Just prior to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2007, I met up with 2 of our expedition team, Sharon and Narelle, (whom I didn't previously know) to go on Safari and to Zanzibar first. Nothing like snorkelling at sea level to prepare for a high altitude climb - oops!
I'll put our crazy overnight train trip from Nairobi to Mombasa, plus our stay on Zanzibar - in a separate blog.
For now, it's safari time! We had only been in contact via email until this point -
(being a charity climb, we had to get to know each other a little)...
but there was no social media or smart phones back in those days.
(How far we've come in such a short time.)
Anyway, after a couple of days travel to get there, I'll pick up my story as we headed out towards the Ngorongoro Crater.
This is straight from my journal, written pretty much daily whilst we travelled along.
We had an absolute blast!
We left the Tanzanian town of Arusha via the Albatross office, where we were to store our excess bags, as we didn't need our mountain climbing gear, just our stuff for safari, and the island life on Zanzibar. We'll be back to Arusha, the night before we start our climb.
But before we could get out of town, we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam. Here? What?
Turns out the yearly 1000km car rally was coming through town, and everyone from miles around had come to witness the mad spectacle of brightly coloured jeeps and cars come flying through, some barely missing people as they took the corners flat strap.
It was quite the scene.
All kinds of locals, and Maasai all kitted out in their native dress and wrapped in their brightly coloured blankets (sukas), cheering and screaming as the vehicles raced by.
Not what we were expecting at all, but so much fun to witness as our first taste
of Africa and it's people.
After stopping at a tiny local shop for the essentials, water and wine, hehe, and after getting somewhat ripped off...we were on our 4 hour way (with stops) to the Ngorongoro Crater. The landscape was extremely dry and dusty, but apparently normal for this time of year - the dry season.
We were fascinated watching the Maasai along the roadside, with their herds of cows, goats and donkeys. Some of the herdsman were as young as 4 or 5 years old.
Driving through little townships, we were as much of a fascination to the locals, as they were to us, even though most of the traffic was made up of Landcruiser troopies carrying safari passengers, just like us.
If you stop, you inevitably were hit on by kids asking for pens, or lollies, and locals trying to sell you goods.
Our cook, Husseini, purchased a hand of bananas from one such trader (drive thru, Africa style), which we proceeded to enjoy as we drove along. We stopped for lunch at a venue that had all the usual Maasai souvenirs; blankets, carvings, beaded jewellery, paintings etc, and as I really wanted a Maasai blanket, I started bargaining with the trader, much to the delight and amusement of Sharon and Narelle, as well as our guide, Mungure.
I ended up getting the blanket down from $40 to 25, and the large beaded traditional circular Maasai neckpiece down from $40 to 20.
(All currency is in US dollars.)
It was fun.
I love haggling!
We continued our journey, now climbing towards the highlands of the crater; the vegetation becoming much more lush as there was plenty of water from natural springs.
As we ascended through the jungles, I was just in heaven looking through the canopy in search of monkeys.
Arriving at the Ngorongoro National Park entrance we were met by our first African wildlife - Baboons!
We parked the car and grabbed our cameras, like the total tourists we are, and, with the advise of our guide, kept our distance as we snapped away.
That is...until doofus me started filming a baby, which was all ok - for, a moment, until it started coming at me and I suddenly found myself between him and his Mum and Dad.
Think I may have squealed more than a little as I ran backwards out of that one!
Welcome to the jungle!
Through the gates we went towards the campsite, where we were to drop off our cook, Husseini, before descending later into the crater below for an afternoon game drive.
Here, by the camp, we saw our first zebra, just checking us out as we cruised past, and later, whilst wandering around the campsite we were amazed to come across a lone bull elephant, with enormous tusks, just grazing 50 metres from the tents.
This was the first of the OMG moments that were to pepper the rest of the afternoon.
We headed down towards the crater, now passing loads of zebras, plenty of beautiful Maasai, always adorned in their bright clothing - but one amused me as he had his spear in one hand, and mobile phone in the other. The old and the new.
Our driver, Mungure, got out at the gate, to, I assume, hand in his paperwork and pay the park entrance fee, and the moment he was out of sight we were bombarded by Maasai with all their hands through the windows,
trying to sell us jewellery.
It was so funny.
We haggled with them for a few necklaces which I got them down to $5,
as long as he stood for a photo.
It was a priceless moment, and I actually yelled out to Mungure;
"Help...hurry! This is costing us bucks!"
The Maasai disappeared like a fart in the wind, the moment they saw
Mungure coming back. Next time we'll make sure our windows were up!
This is an ancient extinct volcano, now a caldera (an inwardly collapsed volcano) that was 3 times higher back in prehistory, and when it blew it created the fertile Serengeti.
We drove cautiously down the steepest and rockiest of 4WD tracks, real 'world's worst roads' kind of stuff, as we descended the steep 2000 feet crater wall.
It was incredible looking down onto the vast plains of the crater floor - wetlands, forest, grasslands - just the whole Animal Planet moment.
Once down on the floor, our mouths were gaping as we drove past hordes of animals, all content in their natural environment. Not sure if I'll ever want to go to a zoo ever again.
