THE FIRST THING WE NOTICED WERE THE vultures, about a dozen of them, perched on the flat top of a tall acacia tree. Every so often, two or three of the birds, white-feathered and ominous, would swoop down into the tall grass, remain out of sight for a few moments, and then return to their perch. “Something has definitely been killed,” Mark Thornton said. “Let’s go see what it is.” He paused a beat. “Of course, whatever killed it is still around here, too.”
We were deep in a swath of largely untouched wilderness in Serengeti National Park. The closest human was perhaps 75 miles away. Our plan was to set off on foot, but first Thornton, a veteran safari guide in Tanzania and one of the few guides in all of Africa to lead multiday walking tours of the bush, laid down some ground rules. “We walk single file, and we stay quiet,” he said. “That way we hear things.” He went on. “If a lion or a buffalo appears, do not run. You’ll be scared, but stay behind me and don’t move. As long as you don’t move, it’s a situation that can be handled.”
We left camp, heading in the direction of those vultures, maybe 300 yards away. Thornton, a 46-year-old American with floppy grayish hair and bright blue eyes, took the lead, cradling a Krieghoff double barrel .470 rifle, powerful enough to stop an elephant, across his chest. He was followed by a longtime colleague, a 60-something Nderobo man named Toroye, who wore the traditional sarong-like shuka and carried a bow and sheath of arrows. I fell in behind him, while a baby-faced park ranger brought up the rear, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. (Tanzanian law requires a ranger to accompany all safaris, whether in a vehicle or on foot.)
We made our way over a rise, then crossed a muddy water hole. It was quiet except for the rustle of our footsteps and the whir of insects. As we neared the acacia, the vultures scattered, and we saw what had been keeping them so busy: a dead impala, its body curled like a question mark in the grass. The antelope’s eyes were gone, and its stomach had been ripped open.
Thornton and Toroye briefly conferred in Swahili. “A cheetah killed this,” Thornton told me. “Probably an hour or two ago.” He pointed at a trail of flattened grass. “He killed it, then dragged it over here.” Thornton then gestured toward a thick branch on the tree, pointing out some deep scratch marks on its trunk. “He probably wanted to get it up there,” he said. “But something spooked him.”
We stared at the carcass. Thornton and Toroye spoke in Swahili. I wondered where that cheetah might be.
“Let’s keep moving,” Thornton said. He led us over a game trail to a kopje, one of the small rocky outcroppings that dot the open Serengeti plain like islands. We walked until dusk. Back at camp, the other two members of Thornton’s crew had set up a makeshift kitchen—a metal grate over a wood fire—and soon we were sitting around a campfire, enjoying a dinner of fresh vegetables, lentils, and beef curry.
Later, as I prepared to head to my tent for the night, I asked Thornton something that had been bothering me: “What if, in the middle of the night, I have to take a leak?” Thornton assured me that cheetahs, lions, and the other wild animals in the bush have no interest in tents, vehicles, or most of the other items human beings bring into the wild. But step out of that truck or tent and it’s a different story. Suddenly you’re a threat—humans and animals, after all, have been at odds with one another on the Serengeti for 200,000 years. Thornton’s advice: “When you unzip your tent, shine your flashlight around. If you see any big eyes reflecting back at you...go back into your tent.”
Several hours later, I was awakened by an unusual sound: a low, guttural, and weirdly melancholy moan. Was that a lion? It sounded nothing like the proud roar that precedes an MGM movie. Still, it was powerful and rumbling. And it seemed uncomfortably close. They’re not interested in your tent; they’re not interested in your tent, I repeated to myself. Somehow, I fell back asleep.
The next morning, sipping coffee at the campfire, I asked Thornton about it. He’d heard the sound, too. Yes, he confirmed, it was a lion. He nodded toward a large rock about 20 feet from my tent: “It was probably right over there.”
Mark Thornton. Below: Thornton, in front with a gun, leads group up a kopje.
I HAD FIRST MET THORNTON EARLY
the previous morning. He picked me up at my lodge in Arusha, the Tanzanian city that serves as the gateway to the Serengeti. It was my first trip to Africa, and I had no idea what to expect.
