It’s been too long without photos in the journal, so here are a couple from the 2014 safari in Tanzania that didn’t previously make it online:
Goodbye, Tanzania. Hello, Kenya. I’m now in a country where the captain of the track team is voted prom king, while the football captain is the guy who got cut from the cross-country team.
Our last (brief) game drive in Tanzania allowed me to redeem myself for identifying four animals as lions yesterday when they were actually warthogs (in my defense, they were low in the grass and covered in orange mud) by sighting a huge male lion before the guides saw him. The brief time with the animals was followed by a drive back to Arusha and a goodbye to many of the passengers and most of the guides. Seven passengers, and two of our guides then hopped on a bus for the five hour drive to Nairobi, which included a stop at a Wild West border crossing filled with old Masai women shoving trinkets in our faces, truckers camped out for multiple days waiting for vehicle inspections, and vastly more chaos than one would typically associate with national boundaries. So far as I know we made it across without casualties, and a tired and bedraggled group then continued on to the Kenyan capital. After a couple of weeks of driving remote dirt roads, being in massive traffic jams again was hugely stressful, although early tomorrow morning the Kenyan safari vehicles arrive and we’ll be off to quiet, non-smoggy places again.
Tanzania is an impressive place – they’ve protected a third of the country in parks or conservation areas, the people have incredible attitudes despite whatever hardships they might face, and the wildlife and scenery are unbelievable. I’m extraordinarily glad I got to see it, and were I a betting man I’d wager that this won’t be my last visit to this astounding country.
Today was set up to be exceedingly great – we arranged to reunite the Magic Bus, including Safari Stephen driving, our lucky passenger Kitty, as well as the always-fun Mike & Steph. Wake up was at 5:45, breakfast was at 6:00, and then I returned to the room to grab some things before heading out. And when I went to leave, the door wouldn’t open. Turns out that there is no way to open them from the inside once locked, and my roommate didn’t realize I had returned and left with the key. There was no phone in the room that I could use to call reception, but since there was no way I was going to miss an amazing morning I took my seat in the Magic Bus after exiting the room by climbing out of the front window.
Today would have been a horrendous day to miss – the Magic Bus juju was flowing strong. Mid-morning we got a call on the radio and Stephen took off at an astounding speed given the road conditions – another van had spotted a pangolin, which is an exceedingly rare animal to see. It looks sort of like a three foot long dinosaur, with a tiny head and scales all over its long body. Stephen last saw one of the normally-nocturnal animals ten years ago, and for the first time on the trip every one of the Tanzanian drivers who stopped brought a camera and got a photo.
Following the pangolin we headed to a different area of the park, and Stephen spotted a lesser kudu, which looks like a gazelle but with amazingly effective camouflage; Stephen said he last saw one three years ago. Shortly thereafter we found an eagle owl in a tree, and then it got really good. In a tree right next to the road a leopard was sprawled out sleeping in the highest branches. We sat underneath the tree watching her for perhaps ten minutes, at which point she woke up, did a bit of grooming, then clambered down the tree, past us, and off into the bush. Light for photography wasn’t exceptional, but I’ve still got a few photos from the experience that will make me happy for a very, very long time.
The afternoon drive was less exciting – how could it not be? – but did include an elephant snacking on acacia pods in the parking area, making lodge traffic a bit trickier than normal. We’ve got a short, two hour game drive tomorrow, and then it will sadly be time to drive back to Arusha and say goodbye to our friendly, exceptional, beyond-hard-working drivers from Wildersun Safaris as we head off for phase two of the Africa trip in Kenya.
The Cheesemans group has five vehicles that carry four people each and different people ride with different drivers each day, so every day people come back with different experiences. Through an exhaustive mathematical process, I figured out that one lady in particular saw the best things each day, and thus as a scientific fact, it’s clear that I should always be trying to ride in whatever vehicle she is in. Today I was in that vehicle, and before we had descended into the Ngorongoro Crater we’d already seen two cheetahs. On arriving at the crater floor word came over the radio that the hyenas had another zebra cornered, but after waiting for fifteen minutes while the hyenas mostly slept we all agreed to move on, and I was spared another spectacle of nature’s cruelty (the hyenas were apparently full, and word is the zebra survived the day, but as it appeared sick and the hyenas will be hungry again soon, its odds of making it through the night aren’t good).
