As is the case with any important journey, the first step is getting there. We crossed half the planet by air, landing at an airport near Mount Kilimanjaro, then took some time to rest outside the village of Arusha. Later, we were taken to a van that would, unbeknownst to us, become our home away from home for five days.
I say “we” because I took my family with me on safari in Africa over the holidays. But disabuse yourself of the romantic notion of explorers dressed in boots and khakis, leisurely taking in the wildlife; today’s safaris consist of long hours spent inside a van enduring tortuous, dusty, rocky roads. You never leave the van, unless you want to risk becoming dinner for some wild cat. Going on safari today means seeing the world’s most amazing wild animals from a car seat. But it’s truly worth it.
Our first stop was Tanzania’s Ngorongoro crater. A volcanic eruption 2 million years ago carved out this beautiful valley where today elephants, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes and hippos roam free. The place reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park where everyone sees dinosaurs for the first time. That’s the kind of amazement felt at Ngorongoro.
But there is nothing like the Serengeti. It’s as wide as Northern Ireland, and millions of animals migrate back and forth across it between Kenya and Tanzania. For us urban animals, the endless flatlands are a mystery. All you can see are hills followed by seemingly endless plains, until you feel drunk with all the space.
Hot air balloon rides are popular here among adventure-seeking tourists. So I handed over my credit card in exchange for the uncertain pleasure of climbing into a wooden basket attached by thin ropes to a balloon steered by a gas flame and floating more than 900 feet in the sky. But whether you’re in the air or on the ground, the animals are the reward.