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To some, the success of a game-viewing safari is measured by whether the safari-goers spotted all of the “Big Nine”: the lion, the leopard, the cheetah, the cape buffalo, the elephant, the black rhinoceros, the hippo, the zebra and the giraffe.  As we made our way to the Ngorongoro Crater we had managed only six, lacking the cheetah, the black rhino and the leopard.  If we were to achieve this feat, we would have only our days in the crater and the Serengeti to do so.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the most spectacular part of an area referred to as the “Crater Highlands,” which consists of a series of volcanic mountains and collapsed volcanoes, or calderas.  The crater itself is a massive expanse of land that, at roughly fifteen miles wide, is one of the largest calderas in the world.  It is an incredible sight; its steep walls create incredible blue-green vistas at every turn.  The crater is also known for its massive collection of animals, with lions, cape buffaloes, wildebeest, zebras, elephants, and many, many other species roaming freely within its walls. 
On our first morning in the crater, we all met at 6:30 am (yes, Shanna included) to get to the park before the masses had started their trek in the same direction.  We were immediately greeted by the first of four separate spottings of lions, each providing its own spectacular opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their own environment.  Our first viewing included two lionesses with six young cubs in tow taking full direction from their mothers.  We then followed one of the lionesses as she began a hunt.  We watched the zebras and wildebeests nearby snap to full alert when they sensed her presence.  At one point, the lioness passed literally within a foot of our car, causing Derek to retreat with his camera from the window to the safety of the interior of the car (once again caught in stunning fashion on video by Shanna).  While the viewing was awesome, we still had yet to see the remaining three members of the “Big Nine.”

As we continued our quest, we spotted two black rhinoceroses and a baby rhino in the distance, several hundred yards from our location, followed soon thereafter by a sighting of a cheetah, also in the distance.  The next day, as we were making our way around the crater, we spotted another large male rhinoceros and noticed it moving toward the Lerai Forest, the place where most of the roughly 24 rhinos in the park call home.  We positioned our car between the rhino and the forest and waited as the black beast made its way toward us.  After stopping to determine his path, he passed between two vehicles and within 15 yards of our car.  What a truly magnificent creature–one that seems more prehistoric in its stature than most.  With just the Serengeti left to visit on our safari, we had only the leopard left on our Big Nine list.

The Serengeti National Park, an immense space of over 9,173 square kilometers, is best known as the location for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebras from their “winter home” in the southern portion of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to their northern digs in the Masai Mara (a large reserve park just over the border in Kenya).  While the migration typically takes place in late May and June, the dry season came early this year and we missed seeing it, which led to a fairly disappointing first day in the Serengeti. 
One would think that, after 12 days spent wandering from park to park, seeing God only knows how many animals of every type and taking literally thousands of pictures, we would be completely burnt out and ready for a new location, away from the dust, the heat and the land rover.  You would be entirely correct.  Nonetheless, as we sat around the campfire on our final evening in the bush, a most unlikely plan was hatched for our final day of viewing, especially for those who know just how much Shanna enjoys her sleep: a pre-dawn trek into the Serengeti in search of the leopard, the only remaining of the “Big Nine” that had, as of yet, escaped our now keenly trained eyes for animal viewing. 
It was clear that each of us, especially those of us with the competitive juices of lawyers, wanted to achieve this seldomly met goal.  As it turned out, we were rewarded in spades with what was a perfect morning of game viewing–one where we would spot eight of the “Big Nine,” lacking only a further sighting of the black rhino, which doesn’t even inhabit the Serengeti.  Shortly after leaving the bush camp, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise in the Serengeti.  We then spotted two jackals in the midst of a fight.  Soon after Mindy snapped a requested picture of the battling pair, we all spotted a cat leaping from the shelter of taller grass, roughly 100 yards to our rear.  With lightning quickness, the cat–which our guide confirmed in excited tones to be a leopard–rushed from the field on our left to the field on our right.  We had seen all of the Big Nine, along with many, many others.

While seeing animals is fantastic, it can, at times, take on the quality of an exquisite art museum after having been to several exquisite art museums, where each painting of the Madonna appears like the last. With that said, however, you always seem to find some nuance in the animal viewing, much like each such painting has its own personal inspiration.  In fact, we as a group and individually had several such instances along the way and came to expect – well – the unexpected.
When we reached Arusha National Park after a long day a travel, the unexpected greeted us in the form of a gaggle of giraffes, two of whom were fighting for domination.  We would spend the next two nights at the Hatari Lodge, which was built by Harvey Kruger, who starred in the John Wayne safari “classic,” Hatari.  This was quite a change from the bush camp, with nine spacious bungalows, decorated in African art deco, each with its own fireplace.
Arusha Park is also known as “Giraffic Park” due to its large numbers of giraffe, which we saw in close proximity during a four-hour hike on nearby Mt. Meru.  In order to take this hike, we had to employ an armed ranger to protect us in case we were threatened by any of the wild animals in the park.  We were never aware of any danger as we walked among a family of giraffes, with their graceful strides and gentle faces, or as we hiked through a field with cape buffalo on one side and warthogs (which made Derek crave baby back ribs—they apparently taste like suckling pig) on the other.