The luck continued as we arrived at a den of lions and the two mothers decided to parade the three cubs from the den down to the road, where frolicking commenced. Many pictures were taken as too many vehicles jockeyed for position. We left when the cubs fell asleep, only to stumble on an old buffalo carcass being eaten by hyenas. Shortly after we arrived the hyenas moved off, and thirty vultures immediately descended from all corners in a feeding frenzy. When finally we arrived at lunch and stories of our morning got out, requests to ride with Kitty (the lady with the luck) were made by several other passengers.
On our way out of Ngorongoro and on to Tarangire National Park we hit a snag – the steep ascent road out of the crater was partially blocked by a massive bull elephant, a third-world problem of the first order. We sat there a dozen feet away as he ate trees, and as we drove past about six feet from him the guide was oddly silent when asked “is this safe”? Consensus was that since we all emerged unscathed, it was most definitely an extraordinarily cool experience.
The drive to Tarangire took a few hours, and after arriving we spent a couple of hours touring the baobabs and looking for wild dogs, and while the park is chock full of elephants and zebra, the dogs proved elusive. We’ve got a full day here tomorrow, and I’m in the Magic Bus with Kitty again, so luck should hopefully follow us for another day.
The Ngorongoro Crater lived up to its billing today, with animals everywhere, nearly all of them habituated to safari vehicles and thus not running away as we drove by. The highlight of the day was a pack of hyenas taking down a zebra, and while the feeding frenzy afterwards was impressive with hyenas pouring in from all corners of the park, the death of the zebra took a long time and was a really tough thing to watch – it was too brutal for photos, and convinced me that I most definitely never want to be out on foot while hyenas are about.
The crater itself is one of the largest intact craters in the world (like Crater Lake, the crater walls do not have a break in them) and the eleven mile diameter depression is the result of a volcanic eruption one million years ago, after which the ground collapsed over the empty magma chamber. Animals within the crater have plenty to survive on, so zebra and wildebeest are everywhere, over a hundred lions have made it their home, nearly 400 hyenas roam about, a small herd of black rhino remain, etc, etc. At one point today we stumbled upon a lioness lying in wait in the grass, and waited some time for a line of zebras to walk by her. Safari vehicles kept stopping to see the lion and redirecting zebra out of her path in the process, but when finally a small herd crossed within a few feet of her she never moved from her hiding place in the grass – the guide said that a single lion hunting during the day won’t charge until she gets exactly the right situation, and apparently none of the zebra she saw met her standards.
The other unusual sighting today was a hippo pool that was about three feet deep, and the hippos were rolling in the water to rub their backs in the mud. We would see a huge hippo in the water slowly turn, and then its stubby legs would be shaking in the air before it would finally manage to rotate its huge body back upright – not something I ever expected to see, but hugely amusing to sit and watch.
Tomorrow morning we get another visit to the Crater before heading off to Tarangire National Park for a couple of nights, after which the Tanzania portion of this odyssey will sadly come to its conclusion.
I SAW A LEOPARD!!!!
Today was the day for cats. Shortly after leaving the hotel we were parked on the side of the road watching two lions doing it, and while I’m not enough of a voyeur to have taken photos of the actual act, I did get a few cool shots of the stud posing before and after. From there it was on to four male lions who had killed a cape buffalo and were surrounded by a dozen hyenas waiting for their chance at a snack. When the last of the lions had his fill and had retreated to the bushes the hyenas moved in, at which point one of the lions came roaring out of slumber and chased them away – Doug Cheeseman says he’s only seen lions male defending a kill once before in his 70 trips to Tanzania; it was a mighty impressive charge.
From there it was on to my favorite moment of the day. We pulled up on three other stopped vehicles, and a leopard was resting in a tree perhaps fifty feet from the road. Almost as soon as we stopped he climbed down the tree, and instead of just slinking off into the grass he started stalking a herd of gazelle that was nearby. Maulidi put the vehicle in absolutely perfect position to watch the leopard creeping past a noisy mongoose den, into the tall grasses, and finally charge out from perhaps ten feet away at the gazelle. It was tough to see through the grass, but we saw gazelle scatter and one in particular leap up into the air and away before a disappointed leopard emerged and walked to a far tree with nothing to show for his efforts. If I haven’t said it enough already, I am enjoying some tremendous experiences, and life is very, very good right now.
We stopped for lunch and ate with dwarf mongoose running past everyone’s feet looking for crumbs, had a pair of hunting lions pass in front of the vehicle while driving to our next destination, and eventually arrived at the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge. Tomorrow we’re up at 6AM for an early departure into a crater that is world famous for its wildlife, and as has been the case each night of this trip, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.
