Most of the people we met were on week-long or ten day safaris. We will do a long overland safari someday- but I like to think of the four days we spent in mainland Tanzania as our African appetizer. Originally I had just planned for us to go to Zanzibar. Dane was the one who surprised me by adding on the safari days. We only had two weeks, and with flights taking up precious hours of those 14 days, the safari portion was limited. But ohhhh what wonderful days they were! We spent dawn till dusk exploring the African plains with our wonderful guide Gaudence.
Neither of us knew what to expect from an “African Safari”. The agency we booked our trip through said that we would have “a private vehicle with an English speaking guide,” but what that really meant, we were unsure of. Our first night at Rivertrees, a company rep came to meet with us. (I think his name was David, but thanks to losing my journal, I am not sure. I will call him David anyway, for the sake of the story.) So anyway, David met with us that first night to tell us what to expect. “I personally like to fill the fridge with beer when I am on safari,” he told us. Our eyes must have lit up. We had not expected this- but we certainly like beer! “You are on vacation- your honeymoon. Relax, sleep late, drink a lot, you will love Africa.” This all sounded like great advice to us- except for the sleeping late. We’d sleep late during our 8 days in Zanzibar, but we wanted to get out as early as possible while on safari.
We had breakfast at 7 a.m., which was a deliciously vast spread of pastries, breads, meats, fruit and omelets cooked to order, then met Gaudence at 8 a.m. with our packed lunches (thank you, Rivertrees!)
We loaded into the Land Rover and made our first stop at a camera store in Arusha. I was doubtful they would have what I needed, but I had been obsessing over not having the right lens for my camera ever since Dane had surprised me with a brand new 5d Mark iii the week before. Now I had the perfect camera body, but some of my lenses were not compatible with my new full frame capabilities- including the one I wanted to use for this trip- and it was going to take 2 weeks for the camera store in Japan to order it for me. So we stopped at the camera store in Arusha with fingers crossed. I was shocked by the impressive selection, but alas- they still didn’t have what I was looking for. Oh well… we still got some great safari shots and since I put the camera down from time to time, now we have even better memories.
In addition to being surprised by the lens selection, I was also surprised by the grocery store selection during our second stop. They had everything you could want in Arusha, including fully decorated, multi-tier, individually wrapped fondant cakes (can anyone clue me in on this??) and plenty of Serengeti, Safari and Kilimanjaro beer. With such aptly named beers, we decided to get a six pack of each to keep in the fridge at the back of our 4×4.
With beer stowed and not-ideal-camera-lens in tow, we started the drive from Arusha to Tarangire National Park. It took us a little over two hours to get there, but Gaudence kept us engaged the whole time. He is a brilliant man- fluent in English, German, French and Swahili, and well versed on everything Tanzania. We couldn’t have wished for a better guide with whom to share the entire experience.
The farther west we drove, the more the country started to look like the Africa I had seen in movies. Herds of cattle walking along the side of the road under the watchful eye of teenage boys wrapped in red shukas. Donkeys crossing the street at will. Dusty plains that went on as far as the eye could see.
“What do you hope to see today?” Gaudence asked us. “A cheetah,” I answered without hesitation. I knew if Dane was being honest his answer would be “A crocodile eating a wildebeest,” but he toned down his answer, as we didn’t know Gaudence as well as we would come to, and he wasn’t sure this was the type of answer you are allowed to give. “A lion, or maybe a rhino,” he answered instead.
“Let’s see what we see,” Gaudence said as we drove into the park. My heart was racing. I couldn’t believe we were about to embark on our first (of what I hope will be many) safari.
I wish I could tell you that the first thing we saw was a crocodile eating a wildebeest… but that would be a lie (and actually it might have made me cry). No… our first sighting was about as tame as they come. Impala were the first thing we saw in Tarangire. Impala are everywhere. Baboons too. In fact, there are so many of them, they seem to hang out together quite a bit.
Less than an hour later Gaudence chuckled from the front seat. “You are very lucky,” he said. I started searching the plains. Why were we lucky? What did he see? Dane and I both scanned from our perches but came up empty.
“There, on that mound,” Gaudence said pointing. “A cheetah. You are welcome.”
Click, click, click went my non-ideal lens. The first cat we saw was the only cat I’d had my heart set on. A beautiful, majestic cheetah. The answer I gave from age five to age 15 whenever I was asked what my favorite animal was. This was the first time I had ever seen a cheetah outside of a zoo setting. There was absolutely nothing between us, save 100 yards of tall grasses. I was in heaven.
Several hours later Gaudence said he could smell lions on the air and asked if we could spot them. We couldn’t. Again. He handed his binoculars to Dane and sure enough there were two lions lazily sitting out the heat in a tree some 200 meters away. Second cat spotting, check.
Tarangire is famous for its elephant population. In fact, elephants are the main reason many people visit this park. I’ve always had a fondness for elephants. I think most people do. After going on an elephant trek in Thailand a few years ago, that soft spot grew. Although I loved being close to the elephants, and it wasn’t a 100% negative experience, I swore after that that I would never ride an elephant again nor pay to interact with elephants in captivity.
Now, seeing so many of them so close to us on this safari cemented that feeling for me. Watching them interact together as families, the way they circle around their young, the playful way they touch each other, the way they stand their ground against a perceived threat… I found myself falling in love with elephants all over again. We saw about a dozen different herds of elephants throughout the day- but naturally my favorite was the one with the wee little one.
Bird after bird, cat after cat, monkey after monkey, giraffe after elephant we checked just about everything off of our list– in one day! On our way out we even came across two little dik diks- an animal that for some reason has always reminded us of our pup Sydney. (I think it’s the position of the back legs. Who knows.)
It was the perfect day. With the perfect guide. And the perfect husband. And I can’t remember ever being happier. I never wanted that day to end… But that was in large part because I had no idea what was waiting for us that night. I didn’t know that life could get any better than it was at that very moment. Rivertrees in Arusha had been our starting off point. A place to unwind after 30 hours of flying. But that night we were staying at Chem Chem Safari Lodge, conveniently located between Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Park. If I’d known all that awaited us at Chem Chem, it’s possible I might have suggested we end our perfect safari day early.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself (again). Lovely Chem Chem details coming soon. But for now… One more baby elephant.
In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.