Trip to East Africa was a dream come true

Posted on 30 May 2012

Special to Bainbridge Living

“Jambo!” That is Kiswahili for “Greetings!”

It was always a lifelong dream of mine to visit East Africa and see the animals that our teachers showed us in the geography photos — elephants, giraffes, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, and especially the cheetah! I always wondered if they were real. My dream recently came true and it was a life-altering experience. Tanzania, officially the United Republic of Tanzania, is a country in East Africa bordered by Kenya and Uganda to the north, and its eastern border lies on the Indian Ocean.

The Country: Tanzania captures the very essence of the African continent, and distills it into one country, an African Eden of natural riches and cultural wealth. The country has inspired Hemingway and Livingstone, given the word “safari” to the global travel vocabulary and provided documentaries and Hollywood with their perfect vision of an unexplored continent.

Tanzania can truly claim to be the home of “safari,” since the word is Kiswahili for “journey.” And there’s no better place to enjoy the enriching wildlife experience than Tanzania. The wildlife viewing experiences are widely regarded as the best in Africa. It’s the place to see seemingly endless herds of wildebeest and zebras trekking across the plains on their annual migration, followed by the predators: lion, cheetah and hyena.

Tanzania also lays claim to the title, “The Cradle of Mankind,” as the remains of one of the earliest humans were discovered near Olduvai Gorge. We were able to see Ngorongoro Crater, the largest caldera in the world, teeming with wildlife, along with the majestic, snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa.

The People: The African people of Tanzania represent about 120 tribal groups. The Maasai group was the group we were in contact with, even visiting a Maasai village and school. Our photographic safari tour guide was the chief of 300,000 Maasai people. His mother died in childbirth at the age of 13, and he was adopted by Presbyterian missionaries who were living in his village.

He had the opportunity to be educated in grades 6-12 in London, and then completed his undergrad and graduate studies at a London university. His area of specialty was the study of the lives of elephants.

The Serengeti: One of our trip highlights was the Serengeti and our hot-air balloon ride over it. The Serengeti is easily Tanzania’s most famous national park, and it’s also the largest, at 14,763 square kilometers of protected area that borders Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Park. Its far-reaching plains of endless grass, and the sheer magnitude and scale of life that the plains support is staggering.

Large prides of lions laze easily in the long grasses, plentiful families of elephants feed on acacia bark and trump to each other across the plains, and giraffes, gazelles, monkeys, eland, and the whole range of African wildlife is in awe-inspiring numbers.

The annual wildebeest migration through the Serengeti and the Masai Mara attract visitors from around the world, who flock to the open plains to witness the largest mass movement of land mammals on the planet. More than a million animals make the seasonal journey to fresh pasture to the north, then the south, after the biannual rains. The sound of their thundering hooves, raising massive clouds of thick red dust, has become one of the legends of the Serengeti plains.

The Ngorongoro Crater: Another highlight of our trip was a visit to the Ngorongoro Crater, which is often called “Africa’s Eden” and the “Eighth Natural Wonder of the World.” Within the crater rim, large herds of zebra and wildebeest graze nearby, while sleeping lions laze in the sun. At dawn, the endangered black rhino returns to the thick cover of the crater forests after grazing on dew-laden grass in the morning mist. Just outside the crater’s ridge, tall Maasai herd their cattle and goats over green pastures through the highland slopes, living alongside the wildlife as they have for centuries.

The Olduvai Gorge: Ngorongoro Conservation Area includes its famous crater, Olduvai Gorge, and huge expanses of highland plains, scrub bush, and forests that cover approximately 8,300 square kilometers. A protected area, only indigenous tribes such as the Masaai are allowed to live within its borders. Of course, the crater itself, actually a type of collapsed volcano called a caldera, is the main attraction.

Accommodation is located on its ridges, and after a beautiful descent down the crater rim, passing lush rain forest and thick vegetation, the flora opens to grassy plains throughout the crater floor. The game viewing is truly incredible, and the topography and views of the surrounding Crater Highlands out of this world.

This truly-magical place is home to Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakeys discovered the hominoid remains of a 1.8-million-year-old skeleton of Australopithecus boisei, one of the distinct links of the human evolutionary chain. In a small canyon just north of the crater, the Leakeys and their team of international archaeologists unearthed the ruins of at least three distinct hominoid species, and also came upon a complete series of hominoid footprints estimated to be more than 3.7 million years old. Evacuated fossils show that the area is one of the oldest sites of hominoid habitation in the world.

What did I learn from my trip? I’ve been reminded once again of the ubiquity of poverty on this planet, that our “normal” lives in the United States are anything but normal for the vast majority of the earth’s population. I’m reminded of a need to look outside of our own back yard to our brothers and sisters across the globe, not just to help them overcome some of their impediments to existence, but also to learn from them and their culture about our shared human experience.

We can learn so much from these people. I’m reminded of the power of the human spirit to overcome amazing obstacles, yet am also made keenly aware that the spirit has limitations. I’m reminded that water, food, family, and shelter are too scarce for too many of the world’s people.

And most of all, as a teacher, I’m reminded of the power that education gives to help people lift themselves out of poverty and oppression.

Bettye Fox is a retired teacher from Bainbridge College.

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