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Published: January 26th 2014
Well, the last week and a half has been an absolutely extraordinary experience which I’m truly going to struggle to put into words and which even pictures won’t convey adequately. Jane and I have just been grinning at each other for days now and reminding ourselves just how truly lucky we are…
Upon leaving Naivasha we made our way down to Nairobi and jumped on a local shuttle bus, heading south across the border into Tanzania and the safari capital of Arusha. It was a lovely little trip, skirting past the undulating landscapes as the sun slowly set in the distance and then scuttling past the looming Mt Meru, with the iconic Kilimanjaro off in the distance.
The next morning we met up with Said, our driver, guide, animal spotter and general fixer for the next week. We threw our bags in the back of our massive, customised Landcruiser and slowly headed west, across the dry and dusty plains of Tanzania before winding our way up the side of the Rift Valley and onto the ochre-soiled Ngorongoro Highlands. Most people come to the Serengeti in the hope of spotting the Big Five – elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo.
And indeed, while we were keen to do the same, we were also eager to make the most of the other not-so-big, yet still incredible, bird and wildlife that the region has to offer. Not to mention the incredible landscapes…
Our first destination was Olduvai Camp, a cluster of lovely tents set around a lone kopje in the vast plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The area is home to large numbers of the Maasai, the traditional owners of the land and renowned fearless warriors, and having a chance to meet some Maasai was one of the reasons that we had chosen to stay at Olduvai. While we had politely declined the opportunity to visit a staged village – a fairly hideous managed production where you (and dozens of other gawking tourists) are welcomed with the famous Maasai jumping and singing and then you take photos and they sell you trinkets and so on. At Olduvai, there are a handful of warriors who live nearby and patrol the camp to ensure that the wildlife doesn’t encroach too much and they are all keen just to sit and talk in a much more informal manner and without the gimmicky feel
of the villages.
The Maasai are indeed quite resplendent in their bright red, blue and purple shuka
, or robes, and are regularly seen tending to their herds of cattle (mosly cows and goats, with a few sheep thrown in for good measure), a spear in one hand and a guiding stick in the other. I know it probably sounds clichéd, but they really do have a majestic and proud presence about them, a real determination to continue living the way their forefathers have for countless generations, with very little influence from the outside world. Except perhaps for the mobile phones, the football and the funky sandals they all seem to sport that are made out of old car tyres. And they’ve apparently been encouraged to forgo the traditional rite of passage for a young warrior which was the simple task of killing a lion single-handedly…
Our first evening was spent in the company of one the warriors who took us on a walk to a nearby kopje to watch the sun set over the endless savannah and we spent a wonderful time just chatting about the similarities and differences in our lives and countries. He was intrigued when
we noted that the landscape was actually quite similar to that of parts of Australia, just with some very different animals. But it’s the cattle and sheep that are prized by the Maasai and being home to the largest number of sheep in the world certainly placed us in good stead. That night, we sat around a large fire with a bunch of the warriors and continued chatting and swapping stories as the stars came out above us, stretching across the vast Serengeti plains.
Olduvai Gorge (or Oldupai as it should be – like Naivasha, a quirk of European colonial translations) is renowned as the central focus of the Leakeys - a husband and wife archaeological team who made a huge number of discoveries beginning in the 1930s that completely altered our understanding of mankind’s beginnings. Basically, over the coming decades, the Leakey’s confounded the conventional wisdom and established that a number of pre-sapien peoples lived in the region from almost 2 million years ago, the same period in which Lucy lived in Ethiopia, and displayed considerable cognitive advances while also using rudimentary stone tools. In the 70s, Mary further discovered a series of pre-sapien footprints nearby that are
dated back twice as long again, and indeed, both finds contributed greatly to the evolutionary debates in paleoanthropolgical circles.