Another day, another adventure. Our vehicle was a couple of minutes late and missed out on a leopard that was in a tree near the road, although most of the other vehicles got a good look. We hung out next to the tree for over an hour after he had climbed down, but didn’t see him again; such is luck while on safari. Cape buffalo, wildebeest, zebras, lions, and the usual complement of elephants and other critters made up most of the rest of the day’s sightings.
To give some idea of what this trip has been like thus far, we wake up early (before sunrise) and either have a quick breakfast or else immediately jump in the safari vehicles and head out looking for whatever is stirring. The more obnoxious visitors (Hi!) stand in the back of the pop-top Toyota Landcruisers with their heads in the breeze for the entire time in order to have the best view of the surroundings, and the Tanzanian guides generally pick a direction and point out whatever they see that will be of interest, while passengers point out tree stumps and rocks that we mistake for something interesting. Stops for photographs or just to take in the surroundings are frequent. At any given moment there is usually something visible, whether it’s a gazelle or a vulture or an eagle or something else. Most of the time there is a herd of something around, be it two hundred impala next to the road, anywhere from a handful to an armada of wildebeests, or four elephants on the horizon. It’s never boring for me – there is always a surprise around the corner, waiting to be found.
While it would be awesome to rent a vehicle and travel entirely at my own pace, the downsides of such a trip are that the “roads” are often little more than two uneven tracks leading into a gully (and it’s the dry season – in the rainy season they will be muddy and often flooded), and also it’s hugely helpful to have four other vehicles that can call on the radio when a particularly interesting animal is sighted or someone gets stuck in an aardvark den. The Cheesemans have mostly booked top-end lodges within the park, but options also exist for more basic accommodation, with the caveat that you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere on account of there being various creatures about who would view such a thing as a pre-wrapped meal. Overall, I think the Cheesemans have put together an amazing tour that is probably about as good of an Africa trip as anyone could have, and we still have four nights left in Tanzania before moving on to Kenya.
Growing up in the USA we are all told stories about pioneer days when herds of buffalo filled the horizon. That still happens in the Serengeti – at one point today we watched a herd of wildebeest galloping across a pass in the hills, down a valley, and across the plain, and couldn’t see where the massive movement of animals began. The animals traveled in lines that broke like a wave around our vehicle (see the photo below), with hundreds and hundreds running by us while the majority took another path further away. The herds of wildebeest here are IMMENSE, and we’re supposedly only seeing the stragglers that haven’t yet crossed the Mara river into Kenya…
Our lodging for the evening is the ridiculously fancy Mara Sayari tent camp – my “tent” has a hardwood floor, partitioned separations for the upscale bathroom, tub, shower, etc; I am not roughing it. There is a pool here with a large pile of what is obviously elephant poop near it – I asked the manager if elephants ever stopped by for a drink, and she admitted that they do but noted that the wooden fence keeps out the hippos who once frequented it. Pool maintenance is clearly a much different task in the bush of Africa than it is in the backyards of Los Angeles. Lest anyone think this is merely a fancy resort, everyone was frequently and emphatically reminded to request a guide when walking at dark due to the many animals roaming about, several of whom would happily make a meal of any stray camp resident.
Coming on this safari was an unbelievably good decision, and I’ve already seen sights that I’ve wanted to see since I was a little kid watching nature documentaries on TV. We’ve got much more to go, but already the soul has been much refreshed from everything we’ve experienced.
I was trying to estimate the number of mammals we saw today, and no one in my jeep could even venture a guess – 100,000 seemed to be a number that everyone felt was neither too high nor too low. It was unbelievable how many animals were grazing the green grasses as we moved north, and supposedly the numbers will continue to increase tomorrow as we make our way up to the Mara River at the border with Kenya. I know that Yellowstone is “America’s Serengeti”, and other places similarly claim the “Serengeti” label, but there is no where that could possibly compete with this part of Africa for numbers of animals.
Not to make this journal a list of species, but in addition to the massive numbers of animals, today was a good one for variety of species as well. We saw at least a dozen lions, another cheetah, at least fifty hippos, a leopard that had dragged a gazelle up into a tree in order to escape from prowling lions, cape buffalo, and the zebras and wildebeests that are part of the great migration.
