Dar es Salaam - A lone Cape buffalo was crossing the arid, scooped-out plain at the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater when the lions seized upon it.
Two were approaching from one side, three from another. Behind the buffalo was a pool of water. Surrounded, it retreated a few steps and lowered its horns.
The stand-off was slow, silent, mesmerising. The lions began their attack, launching themselves one at a time onto the back of the buffalo. Each time the buffalo reared, throwing the big cats off one after another. Several yards away, a pack of hyenas lay in wait.
My 12-year-old daughter put down her binoculars. She didn't want to see the buffalo die.
But it lived to see another day. After nearly half an hour, the lions stood down, and their would-be prey high-tailed it back to its herd.
The lions started to play in the long grass.
Our guide, Isack Msuya, shrugged. The lions weren't hungry enough today, he told us. You never know what you're going to see on safari.
Our seven-day safari in Tanzania was the most time I had spent on the road in a single week - often, more than eight hours a day on the East African country's notoriously rough roads. It was sometimes incredibly dusty, but there also were times when there was little to see. And occasionally, we were hounded by tsetse flies. For the vast majority of the time, though, it was amazing. We never lost that kid-in-a-candy-store feeling.
It went beyond just seeing the animals of legend - although see them we did: zebras; wildebeests; elephants; giraffes; lions; baboons; gazelles; cheetahs; leopards; hyenas; monkeys; buffaloes; crocodiles.
The most awe-inspiring part was the firsthand, extended window on how they behave and interact in their own environment. Creatures we had seen as exotic zoo specimens became three-dimensional, alternately playful, watchful, raucous, social and placid. In many ways, they were as complicated and fascinating as humans can be.
We saw a herd of elephants team up to help a slippery baby climb up a river bank and had an up-close view of how giraffes eat in the wild, navigating the toothpick thorns of the acacia tree with their long, dark tongues.
There were young male impalas out to impress the ladies, gracefully sparring and locking horns; hippos congregated by the dozens in pools, resting on one another and spewing water from their enormous jaws; two fuzzy cheetah cubs curled up with their mother. More than once, we were close enough to touch herds of zebras as they brushed by our truck.
The circle of life was evident everywhere. We saw the lifeless body of a gazelle lodged high in the fork of a tree and a quick silhouette of the leopard that had stored it there for a future meal.
We saw - and heard - a hyena gnawing on the bones of a wildebeest with vultures biding their time, circling in the pale sky. We saw an engorged python digesting a mother porcupine, quills and all, with her babies looking on.
We heard zebras bark; hyenas howl; owls hoot; songbirds sing; and lions roar.
We saw the iridescent birds of Tanzania, including the aptly named superb swallows, lilac-breasted rollers and orange-bellied parrots, alighting in glossy rainbows. We even witnessed an ostrich's mating dance. (It was very bit as ungainly as you might expect, unless you're an ostrich, of course; in that case, it seemed to be very enticing.)
The landscape and the people who lived within it were an essential part of the experience. Tarangire National Park is thick with baobabs, the ancient, iconic African trees with their massive trunks and root-like branches.
There was the chilly-but-lush mist forest circling the rim of Ngorongoro, the endless parched plains the Serengeti is named for, and the African sunsets that seemed to last for hours melting down the horizon.
The Masai, who live in the areas surrounding the national parks, were striking wrapped in bright plaid cloths, herding cattle. We twice saw Masai boys in the white face paint, feathered headdress and black clothes traditional for circumcision ceremonies, held shortly after male children reach puberty.
We had truly ventured into another world.
An African safari was not what we expected to be doing this summer.
But last fall when my husband and 14-year-old daughter were invited to be part of a service trip to Rwanda, we starting exploring the possibility of building onto their trip a safari for our family of four.
When I talked to friends who had gone on safari, I heard two things: It was life-changing. And it was the most money they had ever spent on vacation.
Sticker shock is common, agreed Jay Hanson, senior safari consultant for Africa Travel Resource. The London-based company books safaris across the continent for about 3 500 people annually. Prices range from $2 000 (about R28 000) per person up to $50 000.
“A safari can be one of the most expensive things people ever buy after a house and a car,” he said. “A top-end safari costs tens of thousands of dollars. People's expectations can be out of line at the outset. They might say they want a luxury safari, but when they see the prices of the camps, they're like, 'Wow, that's $4 000 a night.' “
Deciding where in Africa you want to go is the first step, Hanson said. If you have your pick of places, he adds, it's hard to beat Tanzania.
