The safari vehicles—sturdy Toyota Land Cruisers with pop-up roofs that let us stand and drink in the vast panorama of grass and sky surrounding us—were circled up on a dusty Serengeti track, miles from civilization but mere yards from a parade of elephants tearing into an acacia thorn bush with ravenous gusto. We were close enough to hear the crunching of every leafy, spikey bite.
Rowe McKinley, e’70, b’71, one of 16 Flying Jayhawks on the “Tanzania Safari During the Great Migration,” grinned and called out what many of us were thinking at that moment and many others on the February trip: “Just like in Kansas, right?”
Yes, a journey halfway around the world to the African savannah produced surprising echoes of life back home. Bouncing across Serengeti National Park on roads that ran from gravel to mud to faint two-track paths at times felt a little like driving in the Kansas Flint Hills. Except this sea of grass is larger—12,000 square miles spread across Tanzania and Kenya, compared to 9,900 in Kansas and Oklahoma—and mostly flatter, with vast, treeless open plains broken only by the occasional kopje, rock outcroppings of 500-million-year-old granite that are favored perches of the big cats that call Serengeti home.
Much, much more common, though, were other-worldly moments of awe.
The big cats—lions and leopards—had a lot to do with that. Along with the African elephant, the Cape buffalo and the black rhinoceros, they make up the “Big Five,” the exotic bucket-list quintet that big-game hunters coined to highlight the five toughest animals to hunt on foot in Africa. We were shooting only with our cameras, but the Big Five still loomed as must-see fauna, and our guides made sure that crossing paths with each was at the top of their to-do lists.
We knew we were living charmed lives when we spotted the toughest get on that list—the shy, mostly nocturnal leopard—less than an hour after we arrived in the park. Guides often spend their last day with a tour group trying to hustle up a leopard encounter; we were still shaking off the dust of our bush flight, buzzing from our first wildlife sighting (a bulky antelope called a topi) from the tiny airstrip’s terminal, when an excited burst of Swahili on the Toyota’s shortwave alerted our guide, Neiman, that elusive chui was lounging in a tree not far up the road. And just like that—after 20-plus hours of flight time across three continents, a couple of bus rides and short bush-plane hop—we found ourselves hot on the trail in a surefire African safari.
Over the next week we saw three more leopards, countless lions (including a mating pair that fulfilled their biological imperative with complete disregard for the giggling gaggle of spying tourists), and dozens of elephants ranging from massive solitary bulls to large clans of cows and calves. Alerted by vultures dropping from the sky, we converged on a pair of cheetahs lounging in the shade, their bellies swollen from feasting on a young eland whose parents retreated forlornly in the distance. We intercepted the great migration of wildebeests and zebra and sat idling like drivers at a rail crossing, watching as long trains of the grazers moving in search of fresh grass rumbled across the road in front of us. Somehow, amid a teeming swirl of thousands of the animals, we were able to focus on one wildebeest as she gave birth and, within minutes, nudged her newborn to its feet.
As the days passed, we grew adept at identifying the many, many different African antelope, from the dog-sized dik-dik to the massive waterbuck and the ubiquitous impala. We spotted a few solitary black rhinos and great herds of Cape buffalo, including one bull that nearly crashed our al fresco dinner when a ranger chased him away from the swimming pool, where he and a mate had come to drink. Side-trips to Olduvai Gorge, a Maasai village and the Kibaoni Primary School, where Jayhawks donated more than 30 pounds of school supplies, put us in touch with Tanzania’s human culture, both ancient and current. And back at the lodges after a long dusty day on the safari trail, we gratefully accepted the warm hospitality of our hosts and the good company of our fellow travelers, who included groups from Johns Hopkins and Ole Miss. The dark nights occasionally rang with the calls of baboons and lions, and a skyful of stars—some familiar, some unknown to us—lit our way.
