Far deep in the African bush, gleeful tribesmen of a pot-smoking hunting clan plunked a crown of hairy baboon skin atop my head. Evidently they were monkeying around. The friendly Hadza people spoke in a unique indigenous language of loud tongue clicks and popping noises and nicely motioned for me to sit in a chair, which was a stack of jumbo spiral-horned kudu antelope skulls on the dirt ground. All the male members were draped in furs of animals shot for food with handmade bows and sometimes poison-dipped arrows, just like their ancestors over 10,000 years ago.

More about the Hadza later, but if that experience sounds astoundingly educational, wait until the next morning. Inside the world’s biggest intact volcanic caldera, I watched a strapping shaggy-maned lion and his lioness girlfriend have sex (and yes, I felt a little voyeuristic).

Tens of thousands of zebras join 1.5 million wildebeest annually migrating across Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya and back. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

This all occurred during my extraordinary Tanzanian safari where I also embedded with the main event: the epic Great Migration, an annual, year-round spectacle of 1.5 million wildebeest and a half-million zebra and gazelles trudging 1,200 miles across predator-lurking plains in search of grass to munch and water to drink.

Elephant tusks are actually huge teeth and help the herbivore pachyderms — like this one in Tarangire National Park — tear up plants and defend themselves. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

lose-up encounters with handsome amber-eyed beasts are a highlight of game drives in Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti national parks. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Graceful giraffes, such as these in Tarangire National Park, are the planet’s tallest living land mammals. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

A pair of baboons care for a little one in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Cheetahs, such as this mom in the Serengeti, are the fastest land animals and teach their youngsters to hunt by example. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

A young puppy-like hyena in the Serengeti looks very cute but even at this age, the carnivorous cubs can be ferocious. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

A tree-climbing lion cub follows his mom and sibling up into branches for a rest in Tarangire National Park. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

It appears that Dad lion didn’t finish his “honey-do” list. The feline family was in Serengeti National Park. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Flappy-eared juveniles stay close to their mother while eating vegetation in Tarangire National Park. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Children of the Datoga tribe entertain themselves by writing with chalk on the exterior of a rustic home. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Two male lion buddies relax in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is full of wildlife. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Giraffes share a lush meadow in Tarangire National Park, with warthogs reminiscent of Pumbaa. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

A smoking Hadza hunter is surrounded by different arrows designed for killing edible prey ranging from sparrows to Cape buffalos. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

At least one wildebeest takes note of a skulking hyena on the edge of tasty migrating herds. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

A vibrant rainbow appears over the Serengeti savanna after brief showers in the afternoon. (Photo by Norma Meyer)



In famed Serengeti National Park, our off-roading Land Cruiser parted hoofed throngs like the Red Sea; imagine being surrounded 360 degrees by gigantic herds of the planet’s largest mass pilgrimage of land animals spread so far they resembled solid walls of pebbles on the distant horizon. I started saying “hello” to zillions of zebras who locked eyes with me. (Really, it didn’t seem weird at the time.)

Camp Dulana tents, in Tanzania’s Serengeti, have comfy beds to sleep in while being serenaded by wildebeest and lions. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

One afternoon at our  mobile Camp Dulana, a sudden boisterous parade of wildebeest galloped behind my isolated canvas tent to places unknown. During the middle of that night, I awoke to the bellowing, nonstop moooo-grunts of the hefty, endearingly ugly ungulates trampling through our secluded camp. By morning, the bearded beasts had vanished. But at lunch — as I savored a flower-shaped eggplant entree and Serengeti-label beer—  a contingent re-appeared to graze with black-and-white striped comrades in front of our camp.

An al fresco breakfast, arranged in the Serengeti bush by our Wilderness Travel team, includes vegetable quiche and a view of migrating herds. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Of course, this all makes sense because along with six American vacationers, I was on a 13-day “Tanzania: The Great Migration Safari” run by Wilderness Travel, a Berkeley-based, family-owned, 45-year-old tour company sporting impressive reviews (one Chicago couple on our trip had previously taken 24 different Wilderness Travel journeys). We’d spend eight wondrous nights in two remote glamping camps that were solely for our Wilderness Travel troop and partly staffed by kind, local Maasai men wrapped in traditional red-checked shuka robes and sharing how they traded cattle for wives. Let me emphasize how much I looked forward to my daily, pre-ordered 4 p.m. shower, when a worker hoisted a five-gallon bucket of wood-heated water on a pulley outside my tent and inside the sprinkler head delightfully trickled over me.

