Elephants are fine. But more interesting is the man who can track elephants.
Lions are great. But even more amazing is the resourceful Hadzabe tribe.
As fascinating as animals are, the people and communities of safari country are what stick in your memory. Yet many travelers rushing from park to park never get a chance to encounter any of them.
It is not just an itinerary issue, but an ethical one.
Are your dollars filtering down to the average person, who makes about $350 per year in Tanzania? How can you support the community when you visit? What else interesting is going on? How can you get out of the safari bubble?
I did it in three amazing ways:
>Hunt with the Hadzabe
LAKE EYASI, Tanzania -- It is one of the rarest tourist opportunities in the world -- to meet and hunt with a hunter-gatherer tribe that lives almost exactly as it did 50,000 years ago.
And it's not easy to find them.
Three bone-wrenching hours on a dirt road, then another 45 minute-drive at dawn down a rough track and you finally come to a rocky, scrubby place in the middle of nowhere.
"There," guide Momoya Muh indoy says, pointing to a clump of bushes. "The Hadzabe."
"Where?" I say. Then I see them. Dressed in animal skins in a small clearing, they roast a tiny antelope called a dik-dik over a tiny fire. Four men, four women and one small child make up this family, but Hadzabe are scattered over miles around Lake Eyasi.
The Hadzabe sleep on tiny mats in the bush. They move around every couple of weeks. They make fire with sticks. They make beautiful arrows with twine of impala tendon, spotted feathers of guinea fowl and wood of a nearby willow. The men hunt; the women dig roots and berries. They have few other possessions except some porcupine quill necklaces, a knife and a leopard pelt.
Later, I trail the hunters for two hours over a cool, breezy scrubland. The air is clear. The green Ngorongoro highlands rise in the distance. Locusts 3 inches long sit in the trees. The hunters track wild pig footprints and shoot arrows at guinea fowl.
I feel as though every mile we walk is 5,000 years back in time.
After we get back, I give the Hadzabe 10,000 Tanzanian shillings -- about $9 -- at Muhindoy's suggestion. The only thing they use money for? Metal arrow points, beads and knife blades.
Despite government attempts to make the Hadzabe live in houses and send their children to school, they just run away. An estimated 1,000 are left.
Six years ago, Muhindoy started this cultural tour to the Hadzabe and nearby Datoga tribes as a way to raise awareness of their fragile state (he is Datoga himself). He had eight customers the first year. Last year, he had 100. The Hadzabe tour is now among Tanzania's cultural offerings. You don't have to be someone special to do it -- any tourist can arrange it.
Is this good or bad tourism? He's not sure. I'm not sure. The Abu Dhabi royal family has just leased a "safari playground" from the government on Hadzabe land. A dispute is brewing between anthropologists eager to protect the tribe and those who think it's high time they modernized.
Will royal hunters and Western tourists with cameras and cell phones change the Hadzabe the way the last 50,000 years of history could not? I do not know. But I do know I am glad to have met them.
For more: Ask your tour operator to contact Momoya Muhindoy (momoyaeyasiyahoo.com). Do not attempt this tour on your own as, the drive is on appallingly bad roads and the tribe is hard to find.
Attend a war crimes tribunal
ARUSHA, Tanzania -- The witness, Fidele Uwiezye, sits at a table in a bright red jacket, his memory hazy about his part in encouraging a mob to take up arms as Rwanda's genocide began in April 1994.
A defense counsel in a black robe cross-examines him. Three judges sit in front, impassively watching. Behind them, the light blue- and-white emblem of the United Nations hangs on the wall. The entire room is enclosed in thick glass. And just outside the glass, five spectators listen and watch as the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda inches along, having convicted only 29 people in 9 years.
Watching a genocide trial may not be on the agenda of most American tourists to Arusha, better known as a happy safari starting point and gateway to Mt. Kilimanjaro. But if court is in session, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is a riveting window into the bloody episode 13 years ago in neighboring Rwanda, when that nation's Hutus killed 1 million Tutsis in just a few weeks.
The U.N. set up the court in this northern Tanzanian town in 1998 as a neutral site, providing employment to hundreds of Arushans. Proceedings are supposed to end in December 2008, although 18 genocide conspirators are still on the lam.
Even Arusha tour guides may not know about the free public admission to the U.N. tribunal, so ask. Interested? For more information, see www.ictr.org
>Walk with the Masai
TARANGIRE, Tanzania -- Just outside the national park in late afternoon, Godwin Longino Lukumay stops at various spots in the bush. This sharp green plant cures chicken pox, he says. That conifer tree sap fixes wounds. The little red sodom apple cures stomachache.
