About an hour after entering Tanzania’s Serengeti Park, our driver Rufus abruptly pulled the Land Rover over to the side of the road. He mumbled something about a “red light” and “overheating” and stepped outside the car to check the engine. The sun was starting to set and we all expected that this would be another routine stop, like the four tire punctures we’d had already on our 10-day Kenya-Tanzania safari. After flagging down and consulting with another driver, Rufus told us that “we cannot drive the car; it is leaking oil.” Rufus sent Nuru, our cook, with the other driver to return with help and we all sat back and began our wait. From our car we heard a chorus of grunting hippos from the nearby river and I spotted a lioness with a white-tipped tail prowling about 50 feet from our car.
After we lost track of the lioness in the tall grass, we watched noisy weaver birds expertly renovating their hanging nests, a pair of iridescent-blue-headed guinea fowl looking for food and a tree full of marabou storks. Judging from the nearby location of the lodge he’d gone to, we’d optimistically expected Nuru back within 30 minutes, but it had been over an hour. By now the sun had set and it was dark and the malarial mosquitoes and tsetse flies were circling our Land Rover. Like Will Smith shuttering his house from the predatory zombies at nightfall in the movie “I Am Legend,” we worked quickly to close the windows and to pull down and secure the Land Rover’s pop-up, game-viewing roof.
After another hour went by, we began to prepare for the idea that we might be spending the night in the car. We took our malaria tablets, dressed warmly and we started to think about the logistics of six people sleeping in a land rover. I told Rufus that he could sleep on the roof, but he pointed out that leopards could easily get him there. From the car we could see the lights of the lodge where Nuru had gone. Using my miner’s flashlight, I intermittently sent Morse code signals – dot, dot, dot…dash, dash, dash…dot, dot, dot – towards the lodge from the back seat of the Land Rover. After waiting for two and a half hours, we were wondering what could have happened to Nuru. I leaned back against my backpack and started to go to sleep.
A little over three hours after Nuru had left, a pair of headlights appeared in the distance and we waited while they slowly made their way to us. A truck stopped and out jumped Nuru returned with two mechanics. They shined their lights on our car and started to work on the engine. All they needed to do was to tighten the oil plug and pour in some new motor oil, but it was pitch dark and there were hippos and lions nearby. When I heard one of the men say “hyena,” all of them took a look over their shoulders, something they did intermittently while working on the engine. On one side of the car, our kids performed what they called the “simba scan,” a search for lions aided by my miner’s flashlight. On the other side, Dot, our English safari companion, calmly did the same. Within 25 minutes, they had finished and we drove to a camp site near the lodge. After setting up our tents and eating a quick meal, we snuggled into our sleeping bags, happy that we weren’t spending our first night in the Serengeti sleeping in a Land Rover.