Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Sunday, November 5

Introduction and Arrival

The famous Northern Circuit consists of a number of safari variations. There is so much to see in this part of Tanzania that the safari combinations people choose can be vastly different depending on the amount of time they have, money they’re willing to spend and, most importantly, what their interests are.

I’d been reading about this for quite some time and I’d heard numerous stories from colleagues and friends. Over time it began to crystallize in my head what I wanted to do given the amount of time we had.

The plan was to begin on Monday with Lake Manyara National Park, followed by the famous Ngorongoro Crater and finish off by a day in the Serengeti. Since my brother Curtis and I had planned the Kilimanjaro climb for the week prior, I figured we would rest over the weekend before loading ourselves into a safari vehicle.

The other family members that would join were in Kenya for a few days before coming to Tanzania. My brother-in-law, Brett, had a timeshare condo in Malindi where they stayed and became acclimated to the time zone and a bit to East African culture as well. Accompanying him were my sister Lisa, my mom and my other sister Carol (Jean). Curtis and I would pick them up at Kilimanjaro airport the Sunday after our climb and we’d head off on safari the next day.

I have to admit, the Kili climb, the safari, the subsequent Zanzibar trip and a day in Dar es Salaam, with all the logistics involved, was quite a challenge to organize. There were so many opportunities for things to go wrong – especially in Tanzania – that I felt very fortunate when it pretty much went off without a hitch. A big victory was when I peered through the glass and saw them file into the baggage claim area after the arrival of their plane.

After a warm greeting and a welcome to Tanzania, we piled into the safari vehicle and headed to the cushy Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge. We were supposed to stay in the Impala Hotel in Arusha but after Curtis and I had been temporarily moved to the Ngurdoto, there was no going back. We made sure that this calm, expansive lodge would be our home both at the beginning and end of our trip. It’s not that my family needs luxury; I guess I just thought it’d be a nice touch for this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

We had a drink at the hotel bar near the pool and exchanged some stories before we headed off to bed. I have to admit I was pretty excited to have so much of my family here and very happy to head out exploring a part of this country I hadn’t seen before. Doing all this on the heels of a successful Kilimanjaro climb made it all the sweeter.

Monday, November 6

Day 1 - Lake Manyara

Lake Manyara isn’t that far from Arusha so we really didn’t need an early start. We did get on the road before 10:00am with our guide, Naimen, as our escort for the next several days.

Naimen was a fairly quiet guy for a guide. He turned out to be very skilled and pleasant to hang out with, just a little soft spoken. We got into the routine of him revealing interesting information to whoever was in the passenger seat and then that person would turn around and launch the information to the rest of us. It did provide a filter in which the passenger had the ability to decide whether or not the news was worth of passing on.

Our vehicle was the standard green Land Cruiser. We dodged a bullet in that the van that we used to pick up the family, the one that the safari company had anticipated we use on the safari, broke down after dropping us off the night before. The driver apparently didn’t get home until 3:00am. I was sorry for him but would also have been sorry for us if we’d wasted a safari day with a broken down vehicle.

The drive to Lake Manyara is actually pretty

interesting. Arusha is fairly lush but soon after leaving things become much drier. Maasai villages dot the landscape and the brightly colored tribesmen and woman can be seen all along the way. Some are accompanying herds of cattle while others are walking along the roadside. The Maasai are one of the most distinctive tribes on the continent with their colorful and ornamental dress, jewelry, large earlobe piercings and so forth. Their role in this country has become controversial at times as their nomadic way of life has been threatened by reduction in the available grazing land. Their plight rings of Native American-ness. I’ll refrain from spending too much time on them here but they do fascinate me.

Upon arrival at Lake Manyara, the weather was slightly sketchy but Naimen took the top off the vehicle anyway. It was a good thing because the weather got better and the animals became numerous in a hurry. We started off with a colony of baboons who were not bothered at all by our presence. I’d seen them before but never so many.

From then it was one thing after another. The park is rich in animals and aesthetic beauty. We stopped for lunch on an overlook and it was a good opportunity to take it all in – the view and the nice weather.

After lunch we circled around and the park a bit seeing giraffes, elephants, hippos, flamingos (from a distance), impalas, zebra, wildebeest, etc. The weather was comfortable with sprinkles of rain here and there.

It’s always fun to watch people seeing their first animals on their first safari. It’s all new and simply amazing to see these things in their natural habitat. Later you don’t stop for impalas anymore but in the beginning you stop for everything.