I certainly wasn’t expecting someone like Thornton, whose background hardly suggests “safari guide.” Rather than the woods or jungle, he grew up splitting his time between his mother on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and his father in East Texas. He first came to Tanzania in the early 1990s as a college student on a conservation project. After graduating, he landed a job setting up camps for a U.S.-based safari outfitter and stuck around, hopping from job to job, eventually getting a graduate degree in environmental management and working as a conservation consultant. In 2011, he published a spare and lyrical novel about a Tanzanian street kid called Kid Moses. On a whim, he sent it to his hero, the author and naturalist Peter Matthiesen, who was impressed enough to blurb the U.S. edition. “The prose is wonderfully quiet and controlled,” Matthiesen wrote. “Very good writing, indeed.”
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
How a chef, distiller, outdoorsman, and NHL player will help ensure a city wounded by injustice forges a path toward equality.
The ’90s action icon, co-starring with Eddie Murphy in the sequel Coming 2 America, on aging with grace, the value of money, and what he learned from two years behind bars.
Even if you log thousands of vertical feet at your local mountain beforehand, heli-skiing can wreck you after one day. Here’s how to beat the bonk.
Rethink How You Drink
2020 was the year of over-imbibing. Here’s how to adjust your consumption compunction.
What Works For Me - Silver Linings Playbook
Baltimore Ravens head coach JOHN HARBAUGH has clinched a playoff berth in eight of his 12 seasons—and he’s not even the most competitive member of the family.
In Praise of Insanely Long Lift Lines
During a pandemic, there’s no part of skiing that I don’t miss.
We're With Her – Kate Mara
The star of A Teacher on the horny TV renaissance and how to have a family political disagreement when you’re part of two NFL dynasties.
How a monied gearhead rebel beat Ford—and will sell you the buggy that did it.
Jon Hamm – Man on Deck
Next summer, Jon Hamm helps breathe new life into a classic with his star turn in Top Gun: Maverick. But, after five years of surprisingly varied roles since the end of Mad Men, that’s not even the most interesting—or unexpected—Hollywood legacy he’s about to reinvigorate.
When pandemic work-from-home began, sitting with your laptop at the kitchen table was probably tolerable. For long-term comfort and productivity, you’ll want to make these upgrades
National Cycle VStream Sport Windscreen for Honda Africa Twin
There are many ways to improve motorcycle rider comfort, covering everything from bar risers to footpegs. Having done almost all of them, I decided to switch out my stock windscreen to see if it made a difference, especially on long trips.
Africa Tries Free Trade
Economic nationalism has plagued Africa since decolonization. In 2021, that is set to change.
Southern Continents Reveal Uncommon Giants
A Massive Mineral Marked by Christmas- Like Color and Appeal
Pittsburgh's August Wilson African American Cultural Center
LOCATED IN THE HEART of downtown Pittsburgh, on Liberty Avenue close to Union Station and the David Lawrence Convention Center, the sleek and elegant but unpretentious August Wilson African American Cultural Center (awaacc) cannot fail to capture the eye and the imagination of anybody who is visiting Pittsburgh or, for that matter, of anybody who lives in the city.
Bishop Stephen Masilela is the general presbyter for the COGOP in Africa. He is also a counselor and registered marriage officer and currently serves as president for Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Africa. He holds a diploma in Personnel Management and Training (IPM) from Bible Training Institute and is enrolled with the Gordon Conwell/COGOP Leader of Leaders Master’s Degree program and the Extension School of Ministry of Swaziland College of Theology for a theology degree. He is married to Sibongile and they are blessed with three children.
NICOLE PATTON-TERRY READING RESEARCHER
Nicole Patton-Terry loves helping kids learn to read. She is associate director of the Florida Center for Reading Research at the Florida State University. Patton-Terry works on teams with researchers, students, teachers, designers, parents, and community members. Together they study reading and develop tools that help children read.
‘THE 24TH' IS A SOBERING HISTORY LESSON FOR TODAY
On Aug. 23, 1917, four months after the U.S. had entered World War I, the all-Black 3rd battalion of the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Regiment mutinied in Houston.
BEYONCÉ'S ‘BLACK IS KING' IS SUPREME BLACK ART
King Beyoncé’s new film takes you on a journey of Black art, music, history and fashion as the superstar transports you to Africa to tell the story of a young man in search of his crown, matched to epic songs she created while inspired by “The Lion King.”
BY THE SEAT OF OUR PANTS
My Africa Twin Adventure Sports was buried belly pan-deep in mud.