Episode 3: The best time in Northern Tanzania (with a few photos added)
Firstly, I apologise up-front for the length of this blog, but it has been several days since my last entry and there was a lot to document - and this ain’t the half of it.
Anyway, we have been on safari in the middle of the Serengeti and elsewhere, where the internet is, well, superfluous. We have just spent eight days in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and the lesser known but equally spectacular Tarangire National Park. It has been utterly brilliant, with wonderful landscapes, superb wildlife, warm sunny weather, a great guide called Emmanuel, and wonderful lodges along the way.
To get here, we flew from Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro Airport. Flying into Kilimanjaro airport, we spotted the eponymous mountain rising from the plains. We were met by our tour guide, Emmanuel, who immediately drove us to a vantage point for a great view of Mount Kilimanjaro with classic acacia trees in the foreground.
“You guys are very lucky,” he said. “Kilimanjaro has been shrouded in cloud for a few weeks now, but today is perfect.” Before us stood the tallest mountain in Africa, snow-capped
and magnificent in the late afternoon sun. We stayed overnight in the tourist town of Arusha, in a nice B&B set in lovely gardens. Two of the guys who worked there heard that I loved animals and came knocking at our door the next morning brandishing two different species of chameleons that they had found in the lodge gardens. They were exquisite, especially a very small emerald green one. It looked most indignant, its eyes independently rotating about the place.
Our safari was private – it involved just the two of us and our guide, Emmanuel, in a robust 4x4 that could and did drive anywhere. (It is not practical to drive yourself here, and very few people do). The roads throughout the parks are all unpaved and very bumpy – grueling in some spots when several hours of driving was involved. (They call it getting an “African massage”). That was probably the only downside to the whole experience. The rest was great. The first park, Tarangire, is known for its numerous huge baobab trees and umpteen herds of elephants. We saw all that, plus lots of other stuff, including lions, bat-eared foxes, huge troops of baboons, giraffes and
other grazers, and various cool birds such as secretary bird, beautiful bee-eaters, and the ubiquitous but beautifully coloured lilac-breasted rollers. The Tarangire Safari Lodge was excellent – it is located on a high outcrop with a large balcony that has sweeping views across the baobab-studded plains and river below, where we could watch animals drinking while we enjoyed our own sundowners. One American group went out on a night drive (way too expensive for us) and the daughter was overheard saying to her father:
“Did you bring your pistol, Dad, just in case?”
From Tarangire we drove a long way through poor rural settlements to reach the Serengeti. The previous lodge had packed us a rather unappetising “lunchbox”, and we stopped in a hot and barren god-forsaken spot under a lone acacia tree for lunch, eating stale sandwiches and seven month old bananas. Occasional Maasai boys with sticks herding cows or small goats came past.
“That must be such a harsh life,” I said to Ross and Emmanuel, “those Maasai kids”.
“It could be worse,” quipped Ross, “they could be eating from these lunchboxes.”
Well, anyway, the Serengeti was magnificent. Not long after entering, we
came upon a female cheetah hunting gazelles, and got some great pics. Then a pride of some 21 lions, all resting on a grassy mound. Lots of other critters were then spotted before we drew near to our destination, Mbalegeti Lodge in the Western part of the park. Emmanuel, our guide, was talking in Swahili on the two-way, he evidently got some information and then suddenly he veered the vehicle to the right, and soon we were right beside two female lions with a dead zebra. The zebra was on its back, feet stuck up in the air, like some sort of up-turned 1960’s coffee table. Like all vehicles, ours had a pop up roof, so you can pop the roof up and stand on the seats for great views. Its quite safe - apparently. We were literally metres from one of the lions. It growled at us, and in my excitement to get photos, I dropped the lens cap of my new DSLR - it bounced down to the ground and rolled along. The lioness watched it rolling along and looked pissed off. I exchanged glances with Ross and Emmanuel.
“Well, you can forget it” said Ross. “Its
gone now, with that lion there.”
“But I can’t! I need it.”
Despite persuasion, the lioness was not willing to leave its kill. Emmanuel considered the situation, then carefully maneuvered the vehicle between the lens cap and the lion. Lion on one side of the car, lens cap on the other ! I opened the opposite side door, grabbed the lens cap and slammed the door shut. Phew. More care next time.
So, we made it to Mbalegeti Lodge at dusk. It blew us away – an absolutely magnificent lodge, where they had thought of everything. Our room was stunning, as was the general bar and restaurant areas, again overlooking the plains below. The food was excellent too – (Mark, Ross, Colin, John, Kevin and Elke, you would love it). After dinner, we retired to the outside bar, where we struck up conversation with Zena, the young South African woman who ran the place. Chain smoking, swearing like a trooper and knocking back margaritas, she was a hoot and the three of us had a great chatty evening together.
Speaking of swearing, our adorable guide, Emmanuel, was brilliant, an excellent driver and really great company the
whole time – but he would catch us off guard with his version of English language sometimes. Usually polite and courteous, he said one morning:
“Craig and Ross, if you don’t mind, we will stop here at this lodge for 15 minutes, if that is OK. I would like to have a small coffee break. If you would like to shit or piss, there is a place for shitting and pissing just over there on the left.”