There were loads of safari 4WD's, but the dirt tracks were all pretty smooth, and people just tended to cruise slowly, searching for various wildlife, and enjoying the privilege of being there.
Mungure popped the roof off, and we stood up photographing, videoing, having the time of our lives, and pinching ourselves constantly at the
dream we were living.
The animal life was prolific here; gazelle, warthog, zebra, jackal, hyena, flamingo, hippo, (with just their eyes and nostrils out of the water), wildebeest and cape buffalo.
These buffalos are mainly outcast older males, banded together to spend the rest of their days as they age. No ladies anymore - no wonder they're cranky, and considered the most dangerous of the Big Five - the other 4 being;
lion, rhino, elephant and leopard.
Just then our guide 'spotted' a cheetah laying in the grass.
(You got the dad joke there I hope, hehe).
Quite the treat!
I had to use the full zoom on the camera as he was still a fair way off,
but proof we saw one all the same. I hope there's more, I love the big cats!
We motored on, now passing herds of zebras and wildebeest moving from one waterhole/swamp to another. We were now on the lookout for the elusive predators.
The best way to find them is to look for five or six 4WD's parked in the one spot with everyone looking through binoculars in the one direction...
We drove towards the hippo pool, but alas, no hippos in this one... but wait, hold the phone, just beyond the brush, Mungure spotted (he has an extraordinary knack of finding a needle in a haystack here) a lion this time! We looked through the binoculars and not only saw the lioness, but saw that she was munching on a zebra carcass.
Next OMG moment! To the left of her, we saw the male, relaxing, rolling with a cub playing at his feet. They've already eaten, and mum, the hunter, gets the scraps!
Wow, what a family scene, so Attenborough.
We watched enthralled, for about 10 minutes before moving on, always reluctantly - I could watch these cats all day! What I did notice was the complete absence of sound.
When our engine was turned off, you heard nothing. Not even the trill of insects.
Just a gentle breeze sometimes moving
through the savannah grasses.
On the move again, this time with Mungure listening to all the jabber on the two way - guides all letting each other know where the action was. Kind of like fishing boats looking for the best spot. But here they are happy to share!
We all got super excited when the talk over the radio was that there was a rare black rhino around!
So we high tailed it across the crater floor, and we weren't the only ones - everyone was heading there, with dust pluming in all directions. There were already quite a few cars in situ, waiting, watching.
And sure enough, there he was, in all his glory! At this point, he was about 500 metres away, but walking towards us.
By now, all the 4WD's had stopped, kind of like whale watching, and
every car had left a good space between each other to allow safe passage of this living, walking relic of the dinosaurs. That's a good thing.
Imagine if you were in his way? Crikey.
We had our fingers crossed that he might come pretty close to us, and yep, the Universe was answering our requests, and he walked in front of the car 2 ahead of us.
I was happy with that. Think I may have soiled myself if he walked right past the front of our car, because, as it happened, once he had walked between the cars, he quickly spun around in a cloud of dust, and kind of balked a charge. Shite! It was fabulous!
He was just stamping his authority, and then happy to turn and keep walking on.
There are only 16 rhinos left here in the crater, and Mungure said we were very lucky as the last 10 visits he had done here, they never saw one.
Certainly was our lucky day.
Time was escaping us now, so we started to head for the track back up the cliffs, as we had to be out of the park by 6pm, all the while still searching for more wildlife. Driving through a grove of giant acacia trees we saw our only two elephants for the day. It was a classic African setting.
As we cruised through the forest, we kept peering up into the trees, searching for the most elusive of the Big 5 - the leopard.
But he was true to his reputation, and eluded us too. But a great effort, seeing 4 of the 5 on our first game drive.
Maybe tomorrow on The Serengeti, we'll have more luck with that, also to see giraffe, as there are no giraffe in the crater due to the lack of the trees they eat.
I think the animals that live in the crater are pretty much indigenous to it.
They are totally contained by the cliffs. They live, breed and die there. A happy existence, when man doesn't interfere.
We just observe.
Driving back up the cliffs, we encountered the pretty little vervet monkeys...their little faces are so perfect and it's like they have a mono-brow.
Also a large troop of baboons. These, as I found out early, you give space to. They can attack leopards!
Back to our campground on the rim of the crater.
Husseini had pitched our tents - look how cute they are.
Our homes, in different locations, over the next few days. No 'glamping here', this is the real deal. Mungure and Husseini are sharing, Sharon and I are too, Narelle gets her own.
We washed our face and hands (Safari shower), donned some warm clothes, beanies etc, and went to the communal eating room where all the safari campers and their guides share dinner. Well, I'm sure some groups don't include their guide, but ours, Mungure, is a lovely guy and so knowledgable, we wouldn't think of him sitting alone. We enjoyed a really delicious leek soup followed by a curry and rice dinner.
Mungure educated us all about the history of the Maasai, we shared a bottle of South African (Robertson's) Sauvignon Blanc, and reflected upon one of the most amazing days in our lives!!!
The golden sun setting behind the cliffs was a fitting end to a fantastic day.
