Thursday, September 13, 2007


Did you ever see that incredible footage where hoards of wildebeest and zebra attempt a heroic crossing through crocodile-laden waters? Most survive; others meet a terrifying end as they are snatched up and pulled under by those gigantic reptiles.

That famous scene plays out every year on the Grumeti River in the western corridor of Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains. I have always watched those documentaries with much fascination (often from a comfortable sofa under the protection of a nice sturdy home). Growing up, I never thought I would actually see, in person, the Grumeti River. So, last week when the opportunity presented itself, I volunteered to spend a night along the river at Grumeti Tented Camp.

I was supposed to spend the night at the luxurious Kirawira Lodge, but the place overbooked so I willingly packed my things and prepared for the ½ hour drive to Grumeti. At my request, the pleasant staff at Kirawira made me a grilled-cheese sandwich. They also provided me with a driver and an armed security guard to personally escort me to Grumeti.

Why the armed guard? …for protection from Serengeti’s wildlife, of course! This is no joke and these guards are not camp ornaments meant to romanticize the visitor experience. Every year tourists are killed by animals in this region. Last year, according to my friend and colleague Rachel Cirincione (who has been guiding safaris in Tanzania for nearly eight years), three tourists were killed. One was an 11-year old boy who was stalked, killed, and partially eaten by a leopard and another was a gentleman on his honeymoon who was crushed to death in front of his wife by an angry elephant. Rachel, herself, barely escaped death a few months ago when a 2,000-pound cape buffalo nearly ran her down along the walkway to Kirawira’s main reception. The bottom-line is, humans cannot carelessly walk around at night without the real possibility of being killed.

It was nighttime by the time my personal entourage drove me to Grumeti. As we drove along the dusty old gravel road we saw a hyena, a genet, a civet, and a humongous hippopotamus (standing on the road in front of our vehicle). My driver told me (in very broken English) to be careful tonight because a few hundred hippos and a resident pride of lions also call Grumeti Tented Camp home. He also informed me that no visitors or tourists were currently at Grumeti – I would have the place to myself! Suddenly, I was beginning to wonder if this was a good idea.

Soon enough we arrived at camp and my armed guard escorted me to my tent. I unzipped it, said goodbye, and went inside. He reminded me that he would return at 5:30am to pick me up. “I hope so,” I thought.

A few minutes later, I heard my escorts drive away. Then, for the next few minutes, I heard nothing. The silence and darkness was suffocating. Suffocating because I knew I was confined to my tent – walking outside alone would be suicide – and my only source of light was my headlamp, one candle, and the glow of the second hand on my wristwatch. It was 9:00pm and my watch was advancing very slowly.

I reminded myself that once upon a time I was a field biologist and quite experienced in nature. I pulled out my sandwich and began feeling at ease. Then, a loud splash and the unmistakable bellowing of a very nearby hippopotamus. This kicked-off an evening of splashing and incessant bellowing from what must have been dozens of nearby hippos. I thought about how funny hippos look and the board game I used to play as a child called Hungry Hungry Hippos – anything to improve the mood. Too bad I already knew that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal (except perhaps cape buffalo).

Before I finished my sandwich I heard a lion roaring in the distance. I wondered if he could smell my sandwich. Better yet, I wondered if he could smell me! I got up and re-checked the zipper on my tent – yeap! …it was closed all the way. But, the front of my tent was a mesh screen and anything with good night vision (such as lions) could easily see me in my tent. No privacy here.

I was being irrational. After all, I thought, why would a lion be interested in me when there are plenty of other things out there for them to eat? But none of that mattered to me at that moment. Three days earlier in the Ngorongoro Crater, I watched a lioness stalk a warthog. She crossed right in front of my vehicle. Her eyes were fixed on her target as she slid into a ditch. Soon enough the warthog came to that ditch for a drink and we all knew what was going to happen. She leapt out; the warthog flipped into the air in terror and desperation. There was a short chase before the lioness caught her victim. I could see the warthog’s legs flapping in the air and I could hear its terrifying screams and squeals. I couldn’t believe that after all of this time lions haven’t learned how to kill more quickly. The rest of the pride sprinted over and shortly after there were no more screams. The guy next to me whispered, “it’s like Jurassic Park here.” He was not smiling.

I kept thinking about that as I sat alone in the dark in my tent. I also thought that perhaps, someplace out there some kid is sitting on a sofa under the protection of a nice sturdy home watching a documentary on the Grumeti River. I looked at my watch, 9:08pm. It is going to be a long night. Long live sofas and sturdy homes.