Being in the area, we chose to visit the local museum and attended a wonderful lecture with a local archaeologist, although we did struggle to maintain our focus as he sported a peculiar little Chaplain/Hitler moustache which constantly wriggled away on his upper lip and seemed to detract from the wonderful scientific knowledge he was wishing to impart. I guess I intrinsically almost expected a comical slapstick routine or a virulent spit-laden tirade to spew forth…
However, our main reason for coming to this area was to catch a glimpse of The Great Migration – a period during the year when the short rains in the highlands begin and the new grasses shoot up all over the surrounding plains. Almost two million wildebeest, three quarters of a million zebra and countless other ungulates all make the long journey south from Kenya to birth their calves on the nutrient rich soils of these plains. An extended dry spell in the area had discouraged the migration for quite a few months and we had been unsure whether they would actually
be in the area when we were. However on our first morning, we rose before dawn and spent most of the day bouncing around the area, slowly wending our way through vast herds of these beasts, all grunting to each other sporadically – the noise of the wildebeest (or wild beasts as Said called them) talking to each other was really rather entertaining. It was quite incredible, and is what makes the Serengeti region so truly special. A number of locals and Africa safari-specialists that we spoke to reiterated the fact that while it is possible to see many of the animals present in other parks around the region, it is the sheer numbers in this area that really blows the mind.
The next day we moved in to the Serengeti itself. Meaning ‘Endless Plain’ in the local Maa language, indeed it was just that. As we first drove in, the grasslands stretched flat and seemingly unceasing as far as the eye could see. Said, quickly noting that we would prefer to avoid the crowded back-to-back jeep experience so common in the Serengeti, took us east and into the Gol Kopjes, a collection of the most stunning rocky outcrops
that punctuated the flat savannah. It is a remote and rarely visited area and indeed, we saw only two other jeeps during the entire afternoon. What we did see was a wonderful collection of wildlife. Dozens of lions, usually in pairs, sunned themselves on the warm kopjes and regarded us with only the vaguest of interest. A long stream of wildebeest, the last few stragglers of the migration, and aware of the lions’ presence nearby, stormed past in single file and off into the distance, determined to avoid being taken for dinner just yet. Herds of elephants, caked in mud to keep them cool, clambered over the rocks, seeking the small amounts of water that lay in hidden pools.
We eventually made it to our camp, a lovely little collection of tents nestled amongst the scrub in the Seronera Valley and after eating, we retired to our tent’s porch for a G&T and to watch a bright yellow full moon rise over the Serengeti, as the hyenas scrabbled all around and guffawed to each other throughout the night.
The following days were spent exploring various other parts of the park – the Seronera, as well as the Simba,
Maasai and Moru kopjes. It was utterly amazing, bouncing around in the back of our open topped jeep, binoculars in hand, scanning the horizon for various animals, and of course usually mistaking them for random ALTs - the ubiquitous Animal Looking Things that eventually revealed themselves as nothing more than unusually shaped logs or rocks.
And there were some truly amazing moments that will remain with us forever. Certainly the ornithological delights of the marvellously spectacular crested cranes and the hideously ugly Marbou storks. And the frequent flashes of colour of starlings, rollers and finches wherever we drove. And then of course there was the larger animals…
Sitting there in awe as a couple of cheetahs lounged around in the sun, before stretching their large elongated bodies and prowling majestically off over a hill, away from prying eyes. Or switching off the engine by a riverbank, just the three of us, as a half dozen small lion cubs desperately tried to climb a tree while the lioness sat in the lower branches, silently encouraging them on. Or bouncing along a dusty track, spewing up plumes of the fine white dust and then coming across the lone tree
for miles around. And seeing a large herd of elephants sheltering under it, standing motionless and facing outwards in an almost perfect circle. Or finding yourself perched on a river bank as sixty or so massive hippos grunted and splashed away in the waters, occasionally yawning to reveal their massive teeth, and sinking and rising haphazardly. And sitting there and making eye contact with a leopard who is perched lazily on the branches of a tree, legs and tail hanging down over the edges as the afternoon sun slowly drops down in the distance…
Our final morning on safari was something that I had been waiting for ages for. Ever since I had seen a doco on the Ngorongoro Crater years and years ago, it had captured me and now seeing it in reality, it was hard not to be staggered by what truly is a natural wonder of the world. An extinct volcanic caldera that stretches about 18km across, it is an amazing ecosystem that harbours not only the big five, but countless other animals as well. And due to its constant rainfall, its ever-green grasses and its relative security, it means that the animals generally don’t need
to leave to seek fresher pastures, thereby guaranteeing a persistent amount of wildlife year round. The rim and edges are shrouded in a thick, green jungle which slowly gives way to a microcosm of the terrains that we’d been exploring so far. A couple of small rivers wind down from the slopes and wend their way across the grasslands. Small, rolling hills hide solitary rhinos and herds of buffalo. A vast alkaline lake harbours hundreds of bright pink flamingos and a rich, verdant forest covers a large swath, home to vast groups of elephant, who even visit from outside the crater in order to introduce their young to a swampy elephant’s graveyard where their elders come to die.