We soon learned that taking such breaks from the “personal massager,” our guide’s nickname for the Land Cruiser (I would suggest personal “hell” might be more accurate), was important.  We would, over the course of our safari, spend many an afternoon simply enjoying each other’s company instead of game viewing.  With that said, during the next several days we had numerous instances of “unexpected” sightings of game that would reinvigorate us all from the monotony that game viewing can at times become.

Monkey Mayhem   – Each evening at sunset dozens of vervet monkeys would emerge from their jungle homes to create what can best be described as “monkey mayhem” by climbing on top of  (and, if given the chance, inside and around) the nine bungalows at the Hatari Lodge.
Born Free – Just as we thought another day would pass without spotting a big cat, we made our way through Tarangire National Park and noticed several vehicles, full of tourists with cameras and binoculars aplenty, parked alongside a dry river bed.  We stopped and pulled out our binoculars.  In the bushes across from us we saw a young lion eating a recent kill (a cape buffalo).  As we scanned the area, we saw several lionesses lying in the dry river bed, then four young cubs playing in the grass close by.  Then the papa lion, with his flowing mane, stood up from where he had been lying hidden in the tall grass and sauntered towards the lionesses.  We had stumbled upon a pride of lions!  We stayed there for an hour watching the cubs play with each other and then take a short break to run to mama and nurse as she lay stretched out in the grass.  We saw the older lions take turns feeding on the kill, while the papa lion kept close watch over his family.  Our guide, Lesika, told us it was rare to run across such a large pride (we counted about 12), feasting together on a recent kill.
Monkey Mayhem Part Two – Now feeling as though one of our viewing missions was complete, we headed back to our lodge in the middle of the park.  Before we made it there, though, we ran across a large clan of baboons, well over a hundred in number, crossing the road immediately in front of our vehicle and engaging in all sorts of curious acts, some that would make you blush.
Charged By An Elephant – The next morning we began our journey to the Ngorongoro Crater.  The trip began in spectacular fashion when we stopped to view an elephant family with two young elephants and apparently got a bit closer to the babies than the mother desired.  She (all 8000 pounds of her) charged our car in spectacular fashion (all caught on video by Shanna).
The Pink Flamingos of Lake Manyara – We spent a few hours seeking out animals in the area around Lake Manyara.  The highlight of our time there was the chance to see the lake covered with what could easily have been fifty thousand pink flamingos.

We quickly learned while on safari to expect the unexpected and to savor the unique sightings that each day inevitably held.

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After nine months of tracking Derek and Shanna’s journey on this blog, we were thrilled to finally join them in Tanzania.  Mindy planned the itinerary, all Derek and Shanna had to do was meet us in Arusha, near Kilimanjaro, with very little prior knowledge about what the next eighteen days would hold.
Tanzania, unlike other parts of Africa, including neighboring Kenya and Rwanda, has for the last twenty years been free of religious and ethnic conflicts.  While the economic culture has been one of rampant poverty, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic exists here as it does in other parts of Africa, the people have found a way to find happiness in a society dominated by a culture accustomed to living off the land, and where a person’s net worth is often measured by the size of the herd he owns or the land he cultivates.
Tanzania has also reaped the rewards associated with a vibrant tourism industry that takes advantage of its numerous and diverse regions, from the valley between Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru, to the plains of the Serengeti, and its roughly 430 species and subspecies.  The ability to view these animals in their native habitats in the numerous parks, game reserves and conservation areas was why Mindy and I chose Tanzania to meet Derek and Shanna, and where we rekindled our friendships and where we began our search for “The Big Nine” – elephant, leopard, lion, black rhino, cape buffalo, giraffe, zebra, cheetah and hippo.
Our safari began at Hemingway’s Bush Camp in the Olmalog Game Reserve in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in the area where Ernest Hemingway hunted and from where he wrote “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”  Our guide for the duration of our safari was Lesika, and our mode of transportation a Land Cruiser, with which we would all develop a love/hate relationship, as it would provide us access to incredible game viewing and picture-taking opportunities, as well as carry us for hours across unpaved roads bouncing us around uneven terrain and kicking up enough dust to create a visible film on our bodies.
The advantage to being on the game reserve, as we would later discover, is the ability to go “off -roading” in search of wild animals in the arid land.  We were free to wander about as we wished, being guided only by our desire to get the next best shot (cameras only, however).  We were also able to get amazingly close to all the elephants and zebras wandering only yards from our vehicle.  It turns out that elephants have a tremendous sense of smell and hearing, but terrible eyesight, and so as long as we stayed downwind from them we could get close enough to almost touch them.  We were also able to trek into Kenya for a bit, and at one point embraced each other with one foot in Kenya, and one in Tanzania.  At night we returned to our tents for bucket showers with water heated over an open fire, and a delicious meal served by a campfire.  Our entertainment was provided by the Masai tribe we had visited; clothed in their pastoral bright red garments, they danced, jumped and chanted by the firelight.

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