Pre-dawn...had to get the horrible business of
'squatting over a filthy hole in the ground' out of the way.
Particularly best before everyone else... you can imagine.
Ugh. Not the most favourite part of the trip.
Not quite light yet and the campsite looked beautiful yet eerie with all the little dome tents shrouded in fog, with torchlight flickering through.
After breakfast, Sharon and I decided to sit at the base of the only tree on the campground, to write up our journals, only for me to jump up within minutes screaming "Ants in my pants!!!"
I raced to the squalid toilet so I could drop my drawers - I had ants EVERYwhere!
Once I had thought I had brushed them all off, I went back and asked Narelle to check my back. Apparently I still had them all over my jacket, inside as well, and all through my hair! Thank goodness they weren't African Army Ants!
I couldn't believe I didn't get bitten once.
We eventually packed up and headed for our journey to the Serengeti, but not before we called into a Maasai Village for some culture, and to spend some money - $50 per car to visit. For that, we could enter their village and go inside one of their mud huts and importantly, have permission to take their photos.
Upon arrival at the village, Mungure did some negotiations and we were then greeted at the entrance by men singing and jumping, whilst the women on the side chorused in singing too.
They looked so fantastic in their bright coloured Maasai blankets and all their beaded jewellery.
We were then escorted into their village, which was a circle of pointed topped sticks with huts around the perimeter, and an 'inner night yard' of sticks for their herd.
They had loads of beaded jewellery and Maasai artefacts for sale; they were totally all over us actually, but we all eventually walked away with some trinkets, feeling we had bargained ourselves a good deal when in fact we were probably a little ripped off. I don't care. I'd rather have the memory of buying stuff from a real Maasai village than from a souvenir shop at the airport.
After all the final monetary negotiations were complete, we were invited inside one of the mud huts to see their set up.
Very low and crouchy inside, with a couple of small divided sections only just big enough for a man, woman and a few (?) small children. (The men have many wives.) There was a small fire in the middle, kind of like how a teepee is set up, and it was lovely and warm as it was freezing outside.
I asked if I could take a photo behind me, as I could hear a couple little kids' voices. I couldn't see them in the dark, and I probably scared the crap out of them with the flash, but here is the beautiful family sitting just behind me...
After giving the Maasai teacher some packets of coloured pencils and click pens (they love click pens over here - they often trade them),
we were on our way.
One more stop, then it's the Serengeti National Park!
Simple things like pens/pencils, and paper, even rubber bands, are much appreciated. We had brought a lot with us, as part of this charity climb, as we will be visiting various schools and slums later.
Kwaheri, 'goodbye', and we left.
Heading out of the crater we saw our first giraffes, but alas, they were a long way off in the distance, boo hoo...I love giraffes, and I can't wait to see them, hopefully up close.
It was a really bumpy and uncomfortable dirt road, for hours, which personally reminded me of those 'ass-pounding' canoe trips we experienced on the Soloman Islands many years ago!
Our second stop for the day was 'Oldevai Gorge' - the site where they found the first fossilised man - 3 million years old! This is where man first started, quite amazing to think really.
So after a very educational lecture, we headed over to the ladies toilet to go before getting back in the 4WD, but it was another filthy squat hole and the smell was that vile I couldn't go in. Looks like I'll be crossing my legs until we get to the next stop, and crossing the fingers for hopefully a flushing loo!
Enroute now, to the Visitor's Centre (toilet?) at the entrance to the Serengeti, we realised (well our driver and co-pilot did), that the reason why the ride was even bumpier than usual, was that we had snapped a spring.
These dirt roads are so hard on cars. We still drove on, albeit a little slower now, and finally made it to the Centre in one piece, where we had an extended lunch break whilst the boys donned overalls, popped on the mechanic's hat so to speak, and replaced the spring. You definitely have to be self sufficient out here.
Thank goodness we weren't in the middle of nowhere in the heat and dust.
We bought the boys some cold drinks, and I couldn't resist a homage to the old movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy". Definitely shows my vintage. ;)
Copping a squat on a rock - oh no - not THAT kind of squat...a sit down...haha,
we shared our picnic lunch with some friendly locals.
A gorgeous little bird, a 'Superb Starling' who invited all his friends, and a pretty pink and blue lizard, which, funnily enough when I ask Mugure what it was called, he said it's called a Pink and Blue Lizard!
Priceless. Not complicated over here.
And dooooown the road we go. 'Serengeti is Swahili for 'endless plain'. Go figure.
This is where the action's going to be!
The crater was awesome, don't get me wrong, but we are all hoping to see some big cat action now. Oh, and my beloved giraffes, please, at sunset, if possible...:)
It wasn't long before we caught up to a few land cruisers all parked together. Bingo!
Now, what are they looking at?
Sure enough, there were 2 glorious cheetahs, sitting on a mound right next to the road,
as if they were posing.
They didn't wait for us to get there with our cameras...bugger, they walked off just as we arrived. However, they did walk right behind our car. This was the first of what was to be many 'animal crossings', using the 'zebra crossing analogy for what ever animal was there. And yes, we got the proverbial zebra crossing too, oh, and an ostrich. :)