After standing up in the pop-top jeep scanning the horizons for hours today, arrival at the lodge was with very tired legs, but I still climbed up on top of the rocks here for an unbelievable view of the Serengeti plains. Further hiking is limited by the small matter that there are numerous animals around that will eat people. The lodge grounds included a troop of baboons and an infestation of hyrax, which clamber all over the rocks within a foot or two of the guests and look at bit like massive gerbils – in speculating which ecological niche they fill, consensus seemed to be “appetizer”.
Two honey badgers today, making three total for this trip; the lady that runs the lodge says she’s never seen one, so clearly fortune favors those who head out in jeeps prior to sunrise at 6:15 each day. More cheetahs, lions, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, and other critters today – our driver had the best eyes of any person I’ve ever met, and spotted the cheetahs immediately when we were more than a mile and a half away and they were merely blobs on a small hill to me. I can take credit for a couple of sightings today, but if it was a football game the final score would have been something like Yuda 54, Ryan 3; the guy is a wildlife-spotting savant.
So far what we seen of Africa has been inspirational – there are a million different types of animal, but each one fills a specific niche. Cheetahs are the best hunters, but are the weakest cat and thus must be on constant patrol for other cats. Elephants are the least susceptible to predators, but also need the most food and water. Gazelle can get by without much water and only a little bit of grass, but are preyed upon by the fastest cats. It’s like a perfectly balanced system, and you gain a huge appreciation for how amazing the natural world is by being out in a mostly-pristine system each day and watching it function as it has for hundreds of thousands of years.
We haven’t seen a leopard yet, and Doug says tomorrow is a good day for them, so I offered Gail $20 if she would reunite the same four passengers and driver from yesterday in a jeep tomorrow (Cheesemans assign passengers to vehicles each night so that everyone gets an opportunity with each of the drivers). She refused the $20, but obliged on the request for the Magic Bus reunion, so hopefully our luck from yesterday will be rekindled and leopard photos will accompany tomorrow’s journal entry.
At 6:15 we were off across the landscape on the hunt for whatever animals might make an appearance. The day started with a honey badger, and when your day starts with a honey badger it is going to be an awesome day. He was not feeling excited about the safari vehicle behind him, and chose not to pose for pictures as we pursued him – clearly he cared. Numerous animals followed the honey badger, and then a call came in on the radio that one jeep had two cheetahs, while another had a den of lions. Conundrum. We went for the cheetahs, and an hour after we joined them we watched the mother cheetah take down a reedbuck (think small antelope) and then patrol the area while her teenage cub had a meal. And there were still lions to see…
Our planned return to the lodge for lunch at noon ended up being closer to 2PM, and then at 3:30 we were off again to chase more lions, cheetahs, elephants, ostriches, giraffes, birds, etc, etc. While the safari jeeps have seats, I stood in the back looking out for animals the entire time as we drove over fields, lakebeds, and through forests. My camera memory card has photos of lion cubs and baby cheetahs, among 500 other pictures, so pretty much the best day ever.
In non-animal news, the lodgings are pretty lavish, the Tanzanian drivers are all fun personalities and have mad skillz at both driving through crazy terrain and finding (and identifying) hidden animals, the food is really good, and the people on safari are for the most part really enthusiastic. There isn’t a lot of time for sleeping, so journal entries may be a bit incoherent and it’s tough to find time to review photos to find some to include with entries, but I’ll do my best to keep things readable and illustrated. One more day at Ndutu, then on to the Serengeti plains.
I ate dinner with four wild genets watching from the rafters. If you don’t know what a genet is (much like me three hours ago), it’s related to the mongoose and looks like a leopard’s coat put onto a cat’s body with a fox’s head and a lion’s tail. And four of those are residents in the lodge, living in the rafters, and watching guests eat each night before they head out to look for their own meals (no, Audrey, we can’t get one).
Overall the lodge grounds are practically a petting zoo – dikdik’s (deer that are about a eighteen inches tall) tolerate people to within a few feet, you practically need to avoid stepping on birds, impala graze fifty feet from the main path, and long eared bats make chirping noises under the eaves. Apparently they’ve all come to realize that predators don’t hang out in the vicinity and that people aren’t a threat, so they’ve made the place into a wild animal park run by the animals.
In non-lodge news, we drove across the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater and down into Olduvai Gorge to see where the earliest hominid fossils were discovered. Bones are still washing up there after the rainy season each year, as we quickly discovered when looking through rocks in the wash. Strangely, the highlight of Olduvai was the birds on its rim, which were oddly tolerant, numerous, and amazingly colorful. From Olduvai we then did an off-road safari for about five hours, which was a massive amount of bouncy fun standing in the back of the pop-top safari vehicles scanning for animals. A more mature man would not have made a game out of trying to find more animals than the driver, but I am not such a man and came away with the first hyena sighting of the trip as well as a bunch of other finds. Gazelle were so abundant that we quickly got to the point where they didn’t merit a stop, giraffe and ostrich were also numerous, and a bunch of other critters made an appearance as we rocked and rolled over the terrain.
