Reading Ernest Hemingway, you always got the feeling that a man
was no more than a lace doily until he went to the green hills of
Africa and fired upon the big game. So I did.
O.K., it was with a Canon Point and Shoot. And the family came.
And we never went anywhere without a family-sized box of Huggies
wipes. The tour company reps insisted on it. "You'll get dusty,"
they warned. How's a guy supposed to show grace under pressure
with a box of Huggies wipes on his lap?
The safari was not quite as I'd dreamed. Before we went, I'd
spent hours admiring myself in the bedroom mirror, wearing my
22-pocket Hemingway-style safari jacket and Crocodile Hunter hat.
But after we arrived in Tanzania the kids refused to ride with me
in the jeep until I took them off.
Then, after a 13-Huggies drive to the first lodge, the front-desk
clerk told us, "Electricity is five o'clock until 10 each
evening." Not room-service hours. Not health-club hours.
Electricity hours. Do you give Amish points?
Not that there wasn't constant danger. At another lodge we had to
sign a death and dismemberment waiver, like at many Newark
hotels. At one camp we had to signal an "escort" with a
flashlight if we wanted to leave our tent after dark. The escort
was a native bearing a bow and a quiver of arrows in case, he
told us, of a hippo attack. Yeah, right. You know what an arrow
is to a 3,000-pound hippo? An after-dinner toothpick.
Out on the game views we saw some rare species. We saw the
Abercrombie and Kent nine-passenger jeep! The four-wheel-drive
Toyota van! The Land Cruiser with a third row of seats!
At one point we happened upon three sleeping lions--and 17 other
safari jeeps. The lions woke up to watch the behavior of the
huge, odd beasts. You could imagine a lion telling his cub,
"O.K., son, watch how they battle for dominance. Sometimes,
they'll even square off and lock bumpers. And look at the guy in
the stupid safari jacket!"
We had our Mutual of Omaha moments. A hungry lioness strolled up
to our parked, open-air Rover and, staring at each one of us,
used the driver's side front tire to scratch herself. Terrified,
we tried to keep from moving, breathing or smelling in any way
like luncheon meat.
The guides say that you're perfectly safe as long as you stay in
the jeeps, but some spacklebrains don't. We heard about a guy
whose wife insisted that he get out of the Rover and hold the
horns of a sleeping water buffalo for a photo. She was just
getting the shot in focus when the buffalo woke up, pitched the
guy 10 feet into the air with his horns and then caught him on
the way down. Wonder how the picture turned out?
One morning, just as the sun was coming up, we found two
lionesses feasting on a baby zebra 100 yards from our tents. It
is a frightening thing to be that close to animals as they devour
their kill, ready to tear apart each other if necessary to get
their share. Frightening, that is, unless you've seen the media
buffet at Chicago Bears games.
The zebra buffet lasted two days. Though we were terrified at
first to have the lions feeding so close, we became only mildly
alarmed and, after a while, got used to them.
Me: Did you hear that? Sounds like the lions are coming this way!
Fourteen-year-old daughter: Shut up and deal.
What did we see? Unforgettable stuff. A line of 50 elephants
walking single file, like burros in the Grand Canyon, up a steep
mountain path to a waterfall. A hundred thousand flamingos
turning a lake in Ngorongoro Crater into a bowl of pink cotton.
Waking up in a tent surrounded by about 1,000 gnus and 500
Did the kids care? No, they only wanted to hear more stories from
Charles, our guide. Like how he drinks milk mixed with cow's
blood. Or how at 17 he underwent the anesthetic-free circumcision
that Masai teens endure--without crying. "Even closing my eyes in
pain would have brought great shame to my family," Charles said.
And to think that we wince when we yank off Garfield Band-Aids.
You go on safari to see the animals, but it's the people you
remember. The tribal chief with 25 wives and 47 kids, breaking
the record set by Larry King. The schoolchildren delirious just
to go outside at recess and play 100-on-100 soccer with taped-up
balls of newspaper. The Masai who jump like Kobe Bryant in
sandals made of old tires and who kill lions with only spears.
And it was depressing to realize that some Americans pay as much
as $50,000 each to go to nearby Botswana and Zimbabwe and blast
away at lions, cheetahs and leopards. I'd love to see these
cowards take on a lion like a Masai, with only a spear. It would
be All-You-Can-Eat Fat Country Club Guy Night for the big cats.
It was a great trip, I guess, but Hemingway would've gone broke
trying to make it sound heroic.
It was a good Huggies wipe, cold and smooth, and I was damn glad
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B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
Terrified of the lioness, we tried to keep from moving, breathing
or smelling in any way like luncheon meat.