On our first night at the Serengeti Serena Lodge, one of five lodges and hotels we stayed at on the 12-day trip, we gathered for a welcome reception on a terrace overlooking a beautiful valley where the sun was setting behind green hills. We watched as a local band serenaded Fred, e’67, and Juilane Chana, d’68, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. On our last night there, the lodge treated us to a surprise barbecue, in recognition, our Gohagan tour director Lydian Eijsbouts related, that we were “a special group, always smiling and happy.” As we lingered after dinner under the cooling night sky, in the flickering light of bonfires set to create a festive mood (and to ward off the very real threat of marauding wildlife), we could hear a chorus of many singing voices coming nearer and nearer. Soon a line of lodge staff—bartenders and waiters and chefs in their tall white toques—paraded into our gathering, serenading us with a Tanzanian song as they passed around a cake festooned with a single Swahili word: Kwa heri. Goodbye.
As the song faded away, a lone voice piped up with a familiar refrain. Slowly at first, and then with gusto, the whole table joined in. “Rock chalk, Jayhawk” rang out across the African night, as our hosts smiled in surprise. We hadn’t really understood the words of their song, and likely they were mystified by ours. But the feeling behind both was clear enough: The world is full of wonders, and aren’t we lucky that, together, we’ve shared a few.
The Flying Jayhawks trip to Tanzania took place Feb. 1-12, 2018, and was hosted by Steven Hill, associate editor of Kansas Alumni magazine. View more pictures from the trip on Flickr. Pictures may be downloaded for personal use. For more information about Flying Jayhawks trips, including a schedule, visit our website.
At the conclusion of the Tanzania Migration Safari, our group of eight Flying Jayhawks were unanimous in calling this their trip of a lifetime. The sheer expanse of the landscape was breathtaking, our drive through the middle of the migration surrounded by more than two million animals was unforgettable, and the highlight was our daily encounters with wildebeest, zebra, elephant, antelope, lion, leopard, cheetah, and countless more animals and species of birds.
Upon arrival in East Africa, our safari experience departed from the Lake Duluti Serena Hotel outside the city of Arusha. This departure gave us a glimpse of a fast-growing city of nearly 500,000 people. Our drive introduced us to the first observations of the Maasai Tribe members with their livestock herds. Upon entering Tarangire National Park we were thrilled to have our first sightings of several elephant herds as well as zebra, antelope, and gazelle.
Our guides were the perfect team: Babenga, known as the “wise one” and Emmanuel who quickly took on the nickname of “wise guy.” On that first day we were treated to the unexpected, real safari experience of getting both vehicles stuck in a dry, sandy creek bed! Nonetheless, after being freed from the creek bed we were rewarded with an up-close experience of watching a lioness coax her five cubs to cross the road right in front of us. Emmanuel was quick to point out that getting stuck was perfectly timed to make this sighting possible.
After entering Ngorongoro Conservation area we spent an entire day in the Ngorongoro Crater which is earth’s largest intact volcanic caldera with an unmatched natural wildlife sanctuary. In this setting, we had the special privilege of seeing two black rhinoceros which was a humbling experience given the sad circumstances of their threatened extinction.
Throughout our migration safari were treated to some of the greatest deluxe lodges and tented camps which provided us the opportunity to be surrounded by a landscape of boulders, fig trees, colorful garden settings, and night sounds of the Serengeti wilderness. One of the highlights was staying in the Kirawira luxury tented camp in the western Serengeti. This camp with Victorian-era décor is situated on a hilltop overlooking the vast plains of the Serengeti. And this is where we were treated to a memorable bush dinner under the stars with a roaring bonfire to keep away the hungry hyenas!
During our visit to the Zariki School at the Magu-Mwanza fishing village on Lake Victoria, it was a special treat for our group of Flying Jayhawks to witness the Jayhawk influence in every corner of the globe. One of the seven classrooms at this school is named “Jayhawk” thanks to the generosity of a Kansas family who previously visited the school during their own Flying Jayhawks trip.
Rock Chalk, indeed!
