A Seattle Times writer and photographer experience Africa on a quieter safari circuit.

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When the big picture overwhelms, I focus on details.

That’s how I’d made it through Africa so far.

In clinics crammed with dying AIDS patients and feverish babies, I would zero in on a single mother and child. Sit with them and listen to their story.

Memorizing the sound of an infant’s cries or the creases in a woman’s face gave me a touchstone as I struggled to report on Africa’s health woes and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to help.

Now, the hard work was over. I was on the grasslands of the Serengeti — a place I’d fantasized about since I was a third-grader poring over pictures of giraffes and thorn trees in Weekly Reader.

But the plains seemed too vast to comprehend.

Casting around for something of more manageable scale, I found it at my feet.

Their iridescent armor glittering in the hot sun, dung beetles the size of Matchbox trucks were rolling elephant droppings into golf-ball-sized spheres. I dropped to my knees for a close-up view as one female fought off another’s attempt to steal her handiwork.

Throughout my travels in Tanzania’s game parks, I found myself drawn to these small scenes and quiet dramas: 2-foot-tall klipspringers balanced like ballerinas on the tips of their hoofs; legions of soldier ants locking bodies to form a path for their migrating clan.

The place I felt most comfortable was also the most unassuming: Ndutu, a speck of a place on the southern edge of Serengeti National Park. It rarely gets more than a mention in guidebooks, yet the region’s varied habitat makes it a magnet for wildlife big and small. More than 1.5 million wildebeest pause here to give birth each spring, part of the world’s biggest mammalian migration. All six species of African cats prowl the woodlands and savannah. The setting is steeped in history. And the only lodge has none of the pretension and excess that can be so jarring at other stops on Tanzania’s popular northern safari circuit.

Coming off an assignment that brought me face-to-face with a side of Africa tourists rarely see, Ndutu was the perfect window into another reality: A natural and human landscape both intimate and awe-inspiring.

I CAME TO Ndutu more by chance than by choice. After four weeks of traveling from clinic to hospital to research lab in Zambia and Tanzania, Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman and I were drained.

In our reporting on malaria and its awful toll, we were witness to suffering and death. I can still close my eyes and hear one mother’s wails for her dead daughter. We walked rounds with overworked nurses, in wards where every bed was full and sick people curled up on the floor. We spoke with scientists working on a vaccine and officials battling swollen rivers to distribute bed nets.

But the final story we covered in Africa took us on a 180-degree turn. We were meeting Anne Hilborn, a young Seattle biologist who crisscrossed the Serengeti ecosystem to monitor cheetahs. When we visited last March, she was working out of Ndutu (roughly pronounced “In-doo-too”).

Just getting there proved a challenge.

We could take a bush plane from Arusha, a bustling town in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and jumping-off point for most Tanzanian safaris. But the rains had been heavy, Anne warned. Ndutu’s small gravel landing strip might be a bog. (It has since been paved.) No bus or train came anywhere close.

Before leaving Seattle, I had hastily arranged a weeklong driving safari to begin after our work was done. Our guide, Salvatory Mrema of Roy Safaris Ltd. — a small, locally owned company in Arusha — agreed to start early and shuttle us the six hours to Ndutu.

We would travel a road that took us past some of the most storied landmarks of eastern Africa — places that had shimmered in my imagination for decades:

Leaving the foothills, we dropped into the Great Rift Valley, a primordial lowland formed by the thrust and plunge of tectonic plates. At the valley’s western edge, we ascended the escarpment of the Crater Highlands, an arc of ancient volcanoes.

The pavement ends just below Ngorongoro Crater, a 12-mile-wide caldera that may be the closest thing on Earth to a lost world. With grasslands and marsh, forest and lakes, the crater teems with wildlife, including some of the region’s few remaining rhinos. We stopped at an overlook and Salvatory pointed out dots on the caldera floor. Seen through binoculars, they resolved into toy-sized elephants, dwarfed by distance.

At an elevation of nearly 7,500 feet, the air felt mild and silky — a release from the sweaty clutch of the Tanzanian coast where Steve and I had spent much of our time. Even at Ndutu, nearly 2,000 feet lower, temperatures dipped enough in the evening to require a sweater.

Beyond Ngorongoro Crater, the road roughened and snaked down to the edge of the grasslands. We passed bands of wildebeest, shaking their shaggy heads and bolting in all directions as if prodded by live wires. A sign marked the turnoff to Olduvai Gorge. It was in this dusty ravine that anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey unearthed the 1.8 million-year-old hominid skull called “Nutcracker Man” for its large molars. It was exhilarating to be away from crowded urban centers. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the people we had met, and those whose homes we were whizzing past in a Land Rover big enough to hold 10. For many Tanzanians, foot-power is the only means of transport. Those who can afford it cram into dalla-dallas, diesel-belching minibuses packed tighter than a Tokyo subway car.

