Tanzania Safari Journal, Part 3

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Blaze of color in the Serengeti

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Up until this point in the trip we had been traveling on mostly paved roads, except within the parks, and on our way from the paved road to each night’s lodging. From here, though, until we returned to Arusha eight days later, it was much rougher going.

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Herds of wildebeest and zebra alongside the road

When Steve and Terry planned our trip they looked at maps and checked distances between destinations. By US standards the distances looked short enough to cover fairly quickly. They hadn’t counted on unpaved, rutted roads, often less than two lanes wide. Nor had they realized how often we would all want to stop and gawk at (or photograph) yet another amazing sight. The road conditions were an issue, and not just for how long it took us to get from Point A and Point B.

For one thing, and the biggest reason we were in the Serengeti and other parks in the first place, there are millions of animals living there. The migration of the wildebeest and the zebra–what our guide called “lion and cheetah food”–is of vital importance to the health of the Rift Valley ecosystem. The prey animals migrate with the rainfall, and the predators in each region (which do not migrate, but rather tend to stay in their own territory) have dinner delivered. The grazing of each area is important, as is the availability of certain conditions and kinds of vegetation for the healthy propagation of each species.

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Warthog

We spent more than half of our time driving on gravel roads. When we questioned the parks’ decision to keep them that way, our guide asked us a question: Would we rather have good roads, or see animals in their natural habitat? Which is a serious question, and one now being debated in Tanzania. In fact, there was a piece the other day on the BBC News about this debate:  Roads in the Serengeti

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In the safari vehicle

The constant bouncing of the roads had sometimes hilarious and sometimes not so funny consequences. One of my first observations was that I should have brought a sports bra to wear, and Kim and I ended up holding travel pillows tightly to our chests to minimize the effects of the bouncing. Our safari vehicle had a useful wooden tray across the backs of the front seats where we could stow sunscreen, cameras, sunglasses, tissues, and other necessities. Except once we realized that the vibrations from the bouncing were having dire effects. My sunglasses were ruined by the scratches, and Kim’s camera, which she’d stowed screen-down, was very seriously damaged, as well, scuffed so badly that it was difficult to see through the viewfinder screen.

The other issue with the unpaved roads, because of the extreme dryness, was dust. Incredible amounts of dust. We were inside the vehicle nearly all day, except to make pit stops and for meals, but by the end of 10-12 hours of driving we were all completely covered in the stuff. At each new lodging we were greeted with wet washcloths and fresh juices. The first time I used the wet cloth I was astonished at how filthy my hands and face alone were. The safari guides/drivers mostly took care to pass slowly so as to minimize the dust they caused, but we soon learned to close windows at the approach of other vehicles. We also saw a lot of dust devils, and drove through several that were passing over us.

At first we all had reactions to the dust, but at one point I realized it wasn’t bothering me as much. I remarked to Kim that I thought we had come to a point of equalization: there was as much dust inside us as there was outside. And I’m not kidding about that. I’m absolutely sure I brought home at least a pound of African soil inside my body.

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Hippo tracks

Our next stop was Ang’Ata Camp, smack in the middle of the Serengeti. This is a temporary tent camp, meant to stay for a season or so, in order to minimize the impact on that fragile environment. Water is trucked in, and everything is very carefully used to avoid creating waste. We had the usual shower, toilet and washbasin at one end of our tent, with a privacy flap, but the water came from two forty-liter bags held aloft outside the tent. One was heated daily for our showers, which we desperately needed on this part of the trip because of the dust.

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Our tent at Ang’Ata Camp in the Serengeti

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Water bags outside our tent at Ang’Ata Camp. Rear of tent to the right.

On our first night at this camp I was awakened by the sound of snuffling right on the other side of the tent wall, and by something fairly large pushing against the tent. In the morning I asked about this, and was told there had been several hippos feeding on the green grass at the base of the rear of our tent, where the water from showers, etc. drained. Imagine, we were mere inches from these giant beasts. But since the tent flaps were closed we couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see us. Amazing. This was also the first place we heard lions calling at night, very near our camp.

