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Love, Lions and Luxury in the Serengeti, Tanzania

About two weeks before my Serengeti adventure it dawned on me that I have never really taken a trip by myself. Sure I have flown to see family or friends, but I’ve never gone on holiday by myself. I have always had Ol, my children, friends, or family to accompany me. It was a shocking revelation considering I’m one of those people who have no trouble going to a movie, play, or dinner by myself.

I panicked. I dashed off a few frantic texts and emails to members of my family and friends who I thought might be able to jump on a plane at the last minute to join me for a week in Tanzania. I even offered a week at the beach in Zanzibar where we were staying as an enticement.

After the first few negative responses, I knew that no one else would be joining me. I suppose that it did sound a little crazy to send an email asking friends if they wanted to fly halfway around the world. It was apparent that my friends and family were not as spontaneous as Ol and I. We always encourage friends to join us on our travels, but so far no one has taken us up on it.

I resigned myself to the fact that I would be traveling by myself. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I began to think of all the brave solo women travelers who we have met over the years. I could proudly join their ranks.

However, technically I wouldn’t be by myself. I booked a guided tour with KatiKati Safaris in Tanzania and I would have a guide who would also be my driver. As they say in Tanzania, hakuna matata.

A week later, Ol and I arrived at the airport in Arusha. When we stepped off of the plane we immediately noticed that the weather was perfect. We were back in safari weather. It was a chilly 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius.

We were met by a driver from KatiKati tours holding a sign with our names on it. After a quick drive around town we were driven to our hotel and told that Sebastian our tour operator would be joining us shortly.

I felt that Sebastian was already a friend before I met him. He and I had been corresponding via email and What’sApp. He was extremely helpful in assisting us with Ol’s climb of Mount Kilimanjaro and my safari to the Serengeti.

Most people plan excursions like this months, or commonly, a year in advance. Since we were traveling during the high season and booking at the last minute I was a bit weary of the guides and accommodations we might get.

After interviewing me on my preferences, Sebastian went to work. After a few days he sent us both amazing itineraries and assured me that we both had the best guides in the business. I had luxury accommodations, while Ol would be roughing it on the mountain.

I told Sebastian that I wanted to see the two things that the Serengeti is known for, the Great Migration and big cats. I wanted to see lions in trees, leopards in their natural environment and cheetahs on the hunt. I wanted to see cats, cats, cats!

When Sebastian arrived at the hotel he greeted us with his big friendly smile and warm hugs. He made sure that we were settled into our hotel and then proceeded to go over our itineraries. We discussed my food preferences and likes and dislikes. I was easy. Sebastian had me at “what wine would you like with your lunch.”

Sebastian provided us with a driver and we spent the day taking a tour of Arusha. The tour included one of the most beautiful art galleries in Eastern Africa. The gallery boasted a wall of famous celebrity clients like Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Prince Charles, and many others. Among the things we browsed were African sculptures that took decades to carve. They were stunning. The gallery was also filled with beautiful African antiquities from masks to furniture. We also visited the largest Tanzanite jeweler in Tanzania and the spot that marked the half way point between Cairo and Cape Town. We had officially completed the English Victorian African explorer circuit.

The driver returned us to our hotel and we began preparing for our respective journeys. That night I had difficulty sleeping. It would be hard saying goodbye to Ol in the morning, knowing that his hike was on the dangerous side. I would have no way to reach him for six days, but Sebastian reassured me that he would text me daily to let me know when Ol was safe in camp. I was worried that Ol was not as physically prepared as he should be. I noticed a look in the eyes of Ol’s guide that made me think that I was not the only one with this thought.

In the morning, Ol made me promise not to cry in front of his climbing crew. I felt like a mom sending a kid off to elementary school and promising not to cry in front of their friends. It was good to get this out of the way in private, before everyone else arrived.

Sebastian met us after breakfast and I got to meet the crew that would take Ol up the mountain. I also got to meet my guide, Makenzi, who had a big lovely smile and a contagious laugh. We enjoyed posing for pictures and then we each got in our respective Land Cruisers and waved goodbye.

I couldn’t believe how big the truck was, and it was just for me. Makenzi opened the front passenger door and before we were out of town we were sharing stories and laughing. Sebastian had picked the perfect guide for me. This was going to be fun even though I was a little intimidated when Makenzi told me that the last trip he guided was for the owner and family of Evian water! I told him not to expect the same size tip.

Our first destination was Tarangire National Park for our first game viewing opportunity. Tarangire is famous for its vast savannah and its abundance of elephants grazing between giant baobab trees. The Tarangire river is known to attract large groups of animals to its banks.

