Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day 1: Arusha

We’re off on the trip of a lifetime; a safari in Africa. Our party will include my parents, George and Carol, my sister Julie, her husband Jim, their two daughters Anna and Sophie, my two children, Zak and Maya, and myself. A few years ago my father began expressing some interest in going on a safari. The rest of us figured, why not and, if why not, why not now? We debated on East Africa as opposed to South Africa and decided on Tanzania in the hopes that we would find more natural scenic beauty, in addition to animals, than in South Africa (we weren’t disappointed). At that point we found a tour guide: The East African Safari and Touring Company and booked some flights. The tour company and we decided on an itinerary consisting of the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, and the Tarangire National Parks (again, no disappointment; in fact, after talking to others while in Africa, we would highly recommend this itinerary to anyone who might be interested). This is a journal/blog of that trip. This is primarily intended as a record for us of our travels but you are welcome to read along if you like, feedback is appreciated.

Our flight took us from San Diego to Atlanta and from there to Amsterdam where we would meet up with the Minnesota contingent (my sister' s family and our parents) for the final leg from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro International Airport. The KLM flight was so pleasant I might book my next flight to Minnesota through Amsterdam. We arrived in Tanzania in the late evening (midday in San Diego) and we all made it through the visa and customs smoothly before meeting our guides Ezekiel and Bone. We were loaded onto two Land Rovers of indeterminate age. The vehicles were a bit more rugged and seasoned (read "beat up") than many of the other safari vehicles we would encounter on safari but they proved to be extremely functional on the rough African roads. The vehicles resembled mechanical rhinoceri from which, I understand, they derive their nickname. Nevertheless, the African roads took their toll. By the end of the first week, we had blown two tires and could no longer open the back doors on one of the vehicles. The rim on one of the spares was so beat up the tire could no longer hold air. Grandpa joked to the staff at the Boundary Hill Lodge, much to their amusement, that the dents in the rim were the result of actual rhinos ramming into the back of the vehicle.

From the airport, we drive to Arusha. This is the second largest city in Tanzania and ground zero for its burgeoning travel safari industry. The road to Arusha was lined with small shops and stalls, much like every less-developed-country I've ever seen. One highlight was a stop at a gas station so Anna could make a potty stop. This was Anna’s first time out of the U.S. and she was a bit shocked by the squat/pit toilet but apparently need overcame prissiness and business was accomplished. One interesting aspect of travel is the necessity of adapting to how other people deal with bodily functions such as eating, drinking, etc. The dirt road off of the main road to our hotel, the Ilboru Safari Lodge, was in pretty tough shape. We passed a truck with loudspeakers inviting the locals to some kind of Christian religious gathering and passed a couple of lodges that looked a bit dodgy but ours turned out to be super nice. The guest rooms each occupied one-half of a traditional circular building, the common facilities looked nice, and we had some nice food and drink before heading to off to our mosquito net covered beds on our first night in Africa.

Day 2: Arusha to the Ngorongoro Crater

After a great breakfast at the Ilboru and an opportunity to practice my Swahili with the waitress (who was, no doubt, quite impressed with my language prowess). We stopped and changed money and hit a small market next door. Arusha was crowded and bustling.

After meeting with Simon (our tour operator) and stocking up on some basic supplies, we were off to the Ngorongoro Crater, our first National Park destination. As we drove through town we found the streets of Arusha bustling with motos and buses and land rovers and men pulling two-wheeled wooden carts. The sides of the roads were filled with people working, selling goods, and just hanging out. The drive to the Ngorongoro passed through many small towns and over many massive speed bumps, some combination of which cost us one tire on the way. Along the way we passed many Maasai villages consisting of small round thatched huts. The Maasai are a regal looking people who subsist largely on their cattle. The staple food is a combination of cow’s milk and blood, drawn from a nick on the jugular of a cow. Their society is structured by age group. Every 15 years all who have reached puberty since the last initiation go through the process. Any male who cries out during the five minute circumcision process (no anesthesia is used) is ridiculed as a coward and his parents are spat upon for raising one. Girls may marry after going through the ceremony but males must wait until the next group is initiated. Out of wedlock and extra-marital relations are condoned and any children resulting are raised by the husband for whom many children (and many cattle) are a source of wealth and pride. polygamy is practiced. We saw one large complex, with its own school, for one wealthy witch doctor and (supposedly) his 50 wives.

