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CHARGING INTO AFRICA WIDE-RANGING SAFARI PEEKS AT ANIMALS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT.

Byline: Story and photos by Mary S. Hartman Special to Great Escapes

SERENGETI PLAIN, Tanzania - Across the grasslands, far into the night, rose the muted roar of a lion. Closer in, a hyena howled, joined soon by the yip-yip-yips of the jackals.

Then calm. In this tranquil setting - the animal chorus on the wane - I slipped off to sleep.

But it was to be short-lived. The clock said 2 when I leapt from bed and nearly out of my skin. Without warning, through the tent's canvas walls not five feet from the bed, had come three thunderous barks from what sounded like a giant baboon. In that instant, the tranquillity of this night was dashed.

This was Africa, although not exactly the Africa of our dreams. My husband and I were camping in the heart of the Serengeti Plain, in a ``basic'' tourist tent that included a shower and flush toilet! Still we were living close to nature - just how close, until that instant, I had not realized.

The baboon incident (from which I did not fully recover until the following afternoon, and only then thanks to a soothing glass of Tanzanian wine) was but one of a dozen unique African safari experiences. Few of them were expected - but all were embraced as part of a grand adventure.

Participating in what Overseas Adventure Travel bills as ``The Best of Kenya and Tanzania,'' 13 of us had flown into Nairobi, Kenya, and dispersed into the countryside to see if all we had heard about East Africa was true.

Would we really see ``zoo animals'' in their natural environment? Did traditional peoples still live in primitive huts and herd cattle over the countryside? And what kind of climate could we expect in January along the equator?

We returned home with answers to these questions and a sense that we had stepped back into a primordial place - planet Earth as it once had been, where animals roamed free and people lived close to the land. (And where sweaters in January came in very handy!)

Yet the trip was much more. We visited with Masai and other tribal peoples, appreciated the scenery, absorbed African village life and enjoyed safari camps and lodges.

There were also magical African moments: at Sweetwaters Game Reserve, a coral sunrise over Mount Kenya illuminating the plains below and etching the lacy umbrella acacia trees black against an orange sky; at Amboseli National Park, a sense of wonder as our safari van was stopped by 200 elephants ambling across the road before us, Mount Kilimanjaro looming in the distance.

Ah, but Amboseli revealed another safari fact of life: East African roads, which are an issue for those traveling by land between game parks. (Some safaris are strictly fly-ins. African grasslands are lined with bare-bones airstrips, always close to safari camps or lodges.)

Overseas Adventure Travel opts for travel on land. This is the optimal way to see this country up close - villages, children waving from roadsides, young herdsman guiding cattle and goats to pasture. So, on a 50-mile trip into beautiful Amboseli, we dutifully bumped along two-lane tracks with craters large enough to swallow a safari van.

Driving into Tanzania's Gibbs Farm wasn't much better - we danced the rhumba all the way. But the destination was worth every bump.

It was a Garden of Eden. Gig trees and crimson-colored heliconia - the stunning tropical plant dubbed ``hanging lobster claw'' - framed our cottage's doorway while, for miles beyond, rich green coffee plants rolled across fertile hills. The farm is a refuge for safari-weary travelers; we stayed two days wishing it could have been two weeks.

The trip held many such highlights.

Sweetwaters Game Reserve, Kenya

After a four-hour drive (more bounce, bounce, bounce) north of Nairobi, we encountered a giraffe poking its 19-foot self above the bush as if to say ``Welcome.''

Giraffes, we learned, need a 25-pound heart to pump blood to their extremities, plus special valves in their arteries to keep them from becoming dizzy when bending to drink.

The giraffes weren't the only celebrities at Sweetwaters. Poco the chimp and his pals - all rescued from cramped cages and other beastly circumstances - roam a 107-acre sanctuary. At Sweetwaters, we watched stately marabou storks drop in.

Amboseli National Park is home to hundreds of elephants. Blessed with a keen sense of smell and a great memory, they form families for life, except for aging males.

Several times in Amboseli and elsewhere we saw old tuskers off by themselves, usually in fields of tender grasses that would sustain them until their time was up. An old fellow might be approaching 80 years when, at last, he'd lie down and die - alone. How very sad, we thought.

