A story written by Rahhalah's founder and CEO, Suzanne Al Houby.
Africa is so vast, diverse, and colorful that one cannot easily choose among the plentiful destinations or experiences that it offers. And, yet, as I look forward to traveling again, I dream only of Serengeti and Ngorongoro, where the land vibrates with such intensity that it unfailingly takes your breath away, reconnecting you with a forgotten part of your soul. As Boyd Norton wrote in Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning: "There is language going on out there – the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops, and chirps all have meaning derived over eons of expression... We have yet to become fluent in the language – and music – of the wild." The memory of my days spent in the African plains is so emotionally charged that inevitably a few tears form every time at the corners of my eyes.
At Ngorongoro: The Garden of Eden
The best safari adventures take place in the wee hours of the day, as this is when most animals are active. I remember we woke up before dawn to venture into the African wilderness, descending with our 4x4s the crater rim of Ngorongoro, surrounded by an ambience that felt intimate, familiar but surreal as well. The vehicle slowly navigated the darkness, the road zigzags, and the blind corners, and our driver's experienced demeanor instilled a sense of assurance amidst the enigmatic silence of a still invisible unknown. After a while, though, we became part of the environment ourselves, and anticipation built in our hearts, as we sat in the cars, enthralled to watch the light of dawn transform the landscapes from mystical to exotic.
As we reached the crater floor, I was able to understand why Ngorongoro is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, its value recognized by UNESCO since 1979. Once a gigantic volcano and now the largest intact caldera of our planet, Ngorongoro represents a perfect eco-system with plenty of food and security for the thousands of animals living and breeding in its expanse. The concept of abundance finds an ideal expression in this wildlife sanctuary, for there are few other places on earth that display such profound prosperity. Animals don't need to leave the crater's floor to look for food or water: everything is generously and lavishly available to them with little effort or risk. A visitor has the opportunity to observe black-maned lions, elephants, cheetahs, leopards, impalas, black rhinos, warthogs, zebras and so much more, all – apart from the giraffes that are usually higher up the rim – interacting peacefully in the serenity of their natural environment.
I remember, as the sun came out and the jungle became gradually vibrant with colors and life, I closed my eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply the magic that defines Africa. This is the magic that still surfaces in my dreams, calling me back – to the Motherland.
Serengeti: the “land that runs on forever”
This part of Africa is so vast and wild that the Maasai people named it "the Serengeti" which roughly translates into "the land that runs on forever". It represents the very definition of an African landscape, with an endless horizon and such immensity that it feels peaceful and overwhelming at the same time. Within this protected environment, countless animal species – some plainly visible, other remaining camouflaged, hidden, and discreet – live in harmony. Our days there – and some of our nights – were spent in delightful safari expeditions, chasing tracks with our cars, checking water holes, and following the echo of the elephants' trumpets or the lions' roars until we could locate their hideout and get a glimpse of their magnificence.
The unmatched magic of the African sky
Perhaps I should have started this journey down the memory lane with the image of the African sky. In all my trips – and there have been many – I have never encountered anything coming even close to such greatness and splendor. It is not merely the range of the colors at sunrise or sunset, the sharpness of the stars, or the shapes of the clouds that make such a sight unique. It is the vastness of the horizon, the earthly color of the land, and the energy that vibrates from beneath one's feet that turns the African sky into, possibly, the most astounding, even lifechanging, image one can collect when traveling.
The wildlife: the eyes cannot forget what the heart has seen
When reminiscing the pleasure experienced in the plains of these famous African sanctuaries, the role of the wildlife seems rather obvious. And yet, rarely one fully grasps the intensity of the emotions felt while observing perfection and wisdom as expressed in the natural order of things, or the level of harmony displayed among species so diverse from each other.
I have often been asked, which I consider as the most beautiful animal encountered during these safaris. I really cannot give an answer. Elephants are majestic, lions are dominating and truly act as the king of the jungle, impalas are agile and beautiful, zebras are like a surreal painting, giraffes appear to be disobedient and careless with their long neck, and rhinos are like medieval armored warriors. In this intangible chain that holds us together, every animal has found its position, holding it with grace and respect. Ultimately, a safari is not merely an enjoyable experience: it is a lesson on life, dignity, and appreciation.
The Maasai: “A lion can run faster than we can, but we can run further” (Maasai proverb)
Despite their beauty, the amazing landscapes and their wildlife are not the only treasures this part of Africa has to offer. A trip is further enriched by meeting and interacting with the Maasai people whose colorful outfits, primitive art, huge smiles and open hearts leave indelible memories, so much so that one cannot imagine the game parks of Africa without the familiar presence of this beautiful ethnic group.
The Maasai (the people who speak maa) represent one of the most well-known tribes in Africa, and one of the very few that has managed to preserve most of its traditions, culture, and folkloric heritage. They are noble, fearless, and kind, famous for their predominantly red clothes and the multi-colored bead decorations worn around the neck. Unlike other tribes, they are semi-nomadic and pastoral, herding cattle and goats. Much like the wildlife that surrounds them, they need large spaces where they can roam with their animals, maintaining to this day their free spirit and becoming, thus, a symbol of Africa.
If one chooses to visit both Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, the drive between the two parks is a unique experience by itself. It is not uncommon to spot several Msasai, scattered in the landscape, herding their animals. They walk for miles and miles each day to offer to their cows the opportunity to wander and graze freely, and, although the activity seems carefree, it is far from it. These herders can never let their guard down, or their animals will be hunted by the numerous predators in the area. The herd defines the wealth and the very livelihood of the Maasai, so the herding activity is undertaken with respect and a high sense of responsibility.
Based on the culture and customs of the Maasai people, the teenage boys must go through a rite of passage to prove their manhood and learn know to survive and hunt on their own. If one gets lucky, one might have the unique opportunity to observe such a ritual and, actually, become part of the experience. In such a case, your path will be intersected by a group of boys, all painted in white, emerging out of nowhere, looking fierce, strong, ready, and alert, holding confidently their spears and machetes. They are expected to spend a couple of weeks alone in the wild, learning to defend themselves at all times against fierce, attacking animals. When this trial is successfully over, they return to their village to be crowned as men, ready to drink alcohol, be married, and become one of the warriors of the tribe.
Another ritual during which the junior warriors move to the ranks of manhood is the beautiful Adumu dance. The young men gather and begin to hum in a vibration that feels like part of the natural sounds of the environment. Gradually, their bodies start moving, and their energy increases, climaxing to a series of spectacular high jumps. Even as a spectator, one inevitably enters a trance, overtaken by the intensity of a song and a dance that feel as ancient as the land itself. To some extent, every visitor goes through a rite of passage as well, for, after all, no person can be whole before having spent some time in the wilderness of the African parks.