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    The Grass Menagerie

    Tracking herds of elephants, dazzles of zebras and even a coalition of cheetahs across the Serengeti just might be the best gift we can imagine right now

    Growing emotional at the thought of travel perhaps isn’t so strange given the year that was, but the intensity of feeling that took hold after landing at Tanzania’s Grumeti Game Reserve caught me by surprise. Having used all precautions available (pre- and post-departure testing, face shields, face masks, sanitizing wipes and sleeping pills for good measure), drinking in the openness of the Serengeti delivered a rush of optimism that I will put down to witnessing this endless expanse of land teeming with life.

    In a year that felt like everything just stopped, here was a place that kept on. From our base at Singita Grumeti’s Sabora and Faru Faru camps, a sense of abundance was everywhere: wildflowers scattered across the plain in numbers that matched the herd of topi just beyond; zebras, giraffes and elephants appearing as if on cue. As the days passed, the expanse of the plains somehow brought into sharper view the interconnectedness of species that exist within its boundaries, each animal roaming the landscape threatened by—or surviving—because of others around them.

    A seemingly unremarkable patch of dirt that we passed seemed to sum it up best. Our guide Mishi explained that it likely would have started with zebras rolling around on the ground to clean themselves of pests, before warthogs came across the cleared patch and used the dust to coat their thin skin to protect against biting flies. The dust patch had eventually expanded to the point where, after the rains, elephants had rolled about in it, widening it each time, until finally the patch deepened under their weight, forming a watering hole that now sustains an even larger array of animals.

    For those who can, experiencing a place like this in the coming year is something akin to having an open-air zoo all to yourself. Though, in truth, with the very limited capacity of the five Singita properties on this 350,000-acre reserve, this is a sensation you will still be able to experience as the world opens up again—and one worth planning for.

    There’s something about the hum of a small plane that always puts me to sleep, though the anticipation of this flight wouldn’t allow for that. As we departed Arusha for the Grumeti Reserve, we saw the land below shift from vast arid stretches to streaks of vegetation, until finally the rich green of the Seregeti in spring burst through.

    We’d barely set off for Sabora Tented Camp before our first sighting of impala, whose incessantly swishing tails were the first hint of the swarms of flies who follow the wildebeest migration. Shortly after, a herd (or “dazzle”) of zebras leapt across the road with giraffes and elephants strolling beyond. Our guide, Mishi—the only female guide in the concession—was an endless source of information. Her enthusiasm for sharing her world with us made it all the more vivid and memorable.

    The jackals—their movements surprisingly elegant for opportunistic predators—were always alert and dashing off at the sight of us. This one lingered as, just beyond our vehicle, a group of hyenas devoured a carcass that he seemed to have set his sights on.

    Our first lion sighting was of two brothers who barely stirred from their heat-induced sleep as we approached. Mishi explained that it took months of habituating the animals on the reserve to trust and understand that the safari trucks are not a danger to them. Every afternoon, a storm would come sweeping through our camp. Later that evening, a rumbling that I took for another storm turned out to be a water buffalo who’d bumped up against my tent, its breathing drowning out my white noise phone app as I fell asleep.

    More snooze than roar: This pair of mature male lions, like their younger counterparts, could barely be bothered to lift their heads to acknowledge us. The afternoon downpour did cause them to stir, if only to make for what little cover this thicket of bushes offered against the rain.

    (Left) Setting off to see what the plains held before daybreak, I caught my first glimpse of the sky uninterrupted by clouds. As first light seeped into the night sky and the horizon streaked blue and amber, silhouettes of water buffalo, jackals and hyenas took form; a phalanx of storks crowning a tree startled and flew off as we drove by. (Middle) As the sky continued to open up and we followed a herd of zebras through a thicket of acacia trees, Mishi spotted what would be our first cheetah of the trip. The young male barely took notice of us as he began to slink through the acacia in the direction of a troop of baboons that he’d caught sight of. (Right) As we drove back to camp for breakfast, Mishi’s searching eyes homed in on a giant African snail—about the size of a small tea cup—making its way across the road. It was equally thrilling to come across this curiously large slug as it was an elephant!

    We kept pace with a towering giraffe—they can move surprisingly fast—as it sauntered across the savannah.

    After being caught in an afternoon downpour, we reversed course and headed back to camp to discover four lions walking in the same direction. We followed them as they stretched themselves out on tree trunks and rolled between each other’s legs. Later that evening they would make it into the camp itself, sending us into a new, much more thrilling type of lockdown.

    (Left) My tent at our next stop, Faru Faru camp, overlooked a watering hole, where each afternoon around 1pm a group of baboons ambled across the land. If at Sabora we needed a security escort for the lions and water buffalo (the most dangerous animal in the bush), here it was those baboons. (Middle) A soaking tub for taking in the show. (Right) The boma, or “bush television” area, was our meeting point for dinner each evening, where we continued to ask Mishi endless questions about what we’d seen that day.

    After five days I thought I’d gotten much better at spotting animals, but watching Mishi identify these three cheetahs that had at first appeared as specks in the grass was a humbling reality check.

    From the deck of one the hilltop villas at Sasakwa Lodge, the largest of Singita Grumeti’s five camps, we could take in the expanse of the plains, spotting a herd of 50 or so elephants that we managed to drive right up to.

    Bird sightings, like this lilac-breasted roller, were little jewels amongst the show-stopping encounters with the bigger beasts of the Serengeti. I caught a Tompkins gazelle mid leap, running to catch up with the rest of the herd that scattered on our approach. And I’d like to think this is the troop of baboons I watched from the tent at Faru Faru each day.

    Flying back to Dar Es Salaam and on to New York, we passed over craters and mountains that had seemingly erupted from the flat lands below—a reminder of the long reach of geologic time, and a hopeful perspective on the pause that this most exceptional year has brought.

    PRIOR’s bespoke team has partnered with Singita to custom-craft an immersive week in Tanzania, including 3 nights at Singita Sabora Tented Camp and 3 nights at neighboring Faru Faru Lodge, with private air to connect the destinations seamlessly and safely. Inquire at membership@prior.club.

    Conor Burke

    Conor Burke is a creative director and photographer living in New York, by way of Sydney and Dublin. He oversees PRIOR’s creative, having previously run photographer and interior artist Martyn Thompson’s design studio. Before that he was the market editor at VOGUE Living and a contributing editor at GQ Australia.

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