“Parks Tanzania” by Bamse – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parks_Tanzania.svg#/media/File:Parks_Tanzania.svg
It was about 4:00 in the afternoon when we finally arrived at Klein’s Gate, the Northeast entrance to Serengeti National Park, one of the seven natural wonders of Africa and home to the largest terrestrial mammal migration on earth.
Weary as we were from our long day of traveling, we were excited to finally enter the park, but for the moment, we found ourselves parked and waiting while Rob disappeared into a building to secure our permit. By this point in our trip, we were becoming used to routine delays traveling through different administrative districts. In the past two days we had several times found our progress blocked by a small gate across the road manned by some local authority. Usually there would be a few shacks nearby, perhaps a village. Peter or Rob would get out of the car and go talk to someone for a while. I was never clear as to the exact nature of the conversation — whether it was social, official, or something else. I was never sure whether any money changed hands, or whether they were just checking the status of our permits. The first time it happened, I was apprehensive. But after a few times, I just accepted it as normal and found a few more reasons to be glad we had experienced guides.
In any case, it was about 4:30 when once more, and for the last time that day, we all climbed into the Land Rover and drove through the gate.
Almost immediately the landscape changed from scrub forest to rolling hills and grassy plains, dotted with acacia trees. We were traveling South now, and the sun was sinking lower in the sky on the right side of the car. With Rob encouraging us, we all started scanning the bush for birds and animals. At first, Rob would be the one to call out to Peter to stop the car, and then he would point out an exotic bird perched in a tree or a “bachelor herd” of antelope or a lover’s triangle of hyenas. We stopped frequently, sometimes letting the engine of the Land Cruiser rumble on, and sometimes shutting it off, letting the vast silence of the plains roll over us.
The sun had already set when we arrived at the Mbuzi Mawe tented camp, exhausted from our long day and looking forward to dinner and sleep. All we knew about Mbuzi Mawe was that we wouldn’t have to pitch our own tents, but beyond that, we had little idea of what was meant by a “tented camp,” and how it might differ from the camps in Tarangire and Lake Natron. I was unprepared, therefore, to find that Mbuzi Mawe flaunted all the trappings of a rich tourist resort. For me, at least, after two nights of roughing it, I wanted only a hot shower and a clean bed. That, a bottle of beer, and Henry’s incomparable cooking would have seemed like paradise enow.
But those simple pleasures were not on the menu at Mbuzi Mawe. As soon as Peter had pulled the Land Rover into the graveled parking area and we had climbed out of the vehicle to stretch our legs, uniformed porters appeared and whisked our bags away. Then Rob informed us that he, Peter, and Henry were heading off to the guides’ quarters for the night. I had assumed we would all be sticking together, and I was upset to find out our crew had separate accommodations. Moments later, more porters came and escorted us away up to the main lodge.
I was still feeling disoriented trying to figure out how we would get along without our crew when we walked through the doorway into the main building of the camp. On our right was a concierge sitting at a rather elegant wooden desk. On the left were couches with comfy pillows, coffee tables with magazines and board games, and open french doors leading to a veranda. A few more steps into the lobby, or whatever it was called, and one could see there was a gift shop, a bar, and beyond it, a well-appointed dining room. As we stood there dazed, someone offered us glasses of mango juice. “Karibu, karibu! Welcome to Mbuzi Mawe!”
The main lobby at the Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp
The way the camp was set up, guests stayed in these very luxurious, very large “tents,” furnished with hotel-like beds, writing desks, electricity, flush toilets and yes, hot showers. I suppose they were tents because the walls and roofs were constructed from heavy canvas, but had we been at the Ritz it could hardly have felt more opulent. The only thing to remind us that we were in the midst of wilderness was the rule that after dark, guests were not to walk from the tents to the main lodge without an escort from the camp staff. Although the walk was probably no more than 150 feet along paved walkways, it was a strange feeling, indeed, to make this walk behind a camp employee wielding a flashlight.
Back in the main lodge, things kept getting weirder.
After finding an electrical outlet where we could charge camera and laptop batteries, Joni and I collapsed on a couch and waited for the others to return from washing up. While we sat there wishing for nothing more than peace and quiet, another hotel employee announced to us and the other guests milling in the lobby that we would be treated to an entertainment program before dinner. This consisted of twenty minutes of dancers and acrobats performing to tourist-friendly songs and music. When that was over, another camp staff member set up a laptop computer with speakers and began playing American country-western standards. It was not welcome, and became much worse when it turned out that there were only two songs on the laptop and they were to be repeated all night. As soon as the others arrived to rescue us, we fled into the dining room, pursued by the voice of Kenny Rogers singing for the third time “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em…”
Sitting at a table with the others, reading a menu, ordering wine, I felt a deep discontent. I was probably just very tired after a long day, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this gilded oasis in the Serengeti was a caricature of our privileged tastes and appetites. It was as though someone had held up a mirror and in it I had seen an image of myself that wasn’t very flattering. Surely no effort had been spared to make us feel “at home,” but the result was that I felt more out-of-place than at any other time during the trip.
I suffered through dinner, allowed myself to be escorted back to our tent, brushed my teeth with bottled water, spent five minutes with my Swahili book before I realized that I wasn’t paying attention, and finally turned out the light and waited for sleep.