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. :)
Moving on, we encountered more of the usual safari animals we had become accustomed to seeing; zebra, gazelle, hartebeest, topi, and cute little dik-dik's.
Once again, we spotted a group of land cruisers up ahead, all parked by a large shady tree and straight away Mungure said "leopard"!! Wooohoo!
The last of the Big 5 for us to see, and we're only on day 2. Awesome!
It was lying along a branch of one of the large 'African Sausage trees'. He was probably about 80 metres away, but a real treat all the same, as they can be near impossible to find as they are very elusive and mainly nocturnal.
Not the best photo, but a treasured experience all the same.
Passing more glorious animals in their natural habitat, some quite far away, like a herd of elephants and some hippos in the creek.
We smelt those before we saw them!
Plenty of gorgeous birds, none of the likes I've ever seen before,
and a cute little jackal.
The sun began setting in the sky, and it produced one of the most spectacular sunsets I had ever seen. It really is a giant red ball in the African safari sky.
What an incredible end to a spectacular game drive.
Arriving at camp we are warned first NOT to wander off the perimeter - we have no fences, and there are lions nearby.
We washed our face and hands, still no showers, and the African dust that has settled on our insect lotion/sunscreened skin is starting to give us what I call the 'Serengeti suntan!' The effort required over the hole in the floor toilets is now known as the 'Serengeti Squat' - this also applies when we have to stop the Landcruiser during a game drive, where we have to drop our drawers quickly and 'mark our territory' before the lions cop a whiff and come stalking!
We enjoyed yet again some incredible soup, thanks Husseini, zucchini this time, followed by...I can't remember...Oh, yes, pasta! Off to bed after a teeth brush and spit on the ground, retiring to listen to the sounds of the Serengeti.
A fairly sleepless night, but for an excellent reason. Narelle had heard, (back in Australia), that on this particular date, August 13, there was going to be meteor shower: 'The Persaids Meteor Shower', somewhere in the world,
between 3-5am. Apparently this is an annual astronomical event, I had just never heard of it.
So upon retiring last night, we said that we'd set our alarms, and peak out at that time and see if anything was happening.
Come 4am, it was time - but it was so cold, that it was a huge effort to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag, so I said to Sharon,
"I'll look, and if don't see anything, I'm going back to sleep." Well - the moment I looked out, I saw a shooting star. Ok, maybe that was a coincidence I thought, until I saw another one moments later. "Ok Sharon, up you get, let's check this out."
Zip, zip, and we were standing in the pitch black, next to Narelle, who had been up for a while, enjoying the most astronomical feast of shooting stars you could ever imagine, all the while we were also listening to lions and hyenas in the not so distant grassland.
Being on the Serengeti, we had a 360 deg view, horizon to horizon, with nothing to interfere, and certainly zilch light pollution. Could we have been in a more perfect place? I think not.
With our heads spinning in each direction, all we kept saying was
"Ooh, there's one! There's another! OMG, that one is huge!" I thought afterwards, that if anyone was lying in their tents listening to us gasp in awe, they probably would be to chicken to poke their heads out,
maybe thinking we were talking about predators instead!
Apparently hyenas trashed our garbage bins overnight anyway.
We must have seen a hundred shooting stars
striping across the sky in all different directions, for over an hour.
It was a true life highlight.
So is the next thing coming up... although 'highlight' may not be the
operable word. More like 'unique'?
Still dark, and as it had been a while now star gazing, we all agreed we needed to pee, so armed with our head torches on, off we wandered over to the edge of the camp where the toilet was. The edge of the camp, is a scary place in the dark. We could see many sets of eyes of different colours, all reflecting in our torch light just in the grassland nearby. They were running from side to side, all the while,
never taking their eyes off us. The toilet was one room, with an actual bench and a toilet seat and lid which for out here, was pure luxury!
Sharon was busting so she went first, and Narelle and I stood guard out the front. The eyes were getting closer. We were just about to knock on the door to hurry her up, when suddenly the door flew open and Sharon came running out, luckily her pants were up, and she was screaming "BATS!!!" Sharon had lifted the lid, and about to sit down, when, from the bowels of the 'long drop' a whole colony of tiny bats flew out, straight at her, and her light!
They came out at us, attracted or fearful of the torchlights, it was hard to say. All we could think of was rabies, combined with dysentery as they fluttered around our heads and flailing arms! O M G!
That's a first!
And hopefully a last. ;)
But hey, we still needed to go, so once they had cleared, the toilet was bat free, and no squatting! We continued to stand guard outside for each other, as the predators were still out there watching us - what an experience!
