On the first morning of our Tauck safari, we left Arusha for Tarangire National Park in four extended Toyota Land Cruisers. There were 20 guests traveling, four Tanzanian driver-guides and an American tour director, Susan.
We drove through the countryside, passing fields of corn, coffee and bananas before moving into a region where small herds of cattle grazed under the watchful eye of young men and boys from the Maasai tribe. The bright red or purple head-to-shins wraps of the Maasai were a sharp contrast to the green pastures.
We arrived at Tarangire, removed sections of the roof of our safari truck and stepped up on our seats. During the nine days that followed, we rode and viewed game with our heads outside the truck, which is an exhilarating way to travel. Of course, dogs have known this all along.
Our first sighting came within seconds of entering the park and triggered a near-hysterical succession of pointing and exclamations: Elephants! Giraffes! Zebras! Uh... something else! We pinched ourselves to make sure we were really there.
At every sighting, no matter how distant the animals, we stopped the truck and took an insane number of pictures. Many memory sticks later, we would learn the difference between a good opportunity for pictures and a good opportunity for viewing through binoculars.
The landscape was rugged and hilly, with thorny acacias and tall grass that was already mostly brown though Tanzania's dry season was only two weeks old. The skyline was dominated by huge baobab trees, and the roads were dirt and gravel.
We explored for two hours without seeing a human being or a man-made structure of any kind before arriving at our first safari lodge, the Tarangire Sopa Lodge. We had no idea what to expect to find in the bush, but opening the doors led to a true shock: modern, contemporary furniture; high, wood-beamed ceilings; huge glass windows opening onto a panoramic view; and colorfully dressed employees offering cool towels and glasses of passion fruit juice.
Lunch was served poolside before our afternoon game drive, which lasted until dusk. We cleaned up for dinner and met on the back patio of the lodge for a welcome reception, and as the stars appeared in the night sky, my family saw the Southern Cross for the first time.
The patio was 15 feet or so above ground, and as we prepared to leave for the dining room we heard a loud thrashing sound below us. We trained our flashlights in the direction of the noise and saw two elephants crashing though the trees no more than 50 feet away.
Here I should point out that there are no walls or fences around any of the lodges we visited, which leads to interesting experiences even when you are not on game drives. All sorts of animals can and do wander onto the grounds. In the evenings, you are advised to carry a flashlight and never leave the walkways, as literally anything can be watching from the bushes.
The next morning, I was startled awake by a strange noise. I climbed out of bed, fumbled through mosquito nets and groped my way toward the balcony of my pitch-black bedroom. The sound came again, and this time it seemed vaguely familiar.
I pulled back the curtains to see that the sun had just risen. As the landscape came into focus, I saw the source of my unscheduled wake-up call -- an elephant marching near the crest of the hill, with trunk held high to trumpet the start of another day.
I raced for the camera and stepped onto the balcony to record the moment as three black-faced vervet monkeys scampered up the roof of my bungalow.
That day at Tarangire, we had morning and afternoon game drives, and added many new species of animals, birds and plants to our "sighted" list, but no predators. At 5 p.m. a call came in to our driver. Park rangers had reported hearing lions roaring at dawn in a remote area of Tarangire, a good indication that an animal had been taken.
Our four safari trucks converged on the site and found the fresh carcass of an eland, an animal that can weigh 1,500 pounds and one that is both fast and hard to bring down. It had been devoured except for horns, bones and the hind legs, and in tall grass no more than 30 feet away, we saw four full lions lazily keeping an eye on their prize.
We were beside ourselves at seeing lions, but the lions were clearly unimpressed by our group, barely managing a sideways glance before turning away. If we'd stepped from the truck we might have been killed and eaten, but as just another multiheaded squawk box on wheels, we were not perceived as a threat or a meal.
Eventually, we headed back to the Sopa Lodge, and on our last night in Tarangire, we were treated to another fine dinner and serenaded with native music by a talented choir of employees. I secretly doubted that any other day of the safari could top our first full day in the bush, but I was wrong.
Vacations To Go
Tanzania Safari, Part 1: Gearing Up
Tanzania Safari, Part 2: At First Sight
Tanzania Safari, Part 3: Climbing Kilimanjaro
Tanzania Safari, Part 5: Children of the Maasai
Tanzania Safari, Part 6: Africa's Garden of Eden
Tanzania Safari, Part 7: The Great Migration
Tanzania Safari, Part 8: Adrift Over the Serengeti
Tanzania Safari, Part 9: The Grand Design