I thought back to when Ol and I stopped to take pictures of every baobab tree. In this park there were too many baobabs to count! The park was beautiful. I can only imagine how I would have reacted if it would have been my first encounter with wildlife. Elephants, giraffes, zebras, and herds of impalas were peacefully grazing.

I think Makenzi was a little surprised at my lack of enthusiasm. I explained that if he would have seen me three months ago I would have been shrieking and screaming. But, after three months at southern Africa’s greatest National Parks, I had become a bit of a safari snob.

When it was time for lunch, Makenzi found a beautiful site under a tree and set up a lunch fit for a queen. The picnic basket he carried was so big that I could have fit inside it. The three course lunch was delicious. I felt pampered, I wasn't used to be waiting on. I knew right away that it was going to be a wonderful week.

We spent the afternoon viewing animals and at closing time we had a short drive to our first lodge. When we arrived I was escorted through the beautiful gardens to a private villa. The tropical garden reminded me of Mississippi. Once again I was embarrassed to be staying by myself when I saw the size of my room. My villa was larger than our first home.

I showered and then made my way to dinner. Makenzi joined me for dinner and went over the itinerary for the next day. I enjoyed trying the local specialties, but it was difficult because I was still full from lunch. I decided to make it an early night as I was excited for the next days drive to the Serengeti. I also wanted to enjoy my beautiful villa.

The Serengeti is located in northern Tanzania, it spans approximately 12,000 square miles or (30,000 km2) and hosts the second largest land mammal migration in the world. The Serengeti is known as the most attractive wildlife park in Africa and home to the Great Wildebeest Migration.

Each year around the same time, the circular great wildebeest migration begins in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area of the Southern Serengeti in Tanzania and loops clockwise in direction through Serengeti National Park and north towards the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya. The herds start moving in May after giving birth in February. I would be arriving in June before the herds get to Kenya where they stay for the dry season.

The Serengeti’s name is derived from the Maasai language which means “Endless Plains”. It used to be known as Maasailand. The Maasai are known as fierce warriors and live alongside wild animals. They have an aversion to eating game or birds and subside on their cattle and small crops.

When the Serengeti was made into a National Park the Maasai were resettled around the Nogorongoro Crater. It was wonderful to finally get my first glimpses of Maasai villages with their round huts and corrals made from the branches of native trees.

Along the way we had to stop the car for baboons in the roadway. They seemed to be larger with more fur than the baboons I had seen in southern Africa. Makenzi explained that they had more fur for the cooler mountain temperatures.

The morning that we arrived at the Nogorongoro Crater overlook, it was shrouded in mist. We ascended to a higher elevation and were in the middle of the cloud forrest. Makenzi assured me that we would be able to visit the overlook on our way back and maybe the view would improve.

We arrived at the entrance gate to the Serengeti National Park mid morning. We stopped and posed for pictures under the sign to the park. After driving through the endless plains, Makenzi once again picked a beautiful tree to stop for our daily picnic. It reminded me of the movie “Out of Africa”. I was surrounded by the landscape of my African dreams.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser had an open top roof. It was also outfitted with a CB radio which Makenzi used to communicate with other guides to spot game. Within minutes of entering the park we were driving through dirt roads for my first game viewing. Over the radio, we learned of a pride of lions that had just taken down a zebra near a water hole.

Makenzi sped past other safari vehicles and put us up close and in the center to the action. I still don’t know how he got us to the waterhole. There were no signs and the Savannah was vast. I would find over the next five days this would be our routine.

There would be some squawking on the radio, Makenzi would ask if I wanted to see a cheetah, lion, leopard, etc., and off we would go leaving everyone in our dust. I was in awe as to how he knew which rock outcrop or tree to head toward. Somehow we were always one of the first vehicles at the scene with a prime viewing location.

By the time we arrived at the site of the kill, the zebra was down and the pride of lions were lounging in the grass. We were right next to a water hole and I could see herds of animals making their way to the water from all directions. The other animals would get close, see the lions, and stop and change direction. All of the animals seemed to leave the area, except for the hippos who seemed as curious as the game vehicles that soon surrounded the water hole.

The lions waited until the lead female ate first. I could tell that the other lions were getting as tired of waiting for dinner as we were.

I was also amazed at how Makenzi seemed to know everyone. He was busy on the radio and often talking with other guides when we were watching something interesting. When I commented on this, Makenzi said that it wasn’t he who was popular, but me! The guides were all speculating as to who the American woman was. It was very unusual to see a woman on her own on safari. Makenzi got so tired of answering questions about me, he found it easier to just say that I was his boss.

After a busy afternoon of seeing more lions than I saw in three months in southern Africa we made it to our lodge, the Serengeti Heritage Luxury Camp. When we arrived, the staff was lined up to greet us. I was welcomed with a cold wet cloth and a refreshing fruit drink.

