“Pack your bags. We are going to Tanzania!”, proclaimed my partner with utmost behest and exhilarated vigour from across the hallway. Even though I would consider myself to be an avid globetrotting photographer that gallivants across the continents seeking out exotic new corners of the world to explore and capture, I have to admit that an African safari adventure has never been high on my priority list of things to do and places that I wish to visit. As I am generally not such a huge fan of looking at or photographing wild animals, the idea of coping with multiple layovers, paying an arm and a leg, and risking my life just to glance at some insipid animals from a distance was simply not my cup of tea or idea of fun. I surmised that I have already seen these African animals up-close in zoos and on the Animal Planet channel enough to last several lifetimes. However, all my assumptions were to be proven wrong. Little did I know that this was going to be the best trip of my life, and that I was in for a real treat.
As we flew over the scenic regions of Tanzania, we ogled at the picturesque snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro from the right side of the plane and the Ngorongoro crater from the left. As the plane descended, we could make out scattered herds of buffalo and wildebeests that appear like little black ants dotted across the extensive plains of the African savannah. Upon landing at the Seronera airstrip, we were ushered to a busy waiting room packed with mainly American and European retirees, all stylishly decked out in smart looking safari explorer inspired outfits. Their khaki coloured sartorial inclinations and ensembles reminded me very much of a fusion between Indiana Jones and Ralph Lauren. Behind the bustling administrative building of the airstrip lies a parking garage full of sturdy 4 X 4 land rovers from all the different safari camps and lodges, waiting to pick up arriving guests and chauffer them to their respective destinations.
En route to the Four Seasons safari lodge, the geographical terrains and typography dramatically shifts and changes rapidly. Green undulating hills and mesmerising flatiron rock boulder formations set against cyan blue skies sprinkled with fluffy tufts of gossamer cirrus clouds make the most stunning backdrops. The endless plains and vast landscapes stretched as far as the eyes could see, and are littered with the ubiquitous prancing impalas and hartebeests. Statuesque giraffes saunter across the boundless grasslands filled with iconic acacia trees housing swallow’s nests. At times, our vehicle bobbing up and down on the bumpy dirt roads will come up just mere centimetres away from the precariously long and prickly spikes of whistling thorn bushes. Our convoy stops by a bloat of hefty hippopotamus cooling themselves off in the river. The broad canopies of umbrella thorn trees provide much needed shade and reprieve from the scorching heat for these sun sensitive ‘river horses’. Every minute or so, a rotund hippo will entertain us by surfacing up to yawn and blow out a fine mist of air bubbles that dissipates into a fleeting rainbow. Nearby, sinister looking Nile crocodiles lazed by the riverbanks, as a troop of furry baboons curiously looked on from a safe distance by the babbling brooks. Everything that I saw and experienced while on the fifty minutes ride to the lodge reminded me of descriptions straight out of Danish Baroness Karen Blixen’s memoirs “Out of Africa”.
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Upon checking into the Four Seasons, the friendly staff beguiled us and other newly arrived guests with titillating tales of how a pride of over thirty regal lions were spotted prowling right next to the lodge just three days prior to our arrival, leaving us excited with eager anticipation, but also green with envy that we did not also get to witness such an extravaganza. One of the main highlights of the lodge has got to be the marvellous discovery centre where guests and their families can educate themselves on African culture, history, and wildlife by viewing the numerous exhibits on display, or by watching some of the full-length feature documentaries about wildlife conservation, the great migration, and other Serengeti related subjects. The well-curated discovery centre also contains intriguing specimens and curious artifacts such as the colossal skull of an elephant, the lanky skeleton of a giraffe, tribal weaponry and other oddities.
My first meal at the Safari Lodge of Poached Jumbo Prawns with Avocado Tartare and Turmeric Aioli
Situated right across from the discovery centre, the breezy Maji terrace and pool bar overlooks the grand centrepiece of the Four Seasons Safari Lodge; a wide infinity swimming pool that cascades into an active watering hole set against astonishingly epic and breathtaking backdrops of the lush surrounding landscapes. This is where lodge guests congregate and unwind after a long day of game drives and exchange casual banter over scrumptious African tapas and refreshing tribal themed cocktails. We thoroughly enjoyed the freshly baked artisanal bread that were dipped in delicious kachumbari, and then washed down with a glass of iced hibiscus and rooibos tea. Everything on Maji’s casual dining menu sounds appetising, making it a challenge to make a decision on which dishes to order. My selections of the homemade saffron tonarelli pasta, and succulent poached jumbo prawns with avocado tartare and turmeric aioli turned out to be excellent choices.