—Dale Seuferling, president of KU Endowment, hosted the Flying Jayhawks trip to Tanzania January 27-February 6, 2016 along with his wife, Marianne. For more information about the Flying Jayhawks program, including the 2016 schedule, or to sign up to receive emails or brochures about future adventures, visit www.kualumni.org/flyingjayhawks.
Meredith Chait knew she had to travel. Bit by the bug at a young age, she had vacationed in Africa with her family when she was 10 years old, lived in Belgium for three years, thanks to her father’s work, and studied abroad in Scotland during her time at KU. So it was only natural that she’d choose adventure over an average 9-to-5 job after graduation.
Meredith, c’14, j’14, showed signs of straying from the norm early in her college career, when she elected to take Swahili to fulfill her foreign language requirement. She loved it—even ended up minoring in it—and explored options to put her newfound skill to work.
She decided to focus her attention on Tanzania, one of the safer countries in Africa where Swahili is spoken. Internet searches turned up a number of volunteer opportunities, although many of them required participants to pay for the experience, an option Meredith couldn’t afford. But when a family friend told her about a no-expense prospect to work with deaf children in Tanzania, she couldn’t say no.
Meredith took off for Dar es Salaam, the most populous city in the country, where she stayed in a convent near one of the three elementary schools for deaf children. Each morning she woke to a breakfast of white bread and tea or coffee, sometimes a plantain, too. After a short walk to the school, she spent a few hours building the school’s website or teaching the kindergarten students to count. In the afternoons, she took Swahili sign language from one of the teachers.
“The students taught me a lot, too,” Meredith admits. “They would write Swahili words in the dirt and then sign them. One of my favorite things was just hanging out and signing with the children.”
Meredith rounded out her days with excursions around the city or to the nearby island of Zanzibar. She spent time drinking coffee at local cafes or playing cards with other volunteers. She even went on a three-day safari by herself.
Meredith’s nine-week adventure definitely left her yearning for more and confident that she’s capable of just about anything. She’s currently exploring opportunities to return to Africa to work for a nonprofit group or other charitable organization.
“I didn’t get the urge to travel out of my system,” she says. “I now want more adventures and more opportunities to travel—and to never have a desk job.”
When it comes to travel, Jake Vander Velde, d’07, favors adventure. Forget Vegas—he’s been to his fair share of bachelor parties in Sin City. He’d rather head out to parts unknown: Peru or, most recently, Tanzania. And, as a fifth-generation Jayhawk and a descendant of David Robinson, one of KU’s first professors, he always packs KU keepsakes to distribute as a self-appointed ambassador for his alma mater.
This fall, Vander Velde and fellow KU graduate Braun Ricci, c’04, spent two weeks in Tanzania, including a day in a Maasai village, where they distributed pairs of running shoes, a Russell Robinson basketball jersey and a KU flag. “Everyone talks about the magnificent geography of Africa, but the people of Africa just steal your heart,” he says. “They are the nicest, most welcoming people.”
He and Ricci spent time in a classroom with young children who are learning English, so they shared the cherished Rock Chalk Chant. Vander Velde’s KU flag became a cape for a chief in the village, where residents favor clothing in hues of crimson and blue.
Vander Velde lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he manages trade marketing for R.J. Reynolds, and Ricci lives in Newport Beach, California, where he is a claims manager for Liberty Mutual Insurance. Exotic travel is difficult, especially as a young professional with limited vacation time, but after his successful 2012 adventure to Machu Picchu in Peru, Vander Velde says he is determined to continue his adventures, and he’ll make sure to pack his suitcase with KU mementos to share.
—Jennifer Jackson Sanner
Photos courtesy of Jake Vander Velde. Top photo: In 2012, Vander Velde and Brad Thies, b’05, g’06, traveled to Peru. They unfurled the flag atop Huayna Picchu, a peak that overlooks the Machu Picchu Inca site. Thies, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., is owner and principal of Barr Assurance & Advisory. Bottom photos: Vander Velde, left, gave his KU flag to the Maasai chief’s son, who proudly displayed his new cape.