-room tent and a campfire. At the other end is an enormous fig tree filled with chattering baboons.
At 3:30 p.m., we are summoned to the vans for our first game drive. We're introduced to Charles, our driver, whom we soon dub "leopard man" for his uncanny prowess at spotting them. Van assignments are announced. Mike and I are teamed with honeymooners Jeff and Danica and two fun-loving sisters-in-law, Lee and Janet. Elias slips into the front seat with Charles, and we're off.
"Critters ahead," Mike announces only a few minutes after setting out.
Herds of zebras and impalas graze along the road. Later we will scoff at such cliches. But these are our first live, wild, African animals, so cameras fly from their bags. One zebra stares at us, chewing a divot of turf, its body seemingly shrink-wrapped in a giant fingerprint. One of its hind legs is raised slightly in a pose not unlike a model's at the end of the runway when she stops to give the shutterbugs that full-on, hands-on-hip pout, rear heel perpendicular to front heel. Like its diva counterpart, the zebra swivels gracefully, bouncing its hindquarters ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, and prances away.
Nearby, a horned impala is throwing a fit at some others on the other side of the road. Elias says he's the alpha male and is scolding his females for wandering away. "Yeah," harrumphs Mike, who's divorced, "I tried that once, and it didn't work then either."
A few minutes later we spot a herd of elephants in a shaded grove of acacia trees. Dolloped among them are more zebras, Thomson's gazelles (with their neat Nike swoosh logos on their flanks) and our first herd of wildebeests.
A crash of timber and a deep rumble resembling an idling Corvette emanates from behind us, and an elephant emerges from tall grass not 20 yards from the van. Its ears flare wide. Elias raises his hand. "Shhh," he whispers. "It doesn't know what a minivan is, but it knows the human voice--and doesn't like it."
The great matriarch glares and shakes her head, then stomps toward us as if shot from a cannon. All I see are two goalpost-width tusks boring straight for us, so I turn away and brace for impact. Nothing. When I turn around, I'm looking into a bulging eye the size of an eight-ball. Tantrum over, the behemoth huffs in frustration and swings around--brushing the van in the process--and moves off at a fast clip, disintegrating a refrigerator-size thornbush in its wake. We collectively let out our breaths and sink back in our seats.
"Welcome to Africa," Elias says.
We arrive back in camp in time for dinner. Mike and I are greeted by hot towels, hot showers and a pleasant "How was your game drive?" from Swahele, our "tent boy." Dinner is announced: cream of spinach soup, grilled fish fillet, cauliflower au gratin, mint peas, carrots julienne, parsley potatoes, tomato mozzarella and black olive salad, and coconut banofi pie. During the meal, I hear the first grumblings about a certain individual in Van 2. The person is exhibiting the first symptoms of the scourge of all safaris--Photo Hog Disease. "There's always one," says one veteran safari participant. "You only pray he or she isn't in your vehicle."
We're awakened at 5:30 the next day, sleepwalk into the dining room for breakfast (eggs made to order), then pile into the vans for our morning game drive. Thirty minutes into the drive, Charles pulls the van over and converses excitedly with Elias. "Cassanda! Cassanda! Cassanda!" he announces on his short-wave to the lead driver of the other two vans ahead of us.
"What do you see?" I ask.
"Chui," Charles utters reverently. Could it be? The rarest animal of all? The Holy Grail of safari sightings? A leopard?
"You are very lucky," Elias confirms, lowering his binoculars. "Most tour groups never see one, but Charles has an eye of an eagle." This one is a beauty, not more than 40 yards away, draped over an acacia tree branch like a leopard skin hanging to dry. At the foot of the tree is a fresh carcass. Tires spray gravel in the distance as the other two vans race back at top speed.
The great cat, realizing its tranquil morning has come to an end, lowers itself awkwardly from the tree, hind legs first, and plops to the ground. Then, instead of dashing away, it nonchalantly walks in front of us. Definitely a lot of unleopardly things going on here. Where had this fella been when its mother gave the "How to Disappear Into the Grass When Approached by Humans" lecture?
As this is happening, Mike's camera whines in auto-rewind mode, evoking from him what we dub the "Aw, wouldn't you know it!" moment. As he frantically reloads, the cat bounds up a nearby tree and flops down on another branch.
"You are truly lucky," Elias whispers, shaking his head in amazement. "The last leopard I saw that stayed in view this long was maybe six years ago. He really doesn't want to leave that kill." Remarkably, Charles spots two more before the day is done. In all, we see six leopards during our tour.
As we sit around the campfire that night with wine and popcorn, Elias recounts some of his most harrowing encounters with predators. I especially like the one where he led a tour group away from their vehicles to view a hippo pool--and walked straight into a pride of 15 lions. No one else is smiling, however. He bids us goodnight by saying, "You seem to have an affinity for leopards--unlike any tour group I've seen." Little does he know how accurate he will be.
In the middle of the night, I stumble through the darkness toward the toilet tent. As we had been instructed to do, I pan the darkness with my flashlight for animal eyes. If anything glimmers back, you're to return to your tent. No eyes. Good. No sooner do I zip the tent closed when all hell breaks loose at the far end of camp. Crackling timber, scuttling limbs, scattering brush, barking, snarling--and then one long, solitary, shrieking yelp.
Tent zippers open. "What is it?" "Is someone hurt?" Flashlight beams laser the sky. I exit the commode and, with several others, head toward the baboon tree where all the commotion is coming from--where Jeff and Danica's tent is located.
As we approach, Danica shouts, "Everybody go back! A leopard's in camp--and it's got a baboon!"