Most importantly, humongous high fives for our Big Five scouts. During our entire January adventure, our easygoing, Superman-visioned, mega-intuitive Tanzanian guides Naiman Mungure and Arnold Swai enlightened and ferried us in two 4WD jeeps over 650 action-packed miles from the city of Arusha to animal-aplenty Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Serengeti national parks.

With rectangular-shaped heads and wispy beards, wildebeest look like a mix between a horse, cow and who knows what. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Also, take note: The Great Migration isn’t just the heavily touristed, intense, dramatic river crossings sensationally captured in documentaries, and featuring stampeding wildebeest attacked by crocodiles and jumping from cliffs. That is generally between July and September when herds are entering Kenya before returning to Tanzania. Wilderness Travel also offers Great Migration safaris (wildernesstravel.com, from $10,195) throughout the year. In late January, we were often the only vehicles on the vast green savannas. (The migration, however, is influenced by weather patterns, so there’s no guarantees you’ll see super herds.)

Hyenas have been called the “laughing assassins.” This pack in the Serengeti vigorously ingested remains of a dead wildebeest. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Understand we had added thrills. No, not the 14 spotted hyenas crunching bones of their grisly wildebeest dinner (the youngest hyena proudly pranced around with the victim’s antlered face in its mouth). Or the muscular, zigzagging lion quartet who casually escorted our slow-creeping vehicle for more than 15 breathtaking minutes in an apparent quest to find a drier lair (or to ditch camera-pointing anthropoids). Deadly El Niño downpours have pummeled Tanzania, and rugged roads — when they existed — had become  flooded and slippery traps of sinking mud. “Rock ’n’ roll safari! Hold tight!” Naiman warned, as he deftly navigated like a Formula One driver through rushing streams and swampy marshes, while we jounced and swayed. In pachyderm-populated Tarangire, my two fellow passengers and I were smacking stinging tsetse flies with cow tails attached to handles when Naiman brilliantly traversed a slimy treacherous corner only to encounter a behemoth trumpeting bull elephant head-on in our path. The tusked pedestrian got the right-of-way.

A lioness stretches after a nap and before crossing the road to mate with her eager partner in the Ngorongoro Crater. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

hunderous storms sporadically hit overnight, but most days were clear and good viewing for game drives. Now, about those lusting lions: it turns out mating is serious business and pairs copulate up to an exhausting 3,000 times during the one week a female is in heat. Neither partner eats during that phase. The cat couple we saw in the Ngorongoro Crater was first asleep, but Arnold explained their resting intervals last about 20 minutes. We waited and soon the male lion stood up and gently licked the rear of his lady friend, who like other breeding lionesses decides when sex will happen again. She lifted her head and snarled and swatted at her suitor several times. Awhile later, they both ambled across the road and did the deed.

Three cubs suckle their nursing mother in a blissful scene of Serengeti nature. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Elsewhere, in a more homey scene, a tranquil lioness nursed her three cutesy cubs in the Serengeti while Dad snoozed next to them. We must’ve seen nearly 40 lions during our safari, some close enough to scratch their chin hairs. (Although I’d pass on the blood-soaked chin of the fierce feline disemboweling a freshly killed zebra).

Five lions seem curious about human onlookers taking a game drive in the bush of Serengeti National Park. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Trust me, there’s nothing like a front row seat to untamed nature. Zebra moms nursed spindly-legged foals; baboon moms nursed teeny spidery babies and intricately groomed companions; elegant towering giraffes and their long-lashed offspring chewed acacia trees side by side; matriarch-led elephants massaged their itching bodies against worn trees and hovered over miniature Dumbos; a bunch of wildebeest protectively enveloped a precious newborn calf walking on wobbly feet.

