We’ve been driving into the nothing for hours, it seems. Our caravan is made up of three Jeeps. Three amphibian Jeeps: vehicles that can be almost fully submerged in water and still run, I’ve learned. This can be particularly important on a safari, I’ve learned.
My companions are sixteen Israelis, one of who is my boyfriend, none of who want to speak much English. Our Tanzanian drivers are experts: they know this journey intimately. I can’t yet imagine knowing this nothing. It’s still an alien landscape on our first full day out on Safari.
Rumors bubble back and forth through the three Jeeps in Hebrew, crackling from the radio and gossiped by my boyfriend’s niece and her cousins. Bits and pieces are translated from sweet relatives for me, the lone American:
“We should arrive to the lodge by sundown,” I learn.
“Someone was attacked by a Buffalo there just last week,” I’m told.
“We’ll each have a tent,” I understand.
Before this phase of the journey into the uniform nothing landscape, the terrain has been varied. We drove through the lush rainforest-like mountains that surround the Ngorogoro Crater, then entered rolling hills and plains where Maasai grazed cattle outside our windows.
“Can you imagine being Maasai?” our driver asked. “He walks all day. He is headed from nowhere to somewhere and back.”
And I can almost imagine it for a moment as I peer out the windows and see 360 degrees of nothing. Pure grey clay dirt stretching for miles. The scrub trees have long stopped decorating the terrain, and the herds of giraffe we came across a few hours back are nowhere to be seen.
But suddenly in the distance I see those flat-topped trees starting to appear again, adorning the earth, and as we approach the drivers make a sharp left turn. No signs. No indication that this might even be a road.
We drive slower now, the Jeeps staggering in parallel formation to avoid the other’s billow of white dust. We wind past the setting sun into thickening brush and suddenly take another left turn, this time at a small sign: Lake Masek Tented Lodge.
Lake Masek is a small lake several hours northwest of Arusha, at the corner of the Ngorogoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Reserve. This is where we’ll spend the night, right at the crux of these two legendary wildlife regions.
Our caravan pulls up, and my heart skips a beat. We’ve arrived to a collection of tents, majestic, as they appear to float on top of stilted platforms among the trees. We unload in front of the main tent, my group of Israelis and me, powdered with dust kicked up from the nothing terrain and blown into our open Jeep windows.
Rumors percolate easier through the group outside of the Jeeps, and the translations come in again:
“It was a driver who was attacked by the Buffalo, just here, where we stand!” I learn.
“Do not leave your tent alone at night for any reason!” I’m told.
“Ring the main tent and an escort will be sent!” I understand.
My boyfriend hugs me close as we’re assigned to the Duma tent, Swahili for Cheetah, and escorted through the dusk by a Maasai warrior with a spear and a flashlight, checking the pathway for animals.
Once inside the mosquito nets the celebration is huge! We are in a tent, its khaki fabric spires draped above us, cascading around a white-netted four-poster bed. We’re shown a shower outside, under the stars, and a tub inside, under our canopy.
We smile like teenagers and skip around our tent, giddy.
“It’s like a dream!” we cheer.
Nighttime is colder than expected and we huddle under extra blankets. No insulation from the elements in our magical tent. I’ve set my yoga mat out and my alarm for just before sunrise, when I’ll practice on our deck, safe inside the screened netting, facing Lake Masek.
But something unplanned wakes me from deep, Jeep-rattled sleep. The bellows of a huge animal seem to be coming from directly under the raised platform of our tent. In the deepest dark I can’t tell if my boyfriend has heard it too, so I lay still as the beast, making noises that seem to signify some immense dissatisfaction, makes a temporary home underneath us…
After falling back to sleep post-buffalo, I rise with my alarm before the sun comes up but it’s too dark and cold to practice just yet. I wait a few minutes, listening to see if our nighttime visitor’s still around before stepping out of the bed onto cold wooden floors to roll out my mat on the front deck.
To the east the sky above the lake is just beginning to crack open with the first rays of red sunrise. It’s a scene I swallow up whole. I raise my arms with the first Surya Namaskar and smile towards this golden African dawn. I’m thinking suddenly that this is quite possibly my favorite place in the world so far. The deafening quiet of the stars. The simplicity of sleeping in a tent. The impossibility of this lodges’ existence in the middle of hours of driving through nothing. Even the visit from some huge potentially dangerous animal in the middle of the night has charmed me.
I take rest on my mat as the sky turns from golden-black to pink then inky blue; the sun casting rays across Lake Masek.
As we leave the tent with our Maasai escort (still wielding his spear) we see definite evidence of our visitor: huge buffalo droppings, just next to our stairs!
The group reconvenes, bleary-eyed from the excitement of it all, and possibly from lack of sleep:
“The mosquitoes kept me up,” says one.
“There was a hyena outside our tent!” reports another.
I tell them of our Buffalo visitor and of my early morning yoga practice.
We set out again that day, north towards the Serengeti and the Kenyan boarder. No longer driving through nothing, the terrain turns from rusty orange grasses to green fields and dried streams. Our safari will see Elephants and Giraffes, we’ll see Ostriches mating and Wildebeest migrating across the Mara River. I’ll even teach the group yoga in a sparkling glass-windowed room deep in the Serengeti. The magic of this terrain and this country will flicker in our eyes for the entire week. But still, I think I’ll hold on tightest to the memory of our first night in tents along the lake, after hours of driving into the nothing. Of our escort with a spear, of the Buffalo under our tent and the next morning’s practice with the African Sunrise…a Serengeti Namaskar.