Ever since I first saw Sydney Pollack’s Oscar-winning film Out of Africa, I’ve swooned at the idea of camping in the Serengeti with a swashbuckling lover and reenacting the scene where Robert Redford washes Meryl Streep’s hair. But instead, when my bucket-list African safari adventure finally happened last August, I found myself sharing a tent with my sometimes stinky and often sassy 18-year-old son, Gabe, who was experiencing one heck of a high school graduation present.
Turns out this “gap year” mom-and-teen trip is quite common, according to the owner of our bespoke safari company, George Mavroudis, a Tanzanian-born Greek Cypriot who has been leading luxury mobile safaris through the wilds of Tanzania for nearly three decades. Our small group included one patient, child-free friend and three mom-teen pairs. Two of the moms shared custody with their exes, so time with their teens was extra precious.
Zebras on the Runway
After spending the night near Kilimanjaro, we jumped in a bush plane that only allowed 35 pounds of luggage per person (what?!) and headed straight for the Serengeti. We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when zebras and giraffes had to move off the runway for us to land.
Our small group included one patient, child-free friend and three mom-teen pairs.
Driving across the savanna on our way to camp, we kept begging our drivers to stop for photo ops of the wildlife. We realized there was a good reason for the khaki clothing we’d been advised to bring: Turns out the blue and black sheets (the usual color of my son’s jeans and sweats) we periodically passed were hung in the wild because they attract and catch tsetse flies.
Our two-jeep group quickly set a record for sighting more lions than any other our safari guides had hosted that year: 65 in ten days. One of our drivers even took to calling me “Mama Simba.”
After the last game drive of each day, the friendly and attentive African camp staff asked who wanted a shower before our lavish dinners were served, and big buckets of water were heated on the fire for each tent. My son earned the name “Two Buckets.”
Big African Bugs
Our quintessential safari expert, George, was part bushman, part storyteller, part encyclopedia. He does not believe in hermetically sealed safaris where guests stay in luxury lodges and visit the same animals in the same reserves each day. It’s important to him that his guests get to know his country in a real way, from bustling marketplaces to dusty back roads.
One of the eight wives of a chief asked my son if he wanted many wives of his own.
George even gave Gabe his first stick shift driving lesson in the Jeep one morning on the salt flats of Lake Eyasi, but there were bigger lessons too. Throughout the trip, he saw the mutual respect between our guide and the native population. We had the privilege of visiting George’s friends in their homes, whether they lived in adobe huts with cow skin doors or slept under the stars.
One of the eight wives of a chief of the cow-herding Barbaig tribe asked in Swahili if my son wanted many wives of his own. George answered, “Yes, but they need to know that Gabe is spooked by the big African bugs.” Without skipping a beat, she responded, “Well, how will he tend the cows?”
Sunset on the Serengeti
A few days after driving through the wondrous, ten-mile wide Ngorogoro Crater, where bull elephants go to retire and wildebeest march across in uniform as if pulled by a rope, we walked through the bush on a hunt with the nomadic Hadza tribe. As amazing as it is that the Hadza’s way of life has persisted for thousands of years while world empires have risen and fallen, that wasn’t what impressed Gabe the most about them.
The Hadza’s way of life has persisted for thousands of years while world empires have risen and fallen.
A few years ago, National Geographic sent an anthropologist to study the tribe, including their excrement, since they have some of the healthiest digestive systems on the planet. Gabe loved that they affectionately referred to the professor as “Dr. Shit.”
Looking back, Gabe said that one of his favorite things about the trip was leaning out of the sunroof of the Jeep and seeing lions that weren’t in cages. But then he remembered the wooden twigs he liked to chew on that natives called “bush toothbrushes.” Or maybe, since the legal drinking age in Tanzania is 18, it was ordering his first whiskey around the campfire after a day in the bush.
And I replaced my Robert Redford fantasy. I actually can’t think of a better experience than a mid-afternoon beer with my son at camp in between game drives, or of a more unforgettable moment than raising a glass of champagne together to our final sunset on the Serengeti.