When we walked into the reception tent, I was given a tour and a brief orientation. It was explained to me that a Maasai warrior would escort me to and from my tent. I was also given a radio to notify my escort and to call if I needed anything. Ol was sure to be jealous when he learned that I had a Maasai butler!

The lodge was a luxury eco resort. It was completely unfenced from the wild. The entire resort ran on solar power and for a few hours in the evening a generator. Makenzi told me to be prepared to be astonished. He said that I would see endless stars and hear the roar of lions at night.

I was led down a rock path lined with solar lights to my tent. The tents were all named after animals using the Maasai language. I walked down the path to my tent and up the steps to my wooden verandah. It had a nice sitting area. When the tent door was unzipped, I had to catch my breath. My room was stunning!

The four poster canopy kingsize bed was draped with a mosquito net. Beautiful oriental rugs covered the wood floors. The seating, furniture, and lighting was modern. It was exactly the way I would have decorated a romantic safari tent. It really made me miss Ol. I took lots of pictures before I unpacked. From the bed I had a beautiful view of the African savannah. I could see zebra and a lone buffalo grazing just off my porch.

When I opened the bathroom door I was surprised that it was quite luxurious. It was spacious with a modern bowl sink sitting atop a marble bureau. The toilet was in a separate room and the shower was spacious and modern.

I showered and then crawled into my big comfy bed. I was surprised to find how much the temperature dropped, it was a bit chilly. I watched the sunset and the sky change into a myriad of colors. At dinner time I used my radio to call for my Maasai escort to take me to dinner. He arrived carrying a spear to protect me from the animals.

I bought Makenzi a bottle of beer and then we moved into the dining room. I could tell that something was bothering Makenzi when he wasn’t his usual talkative self. After asking what was up, he pointed to the beautiful waitress, Mary.

Mary finally made her way to our table to take our order. When Makenzi called her by a different name, she did a double take. I saw the color drain from her face. It looked as if she had just seen a ghost.

After she left, I felt close enough to Makenzi to ask what was going on. I felt like I had just witnessed something significant, but I didn’t know what it was. The energy between the two of them was noticeable.

After their exchange, Mary ignored our table for the rest of the dinner service. She had asked someone else to serve us. I could tell that she was upset, she was practically walking into walls and I could tell that her mind was not on her work. Makenzi was also shaken up. Dinner was somewhat uncomfortable until he finally shared his story.

When he finished, I had to catch my breath. This was truly an African love story. I gave him my advice and we would just have to see how it played out over the next few days.

After dinner, we retired to the verandah, where we enjoyed a wonderful show of native music and dance. The contortionist that performed could easily be on stage at Cirque de Soleil.

At the end of the evening I was escorted back to my tent by the Maasi warrior in native dress with a spear. Over the next few days this never got old!

During the night, I was surprised by a light rain. It ruined my star gazing for the evening but not the night time noises of the animals.

In the morning I got the update on the Makenzi and Mary romance. I could tell that Mary was over her shock and that Makenzi was back to his joyful self. They even managed to get a little bit of time together as they carried the picnic basket out to our vehicle.

I wish I had the words to describe one of the most perfect 24 hours in my life. It surpassed any tourism experience I have ever had anywhere in the world. The only thing that could have made it better, would have been to share it with Ol.

Makenzi and I left early to head north in the Park. We were going in search of wildebeest in hopes of seeing the Great Migration. Makenzi was happy and back to his old self and sped across the magical Serengeti landscape.

We stopped to see a few hyenas and pulled up under a tree when Makenzi spotted a mating pair of lions. Makenzi had studied for years to be a guide and it was wonderful to have him to explain behaviors Ol and I had witnessed on our game drives.

Apparently, lions are lazy except when it comes to love. A male lion will give some serious one on one time with a female that is in heat. They usually leave the pride for a week and he is very attentive. Sometimes they don’t even have time to hunt. They mate every 15 minutes. This explained why the act itself was so fast. There was some biting, licking, and a nice lion roar at the end, but their lovemaking was over within seconds. Of course I couldn’t believe it was every 15 minutes, so we stayed for round two and three. Sure enough, it was every 15 minutes. Makenzi didn’t share the location on the radio, so we had this viewing to ourselves. I had to tease Makenzi, love was in the air in the Serengeti.

We stopped for several more lion sightings as we made our way north. Makenzi also spotted a leopard kill hanging in a tree. It was fresh, but there was no leopard in sight. So far the only leopards we had seen were at a distance.

We continued on our way north. It didn’t take long to see the lines of wildebeest migrating. It was an endless line as far as I could see in each direction. They were running from horizon to horizon in a single file. We stopped to watch them cross the road in front of us. They leapt up and down the embankment.

