A few hours after my family arrived at Gibb's Farm, a lodge in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Highlands, two members of our team told us they would be driving into Karatu, the largest town in a region of hillside coffee plantations and terra-cotta-colored soil. That anyone would willingly expel themselves from this Eden was a surprise to me. Gibb's Farm produces organic coffee, serves gourmet meals from ingredients grown on-site, and bursts with blooms the size of platters and birdsongs from an abundance of doves, nightjars and cuckoos.
It turns out the two had something more important to do than recharge after a long and dusty drive: They needed to register to vote in the country's presidential elections. Their urgency was an unintentional but essential reminder that no matter how much we had already come to love this stunning East African nation, we were simply guests — very pampered guests — who would never truly understand the complexities our hosts lived every day.
That contradiction was far from my thoughts when my good friend Cristina and I dreamed of taking our families on an African safari. When I sent her a note saying my husband and I were saving for a trip three years away that would require malaria pills and almost 20 hours of travel, she replied immediately to say that her family, who lives in another city, wanted in. And then she used her MBA skills to mine TripAdvisor with a precision that I, a travel writer, didn't imagine was possible.
We chose Tanzania because it is one of Africa's stablest democracies and, unlike neighboring Kenya, hasn't been a victim of terrorist attacks. It's also home to Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, which boasts the highest concentration of large mammals on the planet. A friend who had been in the Peace Corps in East Africa had spoken fondly about the country's jambo ("hello," in Swahili) spirit, not just in the safari camps but in the towns and villages, too. Our group of 12 — including my 77-year-old mother and other members of our extended families — locked in our dates two years in advance to get the lowest rates.
Still, despite our careful planning, we did have some concerns, mostly about our kids being able to get along and stay engaged in a place where they couldn't rely on the buzzes and beeps of their technology to fill empty moments, of which there would be many. I was also worried about my mom, who had traveled all over the world but had never slept in a tent. Would a safari be too leisurely for the kids but too hurried for her? Finally, my bossy alpha-female gene is matched only by Cristina's. Would the stresses of managing our group's competing interests turn our friendship into a human episode of "Wild Kingdom"?
Those concerns weren't extinguished when we woke up the first morning in Arusha, a city known to foreigners mostly as the jumping-off point for safaris and treks up Mount Kilimanjaro. Outside my room I could hear the staticky sounds of a call to prayer over a loudspeaker, squeaks of vervet monkeys scrambling up fig trees, and the way-too-familiar tones of my almost-16-year-old son, Peter, using the lodge's free Wi-Fi to FaceTime a friend.
Our itinerary would take us from Arusha through the Northern Circuit of national parks, including the Great Rift Valley, with a stop at Olduvai Gorge, where Mary and Louis Leakey discovered the fossils of our hominid ancestors. Our tour operator, Thomson Safaris, was the first in Tanzania to hire local guides instead of flying them in from Europe or South Africa. The men leading our trip — John Urio, Nasibu Shabani Shoo and James Alfayo — are passionate conservationists who have an encyclopedic understanding of Tanzania's plant and animal universe. They cannot only spot a lioness resting yards away in deep grass, but also a lilac-breasted roller peeking out from a hole in a baobab tree. What's more, they are warm and thoughtful conversationalists who are happy to talk about their lives and their country, no small consideration when you are driving for up to seven hours a day and sharing meals.
John was the lead guide and he and my mother struck up a fast friendship. He called her Bibi, Swahili for grandma. She returned the favor by calling him Babu, or grandpa.
With the exception of a lodge in Arusha and the two nights at Gibb's Farm, we were based in solar-powered nyumbas, or tented camps. From the moment we arrived and a porter offered each of us a glass of mango juice, I knew I could table my worries about Bibi. Each tent had an eco-friendly toilet and a shower, operated by hanging a bag of warm water outside the tent. An open-sided communal living room included a bar, games and crafts and deep sofas that were perfect for a nap.
Every morning, usually no later than 6:30, we were greeted by a camp worker saying "Jambo Jambo," through the tent flap before he left a pitcher of hot water so we could wash our faces. It was July, which is winter in Tanzania, so the sun was just started to wake up over the horizon and the air was chilly enough that we wore fleeces to breakfast. After eating, we divided into three Land Rovers and spent several hours on a game drive.
I had expected to be wowed by the animals, but was surprised at how riveting I found ordinary moments. The first time I saw a giraffe run, I was struck by how prehistoric she seemed, with her off-kilter gait and shoulder muscles that moved like gears on a locomotive. By the time we passed through the entrance gate at Tarangire National Park on Day Three, my notebook was filled with a list of so many different species that I felt like I wouldn't need to see any more to go home satisfied.
