A trip to Eastern Africa doesn't always mean khaki pants and safari hats.
This past March, I spent two weeks traveling through Kenya and Tanzania -- 10 days on a volunteer vacation monitoring elephants in Kenya's Tsavo National Park, three days at a luxury safari camp at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
The experiences revealed two very different sides of an African vacation.
You'd think an elephant would be easy to find. But there we were, six of us in a green Land Rover on a dusty road in Tsavo National Park, scanning the horizon for the telltale arc of an elephant back and finding nothing.
It was near noon, and we had been searching since dawn. By now the sun was blazing hot, such that no shady spot could subdue the sweat seeping through our clothes. In the confines of the car, a stomach grumbled.
And that was when we saw them. Barbara McKnight, the scientist leading our team of volunteers, spotted them first.
"Over there," she said, squinting through binoculars and gesturing at what appeared to be specks of dirt in the distance. Upon closer inspection, they proved to be a large group of elephants marching slowly in our direction.
"It's a family group," McKnight said, referring to a matriarch-led group of females and their young. Male elephants leave the family when they become teenagers.
We grabbed our binoculars and shuffled around the vehicle for the research materials we'd need to jot
And, while we weren't scientists, we worked with the unflinching eagerness of first-year medical students.
"The volunteers really help," said
McKnight, who has been researching Tsavo's elephants for more than 15 years in an effort to protect them from poaching and human encroachment.
About two years ago, she agreed to take on volunteers from the nonprofit, U.S.-based Earthwatch Institute to help her gather data.
"There is a lot of land to cover," she said. "(Volunteers) give me the ability to cover a greater distance in less time."
Playing scientist doesn't come cheap. Earthwatch charges volunteers about $4,500 to take part in the Tsavo expedition. The average Kenya safari, by comparison, costs about $4,000.
But such high costs aren't stopping anyone from volunteering abroad. According to surveys conducted by Orbitz, Travelocity and the Travel Industry Association of America, more and more Americans are becoming interested in volunteer vacations, a relatively recent trend also known as "voluntourism."
The concept is becoming so popular that in March, Cheaptickets.com became the first mainstream online travel agency to allow customers to book volunteer activities with their vacations.
So much for rest and relaxation. In Tsavo, volunteers must be prepared for long, hot days in the field with no midday siesta to cool off. And there are no gourmet lunches in the bush.
"It takes a lot of patience to observe elephants," McKnight said. "Volunteers have to be willing to spend a lot of time, potentially not finding anything."
Most of the time, however, that's not the case. For example: That day after seeing the family of elephants appear on the horizon, we later watched four more families and at least a dozen lone bull elephants plod past us. In all that afternoon, we saw almost 100 elephants.
Sure, it had been a slow morning. But as it turned out, all we needed to do was wait.
"Is there anything in particular you'd like to see?" guide Ivan Jacob said, craning around in the driver's seat to face me as we sat in a grassy clearing on the southern edge of Serengeti National Park.
He asked the question as if he could produce wildlife at will. What I thought was, Sure, show me a cheetah bounding across the Serengeti; show me a pride of lions feasting on a buffalo; show me an angry rhino battling for a mate.
What I said was, "Anything. Anything would be great."
He seemed surprised. In a thick Swahili accent, he echoed my apparent indifference. "Anything?"
Then, as if he were choosing an entree off a menu, he said: "How about lions? Would you like to see lions?"
He stepped on the accelerator and we charged into the African bush, on a mission. Ten minutes later that mission was accomplished, as four lions lay dozing in the sunlight just in front of us. Three young cubs frolicked in the brush nearby.
It's an understatement to say that African safaris have a tendency toward extravagance -- it's that at-your-service attitude that makes them some of the most expensive package vacations an adventure-minded traveler can take, starting at about $4,000 for a 14-day package and running into tens of thousands depending on the level of luxury desired.
At "tented camps" -- such as the one I visited, Serengeti Under Canvas -- guests do indeed stay in tents, but they are far from the brightly colored, paper-thin kinds I used for backyard slumber parties.
We're talking crystal chandeliers, battery-operated electrical systems and en-suite bathrooms. There are king-size beds with puffy comforters, oriental rugs and embroidered robes. Wake-up calls are made by butler -- every guest gets one -- with coffee and biscuits on a silver tray. Bathing water is heated and delivered upon request in large tin buckets that are hoisted onto makeshift shower units.
When it comes to wildlife viewing, there are no 12-hour field days here (though if that's what you want, I'm sure they'd be happy to oblige). Game drives are done in three- or four-hour jaunts -- one in the morning and one in the early evening. It's a relaxed schedule that leaves room for a siesta and afternoon tea, when most Serengeti animals escape the midday sun and when you might spot giraffes tiptoeing through the campsite, feasting on the treetops.
Unlike Tsavo, where the land must be scoured to find wildlife, the animals here are relatively easy to locate, especially during the rainy season (March and April) when the parched plains are turned into a vibrant green garden of Eden. This is also when 1.5 million wildebeest make their annual return from a cross-country migration, creating a predator's -- and safari-goer's -- paradise.
To ensure a sighting, guides usually keep each other updated via shortwave radio when they spot the more elusive animals such as cheetahs and leopards.
In addition, the locations of lions, rhinos and elephants are often relayed among the guides.
Consequently, "Is there anything in particular you'd like to see?" may be a rhetorical question.
In other words: Lions? Of course you'll see lions.
IF YOU GO
SERENGETI UNDER CANVAS: Operated by CC Africa: www.ccafrica.com; (888) 882-3742.
ELEPHANTS OF TSAVO: Volunteer project with the Earthwatch Institute: www.earthwatch.org; (800) 776-0188.