By SARAH NICHOLSON
THERE really was only one drink to order in a place like that.
Sitting on the poolside terrace of an isolated Serengeti lodge, with monkeys playing on the balconies nearby and a dazzle of zebra grazing peacefully on the slope below, the only drink I could think to order was a tall gin and tonic.
The waiter delivering the beverage asked me to inventory the animals I saw during the day’s safari and gave me an impressed smirk when I told him about a rhino on the prowl, a mother elephant twisting her trunk around her new-born baby to lift it across a track, and a lethargic leopard asleep in a tree.
Then there was nothing to do but savour the cool cocktail as the sun hovered behind the skeletal acacia trees, turning the sky into fiery shades of orange, and a herd of elephants ambled across the plain in search of a safe place to spend the night.
My sister-in-law Julia and I were five days into an 18-day tour through Kenya and Tanzania and our Bunnik Tours’ guide Joshua had us back at Serengeti Sopa Lodge in time to watch the colours drain from the parched landscape and the first eager stars appear in the sky.
Julia and I had already agreed Joshua was Tanzania’s best safari guide as he not only had eagle eyes, able to detect animals hiding in hectares of dry grass, but he let us discover the wildlife rather than announce what was about to appear.
On our first afternoon in the Serengeti, as we motored from the park’s front gate to our lodge, he took a detour that followed the curves of a creek to a thunder of hippopotamus immersed to their nostrils in muddy water.
Joshua didn’t tell us they were there but carefully positioned the safari vehicle so my five travelling companions and I couldn’t see the submerged creatures until we were close enough to hear every gurgle and gasp, snort and slurp, burp and bluster.
While Joshua made it look easy we sensed he was like a duck on a pond, calm on top but kicking furiously below the water to make our days in Tanzania’s magnificent national parks a spectacle of endless wildlife.
He monitored the chatter on the radios in our comfortable safari vehicle – a sturdy LandCruiser with six bucket seats and a roof that lifted to make an elevated platform to peer at the wildlife – to hear what other guides in the area were catching and arranged our days to ensure we were out at the best times to watch the animals.
On our full day in the Serengeti we left our lodge as the sun peeped over the mountains for hours exploring that took us far from base and into corners of the vast sanctuary missed by those on shorter jaunts.
During the day we saw crowds of zebra, a hyena with the blood of a fresh kill on the fur around its angelic face, a lonely cheetah with a very fat belly, dozens of lazy lions snoozing after a night of stalking, giraffe pulling leaves from the tallest trees, hippos out of the water below a copse of fever trees, and the occasional shy warthog.
Joshua arranged for the chef at Serengeti Sopa Lodge to prepare lunchboxes, so we could picnic in the bush rather than racing home for the midday meal, and he parked the truck so we surveyed a herd of promenading elephants while we ate.
When we finished grazing he repositioned, to put us in the path of the wandering mothers and babies, and the majestic creatures came so close that one of the more inquisitive elephants almost poked her trunk through the open roof of the vehicle to check us out.
The early start and lunchboxes also meant we were back at the lodge in time for a swim before watching the fiery sunset with a gin and tonic, and I decided that was the most delightful way to end a perfect day on safari in the Serengeti.
And for those who prefer a beer to a G&T, I can also recommend a White Cap or two.
Sarah is a Travel Journalist for News Limited and she and her sister-in-law Julia joined Bunnik Tours’ Kenya & Tanzania Tour. You can see more of the photos Sarah snapped during this epic adventure on her Instagram page (@sarah_nicho), and get more information on the Kenya & Tanzania Bunnik Tour here.