Tanzania continued


On Monday morning, 9-29, we headed for another game drive at Lake Manyara.  In addition to the wildlife seen the previous afternoon, we spotted many “velvet monkeys” (black face, long tail, and bright blue “balls” on the males to attract the females! - Video), impala, scores of gazelle (the frisky little Thompson and the larger Grant gazelle), mongoose (banded and slender), Dik-diks (they mate for life), and many birds, incl. helmeted guinea fowl, ground hornbill, superb starling, African spoonbill and African fish eagle.

After lunch at the hotel, we headed out to our next stop – Ngorongoro Crater.  The two-lane “highway” is still under construction, so the drives are bumpy and dusty since the area is very dry this time of year ( Video).  Tanzania has a 3-year plan to have the main routes paved – but the only completed section in this area runs from Arusha to Lake Manyara .   Again, we passed many very  poor settlements without water or electricity – covered by dust kicked up from the roads.  Everywhere you see people walking or riding bicycles along the dirt roads, with women carrying incredibly heavy loads on their heads, including huge buckets of water.  Needless to say, we never saw an overweight person among the locals!

We arrived at the hotel – Ngorongoro Serena – in time to shower and dress for dinner.  Since we were staying for two nights, it was nice to finally have a chance to unpack and shake out our smashed clothing!… but we started to wonder why we brought bathing suits, etc…. since virtually no time was built into our tour schedule for relaxing!... The lodge was built into the side of the crater, covered with a stone camouflage that made it almost impossible to view from the surrounds. The rooms were furnished decorated in the native style, including hand painted murals on the walls.   In the lounge we met up with 8 Americans from Philadelphia, Delaware and D.C., who were returning from a trip from the Maasai Mara where they had witnessed the migration and “carnage” of the animals crossing the Mara river… wildebeest and zebra attacked by crocodiles and hippos as seen in National Geographic specials!   The reports of sights and smells did not entice yours truly… but Paul was fascinated!   He was also excited to meet the grandson of Baseball Hall of Famer, Eddie Collins.  We joined the group for dinner --- a wonderful evening!

Ngorongoro crater is “the planet’s largest unflooded caldera, or sunken volcano crater.  Formed a million years ago, the caldera floor is 105 square miles in size.  The next day was a full-day game drive with picnic lunch, where we were able to witness the huge variety of animals that are “residents” in this incredible crater… (These animals, as well as those met in the Lake Manyara region and some in the Serengeti, do not migrate, but stay in the local region.  They are free to roam out of the boundaries, but generally continue to populate their areas in “breeding herds”, “bachelor herds”, prides, troops, etc… or just as couples that mate for life!.)  In the Ngorongoro crater we first spotted a lone lion (possibly expelled from a pride) with his kill – and after he had his “fill”, the spotted hyena and jackals took over fighting for the rest – amazing!…  We also saw an incredible number of zebra ( Video), wildebeest (Video), cape buffalo, hartebeest (antelope that are the fastest runners) a serval cat, hippos, and lots more gazelles.  Birds spotted were kori bustard (heaviest flying bird in Africa), the crown crested crane (Uganda’s national bird – a beauty!), the black bellied bustard, golden weaver, black kite, black-headed heron, sacred ibis, cattle egrets, African jacana, black-winged stilt, flamingos (“greater and lesser”), vultures and ostrich!  This place is a bird-watcher’s paradise, but our binoculars were inadequate at times.  

After eight hours of game drives and a brief picnic lunch, we were ready to head back to the hotel.   Zablon was disappointed that we had not be able to spot the rare black rhinos that are only found in the crater (about 16 of them) – but we were delighted with the huge variety of animals spotted in this very full day, made special by his ability as a naturalist to give us ongoing lessons about the animal behaviors.  After a shower, dinner and the chore of re-packing, we collapsed for much needed sleep.

Wednesday, October 1st, we headed out right after breakfast for a long drive to the Serengeti, with two stops along the way.  The first was at Oldupai Gorge, the famous prehistoric site where Louis and Mary Leaky discovered a 1.7 million-year-old fossil skull believed to be “earliest man.”   The little museum and the views of the digs were interesting.   As we approached the Serengeti, we stopped at a Massai village where, for a fee ($50. per car!) we met with the chief, who has 10 wives, 44 children, and 22 grandchildren!  The Massai have wisely discovered the value of tourism, and many villages currently welcome visitors.   The women and young men both danced and sang for us (Video), then the chief took us and one of his wives into her “mud” hut home, which SHE made from sticks and grass, covered by a thick layer of cow dung, which dries solid for waterproofing.   It was so tiny that you couldn’t stand up, but we sat on the two beds (wooden frames covered with a cow hide) and talked before the small dying open fire used for cooking.  Then, of course, it was time to go “shopping” for some of the jewelry displayed around the village, before we ended our visit with a stop at the “kindergarten”, where the little ones counted in English for us.   It was a poignant experience.  These people have a proud history as herdsmen (you see them walking miles to take their cows and sheep for water twice a day).   They are happy and polite, and now it is mandated that the children go to school – quite a logistical problem!

