I am writing to share with you my experience on one of the most amazing trips I have ever been on in my life – and I have been fortunate to visit over 45 countries during my career.
My wife, Gail, and I joined 26 other alumni and friends for a Tanzania Safari with the Hope College Alumni Association’s Global Travel Program. Going on safari has always been high on my “bucket list” and the idea of going with an award-winning wildlife photojournalist and other Hope alumni and friends was too good to miss. On all scores, the trip exceeded my lofty expectations – from wildlife viewing to cultural excursions to getting re-acquainted with a number of former classmates and fraternity brothers to meeting and making many new friends who share a common love for Hope College.
The trip was well organized by Pat Van Wylen, who did a fabulous job with logistics before and during our excursion. She was ably joined by ornithologist, professor emeritus, and founder of Birder’s World Magazine, Eldon Greij, as well as distinguished alumnus, Tim Laman ’83. I cannot hope to compare to the quality of Tim’s work. You can see for yourself on Instagram, where he now has over one million followers! Eldon and Tim were so gracious in imparting their vast knowledge and experience that it made the trip a phenomenal learning opportunity.
Tanzania is ranked as one of the best African countries for safaris. It is not hard to see why. With almost a third of Tanzania protected for wildlife, viewing opportunities were endless. We followed what is called the northern safari circuit, where we witnessed an amazing array of wildlife and enchanting landscapes. This program was designed to maximize animal viewing and it more than accomplished that goal from dawn to dusk each day. The trip also included a number of cultural experiences designed to provide insights into the history, people and culture of Tanzania.
We experienced a wide variety of ecosystems with unique habitats. We traveled from forest and woodlands with scattered lakes, ponds and wetlands, to wooded savannah where trees and grasslands are interspersed, and finally, to grasslands — both short and tall — culminating in the Serengeti. What an amazing place! But I am getting ahead of myself. One of the points that Eldon and Tim kept emphasizing was to stay in the present moment. Don’t anticipate what is to come next – you never know what is just around the bend of the road.
After flying into Schiphol airport in the Netherlands (how appropriate) from various parts of the US, we flew as a group into Kilimanjaro Airport near Arusha, Tanzania where we stayed at the African Tulip, a luxury boutique hotel.
Our first full day in Africa was spent at Arusha National Park with habitats varying from wetlands to ponds and forests. Eldon was in his happy place because we saw so many different varieties of birds, including flamingos, herons, stilts and plovers. We also saw baboons – including a rare albino – along with zebras, giraffes, buffalo and monkeys. The highlight was watching the huge black and white Colobus monkeys that are unique to this particular area.
The next day began at the Tengeru Cultural Tourism Center where we learned about the Meru people and examined coffee and banana cultivation within a facility that captures, recycles and produces its own biogas. Not only did we get to share a meal, but we followed the coffee harvesting, roasting and grinding process all the way through to enjoying a fresh cup with Mama Gladness and our new friends.
We then moved onto Tarangire National Park. Tarangire has biodiversity not found elsewhere in the northern circuit. We spent two days where the Baobab trees dotted the landscape and there was an abundance of excellent wildlife viewing. The waterbuck, impala and gazelle became commonplace along with large elephant groups. We spotted lions, watched a leopard stalking a warthog and a Goliath heron perched on a rock in the river.
We next moved on to spend two days exploring the enchanting Lake Manyara National Park. Ernest Hemingway once called this area the “loveliest place in Africa.” The park, with its phenomenal assortment of wildlife, is set up against the imposing huge western wall of the Great Rift Valley. The forest, lake and wetlands are home to a diversity of bird species so vast that it was hard to keep up on the ornithology lessons from Eldon. We spent our nights at The Retreat at Ngorongoro, a gorgeous new lodge at the top of the western wall. While there we visited the Iraqw to learn about their culture and history and to tour a nearby hill-side home. We witnessed a traditional marriage ceremony and some of our group had the opportunity to ‘renew’ vows.
Next, we were off to Ndutu Lake, within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It lies on the southern edge of the Serengeti plains and is filled with Acacia trees. We spent the night at the Ndutu Safari Lodge. The area is famous for cheetah and grazing mammals, such as wildebeest, zebras and gazelles, all of whom are at home in the short grass plains of this region. And, sure enough, Ndutu did not disappoint. On the drive in, we encountered two male lions relaxing under some trees near the lodge.
