When breathtaking reality far exceeds your most hyperbolic expectations ….
Think about your absolute favorite restaurant – why do you love it so much? Why do you keep going back again and again? Of course, you love the cuisines. But more than that, most likely it is the service, the personalized attention that the staff provides, the way the manager/owner has got to know you over the years and will stop-by to chat with genuine pleasure - that’s what makes you feel at home, and you just can’t help raving about this restaurant to your friends. It finally comes down to the warmth you feel when you are there. I don’t even know where to, or even how to start. Thus, this simile. Serengeti safari has been in our bucket-list for a very long time. As a child, my favorite books was one published by Reader’s Digest, all about the wildlife, with stunning pictures. Decades later, after a couple of aborted/postponed attempts, our family finally made it to Tanzania last month, July 2022. If you are planning your first safari in east Africa, be assured that the spectacular wildlife you will see, and the environment you will experience is way, way more breathtaking than what you would have imagined. The sheer enormity of the endless plains (I learned that’s what Serengeti means), the incredible number of species roaming around free, the majestic walks of giraffes, a lioness anxiously searching for her cubs late in the evening, an elephant scaring away a hippo at a watering hole, gazelles missing out on the memo that they should stay clear of sun-bathing crocs, a lioness lunching on a zebra, a python coiled around the same branch as hadada ibis and a crane … I can go on and on and on. And course, the most stunning experience we had – 1000s of wildebeests stampeding across the Mara river – the sound and the dust over-whelming your senses, which no amount of watching National Geographic on TV can do justice. You are guaranteed to see all of these in some shape or form. But all of this, as I mentioned earlier, is just the delicious cuisine at the restaurant. What makes that restaurant different for you is the people. And that was exactly the difference maker for us, the reason for me taking extra time to write this review. Though we had never met our guide Godlove before, unlike most folks, we did have an indirect connection with his family for 12 years. Our very good friend (from Connecticut) had gone for her first safari in 2010, and her guide was Goodluck (Godlove’s father). Our friend had such a good experience with Goodluck as a guide, that she went back in 2018 with her family. Of course, once again with Goodluck as her guide. Once again she had the most wonderful time. This time around, unfortunately for a brief period Goodluck was indisposed shortly before we went (thankfully, he is absolutely fine now), so his son Godlove was our guide. And his sister, Magreth, is truly the brains behind this family-run operation. The moment we stepped out at Arusha airport, the warm hug Magreth gave to all of us (never having met us before) was truly surprising, and disarming. We kind of instantly hit it off with Magreth and Godlove. I am the kind of person who has a 1000 questions at a new place (especially if it involves getting up-close-and-personal with predators). Godlove pretty soon figured out that fact, which my family has known forever. And he soon joined the rest of my family in making good-natured banter and jokes. Yes, I am that guy who likes taking only a zillion pictures on any vacation. With a straight-face Godlove would say – “you got 10 pictures with the zebra looking left, now it is looking right, do you want me to stop?” Most evenings he would join us for dinner, and we would recap all our exciting sightings that day over gin and wine. He is so much more than a guide, and by the end of the safari he truly became our friend (rafiki). And no, this friendship is not for a week or a month just because we are still on a Serengeti sugar high. Though we are back home now, we know our WhatsApp group with Godlove and Magreth will remain quite active for the next several decades. Goodluck met us briefly on the morning we were leaving from Arusha to Tarangire. And then we spent an hour with him when we returned from Serengeti, coaxing him to share with us some of his stories from 25-30 years of proudly showing around the land, which truly belongs to the wildlife, where we make a transient passage as awe-struck guests. Most of the times in life, reality is a huge let-down compared to the anticipation of the sublime occasion or experience. But this time around, it was absolutely the polar opposite – far, far beyond even our most hyperbolic imaginations. And that was singularly possible due to this boutique operator Ndanda Tours (Arusha, Tanzania), thanks to our dear friends Magreth, Godlove and Goodluck. And that’s why, just like our favorite restaurant, we can’t stop raving about them and our most incredible 10 days to our friends. As promised, we will be back some year, in February (as you advised Godlove), to see the wildlife in the lush green backdrop. Until then, cheers - maisha marefu!