We then left the park and went to the Lake Manyara Hotel located on the ridge overlooking the park. The hotel doesn’t look like much when you pull up to it but once you cut through the lobby and get to the back side, you see its merits. It has a nice pool and a killer view of the whole park and lake.

After we checked into our rooms we sat on the patio taking in the view and reflecting on what we’d seen, how much fun it was to do this with family and feeling a bit bad for those who couldn’t be with us.

Dinner was decent. There was a large buffet and we had some Tanzanian guys come in and play some traditional percussion for wazungu (foreigners). Afterwards they moved into the next room and were joined by a team of dancers. I was exhausted and decided to head straight for bed. Within seconds of hitting the pillow I was out.

Tuesday, November 7th

Day 2 - Ngorongoro Crater to Serengeti

The next morning we got a much earlier start due to the long day ahead of us. We had to visit the Ngorongoro Crater, cross to the other side, drive to the Serengeti, cross it and arrive at our lodging just out of the park on the northwest side. It would be a full day. Our standard lunch boxes were packed and off we went.

The crater is very close to Lake Manyara and as we slowly climbed up on the rim, we were soon enveloped in mist. The country’s best roads are the ones that lead to the Northern Circuit. On behalf of the wazungu, I should say that I appreciate it.

However, once you get past Manyara, things go to hell in a hurry. They’re not much worse than most of the country, including some right in the middle of Dar near our apartment, it’s just the contrast to the roads we left behind. The mist stayed with us until we’d worked our way clear to the crater floor, preventing us from taking advantage of the views from the rim.

As we headed across the crater floor we soon began to see animals. They were isolated in the beginning – an ostrich here and there, a wildebeest, etc. – but they gradually become more plentiful. Naimen turned on the radio as we cruised around spotting animals here and there.

The temptation to focus on seeking cats and black rhinos must be great for a guide. He said the guides from the various companies use the radio to communicate their whereabouts to each other. Most often though, the do it by sight and knowledge of where they like to hang out.

One clear sign of good viewing is the collection of safari vehicles. We were fortunate in that there were not an overabundance of vehicles during the entire safari. Occasionally, however, they did build up around the better animal sightings.

In mid-morning we saw our first lions. We saw two young males about 40
meters from the road. It was great to finally see them after several safaris in other parts of the country with no cat sightings. We watched for some time and finally moved on.

After the hippo pool we worked our way to the other side of the crater to a small lake where we had lunch. It was nice to get out of the vehicle a bit but we didn’t stay long and then headed out for more. With the exception of a distant rhino sighting and a nice drive through a wildebeest/zebra herd, we were pretty much done with the crater. We hit the rest rooms and then worked our way slowly up the steep grade out of the crater.

The drive from the Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti is long and arduous. We were bouncing around like marbles in a shoebox. I think it’s beautiful country but the road sucks. We eventually made it to the entrance to the Serengeti. The scenery gradually changes. The plains of tall grass become spotted with rock outcroppings. We hadn’t been in the park long before we saw a lion – a beautiful female sitting up alone in the grass. The lighting was good for viewing and picture taking and it set our eyes in motion for the increasing frequency of wildlife.

We worked our way across the park spotting animals along the way. We didn’t spend much time since it was late afternoon and we still had to get to our lodging outside the northwestern gate of the park. Besides, the plan was to spend the entire following day in the park and then return to the same lodging. So off we went towards the Ikoma Bush Camp.

To be honest, we weren’t impressed with the lodging to begin with. The safari company had pulled a fast one on us for reasons I won’t go into here. The place seemed primitive, certainly compared to what we’d become accustomed to, but I think it just took some getting used to. We settled in to our framed tent lodgings and then met up for a beer in the café thing where our meals would be.

It turned out that the meals were good, there was a migration trail visible about a quarter mile away and it was a fun, very Serengeti-esque setting. In addition, the bed was the most comfortable I had the whole trip, more so than the one that was in the luxurious Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge. Overall it turned out to be a good place to stay.

They also had a fire pit and we took our drinks there until well after dark. The camp had a true Maasai warrior as a waiter and he sat down with us to chat.

It ended up being a very interesting conversation as he discussed life as a Maasai and how one becomes a warrior. I’d heard a lot of this before but it was fun to hear him discuss it with my family, a bit strange to be honest.

Wednesday, November 8

Day 3 - The Serengeti

After a good night’s sleep, we were off on the safari trail. It was nice to leave our stuff in the rooms and know that we were coming back to the same place. We also would keep a much more relaxing pace given that we didn’t have as much ground to cover.

