I have brought my 10-year-old grandson Sam to Africa to see all the animals he has watched in the zoo, now to see them in their natural home. We are at the bottom of the magical Ngorongoro Crater, a 100-square-mile playground of lions and elephants and zebras and hyenas and more, in the north of Tanzania. Supposedly, I’m going to show him things I’ve seen before, but that he could only imagine.
“Look!” Sam shouts, “A zebra!” “Where?” I ask. This crater is a massive, and most of the time you first see the animals from far, far away before your safari land cruiser is able to move closer. Nearsighted anyway from childhood, I wear glasses to drive, and most recently I’ve been told that I’ve got the beginnings of cataracts, so it takes me awhile to see a street sign at night, let alone a cheetah from half a mile away.
Should I pretend that I see it? Should I ask for the binoculars right off and try to find out whether that black spot over the plain is a bush or a rock or a wildebeest? Speaking of which, we’re lucky enough to be in Tanzania during the Great Migration, when two million wildebeests and other creatures will make their annual run to Kenya’s Maasai mara, so from the little airplane even before we arrive at our lodge run by the South African company &Beyond, Sam is excitedly pointing out scores of the ugly black critters. “Wow, it looks like there are thousands of them down there!” he shouts. To me, they look like pebbles on the grass. I pretend to be excited.
Rallying for Youth
It gets worse. From our safari land cruiser Sam shouts “Snake!” He has seen it well before our highly trained, indigenous, experienced Maasai warrior/driver/guide with a great eye, has seen it, and he applauds Sam, congratulating the youngster on spotting the Black Mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in all of Africa. T.W., our guide, would have seen the venomous reptile eventually and kept us away from it, but all I caught was a peek at the bush where it slithered to hide.
Not only does Sam see the giraffe well before I see the tree where he is, but Sam notes that “look what he’s eating: a leaf.” Leaf, shmeaf, I just want to see the giraffe, please. Another Sam observation: “Giraffes’ faces look like camels’ faces.” When he watches a lion devouring a freshly killed wildebeest, Sam noted that “it makes me think of chicken wings.”
When our guide on the Serengeti points out the stunning shaggy, rare, black and white Colobus monkey high up in the tree where the elusive creature lives and hides, Sam sees it immediately and admires it. “See his fluffy long tail?” asks T.W. I see the tree. Later I will Google the Colobus to see what all the fuss is about, thank you very much.
When we first drove down into the crater, Sam’s plan was to keep a life list of all the animals he saw. After Number 19, the Thomson gazelle, he gave up and realized the number would be huge. What he loved was that these were all animals he had seen on the television nature shows, and now he was really in the midst of the real thing. Swiveling his head, he exclaims “This is too much to look at!” When he spies a baby warthog, we all agree they are so ugly they’re cute, and Sam adds, “I would pick up one of those if the mother wasn’t around.” When we find that our next camp overlooks a river where hippopotamus spend their time, and Sam comments that their grunts sound like his Dad, I wonder aloud if the hippos are swimming. “No,” Sam answers, “They’re wallowing. That’s a scientific word, ‘wallow.’”
When we come upon a cheetah and her three cubs, Sam says “I think this may be the most cheetahs I’ll ever see in my life.” Certainly in the wild, yes.
The &Beyond Safari Camp
At Klein’s Camp, another &Beyond property located in the Tanzania Serengeti, the Maasai staff shows Sam how to rub two sticks together to make fire (it really works), how to throw a spear, and how to aim a knife at a target. He watches intently as Maasai children his own age sing and dance for the camp guests. After observing predator and prey in the bush, he fights his own battle with a tse-tse fly, pounding the insect into his seat on the land cruiser, enjoying his role as predator finally, as he shouts “Die!”
He spots a leopard tortoise on the road (which I thought was a rock) and picks it up and cradles it in his lap; this is, after all, a youngster who kept a black widow spider in a jar in his room until she had so many babies he couldn’t handle them all. This is a kid who got a set of mail order live frogs for his birthday. It was all he wanted. And I got what I wanted: to see Africa through a 10-year-old’s clear wide eyes.
Julie Hatfield is a retired staff writer for the Boston Globe, an examiner for Examiner.com and contributes to many newspapers and magazines. She is also a recent NATJA winner and you can connect with her on Twitter @julieleaveshome