*Now, back in Australia we're used to redback spiders under the seats of outside dunnies, but to have bats fly out from the depths of a stinking shithole (literally) is a whole new experience!
What a start for the day!
Seeing we were up anyway, Mungure suggested we head off, before breakfast, so we could enjoy a game drive at dawn- a good time to spot predators. "Elsa, where are you?" we asked, as were yet to have a good lion spotting. Ask, believe, receive.
Within a few minutes, not kidding, a lioness and her two small cubs crossed the road right in front of us - a lion crossing! It was just beautiful, still very early and low light, I couldn't get a good photo as I didn't want the flash to go off and frighten them. As we drove on, we saw a hyena in the grass, and as we were watching/filming - up popped 3 little heads - Pups!
By this time, the sun had started to breakthrough, and it looked as stunningly intense as a sunset.
We were wrapped up in our beanies and jackets as we stood up on our seats, looking over the roof. On we drove, always searching the surrounds for activity. Fresh elephant pooh was literally steaming in piles along the track in front of us, so we were cautiously expecting to encounter them anytime soon, although an 'elephant crossing' maybe a little freaky... Sure enough, up ahead, a cow, her calf and a huge bull elephant were in the trees right next to the track, just happily munching away.
Not far from the ele's, we encountered a heard of impala.
As we watched, we saw two young bucks having a bit of a tussle with their antlers. At first it looked fairly playful, then it really got full on. I videoed, and photographed what ended up being an incredible fight, something even Mungure said you'd spend years waiting to see. The sound was staggering as their antlers clashed, kind of like a sword fight, but more of a cracking sound. Sometimes you just get that killer shot.
I love this photo I took with the dust and the morning light.
One for the wall at home, with my Maasai memorabilia.
On we pressed towards our picnic breakfast stop - the hippo pool! We actually got to get out of the car this time, as there was a small 2 metre cliff where we could look down from. There were soooo many hippos, it was really cool. Nile crocodiles lined the river bank beside them -
another 'Attenborough' moment.
After posing for a few photos (can't believe we are actually out of the car for a change), we wandered back to the car to find Mungure had transformed the car bonnet by laying out an array of breakfast foods, all on a bright Maasai blanket.
Suddenly, Mungure had his ears pricked to a sound in the bushes, to which we asked "Um, what was that?"
"You're smiling, and we are out of the car?", we say...
Packing up, rather quickly, on we continued with our game drive.
Mungure drove us along the river system towards the grasslands, looking for predators - namely lion and cheetah. It wasn't long before we found a beautiful lioness, solo, sitting proudly on a mound only metres from the track. We stopped the truck and watched in awe. Mungure said she looked like she was hunting, as her mouth was open, tasting the air around her.
(Hopefully we were down wind...)
Suddenly she rose and walked right behind our car, completely oblivious to us, and headed stealthily towards two unsuspecting gazelles. We were spellbound.
She would take two steps; stop. Two steps; stop. The gazelles were cautiously alert, but still continued to graze, just popping their heads up between mouthfuls. Most grazers prefer short grass so they can see the cats...this grass was a little too long for their safety.
Creeping, creeping, through the perfectly camouflaged grass she went.
This by now had taken 8-10 minutes.
She was super patient.
We lost sight of her when she was close to them, so all we could do was watch the gazelle on the right, as that's where she was heading. Waiting, watching, waiting, watching.
It was incredibly exciting. Then POUNCE!!! She leapt high into the air, but missed, and the gazelle bounded away. She didn't give chase, perhaps not all that hungry after all.
Besides, I think when they chase they tend to do it in a group, and she was definitely all alone. Oh well, no lunch for the pride, perhaps they've already eaten. That gazelle lives to breathe another day. Maybe. We have been so lucky with our sightings, and to witness a hunt is pretty special indeed.
Driving around the bend we found some other cars parked, checking something out. Here we found the rest of the pride, lying under the trees, escaping the the now midday sun.
And yeay, finally we see a male, but he was lying flat out in the grass and a little too far away for a photo. Bummer, but happy to see a big boy all the same.
What a treat.
We were deep in lion country now, so we continued on, in our quest for more big cats. Sharon and I now searching, as the three of us are getting better at spotting the round tops of the ears in the grass...
Mungure was now on the lookout for our next stop - lunch.
Yes, it's been a few hours since breakfast by the hippos, and we were still picnic-ing on safari - so nice not to have to go back to camp for meals.