The Endless Plain

Flatland. From above it’s a table top with dark spills where the water has settled and then, a green splash not exactly in the middle. It’s dust colored, pale gray brown dust, a change from the reddish soil from the higher, greener altitude of the rim.

In the crater it’s grassy and there are zebras and gazelles and a giant bull elephant far far in the distance, standing out against the green. He is massive, a three story building seen from a great distance, his sweeping white tusks stand out against his wet concrete color. Also in the distance, the outline of a black rhino, solitary, his shape rippling in the heat. There is an ostrich, dancing, waving his feathers around in an “s” shape from one wing to the other and back again, his white decorations eye catching against the black of the rest of his body.

There is a family of lions, the same gold color as the grass, a giant male, his mane blackened with age. A lioness steps out of the knee length grass and strides across the road, her strength is clear underneath her fur, her paws are dinner plates, her ears look soft. She yawns and drops in to the grass, then looks back over her shoulder, seemingly annoyed with the line of 25, no, 30 Land Cruisers or Jeeps or other safari rigs standing between her and the companions she’s left on the other side of the road.

The drivers are on cell phones, calling each other – lions here, come see! They do this in the Ngorogoro and again in the Serengeti, the endless space, the endless plain, though more often they stop and chat, windows rolled down, in Swahili. “Just up the road there are…” The rigs rattle and race to the next stop throwing plumes of dust behind them.

The road crawls out of the crater and then, down to an empty space. There are a dozen camels under a tree, untethered, and then, a Masai man appears seemingly from nowhere – “Bracelet, one dollar?”  Out the window, four boys, all in black, their faces are covered with thick white paint down to just below their cheekbones. Later, three kids in bright colors muted by the dust, jumping in unison, singing, their voices float into the car window and then, they’re gone, the sound is gone.

A smeary gray sky hangs over the Serengeti, in the distance, the sky is streaked with alternating streaks of rain and silver light where the sun slices through the clouds. The air smells of wet grass, of heat, of diesel and exhaust of sunscreen. Zebras and gazelles and impalas cross the washboard road. Sometimes they pause, waiting for the vehicles to pass and then, continue, in long lines that reach to the horizon. They are coming from a place out of site on one side of the road and going to a place out of site on the other side of the road. The animals that are in motion walk with great purpose. A herd of elephants in the blurry distance moves in a line, a trio of cheetahs walk through the grass while the zebras watch, their ears tilted towards the cats as they pass. If they are not moving, the stand and graze, or doze, like the little rock hyraxes high on granite boulders.

Everything looks like everything else. A broken acacia stump is a leopard with two curved ears. A smooth round rock in the water is a hippo. A termite mound is a lion. A stand of granite boulders is an elephant, the checkerboard neck of a giraffe is – unmistakable as a giraffe. The colors are brown a burnt golden brown, and gray, and then, sometimes, where there is water, there is a bright shock of green. From one side the contrast of zebras is lost, from the other side they are black and white stripes, softened only at dusk and dawn with the pink light of a sun low in the sky.

At night, there are eyes in the bush and the spooky sound of lions calling to each other. There are birds that sing in the darkness, and chirping noises from lizards and the weird barking of zebras, almost dog-like. There is the buzz and click of insects, and the sound of wind and the rattle of the tent fly. Instead of a dark sky full of stars, there is an nearly complete moon and pale things are leafed with reflected moonlight. Things move, everywhere, the spiky thorns in the trees, hyenas looking for dropped candy bars and leftover kills, the grass pushed by the wind in all directions. The Serengeti, the endless plain, is wild with life, while I stand small just outside the edge of the dusty campground, looking into the night.

My travels to East Africa were sponsored by Intrepid Travel as part of their “classic journeys” campaign.” Most – but not all – of my expenses were paid for by Intrepid Travel.

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