The family of elephants as seen from across the infinity pool
As I was enjoying my palatable lunch, one of the waiters abruptly exclaimed, “Look! The elephants have finally returned after a six month absence!”. My jaw gapped wide open as I gasped in spellbound wonderment, dropping the luscious morsel of prawn that I was chewing on. Right across from the wide infinity pool deck, stood a large family herd of a dozen majestic elephants and their young quenching their thirst by drinking from the watering hole below. This is most certainly a sight that one does not get to see everyday. Absolutely priceless and utterly magnificent! I readily observed that the tusks of the African elephants were more pronounced and apparent as compared to their Asian counterparts.
The fact remains that the chief reason why people would endure the multiple flights, annoyingly itchy and painful tsetse fly bites, and are willing to pay a king’s ransom to come all the way to the Serengeti would be to gawk at the animals in their natural habitats, and that is precisely what they will be abundantly compensated with while visiting the oldest eco-system on Earth. Over 500+ species of recorded birds and 70+ species of land mammals call the capacious Serengeti their home. Pink flamingos, meerkats, warthogs, zebras, ostriches, rhinos, etc all co-exist together in this national park spanning a whopping 30,000 square kilometres. A common sight fluttering around the African savannah are the blue superb starlings with their flamboyant feathery plumages of scintillating opalescence and iridescence. As we stopped to observe and photograph the animals, our experienced driver passes us fly swatters made from the tails of giraffes and zebras so that we would not be fodder to pesky insect bites. Whatever animal we requested to see, our savvy drivers somehow knew the exact spots to find them. At times, the drivers will radio each other via walkie-talkies to share the precise locations of rare animal sightings. So veraciously on target were their skill at pointing out wildlife from a distance and seeking out every animal on my list, that I jokingly enthused that I wanted them to take me to see a unicorn.
There is something enchanted and ineffable about seeing these safari game creatures roaming freely and flourishing in their natural environments. The animals are happy, healthy, active, and fit as can be as evident from their robust musculature, luscious eyes, and glossy hides. This is in sharp opposition compared to the lacklustre and languid animals that we see neurotically pacing inside tiny cages at city zoos. Unperturbed by our presence, lions and elephants will walk right next to our land rover. We even caught sight of a pair of usually solitary leopards mating together before splitting up again. After coitus, the selfish male leopard drags the wretched carcass of a wildebeest high up a tall sycamore tree so that the other predators and scavengers will not have the slightest chance at getting a bite of his prized kill. There was a palpable electrifying energy in the atmosphere and an elusive “je ne sais quoi’” quality to it all. One is left to wonder how these capricious and unpredictable wild animals might behave next. My first full-day game drive ended with a resounding climax when our convoy spotted a cheetah basking under the African sun completely oblivious to the admiring onlookers snapping multiple frames per second with their pricey and inordinate paparazzi style telephoto lenses. My inner child was beaming and I was so trigger-happy with my camera that I ran out of both battery power and memory card storage space. With a pair of binoculars in my left hand, and my camera in my right, I thought to myself that this has got to be the best day of my life. I felt like a kid living out his childhood fantasy from Walt Disney’s “The Lion King”.
The great wildebeest migration that takes place annually is the largest overland terrestrial mammal migration spectacle on this planet. Starting from the Serengeti national parks in Tanzania, a staggering 1.5 million wildebeest, and over 200,000 zebras, gazelles, and antelopes will fend for their very lives while attempting to cross the Grumeti and Mara rivers in a chaotic frenzy to get over to Maasai Marai game reserve in Kenya in search of fresh grazing grounds and drinkable water. The whole river-crossing scene looks like a surreal apocalyptic cesspit filled with fear, anxiety, and panic. Amidst the maddening mayhem, upset mother wildebeests frequently lose sight of their forlorn new-borns in the frantic disarray of horns, hooves, and hides. These naive young calves then become easy preys and targets for hungry lions. The poor zebra and gazelle populations are inadvertently also caught up in the resulting confusion and scuffled melee. Malevolent crocodiles lurking in the rivers seize the golden opportunities to lunge out and snap their mighty jaws onto their unsuspecting catch. Those unfortunate enough to have fallen prey scream hysterically as they struggle in vain and hopeless desperation. The commotion forces the other nearby animals to disperse and scurry away in a hurried rampage. This is Darwinian’s evolutionary theory of “the survival of the fittest” at its most raw, unadulterated, and animalistic. It is akin to watching the Discovery Channel or National Geographic live in vivid high definition. By nightfall, nocturnal scavengers such as bands of sly jackals and cackling hyenas with their nefarious grins come out to scour the battlefields for any gory leftovers that the hungry vultures might have left out.