“Tanzania is an incredible safari destination,” Hanson said. “It offers such a diversity and abundance of wildlife. You have elephants, giraffes, lions, zebras, cheetahs, chimpanzees; you have rain forest, mountains, the Masai, the islands. It has everything you could possibly want in an authentic safari.”
The length of a safari and how far to plan in advance depends on your destination and how much you have your heart set on specific experiences and accommodations. For example, Hanson recommends six nights for Tanzania, where parks are diverse and far apart; but in South Africa's Kruger National Park three or four nights can be sufficient to see what the park has to offer.
Africa Travel Resource books trips from a week to two years in advance. Hanson suggested that if you want your safari to be exactly how you want it to be in peak season, you should start planning it at least 12 months ahead. And you're probably going to need help. At first, agents can help you map out a trip, given your interests, budget and time. When you've narrowed it down to a certain place, you'll still need advice.
“It's very difficult to plan a safari yourself,” Hanson said. “Getting from lodge to lodge is challenging, and many don't even rent to individuals.” In Tanzania, the roads are not only in poor condition, they are also unmarked within the parks, making it nearly impossible to get around without an experienced driver.
We opted for a safari with Duma Explorer, based on its reviews and ability to fit our budget of $2 000 per person. Started and co-owned by American Stacy Readal and her Tanzanian husband, Hezron Mbise, Duma Explorer focuses on Tanzania and runs about 200 safaris per year. Like many safari operators, it offers itineraries at the luxury, standard and budget level.
Our safari included two days in Tarangire National Park, three days in Serengeti National Park and two days in the Ngorongoro Crater area. Except for one night in Ngorongoro, we stayed in permanently tented camps - something Readal highly recommends.
“I always tell people to stay in tented camps as opposed to lodges,” she said. “They allow you to hear the sounds of nature from your room, and the camps are usually much smaller, allowing for a more intimate experience.”
A surprise was how comfortable, even luxurious, the tented camps are. I've been camping before, and camping has never looked so good.
Kiota Camp, ours in the Serengeti, was a particular standout. Our “tent” may have had a roof and walls of canvas, but it also had full-size beds, indoor plumbing and electricity. The camp also provided excellent, fresh food (impressively made in a cooking tent often under threat from hyenas) and a roaring campfire every night under the star-jammed African sky.
Perhaps the most important element of our safari experience was Msuya, our incredible guide. Much of the wildlife we saw - and our understanding of what we were seeing - have to be credited to his uncanny ability to spot animals from seemingly miles away and his encyclopedic knowledge of habitats, honed over two decades of leading safaris. You spend a lot of time with your guide; Msuya's expertise, patience and kindness made him an excellent safari companion.
I asked Readal and Hanson for recommendations for potential safari-goers with limited funds. Readal recommended a budget camping safari, which comes with a cook and driver-guide who put up tents that include mattresses. These are usually set up at camps that have bathrooms and showers.
Both Hanson and Readal advised considering a safari in the spring, which is considered the low - or shoulder - season. Camps and lodges go for half, if not less, of their summer rates. It's greener and far less crowded in the spring - and there are lots of baby animals to see.
Despite what can be a hefty price tag, Hanson said, many of his clients are repeat customers, for a common reason: “It's easy to fall in love with Africa.”
* Muir is an Arlington, Virginia-based writer and editor.
If you go...
Where to stay
Tarangire Simba Lodge
A relatively new eco-friendly camp right outside of Tarangire Park on Lake Burunge. The camp has large tented rooms with indoor plumbing, a pool and a lovely viewing platform wrapped around a baobab tree to watch wildlife and the spectacular sunset.
Owned by Duma Explorer, this camp in the central Serengeti was our favourite. The tented rooms are spacious with hot showers on demand, good food and excellent customer service. We enjoyed catching up with fellow safari-goers at the nightly campfire and dining under the stars.
Kwa Pole Rd., Nguruma Village, Arusha, Tanzania
Vijiji Center has 12 guest rooms in six traditional African guesthouses on two acres, with a swimming pool and restaurant. We found it to be a pretty refuge away from bustling Arusha. The owners also offer a variety of excursions and safaris and specialise in cultural tourism. Rooms average $75 per night, with breakfast included.
Safari planners and What to do
Africa Travel Resource
Based in London, Africa Travel Resource is an independent company that specialises in creating custom-tailored safaris in multiple countries across Africa. Prices range from about $2,000 to $50,000 per person.
Duma Explorer, headquartered in Arusha, offers safaris, hikes and mountain treks, including up Mount Kilimanjaro, in national parks throughout Tanzania. Prices range from around $1 100 per person for a five-day budget safari up to as much as $20,000 per person for a luxury safari with multiple destinations and flights.