Lukumay is a Masai, making him part of the famous warrior tribe plentiful in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. The pastoral, cattle-keeping people have lived here for thousands of years in their famous round mud huts with thatched roofs. The most famous safari lands -- the Serengeti, Masai Mara, Ngorongoro Crater -- are also traditional Masai homelands.
We walk, with him holding his spear, his red blankets around his shoulders, alert. He points to something on the ground.
"Elephant," he says, pointing to a faint round track with small marks inside the print.
I look around, worried, but don't see any sign of tusk or trunk.
Despite the slight risk of running into an elephant, this short walking safari is a welcome chance to stretch my legs. One major drawback to safaris? You are always in the car. That's for safety, because of course you don't want to run into a lion or elephant on foot. But six hours of riding can also make you stiff.
Now, it feels good to walk. It feels good to smell the slight wood-smoky scent in the air. It feels good to rub my hand over the rough bark of the baobab tree. And Lukumay knows this region like it's home -- because it is.
We come to his village. There, the children are herding the goats home. Children herd goats alone by age 7, he says, and herd the cattle far and wide by age 12, with not a single anxious parent hovering.
The sun starts to set in a big round ball behind a baobab tree. We walk. We walk. The plants all look like scrub to me, but Lukumay knows the use for every single one. I think we are lost, but soon we come back exactly to where we began.
For more: Many resorts in East Africa allow you to set up a "walking with the Masai" tour; this particular one-hour walk was arranged through Tarangire River Camp and cost about $12 plus tip. Ask your tour operator about walking tours or walking safaris.
Here are four ways to put a little culture in your trip:
*Visit Mto wa Mbu Village, Tanzania
The name means River of Mosquitoes, and it is cool and green. Visit the village and you help support the local people; learn about culture in Tanzania's 121 tribes, and learn about the country's history (it's a former German and British colony, independently socialist after 1961; democracy came in 1992).
The village is an example of something called "sustainable tourism" that works to eliminate poverty. It had 3,852 visitors last year. Visit an art gallery and see wood carvers, banana beer brewers, farmers, a preschool, town market, get a banana, vegetable or rice farming tour, a papyrus lake tour, more.
For more: Learn about Mto Wa Mbu Village and other cultural tourism opportunities in northern Tanzania at www.infojep.com/culturaltours, or book through your travel operator. It is near safari sites.
*Volunteer vacation in Arusha, Tanzania
A volunteer vacation plunges you into daily life. While touring Arusha, I ran across Laura Yurs, 21, sitting in a garden rocking a baby. Yurs, a student at Elmhurst College outside Chicago, was spending two months volunteering in a Masai village women's project called Ilkiding'a. "Everyone here is really happy and friendly and gracious," she said.
In this rural neighborhood a bumpy 45-minute ride from Arusha, corn and bananas grow, goats graze and the air smells smoky from the village's cooking fires.
For more: A volunteer vacation in Tanzania is $940 for six weeks, plus $349 fee and airfare, through Institute for Field Research Expeditions (www.ifrevolunteers.org).
*School visit, Lewa Downs Primary School, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya
New York City first-grade teacher Michele Adan Vaccaro was worried about having too many students in her class this fall -- until she met barefoot children who walk 7 miles to this school, dodging elephants and rhinos. The school class size is 75-80, and many have no paper, pencils or books. "One classroom had four children sharing one desk," she says. "I was starting to feel overwhelmed this past June when I found out that I will have 24 students [this] year. This definitely put class size into perspective."
For more: Arrange a Lewa or other school visit through your tour operator, or see www.lewa.org. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is a fenced reserve that contains rare black rhino and other animals; it supports eight primary schools in the area. It is near Isiolo, Kenya, north of Mt. Kenya.
*Visit the birthplace of humans
Nobody knows for sure where the first modern human being lived, but most scientists are convinced it was in East Africa. Some of the most famous pre-human fossils have been found here, including 3.5-million-year-old hominid footprints in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. There is something humbling about being here, something ancient and uplifting.
Olduvai Gorge, which is part of Ngorongoro Crater park system, has a tiny museum describing Louis and Mary Leakey's finds there.
For more: Ask your tour operator to stop at Olduvai Gorge. To see how the world was peopled starting from East Africa, see the animated www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey.