Beneath a star-dusted sky we huddled on a log at the edge of the Usao Nyiro River, not yet ready to call it a night. On the far side of the river, aided by light from the nearby lodge, we could see a leopard stretching his spotted body--legs dangling--over a limb of a thorn tree. His twitching tail signaled that he was scanning the horizon in search of a Thomson's gazelle, his preferred entree.
It was a classic safari scene.
Reluctantly, we bid our safari mates lala salama --sleep well, in Swahili--and padded down the path to our thatch-roof cottage beside a moonlit river. We were in the Samburu Game Reserve in northern Kenya, on our third safari in two years.
We had fallen hopelessly in love with East Africa.
At home in California before our last trip, we had resigned ourselves to statistics warning that safari vans now nearly outnumber animals.
In the last 10 years, poachers have slashed Kenya's elephant population from 65,000 to 17,000. The black rhino is on the brink of extinction. The African leopard is endangered. And poaching isn't the only problem. Despite moderate success by the Kenyan government in slowing it, population growth of the farmers and nomadic Masai cattle herders gnaws relentlessly at the wildlife's habitat.
What surprised us was reality. While we did find an occasional van jam, such scenes were more than balanced by animals in awesome variety and abundance. Gone are the herds of 500 elephants tourists saw in the '60s. But when you are in a van on a rutted track in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park, surrounded and serenaded by the gentle grunting of several dozen elephants, you feel you are witnessing a miracle.
And, indeed, you are.
Brochures happen in tidy lines: day one, day two. Safaris happen with spontaneity. Memories tumble back like cumulus clouds on a summer's day, a new one crowding in before you've finished with the last.
Safari memories are tied to the earth and her fascinating creatures, and the opportunities to be close to them, to see them in their natural habitat.
We have a host of memories. Like our "40-minute cheetah" in the long, straight hills of western Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve, where a year-round river promises game in abundance.
We came upon the cheetah in a thicket of the Mara, the northern extension of the Serengeti Plain. We called her our "40-minute cheetah" because that's how long she performed for us. She was in a dreamy mood, lolling on her back. She stretched, yawned, viewed us with mild interest--all within 20 feet of our van.
Knowing the species is just barely holding its own made it easier to understand and accept that view one day when we saw a cheetah take down a dainty Thomson's gazelle.
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The semi-arid region of the Samburu Game Reserve is a land of doum palms and tired volcanic cones, where the reticulated giraffe lopes across a lavender landscape and crocodiles bask on sun-drenched sand bars.
It was here that Ibrahim Abdullah, our tall Somali driver/guide, found that rarest of cats--a mother leopard with suckling cub--sprawled across a granite slab. For a long time the cub nursed. Finally sated with milk, the cub we dubbed "Bigfoot" rose up and cast us a superior glance before diving into the brush. We still worry about Bigfoot and his mother being poached and winding up as a coat hanging in some thoughtless person's closet.
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Abdullah is a master at tracking game. One day at dusk in the Samburu he took us down to a secret place. On schedule at 5:30 p.m., as predicted, elephants arrived at this crossing point, emerging from a palm forest across the Usao Nyiro River. As the waves of grays reached the water, it became bath time. Hoisting their trunks, they sloshed gallons of muddy water across broad bodies to make their charcoal hides gleam like satin and ivory tusks glow in the fading sunlight.
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A day in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, with its pearly light and sheltering, tree-freckled walls, was animal-packed. Looking down into the crater from the rim, we thought no creature had discovered its gauzy depths. But in this ever-watered paradise among yellow bark fever trees, all creatures of East Africa take refuge, except the poor giraffe, who cannot negotiate the steep crater walls. Flamingos by the thousands transformed Lake Magadi at the center into a pale pink veil.
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The grandeur and solitude of Serengeti National Park are legendary, with its trackless miles of acacia-dotted savanna rolling to infinity and kopjes , a kind of granite outcropping, the Serengeti is the site of the wildebeest migration circuit.
A million and a half strong, and woven with zebras by the thousands, the wildebeest make their perpetual quest for the fresh rains and tender grasses that move seasonally within the boundaries of the Serengeti. When the wildebeest pause here during their migration, the golden ground disappears completely under a carpet of black.
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The Serengeti Plain is one of the most perfectly balanced ecosystems on earth, yet scientists still don't fully understand why. Prey and predator, each blade of grass and brilliant bird plays its role.
We came face to face with balance one morning at dawn, when a crumpled mass of vivid scarlet loomed just down the track. A pride of lions had stripped the hide from a Cape Buffalo and were crunching noisily on the bones. By our afternoon game run, hyenas, jackals and vultures had all had their turn and the carcass was picked white, as if bleached in the sun for centuries.
At the end of that day a lyrical African landscape took shape. Under a slate-smudged sky, with a slash of light blazing across a swathe of tawny grasses, a rainbow flung its way over the earth--a perfect echo of an arching, lime-green thorn tree.
"Oh, Kea," we said to our Tanzania guide, "we must have a giraffe for our rainbow, posing under a thorn tree."
"You need a giraffe?" he said. " Hakuna matata ." No problem. Down the track we went for a minute. There was our giraffe, poised by a thorn tree and wreathed in a rainbow.
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Safari isn't all giraffes wrapped in rainbows or elephants sloshing in rivers. Often it's long, dusty, bone-jarring roads. In Kenya it can be sumptuous food and wonderful lodges. In Tanzania, where tourism is still just a trickle, the food may not be sensational but you have the Serengeti almost to yourself.
A safari is lion cubs swaggering down a track. It's wildebeest with their beards turned to gold by a backlighting sun. It's flaming dawns and moody sunsets and the night song of birds as you sip a Tusker beer on the terrace. And it's drifting off to sleep to the chirps and grunts of the African night. It's also Africans you meet along the way--dignified yet warm, ever ready with a smile and a " jambo! " (hello).
But in the end, it's the animals that stir the soul--one of the richest congregations of wildlife remaining on the planet--roaming free in the last vast place on earth.
But don't be seduced into thinking it will last forever. The verdict is not yet in, but the numbers are depressing. Better go now while there still are some. You can rest each night feeling good, knowing that your tourist dollars are doing as much as anything to save these magnificent creatures. It might even change your life. As it did ours.
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Wildlife Safari--toll-free (800) 526-3637--offers a 16-day Kenya/Tanzania safari using first-class lodges for $2,295-$2,595, excluding air and depending on season.
Abercrombie & Kent--(800) 323-7308--offers a comparable safari for $2,990-$3,695, plus air. For greater depth you might wish to combine a Kenya with a Tanzania safari. Prime times for the wildebeest migration are July-September in Kenya, January-March in Tanzania.
To experience the best of Kenya, a well-designed safari should include two nights each at Amboseli National Park and Samburu Game Reserve, one at a treetop hotel such as Treetops, The Arc or Mountain Lodge (Mountain Lodge is our preference), one at Lake Nakuru National Park or the Mount Kenya Safari Club (the posh Mawingo Hotel there was developed by the late actor William Holden) and two or three nights at the Masai Mara Game Reserve.
Tanzania should include two nights each at Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park, and one or two at Lake Manyara National Park.
April and May and November, which can be rainy, are perhaps not the best times to take a Kenya/Tanzania safari. Because most game parks are at 3,500 feet and above, the weather is generally comfortable.
For more information about travel in Kenya, contact the Kenya Tourist Office, 9100 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 111, Beverly Hills 90212, (213) 274-6635.
For more information about travel in Tanzania, contact the Tanzania Mission, 205 East 42nd St., Room 1300, New York 10017, (212) 972-9160.