Family on Safari

Travel Stories: How would Grandma have felt about the bumpy Tanzanian roads? She would've hated them. And those pit toilets? Ditto. Frank Bures explores the family vacation minus one.

11.22.02 | 10:52 PM ET

vacation sans grandmaPhoto by Frank Bures.

Our Land Rover had just hit another rock on the Rift Valley floor when my mom grabbed her neck and yelled from the back seat.

“Grandma wouldn’t have liked this road!”

It was true. Grandma wouldn’t have liked the road one bit.  On that we all agreed. As the family safari unfolded, this kind of comment was becoming more and more common.  In fact, registering how Grandma would have felt about this or that thing was becoming the theme of the entire trip to Tanzania.

Before they had left, there had been some heated discussion over whether Grandma, at 83 and still in good health, should have accompanied my parents and two brothers, Bob and Joey, to visit me where I was teaching English.

In all my life, Grandma had come along on nearly every family vacation.  When I was riding on Dad’s shoulders at a castle in Ireland, and cracked my head on a low doorway, Grandma was there.  When Joe’s milk jug full of urine (to minimize stops) spilled all over our van in Utah, Grandma was there.  When Dad gunned the car up an icy Minnesota hill and ended with us hanging off a cliff, Grandma was there.  When I was confused by the humping animals at Bear Country USA, Grandma just chuckled and, in her most bemused, understated way, said, “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”

Grandma had seen us at our worst, and our best.  She had watched us fight and helped us make up.  She had shepherded us through the maze of each adventure.  She was the rock on which we all stood.  Her calming presence and humor kept us from each others’ throats.

Now, for the first time, we were swimming alone. Grandma was back in Minnesota, probably doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a library book, or drinking last week’s warmed-over coffee, while we were out in the world, heading deep into the heart of darkness—the family vacation—without her.

In the end we had decided Africa would be too hard, with too much walking and jolting and diarrhea. We couldn’t just drag Grandma along to play referee. So she lived through us.

Our feelings became Grandma’s feelings.

We raced to stay ahead of the billowing dust kicked up by our tires.

“She wouldn’t have liked this dust,” said Bob, in back.  Dust was coating everything in the Land Rover.  The hills on the far side of the valley still seemed a long way off.

“She definitely wouldn’t have liked those bathrooms,” said Mom.

“Look,” said Elias, our driver.  “Lake Manyara.  With the flamingos.”

On the far edge of the Rift Valley, we could see a mirage, a shimmering pinkish-white sliver, with hills rising up behind it.

Grandma would have liked flamingos.

The road veered toward the lake, then widened.  As we picked up speed, the dust cloud trailed further behind us. I sat in the front seat alongside Dad, my visor falling down with each bump and pothole.  In the back, Mom, Bob and Joe rocked back and forth with each tilt of the car.  Dust coated their hair.  I knew exactly how Grandma would have felt about the whirlwinds whipping through her perm.  She never, ever rode with the windows down.

We were on our way to some of the greatest wildlife parks in the world, and everyone was excited about the country, the landscape, the animals, the whole trip. Yet somehow, the cab still felt a little empty.

We finally reached the edge of the valley and arrived at Lake Manyara. Elias parked the Land Rover and went into the office to pay our fees while I went to look for a bathroom, which I found behind the small museum. I also found some large warthogs with long tusks loitering near the door.  They ambled off when I came around the corner.  As I pushed the door, and it creaked open, something dove out of the rafters into the toilet.

Grandma would have been unnerved.

Back in the car, Elias popped the top up and we poked our heads out, ready for safari.  We rolled into the park, under the thick acacia trees, past our first monkey (of which we have at least 200 pictures), and emerged onto the open flat area between the forest and the lake, where wildebeests and buffalo stood watching our car.  Two giraffes hit each other with their necks, and further on, at the hippo pool, a gaggle of tourists in zebra-striped shirts, safari shorts and sun hats crowded up to the water, tempting one of the park’s most deadly animals with their clicks and flashes.

Down the road, some way into the park, Elias stopped the car. He climbed onto the hood and scanned the horizon with his binoculars until he saw them:  Tiny black dots miles away.


The car jolted hard again as we raced off toward the herd.  Wind rushed through our hair, and we had to duck when thorny acacia branches whipped against the car. As we approached the elephants, Elias slowed the car to a crawl.  They were grazing in the low branches, moving slowly, swinging their trunks and flapping their ears.

“You must be very quiet,” Elias whispered. “If you make any noise, they can come.”

What he meant was that they can come and crush our car like a soda can. The elephants seemed vaguely annoyed by our presence. More and more cars pulled up behind us and stopped to watch them.  A large elephant snorted.

“Jesus!” hissed Bob, “Did you see that?” He pointed to one of the larger elephants—a bull—and we all saw it. The elephant’s penis hung almost to the ground.  It had to be over three feet long.  Murmurs of disbelief filled the car and Bob tried to get a picture.  But the elephant turned away, and when it turned back the penis, miraculously, was gone.

No one dared to say what Grandma might have thought.

The park was closing, so Elias turned the car around and headed for the gate. Outside it, we drove up a long, winding road to our lodge that looked down on the lake from the edge of the valley.

We put our bags in our rooms, and met on the balcony. Below us, shadows were getting long.  The animals near the lake were specks on the plain. There was little talk as the sun sank and stars started to appear.  As darkness reached across the valley, the air got cool and in a silence that seemed to drift up from below, a thought lingered in all our heads.

Grandma would have loved this.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at

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