The Serengeti at the Great Migration
When I was young, I was wild—an unstoppable girl, fearless as any child ever was—with the advantage of having enough younger siblings to allow my wanderings to slip under my parent's radar. I understood back then precisely how important it was to know how strong I was, how high I could climb, how fast I could run, and how far I could travel in a day. I used to pick some distant hill on the horizon, and resolve to stand at its top by the end of day, then do it. I planned to traverse the whole world in that manner—each day traveling to the point where the sky met the earth by sunset until my footsteps brought me back to where I'd begun, and I could say with confidence that I'd seen it all. Phileas Fogg had done it in 80 days, but at age seven, I understood the advantage of his wealth, and figured cheerfully that armed with two ziplock bags stuffed with quarters, a backpack full of sandwiches, a compass, and my walking stick, that it might take me as long as five years—which was a very satisfying length for such an adventure.
I remember when the messages of my youth changed, around the time we started living in a "city." Society and my macro culture began to impress upon me that some of my wildness should be weeded away. Be careful—became a favorite saying of my dad's—don't talk to anyone you don't know, and don't go too far from home. Those three statements jarred against most of my core values and prompted a Why, Dad? from me, to which he responded cryptically because anything could happen. I considered this carefully, and swallowed my reply, realizing it would be taken as sassing if I pointed out the obvious—that the very premise of any adventure was that anything could happen.
To illustrate how this began to play out, on my ninth birthday, I was thrilled to get my very first pair of rollerblades and was surprised by the accompanying gifts of armored elbow pads, wrist guards, shin guards, knee pads, and a pink helmet. I was told I had to wear all these things before I rolled down the alleyways or around the single block that had been designated as the non-negotiable boundary of my new realm in the new city we had moved to. I looked like a tiny Ninja Turtle with all my gear—a plus in those days—yet even so adorned, Dad remarked to my mom that maybe they could secure a pillow to my back with a belt just in case I fell backward—a comment that encouraged me to dash down the alley before they could debate this further.
As I grew older, the mixed messages continued—unheeded by me—through the years of sports I loved. In softball, I used to be a batter who'd let the wild pitches hit me—jumping back felt like fear and defeat, and I soon learned that nothing ever hurt as much as you imagined it might. I was the starting pitcher for years and never lost my nerve, no matter how close the score, or how big the batter. My other great love was gymnastics, which I did seriously for eight glorious years, becoming state champion on balance beam when I was twelve.
But around the time I was exiting my Sophomore year in high school, something shifted, and all the messages of how dangerous the world was for girls, and how close each of us might be from being seriously and irrevocably incapacitated, began to permeate my worldview. Once they began to seep in, there was no stopping them, and I became an expert in risk management. A year later I had to quit gymnastics because I couldn't justify doing back handsprings on the high beam anymore, or tumbling through the air on the floor—it was just too dangerous, and for what?
After that, the wild in me was largely suppressed. I went to college and tried to do all the things a person was supposed to do in college to stay alive and better themselves. I became that voice of reason, the first to ask if everyone was buckled—even when I wasn't driving—the first to remind my friends what the long-term emotional and financial consequences of anything might be...
I didn't know anymore how high I could climb, or how fast I could run, or how far I could make it on foot in a single day, or how close I could stand to the edge without falling. In this world I had made for myself, I did not take risks where anything could happen—and I was bored out of my mind.
My adult life was close at hand. I felt it pressing in all around me, and I began to crave the wildness I'd once possessed, with my old beliefs in the vastness of the world and the meaning that could be found in the endless plains. More than anything, I wanted to know that the world was big enough to get lost in, with mysteries too big to solve in a hundred lifetimes.
All these things were the catalyst for my first out of country excursion to Africa, as part of a cultural immersion program for my medical missions minor my parents hoped I'd never use. I'd just finished my vaccinations for the internship, and Mom had finally accepted that I was going, and packed me a safety kit, with enough bandages and creams to cover two burn/poison ivy/lion attack victims head-to-toe twice over, and a dozen sealed syringes, which neither of us had any idea how to use. The safety kit gave me Ninja turtle flashbacks, but no matter, because I was going, and that was that.
A few months later, I stood in the New York airport alone, with my first crisp passport in my hands, flooded with the buoyancy of freedom, and a glow of possibilities and adventure that I hadn't felt since I was young. It was as if a decade's worth of learned life-anxiety was evaporating.
