My ears perk up, and my eyes open. It’s 3:00 am in the middle of the Tanzanian bush. Was that a lion roaring outside of our tent? As Steve and I lie sleeping in our cozy bed, the only thing separating us from the wildlife is a layer of canvas fabric. And yet, this may be the most peaceful sleep I’ve ever experienced.
A symphony of bird songs alerts us that dawn is near. As anyone that knows me can attest, morning is not my time to shine. But I’ve ignored my internal clock, hard-wired as it may be, to greet the day before sunrise. Why? Because I am in equatorial Africa, and this may be the most spectacular sunrise I ever see.
The aroma of freshly brewed Tanzanian coffee wafts through the tent. The air is brisk and cool, despite the fact that we are three degrees south of the equator. We will soon meet David, our safari guide, for a sunrise game drive. We plan to take full advantage of the golden-hour light that makes photographers swoon.
We gather our packs and pile into the Land Cruiser. It’s early, and we are still swaddled in layers of fleece and cool-weather gear. The sun peeks over the horizon as we head towards the river in search of wildlife. As we leave the dirt road leading to our lodge, our guide spots a solitary male lion lying in the grass. We pause for a moment to admire his grandeur. Game on.
I’ve never been one who enjoys road trips. I am content to get from point A to point B as quickly and easily as possible. But I was beginning to sense another major change in myself, here in the midst of these vast amber plains. I’d completely lost my focus on “ the destination”, and I was simply enjoying the journey.
Today we are in the northern Serengeti during a natural phenomenon known as The Great Migration of Wildebeest. During The Great Migration, over 1.5 million Wildebeest traverse Tanzania and Kenya, in herds both unbelievably vast and dense. We hope to witness and photograph the holy grail of wildebeest Migration activities – a river crossing.
We drive down the road, eyes peeled for animal activity. Wildlife spotting has become our sport of choice, and this is The World Cup. To the right, I spot a giant marabou stork – a massive bird 5 feet (150 cm) in stature. Just ahead a herd of gazelles graze in the grass. On our left side, I spy a cape buffalo. So much beauty surrounds me that I don’t know where to look.
Thirty bumpy minutes later we near the river. Wildebeest and zebra surround its banks, contemplating their upcoming journey across it. I think I can see the anxiety on their faces and in their body movements. They are afraid – afraid of the unknown, afraid of the water, afraid of the crocodiles that lurk in the shadows. I watch as a lone wildebeest dips its foot in the water, and then quickly pulls it out. It only takes one brave wildebeest for a crossing to commence. Once one takes the plunge, they all march forward.
Our radio crackles, a quick conversation in Swahili ensues, and we speed down the rutted road leaving a virtual dust storm in our wake. We pull up to the river to see thousands of wildebeest leaping in. It’s happening! They swim, single file, hoping to reach the safety of the other side. Some struggle, slip on rocks and lose their footing. It brings tears to my eyes thinking that they may not make it. But I continue snapping away, hoping that I can convey the reality of this unreal scene through my Canon lens.
A half an hour later I exhale and put down my camera. This crossing is over, and every single wildebeest made it safely across. I know that this is a fluke of nature, but I am relieved that I didn’t have to witness a crocodile feast. Dripping wet and exhausted, wildebeest lie all around taking a hard-earned rest.
We go on to witness two more river crossings before noon- each one more exciting than the next. Even our seasoned guide, who has become family after ten days together, is surprised by our good fortune.
Satisfied by what we had seen thus far, we decided to head back to our lodge for lunch. But Mother Nature must have decided that the show wasn’t over. A leopard was waking from its nap just above us in the trees.