Then I traveled to Tanzania. As part of the NTA Product Development Trip in June, I learned that the word Serengeti is derived from the Maasai language, and it means endless plains. Hey, just like home! Well, after spending a few days on safari in the western and central Serengeti during the tour, I now know the real endless plains.
Make no mistake about it, I love my birth state. But it’s not only Tanzania’s plains that are endless; the list of animals on them—elephants, lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes—is also endless and … wow. Just, wow.
The nine-day tour was organized by Scholastica Ponera—a longtime NTA member who owns Dar es Salaam-based Pongo Safaris & Tours—with help from her sponsor partners: the Tanzania Tourist Board, Serena Hotels & Resorts and the Tanzania National Parks Authority. The trip across the Kilimanjaro region of northern Tanzania featured some of the country’s finest game reserves: Lake Manyara National Park, Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Our group consisted of Scholastica, Jerry Varner of Washburn, Missouri-based Making Memories Tours and me. Jerry and I had a lot in common—we’re about the same age, we both grew up in farming towns and we were each raised with the small-town sensibility (and frugalness) that is common to Midwesterners.
On the other hand, Scholastica is a Tanzanian through and through. Born and raised in the African nation, Momma Pongo, as Scholastica is affectionately known to nearly everyone in the tourism community, loves showing off her country to visitors. Jerry and I were happy to have her taking care of all the details—especially since it was our first visit to Africa and first safari—and the three of us got along famously.
Over the six game-drive days, we got used to the rhythm of having a sit-down breakfast together then spending the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon in the parks to check out the wildlife. During the rides, Scholastica and our driver, Lupogo, had plenty of time to educate Jerry and me about the parks, the animals and life in Tanzania.
Evenings typically involved some happy hour entertainment—ranging from a local drumming troupe and native acrobats to a Maasai dance performance—at whichever of the luxurious Serena Resorts we were staying at that night, followed by dinner. Some of my fondest memories of the trip are of the far-ranging conversations and many laughs that Scholastica, Jerry and I shared over those leisurely nighttime meals.
Our first day of the game drive took us to Lake Manyara National Park. Located in the Rift Valley, which is essentially East Africa’s big game migration path, the park was a great place for Jerry and me to get our safari feet wet. We saw leopard, zebras, baboons, warthogs, wildebeest and buffalo, and closed the day with a Treetops Adventure tour that involved us walking above the park’s canopy on a series of swinging bridges.
In an email to a friend recapping our day at Lake Manyara, I wrote:
“We opened in Lake Manyara National Park, which Scholastica said is a park many people skip in their rush to get on to Serengeti and Ngorogoro. If this is the appetizer, I cannot wait for the main course! We saw, among other animals, a leopard and 10 or so zebras. Based on the responses from our driver and the guides who led our Treetops Adventure tour, our spotting a leopard was a huge coup. It also really was awe-inspiring to be 50 feet from a zebra.”
While my note about the main course would be spot on, my comment about the wonder of being that close to a zebra would prove naïve—to wit, as the trip progressed, we would see literally thousands of zebras and find ourselves roughly 20 feet from bigger game such as lions and elephants.
The next day we made our way across the Ngorongoro Conservation Area en route to the western section of Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti is a fascinating place that really does live up to the endless-plains billing. While I don’t think Pete Townshend wrote The Who’s hit song based on a visit to the park, you absolutely can see for miles and miles.
We split our three days between west and central Serengeti, which allowed us to have our first encounters with lions and elephants and to see four more leopards. We also stopped multiple times to let large groups of wildebeest and zebras cross in front of our trusty Land Cruiser.
During our two nights in the western Serengeti, we stayed at the Kirawira Serena Camp, a tent lodge. When I think “sleeping in a tent,” I think “camping.” Well, at Kirawira, the only thing tent-y about the accommodations was the canvas walls around the spacious rooms, which were appointed with hardwood beds, desks and cabinets, as well as luxurious shower and bathroom amenities.
Since the camp is located in big-game country, as was all of the lodging for our game-drive days, you had to call the front desk after dark if you wanted to go from your room to the lobby. Not wanting guests to wander off into the wild, they would then send a guard to come escort you, although I wasn’t exactly sure what the guard was going to do if a lion showed up.
Close encounters at Ngorongoro Crater
We wrapped up our wildlife viewing with a magical day at Ngorongoro Crater. We hadn’t been on the floor of the UNESCO World Heritage site more than an hour before a lion ambled up beside the vehicle. We slowed and followed it for a short distance, where it joined two other lions. Not that you had any doubt, but being within 25 feet of the King of the Jungle is pretty cool.
We had an even closer encounter with a herd of elephants later in the day. We’d just reached the rim of the crater and were taking a couple of backroads near the resort. All of a sudden, an elephant passed in front of us, followed shortly by two crossing behind us.
We drove around a switchback turn in an attempt to set up another viewing. It worked, and my heart started racing when one of the massive creatures appeared from the brush just 15 feet away. Like pretty much all of the animals we encountered, the elephants had little interest in us and passed on by. We did get some good photos, no zoom needed, of our newest friends.
We also saw two rhinos in Ngorongoro, which meant that we’d seen each of the Big Five animals—elephant, leopard, lion, Cape buffalo and rhino—at some point during the trip. While it was clearly a thrill to gaze upon such A-list animals during our safari week, I also enjoyed seeing some of the smaller animals, such as jackals, hyenas, mongoose, Thomson’s gazelle, colorful superb starlings and red-headed rock agama lizards.
Three days after I returned from Tanzania, my wife and I drove to Iowa for a Henderson family gathering. It is roughly 700 miles each way and, let me tell you, there are a lot of flat stretches as you roll along I-65 in Indiana, I-74 in Illinois and I-80 in Iowa.
As I gazed out at the endless Midwest plains—8,300 miles from the Serengeti—I couldn’t help but imagine that instead of cows, sheep and horses, I was seeing zebras, giraffes and lions. Just … wow.
Pongo Safaris & Tours has 35 years of experience organizing tours in Tanzania and other African destinations. The company specializes in personalized safari packages throughout Tanzania that cover the country’s many national parks and game reserves. To learn more, reach out to Scholastica Ponera or go to pongosafaris.com.
Photos by Pat Henderson
'Welcome to my office'
One of the highlights of our time in the Serengeti was taking a hot-air balloon ride above the plains at sunrise. Once the crew had prepped everything and the balloon was properly inflated, we took off. A couple of minutes after we were airborne, our pilot Joao Rodrigues uttered a line I’m sure he’s used hundreds of times, “Welcome to my office.” Well played, captain, well played.
While Jerry and I enjoyed the balloon safari immensely, it was very cool to see Scholastica’s response. Even though this bucket-list experience is something she’s sold to hundreds of clients, she had never done one herself. It would have been a fantastic excursion anyway, but seeing her kid-at-Christmas level of enthusiasm was something I’ll never forget.
Even before the term selfie entered popular lexicon, there was no shortage of travelers extending an arm to try and capture an action shot of themselves at a popular destination. These days, Instagram is stocked with myriad well-executed solo shots, and our tour through the game parks of Tanzania offered ample opportunities to bag the coveted Safari Selfie. Take a look.