The scene before me could be matched nowhere else on earth. Parched yellow grass spread out before us as far as the eye could see – broken only by the occasional umbrella tree and a few hundred thousand migrating wildebeest forming a dusty, thin gray line on the horizon to the north. As the sun pounded down from overhead, heat vapors danced up from the ground. This was the Serengeti – a place with no equal!
Nine days earlier my six-year-old son, Jerry, and I had arrived in Arusha, a beautiful Tanzanian ‘metropolis’ and the main jumping off point for those wishing to book budget safaris. As with all visitors, the word of our arrival spread like wildfire. By dinner the first night, three of Arusha’s tour operators were courting us. By breakfast our journey was booked.
Two days later we were off. Nothing was left to chance. A jeep, driver, cook, tents, water (though I felt it best to bring my own) and park permits, were to be provided for us as part of our safari package.
Five days of photographic heaven followed. Tanzania’s best: Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge all were our playgrounds. Each was an oasis offering its own unique landscape and unimaginably diverse wildlife. Finally, as I looked over the edge of Ngorongoro I put my camera down. No photo could do it justice. Those who do not venture there will just never know! All this grandeur, and still the place of my calling, the Serengeti, was ahead. This was the safari I had dreamed of.
An inconspicuous signpost in the middle of nowhere marked our arrival at my 14, 763 square km. field of dreams. We had four days to spend in the Serengeti. Yet, within twenty minutes giraffes galloped past in their slow-motion way. Playful zebras danced in dust storms of their own creation. Nearby, lionesses lovingly groomed playful cubs. This life long fantasy achieved was all laid out for our film to capture. What more did we need?
I know we needed a drink of water. I reached, I looked, I counted, one! There was one bottle of water alone in its box. Next, I added. Two people, six days out, three days left, 13 bottles of water gone. I suspected a flaw in the plan. With little choice, I begrudgingly surrendered the last bottle of ‘good’ water to my progeny. I would drink the questionable water provided by the safari operator the rest of the trip. Why not? After all, It was a safari.
An hour later, still roasting in our jeep, we photographed an incredible golden lion as he lazed in the mid-day sun. This magnificent beast was obviously oblivious to our presence. His bed, a gigantic reddish brown termite mound standing over three feet high, could easily have slept two more.
FRUSTRATION MAKES AN APPROACH
Inspired, and thirsty, it was time to go forth with the courage of that lion and consume the mystery water. Thomas, my driver, was a spotlessly tidy, smartly dressed, obviously well washed and well-watered fellow. As I approached, he flashed his perfect smile and asked what I needed. Water I replied. Thomas looked ‘off.’ “Ninataka maji ya kunywa” I tried. (attempting Swahili for I need drinking water) Ah, Thomas replied, “Maji hapana” (meaning no water). I tried English again. We still had no water.
I am sure my body temperature rose five degrees as I tried to figure out why Thomas had not brought any water from camp that day. Then, it rose another eight degrees while I tried to figure out why he did not need to drink anything. Oh well, we would soon return to camp where I would indulge in all the beige colored water I could ever hope for. I decided to tough it out. Se la vies. We were on a safari.
As evening approached, we relaxed in the shade near a water hole. The sweet sent of cool water filled the air. The emerald green pool shivered ever so slightly with each twitch of a hippo’s ear. When the sun sank low, the parched orange horizon beckoned for one last snapshot. It was time our crew headed for camp.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, our cook had dinner ready and waiting. Before the Jeep stopped my door was open. I approached him parched, “maji ya kunywa?” I said. He responded, “maji hapana.” “I mean water,” I regrettably snapped. “You must have some to drink!” Both Thomas and the cook shook their heads ‘no’ and looked at me as if I was crazy for thinking anyone would have water in the bush. Didn’t I know I was on safari?
Not being parent of the year, I took my sons water – some of it anyway. We put the rest away for morning.
CONTEMPLATING THE SITUATION
I sat grudgingly at dinner watching my son, my driver and my cook, all laughing together on the man side of the camp. As a zoologist, I knew they had to have water, didn’t they? Just how stupid did they think I was? Then the questions swam through my mind. How could we stay out here nearly three more days without any more water? What happened to the water the Tour Company agreed to send? What did the cook cook with? How was Thomas staying so freaking clean? If I killed my offspring and took his water, do they extradite me or would I stand trial in Tanzania? And, just how stupid did they think I was?
That night I sat by the fire under the most brilliantly lit sky I have ever seen. I sat speaking to Thomas, explaining that Homo Sapiens consumed water. It was a necessity! It was a fact! He didn’t buy it for a second. Ultimately, I gave up. I told my crew we would have to return to Arusha the next day. Had I been alone, I would have risked death by dehydration for one more day, but the PTA frowns on this sort of thing. Obviously annoyed by my insane whims the guys turned in.
The remainder of the night was dedicated to reflecting on days past, on our incredible experiences and on something else – something odd. The previous morning while we drove through a dust-ridden wallow, we had approached a Maasai Warrior walking barefoot through the grasslands. Thomas pulled near to ask of cheetahs and such. As they spoke, I eyeballed this magnificent looking man who leaned against the front of our jeep.
His long, twisted strands of hair were red with ocher and draped elegantly down his perfectly built back. He wore the traditional red Maasai fabric that was slightly tattered. In his right hand was a spear, pointed at both ends. In his left hand was the less traditional orange Fanta. Yes, I did a double take. It remained an orange Fanta. Thinking back, I recalled droplets of condensation. I was sure it was cold. I could not even come up with H2O, well enough a refreshing sugary beverage. Was I hallucinating? Was I even on safari?
VANISHING THROUGH THE BUSH
The sweltering heat of morning came all to soon. Breakfast with thick condensed milk, missed the spot completely and reconfirmed my decision to leave. The cook and I began to pack up camp. Jerry and Thomas (Tom and Jerry?) wandered into the bush together long before the work was finished – surprise! Whenever, I started any project the men tended to fade into the trees. In fact, completing the task at hand, I realized my moisture-retaining chef had vanished. An hour later no one had returned.
I was guarding our waterless belongings from a troop of misschevious baboons and could not go in search of my three self-osmoting delinquents. Besides, If the men perished, it would prove to them my theory that they needed water to live. Ha! I would be vindicated! Ritchesness would prevail! Thus instead, I sat filming my new found primate friends. After all, I was still on safari?
Half an hour later the guys emerged from the bush, talking casually as they slurped on their strawberry Fantas. My mouth dropped. Jerry nonchalantly pointed off behind them as he passed and asked, “Mom, why didn’t you came to the soda stand with us? You could at least have gotten some bottled water.” I stood defining dumbfounded! Were they slurping away each time they vanished? What was a soda stand doing in the middle of…? Why hadn’t someone just said it was…? Ah..? Was there a Denny’s in there as well? How silly of me to have expected them to mention this. Auuuuuug! Hadn’t I realized I was on a safari?