Having played seven full seasons in the NFL, one looks back at important moments like your first touchdown and big plays in the Super Bowl. The memories are wonderful. The thrill of competition, the battle to stay healthy in a violent, exceedingly fast-paced collision sport, is an amazing journey. The experience, though fleeting, is even more rewarding.
It took five NFL games to score my first touchdown during my rookie season, but once I had a taste of the end zone, my quest for more has been unending. And such is the case with my quest for the great outdoors in the wilds of Africa. My initial experience in South Africa and Botswana last year fueled the fire for a return this offseason.
This year's journey focused on East Africa, with stops in Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and the Seychelles Islands.
"Work before play" has always been my motto, so starting this trip in Rwanda afforded me the opportunity to continue my international mission involvement with the Starkey Foundation. In Kagali, Rwanda, the Foundation culminated a year-long effort to provide "the gift of sound" to over 1,000 hearing impaired citizens of Rwanda -- both young and old.
As for viewing the wildlife of Africa, Rwanda is the absolute ultimate with regard to its elusive mountain gorillas. Tracking them can be as easy as spotting a silverback grandfather on the edge of lodge grounds, or as treacherous and time consuming as a 10-mile trek traversing shrub-engulfed trails where field guides literally use a machete to hack through the dense bushes in order to maneuver through the mountainous terrain to follow a clan of gorillas.
The sudden downpours didn't help matters, and neither did the pesky insects, but when you are on the trail, all of the minor irritants are easily forgotten. After a laborious but successful four-and-a-half hour trek, we came face-to-face with a silverback holding court on a ledge, munching on bamboo while his clan played and ambled about. Six in number, I marveled as my Canon Mark III captured image after image of the delightful gorillas as they made havoc of the thick mountainous underbrush.
Fitzgerald photo gallery
Their size alone created tropical chaos as they moved about, over and around the bamboo-laden underbrush. It was a marvel to watch their facial expressions, their majesty, their speed and agility, their grace, and their contentment with the lush environment -- all from a proximity of five to 10 feet, where even my Canon 400mm zoom was too powerful.
The guide's mere mention of gorilla clans living much higher in the mountains made me yearn for another trip. All told, seven hours there and back, one hour of blissful viewing, boots and trousers dirty and rumpled beyond reuse -- but worth every minute of the pursuit… and yes, the gorillas were camera friendly.
Next stop was Tanzania and the Singita Grumeti Reserves. The tent camp was vintage 1920s style, with all the modern amenities one could ask for. My goal was to start at the break of dawn to capture the sunrise, pack a breakfast and lunch and head out for the entire day. The plains were better than advertised -- its sheer beauty and expanse were far beyond my greatest imagination and expectation.
As a wide receiver in the NFL, they say you are fortunate to have a great defense to get you the ball, a creative coordinator to design opportunities, a running game to keep the opponent honest, and a quarterback to provide leadership and throw you the perfect pass.
Out there on the plains, your guide is all the above. He has the grand knowledge of the coach, the experience and expansive/peripheral vision of the quarterback, and the patience of a saint. The zebras, the giraffes, the elephants, the topi and all the great species that create life on the plains are a magnificent spectacle. But tracking your favorite member of "the big five" is the ultimate! The big five, of course, are the lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.
My guide was like a veteran coach spotting all the movements and strategic positioning from high above in the press box; he got me on the trail of two groups of lions through night vision glasses. On day two, we were fortunate to observe their prime hunt -- a zebra that had strayed from the herd. The three big cats had their fill of the zebra, but weren't going to yield any remains to a hungry pack of about 35 enterprising hyenas looking for a free meal.
A four- to five-hour cat-and-mouse game ensued, and while the lions finally allowed the hyenas remnants of what little remained, it was only after they had their seconds, thirds and dessert! A magnificent view of life on the plains, the hierarchy of power, and interesting to note that we were not the only observers -- other zebras, gazelles, antelopes, and buffalo all took turns viewing the omnipresent and feared lions during the attack and its aftermath.
Day three on the plains was just as fascinating, as we encountered more lions and cheetahs. The cheetah hunt was an amazing, majestic thing to watch, and I look forward to sharing it with you in my next blog.
Africa truly is a magnificent continent! Its natural resources are abundant and relatively untapped, its people warm and friendly, its climate picture-perfect, its wildlife unsurpassed.
Why is it such a secret? Shhhh!!!!