On Saturday morning, after a chaotic week of work, an alarm woke Stefje and me from a deep slumber. In a sleepy haze penetrated only by the narcotic tingle of pre-vacation anticipation, we navigated to Amsterdam's Schipol airport and boarded a flight to Tanzania.
The next few hours offered an enchanting diversity of aerial views. We crossed from the lowlands of irrigated Dutch farmland high over the glorious soaring peaks of the Alps, then followed the arid and rocky Croatian coastline until crossing over the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean.
When I awoke from a nap the incredible monotony of the Sahara dominated the landscape, spreading out over an immense area for hours on end. By the time we arrived at Kilimanjaro airport the sun had long since faded away, but we were brightly greeted by immigration officers and progressed through four different queues before being released into the clear African night.
On Sunday morning we awoke bright and early to begin our safari. As our jeep pulled out of Arusha, the city quickly faded away; concrete gave way to dry grasslands and the standard local attire of faded jeans and t-shirts was replaced with the traditional vibrant robes of the Massai people. These pastoral communities have been occupying the ecosystem for hundreds of years, constantly rejecting the advancement of outsiders.
The air here was so dry we could instantly feel the difference. Trotting animals picked up clouds of dust, our mouths were quickly parched, and for miles and miles in the distance all we could see was arid shrubbery and yellowing grasses.
A few hours of driving brought us to Tarangire National Park. This bastion of beauty and biodiversity is oft overlooked for its more famous neighbors, but we soon discovered how silly that is. Let's review the astounding array of species.
First up are the zebras. Within seconds of stepping into the park we could spot scores of these animals grazing peacefully just steps from our vehicle. Their patented striping system was all the more splendid in person; when groups of them got together my eyes were amused by the tricks of their patterns.
Heavily prominent alongside zebras were wildebeests. These creatures may seem ugly at first glance with their grotesque faces, but I found them quite endearing and they trot with a dignified gait.
A few minutes further down the road, we caught our first glimpse of buffalo. These pack animals rarely move from their shady perches, enabling survival in the heat of the savannah. Prominent skulls that jut out like handlebars give them away from great distances.
Also plentiful was the striking impala, with horns that protruded in perfectly symmetrical fashion.
No exploration of the park could be complete without mentioning the Baobab tree. These gigantic plants can survive for up to a thousand years due to ingenious self-preservation methods. Their swollen trunks hold tens of thousands of gallons of water, enabling the complex alignment of gnarled branches to bloom with flowers after months on end without rain. The biggest problem the trees face is the possible attacks of elephants, who scrape against their bark to grab water when the rains cease and the rivers dry up.
As we progressed towards the heart of the park, birds began to show their might. Above us a symphony of wings erupted, weaving in and out of our vision in a glorious demonstration of their might.
On the ground, ostriches roamed both solo and in packs. Thin legs barely supported their oval-shaped bodies, while tiny heads protruded from long necks.
Yet my favorite bird was the superb starling, with metallic green feathers that shone brightly in the midday light and glinted whenever in flight.
Even lunch was a barbaric affair. As jeeps settled into a picnic spot, a proud baboon perched on a railing, exposing his impressive chest.
A few minutes later he transformed from a calm observer to a wild beast. With reckless abandon and absolutely zero fear of humans, he catapulted over the railing, bounded onto a picnic table, scared the people away, and grabbed as much food as he could. By the time a guide came over to shush him away with a stick, he had a sandwich in his hand and a juice box in his mouth!
Also nearby at lunch was a pack of monkeys with a couple of newborn babies alongside, constantly alert to steal some extra food from unsuspecting guests.
Despite all the chaos and sights, our safari was still just getting started. The afternoon began by spotting a herd of elephants. African elephants, sought after by poachers for their ivory tusks, are the peaceful rumbling monsters of the plains. With ears that spread wide, powerful legs that can stamp down attackers and a trunk for added protection, no one on the food chain voluntarily messes with an elephant.
All afternoon we caught glimpses of the gentle giants. They roamed the fields by groups of up to a dozen, with mothers protecting their vulnerable children.
Just as the post-lunch slump was beginning to hit us, we found we weren't the only ones in the mood for an afternoon nap. A few meters from the side of the road, our guide excitedly pointed out a pair of sleeping cheetahs. Mother and child were planted under the tree, their lazy demeanor, soft fur, and endearing whiskers belying the fact that we were in the presence of one of the park's fastest and most ferocious predators.
Whereas the rest of the animals shared the grasslands harmoniously, it was clear that we had now encountered a carnivore. Other animals gave the cheetahs a wide berth, not wanting to become an afternoon snack.
Later on we got a good glimpse of the most graceful creature in the park: a giraffe. These long-necked animals never want for food as they meander across the plains, cherry-picking their favorites from the canopy.
The trip ended with a highlight, as we got our first glimpse of a pride of lions. Three females lazed under a broad tree while the remnants of their breakfast slowly decayed in a drying river bed.
A slew of buzzards had begun to circle overhead, but no one was interested in drawing the ire of these queens of the jungle.
As our car came to a halt once last time in the park, an utter stillness swept through the air. Gone was the chaos of life back home, the expectations, the to-do lists. Here in Tarangire it was obvious that life returned to its primal roots. I couldn't help but just feel like a voyeur parachuting into a complex ecosystem, blessed to witness such a beautiful display of life millions of years in the making.