The presence of all of the animals of course also means that there is generally a steady flow of tourists, turning this natural wonder into a bit of a theme park with a constant stream of jeeps from mid-morning onwards. Knowing this, we’d had the foresight to book a tent in the one place actually inside the gates, allowing us to get in before the vast hordes of other mizungu arrived.
Thus after a lovely sleep, interrupted only by
a rather thirsty elephant who stumbled upon the camp’s water supply in the early hours, we staggered from our beds and into the pitch blackness. We threw ourselves into the jeep and began the slow and winding descent and were unbelievably fortunate to be the first on the crater floor, as the sun slowly rose behind us, turning the dawn clouds a myriad of pinks, oranges and reds.
It was truly incredible to see all of these creatures in such a small space. We finally managed to see a black rhino and thus completed our big five checklist, having been sheepishly informed by Said that the white rhinos we’d seen at Meru, despite being much rarer, were not actually considered a part of the Big Five. We watched a pride gorge themselves on a wildebeest, the lionesses’ giving way to the bigger male when he sauntered over, demanding his share. And then we witnessed something that Said claimed he’d never seen in his seventeen years of guiding. While watching a group of three male lions relaxing on the river bank, one male slowly wandered down to the river’s edge and began lapping at the water. Suddenly two large eyes
drifted towards him and in a flash, a huge hippo released a raucous bellow and launched himself out of the river, stampeding towards what was now a rather startled lion. All three of the so-called Kings of the Jungle beat a hasty retreat, tails literally between their legs and the hippos took up their rightful spots on the bank. And while I managed to catch it on video, full credit to Jane who took the amazing photo seen here. A truly incredible way to conclude our week-long safari…
As we slowly wound our way up and out of the crater, we looked at each other. Parched, sun-dried skin, dried and cracked lips, dusty, matted hair, every part of us covered in dust. Our hands were blistered due to clinging tightly to the railings as we stood in the jeep for hours at a time and our entire bodies were aching due to a week of spine-jarring off road driving. But we both had the hugest smiles on our faces…
And thus to Zanzibar, the island with an almost mythically exotic name, much like Mandalay or Timbuktu. Our time here has been spent allowing our bodies the chance to
recover and doing very little but swimming in the marvellous infinity pool, drifting in the much warmer ocean, reading and eating the most wonderful seafood. Pongwe is reputedly one of the nicest beaches on the island and with only two places to stay, it’s wonderfully remote and devoid of too many other tourists and the irreputable beach boys. And it is so remarkably beautiful – we’ve been to a lot of beaches over the years, from the Whitsundays to Thailand to Sri Lanka and to the Philippines, but in all honesty, this is about as picture-postcard-perfect as you’ll ever get. Dhows cruise past on the horizon amidst a sea that mingles a deep, almost glowing jade-green with turquoise and various shades of blue. Small waves lap on the most white-of-white sands while hammocks flutter between towering palm trees as you sip fresh fruit drinks and let the world slowly and effortlessly float past.
Our final day in Africa was spent exploring nearby Stone Town, a bustling Lamuesque-like maze of narrow streets, beautiful houses and old forts. It has also played host over the years to its fair share of celebrities – from one of the world’s most notorious slave traders Tippu Tip, to a certain Dr Livingstone and even a young pre-Queen Freddie Mercury. Much like Lamu to the north, Zanzibar has long been a focal point for the trade ships from Europe and the Middle East and has experienced its fair share of foreign invaders and rulers over its long history. It was also a central point for both the ivory and slave trades and we spent a sobering time wandering around the church which has been built on the site of what was the world’s largest slave market.
And so, alas, our wonderful introduction to Africa has come to a close. It has been the most wonderful of months – from the friendly locals and donkeys of Lamu to the opulence of Meru. From exploring the mighty Rift Valley to embarking on a magnificent safari through the Serengeti. And finally to Zanzibar with its perfect tropical beaches and its history and culture. Again, a huge asante sana
to all of the people we’ve met, the places we’ve been and the experiences we’ve had. Until next time…
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