Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On Safari...

After a day of recuperation at the Marangu Hotel, we were ready for our next adventure – safari in the Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater.
6:30am saw us ‘wide-eyed’, but not very ‘bushy-tailed’, sitting on piles of luggage, waiting for the pick-up vehicle from 'Bush Explorers' the safari tour-operator we had selected. And so came the first entry on a long list of disappointments that continued till the very end of the safari. 6:45, 7am, 7:15 and still no show. A call to the company had at least assured us that our deposit hadn’t disappeared into the ‘ether’, but “soon come” was small recompense for unnecessarily lost sleep. At 7:30am an aging green Toyota van creaked into the hotel courtyard, and after many assurances that this wasn’t the safari vehicle, just transport to the vehicle, we climbed in and set off.

Lunch at the 'Vehicle Exchange'.

After about 4 hours of driving, we pulled into a campsite close to Lake Manyara. This was to be the lunch stop, and vehicle exchange, however it transpired that the cook was IN the vehicle we were supposed to be meeting, and when, half an hour later it showed up, loaded with 5 returning tourists, we realised that this particular ‘flight crew’ was going to be pulling a double shift!
With lunch over, and the jeep packed we were asked to make full payment for the safari before leaving. This was unexpected, and since our confidence level was at an all-time low we were hesitant to comply. This resulted in a heated discussion that went around in circles and could have lasted longer than the safari itself, however we asked the returning tourists about their experience. They were generally positive, and this gave us enough confidence for us to ‘throw caution to the wind’. We counted out the remaining balance, got an official looking receipt (and almost asked for finger prints...) and then departed.

Ellen & Susan in the Jeep.

5 hours later we entered the Serengeti National park. (4 hours of driving plus 1 hour for the driver to settle the park bill from the previous safari!) The plains stretched out to the horizon in all directions, an endless sea of brown grass with the merest hint of green. The idea that this could support life was incredible, however as we drove further in to the park, we passed herd after herd of small black-streaked Thompson Gazelles, interspersed with almost theatrically grotesque Wart Hogs.
As the evening shadows grew longer we had one of the most magical and defining moments of the safari. Three cheetahs were lying next to the ‘road’ (translated: graded gravel track.) They lay on a slight mound, looking out at the Thompson Gazelles in the distance, hardly glancing at us as we clicked & gasped in equal proportions.

Cheetahs on the mound.

Suddenly one of them tensed; sat up, then in unison they all sprang up and glided off through the grass, with an effortless mile-eating lope. Whatever prey they had spotted was certainly indistinguishable to us and before long both cheetahs and gazelles were mere specks in a shifting savanna sea.

Cheetah spies it's prey.

Still glowing from this spectacular encounter, we carried on, only to stop a short while later at another amazing sight. A pride of lions were guarding a partially eaten water buffalo.

Hyenas paced nearby – close enough to smell the kill, yet far enough to stay out of harm's way.

Vultures kept vigil in a nearby tree.

With the setting sun providing a spectacular backdrop, we arrived at our camp site. We pitched our tents, ate supper and took a somewhat nervous sojourn to the bathroom (very cognoscente of the fact that there was no barrier between us and the ‘slavering beasts of Africa’!) Sleep came rapidly, punctuated only by the occasional grunts & howls which sounded much nearer & more menacing than they really were.

Next morning we ate breakfast in our ‘dining cage’ – the wire mesh ostensibly there to keep the wild animals away from our scrambled eggs – however the image of ‘feeding time in the hamster cage’ was not lost on us!

The plan for ‘Day-2’ was an all-day game drive. Victor had prepared boxed lunches for us and shortly before 9am we were off.

A pair of majestic giraffe provided us with our first photo op. They move with utter grace, which belies their awkward form.

Then came another magical moment of the safari. A female leopard and her cub were walking close to the edge of the track.

We followed them for at least half an hour, watching their interactions. At one point they walked right past the jeep, brushing the wheels, so we looked straight down on their backs.

With the smallest of reaches, we could have stroked them (and no doubt lost our hands!)

Although it’s hard to imagine that any sighting could be significant after such a display, in fact everything we saw added to the intricate mosaic of the Serengeti.

From the comical wart-hog,

to soaring cranes,

prides of lion,

to dazzling starlings, each had their part to play.

In their incessant search for greener pastures, the wildebeest and zebras slowly migrate in a circular path around the 15,000 square Kms that make up the Serengeti. We watched countless thousands as young & old, they moved slowly across the landscape – as unstoppable as the tide.

Another unstoppable force on the Serengeti is the elephant. We pulled over at the sight of an approaching heard, revelling in the grace and gentle beauty of these giants.

They stopped a mere 30 meters away, shifting from foot to foot, waving their fan-like ears and ripping up the occasional trunk-full of grass. It seems they were waiting for us to move, because we were parked in their (unmarked) path, and although there was flat ground around us (all the way to the horizon,) Africa is theirs.

We backed up and moments later the herd moved on, from ancient matriarch to tiny calves, a grey, mud encrusted sea of gentle power.

One of the joys of being on safari at this time of year is the incredible number of young we saw. Every species seemed to have birthed within the previous few weeks and in the case of one hippo, we are convinced that we witnessed the actual birth!

From amazing sights to amazing coincidences... as we were driving along, a vehicle passed us, and Susan suddenly shouted out, “MARY!” She had seen (and more incredibly, recognized!) our friends from Kilimanjaro. We called out “simama”( which means Stop!) to Chas, and both jeeps slid to a halt and backed up. In all of the Serengeti, we just happened to be on the same track as Mary, Shabeena & John, and it turned out that they too were heading for the Ngorongoro Crater the following day.

