Re­defin­ing “Sa­fari”

Hayo - - Travel Story - Rob Taylor WORDS BY Ping Zhu IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY

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.

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