My Serengeti crapshoot

Rajiv Rao's safari in Tanzania was spectacular, until he had to answer nature's call in the middle of the night -- and discovered that lions had surrounded the outhouse.


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Rajiv Rao
July 10, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

It is 11:30 at night. I'm lying in a two-man tent in the middle of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, desperately trying to expunge from my memory banks a certain story that my driver Masai narrated to me during dinner.

It all starts off with a seemingly innocent question, "Masai, what types of snakes are common in this part of Tanzania?"

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A list is summarily rattled off: the black mamba, arguably the world's deadliest snake, famous for its aggressive and territorial instincts, as well as its lethal neurotoxin capable of felling 100 humans with one bite; the green mamba, a somewhat shyer relative; the forest cobra, which, like the mamba, is capable of delivering a fatal neurotoxin that shuts down your respiratory system in no time; the black-necked spitting cobra, expert at projecting a stream of highly toxic venom into your eyes at a distance of 15 feet, which can result in permanent blindness; and the African python, which seems warm and cuddly in comparison.

A perceptible unease descends upon our group, which consists of an Australian couple, an Austrian entrepreneur and a Canadian woman who spends her summers counting migratory salmon in Canadian rivers as they head upstream to spawn. With a tragic lack of foresight I ask Masai if, during his seven years of driving on safari, his group has ever had a close encounter with a snake. Yes, replies Masai, with unsettling flippancy. As a matter of fact, a member of his safari not so long ago woke up one morning, rolled up his sleeping bag, and found a green mamba curled up under it. How it got there and why it hadn't lashed out in indignation after being crushed by a 200-pound body both remained unsolvable mysteries.

Whether it's an onset of acute nervousness brought about by the story or just fatigue from wandering about the Serengeti all day, our group disperses rapidly into their respective tents. Mumbling something about getting some sleep before our 6 a.m. game drive, I scurry off toward my tent, zip it open and do a thorough inspection for all possible snakes from the outside. I then dive in, roll like a Marine in combat and zip the tent up, all in a blurlike motion reminiscent of Christopher Reeve changing into his spandex Superman outfit in a phone booth.

As I slip into my sleeping bag, I briefly recap the day's events. After visiting Lake Manyara National Park, famous for its tree-climbing lions, we skirt the spectacular rim of Ngorongoro crater and descend into the Serengeti. The name Serengeti is derived from the Masai word "siringet," meaning endless plain. And endless plain it is, often flat as far as the eye can see with an occasional acacia tree or a kopje (an ancient granite rock outcrop) dotting the surface. Serengeti National Park alone is 14,763 square kilometers, roughly the size of Connecticut, and supports the greatest concentration of animals left in the world today. The plains were formed 3 million to 4 million years ago when ash blown from the volcanoes in the Ngorongoro highlands covered the landscape and formed a mineral-rich soil surface. But the park is not all grassland; in fact, as much as two-thirds of the park in the north and west constitute bush or woodlands.

After just a few days in this part of East Africa, I am convinced that Tanzania is Eden. The herbivores -- wildebeest, zebra, gazelle -- following the short rains that start in November, have descended from the northern areas of the park to the flat southern plains, where they graze on the lush, green grass that blankets the ground. Almost immediately we get a flavor for what the Serengeti migration -- the most awe-inspiring spectacle in the animal kingdom -- must look like. As we drive toward Naabi Hill, the entrance to the park, every square millimeter in our field of vision is dotted with animals. Burchelli's zebras (the ones with the thicker stripes) run pell-mell alongside our Land Rover, and then overtake us in explosive bursts not unlike crazed New York cabbies during rush hour. We curse and brake sharply. About five feet off the side of the road, the two species of gazelle (Thomson's and Grant's) gambol about, playfully butting heads with each other. Occasionally a herd of giraffe gracefully glides across the road, as if in slow motion, their heads quizzically turned toward us.

The most spectacular sight, however, is reserved for the thousands of wildebeests who blanket the plains. At one spot we come upon a herd that contains some 5,000 skittish animals racing furiously back and forth, kicking up great clouds of dust. Like schools of fish, they change direction in perfect unison every 10 seconds or so, and at one point thunder directly toward the car. We hold our breaths with nervous anticipation. By now the herd is a mere 30 feet away from us and approaching rapidly. Almost in weary resignation, my mind conjures up images of vultures nibbling on my shredded remains after 10,000 hooves have dispensed with me. Before I begin to actually wet my shorts, the herd veers to the left and calm prevails.

It appears to be birthing season for the wildebeests and we see hundreds of calves among the herds, some being forcefully nudged by their mothers to stand up minutes after being born, others staggering about on rubbery legs. We decide to shut off the Land Rover's engine so that we can just sit and absorb the cacophony of sounds that surrounds us: a mixture of grunts, bleats, snorts, chirps, brays and yelps. Despite these noises, the effect is wonderfully soothing. Fred, the Austrian in our entourage, holds up his camcorder in an effort to capture it all. He cups a hand to his ear and sighing contentedly, says: "This is Africa."

