During my final hours in the Serengeti, while waiting for a bush plane to fly me from the Grumeti River back to the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, I met an American couple delighted not only because they were on honeymoon but because they’d found an affordable, upscale safari like this one to take them off the beaten path.
“Everyone knows about Kenya already: been there, done that,” said Gary Cornell, 39, a bank manager from Astoria, N.Y.
Tanzania, on the other hand, with a more diverse landscape and less-developed tourism infrastructure than its northern neighbor, “is somewhat more exotic and still has a little mystique,” he said.
Off the beaten bush
Cornell and his wife, Jessica, join a growing fleet of U.S. travelers whose aim isn’t to forego toilets, hot showers, expertly cooked meals and other niceties of travel. Rather, it’s to enjoy those luxuries in the African outback.
It’s also, perhaps equally important, to trade the iconic images of South Africa, Kenya and other well-trodden African destinations for a rawer, more novel experience.
That’s what I had in mind when I started my own Serengeti adventure, seated beside a fellow journalist in a 12-seat turboprop plane humming northwest out of Dar es Salaam.
After passing the tan, mostly snowless crown of Mount Kilimanjaro, we touched down in the regional capital, Arusha, before flying on to Lake Manyara, where Ernest Hemingway hunted in his epic safari 75 years ago.
From there, it was a drive of several hours to a mountainous, jungle-like plateau where we found ourselves deposited at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge.
Perched high above a 100-square-mile, 3 million-year-old crater that is the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera, the lodge is a jewel in Conservation Corporation Africa’s 40-camp, continentwide network.
Zebras graze freely outside the several dozen individual dwellings, whose dried-mud exteriors reflect local Maasai style while the rustic, two-room interiors boast handsome hardwood furniture and a spacious, elegantly tiled shower and bath space.
At the risk of being gored by a buffalo or snagged by a lion, I was forbidden to leave my cabin at night without a robe-wearing, spear-wielding Maasai man escorting me to and from the dining hall.
On the descent into the crater the next morning, our guide, Eric, described the biodiversity of the region.
Ngorongoro is a microcosm of East African wildlife, he told us, and has the densest concentration of big animals (some 30,000) on the continent; hence its other title, “Africa’s Garden of Eden.”
In a single day, we saw beasts ranging from gazelles, impalas, warthogs, cheetahs and hyenas toÂ giraffes, elephants, jackals, baboons, hartebeests, mongooses, lions, hippos and that most illustrious of Serengeti critters, the vervet monkey.
Equally memorable from Ngorongoro was our return along the crater’s rim when we stopped at a Maasai village.
Living in a circle of tiny, spartan mud huts with only enough space inside to sleep and cook, the villagers hawk beaded necklaces and rely on tourist visits for money to buy potable water and other basic goods.
Nonetheless, sustained on a diet of cow’s blood and holding strong to ancient cultural and marital traditions, the Maasai seem to be living much the way they always did.
While I was fascinated with the crater, its animals and its people, still more impressive to me was the campout experience over the next two nights in the Serengeti proper.
Canvassing the Serengeti
Set smack in the middle of Tanzania’s oldest and largest national park, CC Africa’s Serengeti Under Canvas tour provides king-size beds, showers and flush toilets within mosquito- and animal-proof tents, a blend of wild and civilized that brings the raw smells, sounds and light of the savannah right into your bedroom.
The Serengeti, which means “endless plain” in Maasai, became part of German East Africa along with the rest of Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) in the 1880s.
It was site of some of the world’s first preservation policies, and when it fell under British control after World War I, game reserves and wildlife management increased.
However, it took the pioneering work of German zoologist Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael, who flew down in their plane in the 1950s to shoot the Academy Award-winning documentary “Serengeti Shall Not Die,” to instill the region, and its importance as a cradle of biodiversity, in Western imagination.
The dry, forested plain has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1981 and remains most famous for the Great Migration of zebras and wildebeests that cross it by the millions each year, many of them taking a fatal plunge into Kenya’s Mara River along the way.
Serengeti Under Canvas moves seasonally following the migratory route, but at the time I visited, the animals were still far away; so I rode with two guides with encyclopedic knowledge, Johnnie and Willie, to the northern edge of the park.
It took about four hours, bouncing over gravelly roads, before we stopped in the shade of an acacia tree and, with thousands of roaming zebras and wildebeests in sight, unpacked our picnic lunch.
I reflected on the morning’s drive in which we had seen herds of sprinting giraffes, watched a pride of lions gnaw through a fresh-killed topi antelope, observed feasting vultures, nursing elephants and seen a cheetah mother that had just lost her young.
Hoping to spot a leopard
Back at camp, I sipped a gin and tonic while watching the sun set and then tucked into a delicious traditional meal of ugali, a white, polenta-like paste you roll and crush in your palm prior to dipping it in a meat-and-vegetable stew to eat.
Slinking around our tents were the humped, shadowy forms of hyenas. I could hear deep, short bursts from a lion bellowing in the distance.
When I zipped the canvas flap closed, it was as though a more magical sleep of the Serengeti fell over me.
The last leg of the journey took us three hours west driving across scrubby plains into the swampy, more tropical region around the Grumeti River.
Crocodiles and hippos abound there, and as my open-air cabin stood just 20 feet from the riverbank, I heard the blubbery creatures’ grunts and barks and splashes all night long.