I have to say this, though. Despite our very close proximity to wild animals, I was never frightened, not once. We were told to stay inside the tents, and we did, and we were also told to signal for an escort when we needed to leave the tent in the dark. Since it’s dark there from six at night to six in the morning, being so close to the equator, darkness is part of the experience. The guides were often Maasai warriors, and they were always vigilant on our behalf, guarding us through the night as well as guiding us back and forth in the camps. Much more worrisome were the tsetse flies, which were a pain in the butt. They are attracted to the colors blue and black, unfortunately, since I’d brought shirts and a jacket in those colors. Luckily, I was able to change on the first day I realized this; ordinarily I would not have had extra clothing with me in the vehicle.

That clothing meant to repel insects, by the way? They don’t work on tsetse flies. And neither does any kind of insect repellant. However, the bites were not as bad as expected. Horseflies and deerflies we have here in the States are worse, I think.

Because they are attracted to blue and black we could tell where they were by the tsetse fly flags we saw. These are impregnated with a chemical that somehow attaches to flies that land on the flags, and it sterilizes the male tsetse fly. Sleeping sickness has gone way, way down with this technology. Thank goodness.

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Tsetse fly flag near Ang’Ata Camp

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Relaxing at Ang’Ata Camp

The staff at this camp were incredibly welcoming, fun, and just the best hosts of our entire trip. They provided tasty, hot meals seemingly out of nowhere, and made sure we had hot coffee and hot water when we needed it. There were some German tourists staying there who had been there for a couple of weeks. We all envied them their lengthy stay, smack dab in the middle of this wonderful place, teeming with wildlife.

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Serengeti

On this part of the trip we began seeing lots of larger herds of zebra, wildebeest, and hippos at a pool. The animals tend to flock around the water, or they are on their way to water. We began seeing lions here, the first of which was a stalking lioness. Our guide pointed out a barely visible leopard and her cub, and we watched as it leapt up the trunk of a tree, climbed up to a high branch, laid down on it, and virtually disappeared.

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On our last evening in the central Serengeti, when it was getting close to dark and we were on our way back to camp, we stopped to watch a pair of lionesses. Our guide was sure they were stalking the zebras nearby, and he maneuvered our vehicle so we could all get a good look, and so the men could photograph the action. We watched for ten minutes or so, and then one of the lionesses leapt onto the neck of a carelessly close zebra, lightning quick, breaking its back and rolling it into a ditch, out of sight. It took no more than a couple of seconds. High drama.

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A hippo pool

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Steve in the backseat of the safari vehicle

Next part: we travel to the Northern Serengeti.

January 18, 2014. Tanzania Safari 2013. 6 comments.

Tanzania Safari Journal, Part 1

Gazelle and Cape Buffalo skulls

We began our two-week journey to Tanzania from our home in Cincinnati, where we took a plane to Boston, then changed to an overnight flight to Amsterdam. (The least said about trying to sleep on a crowded plane, the better.) After a too-short time in Holland–a country we both would like to see someday–we boarded one more plane for a nine-hour flight to Kilimanjaro Airport, outside of Arusha, Tanzania.

Arriving at Kilimanjaro after dark, we were met by our guide, Zepha Mofulu, and the operator of Flash Safaris, Magda Vrijs, who bundled us into the safari vehicle and whisked us off to Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge at the foot of Mount Meru, where we would stay the next two nights. Our companions, Kim and Terry from San Diego, had been there for 24 hours already, and they waited for us to arrive to have dinner.

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Foyer in lodge at Ngare Sero, near Arusha

The staff served us in a lovely dining room, starting with homemade soup, which we came to learn would be the beginning of every evening meal. Since Steve and I both love soup, that made us very happy. The meal was quite good, but we soon needed to drift to our room, as jetlag was taking hold, and we would need to be up early enough to have breakfast and get on the road to Arusha National Park with Zepha. Our room was lovely. We had a sitting room, bedroom, and an enormous bath, complete with private water closet, dressing room, and a huge tub. We didn’t have much time to enjoy it, or even take photos, since we pretty much crashed that first night.

