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In Tanzania, a room with a zoo

After three days of tracking wildlife in one of the world’s best-known game preserves, I’d seen thousands of animals, including baby baboons so small they would fit into the palm of my hand and massive cape buffalo.

I was disappointed nonetheless.

The only elephants I had seen were in the distance, lumbering across the open plains. “Don’t worry; you’ll see more,” said the guide who had organized my game drives through Serengeti National Park, the oldest wildlife preserve in the central East African nation of Tanzania.

But I was soon to fly back to the U.S., where the only elephants I’d see would be locked in cages.

And then it happened. As I left my hotel room, I spotted first one, then three, then more than a dozen elephants milling around. They had come for a drink and a mud bath in a watering hole just beyond the lodge’s swimming pool.

Who needs a game drive when the game comes to you?

Visitors who decide to extend their World Cup trip to include a safari can do it the hard way — with dusty game drives over rutted, washboard roads — or the easy way, by choosing a hotel where seeing wild animals is as easy as sitting in a lounge chair on your room balcony.

Bilila Lodge Kempinski, where I stayed, qualifies. Not only did I see 28 elephants taking baths while I took a swim, but I also ran into two zebras when I left the hotel spa.

“Here for a massage?” I asked as the pair galloped away.

And each evening, just before sunset, a tribe of baboons arrived, climbed to the top of a huge rock just outside the lodge compound and watched the sky turn orange and gold. I wondered whether they were ordering cocktails.

Bilila isn’t the only Serengeti lodge with in-house game viewing. The park, in the northern part of Tanzania and one of Africa’s most popular, has five lodges, six luxury tented camps and various campsites; many offer guests the chance to see wildlife up close.

“Most lodges have watering holes nearby that attract the animals, especially during the evening and early morning hours,” said tour operator Rumit Mehta of Immersion Journeys.

Seronera Wildlife Lodge, a hotel in central Serengeti, offers guests the opportunity to spot wildlife from its broad picture windows and outdoor bar. “Impalas and giraffes and baboons were everywhere,” said Katherine Thompson of Bellevue, Wash., who spent four days at the lodge last fall. “It was quite unexpected and very wonderful.”

The Kempinski hotel chain sought that sense of surprise when it built Bilila Lodge, said Reto Wittwer, president and chief executive. The hotel, which opened a year ago, takes advantage of migratory patterns.

“A visitor doesn’t have to go anywhere,” he said. “You can just sit on your balcony and soak up the excitement.”

The Serengeti is best known for its annual animal migration. More than a million wildebeests and about 200,000 zebras surge south from the northern hills to the southern plains during short seasonal rains in the fall, then swirl west and north after longer rains in late spring.

I caught part of the migration — said to be the biggest on the planet — in November, and it was captivating.

U.S. residents have been fascinated by Africa’s wildlife since Teddy Roosevelt left the White House in 1909 and almost immediately set out on a well-publicized African safari.

At one time, Americans wanted to visit primarily to bring back trophies for their walls. Now they want to capture their memories digitally. Californians make up a big share of the market, with Angelenos leading the pack. Los Angeles provides about a third or more of the leisure travelers who visit Africa, said Ron Mracky of the Africa Travel Assn.

I’d come to the Serengeti to see wild animals. And I did from the moment I arrived. Within 20 minutes, I’d spotted a herd of zebras, two giraffes, a family of warthogs, a pride of lions sleeping in the sun, five hippos and half a dozen vultures the size of St. Bernards.

That was just the beginning. By the time I left, I’d seen thousands of zebras and wildebeests making their way south following the seasonal rains. Of the many African savannas, the Serengeti rates highest for its huge herds of wildebeests, gazelles and zebras. Where the prey goes, predators follow: The park also has one of the world’s highest concentrations of large cats. Lions, cheetahs and leopards rarely go hungry.

Most of my wildlife sightings took place from the pop-top of a Land Rover: lions ripping apart an impala, cheetahs napping in the limbs of an acacia tree, beady-eyed crocs sunning themselves on a rock. At one stop, I watched more than 100 hippos lolling in a muddy pool, grunting and swishing dirty water over themselves, their pink snouts occasionally visible in the brown muck.

But observing animals from the balcony of my hotel room added another dimension.

“Venturing out into the bush in a Land Rover in search of more elusive wildlife such as leopards and cheetah is always a highlight of the safari experience,” said Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato, a tour operator and safari outfitter. “But the experience is that much richer and more magical when the wildlife comes to you.”

And how many people can say they swam with elephants, hit the spa with zebras and watched a sunset with baboons?

travel@latimes.com


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