As a human being, I'm here to say the safari experience is truly humbling.
Here on the golden savanna, the lions still roar. The crocodile, hippo, giraffe, elephant, warthog, zebra and hyena lead colorful lives. The goofy wildebeest still migrate in their ancient clockwise pattern in their clumpy, galumphing stride.
And here, humans are just specks on a landscape -- little dots in little safari vehicles, talking in their tiny voices, taking their tiny pictures, then going away.
It is a life-changing trip. It is an expensive trip. It is a worth-it trip.
But if you want to go, you might want to go soon. Before things change.
Tanzania -- A watering place at dawn. A mating pair of lions suddenly sits up, alert. They watch as 11 other lions approach through the grass. The sight is heart-stopping.
Now I hear motors. I look behind us and seven other Land Cruisers arrive. Then three more. We're actually blocked in! Motors turn off. Safari tourists know enough to stay silent. They poke their heads out of the top of the vehicles. Will the lions play? Fight? Cameras click. One big male sips water from the pool, then the lions all relax.
They pay no attention to the flock of gaping humans in their safari hats only yards away.
Here's the question. How long will it be before the lions notice we're there? Will it take 100 tourists converging? A thousand? It's a significant question, because Africa is one of the hottest tourist spots on the planet, up 8 percent this year over last year, according to the World Tourism Organization.
The royal family of Abu Dhabi has a safari playground in Tanzania. Ted Turner flies to Tanzania on his private jet. Bill Gates escapes stress on a private reserve in western Tanzania. Jessica Simpson has stayed at the luxury camp I stayed at in Kenya.
Drawn by the increasingly safe reputation of East Africa, plenty of noncelebrities have discovered safaris, too.
This past summer, all 4,000 hotel and tented-camp rooms in Kenya's Masai Mara park reserve were booked, part of Kenya's tourism boom of 1.6 million visitors per year. Demand is sparking even more development.
Meanwhile, less-developed Tanzania, just south of Kenya, is rushing to catch up.
Aiming to lift thousands out of poverty through tourism, the government plans to allow 4,500 new lodging rooms by 2012 in the famous Serengeti, including a Kempinski hotel, adding a new Serengeti-area airport and expanding cultural tourism programs.
Blessed with famous Mt. Kilimanjaro, the chimps of Gombe, Lake Tanganyika and Ngorongoro Crater (now linked by a paved road from the safari town of Arusha), Tanzania is aiming for 1 million tourists by 2010, compared to 644,000 last year.
But will that be too many?
"If we had double the amount of rooms, we could have sold them this year," says Carol Rademeyer, manager of Tarangire River Camp in northern Tanzania, a semipermanent tented camp.
Wildlife advocates have protested the Serengeti hotel plans, but the government points to the nearly $1 billion that Kenya is raking in on tourism every year, and it wants in on the action.
And it has the rich attractions to deliver, says Eben Schoeman, co-owner of the Arusha-based Kiliwarrior Expeditions, which offers eco-friendly custom trips and Mount Kilimanjaro treks.
"If you close your eyes and think of Africa, you think of the wide-open spaces and acacia trees and the 'Lion King' and the men in red and the dirt roads," he says, "and that's Tanzania."
For me, if I was going to do a safari, I wanted it to be exactly there.
>TARANGIRE NATIONAL PARK
Tanzania -- This is a park famous for its thousands of elephants.
The scrubby land reveals baobob trees, a few impala, one cheetah crossing the road, some baboons and monkeys.
Yet, where are the elephants? We've been driving for two hours since dawn, and I don't have all day here, people. The road is bumpy. I'm thirsty. I'm getting sunburned. I have to go to the bathroom.
Gilliard Mollel, my patient guide, explains. It is winter here south of the equator, and elephants don't like the cold (about 55 degrees). This unfenced park is 1,000 square miles; they could be anywhere. Finally, we spot about 20 elephants browsing by a shallow creek. In the wild, they do not seem so big or so fierce. They look domestic, with families together, digging in the mud with their trunks.
A safari is not Disney World. You need patience, something many Americans (including me) sorely lack. There is no guarantee you'll see an elephant on schedule. Yet the fact that these enormous, wild, relatively pristine, unfenced parks in Tanzania and Kenya still exist at all is a miracle.
Yes, modernity is creeping in. There is perfect cell phone service in most of East Africa. Your safari can also now be viewed on the popular satellite mapping program Google Earth. Kiliwarriors' Schoeman has pioneered the mapping of GPS coordinates of camps and attractions in the region so his clients can get a birds'-eye view (for a sample image, see www.kiliwarriors.com).
