Home Again, But Different

By David Cogswell

As I settled into my seat on the plane after three days at Singita Grumeti Game Reserve, I closed tired eyes and scenes of the wilderness flashed before me as if the epic drama of the Serengeti Plains were still playing out behind my eyelids: the yellow and green grasses on the broad plains and hillsides, the flat-topped acacia trees, the red earth, the vast skies, the multitudes of zebras, antelopes, giraffes, buffaloes and warthogs. At that moment it struck me what a dull, stunted expression is “the bush” to describe the magnificent panorama where I had been immersed in the wilderness of Tanzania.

I have Sven Lindblad to thank for bringing to my attention a phrase from Henry David Thoreau, “the tonic of wildness.” There is certainly something profoundly healing and rejuvenating about leaving the urban, largely manmade environments where most of us live and going to a place where you encounter the wildness of nature face to face. On my trip to Tanzania I experienced that exhilarating encounter with nature in the wild. Until you have been to Africa there is no way to anticipate the effect of seeing see the giant, charismatic wildlife of Africa living free, unfenced and unmolested by people.

Even after I returned home and plunged headlong into a mountain of overdue deadlines, it took a while for my hectic work routines to pull me down from the starry-eyed daze I was still in from Africa. I could look at all my familiar problems and hassles from a different perspective. They didn’t get to me as much. I feel more comfortable in the world. I appreciate my home country more than when I left. I still feel like a tourist when I’m walking around my hometown, looking at everything anew, as if I just arrived for the first time and would soon be leaving, possibly never to return. The sense of wonder aroused by the experience of Africa opens me more to the natural beauty in my own familiar world.

A trip to Africa is a transformative experience. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it’s hard for me to imagine any American experiencing the wilds of Africa and not having profoundly moving experience, one that will probably cause you to reposition yourself in relation to the universe.

I flew on South African Airways with a small group of travel agents and tour operators from Johannesburg, South Africa, to the busy seaside city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The recommended structuring of a trip to Singita includes stopovers in Dar Es Salaam on the way in and on the way out. That allows you to get a comfortable night’s sleep and then catch a flight to the bush the next day. The scheduled departures require you to get up before dawn, but if you are traveling with several people it is cost effective to charter a flight to Singita.

In Dar Es Salaam we stayed at Oyster Bay, a boutique hotel across the ocean drive from the Indian Ocean. The Oyster Bay area is not a swimming beach. It’s a coral beach, hard on the feet, and it has stinging sea urchins. But the hotel has a sweet pool in a tropical courtyard near an ancient fig tree as broad as a garage. The hotel is operated almost strictly as a stopover for people going and coming from the bush. It’s a comfortable, congenial hotel with all the modern conveniences. It’s operated on an all-inclusive basis. According to Sean Lues, manager, it is designed to be “like our home”. When you stay there you are a guest, he says. You never pull out your wallet. Meals and laundry are included.

The suites have a sparse, clean design with eye-catching details like an overhead shower behind a glass wall, and African furniture and art pieces. The rooms have ocean views and are equipped with double air conditioners that have the power to turn the room into an icy igloo, which is nice because Dar es Salaam is equatorially hot and humid. The name Dar es Salaam means “haven of peace,” which is what the Oyster Bay provides to people traveling to the bush.

The three-hour charter flight from Dar to Grumeti was by itself an experience of a lifetime. We flew in a 12-seat Cessna Caravan, a pretty and nimble plane that can take off and land in extremely disadvantageous circumstances, which is good because the airstrip at Grumeti is not long and is little more than a strip of bare red earth. We flew with Zan Air from the domestic airport in Dar. We were instructed that as hot as it was on the ground in Dar, we might want to carry a jacket for when we were aloft. This turned out to be good advice.

Our pilot, Captain Wenceslaus Ntambula, was introduced to us as one of the most experienced of the fleet. He was a distinguished, dark and strong looking man, with a presence that inspired confidence and respect. Our Cessna was only six months old and was still sparkling brand new and perfect. It had a single propeller in front which started swinging around and soon disappeared into invisibility. It pulled us onto the runway and then we started moving forward. As the plane went faster its wheels lost their traction and the craft moved slightly side to side as if on ice, and then it lifted off the ground and we were airborne. The ground speedily retreated beneath us, the buildings turned to toys, the trees lost their height and became the fringe on the earth. We climbed up into the clouds, then over them.

We flew over a stretch of the Indian Ocean before we moved back in over the land again. The clouds were thick for much of the first part of the trip and they obscured the ground below. But we could see Mount Kilimanjaro sticking up above the clouds at some distance to our right. It was one of a number of peaks that rose above the clouds. It was the largest and its legendary snow was arranged in strips across its higher planes.

It was a remarkably smooth ride. The only bit of turbulence we hit was on the way up and it was barely enough to call turbulence. It was just a little bit of vibration and rocking motion. After we rose above it, it was smooth for the rest of the trip.

When we reached the end of the carpet of clouds I could clearly see Ngorongoro Crater below. I didn’t need a map to recognize it. Even from our height of 12,500 feet, from which height Kilimanjaro was little more than a footstool, Ngorongoro was clearly demarcated and unmistakably recognizable as a crater. The sides of the crater were covered with rich green vegetation and forest, the bottom was flat, with a pool of water surrounded by bare earth marbled in browns, yellows and beige.

The clouds hung on the edge of the crater and beyond the crater and the mountains we came upon a vast plain of sandy earth dotted sparsely with trees and bushes. An occasional road snaked across its surface. We also passed over Olduvai Gorge, which was not as starkly recognizable from the air as Ngorongoro, but considering how our height had dwarfed Mount Kilimanjaro, Olduvai looked like it would be a dramatic geological feature to view from the ground. By that time we had begun our descent. The features of the earth began to be visible again. Trees regained their height, grew stems and began to look like trees again instead of fur. As descended lower, approaching the landing strip for Grumeti, I saw my first wildlife, the tiny silhouette of a giraffe. I felt like a child bursting with glee. Then I saw herds of antelope. As the landing strip came into view and we lowered toward it, a computer generated voice from the GPS device repeatedly called out “Caution! Terrain! Pull up!”

Waiting for us with cool towels and drinks and warm smiles were a few staffers of Singita, including Ryan Schmidt, who would be our ranger guide for the next few days. But that’s another story.

-- David Cogswell

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