Our journey from the Ngorongoro crater took us out over a red dirt road, through the mountains that girdle the caldera. The land was mostly open, with shrubby acacias, ever-present nightshades (Datura and Solanum) and the occasional browsing giraffe. Once we came down from the mountains (the plateau below is still at about 5,000 feet elevation), we started driving west on a dusty, rocky double-track. Slowing frequently for road wash-outs, or the crossing of zebra and wildebeest, we made it to the southern Serengeti gate after a couple of hours.
At this point, we did not cross through the gate but rather left the road, taking a right-hand turn northward. Stretching before us was a vast, unbroken grassland. The grass on the Serengeti plain is short - no more than two or three inches - and interspersed with tiny red-flowering legumes and white-flowering composites. The effect is dramatic: an ocean of green, shading to reddish or whitish in different areas, with an occasional, rare acacia wherever there is a rocky outcrop and perhaps a touch of subterranean water. Thompson gazelles, small and swift, run in switchbacks. Impalas, which are larger and lack the distinctive black stripe, stand off at a safe distance and watch. Zebras and wildebeest migrate together, browsing, tending their young. Ostrich and the occasional flamingo (the black-and-white kind) show up now and again. No trace of human beings. No trace of road.
Our driver, Emmanuel, pointed towards a mountain range to the northeast. We would have crossed this range had we taken a more northern route, straight from Arusha to Loliondo. But having taken this more southern track, we needed to head back up across the Serengeti plain. Emmanuel said, "We will find the way when we get to those mountains". And so we set off.
After a little while, we took a break to stretch our legs. Standing outside the land rover, looking out for a hundred miles, I was overtaken by the spirit of the place - a vast, complete, slow presence quite different from the familiar energies I feel in the mountains and valleys I've called home over the years. Even the Great Plains of North America, which may be the closest analogy, are still quite different. I felt at once infinitely small and exposed, and also welcomed, enfolded, not alone. Maybe it was the gazelles, maybe it was just because I love it, but I had to start running, just for a bit. Everything slipped away.
Eventually we made it to the mountains, and the road (if you can call it that). The rocks were more white, and we skirted the western edge of the range, up and down, across streams, through groves of yellow-bark acacia and flat-top acacia, all draped in usnea and interspersed with huge aloe plants and a new nightshade, Nicandra physalodes. The locals call it "shoo-fly weed", because it's everywhere and has a rank, insect-repelling scent. The flowers are beautiful: saucer-sized and reminiscent of a cross between a morning glory and the fancier Daturas. Maasai herdsmen drove their cattle, sheep and goats across the valleys. We started to see fields of maize here and there.
After about five hours of four-wheeling, Emmanuel pointed to a cluster of metal-roofed buildings a couple of miles away. "There is Wasso", he said plainly. We drove in through a strip of small shops and homes, then down a side road, across a small river, and into the compound that is the Wasso District Hospital.