At one point during the drive a call came in that another jeep had become stuck in a collapsed aardvark den, so we went to their rescue and helped winch them out. Writing about helping to extract a vehicle stuck in an aardvark den is a subject that I never in a million years would have imagined would be a part of this journal, and I feel unimaginably lucky to have been able to put it into words. Tomorrow is another day and another adventure.
I think I saw 80% of the cast of the Lion King today. I won’t do the full species rundown, because that would take forever and be the most boring journal entry ever, but there were wildebeests and hippos and gazelles and zebras and giraffes and baboons and monkeys and cranes and storks and hornbills and vastly more. No big cats or elephants, but for the first day of the safari this was a hell of a start. The experience was straight out of a National Geographic special, with all manner of species in huge numbers mixed-up together and going about their business – we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of yellow-billed storks mixed in with pelicans, zebras, hippos, impala and other critters in just one corner of the lake. Side note, but the sound of hippos lazing about is a deep rumbling noise that anyone hearing would be able to immediately identify as having come from Africa – hippos are clearly badass.
Lake Manyara is just at the edge of the rift valley, and tomorrow we’re off to the top of Ngorongoro Crater, down to Olduvai Gorge, and onto the Serengeti proper. Today’s park is supposedly just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m already in full-on amazement mode. More, please.
Day two of the African adventure – the full safari starts tomorrow, and in the interim I got to enjoy the second day at Lake Duluti with a morning walk around the lake and then plenty of time to enjoy the sprawling lodge grounds. My first animal attack of Africa occurred on the walk – it rained a little last night, so a colony of red ants was flooded out of their home and covered a fifty foot section of the trail; despite running through it I had a dozen defenders doing their job on my legs. Africa 1, Ryan 0.
In the afternoon a troop of two adult and three young monkeys came through where the lodge is located, and as opposed to yesterday’s distant views these guys were fearless and were at times only a couple of feet away. Monitor lizards and more types of birds than I can count made up the rest of the day’s wildlife sightings, and another bushbaby made a fleeting appearance at dusk.
I can’t wait for phase two of this African odyssey – if the grounds around a lodge and a tiny lake reserve can produce so much, I can’t fathom what the wide open spaces of the Serengeti will yield.
I’M IN AFRICA !!!!!
I woke up this morning at Kia Lodge, went outside, and looked out on Mount Kilimanjaro dominating the skyline; I bet my Tuesday morning beats your Tuesday morning. Kia Lodge is actually adjacent to the airport, but it was still filled with all manner of birds in its sprawling gardens, including hornbills and amazingly-colored bee eaters. At 10 AM it was off to our home for the next two nights, Lake Duluti Lodge, which is a luxury lodge on the edge of a national reserve. The route there was Africa like you see it in movies – people herding cattle, people balancing massive loads of goods on their heads, and a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore in most western countries. There was definitely no mistaking the feeling of being very far from home.
Lake Duluti is the meeting spot for everyone joining the Cheesemans trip, and while it isn’t as iconic as the places we will be visiting, it is nevertheless a great introduction to Africa. I took a walk with a guide and one other trip participant around the lake, seeing huge monitor lizards and all manner of strange birds, and even getting a look at my first monkeys in Africa – a troop of perhaps six blue monkeys slowly made their way across the canopy towards us as the light was fading.
So far my happiness level is quite high – Africa is going to be an amazing experience. And a random side note, but apparently “hakuna matata” isn’t just a catchy phrase from a Disney film, but is a common Swahili expression that you hear all the time. The people I’ve met here have been extraordinarily friendly and genuine, and “hakuna matata” is inevitably their response whenever I apologize for a late flight arrival, asking for something at a meal, or any other little thing. Given the tough living conditions you might think “no worries” would not be such a common refrain, so it’s perhaps a lesson to learn and take home for application in the much easier world that I come from.
Update: on the way to dinner a nocturnal bushbaby was in the path – sort of like a lemur, and about the size of a cat. After dinner I went searching for him again, and found him scrambling through the trees and leaping 20 feet between branches. It was a sight that I don’t think has any comparison in America. This is going to be an awesome trip.