Cape buffalo in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater take mud baths to cool themselves off and help remove insects. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

A one-ton Cape buffalo enjoyably rolled in a mud bath, vigorously digging his thick flared horns into the slop supposedly to make them look bulkier and more manly. And a red rose wasn’t at stake but a half-dozen “bachelor” impalas (seriously that’s what they’re called) cautiously approached a “harem” of female impalas for a possible takeover by one lucky buck. The harem’s alpha male individually chased each competitor off.

All impalas, including these females, have a black M-shaped mark on their backsides and are wryly dubbed the McDonald’s fast food for predators. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Besides animal behavior, the humans in Tanzania — there are some 125 ethnic tribes — truly enthrall.

“Ye-auck! Ye-auck! Ta-ta-ta-ta, kow!” a 20-ish Hadza tribesman swiveled his hips and animatedly yelled, imitating for us various hunting gestures and sounds of arrow-stricken wildlife. His name was Ia Ia (pronounced E-ya, E-ya) and he was a tremendously energetic, comedic storyteller who fist-bumped me as a greeting. “He is saying, ‘Welcome to our home. Be free,’” our interpreter, Halfan, translated the clicking language. The Hazda are one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth, surviving on prey ranging from porcupines to infrequently a giraffe, along with foraged tubers, berries and baobab fruit. Baboons are high on the menu, and Ia Ia’s primate pelt, with claws and tail, dangled over his bare chest and fringed Western-style knee-length jeans. Halfan had earlier told us that Hadza baby boys used to be cut twice with a sharp blade on their cheek to deter them from crying; saltwater tears in the wound stung. Ia Ia had those two scars.

The Hadza bushmen, shown here at target practice, survive by expertly hunting animals like their ancient forebears. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Soon after we arrived at the Hadza camp, hunters ripped off the golden feathers of a small weaver bird and roasted it over a fire for a snack. Many of the Hadza men smoked tobacco or cannabis; a weathered elder, cloaked in a jackal’s furry remains, sat near two marijuana bushes and displayed his crudely crafted stone pipe. During our happy afternoon, the young male adults showed us their tiny round thatched huts, demonstrated their proficiency at target practice, and sang and danced as they would after a successful hunt.

A member of the Datoga tribe offers up a handmade bracelet. He was among Datoga blacksmiths, who create arrowheads, spears and jewelry from melted scrap metal. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

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Earlier, we visited the ancient livestock-raising Datoga tribe, and observed how their blacksmiths melted scrap metal to create arrowheads and knives for the Hadza, who traded honey and skins in exchange. Bushka, a sweet Datoga grandma, wore an elaborately beaded traditional goat skin skirt of tanned, thin strips and invited us into a rudimentary low-slung house built from cow dung and acacia tree limbs and sprouting aloe vera for medicinal use on the roof. Inside it was nearly pitch black. Hanging calabash gourds held rotting milk for making butter.

Our 13-day journey never stopped teaching — even the little things. At our first Wilderness Travel camp, Osunyai Lamarkau in Tarangire, the initial lesson was never leave shoes outside your tent because hyenas had a quirky fetish for them. Who knew? My hiking boots were inside the night that would-be footwear thieves left tracks up to my zip-up entry. Throughout our trip, I drifted asleep in my tents’ comfy beds listening to the cackling whoops of hyenas and the guttural, vibrating roars of lions. It was awesome.

A glorious sunset in Tarangire National Park is the quintessential African ending to an ideal safari day. Plus, it was accompanied by a Champagne toast with fellow Wilderness Travel adventurers. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

We had so many memorable sidelights: a climb up the Maasai sacred “shifting sands” dune where tribal women unable to conceive bury jewelry in the magnetic volcanic ash as offerings: a chance to gawk at a 1.8-million-year-old cranium of a skinny human-ish female christened “Twiggy” on display at Louis and Mary Leakey’s legendary archeological site; our guides’ heroic rescue of strangers’ mud-entrapped vehicles on three separate occasions (I swear an entire village cheered when we towed out a stuck jeep blocking their yellow supply truck painted with Jesus’ likeness); our Champagne sundowners in the meditatively beautiful wild; our outdoor picnic breakfasts directly alongside the magnificent migration. (Hello zebras!)

As our guide Arnold often and so perfectly said: “Everything is in harmony.”