The Ngorongoro Crater was spectacular! From the first view of the crater until the time we left the floor, the sheer volume and proximity of wildlife in front of the magnificent backdrop of the crater walls was simply amazing. As we entered onto the valley floor we were literally surrounded by scores of zebra and wildebeest. Interspersed among those were warthogs, hyenas, crowned cranes, ostriches, bustards (the world's heaviest flying bird), while flamingoes waded in the shallow lake nearby. We also saw a golden jackal, five lions, a cheetah, a hippo, an elephant, and even a black rhino. Spectacular. We are staying at the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge which is quite nice itself. Each room has a view of the crater floor as do the dining room, the bar, and, of course, the observation deck. The review I read earlier mentioned the views and the somewhat utilitarian styling of the 1970s government structure. The former still impress and the latter have been pretty much eclipsed by the addition of glass discs, hip lamps, and mirror mosaics. After enjoying the view, we ate, played a little farkel (dice game), and hit the hay. We were all pretty beat but very satisfied.

Day 3: Ngorongoro to Serengeti

Zak was amped to get going this morning. He said he knew we were going to have a good day of game viewing and we did. We saw tons (literally) of animals including close ups of hippos, cheetahs, lions, and others. We even saw a female lion stalk and (unsuccesfully) charge a group of zebras and wildebeest. Around midday we left the Ngorongoro and headed West toward the Serengeti. The main road running East and West between Ngorongoro and the Serengeti is surreal. The distance is not all that great - it would be a short drive on a paved freeway – but we all spent enough time bouncing along in old land rovers over interminable washboard gravel to start considering the odds on the likelihood of shaking loose a filling. As we survey the lion colored grass stretching to the base of distant dark hills, we wear sunglasses, but more as a protection from worldly dust than heavenly sun. Out of necessity we cover our noses and mouths with bandanas but the windows remain open to let in the breeze and let out the dust which only seems to hang more thickly in the car when the windows are closed.

We travelled to the Seronera Valley area of the Serengeti. Everyone has heard of the Serengeti and for good reason; it was as spectacular as it was purported to be. The scenery was striking - broad grassy plains dotted with flat-topped "umbrella" acacias - and the concentration of animals is simply amazing. I expected to see many of the varieties we encountered - elephant, giraffe, cheetah, hyena, zebra, gazelle, and even two leopard - but I was surprised by how much we saw in a relatively small area. The most spectacular animals for me, from a sheer oddity perspective, are the ostrich and giraffe, followed closely by the starkly-striped zebra. Then, of course, one also has to consider the warthog, the elephant, the hippo, and the hyena. It's almost like Dr. Seuss was the artistic consultant for the animals of Africa. The most spectacular animal from the perspective of lithe beauty: the leopard.

We arrived at our tent accommodations on the Serengeti only to find them not quite up to what we were expecting. However, given the lack of alternative lodging, my mother and sister decided that, as long as they could have a warm shower, a decent bed, and we could play games in the dining tent at night, they would be OK. Their concerns were not without some justification. This is third-world Africa and we really were pushing the boundaries of their comfort levels. We guys were of the opinion that camping with beds and servants was just fine and the kids thought the whole experience was just great. The staff had their own cook tent nearby where they prepared wonderful meals over a small propane stove and baked bread and pizza in an old metal pot on the coals of a wood fire they kept going much of the time. We also had a waiter, Emanuel, who was unfailingly polite and smiling and was quick to provide whatever we needed.

As the sun was setting that first night on the Serengeti, from the door of our tent we were able to see a pride of baboons walking on the other side of the dry riverbed directly in front of us. They walked off single file from left to right and then all roosted in a single yellow-fever acacia, so named because this type of acacia grows near water and the early settlers attributed their illness to the jaundiced-barked trees rather than the mosquitoes that lived nearby. I joked with Anna about what reason the baboons might have for getting up off the ground and into the safety of the trees before nightfall - with the implication that maybe we should share their concern about what might come out at night - but she appeared to remain relatively unconcerned.

Day 4: Serengeti

We were pretty beat after the long, hot, dusty drive and, personally, I slept great in the fresh air; so much so that I missed out on many of the night noises save for the hoot of some hyenas against the background of crickets. A simple (new) foam mattress on a wrought iron sure bed beats a sleeping bag on the ground any day. I awoke just before dawn and listened as the birds greeted the sun in a variety of hoots and screams and whistles; nature's alarm clock. Soon after dawn we saw a herd of impala just running back and forth across the wash in front of the tents. They were wheeling and darting at full speed between and around the brush seemingly for the sheer joy of it. I suppose they need to stay fit; a fat and lazy herbivore is a dead and bloody herbivore. When Zak woke he spied a large column of big black ants that flowed toward the river wash splitting and rejoining paths as they passed around obstacles like water trickling inexorably along gravity's path. Even the ants are larger in both size and volume here. On the morning game drive, we saw a lioness pacing right near the road. They are such beautiful animals. As she looked off in the distance the black spots on the back of her ears were quite prominent. I speculated that the evolutionary advantage of the incongruous dark patches might be to help the cubs to follow her through the grass. Ezekiel (our guide) agreed and added that they also use the spots as a signal to coordinate the movements of other lions while they hunted as a group.