We started off with a sighting of a pack of hyenas. These weird animals were following with us for a while. They really are crazed looking creatures and they looked like they were up to no good. One had an ear missing and they nervously moved off into the brush.

We continued on past giraffes, elephants, zebras and wildebeests to a hippo pool. This packed little place was cr

ammed with fat hippo bodies, various birds and a couple of crocodiles. We stayed for a few minutes watching what little movement there was and listing to the occasional snorts and grunts. When we’d had our fill of hippos we headed out past vervet monkeys and over to the grassy areas known to have cats.

The weather was near perfect with plenty of sun and not too much heat. We were all scanning the brush and acacia trees for animals pointing here and there as we spotted them. At one poi

nt our road was cut off by a herd of migrating wildebeest and zebras. It’s a sight we’d see several times, even from our camp, bu

t it never seemed to get old. The wildebeest and zebras travel together quite often. Naimen was saying that the zebras actually take on herding responsibilities as the animals migrate south this time of year and then turn around and go back north some time in February. It was interesting at one point to see the zebras spot the “danger” of our safari vehicle and stop the herd. The wildebeest seem “intellectually challenged” and have no problems taking their cues from the zebras. A handful of zebras ran in front of the herd, did an about face giving the signal to the others to stop. It was pretty impressive to see nature’s organization – the zebras taking charge and the wildebeest’s happy obedience.

It wasn’t long before we came upon a line of safari vehicles
parked along a roadside. It was a good sign. Sure enough, as we approached we began to realize that not only was there a large, mature male lion in the shade of a tree, his buffalo carcass was lying a few feet away in the sun. It was a beautiful sight. The sleepy, well-fed lion with his head up and eyes mostly closed protecting what was left of last night’s dinner.

Buzzards were tempting fate as they desperately wanted leftovers. One of the more aggressive birds would ease towards the carcass only to be shooed back by the lion’s slightest movement. He’d simply tilt his head, open his eyes, move a paw, anything that might communicate to the birds that the powerful king of the jungle was not asleep and could, at any time, reduce them to a pile of feathers.

One of the amazing things about a lion that I was realizing while we watched in near silence, was the dramatic contrast that they embody. Here is a creature that resembles an innocuous house cat, not only in appearance but his casual demeanor. He licks his paws and then rubs his face. He squints as he seems to be fighting off sleep. He rolls over on his side as if he’s on your living room floor. I didn’t hear any purr but it would have seemed to fit the picture.

At the same time, this powerful creature weighed well over 400 lbs. and is one of the most powerful killers on the planet. They normally attack in groups with the females doing more of the work. They kill their prey by encircling it. When it makes a move to escape, the closest lion lunges for the victim’s throat and then it’s game over. It’s fascinating because, though you don’t see all of that violence in front of you, you know it’s there and lying a few feet away from our big, fluffy cat was the testimony of ravaged buffalo carcass.

We could have stayed longer but we needed to move on. We’d topped our crazy hyena viewing and were now ready for more. A short while later we were teased by the faint sight of a leopard in the bush. We were forced to use our imagination a bit since the animal was mostly obscured by brush and shade but it zoom lenses and binoculars attested to the fact that is was a beautiful leopard.

We moved on. It’s tough to capture the whole adventure since there was so much to see along the way. I’m focusing on just a few highlights in order to make this less boring and not so long.

The next highlight was, for me, one of the big moments of the whole safari. As our safari vehicle moved further southwest, the brush thinned and the countryside began to have more of the look of the plains we had driven through the previous afternoon. There were still acacia trees here and there but there was more of the open spaces of tall wavy grass that seem to be a preferred habitat for the lions. Once again we saw a couple of safari vehicles parked near a couple of acacia trees not far from the road. As we approached our eyes followed the direction of those who had arrived before us – people like us who were poking up through the roofs of their safari vehicles.

Sure enough, there in the shade of one of the acacia trees were four cheetahs. The mother was lying near the base of the tree and was barely visible. The three adolescents were all standing with their heads above the grass looking around. They were all clearly aware of our presence but unmoved by it. These animals had grown up with safari vehicles in their midst and though they are noisy at times and occasionally an object of curiosity, they are not seen as a threat. The strict park rules that vehicles must stay on the roads and that people may only leave the vehicles in designated areas help to make sure that this doesn’t change.