In the evening, Boma (Swahili for an enclosed animal hut) is where in-house guests of the Four Seasons go to savour an authentically prepared African feast in a semi al-fresco dining setting surrounded by an open-air blazing bonfire where several Maasai tribe members put on a cultural show every night to entertain the audience as the guests indulge in their dinner. Boma features grilled gamy meats and other fresh local ingredients that are seasoned with African herbs and spices. Some of Boma’s top gourmet specialities include the savoury zucchini fritters with tomato and ginger chutney, as well as the creamy banana soup with chunks of roast beef. My hands down favourite culinary picks were the delectable braised duck fritters with zesty cranberry chutney, and the exquisite pan seared catch of the day which happened to be the mahi-mahi paired with pumpkin ugali, garden pea purée, papaya and basil relish.
The Four Season safari lodge’s spa boasts an elaborate and extensive listing of rejuvenating therapies with aptly named monikers such as “Safari Balance” and “Tanzanian Energizer”. I gravitated towards the 2 hour “African Detox” spa treatment that starts off with an invigorating full body green tea salt scrub, followed by a detoxifying herbal mud masque that is fortified and enriched with seaweed, guarana, ivy, and msasa plant extract. The mud masque is being heat activated while we relaxed our sore muscles in the steam room scented with pure essential oils of tea tree and eucalyptus so as to open up the pores and stimulate better absorption of the masque ingredients. The heavenly treatment is concluded with a revitalising Kiffa (Swahili for “tool”) massage that utilises a rungu, which is essentially a wooden baton apparatus used by the Maasai tribe warriors to indicate their heroic status. The generous use of Africology’s signature cellulite busting massage oil blend of baobab and other African plants, combined with gentle effleurage massage strokes further aids in the lymphatic drainage and elimination of toxins and fatty deposits. After our treatment, we felt as if we were walking on cloud nine. As the icing on the cake, our spa treatments were ended by our therapists serving us with delightful shot glasses containing a concoction of curcumin, cucumber, and baobab juice that is balanced off with a drizzle of wild harvested honey.
Looking resplendent in his white linen tunic caftan, the enthusiastic meditation and yoga instructor waits patiently as we consume every last drop of the baobab juice mix. He greets us at the cozy spa reception area with a beaming smile framed with dazzling white teeth that pops out in stark contrast against his glowing black skin. After grabbing some provisions and comfy cushions, the ethereal looking yogi beckons us to set off on foot towards a fairly arduous albeit short ascend up a steep monumental looking hill composed of tall grass, acacia scrub bushes and jagged rock boulders. Our small party is being safely escorted by two Maasai tribe warriors dressed in their classic red/black checkered ceremonial garb and adorned with vibrantly ornate beaded accessories. A burly safari security guard armed with an imposing hunting rifle slung across his chest and broad shoulders joins the fray and completes the fellowship. Even though, the escort team are evidently and conspicuously present for our collective safety, we had absolutely nothing to fear or worry about. The only wild animals spotted scurrying about were harmless tiny critters such as cute dik diks and cuddly hyraxes. In fact, they were so irresistibly adorable that I felt compelled to stop and gush, before making puerile remarks about adopting one and bringing it home as if it were a soft toy.
From the high vantage point at the summit of the hill, we were handsomely rewarded for our physical exertions with spectacular 360 degrees sweeping panoramic outlooks of the awe-inspiring vistas. In front of us, the western sky displayed a gradational palette of dusk shades and sunset pastel hues that were peppered with sporadic showers of rain. While the eastern skies looming behind us revealed imposing clusters of dark and stormy cumulonimbus clouds. One could audibly make out the soft distant rumblings of thunder that were swiftly followed by melodramatic flashes of lightning. Like predators waiting for their kill, our Maasai guardians stood sentinel beside us with their keen watchful eyes as the experienced yogi held sacred space and guided us through a sunset meditation sequence starting with pranayama breathwork such as “Lion’s breath” and the uttering of three sacred OM chants. These were followed by sets of various beginners’ yoga poses with the likes of Mountain, Tree and Warrior.
In closing, we were instructed to connect with Mother Earth and honour the primordial spirit of the land as we exhaled the breath of life. As the fiery sun sets over the twilight horizon on my final day in the Serengeti and a brilliant full moon rises to take its place, I sent out a fervent prayer and made an emphatic promise that I shall return to the Motherland. This sunset meditation session was an epic finale and fitting curtain call to my virgin African safari odyssey. I bring home with me a snapshot memento of this magical moment that will forever be emblazoned unto the deepest recesses of my psyche.
To book your own bespoke African safari adventure, please kindly email Mr Jeffrey O’Neill at [email protected].
Four Seasons Safari Lodge, Serengeti, Tanzania reservation hotline number: +255 (0) 768 982 101/2
Contributed by Luke Elijah, Spiritual Coach
Photo credits: Luke Elijah