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  • Megan Zavaglia

What not to do when an elephant butt greets you at sunrise.

It’s an odd thing, to unzip your tent and see the backside of an elephant as you head out to breakfast.

(This was after he moved away a bit - but you can see how close the were!)

For those of you who are reading this and need a quick catch-up, this story comes from a trip to Tanzania in 2012. At this point I’d been traveling for about 10 days and was comfortable with tent camping on the Serengeti.

When peeking through the zipper I actually took a moment to consider heading out of the tent. You know, sneaking past the elephant and proceeding over to the mess tent. But, considering the size of the backend of the elephant, I thought twice.

I zipped up the tent, sat on the bed and considered my options. Which, really weren’t much. I’d have to wait it out. And, about 10 minutes later the elephant and a number of his friends moved up the hill next to us. I unzipped the tent, took a deep breath hoping I wasn’t missing anything else in the landscape and proceeded to the mess tent.

This event, while not really that exciting in the scheme of past experiences, triggered me to think of another moment where I was paused in my safari adventure.

A few days earlier I had woken up early for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti. I had thought that this would be the cap of my trip, but really after hunting with Hadzabe and innumerable other moments and surprises on the trip, I can chalk this up as just another moment in a string of memories that I won’t forget.

The night before the balloon ride I had stayed at a resort as the staff shifted us to a new campsite. We were to be up and in the lobby for pick up at 6:00 am. The shuttle would take us to the launch site where we would board the balloon. The plan was to be up for the sunrise, gliding through the air, watching the sun play across the landscape as it peaked over the hills. The sunlight filling the valleys with light and waking the animals, brining them out to start the day.

6:00 came and went, 6:05, 6:10. Those of us waiting were getting a bit nervous. Where was the shuttle?

Finally just after 6:15, the driver pulled up and came into the front lobby. He seemed a bit frazzled as he hustled in and apologized for being late.

“I went out to get into the shuttle when I saw a leopard. I had to wait a bit. It took a while for him to walk away from the car.” We all laughed nervously and then a silence set in while we considered that this wasn’t a vacation and safari for those that lived here. This was life.

We eventually all piled into the shuttle. As we drove down the road in the dark I anticipated a quiet ride. It was, wonderfully, a new experience as well. I hadn’t signed up for a night ride, but we as we drove down the dirt road toward the launch sight we were buzzed by a night owl whose wings were as wide as the car. We startled a number of lizards that were sucking the last amount of warmth from the surface of the road. And, best of all, we had to stop to allow a porcupine cross the road. Now, I’ve seen porcupines in the US, they were no where close to the size of this guy. Huge, prickly and moving so quickly on his short legs that it surprised us all.

Once we arrived at the balloon site we loaded up, four of us each in four sections of one basket. We climbed in, laid on our backs and as the balloon lifted we were upright.

It was quiet in the balloon, a few occasional murmured comments and the whispered voice of our balloon guide pointing out items of note. It was surreal, really, floating high above the danger below, seeing hyena pups playing, hippos running though the grass to the water hole and giraffes eating from acacia trees. The lack of sound put us into another world, one where we could observe without concern. It was much like the safari jeep, but the extra distance an almost God like manor, divorced of the worry of an elephant rushing us or a cheetah jumping onto the roof of the jeep.

After so much time on the ground, so much time being a part of the environment, this view completed the overall African experience for me. I’d seen the people, the animals, the villages, hunted and made friends that I’d keep for the rest of my life. This balloon ride gave me the perspective to bring it all together.

Once we landed the balloon company set up a wonderful lunch under an acacia. We ate a fantastic breakfast, had champagne, took plenty of pictures and used the “Loo with a View”. Once the festivities settled down we then headed back to our respective resorts and rooms.

I still talk about the trip quite a bit, but I don’t often recount the balloon ride. It isn’t something that you can really explain; freedom, comfort, discovery, celebration of life….

So, what do you do when you have an elephant butt outside of your tent in the morning? Take time to reflect.

Travel Tip: What don’t you do? Don’t leave the tent…. I’m pretty sure that elephant wouldn’t have appreciated being crowded and who needs to be charged by an elephant before breakfast?

Language: Swahili

Hot air balloon - Puto ya hewa moto

Owl – Bundi

Porcupine - Nungunungu

Leopard - Chui

Serenity – Utulivu

Sunrise - Jua

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