A subsequent game drive is especially fortuitous as we stumble upon a female cheetah resting by the side of the road with her two cubs. The cubs' coats, having shed their baby fluff, are almost as glossy as their mother's. The entire family takes turns sunning themselves in the open and then seeking refuge in a large bush spotted with lavender. Then off to a small pond where about 20 hippos lie submerged, snorting and grunting to each other as they keep a wary eye on a crocodile basking on a rock nearby. Suddenly two adult males explode into action, heaving their massive bodies at each other like a pair of sumo wrestlers, their jaws agape as they try to slash their opponent with fearsome, tusklike incisors. On the way back we pass ubiquitous herds of impala racing alongside the road, intermittently leaping some 15 feet into the air. At this point, all thoughts of snakes have been shed, and mentally recapping the day's events lulls me into a comfortable sleep.

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I jerk awake, sweating profusely, desperate to go to the bathroom. I have been suffering from a bout of the inescapable African malady -- diarrhea -- for the past two days and have convinced myself sometime around dinner that my iron constitution has heroically sallied forth and vanquished it. Evidently not. My watch tells me it's 1:30. The pressure builds and the thought of going to the bathroom -- an ostentatious word for two rickety sheds built around holes in the ground about 50 feet away -- terrifies me. But I have no option. It's either that or do it in my pants. And then I become conscious of curious, loud sounds that seem to be originating from not more than half a mile away.

Lions roaring. Actually, the sound is more of a grunt and a bellow mixed together with a deep-throated moan. The sounds become even louder, which means that they are either moving closer to camp or that the wind has shifted in our direction, making their roars more audible. The pressure on my bowels is now agonizing and I realize that I have to act fast. My choices are clear: Relieve myself outside amid roaring lions, or remain a coward and spend the rest of the night in what is sure to become extremely noxious quarters. I am convinced that either option will spell disaster for me.

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Finally, I gather up some courage, zip my tent open and poke my head out. I scan
the area in front of me but it's pitch dark and the lanterns have long since
been extinguished. I hobble toward Masai's tent, praying that this sudden
movement will not cause me any unfortunate accidents.

"Masai!" I yell, "I need a torch."

"What for?" he asks, in a tone that suggests that this is no time for a Sunday
jaunt in Central Park.

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"Bathroom," I reply.

"You have heard the lions, haven't you?" he asks, with a tinge of incredulity at
the idea that I would consider walking in this inky blackness to an even darker
shed 50 feet away with lions roaring nearby -- not to mention snakes. "This is
the bush, not a lodge," he remarks in a tone he probably reserves for a
very small child with an exceptionally low I.Q. "Anything can happen." He adds
that lionesses hunt at night, and the fact that the males are roaring so close
by means that there's a good chance the females are out looking for prey in the
same area. All in all, not a good time to go for a crap. "Go somewhere close,"
he adds and dismisses me by depositing the flashlight at my feet.

If I was scared before, I am truly terrified now. I think of the number of times
I've used the word "terrified" without really appreciating the full impact of
its meaning. Now I know. In fact, mere minutes have transformed me into a
connoisseur of terror. And the bit about the lions hunting, "Was that really
necessary?" I think to myself. As I scout around for a good location to squat, I
curse Masai fervently for his sharing of what is undoubtedly a rich knowledge of
lion behavior at a most inappropriate moment.

I pick a spot several feet away from our Land Rover and as I squat, the
ridiculously helpless nature of my predicament hits me: I am crouched in the
middle of the Serengeti with my pants down to my ankles, inviting every sort of
predator for a quick meal as I wave my bare buttocks tantalizingly in their
faces. Fortunately, this grim realization enhances my bowel movement and the
whole affair, while seeming like hours, takes a couple of minutes. While I am
hunkered down, I look at the tall Serengeti grass that frames our camp waving to
and fro in the wind and immediately chastise myself for spending hours devouring
all those wildlife films on the Discovery channel at home. Films with precisely
this sort of tall savanna grass waving in the breeze, as a well-camouflaged
lioness sits in a frozen crouch, her body taut as a steel cable, waiting to
spring upon an unsuspecting gazelle. Or someone taking a midnight crap.

Suddenly, I see the grass parting slightly, and I hear something moving not more
than 10 feet away. My eyes bulge in terror. My mouth goes dry. After the usual
slew of grizzly images that my brain seems intent on manufacturing (example:
black-maned lion gripping me by the thorax and shaking me like a rag-doll as I
emit horrible, gurgling noises), I try to calm down by convincing myself that
it's probably a mongoose or a rock hyrax (a rodentlike animal about the
size of a rabbit that, strangely enough, happens to be the closest living land
relative to the elephant). Not especially keen to hang around and check out my
hypothesis, I hastily wipe, yank my pants up and gallop toward my tent.

