From the Serengeti to Masai Mara

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Masai Mara plain

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Masai Mara plain

Words fail me when I try to describe the scene we found in this part of the country. This is not a well-traveled road; most people traveling to the northern area of Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve, as we were, fly from Central Serengeti, bypassing the long, uncomfortable drive. But they miss this particular area, which has a wide diversity of wildlife. The wet areas draw masses of herds of elephants, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, and other species, each clustered together by type. It was truly breathtaking, and my pitiful photos do not do it justice.

It isn’t all that far from our last camp to the Masai Mara, only about a three-hour drive. But that is straight through, don’t-stop-to-look-at-the-wildlife kind of driving. Which we didn’t do once, not even when our guide, Zepha, insisted we needed to. Steve and Terry wanted to stop frequently to take photos, and really, who could blame them? The scenery and the close access to the animals was so compelling.

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Masai Mara plain

Our next destination, for the next two nights, was a permanent tented camp called Nomad Lamai. The northern part of the Serengeti is characterized by mounds of large round rocks, known as kopjes (pronounced “koppy”, meaning “little head”). Lamai is built into one of the larger kopjes, facing the Mara Valley, on the other side of which Kenya can be seen in the distance. The tents have three permanent walls, and the fourth wall, which overlooks the valley below, is made of tent screening. If you click on the link in this paragraph and look at the photos on their site, the room pictured is the one we had. It was fabulous, and well worth the drive there. I only wish we could have stayed there longer.

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The kopje where Nomad Lamai is built. Impossible to see from here.

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Leaving our beautiful permanent tent.

We dined under the stars, on a deck high above the valley, after our traditional “sundowner” drinks with other visitors from all over the world. After dinner we were escorted to our tents, up and down rocks and on steep steps, by Maasai armed with machetes.

That night we were awakened sometime after 3 or 4 AM by the very close sounds of lions grunting (they grunt more than they roar). Steve wanted to go out onto the balcony to see what was going on, but I convinced him to stay inside the tent. Luckily, he did. The next morning at breakfast we asked about the lions, and it turned out that five or six of them killed a hyena, less than 30 yards from our tent.

Our biggest reasons for driving almost as far north as we could get in Tanzania were twofold: to see the vast herds of wildebeest and zebra along the Mara River, and to find the elusive and rapidly vanishing rhinoceros. We succeeded in both goals.

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Female rhino and her earless calf

Zepha, as I’ve said before, is a phenomenal guide, and he has a sixth sense about animals and their behavior. He knew there was a female rhino with a calf, and he very patiently set about looking for her. We not only found her, but also, by being extremely quiet, got very close to them, well within photo range. The calf, because of a deformity due to the miniscule gene pool, had no ears. Kim and I were moved to tears at the sight of them, knowing that the calf might very well not survive to adulthood, and that the days of both of them were numbered. We’d already seen the border guards, who were trying to put a stop to the senseless poaching that was decimating the species, but they were fighting an uphill battle every day, and losing the war.

We also crossed the Mara River, watching herds of zebra and wildebeest thundering across, then panicking, turning direction, and running back at top speed. Which is why the crocodiles hang out there. They watch for skinny legs flailing above them, snap, and drag the hapless quadruped down into the water to drown. They wait for a few days until the body is good and ripe, and finally eat it then. The stench at the river was unbelievable. The vultures benefit from all this bounty, too; they clean up what the crocs leave.

A word about Lamai, in particular, but the lodges in general: at the time we were there I was experiencing a gluten sensitivity that gave me severe heartburn if I ate bread. Once Zepha realized this he let each of the camp chefs know, and from then on I had a special meal prepared for me at every destination. Not only that, but the gluten-free breads, especially at Lamai, were fabulous. I was so impressed. Tanzanians know how to be hospitable, and they are excellent cooks.

Also, I was always impressed that, in this extremely dusty country, we had snow-white linens in every camp, freshly laundered and pressed. I don’t know how they manage this feat, especially in a country with so little water.

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On our way to Ngorongoro Crater

Our next stop was Gibb’s Farm, a coffee plantation and hotel high on a hill near Ngorongoro Park. To get there by dinnertime we had to drive pretty much straight through all day long. However, the scenery on the way was again worth the drive.

Gibb’s Farm is a beautiful place, nearly paradise after being in tented camps, since we four had our own building, known as Deutsch House. There was a lovely shared living room with fireplace (which we asked to have lit one evening), with bedroom suites, complete with private outdoor showers, on either side. But the staff was not nearly as friendly as at other places we’d been, which was disappointing. It was also the place where we saw the most other Americans, possibly because of the lack of tents, and also the proximity to more popular areas of the Tanzanian tourist destinations, like Ngorongoro.

Steve and I were delighted to take a walk through Gibb’s gardens with Zepha, who pointed out many bird species to us, including some of the many species of sunbird, which are somewhat like our hummingbirds. Zepha says he is a farmer at heart, and finding that I enjoy growing my own food, we had a lovely time exploring the kitchen gardens there, too. In addition to growing their own coffee beans, Gibb’s also grows bananas, as well as most of the ingredients of their daily meals. The entire place is really a garden, and very lovely.

They also roast their own coffee beans, a demonstration of which I watched one morning. The process is labor-intensive when done this way, but I can attest to the mellowness of the roast. Most of the coffee we had in Tanzania was delicious, some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.

Ngorongoro Crater is vast, and filled with its own ecosystem of wildlife. Most of the animals in this area do not migrate elsewhere, since the crater is so deep. Small villages lie outside the rim, with lots of farming areas, making for a huge contrast on one side of the rim and the other.

Next: Our last stop, the Tarangire

June 24, 2016. Uncategorized.

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