It was a long journey there—to London, then Nairobi, then to a tiny, hand-started propeller plane that would bring me to Mwanza town, on the edge of Lake Victoria. For a time, we flew low enough to the ground to make out herds of gazelle with curved horns, skimming the hills below our winged shadow. When the plane finally ascended, the attendant beckoned out the window, to the black, blunted peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro jutting starkly above thick fleecy clouds.
The following month and a half was phenomenal, full of vibrant experiences, joy, and not a few situations I was lucky to make it out of unscathed—many stories for another day. Yet the greatest adventure happened five weeks in, when I found myself crammed into a white ranger, elbow-to-elbow with five other interns, on our way to spend two days and one night exploring the Serengeti.
The first thing that struck me about the Serengeti was that there were no fences or glass walls bordering the park—nothing keeping the animals in, and very little keeping the humans out. At twenty, I was well-accustomed to regulation, and zoos with glass-upon-glass, before rails and cages with the elephants and giraffes, and lions inside, and the humans safely outside. It was startling to realize that we were stepping into their home, their true realm, where they were captive to no one.
We registered the vehicle and were given waivers that said we wouldn't hold the park responsible if we were eaten or injured in any way during our stay, and that we understood the risk of exiting our cars and pitching our tents in the Serengeti, and that, though there were night guards around the camp where we would sleep, that no one could guarantee our safety. We all signed.
It was fifteen minutes driving along the tire-worn dirt path before we spotted anything. For a while, it was impossibly flat, with little shrubbery and no trees to break the plains that extended in all directions—just a waving line of heat that blurred the vanishing point where the land met the sky. The first zebra we saw was barely visible through the furthest zooms of our cameras, yet we dedicated at least twenty pictures apiece to the tiny stripped dot. Our driver—a good-humored missionary who had volunteered to be our guide—laughed, and told us to save our battery. He turned up Michael Jackson's Greatest Hits, and sang along gustily as we zipped over the light road.
Five minutes later, the horizon began to move and shift, and suddenly, we found ourselves in the midst of a herd of two-hundred zebras. They were nearly close enough for us to touch from the window. Their mohawks rustled stiffly in the breeze, and the muscles in their backs jumped testily as they surrounded the ranger. They brayed noisily, like funny high-pitched hiccoughs that happened on the inhale and the exhale and could go on endlessly, save for the dizziness. A cloud of dust followed them as they crossed our path, and when it settled, they were gone. We turned to each other with wide eyes, unbelieving of what we'd just seen, as our driver chuckled, and indulged himself in a few "I told you so's."
A bit further and we came across a herd of wildebeest with powerful haunches and slender legs. They joined another herd of zebras, and the landscape was filled with purple-brown hides milling against the sharp black-and-white stripes, as the animals journeyed towards new lands together. It struck me as incredible that they knew not just the direction to travel, but when it was time to begin their journey, with no person or input beyond instinct driving them on, just the conviction that it was time to go and a gut instinct of where to head. I wondered if I would ever be so certain about anything, and felt a deep ache of longing to be so free.
I watched tall grasses fly past outside my window, as our driver urged the ranger along a path only he seemed able to see, till we reached a clearing with a little drop-off. To my surprise, he parked and jumped out of the ranger and walked to the edge, enjoying our hesitation as we scanned the surrounding bushes for lions—we were suddenly conscious of being unarmed and vulnerable to whatever predators might be out there. Yet, one by one, we left the vehicle and joined him at the edge of the foulest smelling pools I'd ever seen.
From the water, emerged fifty pairs of cupped, delicate ears, that fluttered at us endearingly, and broad blunt snouts expelling little clouds of water. It was impossible to say how many hippos were in that pool or how deep the water was. More and more snouts appeared on the surface as we looked down, until it seemed likely that the hippos were stacked four tall in the water.
A smaller hippo scaled the rock on one side of the pool clumsily and slipped back into the water to land on a larger—now irritated—hippo. The affronted hippo rose and shrugged the other off his shoulders, immense jaws gaping wide. Immediately, twenty feet away, the bull emerged from the depths, displacing a few other hippos as well, throwing open his mouth to reveal tusk-like teeth as thick as my wrist, as it bellowed. The other hesitated, then lowered submissively below the surface. The bull swung his head left to right with his jaws wide a moment longer, until he was sure no one else would get out of line, then he snapped them shut and sank, his eyes stayed trained on us all the while.