The next day we were up before the sun to see if could observe cats on the move. And observe we did. We were not half a mile down the trail before encountering a pregnant lion out hunting. After an encounter with our two males again, we happened upon a group of two females and six kittens at a watering hole. While photographing these beautiful creatures, our guide spotted what he suspected was a cheetah chasing a wildebeest. We arrived just as the cat took down its prey. As we sat in the middle of the vast plain, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of the Great Migration as thousands of zebras and wildebeest came thundering out of the trees on the surrounding hillside and began to fill up the surrounding area from horizon to horizon. It was an awe inspiring site to say the least.
We then spent two days exploring Serengeti National Park, the preeminent park in East Africa and home to more than 2 million large mammals, including the big cats — lions, leopards and cheetahs. We spent two nights at the elegant Serengeti Serena Lodge. Where else in the world are you going to suddenly encounter a female cheetah and her six kittens resting in the shade of an Acacia tree? Or a pregnant leopard sleeping on a branch of a tree? Or another out stalking prey in the tall grass?
On our way to the Ngorongoro Highlands, we visited Olduvai Gorge (although we were instructed that the correct name is Oldupai – after the plant that grows there). The site is famous for early hominid findings from the team of Louis and Mary Leakey. A fascinating and well done museum has just been opened on the site and we were treated to a lecture and overview of the history of the site by the museum director.
After a couple of hours touring the Gorge, we move from one UNESCO World Heritage Site to another. At the top of the highlands sits the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, a collapsed caldera that is the largest in Africa. We packed a picnic lunch and descended from the beautiful Ngorongoro SOPA Lodge, located on the crater rim, into the spacious crater floor, where an absolutely incredible experience with wildlife awaited us.
Over the course of the next few hours, we witnessed several hunts and attempted hunts between lions, buffalo and hyenas. At one point, we were positioned in between two very different encounters. On our right, two packs of hyenas were attacking a buffalo calf that had become separated from its mother and the herd. The buffalo tried for the longest time to fend off the attack, but was simply out numbered. On our left, we witnessed the sight of a young male lion that somehow found itself surrounded by an angry herd of buffalo that began hooking the helpless cat and throwing it into the air over and over again. It is amazing that the lion survived the repeated attacks and continued to fight back. After 15 minutes or so, the buffalo abandoned the cat. But we were not finished. One of our vehicles spotted another hunt underway with two lionesses stalking a small buffalo herd. A seeming stalemate ensued until four more from the pride arrived to join in the hunt. It didn’t take long after that for the buffalo to fall. We watched in astonishment.
Tim Laman summed up everyone’s sentiments for the day: “At times these scenes were not pleasant to watch, I will admit. Nature can be harsh. But it was real, and it was amazing to witness the cycle of life in a place that is still wild. We need places like that on earth, and it is good for us to visit them. As Tennyson wrote, on this day, we truly witnessed nature red in tooth and claw.”
We also visited a Maasai school in the area that Hope College groups have been financially supporting for the past few years. We also brought a number of gifts such as soccer balls, frisbees, jump ropes and other toys for the children to play with. It was fun to play with such an energetic group of students. We visited classrooms where we exchanged songs. In spite of our best efforts, we were totally outclassed by the students singing the Tanzania national anthem. They were beautiful.
But our adventure was not over. There is no pavement on the roads around the rim of the crater. Given that the rim is quite often in the clouds during this the rainy season, the volcanic soil turns into a deep, red, slippery mud. Our drive up the night before had been harrowing enough, but two more days of wet made the drive even more treacherous. We attempted to get permission to go out via the park, but we were denied. So . . . we forged on. This is where you really appreciate the skills and experience of our guides from Roy Safaris. Although one of our vehicles did indeed become stuck trying to avoid another vehicle mired in the mud, they were able to free both from the mess.
On our final morning before heading to the airport for our flights home, many of us visited the Plaster House. Plaster House is the home of the Rehabilitative Surgery Program of the Arusha Lutheran Medical Centre in Northern Tanzania. It was established in 2008 to provide a unique and loving home away from home for children receiving pre- and post-operative care and rehabilitation for a surgically correctable disability. It was truly a moving experience to see these children and their families recovering from surgeries to correct club feet, harelip and cleft palates that had hindered them from leading a normal life.
I leave you with this picture of our fearless leaders. Our amazing guides are decked out in Hope College track warm ups. From left to right are: Hussein, Tim Laman, Niko, Pat Van Wylen, God Bless, Eldon Greij and Moses.
I cannot recommend highly enough that you check out the opportunity to participate in a future program. New Zealand with Dave Van Wylen and Croatia with John Tammi are two destinations currently open for registration. It is a great way to re-engage with your alma mater.
Spera in Deo!