Our 4x4 idled in the 6 a.m. darkness as our guide paid our entry fee inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area’s welcome center. The money—our money—was many times more than any expense my wife and I had paid during the ten months we’d spent volunteering and traveling in Africa. I rubbed my eyes. My wife double-checked our camera battery. Our first safari was only an entry gate away.
The night before, as we “camped” in a glorified backyard alongside dozens of other safari-goers, I’d tried to muster up enthusiasm for the safari. I was excited, of course, in that “you really should be excited about this” kind of way. In that “you’re spending a lot of money on this, so...” kind of way. But I couldn’t shake the sense that game parks were just zoos without bars.
Morning fog blanketed the ridge as we climbed the outer rim of Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest unflooded caldera, its floor accessible—via muddy switchbacks—to only the heartiest of 4x4s. Our first sighting was a Cape Buffalo cresting a ridge. A monochrome, black on grey. The word came to me again: safari. For the first time it contained a pulse of significance.
Safari means “journey” in Swahili. In cynic’s English it means being driven about in a 4x4 looking for (and at) animals. There’s a checklist of must-photograph animals, and at the top of it a “big five”: rhino, elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo. It’s like bingo. It’s also the closest a tourist can get to “the thrill of the hunt” without being online-shamed into oblivion. In Ngorongoro Crater, which teems with over 25,000 large animals (and nearly as many Land Cruisers), a safari feels less like a hunt and more like an overcrowded all-you-can-eat buffet.
Moments after we arrived on the crater floor, our guide spotted a queue of about a dozen 4x4s and knew instantly that the lions were mating.We sped over and joined them. After a few minutes, the male lion hauled the female up by her tail and went to work.We watched the routine a few times, repeated at 15-minute intervals. In between rounds the lions rested, both exhausted (the female especially). A tour group a few cars down belted out a rousing version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” I checked my watch: 8 a.m. It was going to be a long day. Soon enough the lions slouched away and we, along with the rest of the crowd, dispersed.We quickly had our fill of zebra and gazelle, but we steadily became hooked on chasing more clandestine species: the leopard and cheetah, wild dog and rhinoceros.We swiveled binoculars and zoom lenses, picking out a fleeting speck here or there. We convinced one another that, “Yes, yes, that’s a rhino, not a rock.”
By the end of the day I decided that the word safari should have an additional meaning, one that could operate outside the confines of East African game parks. It would refer to a form of attention: hungry, hopeful, determined to tease out the hidden. To be “on safari,” then, would mean to happily have strained eyes and a tired mind. It would celebrate an exhaustion not caused by over-saturation, but by the thrill of seeking out something elusive in a world that obsessively attempts to make everything close at hand.
This thrill is not the moment-by-moment reality of a safari, but the omnipresent dream—a dream that blipped into being when the buffalo crested the hill, when a rock raised its horn and shook off its needling birds. A dream that stirred as I stared out over expanse after expanse, imagining the wild possibilities that might open up to me if I only looked closely enough. It was maddening and lovely. And at the end of that long day, it felt like an awakening.
Our guide geared down our 4x4 for the climb up the crater rim, racing to beat the park’s 6 p.m. closing time. I sat in the passenger’s seat trying to figure out what had sloughed off my cynicism and replaced it with full-bodied satisfaction. At first I told myself it was the animals—it was what I saw. But then I realized it was that I looked. All day. At first to consume, to frame photos. But then, slowly, to process as well. To question and wonder. To enjoy.
We passed one more lion on the way to the gate. A young male, our guide explained, most likely chased off from his pride, hiding on the edge of the action. We only had time to stop for one picture.The lion looked over at us. And then we were gone.