At Amboseli, a broad, flat expanse, we first met Masai peoples. Young warriors swatted away velvet monkeys who swarmed around the lodge hoping, we assumed, to confiscate a piece of fruit or slice of cake from the buffet.

Or maybe more. ``They'd just as soon run off with your purse and bag as look at you,'' we were told. So, while the Masai kept the monkeys at bay, we had a field day photographing the little imps.

Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Unlike Amboseli, this is hill country, a rolling landscape covered by bush, acacia and 600-year-old baobab trees. More than 32,000 zebras roam here, each uniquely striped - no two are alike.

Zebras show a concern for each other, a principle of caring from which humans could learn. We often observed them standing in pairs, heads to rumps, each animal swishing its tail to keep flies off the other's face.

Tarangire features the creme de la creme of camps, a row of upscale tents overlooking the beautiful Tarangire River Valley. Sitting on our veranda, we watched giraffe families below, loping from tree to tree and browsing on ever-abundant vegetation. What a kick to see giraffe babies chomping at 8-foot bushes - just their height!

Ngorongoro

An unbroken crater formed 2.5 million years ago, this basin holds 20,000 animals. Among them are cape buffalo, the ogres of the safari kingdom. ``These guys would just as soon take you out as look at you,'' said Leakey, our knowledgeable guide.

It was on the crater's rim that we visited a traditional Masai home crafted from cattle dung. Once in the tribal compound, it began to rain, ``Come in, stay dry,'' said Moroki, a 27-year-old Masai man with two wives.

Six of us squeezed into Moroki's ``kitchen,'' a fire pit in the middle of a 12-by-12-foot cow dung house. To the right was a small area for newborn calves - to keep them safe at night and to help them bond with owners who one day will herd them. To the left were ``beds'' for five, skins stretched over poles. The house was dark, windowless.

The Masai are beautiful people, yet we wondered how they stayed alive, or - more to the point - if we'd stay alive living their lifestyle.

Traditional, rural Masai subsist primarily on milk mixed with cow's blood, along with meat.

The Serengeti

The annual wildebeest migration is legendary, but where do they roam?

These gangly looking creatures follow the rains, always searching for greener pastures. From November through January, 1.5 million of them reach the southern Serengeti.

And in another example of animal symbiosis, zebra wander with them. Seems that zebra are blessed with great eyesight and wildebeest with keen hearing; thus the animals cooperate to head off a key predator, the lion.

Wildebeest, animals who legend says are assembled from all the unwanted parts of other animals, accounted for one of our noteworthy adventures.

After we drove through grasslands amid a massive herd of these creatures, our trusty little safari van suddenly went ka-thunk. We weren't going anywhere: We were embedded in a 5-feet-deep aardvark hole well-hidden by the tall grasses that had beckoned the ``wildees.''

Another van, raised on the radio, came to the rescue. With one lunge we were out of the hole and an hour later were bumping over the grasslands again.

For this trip, we'd been advised to bring along 30 rolls of film. Most of us complied - and shot it all. Why not? It was so enchanting to see these beautiful creatures roaming their native surroundings.

Never again would we be satisfied to see them penned up as zoo animals or performing unnatural stunts in a circus.

IF YOU GO

Overseas Adventure Travel's ``The Best of Kenya and Tanzania'' is scheduled for 14 departure dates between Feb. 21 and the end of June. For a departure from Los Angeles, the cost of the 19-day tour starts at $4,890 per person based on double occupancy. Additional taxes and surcharges apply. Information and reservations: (800) 493-6824; www.oattravel.com.

CAPTION(S):

6 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) Among the sights on an East African safari are an aging male elephant living out its final years in solitude, top, a cheetah seeking prey in the grasslands, left, and Masai women standing near a cattle corral made of tall poles, below.

(4 -- 5) The sights on a road-based safari trip through Kenya and Tanzania include a massive marabou stork (with an 8-foot wingspan), left, and a giraffe, looking for eye-level food - meaning 18 to 20 feet off the ground.

(6) Tropical plants abound at Gibbs Farm, a Tanzanian coffee plantation that welcomes visitors to its cabins and dining room.

Mary S. Hartman/Special to Great Escapes

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 8, 2004
Words:1580
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