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Once again, I'm a Navy SEAL in the thick of combat: unzip, dive, roll and zip.
This time around I'm twice as fast. Once I'm safely ensconced in my sleeping
bag, my pounding heart slows down. The saliva starts flowing. A couple of
minutes pass and I feel a bit courageous again. "That wasn't so bad," I say to
myself. As I'm mentally awarding myself a purple heart for bravery, a hideous
shrieking ensues. This time the sounds are not more than 30 feet away from
our tents.

I groan in despair as I recognize the sound. A pack of hyena. The sound is
deafening and unbelievably bone-chilling.

I begin to panic. Do hyenas rip into tents and attack humans? Or are they
generally wary of us? I rack my brains but can't seem to come up with an answer.
The sounds get closer. The pack cannot be more than 15 feet away. By this
time, the wind has picked up and the entire tent is fluttering and shaking in
spurts. Every time it does so, I recoil, expecting fangs to rip through the
flimsy tent. Sometimes I can't seem to differentiate between the animal sounds
outside and the effect of the wind against my tent. At one point I hear a
rustling and sniffing a scant two feet from my face. I have this uncontrollable
urge to open the tent a crack to try to see what's going on outside, but sheer
fear prevents me from doing so. Every time I inch toward the tent zipper, I
imagine the snarling, saliva-coated muzzle of a hyena in front of my face, and
my hand drops to my side with alacrity.

As soon as I convince myself that the
pack has wandered off and that it's just these nuisance gusts that are
exacerbating my heightened anxiety, the wind subsides and I can hear the pack
screaming louder than ever. For two hours I lie in my tent recoiling and
cowering in alternate spurts like some committed mental patient in a padded
cell. Finally, the dual effort of concentrating on these frightful sounds and
tensing up for a bloody attack takes its toll. The shrieks cease and I drift off
into a fitful sleep.

I wake up at dawn, the mild rays of the sun painting the inside of my tent red.
Almost immediately, I feel strangely euphoric. I have slept a night in the
Serengeti surrounded by roaring lions and shrieking hyenas. I have wandered out
of my tent in the dead of night and unwittingly relieved myself right under the
noses of a pack of animals reputed to have the strongest jaws in the business. I
have not incurred the wrath of any venomous snakes by stepping on them.
Survival, I realize, is a giddy sensation. I triumphantly step out of my tent
and stride purposefully toward Fred's.

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"Did you hear the hyenas last night?" I ask, certain that this amiable Austrian
must have also spent the night quaking in abject terror for a couple of hours.

No such luck. Fred reports that he slept soundly throughout the night thanks to
several Safari lagers (Tanzanian beer) that he downed during dinner. I give him
a look of dismay and turn away. I ask Natalie, the Canadian, the same question
and she laughs at me. Perhaps it was Fred snoring, she suggests cheekily.

As I hurl unpleasant, almost hateful thoughts at her, doubts begin to creep into my head. I am embarrassed to think about the helpless state of panic I was in
not so many hours ago. Am I that much of a sniveling baby? Did I conjure up the
whole thing replete with visions of imminent death? Did I really hear what I
thought I heard, or have I become a quivering, delusional wreck after just one
night in the bush?

I am beginning to feel extremely sheepish. Best to forget the whole affair, I
reason to myself, lest I start cultivating a reputation for being a paranoid
schizophrenic. I stroll toward last night's campfire, which is about 15
feet from our tents. The ground around the campfire is covered with a
combination of ash and fine sand. Right next to the campfire are four massive
hyena paw prints. I run to my tent and check its outside perimeters. I think I
can detect faint prints, but the ground is hard and covered with grass, so I
can't be sure. I walk to Natalie's tent about 10 feet away. All around her
tent, in the soft sand, are a multitude of large paw prints.

Vindicated!

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Sleeping in a tent in the middle of the Serengeti can be a petrifying or an
invigorating experience -- or perhaps, as in my case, a bit of both. Looking back, I am tempted to reel off the usual "man-against-nature" clichis: how the night was a poignant reminder of
how completely defenseless we humans really are; how almost anything out there
can horribly maim or kill you in seconds, from a pint-sized baboon to the
African buffalo, dubbed the "most dangerous animal in Africa"; how nature is so
unpredictable and ultimately unconquerable. But I won't. I will mention,
however, that given the chance, most animals will go out of their way to avoid
human contact. And after my first night in the Serengeti, I give fervent thanks
for that.


Rajiv Rao

Rajiv Rao is a reporter for Fortune magazine in New York.

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