I had come to Africa expecting stereotypes: Impoverished victim; idealistic doctor; harried bureaucrat. I found them all, of course — and, in each, so much more. The easy humor took me by surprise. Top scientists and doctors were quick to laugh at themselves and their government’s foibles. I was impressed by the optimism and industry, as well as level of courtesy that’s rare even in a well-mannered city like Seattle. We were always greeted at clinics and labs with a gracious “karibu” — a word of welcome — and inquiries about our families, health and travels.

While I savored the good fortune that was finally allowing me to live my “Out of Africa” fantasies, it made me uncomfortable to know few of the Tanzanians I met would ever get to see the wildlife their country is famed for.

AS WE DREW closer to Ndutu, we passed Masai bomas — thorn-fenced enclaves that house a man and his wives, each with her own dome-shaped dwelling of branches and mud. Tall and gaunt, the Masai believe all cattle on Earth belong to them. Men strode the savannah carrying only their wooden staffs, traditional red robes flung over their shoulders. Women, bent double under loads of firewood, begged for drinking water by the side of the road.

The Masai have the right to live and graze their cattle on the 2 million-acre Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is like a national forest in allowing multiple uses. Ndutu Safari Lodge and several of the nearby tent camps are located in the conservation area, just south of the more heavily regulated, 3.6 million-acre Serengeti National Park.

The sun was close to setting when feathery acacias rose from the plains like open umbrellas. From all points, colossal birds flapped toward these arboreal islands to roost for the night. White-backed and lappet-faced vultures; marabou storks with their ghastly death’s-heads; secretary birds taller than a 10-year-old and black-chested snake eagles converged in such numbers the trees seemed certain to tip under the load.

The forest thickened, and small birds zipped between the branches like bursts of confetti. With arms like a wrestler and the grin of a man who loves his work, Salvatory shared my fascination with creatures small. He pointed out a flock of superb starlings keeping pace with the Land Rover. Bearing no resemblance to North America’s blight of European starlings, this common African species earns its name with sapphire backs and carnelian bellies that flash in the sun.

Ndutu’s woodlands are unique in an area where grasslands dominate. So, too, are the nearby marshes and alkaline lakes. The wildebeest are drawn here by the greening of the grass between December and March. By the time we arrived, the bulk of the herd had moved on to the Serengeti plains, but clusters lingered everywhere. Stick-thin calves, separated from their mothers, ran desperately after our Land Rover. In the mornings, their bodies were fodder for carrion-feeders.

Hundreds of thousands of zebras and antelope follow the wildebeest on the never-ending trek, which loops northward into Kenya later in the year, then circles south again. Predators of every stripe, from hyenas to lions and leopards, stalk the migration, and Ndutu’s year-round water supply entices many to stay.

Less than a quarter of a mile from the lodge entrance, we rounded a corner and Salvatory slammed on the brakes. Three giraffes were munching trees spiked with thorns that could lacerate leather. We were so close we could hear the sound of chewing. It was the exact scene depicted in that 1965 Weekly Reader, and a sense of timelessness washed over me.

Ten minutes later we pulled into the lodge parking lot, joining a half-dozen other dusty Land Rovers.

WITH A STABLE government and none of the violent infighting that has plagued neighboring Kenya in recent years, Tanzania attracts more than 700,000 tourists a year. Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park are the top destinations. Most visitors stay in large lodges or tent camps and spend their days wildlife-watching with a private guide and vehicle.

Later, when Steve and I embarked on our vacation in what I came to call “safari land,” we spent time in those corporate-owned lodges. They’re fine — but seem intent on re-creating some Hollywood fantasy of great-white-hunter opulence: Groaning buffets, nightly “native” dance shows, turndown service and $15 cocktails in a country where few people earn that much in a week. At one lodge, waiters address the diners as “B’wana,” a Swahili version of “boss-man” popular in the colonial era. At another, employees smile constantly — as if their jobs depend on it.

Ndutu Safari Lodge feels different, largely because it never tries to upstage nature.

The first thing that caught my eye when we arrived were trees festooned with pendulous weaverbird nests. In the morning, their raucous inhabitants flew back and forth trailing ribbons of building material.

The lodge itself blends into the setting. Two rows of thatched-roof stone cottages flank a central dining room, bar and lounge open to the outdoors. Generations of genets, a spotted relative of the mongoose, have made their homes in the rafters of the main hall. In the evenings, the cat-sized creatures would sometimes venture into view and gaze down silently while chattering visitors snapped their photos.

Sitting on the front porch of our cottage that first night, I watched as a diorama of elephants, zebras and giraffes drifted past, foraging on the shore of shallow Lake Ndutu. At times, the lake’s surface is hidden under a pink blanket of flamingoes.