The lodge has a lot of history. It was built in 1905, originally as a defensible homestead and outpost for the family of a German named August Leuer. He bought the property 20 years previously, when he originally went to East Africa as part of a military expedition. He grew coffee and other crops here, and developed an ingenious water turbine and other innovations, still in use today, which make the operation largely self-sustaining. You can find more information and photos on their website: Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge  The second owner of the lodge, Mike Leach, is still in residence, as are some members of his family. They are gracious hosts, willing to share information about the history of the place, the animals that live there, and the philosophy behind their sustainability policy. And they make darned fine coffee.

Ngare Sero Lodge, where we spent our first two nights in Tanzania

Ngare Sero

Beautiful fireplace at Ngare Sero Lodge

Veranda at Ngare Sero Lodge, overlooking pond area

One of the entry gates to Arusha National Park. Weaver nests in the acacia tree to the right.

Our first day of safari took us to Arusha National Park, one of the smallest of all the national parks in Tanzania, but home to some of its most colorful wildlife. We were fortunate enough to see a colony of colobus monkeys, high in trees above us, on a quiet road. We sat beneath them for quite awhile, watching as they tended each other. Kim is an aviculturist with the San Diego Sea World, and she was overjoyed to see the hundreds of thousands of flamingos in Lake Momella. The lake was, literally, rimmed with a solid line of pink from all the birds settled along the edges. Flamingos travel from lake to lake in search of food, and we were quite fortunate to catch them when they were here.

Masses of flamingoes in Momella Lake in Arusha National Park

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We saw a large number of baboons here, which are quite frankly an assault on the sense of smell. I could tell they were present by their musky odor during the entire trip. This area had the most of anyplace we visited, and we were able to see them quite close, as they were on both sides of our stopped vehicle. I took a bunch of closeups of one male baboon but it wasn’t until I looked at the photos here at home that I realized they were most definitely X-rated.

Troop of baboons crossing the road in front of our safari vehicle.

One of my favorite sightings of the whole trip was in this area, where we saw dozens of giraffes feeding, resting, and just standing around.  They are such amazing animals. Seeing them rise to their feet from a seated position, or lowering into one, fascinated me. Our guide told us they cannot let their heads go sideways, as their necks are not strong enough to lift them again. They eat mainly the leaves of acacia trees, stripping them from the thorny twigs with their black tongues.

Clearly, an especially tasty acacia tree.

There were lots more animals here, including zebras, Cape buffalo, warthogs and lots of birds, but I ended up coming down with something (which I later realized was a reaction to the anti-malarial drug we were taking) and could barely take it all in, let alone photograph them. We did see one of the most memorable birds of the whole trip here–among the more than 230 species of birds we saw in the 12 days–the cinnamon-chested bee-eater .  I could never get a photo of one, although Steve and Terry both did. We saw other species of bee-eaters, as well, including the little bee-eater, and the European bee-eater. Birdwatching in Tanzania was grand fun, and such a treat for the four of us; there are close to 1,400 species of birds there, and our guide was an avid birder who was brilliant at spotting new species for us. The weaver nests in the photo of the park gate above were just a tiny sampling of the thousands we saw. Tanzania has some forty species of weaver, each making a uniquely different type of nest, so nearly every type of terrain hosted at least one kind of weaver bird.

After two nights in Ngare Sero we piled into the vehicle and headed out for the drive to the Manyara National Park area. On the way we passed colorfully dressed Maasai people, including children as young as age six, herding cows, goats and donkeys. Some of the animals were quite close to the road, as were these goats. We could also see Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru along the way, looming above the plains in the great Rift Valley. The landscape changed here, from hilly, with red clay soil, to flat, dry and incredibly dusty.

Herd of goats on road to Manyara National Park in Tanzania

Herd of goats on road to Manyara National Park in Tanzania

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On the road between Arusha Town and Manyara National Park.

Our next stop, Kirirumu Manyara Lodge, where we would stay in our first tented camp.

Watch for Part II of our adventures, coming soon.

December 1, 2013. Tanzania Safari 2013. Leave a comment.