But no matter how high-tech the preparation or how luxurious the accommodations, a safari is not a cushy trip. It takes about 24 hours and two flights to travel from the United States to Tanzania. Many roads in Kenya and Tanzania are appallingly bad. Camps can limit hot water and electricity.
And safaris aren't cheap. Group safaris can run $5,000 per person plus about $2,400 airfare in high season (December-February and July-September for East Africa). Personalized safaris that include flying to various parks can run $8,000 and up -- plus airfare.
If you are going all that way, you'd might as well do things right. Stay at least one night in a luxury tented camp. To make up for hardships and mosquitoes, many camps offer fabulous food, massages, private dinners, parties and more.
"A lot of tourists are going for the smaller camps and trying to go to more eco-friendly camps," says Johanna Johansson, a manager at the Naibor Camp in the Masai Mara, which serves deluxe dinners and has waiters bring visitors tea in bed.
While Kenya has a friendly range of safari products open to all -- including the high-end Naibor camp, Tanzania's idea is to be more like Botswana -- make safaris expensive, so that you get the highest class of tourists.
Kenya -- We're speeding over the dirt tracks, headed for the river.
"Hold on," says our driver, Francis Githinji Kingori. He heads for a clump of other safari vehicles and jerks to a stop. What's going on? Zebra are fording the Mara River ahead of the 1.5 million wildebeest! It's the migration! They've swept up from the Serengeti in Tanzania and have arrived! We're seeing it! It's a super safari photo op.
Then, a lion steps out of the bushes. The zebras on the bank freeze. The ones in the water leap for their lives. The humans watch this National Geographic moment, holding their breath until the lion strolls away.
"I got it all on video," Phil Vaccaro, a honeymooner from New York, says with excitement.
Later, his new wife, Michele, says that on this trip, "This was the best day."
The best day. There are lots of them on safari, because the experience is not ruined, not yet, and although hotels are busy and airports are crowded and tourists are plentiful during high season, it is nowhere near as busy as South Africa.
Responsibly developed safari tourism can actually help Kenya and Tanzania's economies, says Dr. Kay Holekamp, professor of zoology at Michigan State University. She has studied hyenas since 1988 in the Masai Mara and has watched warily as more and more tourists come.
"Assuming drivers behave considerately and tourists behave respectfully of the animals, few of them seem bothered by tour vehicles; cheetahs & elephants are often exceptions to this general rule," she wrote in an e-mail.
And safari gives experiences available nowhere else.
By night in my tent, I hear lions rumble and grunt.
By day, I see dozens of species, even a rare black rhino with its horn poking out of tall grasses.
Tanzania -- Near placid Lake Magadi, a river flows into the salt lake. Herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles wander by as if ordered by central casting. Hippos quite gracefully walk out of the flamingo-studded water with their babies trailing. Streams of animals splash in the river, sipping a drink, nibbling on the green grass.
The sun angles down and illuminates everything like gold.
If you go:
Read: "Africa's Top Wildlife Countries" by Mark Nolting (Global Travel, $19.95)
More info: Tanzania Tourist Board (www.tanzaniatouristboard.com), Kenya Tourism (www.tourism.go.ke)
Type of lodgings: Hotels, lodges and luxury tented camps. Two camps worth noting: Naibor Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya, has fine dining, king-size beds in tents on a river with hippos, baboons and crocodiles nearby (www.shompole.com). Kisima Ngeda Camp, Lake Eyasi, Tanzania, is a lovely lakeside camp (www.kisimangeda.com).
Two hotels worth noting: Sopa Lodge, Ngorongoro Crater, has incredible views from 7,000 feet elevation, a nice restaurant and pool (www.sopalodges.com). The Arusha Hotel is a starting or ending point; very nice Western-style hotel with Internet and good buffet (www.thearushahotel.com).
Tour operators: I booked through Kiliwarrior Expeditions. The company arranges custom safaris and Mount Kilimanjaro treks (about $450 a day and up per person). Info: www.kiliwarriors.com, (703) 349-3215)
Let's Go Travel is based in Nairobi; contact owner Alan Dixon (about $3,000-up plus airfare). Info: www.lets-go-travel.net.
Cox & Kings plans honeymoon safaris and other trips (about $7,000-$11,000 plus airfare depending on amenities and itinerary). Info: www.coxandkingsusa.com.