'Day-2’ came to a close under another gorgeous setting sun and we returned to the camp site for supper and a welcome sleep.

The plan for ‘Day-3’ was a morning game drive, followed by lunch at the camp site. We would then pack the vehicle and head off to the Ngorongoro Crater. So after breakfast we set out, however before hunting for game, we had to hunt for water, because it seemed that Robb, the owner of the tour company had neglected to purchase enough water for us (even though our contract said we should have 3L each per day!) 1L for 4 people in the African sun was just not enough, so we went to a local ‘watering hole’ (bar!) and bought up all their water.

After the water excursion, Chas (the driver) took us to a couple of Hippo-hangouts. One of which featured dead hippos and komodo dragons and a stench that was beyond belief!

Leaving the hippos to their ‘various & varied’ activities we returned to camp for lunch.

The drive to the Ngorongoro took about 4 hours and although we took several side-tracks looking for game, we were unsuccessful. We needn’t have worried though, because the wild-life was waiting for us at the Ngorongoro camp site!

Shortly after we arrived, there was a commotion in the jungle behind the cook house. Two bull elephants were fighting (in a slow-motion sort of way!) Of course I was right in there with my camera, so much so that a guide yelled out to me to get out of there, because if they should change their interest to me, there was no way I could out-run them!

The vanquished bull ambled off into the jungle and the victor then turned to the camp and started walking straight towards us!

This obviously caused a little excitement among the on-lookers... and a little trepidation in Sarah, because at that precise moment, her other SideStix broke in exactly the same place as the one on the mountain!

It soon became clear that this ‘rampaging bull’ was in fact just on a daily pilgrimage to its watering hole – which happened to be the cook-house water-storage tank!

As we didn’t have enough clamps to make another crutch repair, I became Sarah’s ‘right-hand-man’ for the rest of the Safari.

We settled down for the night in our little dome tents, very conscious of the fact that there was at least one elephant out there who felt very ‘at home’ in this particular campsite!

At around 2am I was awoken by a snuffling, scrabbling noise, and the tent was shaking slightly. Switching on my head-light, I saw Sarah’s SideStix (the good one!) disappearing under the flysheet. Lunging forward, I grabbed it and jerked it backwards & forwards – in an attempt to scare off the perpetrator (which I assumed was a monkey.) The commotion awoke Sarah, and as I described the foiled heist, I unzipped the top of the fly sheet, and peaked out – to see 2 hyenas disappearing into the shadows behind the adjacent tree! I have no idea what they would have done with a prototype sports crutch, however it seems that scavenging in the hyena world is not limited to edible matter.

A further pre-dawn interruption, involving heavy breathing, snorting and strange ripping sounds transpired, (upon peaking out of the tent top-vent) to be the massive horned head of a Cape Buffalo, daintily ‘mowing’ the grass between our guy-ropes.

‘Day – 4’. The Ngorongoro game drive was only going to be a half day as there would still be a 4 hour drive to get back to Moshi. Our safari contract had indicated that we would eat a boxed lunch in the crater, thereby maximizing our time with the game, however there wasn’t suitable food left for this (another organizational ‘strike’ against the Bush Explorer outfit) so we would have to return to the campsite by noon, for a hot lunch and a speedy departure.

The crater is about 600m deep and covers an area of 260 Sq.Km. It contains an estimated 25,000 animals which live in the varied terrain, comprising highlands, bushlands and grasslands.

There was also a lot of dust!

We saw lioness & cub in a strange and yet very deliberate dance with a male lion.

The mother & cub kept about 400m distance away from the male. When she stopped, he stopped. When she moved, he moved.

Our driver indicated that he thought the male lion was on watch, however it seemed more that the lioness was protecting her cub from the adult male!
There were Cape Buffalo with young, (this one looked familiar... from the night before!)

Also Wart hogs with babies.

After a brief stop at a hippo pool, where we saw a hippo out of the water (not a common sight)

We started heading back towards the crater rim. It was then that we saw a conglomeration of jeeps ahead. We pulled up and sure enough in the faaaar distance a pair of Rhinos could be seen. This was the last of the so-called ‘Big Five’. (Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Buffalo and Rhinoceros – listed by big game hunters, because they were the most difficult game to hunt on foot.)

So, with that last ‘cherry on the cake’ we drove up the steep single-track road up the crater rim and back to the camp site.

At camp we were greeted by a rainstorm...

and lunch.

We had made arrangements with the Moshi Orthopaedic Centre to purchase a pair of replacement crutches, and since we had given our expected arrival time, we packed up and set off as quickly as we could.

The drive back was ‘interesting’, involving more close calls (for us and pedestrians) than one would usually expect in a lifetime! Running out of gas and waiting for an hour while Chas went off in search of fuel just added to our exasperation and when we finally arrived at our hotel in Moshi we were glad that this particular adventure had ended!

Our final summation of the safari: The animals we saw were incredible and Chas, the driver, notwithstanding his limited English, had a great knack for finding them. Victor, the cook, produced some very tasty meals. He was no doubt limited by the provisions he had been supplied. Robb, the company owner, ‘talked the talk’ but didn’t ‘walk the walk’. He said all the right things, and ‘promised the earth’ however his delivery was well short of the mark.


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