Soon thereafter we came across a hippo pool in which a couple was actively engaged in amorous activities. Actually all we could see was the male with half of his body out of the water. It was Maya who commented that it seemed unfair that the female was the one held underwater. However, the setting was beautiful. The sky was blue and studded with white fluffy clouds. The surrounding grass was green and the glassy water reflected both the sky and the trees. In addition to us tourists, a crocodile lay on the bank seemingly indifferent to the two-ton love nearby. A bit further down the road we parked next to a rock outcropping or “kopje” on top of which a male and female lion are perched. The male was standing almost as though he were posing. Ezekiel says that a male and female will leave the pride like this and go off by themselves in order to mate in some privacy except, of course,
for all of us tourists with our cameras. The spot was so picturesque, I was not the least surprised at their intentions. Or, perhaps I should congratulate the male for his prowess in choosing a setting to set the proper mood. There were even colorful butterflies fluttering by (Ezekiel says this is a sign of impending showers). As the lions moved to the other side of the outcropping (the male with his nose closely following the raised tail of the female, the old dog) we, and the other voyeuristic camera-toting tourists, dutifully followed them around to the other side of the rock. Perhaps the animals become so habituated to the land rovers simply because they have no other choice.

The word of the day seemed to be love and the impalas have a variation on the theme. One lucky male will take care of a large harem of females while a group of bachelors hang out nearby waiting for an opportunity with a female or perhaps even to challenge the male and take over the whole bevy of beauties for themselves. It all sounds a little stressful to me. I think I'll follow the lead of the dik diks and hang out exclusively with one mate for life. Ah, the beauty of true love.

Jim said this first morning game drive on the Serengeti was his favorite of the trip. He liked the big expanses of the plains. Carol said there were too many Thompson's gazelles (by which I'm sure she means she can't believe the massive numbers of gazelles on the plains).

That afternoon we went to the Retima Hippo Pool. Very beautiful. The sunlight was shimmering on the water as it splashed over the rocks behind the hippos while they splashed about leaping and frolicking (honest) in the afternoon sun. The resonant grunts and calls were otherworldly and the hippos themselves certainly need to be considered contenders for the animal oddity category. With their bulbous eyes, nostrils perched on stalks on the top of their snouts, and curled ears that swivel back and forth, Julie says she can't decide if they are cute or ugly. George worked on perfecting his hippo call which he would occasionally use throughout the remainder of our trip on safari, much to the delight of Ezekiel our guide.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Day 5: Serengeti

We were awoken in the middle of the night last night by hooting, screaming, and squealing from across the river. George's theory was that this was a not uncommon case of a domestic dispute; probably teens that come home past their curfew from the dance or the party and were catching heck from their Dad. However, in this instance it wasn't local high school miscreants out with Dad's car but wild baboons in the heart of the Serengeti. My tent may not have all the promised accoutrement, but this has been a wonderful experience getting a perspective on nature I never would have gotten had we been sleeping in more luxurious accommodations.

This morning Zak got me up to see - silhouetted against the dawn in their acacia tree across the river - the troop of baboons we had heard the night before. They were waking and stirring, warming themselves by leaping from branch to branch in the early light before heading down to ground level once the sun was fully up. The transition to the ground was punctuated by two large baboons chasing a smaller animal who ran away screaming loudly; perhaps he was the adolescent who had caused so much disruption the night before and the parents were getting in one final lick.

We are driving back East from the Serengeti and we just visited the Olduvai (or as the docent stressed Oldupai) Gorge; very interesting. The girls have been making up nicknames for all of the members of our party and grandpa is now known as Oldupai George. On the drive West, Oldupai George made the mistake of riding in the rear right (driver side) seat of Bone's old green Land Rover. We later learned this was the roughest seat in either vehicle so we made sure the folks were in the other vehicle on the return trip and we put the little girls in the back. They couldn't have cared less and spent much of their travel time trying to sleep on top of each other in various positions. On my and Anna's side of the car on the return (the passenger side which is on the left here) we see a line of six giraffes moving sedately over the plain. To pass the time we are in competition with George and Zak for which side of the car passes prettier animals. Repeatedly gazelles dart in front of the car from the right to the left, no doubt in order to bolster Anna's and my pretty animal tally. Occasionally the scenery is punctuated by a colorfully-robed Maasai striding along purposefully toward some destination. They are a striking people made more so by their purple or red wraps and ornate beads and silver earrings. They have long muscled blue-black limbs and shorn heads. The men carry long sticks and the women are often in the company of children. Today we pass a number of young males whose faces are partially covered by white beaded masks indicating their status as recent initiates into manhood.