We speak of the blue planet, and praise the beauty of our living green Earth, but I am swiftly discovering that much of our world is simply brown.
This is not a bad thing.
Brown can be beautiful when it goes on forever, as it does on the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania. The dry brown land is an endless ocean here, a rippled landscape that disappears into the single blue horizon in every direction.
This sea of dirt is brown, the dying grass is brown, the dead trees are brown, as are the ominous vultures that roost in the branches. Brown is the color of elephant dung; the color of my khaki clothes and the color of so many different antelope that pop up from the grass—the gazelle, impala, topi, dik-dik, waterbucks and wildebeests. I watch the smaller antelopes as they twitch about in the knee-high grass like self-conscious teenagers, always unsure, never relaxing, ready to spring away if needed.
We are all looking for lions—the hunted and we, the hunters, armed with cameras and binoculars, cooing when we see the big cats hiding in the brown grass, giving away their location to the world and causing a swarm of safari jeeps to gather like security to a shoplifter.
Perhaps the lions hate us or perhaps they don’t care because they are so full. The blinking lioness has streaks of red blood on her fur cheeks—the first bit of color I have seen on the savanna.
The lions have taken their reward, and we take ours as well, though we have worked so little to find the king of African wildlife. It seems there are lions everywhere—our first night we see two separate prides and I count out the individuals through my lens: twelve amazing lions.
This is not a zoo, nor is it some wildlife park with fences. This is the great Serengeti—so great that in the thirty-six hours we are there, we spot some sixty different lions.
“You are all incredibly spoiled,” I tell my friends but I am worried they don’t believe me. My fellow travelers compare this round the world trip to a tasting menu, and that we are sampling one exquisite course after another. Our feast of delights would be incomplete without Africa, and Africa would be incomplete without lions.
But unlike our other visits—the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an and the Pyramids to come—the wildlife of Tanzania is not some static site that you can buy tickets. There is no gift shop for the lions, warthogs or shining birds of Tanzania, and yet all of this is just as much of a world wonder as the great tombs and temples we have visited.
The joy of safari—the delight of traveling where animals roam freely and finding them in their freedom—this is key to our expedition of a lifetime. I feel this most at midday, when the African sun hits its high note in the sky and the land begins to bake.
We drive on with purpose, searching, watching . . . until we see it, taking shape in the brown shadows, another animal, lithe and spotted—cheetah!
A mother cheetah with two young cubs, lounging in the grass, unbothered. We stop only a few feet away and she doesn’t move.
Other safari jeeps follow our example, and soon the roadside is crowded, the mechanical repeat of shutters recording over and over again this moment of nature.
Cheetahs are rare—too rare, sadly—but we are in awe, honored to witness them here. The clicking of cameras trails off—the cheetahs are not leaving or skittish like the antelope. They are nonchalant and ignoring the attention.
And me? I am devastated by the beauty of the mother and the cuteness of her two young cheetah cubs. They bat their long lashes like any other well-fed babies who, when waking up from a nap, deserve all the affection and attention in the world.
They have intricate fur—tinged yellow, with the dark black spots of their species and white tufts of mantle around their necks. And yet there in the grass, when I squint my eyes, these remarkable animals simply vanish—and everything goes back to being brown.