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Roughing it with the beasts in Tanzania

There are several ways to see Africa's wild animals: by Land Rover, by airplane - some have even seen them by balloon. My favorite is by camping, at isolated campsites smack in the middle of Tanzania's game parks, far from lodges or other visitors, and close to the animals.

Tanzania, on East Africa's coast, is a very poor country with very warm people, and perhaps with the best game parks in the world.

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At a campsite in Mikumi National Park in central Tanzania, beneath a giant baobab tree, my wife, Betty, and I woke up one morning to the sounds of about 100 water buffalo slowly splashing their way across a shallow stream. On another morning we spotted 12 giraffe nearby, munching from short trees in the area.

One night we heard a noise and shined our flashlight out of the tent. I thought there was nothing out there but the dark - until I realized the dark was moving. A family of elephants was walking leisurely down a dirt road some 50 yards away. We sprinted into our nearby car, probably unnecessarily, emerging later in the night.

During the day we watched a family of elephants at a nearby watering hole. The mother had to help junior back up the slippery bank with her trunk.

At Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest outdoor ''zoo,'' no camping is allowed on the mile-high crater floor. Ngorongoro is an extinct volcanic crater with walls rising about 2,000 feet and open grasslands and trees extending over some 100 square miles. There are no fences: Animals come and go from the crater floor as they wish. Visitors descend a narrow road in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

As we bounced along in an open-topped Land Rover, we watched a screeching, wing-flapping little bird bring a trotting rhino to a halt and make him detour around what might have been a ground nest. Later we snapped pictures of the pink bellies of hippos as they rolled over in shallow, muddy water. It is not easy to capture the scene on film. The hippos roll fast and a visitor has to move a telephoto lens quickly.

We stopped to watch lions watch us. Lions don't always catch their prey; many animals can outrun them if they get a good enough head-start. The lions are short-distance sprinters, not marathoners.

And zebras - no need to count them. Just let them make you smile at the wonder of their design and the wonder of the designer.

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