Seasoned Africa travelers told me the lodge reminds them of Tanzania’s early safari camps, which is fitting: Retired big-game hunter George Dove, a blustery man with an enormous waxed mustache, established the first permanent tent encampment here in the 1960s. One of the two current co-owners, Aadje Geertsema, visited as a girl with her family from The Netherlands and was stricken with a passion so fierce she likens it to disease. “We call it Tanza-ni-tis,” she said, taking a break from installing solar panels to sip coffee in the lounge.

Her first job in Ndutu was as an assistant to Dutch filmmaker Hugo van Lawik, whose documentaries with his wife at the time, Jane Goodall, introduced Africa’s wildlife to a wide audience and spurred conservation efforts. Inspired herself, Aadje begged and borrowed money to fund a study of the shy, big-eared felines called servals. She spent months alone in Ngorongoro Crater habituating the spotted cats to her presence so she could observe their behavior. Her report remains the standard reference on the species. The lodge at Ndutu fell into disrepair when Tanzania’s economy collapsed in the early 1980s, aggravated by a border dispute with Kenya that strangled tourist traffic. “There was nothing left — a few remnants of tents, a few rooms,” Aadje said. But she and her Tanzania-born business partner, Margaret Kullander, decided to pool their money and buy the bones. At a time when few women owned businesses in Tanzania, the cash-strapped pair did much of the labor themselves. They salvaged everything they could, turning wood paneling into tables, using only local materials and striving to keep their footprint to a minimum.

“It’s not too . . . lah-de-dah,” Aadje said, looking around and nodding approvingly.

Alkaline groundwater from a primitive well is used for showers. The rain provides drinking and cooking water. To conserve energy, the staff switches the generator off during the afternoon when most guests are out on game drives, and after 11:30 each night.

With wood-fired and propane stoves, the kitchen turns out fresh bread daily and gourmet dishes like beef bourguignonne and passion-fruit mousse. But the rooms have no electrical outlets. I overheard American visitors grumbling because they couldn’t use their hair dryers.

Aadje laughed at that. In the 1970s and ’80s, tourists had to travel with their own light bulbs, toilet paper and drums of petrol, she said. “People today have no idea how much we had to improvise. It was like the war.”

Now, she’s battling the tide of technology that brought cellphone reception to Ndutu last year. “People need to be entertained all the time,” she said with a disapproving frown. “I can see I’m old fashioned. But to me, this place means peace.”

Each evening, visitors can gather by a campfire to swap stories and listen for the roar of lions. One night after everyone else had gone to bed, Aadje pointed out the constellations of another hemisphere, starting with the Southern Cross. I remember it by the more descriptive name that some locals used: The giraffe.

WE SPENT two days chasing cheetahs with Anne, a dark-haired beauty who can jack her Land Rover out of a mud hole and read a bull elephant’s mood by watching his ears. It was during a picnic breakfast shortly after sunrise that I had the chance to study dung beetles. The next afternoon, Steve and I began our safari by moving to a small tent camp nearby, one of several in the Ndutu area. Some boasted porcelain sinks and flush toilets. At the other extreme, stripped down safaris offer backpacking-style tents and pads on the ground. Our camp, organized by the Karatu-based outfitter Amazing Tanzania, fell in between: Canvas tents big enough to stand in, cots, port-a-potties and a shower that required a bucket of heated water. Our only other campmates were a French couple.

At the big lodges, guides and guests are segregated at mealtimes. But in our informal camp, Salvatory and his fellow Roy Safari guide, Evagry Tesha, joined us in the mess tent for dinner — served by headlamp and candlelight — that started with wine and puréed vegetable soup. Other courses followed, but I can’t remember what they were. I’ll never forget the evening, though.

For me, it was the highlight of our trip. Thinking of it fills me with a strange melancholy that is equal parts longing to return and apprehension for such a special place and the people who work so hard to survive there.

Salvatory and Evagry shared stories from their early days in the safari business, like the time they spent the night on top of a broken-down van surrounded by lions. They’re among the lucky few Tanzanians whose passions and professions overlap. Most people are forced to take whatever work they can find. At the safari lodges, including Ndutu, workers spend nine months of the year away from their families. Salvatory’s young daughter keeps asking him to show her giraffes, but he hasn’t been able to.

That night, Steve and I sat by the campfire and listened to the noises emanating from the bush. Salvatory interpreted: The crashing sound was an elephant knocking over a tree; the high-pitched yips, a gathering of black-backed jackals. The whoop that built to a hair-raising crescendo was a hyena on the hunt.

Africa was still overwhelming. But on this night in Ndutu, the scale felt right.

Sandi Doughton is The Seattle Times science writer. She can be reached at 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.