During our game drives, if he wanted to do a wee, he would stop somewhere flat and treeless with so sign of any predators, and sa
“Excuse me guys, I need to mark my territory.” This became our catch-cry for any of us needing to do a wee while driving in the middle of the park. (Which is very large, by the way – 30,000 square km).
We drove a long way up to the North of the Serengeti to catch the “great wildebeest migration”. This time of year, they amass at the Mara River between Tanzania and Kenya, famously crossing it into Kenya sometime during July or August – risking death by crocodiles. However, there had been just
enough late rain to delay them in Tanzania this year. We saw hundreds of thousands of them, snorting and all marching along, often tumbling down gullies, then all massing at the river’s edge. Then, as if following some higher command, they all turned and fanned out across the plains. No river crossing today, possibly because of the phalanx of crocs lining the riverbank on the other side. It was an awesome sight nevertheless, and I was very happy to see them. I knew that you have to be lucky to actually catch a river crossing, which they do in dribs and drabs.
Driving back to our accommodation that afternoon, I stood up in the vehicle with the roof up, (holding on tight due to the bumpy dirt roads), something I came to love doing, with the cooling breeze in my face and watching the Serengeti scenery and giraffe, zebras, and other critters passing by. And, being higher up, I was often the first of us to spot stuff – elands, jackals, bat-eared foxes, a serval cat and two lions mating (or “lions fucking” as Emmanuel succinctly and politely called it). The accommodation up in the North was a luxury tented camp. It really was “glamping” - glamour camping - with plush beds and all the mod cons within the tent, and fantastic staff, headed by a beautiful and funny Tanzanian girl called Diana. As with all the lodges and camps in Tanzanian parks, there are not fences, so wildlife and can and does wander through. So, each night after dinner in the main tent, you get escorted back to your tent by an armed guard. I heard hyenas outside our tent that night, uttering their characteristic maniacal yelping.
The next morning we met with Emmanuel over breakfast.
He said : “Good morning Craig and Ross. I hope you slept well. I slept like a baby.”
Ross, who had an upset stomach the day prior, said: “Yes, I also slept like a baby. I cried all night and then shat myself.”
That day was a very long drive back down through the Serengeti - but we saw a pride of male and female lions within feet of the car - to reach Ngorongoro Crater, a wondrous world heritage site.
Ngorongoro Crater is an iconic place that I had long dreamt about and mythologised as a teenager, having avidly watching so many wildlife docos about the life and death struggles in Ngorongoro. One day I would go there, I thought.…
The crater is an extinct volcanic caldera (the world’s largest, I believe). It is now covered on the steep sides with cool rainforest and the crater floor is covered in grass, a salt lake and some forest – and with a menagerie of animals “held” within. As everyone does, we stayed on the crater rim - cold at night (2,300metres), then drove down into the crater the next day. Suddenly the mist cleared, and rainforest was replaced with grasslands, with herds of zeb, wildebeest and other herbivores, and naughty hyenas and jackals prowling the edges of the herds. We had another great day, with bird highlights including pink flamingos, ungainly Kory bustards, crowned cranes, various vultures, and lots of ostriches, etc. Lions were also seen, but no elusive black rhino (only 24 or so in the crater). The drive back out was fantastic, watching the crater fade away below, as the vegetation returned to cool, dense rainforest.
On our last day, we visited a traditional Maasai village, complete with guys jumping in the air in their red robes and sticks, etc. Not the men but the women build their round beehive huts from cow manure plus mud, while we noticed that they all wear thongs made from bits of motorcycle tyres. Resourceful. We bought a few curios, including yet more jewelry for you, Mum !
After eight days on safari, Emmanuel drove us back to where we started, the town of Arusha. Emmanuel was a super guide, a brilliant driver on very tough roads, fun to be with and an all round awesome bloke. Twice during our trip he stopped to help others. First another safari tour group who had problems with their brakes, and then, on a more serious note, a car that had rolled onto it’s side and injured some people. He and others used a winch to right the car, tended to their wounds, etc. Saying goodbye to Emmanuel after our 8 days was very hard. I find that when we travel, whenever we interact with people for more than a few days (e.g., tour guides, or other travelers), I somehow get rather emotional when saying goodbye. It's a strange melancholic feeling that descends and something I cannot explain. Emmanuel saw us into our hotel, we tipped him well, and said goodbye. We went up to our hotel room, I opened the curtains to a stunning view of Mt. Meru (second highest after Kili), then just stared reflectively. Ross came over to me:
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I explained my mixture of exhilaration at all that we had seen combined with my soft spot for Emmanuel, who lived a Spartan existence in a not so nice part of town yet was so happy and inspirational and a wonderful friend over the past 8 days. (Brent and Shirl, you would relate to this from your own travels). We as Westerners are all filthy rich compared to everyone on the vast African continent, and our piss- ant problems are nothing compared to theirs.
So, we have some down time now here in Arusha – going to see some wild black and white colobus monkeys tomorrow (yes, Lez, what that fur coat of yours is made from !!). Then its time to head to Uganda (for chimpanzees spotting).
Craig and Ross.
p.s. A big thanks to Thomas and Leon for teaching me all about the exposure triangle, F-stops and focal length – I am getting some great photos.
pps. Go Germany, eh, Thomas ! ?
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