We saw some stragglers gathered under the few trees for shade. We also saw great herds of zebra and lone gazelles. Now I understood why there were so many lions in the Serengeti.

We spent an hour watching the wildebeest and we could have driven hours farther west to see even more. However, I knew that I would be returning one day with my family and I wanted to save something.

I told Makenzi that I wanted to see a leopard up close and some more cheetahs. So off we went. The rest of the day was incredible. We had lunch under a lone tree near some hunting cheetahs. We watched zebras pass in front of us. We visited a hippo pond that again had more hippos than I have ever seen.

We spotted lions in trees and by the end of the day more big cats than I could count. We ended the day spending an hour watching a leopard and her cub high up on a rock cliff. I held my breath every time the playful cub climbed the bush that overhung the edge of the cliff. If her mother wasn’t concerned, I don’t know why I was!

We ended the day with another perfect African sunset. We had a bit of a night drive on the way back to the lodge. When we arrived I was once again greeted by the staff with my cool wet towels and a sparkling drink. We were late so I needed to shower and get ready for dinner.

The dinner and the show was great, but after my Maasai escort got me back to my tent, it didn’t take long before I was visited by the Serengeti’s predators. I could hear the predators before I saw them. It was a little unnerving. A pack of hyenas was right next to my tent. I could hear the frantic screams from the tent closest to mine. I could see hyenas just off my porch and then I saw the Maasai guards run by with their spears. I heard a lion’s roar and before I knew it I was fast asleep. I can’t believe that I slept so well with the wild animals so near.

I awoke to a view of animals grazing and hot air balloons outside my tent. We spent the morning with some cheetahs hunting, and a pride of young male lions lounging under a tree. I’m not sure what I did but it worried Makenzi enough to fuss at me for the first time. The top of the vehicle and all of the windows were open. Apparently, he thought that we looked like lunch.

We had a long drive back to the first lodge. I had the same villa before and this time I had time to enjoy a wonderful massage in my room from the massage therapist. Afterwards it was hard to get up and go to dinner.

I used the wifi to FaceTime the kids and Ol’s parents to give them an update on our adventures. Tonight, all I could think about was Ol’s journey to the summit of Kilimanjaro. I had heard from Sebastian that he was doing great and was very strong, but that he would be leaving around 10 pm for the summit.

I was anxious and ordered a bottle of wine for dinner. I knew that it would be hard to sleep. I had told Makenzi that I wanted an early day to make the most of my last day game viewing in Africa.

The drive into the crater was magical. We spotted a large elephant herd grazing on the hillsides, giraffes, and a lion making her way down.

Again, I was surprised by the elevation gains and losses. It was so chilly, I put on my gloves and was thankful for all of my warm layers. The varied habitats in the crater were spectacular as was the abundant wildlife. I can only describe it as a large lion salad bowl.

In under an hour we completed the big five. I had my first rhino sighting on this trip. One of the best sightings was a mating pair of lions enjoying a nice gazelle for breakfast. They were encircled by hyenas coming from every direction, with some cute jackals hanging around. It was my first time to see these animals all together. I enjoyed watching the hyena coming in and stealing bites of the catch. After the male lion was finished the female continued to feast. When she got up the male came back for more. It was fun watching him fend off the other predators.

The crater was full of flamingoes, other beautiful birds, and a wide variety of animals found in Africa. I watched as a lone lion with a beautiful black main followed the buffalo herd. The lion reminded me of a young “Scar” from Lion King. A buffalo always stayed between the lion and the herd.

I knew that this would be the last opportunity I would have to see these majestic animals on this trip. I savored the sightings of all of the animals I used to speed by. I would miss the antelopes, the gazelles, and all of the colorful birds. My only consolation, was that I know I will return here.

I had to promise McKenzie that he would be my guide when I return. I promised to plan a year in advance so that we could follow the wildebeest and see them cross the rivers.

I have been blessed to visit many incredible places, but I usually have to plan them myself. I have stayed in four and five star hotels and resorts, but this was my first real luxury travel experience.

At the end of the day the experience Sebastian and Makenzi planned for me was luxurious. Luxury travel is about sanity, time, and exceptional experiences. It is the warm, sincere, and anticipatory service that often differentiates a luxury travel experience. It is hard to define because one traveler’s luxury is another’s ordinary and this means peoples perspectives of what makes travel luxurious can vary a great deal.

For me a special travel experience is access to the people, places, and things that represent all that is authentic about a destination. Depth of understanding and immersion into local culture is a must and is a privilege truly experienced by a few. When added with independence and flexibility, that is my definition of luxury travel. All I can say is thanks to Sebastian and Makenzi for the trip of a lifetime and thank you for letting me experience the food, hospitality and culture of Tanzania. I am sure that Ol’s Kilimanjaro experience was as special as mine!

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