Under a bold sun, the savannah grass rustled in the breeze — a drum roll for two unfolding shows.
Closer toward hidden lionesses several elephants lumbered, a baby among them, grazing and seemingly unaware of the danger ahead.
Not far away, hordes of wildebeest massed, trying to decide whether to plunge into a river full of crocodiles and continue an epic journey.
My wife, Michele; our children, Ted and John Michael; and I were caught between, mesmerized in our open safari jeep, awed by our personal National Geographic special.
“This is just basically Christmas,” John Michael whispered behind me.
For the animals, it was just another day in the Serengeti National Park.
On ancient plains and escarpments, from one blood orange sunrise to another, creatures large and small play out an eternal story of survival. Some live for another daily performance. For others, it’s curtains.
In northern Tanzania during an unforgettable week, my family had premium seats to one of the world’s longest running shows.
At Tarangire National Park and then Serengeti, we watched a cast of millions act their parts on a grand stage of diverse backdrops — arid grasslands dotted with acacia trees, marshy water holes, hilltops studded with giant boulders.
When you’re out on the East African landscape, the heat bearing down, the dust kicking up, it’s hard to miss the drama. It fills the air like the pesky tsetse flies.
A turn on a rutted, spine-jarring dirt road, or a turn of the head, can reveal riveting scenes any playwright would be proud to claim.
Sometimes, comedies are playing.
Our Tarangire accommodations, the Tarangire Treetops lodge, built a small water hole supplied by a deep well to help nomadic wildlife during the dry season, from May to October.
At this point in the dry season, it’s the main oasis for miles around, a popular spot — especially with elephants who like to hang out and slake their thirst. But they don’t share the bar well.
We saw evidence one afternoon while eating lunch at the lodge. Less than 20 yards from our table, a dominant bull elephant and a few junior males crowded around the hole, plunging their trunks like straws into the muddy water.
A baboon troop, also parched but rightfully wary of the behemoths, waited in the shady wings. Then a pair of brave souls started the routine.
Creeping toward the far edge of the pond, they snuck sips in between nervous glances up. One by one, emboldened copycats followed.
All the while, the bull stared at the brazen outrage. Seven, maybe eight, interlopers he could tolerate. But he had his limits.
One baboon too many, he flapped his huge ears, trumpeted and charged forward, sending the other patrons away screeching and flailing. A few minutes later, everyone took their places again for yet another encore.
Mostly, though, East Africa’s theater offers deadly serious fare.
Out on the northern Serengeti plains, near the Kenya border and an hour flight in a single-engine Cessna from the bustling city of Arusha, there’s no guarantee of tomorrow. An injury, a step too slow, can close the show for the weak or unlucky.
Nothing illustrates that more than the annual wildebeest migration, one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
In search of food, about 2 million animals move toward the Mara River in huge herds from the park’s drier southern and western regions. At the river, they carpet the land, grazing grass down to the nub while working up their nerve to cross over to the park’s upper Lemai Wedge region and then into Kenya.
And crossings draw big audiences.
When a herd goes for it, it’s a true stampede, a brown flood of horns and hooves pouring into the Mara. Wildebeest thunder down banks, honking and lowing, leaping and splashing at shallow points, struggling to swim in deep channels.
Many don’t make it.
Ten-foot crocodiles, known locally as “Mara monsters,” pull some down. Others are trampled in the rush and drown, their bloated bodies a feast for the crocs and the vultures.
About 300,000 wildebeest die each year during the crossings and the rest of the migration, though more are born along the way. For the great cats, the living in July is easy. Lions and leopards regularly pick off stragglers and calves separated from their mothers.
At one point, we came across an adult wildebeest limping along by himself with a broken ankle. He was already dead, soon to be just another set of bleached bones littering the savannah.
After a while, I realized eco-tourists like myself, accustomed to zoos and nature programs, can easily forget a hard truth: Nothing they see is for show. It’s for real.
As dazzling as it is to observe lions, zebras, elephants and giraffes behaving normally in the wild — mating, fighting, feeding, dying — a safari drive is a sobering lesson in life’s tenuous balance, not a theme park ride staged for our entertainment.
No keeper’s going to rescue the hobbled wildebeest, or save the precious baby giraffe from being caught, or treat the wounded cheetah unable to catch prey or fend off lions and hyenas. Something beautiful one day rots the next. Nobody intervenes.
We couldn’t shout and warn the elephants.
Truth be told, we didn’t want to blink.
Our Sayari Camp guide, Shatri, had positioned us expertly along a Mara bluff so that we could follow the scene about 30 yards in front of us. Meanwhile, on the far bank to our backs, the wildebeest tried to make up their minds.
They stayed put but the elephants moved closer to the lionesses.
Four peered through the grass around a ravine while one sat stone still, regally perched on a dirt mound like a library statue. The herd paused but kept munching, as though they could smell trouble but couldn’t quite pinpoint it.
Then a young bull made his dramatic entrance.
While the females formed a protective circle around the baby, the male crashed through the undergrowth to confront the cat. His ears fully extended in challenge, he stared at her from about 5 yards. She stared back.
He lunged forward.
She turned around, melting back into the grass, exiting stage right to prepare for her next scene.