By Marilyn Jones
It is late morning in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania when we spot a cheetah in the tall, yellow grass. She is looking for prey, maybe a gazelle, our guide tells the six of us in the truck. Her hunting success rate is 100%. She can run up to 75 mph for short distances.
As we photograph the beautiful cat, she turns and starts walking toward us. When she gets a few feet away from the truck, she jumps onto the two spare tires, then settles a little higher.
We are silent and don’t move. The only sounds come from camera shutters. Our cheetah peers in at us and, satisfied, she starts to jump onto the roof. Our guide and two members of the group lower the roof vent so she doesn’t fall into the truck if she skids on the metal.
They encourage her to get off by then raising the vent, and the driver begins to slowly move the truck forward. But our cheetah likes her high perch, where she can watch for prey, and doesn’t want to leave.
Another truck approaches and that driver races the engine. This does the trick, and she gracefully bounds to the ground and walks away.
This close encounter is a high point of our safari, but there are so many other highlights as our guide and driver take us to other areas of the Serengeti. The vast park — 5,700 square miles — is ideal for so many species with its varying ecosystems: grassland plains, savanna, riverside, and woodlands. Countless animals live here. Most notable are the migrating wildebeests and zebras, but also elephants and small rodents, several kinds of cats and birds, giraffes and hippos, and monkeys and baboons.
The Serengeti is not the only natural habitat we visit on this weeklong tour, organized by National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures.
Lake Manyara National Park is nothing like the Serengeti. Situated between Lake Manyara and the Great Rift Valley, it is heavily wooded and offers a totally different backdrop for viewing wildlife.
It is 125 square miles including the lake that supports more than 350 bird species, but the lake has been greatly affected by climate change. The road that once skirted its 89 square miles is now far from the lake’s edge. In the distance I see flamingos and little else.
The wooded areas offer us a view of baboons and vervet monkeys; a herd of elephants walks toward our truck — slowly, of course — before crossing the road in front of us.
One of the most popular animal viewing areas in Tanzania is Ngorongoro Conservation Area, in part because there are few obstructions. There is plenty of grass year round, so zebra and wildebeest do not migrate to Kenya in spring and summer.
The main feature of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic crater. This caldera formed when a volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself two million to three million years ago. It is 2,000 feet deep, between 10 and 12 miles across, and a bit more than 100 square miles in area.
It is foggy around the crater rim this morning, but we soon break through and find ourselves in the great bowl-shaped animal sanctuary. Almost immediately, we come upon a pride of lions. A female from another pride is trying to encroach, and the group’s females are not having her, leading to a scuffle and the interloper being chased away.
As we continue, we come across countless animals, including a critically endangered black rhino.
The “village” of Mto wa Mbu, which means Mosquito River in Swahili — is not far from Lake Manyara. Our guide begins by telling us there are 120 tribes among the 27,000 people who live here. He says they came together to support each other and share resources.
On our walking tour, he shows us plots of land owned by the government and used free-of-charge by villagers to grow rice, sugar cane, and other crops to sell. We pass through a banana plantation and come to a settlement of mud-and-stick houses. Lutheran church parishioners are gathered in front of a church this Sunday.
We watch men carving intricate wooden figures in their workshop and painters working in an open-air studio (and selling their wares) among banana trees. Teenagers practice soccer, and small children run after us shouting pi pi (candy) and ask us to take their pictures so they can peer at the digital images. We walk past flowers — including yellow oleander, bright red flowering flame trees, and orange lion eyes — on the way to our last stop, which is the village “pub.”
There we sit on wooden benches and listen to how banana beer and wine are made. And then we complete our stay with samples.