Then the Land Rover veered to the right and stopped in front of a watering hole, where a herd of elephants were swimming. One lumbered to shore and trumpeted, sending a spray of water across his back. That set off a stampede of zebras, who had also been cooling off — a moment to marvel at the spontaneous magic of the natural world. The animals were hot, and we were lucky enough to witness what they decided to do about it. It was a thrilling sight, but oddly calming. It reminded me of a line from one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems: "I come into the peace of wild things, who do not tax their lives with forethought."
The kids rode together in their own vehicle with Nasibu and Frank Massawe, who joins Thomson's family safaris as a mentor for children. When I looked back at them, all six were standing under the pop-up roof, binoculars pressed to their faces. "This is so freaking awesome!" I heard my nephew Michael say. When Peter reached down and pulled out his phone, my worries about disrupting the elephants were all that kept me from shouting for him to turn it off. But then he held it up and panned to the right. He was taking videos.
Bedtime came early — usually around 8 p.m. In the Serengeti, which is home to one of the world's largest lion populations, we were told to not go outside until dawn, a warning that was made more real by the Maasai askari, or night watchman, who guarded the camp with a spear and bow and arrow. (An additional national park ranger carried a rifle.) Except for the rhythmic moos of wildebeests that kept me awake one night, the chirps and hums of the bush were soothing.
Every morning ushered in more once-in-a-lifetime experiences, each of which would have been the exclamation point on any other vacation. One day we ballooned at sunrise over the Serengeti and watched hippos bathe in the Seronera River below. On another we oohed as a pink cloud of flamingos fluttered above a saline lake in the Ngorongoro Crater before spotting a black rhino, blurry through the binoculars, but still, there he was, standing on his own, one of the few left in the world.
We met our kids' pen pals at a local school and celebrated Peter's 16th birthday dancing with the camp staff in the dining tent. And when thousands upon thousands of wildebeests — truly the definition of "one in a million" — stopped our progress as they continued on their annual migration between the Serengeti and Kenya's Maasai Mara, each of us felt like we'd used up our lifetime quota for peak events.
Still, the moments I'll remember most were the late afternoons at the nyumbas. Bibi and Babu would sit in the living area, content to watch the scene unfold around them as Nasibu napped and the kids, who had bonded by the second day, played cards and soccer. After soccer, Frank would answer our questions about Tanzania, which despite its extraordinary natural bounty is one of the poorest nations on Earth; according to the World Bank, the gross national income per capita is $930. Graft, like elsewhere in Africa, is common. Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which ruled when the country gained independence in 1961, is still in power, which doesn't sit well with some citizens. (CCM won the election, which was held last October.)
On our last afternoon, we visited the boma, or homestead, of a young Maasai man who worked at Thomson's camp in the Eastern Serengeti. I'd been looking forward to seeing how the Maasai lived from the moment I first read our itinerary three years earlier. I wasn't, however, prepared for the reality of smiling children in torn Old Navy T-shirts and no pants, who seemed to not notice that their eyes were caked with flies. The Maasai we met were gracious, happy and immensely proud of their mud-walled homes, which had no furniture or even, as far as I could tell, anything as advanced as a flashlight. (The Maasai's nod to the modern world seemed limited to mobile phones.) But I couldn't square their lives with my family's enormous privilege and endless choices. A few days earlier John was shocked when Walter pulled out his battery-operated toothbrush for an after-lunch cleaning. "The Maasai use a stick," he told us. Now I had no way to pretend to myself that he was exaggerating.
As we drove away, the light was the color of a candle flame, which made the acacia trees shine like emeralds. In a lifetime of travel, I'd never seen scenery as exquisite as Tanzania's. But now I understood why Frank and the others cared so much about the elections. When you love your country like they do, you want every family to thrive.
At dusk, the guides and our group gathered for a surprise sundowner, a safari tradition where you enjoy cocktails — in our case wine and Stoney Tangawizi, a ginger soda so potent it makes your eyes water — as the sun sets over the horizon. It had been an intense day and the kids were now racing each other through the bush. Bibi was deep in conversation with Cristina's brother. Our husbands were talking with our guides, probably about the Maasai. And that's when I realized that Cristina's and my friendship had given root to a whole new constellation of relationships.
I looked over at my old friend, who was sipping a glass of wine. "We did it," she said as she came toward me for a hug. Neither of us had the words to explain why this trip had been such an unexpectedly profound success. So we just drank and grinned until the stars poked through the wide Serengeti sky. And then we vowed to start planning another trip the minute we got back home.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the author of "Unbored Adventure: 70 Seriously Fun Activities for Kids & Their Families." Read more of her stories at elizabethfoylarsen.com.