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Thousands of zebras and wildebeests charged across the road, engulfing the safari van I shared with my husband and four other members of our tour group. The noise was deafening. Frantic hooves pounded the dry earth, raising clouds of dust that scratched at our eyes, throats and camera lenses. We were on the Serengeti -- the vast plain in northern Tanzania that each year hosts the mass migration we were witnessing -- and this kind of up-close encounter with wild animals is exactly why we'd come.
Several days earlier, when we arrived at Tanzania's Kilimanjaro International Airport, I got my first hint that we were in the place I'd dreamed of for so long, with such iconic landscapes as the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. The journey had been tiring, involving 16 hours of flying on two different planes. But when I stepped off the plane into a dark night, warm breezes refreshed me. Stars like I'd never seen before blanketed the sky.
Our safari guide met us and five other members of our tour group outside the airport. (Seven others joined us the next day.) A minivan ride through the countryside delivered us to our first night's hotel in Arusha. I fell asleep instantly.
Morning came too early. I grabbed my sunscreen, binoculars, camera and notebook, then scrambled into a six-seater Land Rover with a special safari roof: Six openings made sure everyone had a place to stand and look for animals. Forget that it was now midnight back home. Serengeti awaited.
Our three-Rover convoy moved through Arusha, a town of approximately 1 million people. Our route to the Serengeti passed through the most poverty-ridden part of the city, over dirt roads and past dilapidated buildings, tin-roofed housing, cattle sauntering along the side of the road, young boys on tippy bikes weighed down with uneven loads of long grass or sticks for home fires. Women, walking barefoot, balanced 5-gallon buckets on their heads. We later learned that those buckets were filled with fresh water, a necessity they collected miles from their homes.
Young children called out to me in Swahili, "mzungu, mzungu" -- white person, white person. They smiled and waved. I waved back as we left the dusty town for our safari.
Further on, we saw some Maasai, brightly clothed members of a semi-nomadic tribe, walking through barren fields tending to sheep, goats and cattle. Older, male members carry long, wooden spears to ward off possible attacks from wild animals.
Face-off with an elephant
Finally, we reached our first destination: Tarangire National Park, 1,096 square miles of rustic roads, tall grasses and iconic wildlife. It was early June, the end of the rainy season, and grazing animals appeared everywhere. It was our first real look at the beasts, and we were in awe.
Giraffes moved in clusters (aptly named "towers"). Slim, strong necks stretched as much as 18 feet to reach the tips of whistling acacia trees. Their dark gray tongues rapidly stripped off leaves -- and bugs, berries and bark -- while their tough lips protected them from the branches' spiked thorns.
When our driver spotted a leopard sleeping on the long limb of a tree more than 500 feet away, the whine of focusing digital cameras filled the van. The big cat didn't move. We were certain this was the photo for our wall at home. But it got better.
Hartebeests, Grant gazelles, majestic cape buffalos, white-rumped waterbucks, scores of lions, and finally the elephants. Or, more precisely, African elephants, whose huge ears resemble the shape of their country. A herd of 50 or more meandered down to the Tarangire River for a long drink of precious water. Looking for a quick shortcut to the river, our guide navigated deep ruts in and out of the tall grass. Minnesota potholes have nothing on these paths.
Quite unexpectedly, we came upon several babies and two or three female and male elephants by the side of the road. Our guide pointed out the matriarch of the family, the largest and oldest female of the herd, pockmarked and severely wrinkled. We stood up and aimed our telephotos. Suddenly she stopped, looking straight into our lone Land Rover. Were we friend or foe? She led her family across the road, then turned to face us square on, frantically flapping her ears, a sign of distress. Our guide cautioned us to remain silent. Six breaths were held in. Several agonizing minutes went by. Finally, our matriarch turned, leading her small family through the brush and out of sight.
It was time to leave, but we'd had outstanding luck this day, thanks to our guide's skill at animal sightings. Our own amateur attempts were not so good. We'd shout out excitedly about every animal we saw, but binoculars soon revealed lone rocks and stubby, lion-shaped shrubs.
Migration on the Serengeti
Late afternoon of the next day, we arrived at Serengeti National Park -- nearly 6,000 square miles of grassland plains, with widely spaced trees and shrubs scattered as far as the eye could see. The Maasai named this area "Siringet," or endless plains. I could barely comprehend the vastness and the animals that appeared before us, but our cameras captured the real story.
Graceful Thompson gazelles ran and jumped through the short grass. This small antelope can run up to 45 miles per hour, often in zigzag patterns to escape predators. Warthogs rooted in the ground. The lions were endless; low in the grass to avoid detection, high in the trees to spot their prey, or simply lying by the side of the road, taking a "catnap."
A rough drive into camp revealed our enclave, nine tents on an open field resting in the shade of a mountain. Each tent contained two single cots, two side tables, a mirror, a whistle, a flush toilet and a shower.
Because water is at a premium, we each had one shower a day -- a 5-gallon bucket of warm water poured by staff from the top of the tent. It was sheer bliss at the end of each day's dusty drive.
Our meals were another delight. Working with simple pots and pans, the chef created choice cuisine every night. Each meal was different. One night, African food. The next, roast beef. Then Mongolian barbecue, lamb or chicken with spaghetti and pineapple upside-down cake. And they call this "roughing it."
We spent five days in the Serengeti. To make the most of it, we took two game-viewing drives a day, and saw more animals than we ever imagined. On our fourth day, we hit the jackpot.
In a scene straight out of National Geographic magazine, we'd become part of the great migration. A tower of giraffes on the right, a herd of zebras to the left. The migration unfolded in front of us. Thousands of wildebeests and zebras crossed our path over and over again.
Every year, we're told, more than 2 million white-bearded wildebeests and 700,000 zebras move clockwise, running south to west, then north to the Maasai Mara River, where they graze for up to two months. And now, they were crossing the road in front of us, an endless line of bleating, snorting, wild-eyed animals jumping and running as fast as they can.
Morning came and we said goodbye to our camp staff. As we drove away, I also said farewell to a bed of baby hyenas that had greeted me each morning, and the many proud lions whose bodies sunk so low into the grass that you could only make out their ears. The superb starlings, with bright blue feathers and throaty songs, serenaded us. As we came to the main highway, it started to sink in. Most likely, my next viewing time for these noble beasts would be at our local zoo.
The Maasai have a saying: "The Serengeti will never die." I hope not. A controversial plan is underway to put new roads through the park. According to the World Heritage Convention, some commercial traffic is already passing through the Serengeti. And although some of the Tanzanian government communications state that the road through the park will remain unpaved gravel, any change from the dirt paths could have serious impact on the ecosystem and the thousands of animals that live there.
Years from now, the world may judge Tanzania for what happened in the Serengeti, but for those of us who have seen it, smelled it, breathed it, the memories will live forever.
Judy Zerby is a former television journalist and a freelance writer. Mike Zerby, a former Star Tribune staff photographer, teaches photojournalism at the University of Minnesota.
The Zerbys traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel. For more information, go to www.oattravel.com.