Amazing how every single flashlight beam at that moment arcs around in the night sky in unison. The pitter-patter of sprinting feet is followed by a chorus of tent flaps being zippered.
The next morning the two lead us to the spot where it happened--not 10 feet from their tent. We all huddle over the still-wet bloodstains, snapping pictures like paparazzi at the scene of a Mike Tyson fender-bender. Jeff says the baboon got away when he shined his flashlight on the leopard. I tell him he probably saved its life--a good totem for the camp. We would see.
After three days in Tarangire, we drive to Lake Manyara National Park, a tiny park (127 square miles compared with Tarangire's 1,560 and Serengeti's 5,700) that lies at the foot of the escarpment of the eastern branch of the Great Rift Valley. We spend the day game-driving through its Eden: lush forests, swampy glades, jungle marshlands. The air is cool and intensely fragrant, as if someone sprayed jungle freshener along the winding pathways. It is the most Tarzanish of the four parks we visit. We stop for a picnic lunch under a mammoth baobab tree. The baobab has to be the ugliest, scariest-looking tree on Earth. Its trunk is a gigantic stump, on top of which something awful apparently happened, for all that sprouts from it are a few stunted, leafless, root-like things that curl out like witch's fingers. It's the kind of tree you expect to come alive in sorcery movies.
We stay at the Lake Manyara Hotel, which is perched on the escarpment with a magnificent view of the lake and park 1,000 feet below. I grab my trunks and head for the pool. As I take a few laps, I overhear members of another tour group nearby: "Did you hear? Word has it a leopard attacked a baboon right in the middle of another campsite last night." "You're kidding! Why doesn't that happen to us?" I smile, float on my back, and gaze at the setting sun. Life is good--I'm in Africa, I'm among its beasts, and now I'm part of their lore.
The next day we enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where the famous Ngorongoro Crater is located. At 12 miles across and a rim 7,500 feet high, it is the largest intact caldera in the world. With its own lake, vegetation zones and more than 30,000 animals, it's prehistoric Africa inside a stadium inside an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel.
The Conservation Area is also the home of Masai warriors. Tall and lean, draped in Versace red with beaded hooped necklaces and trinkets dangling from their ears and wrists, they are the male supermodels of Africa.
We check into the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge on the crater's rim, and descend into the Crater in Land Rovers the next morning. About halfway down, we flash by a group of Masai on the roadside. But instead of wearing red, these young men are dressed in black with white-painted faces and black spots.
Elias explains that these were Masai teens during their manhood initiation stage. "They paint themselves to make their facial features disappear so they won't tempt women during the ritual period." After a Masai boy passes initiation, he becomes a warrior and can wear red, denoting his status. He is then allowed to roam from village to village and tempt all the women he wants.
After a full day game-viewing in the Crater, we overnight at the lodge, then head for Serengeti National Park the next morning. It is a long and tedious trek to the park, and game-driving inside it as well, primarily because the Serengeti is mostly flat, brown and bereft of game this time of year--the great migratory herds having moved north into Kenya for greener pastures. The only notable sites are huge granite outcrops called kopjes (pronounced "copies") that look like, I'm sorry, enormous baboon posteriors. Okay, so the trip is starting to wear me down.
The highlight of the entire trip occurs the next afternoon. As we meander through a small grove of saplings, a flock of guinea fowl raises a ruckus. Charles slows the van, scanning the brush. "They do that when a predator is nearby," he says.
Moments later he spots them: three cheetahs resting in a thicket. They rise as one and, in a lazy, languid pace, amble away in single file. Then they aren't there.
"There they go!" someone shouts, and three streaks of yellow zoom past. They're after something, at full speed, right in front of us. I thought this only happened on the Discovery Channel. I get only a glimpse of what they're chasing--a fox or a jackal--and it's yowling its bloody head off.
Just as suddenly, the cheetahs stop, and the yipping recedes into the distance. I'm glad for the little critter, but how could it have outrun three cheetahs? "They weren't trying to kill it," Charles says. "They're sub-adults learning how to hunt. They were just, how you say, practicing."
On our last night around the campfire, Elias tells us to be sure to empty the water from our wash basins on our front porches before we go to bed. Hyenas have been seen in the area, and they like to drink from them.
I shudder at the thought of dozens of glimmering hellholes wandering among our tents. The Night of the Living Dead. Creatures so evil they make you watch as they tear you apart.
"Mike," I say with a glint in my eye, "let's not throw our water out tonight."
He grins back. "I was kinda thinking the same thing."
2 a.m. Something jostles me. I spring awake, half-expecting fangs at my throat. It's Mike, pointing vigorously outside. I hear an eerie "slurp, slurp, slurp." I roll out of bed and creep to the tent's front flap. There, not five feet away, illuminated by our porch lamp, is the Hound of the Baskervilles. A furry, spotted, bat-eared demon on short legs, its familiar rear end sloped downward in permanent bad-dog position.
As if on cue, the beast stops drinking and swings its muzzle toward us, drooling water like gore. For an instant, its dead eyes meet mine, and I freeze. It sizes me up, then goes back to drinking. I look at Mike. This thing isn't afraid of us. I step away from the tent flap. What had ever possessed me to see this? Is this the dung moment I had come all the way to Africa to experience? I lie back on my bed, listen as the awful, ravenous slurps of bloodthirst quicken with the rising beat of my heart, and wonder how secure our tent really is.
John Wood is the articles editor for Modern Maturity magazine. He last wrote for the Travel section about lying in Vietnam.