On Safari (or ... You can never have too many photographs of a giraffe)

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Africa » Tanzania » North » Serengeti National Park
March 28th 2009
Published: April 12th 2009
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Mount MeruMount MeruMount Meru

Taken from outside my hotel room in Arusha.
I had been having a difficult time in Tanzania. To the point that I considered cancelling the safari that I had booked onto. It was only because Donna, who runs Maasai Wanderings (the company I had chosen because they support local communities), had been so helpful that I even got as far as Arusha. After 18 hours on a bus that went from Musoma via Nairobi (a border crossing at 4am is never fun) and only 2 hours sleep, the aggressive, persistent, ubiquitous touts of Arusha were unbearable.

I had thought, indeed expected, to see plenty of wildlife on a safari, but not as much, as close, or as easily as we did.

Day 1: The first giraffe
The Maasai Wanderings vehicle with Doto (our guide/driver), Elias (our cook) and Matthew (the other person booked onto the trip) collected me from my hotel right on time and we headed out of Arusha, to my enormous relief. The road to The Serengeti National Park passes through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where we would be returning later in the week to descend into the crater. Within seconds of entering Ngorongoro, I saw my first 'proper' giraffe (I had a glimpse of one in the dawn light from the bus to Arusha, but had nobody to share the experience with as I was travelling alone and most of the other bus passengers were asleep). Obviously, I knew what a giraffe looked like ... but seeing a real live one in the wild was amazing. I knew then that I would never get bored with seeing this bizarre animal.

At lunchtime, to the amusement of other tourists who had arrived at the picnic area before us and were already sitting on the available rocks under sparse trees, Matthew and I were left with the option of eating lunch in the open; being dive-bombed by a black kite.

We arrived at the campsite before dark, with enough time to help (or hinder) Doto and Elias in pitching the tents. Elias then cooked dinner, which was served at a table and chairs carried on the trip and sited in a structure reminiscent of a chicken house.

Day 2: Hunting cheetahs
It is exciting to have heard a lion in the bushes behind the tents during the night - but the sounds ensured that there was NO WAY I was going out of my tent for anything until daylight.

After breakfast in The Chicken Hut, we went on our first 'proper' wildlife drive. Our first animal of the day was a giraffe - literally thirty seconds after leaving camp. This was low season - but the campsite was busy so I was sure that there would be crowds of tourists in their open-topped vehicles circling each animal we saw (I had been warned that this was a downside of safaris). But the reality was much better! At most there were maybe three other vehicles wherever we stopped. Doto, our guide, was excellent as a tracker. He obviously headed to where other vehicles had stopped to see what they had seen, but we were also often the only vehicle watching a particular animal. The word Serengeti means 'endless plains' in Swahili - one of the most impressive things of the area is the actual landscape, punctuated by amazing wildlife.

The highlight of the day was watching 5 cheetahs hunting. In formation, they chased a herd of zebras, but failed to catch lunch. The zebras stood on the other side of the dirt road, heads and ears up, fearing a repeat. One cheetah then made a valiant effort to catch a reedbuck, again without success.

The low point of the day was seeing a lone zebra under a tree by the road as we were heading back to camp for lunch. It was unusual to see a zebra lying down on its own; at first we all thought it was dead but as the car approached, it got up. It had a wire poacher's trap around one leg and the trailing end wrapped around another leg. It could barely walk, let alone run from potential predators.

After lunch and a rest period (an opportunity to do some of my cross stitch that I had been doing in Rwanda etc), we headed out of camp at 4pm for another drive. There is an added excitement to pushing a broken down car when you have just passed a lion! Luckily, after just 10 minutes, another safari vehicle came by and stopped to help. When it became apparent that the car wasn't going anywhere, Doto arranged for the other company to take us on their drive with them. Very kindly the driver, and the two tourists, agreed and off e went to the aptly named 'Hippo Pool' with the greatest number of yawning hippos I have ever seen, and an incredible noise.

Day 3: The only leopard

Pushing the car to get it started was becoming habit. Whenever we stopped, Doto made sure that he didn't turn the engine off unless there was another vehicle stopped at the same animal (so that it could push us rather than us having to get out). During the morning wildlife drive, we saw a leopard. It was in the fork of a tree and lazily surveyed the cars of tourists before dropping down into long grass and effectively disappearing. After a brief stop at the Visitor Centre (excellent displays and Rock Hyrax) and another stop to consult with a mechanic, we headed to our new campsite on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, with the most amazing views. On the way we took a detour to look over the Olduvei Gorge, driving across dry and dusty land to get there.

Day 4: On the Crater floor

Ngorongoro Crater is as close to a prehistoric view that I imagine you could get! It is almost like a natural wildlife park - while it didn't have the wilderness landscapes of the Serengeti, it did have close views of many of the animals. We also saw (but in the distance) the incredibly rare Black Rhino. Lunch )along with all the other tourists) was at a beautiful lake. After a day of taking photos (Doto's new additional role being to stop Matthew from taking more of photogenic zebras) we headed out of the Crater, with the car sounding worse, to Karatu (our home for the night, camping on the lawn of a smart lodge).

Day 5: Dancing with the Iraqw

As a change from wildlife, we had a long, dusty walk through red lands with Paulo, a member of the Iraqw tribe. The Iraqws originated, many generations ago, from Ethiopia; travelling in search of good agricultural land. The earth around Karatu is used for brick making, but it was hard to see how it would be good for crops! After lunch and a coke, we walked the long dry road back to Paulo's house where he, along with his wife (Paulina) and two young neighbours sang song traditional songs for us. I was invited to join in with the dancing, wrapped in a cloth supplied by Paulina. Cecilia (one of the neighbours) then gave me a short lesson on drumming - I couldn't do the separate rhythms with each hand. Then we had a drive to Mto wa Mbu, again camping on the lawns of a lodge - this one with a VERY welcome swimming pool.

Day 6: Manyara Pond!

Lake Manyara is famous for flamingos. But the water level is so low at the moment (due to late rains?) that we couldn’t get close enough to the Lake to see more than a distant pink haze. The wildlife drive brought more opportunities for photos of giraffes and elephants, and ended with a tree climbing lion ... appropriately lying in a tree.

By evening, our tents were pitched in the bush, close to a Maasai village. Mce had welcomed us to his home and neighbours gave a demonstration of Maasai dancing and singing. There were also a group of young American students staying in Mce's compound for a week, helping to build toilets at a school funded by Maasai Wanderings.

Day 7: Maasai Wanderings

In the morning before lunch and the return to Arusha, Mce took us for a walk around 'the village'. There is a different interpretation - the Maasai village involved a long walk in the heat, looking at termite mounds, trying to find porcupines and marvelling at how dry the land was. We paused for Mce to gather some roots to make tea for his 109 year old grandmother.

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