So the proud, beautiful cheetahs sat there in our presence. I honestly hadn’t anticipated seeing them since it’s not that common – certainly not this close to the road. I think they are one of the most impressive animals in existence. They are similar in appearance to the leopard but they have longer legs and their spots simply black. The leopard’s spots are more “rosettes” (a lighter colored spot within a spot). The cheetah also has two vertical black stripes on its face.

The cheetah is a true sprinter. It can reach speeds of up to 70 mph, faster than any animal it wants to eat. It has the endurance of a chain smoker, however, and must catch its prey within 300 meters. It must therefore get very close to its prey before launching the attack.

After firing a couple thousand photos and just sitting and watching for a while, we moved on down the road. I was thinking around this time that this had already been more than I would have imagined. Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, it did. I was happy for the gang since they’d come all this way and I was hoping they wouldn’t be disappointed. All indication was that the safari rocked.

After another brief lion sighting (three or so), we stopped by the roadside to catch a glimpse of another leopard. This time it was high up in an umbrella acacia tree. The tree itself was beautiful but on the right side, tucked away mostly shaded was the elusive cat.

You could barely see it with the naked eye but my new 10x zoom allowed me to hone in on it pretty well. I’m not sure how these guides spotted these things as they drove along (seems pretty impossible) but my guess is they are familiar with their regular hangouts.

We angled off to a lunch spot not far from one of the three Serengeti airstrips. It was a visitors center with a dozen safari vehicles, loads of wazungu, several cement picnic tables and hundreds of scurrying mongooses (yes, that’s the plural) scrounging for snacks dropped from lunch boxes. Mom said the mongooses were simply rats and I’m not sure she was excited about their presence around our feet. I took a minute to look at them and look them up in my book. There were primarily two sorts: the banded mongoose and the dwarf. The former seemed to be aggressive and uninteresting but the latter captured my curiosity a bit more. It was tiny, as you might imagine, (the smallest of all African carnivores) but it had an interesting face. I might have taken some photos but some of our annoying tourist counterparts across the way were doing the same and I could bring myself to emulate them.

When we’d finished our snacks (don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many hard boiled eggs in my life), we continued on. I figured the afternoon would be short from a viewing standpoint. We’d had a full morning, eaten lunch late and I think that Naimen was going to shoot for us to be back at Ikoma Camp by around 4:00pm. I didn’t want to cut it too short since late afternoon lighting is the best and I also wanted to maximize this once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was talk of a night safari so I figured that cutting the day a bit shorter would be ok. I certainly wasn’t tired yet.

Our first sighting was within a couple of minutes of lunch. There were some topis. These are in the antelope family but fairly large in size. They have a chestnut color with some black that makes them beautiful in the sunlight. We didn’t see that many and none that were as close as these next to the road.

We headed back by a hippo pool, different from the one earlier in the day, and slowly worked our way northwest towards our camp. Most of the afternoon was spent driving slowing without much stopping and seeing many types of animals we’d seen before. Part of the fun is just riding around with the breeze in your face, taking in the beautiful scenery, seeing the animals doing their thing and just simply enjoying being where you are and doing so in the company of your family.

At around 4:00pm we rolled into Ikoma Camp. We gathered in the café area, had a beer, talked about the day and showed off our digital photos to each other. Off in the distance you could see the wildebeests and zebras still working their way south in a steady stream. The sun had heated the water for the camp showers so I took advantage of it to wash off the day’s dust. We later regrouped around the fire pit, sharing it with some birders. Lisa made a failed attempt to chat with them but they were too engrossed in their books and note-taking. We overheard that they’d be joining us on the night safari later. My naïve hope was that they’d be more interesting by then.

Dinner was good again. Naimen came towards the end and discussed the plan for the next day. There wasn’t much too it. It was pretty much drive all the way back to Arusha without stopping much. We did decide to stop in a “boma”, one of the contrived Maasai villages set up for tourists. Otherwise, it would be full speed ahead.

This evening, however, we still had a 9:00-11:00pm night safari planned. We met at the fully open safari vehicle and the birders were already situated in the first of three bench seats. Curtis and I took the middle one and CJ, Brett and Lisa took the back one. We were a bit sleepy after dinner but as we were loading up to head out into the night it seemed that we were catching our second wind.