Hippos were responsible for killing more people than any other animal in Africa—more than crocs, more than lions—and I was standing on the edge of their pool, with no enclosure between us. I felt something then that I hadn't been conscious of feeling since I was young—that feeling of wanting to walk towards danger, and get as close as physically possible to something that could kill you.
I scrambled down the side of the pool out on a flat rock that extended five feet out, just a few inches above the water level. More and more eyes dotted the water around the rock and goosebumps rose on my arms. I wasn't sure how fast a hippo could exit the water, or how fast it could move on land if so motivated, but still, I didn't move. The bull disappeared and resurfaced closer, and closer to the rock where I stood until my heart was thudding so hard in my throat that I couldn't breathe. Finally, it was near enough that I could have easily leapt from the rock to where he was. The water began to shed off his enormous back as he emerged, and I turned and flew back up the bank, muscles shaking with adrenaline, every nerve singing and throbbing with life.
I don't know what possessed me after that, but from that point on, I wanted to get as close to everything as I could—a sentiment our driver seemed to share, and one that got us into trouble when we were charged by an elephant and had to floor it in reverse, and then again, when a gorgeous giraffe with long lashes tried to put her leg through our roof, and then once more when I was standing on the edge of a bank above a massive crocodile, and the sand gave way beneath my feet.
I could only imagine what my mom would have said about all that.
We saw three prides of lions that day—one in the midst of feeding on an unfortunate wildebeest. The windows of the ranger were the old-fashioned kind that took quite a bit of elbow grease to roll down and up again. They'd been down all day, and we leaned with arms and heads out the window for twenty minutes, watching the lions strip the carcass to the bone, not twenty feet away. One of the interns wondered aloud if we should roll the windows up, just in case, but we were too absorbed in watching to reply. When they finished gorging themselves, they stretched with swollen bellies in the tall grass and passed out. The male shook his amber mane and gave something between a yawn and a lazy roar that sent shivers down my spine, and I admired his teeth, considering with disbelief that we would be pitching our tents in his territory.
The further we drove, the more alive I felt, and the more connected I was to this landscape and wildlife—the lionesses draped from the boughs of trees; the giraffes loping across the plains—creatures so tall they appeared to rock and glide in slow motion when they ran; the elephants fanning their ears back and forth near the water sources; and everywhere, endless herds of wildebeests and zebras surging towards a point on the horizon only they could see.
At end of the day, we came to the encampment, which was just an unenclosed circle of tents in the middle of the plains near a mess kitchen with a few picnic tables and an outhouse. I asked our driver whether anyone had ever been eaten camping here, and he shrugged and said that he would ask in the kitchen if they had coffee, and left me to wonder.
Before our tent was a vast plain, at the end of which was a mountain that loomed abruptly from the surrounding flatness. What arrested my attention was a necklace of red around its middle that it seemed to be moving. When I asked the Kenyan night guard about it, he told me fires were common this time of year. No, no one was trying to put it out, it was natural and needed for life to thrive—he replied in beautiful accents—the wildlife would move on before it, and the earth would renew again. It was the way.
I thanked him and pondered this as I walked to the ranger, and clambered on top of the roof to watch the enormous African sun lower into the horizon and paint the trees and the animals that moved across her surface. The colors were warm, then fiery orange, then cool pink with a deep swath of purple below. The fire glowed brighter and brighter as it moved uninhibited down the mountain, and the light around it deepened.
It was the furthest thing I could see on the horizon, and I wondered automatically how long it would take me to get there on foot. The thought reminded me of young Willa with her walking stick and bag of quarters, and it made me laugh, and I folded my arms behind my head and leaned back, letting the song of the Serengeti fill my ears.
The elephants meandered in the lengthening shadows. Hyenas yapped and shuffled across the plain. A giraffe paused her feeding on the tops of scrubby trees, and her long neck silhouetted against the sky. An unpursued ostrich sprinted through the golden light, perhaps simply for the joy of knowing how fast she was and how far she could get in a day. I watched them till the light was gone, feeling their wildness reawaken my own, as they drew me back into the world I loved...
where anything could happen.