(To read Maddie’s account of visiting Tanzania, read her blog post)
How do you describe the vast expanse of the Serengeti, graceful giraffes traversing the grasslands, or the vibrant colors of the clothing of the Masai to someone without sight? When I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Tanzania with Madeline, my 13-year-old visually impaired daughter, these questions raced through my mind. Would days of safari be boring for her? Would climbing Mount Kilimanjaro be too much? I had to remind myself, though: Maddie has risen to every challenge and dined on every opportunity in life, having traveled since the age of three to such destinations as Sicily, Tuscany, and the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Why should this be any different?
In her short life, it is she who has taught me to see, far more than the other way around. Describing the natural world around us has caused me to view it from so many more perspectives than I’ve ever imagined. Color, texture, sound, smell, and taste have all become richly enhanced. Traveling to Tanzania offered us the perfect opportunity to experience together something completely new and to help each other experience it in ways we would not have otherwise. (Photo of the Ngorongoro Crater from Wiki Commons)
From landing in the black of night in Kilimanjaro to lifting off in the rosy pink glow of sunrise from a grass runway two weeks later, every day in Tanzania was memorable: the dust and bumpiness of the roads; the complete silence and peace of floating in a hot air balloon; the splashing of a rushing stream as we climbed through the forest covering one side of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the rich wet smell of decaying foliage on the forest floor, juxtaposed with the rustling leaves overhead stirred by the monkey tracking our progress (and lunches) uphill. I remember the sweat growing between our interlocked hands as Maddie and I negotiated rocks and roots during climbs, while the air grew cooler and more crisp with the rising altitude, and lunches protected by our waving arms to keep at bay the marauding birds nearly half our size who were clearly intent on “sharing” with us. I remember the momentum as we barreled down a mountain trail, and the complete and utter darkness of the Chaga hut we visited afterwards, listening to the sounds of the family’s cow who was seated inside, munching dried grass contentedly just inches from us. Us travelers looked at each other by the embers of a cooking fire that glowed continuously without flame, producing the only light in the hut. I remember the foreboding appearance of the banana beer offered for sampling afterward in the shockingly bright sunshine outside. (Photo of the sunset landing by Stephen Link)
Maddie didn’t need sight to feel the thick cold fog and icy wind as we made our arrival at the top of Ngorongoro Crater. The fog made viewing difficult, but it enhanced the feeling of stepping back in time when dinosaurs, not safari vehicles, ruled this land. As we descended the steep walls of the crater, a scene from ancient times unfolded—we saw a treeless savannah dotted with elephants, giraffes, birds, and more, each going about their business of living and surviving. When we approached the limited sources of water at the bottom, we began seeing trees, along with the tops of half-submerged hippos and two hyenas shuffling along the shoreline, sniffing out the remains of an animal that had lost its battle to survive.
A day later, we watched the migration move northeast: lionesses with coats to match the color of the grass lounged in carefully chosen locations of mixed shade and warm afternoon sun, slumbering with one eye open for the poor soul that might foolishly move in its own pursuit of water or food. We saw a leopard cagily hide its spots amidst the branches of a gnarled tree, awaiting its prey, while a cheetah knowingly tormented us camera-laden tourists by waving its flag of a tail from a reclining position behind a fallen tree trunk. These animals play their own games, but there is no mistaking the raw, unapologetic power of nature as a lion bites into the flanks of a wildebeest twice its size or more, dragging it further into the privacy of the tall grass and attacking its soft underbelly. This is life, survival of the fittest, but we wondered, as newcomers watching this scene—who is the predator and who is the prey in this land of such abundant life, and who can you trust to help you? Wildebeests help zebras by smelling dangerous prey headed toward their combined herds, and zebras return the favor with keen eyesight scanning the lone source of water for crocodiles before anyone moves to drink or cross the creek. Maddie listened as elephants ripped grass from the ground and thrashed it against their chests before eating. I, for my part, played the narrator of the silently shifting landscape, as a solitary black rhino lumbered across the vast grassland, too far away to hear. (Photo of elephants in the Western Serengeti by Stephen Link)
Stephen Link is a gift planner for Georgetown University. Maddie is a seventh-grader that lives in Pennsylvana.