We had a driver and another guy who manned the spotlight. The plan would be to cruise around the area but not actually cross into the park since they were not authorized to do so. We were assured there’d be plenty to see and off we went. Within a few minutes from camp we saw a colorful chameleon which are actually pretty common. I’d played with them on several other occasions so I was anxious to get on to more exotic beasts. To my chagrin, our next stop was some sort of gray bird sitting on the ground. Our birder friends seemed fascinated by the little guy huddled under the intense spotlight. None of us know much about birds and we were not-so-secretly hoping that we’d move on pretty quickly.

Alas, the vehicle refused to re-start as the driver, under the orders of the birders, was going to drive around to see the color of the tail feathers. We were laughing our asses off at the whole comical scene: the dead safari vehicle in the middle of the dark bush, the spotlight guy who drained the battery even further by continuing to highlight the ugly bird while the driver attempted to re-start in vain, the birders using their headlamps to identify the annoyed little creature, etc. I don’t know if it was really THAT funny but for some reason it set the tone for a laugh-filled drive in the bush. We soon hopped out to push-start the safari vehicle (while the birders sat comfortably in their seats) and we were rolling again.

One by one we saw little creatures scurrying around in the beam of our spotlight. The bat-eared fox, the springhare, bushbabies, etc. were all pretty crazy looking creatures that I’d never seen before. On the horizon the orange moon had risen behind the silhouetted trees. The weather was cool and comfortable. Later on, off in the distance, we could see a fantastic lightning storm. It was pretty spectacular in that lightning was going off repeatedly for the entire safari until
after we were in bed.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

Thursday, November 9

Day 4 - Serengeti back to Arusha

The next morning we woke up, had breakfast and loaded our stuff into the Land Cruiser. We braced ourselves for the long drive ahead. The consoling factor was that we were going to head southeast back through Serengeti and into the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area (but not down into the crater). The hope was that we’d be offered views that weather prevented us from having two days prior.

We didn't make it far before we had some engine trouble. There are bad neighborhoods for breaking down and this could have been one of them. You don't want a hungry lion lion snacking on you have your head under the hood. Fortunately this was no such neighborhood. All we could see were buffalos off in the distance.

Niemen and Brett fiddled with a fuel line and we explored ways to hold it in place. Curtis remembered he had athletic tape in his pack and the world's second most useful tape did the trick. We had a laugh remembering our father destroy one of my sneakers to repair a radiator hose once upon a time.

We continued on and had some nice animal sightings while driving through the park but the nice cap on the experience was a lioness and her two cubs lying in the shade of trees right next to the road. It was a beautiful scene and quite rare. Naimen said that it’s not common for a lion to expose her young like that. Once again, it's an example of how comfortable the animals are with the presence of safari vehicles. The experience was enhanced by the fact that there was only one other vehicle with whom we had to share it.

For some reason the drive back through the nasty road linking the Serengeti and Ngorongoro wasn’t as long as I remembered. Before long we’d arrived at our boma stop – one of the infamous contrived villages for tourists. The idea was probably good to begin with. They don’t like people taking pictures of them so you pay them fifty bucks per vehicle, you shoot all the photos you want, they make a bit of money and you can learn about their traditional way of life. Should be a win-win.

But it’s not really. The people do welcome you with song and dance. You enter their thatch village and the men do their jumping thing. The ornate ladies sing and chant for a bit. After we visited one of the small, dark houses and the “chief” described a bit about their way of life. As we left the house, however, all bets were off. Traditional Maasai behavior goes out the window and it’s all about getting you to cough up some cash. If you buy some of their jewelry, fine. If not, they just flat out ask you for money. Or, in my case, my watch.

We escaped with the chief out the back of the village and I thought we’d paid our dues, literally. We were headed for the schoolhouse were youngsters were already sitting in their seats, posing for pictures, repeating some English that they were told to say and then we were asked for money yet again.

I did get some decent photos but the experience left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. This once proud people has resorted to shamelessly selling themselves. I think the whole thing could have been done leaving people with more of their dignity – both theirs and ours. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

From there we worked our way up to the crater rim. This time we were afforded sweeping views of the crater floor below us. Dots of animals could be seen off in the distance and we could see the roads where we’d traveled a couple of days before. Our stop was brief and we loaded up again and headed down toward the long-awaited paved road.

We stopped briefly for lunch at a roadside tourist shop. Lisa handed a little girl a small container for blowing bubbles. I think they both enjoyed the exchange.

We finished off the drive heading through Arusha and back to the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge. We were tired but energized by our experiences. After cleaning up we met up for a drink in the bar we’d gotten to know well – especially Curtis and me – and we chatted until dinner. After a good night’s rest we’d be off to Zanzibar…