Next stop – the central Serengeti, where our home for one night was the Serengeti Serena Lodge.   We had a late lunch and a very brief rest before heading out for our afternoon game drive.  No rest for the weary!  The Serengeti plains were quite different, but we saw many of the same animals, with the addition of Topi, Goliath heron, tawney eagle, red buck and the hits of the day – two leopards!   One was well hidden in the tall grasses, but I looked into his eyes through the binoculars, and it was hypnotizing.   The other one was fast asleep in a tree (Video).  What a beautiful cat!  

We also saw many lions,including a dinner table dispute between the king and two of his harem.  Although the ladies had brought the kill (a young zebra) to the table, the male got quite upset when they tried to take a bite, and he roared and swiped at them after throwing the carcass up in the air.  Quite a loud spectacle!  We also saw another lioness close to our car on the prey for zebra… but her quest was foiled when she flushed a little dik-dic from the bushes, who proceeded to warn the zebra.  They ran away and she was downcast… Amazing, and we have the whole thing on video (Video)!   It was a spectacular game drive.  After dinner and a “show” by local acrobats and drummers, we fell into bed before another early wake-up call!

Thursday morning, Oct. 2nd, we left the Lodge after breakfast for a game drive on our way to the final stop in the western Serengeti.   During this drive we spotted the following new animals and birds: three Cheetah lounging under a tree, Giant crocodile (Video), waterbucks, blacksmith plover, white-backed vultures, and a huge African marsh eagle with its kill (a baby warthog) – which Paul was able to film in flight – spectacular ( Video)!  We also got to see a huge family of elephants with many small babies trying to huddle together in the shade of a tree right beside the road (Video)… and a pride of four lionesses and eight cubs that crossed the road right in front of our jeep (Video)!  The Serengeti is an amazing place – almost the size of the state of Connecticut, with the National Park encompassing 3,646,500 acres, with altitude from 3000 to 6000 feet.  The central and southern portions are primarily grassy plains and it becomes more wooded in the western part along the Grumeti River.

 We arrived at the Kirawira Tented Camp in time for a late lunch and soon discovered why Zablon said that this place was the “best!” (Video).    The “tents” were luxurious – raised to provide an incredible view of the valley, with large porches, beautiful furnishings, and a five-star bathroom!  (There was even a hairdryer in the dressing table.)  The lounge/bar and the restaurants were also in huge tents – beautifully furnished with soft lighting.   The food here was the best on the trip – all made to order, with outstanding service.  We really regretted that we didn’t have more time to relax here in “One of the Great Small Hotels of the World!” But we were on a safari – not a lounging trip – so we headed out for another game drive, where we saw a ganet cat, white bellied bustard, gray-headed kingfisher, little bee eaters, white headed buffalo, long-crested eagle, and rocks hyrax.—in addition to our old friends the giraffe (Video), zebras, gazelles, baboons, etc.  It was a great day, which ended with a glorious shower, a wonderful meal, coffee and Bailey’s on the porch, and our first night sleeping among the sounds of nearby animals…. We were awakened in the middle of the night by a crash, and when Paul got up to investigate, it turned out that we had had a visitor in our tent, who was now on the porch!  It looked like a fox, with pointed head and long, fluffy tail – but apparently is a rather harmless creature, whose name I can’t remember.  We had been left a welcome plate with an apple, a banana, passion fruit and cookies, and he apparently was able to sneak in through the small opening (which we hadn’t zipped up tight!) and was trying to take the whole plate out with him – got it to the tent door with all the fruit still on the plate – but couldn’t pull the plate through the opening and it crashed to the floor, which woke us!   Silly animal – should have just grabbed the apple and gotten out of there!   Anyway, after we regained our composure and firmly zipped the tent, we heard him scratching the canvas later that night trying to get back in!   Just part of the adventure!

Friday, Oct. 3rd, was our last full day in the Serengeti.  We decided on just a short game drive that morning because we had made special requests of Zablon – we wanted to have lunch in a local restaurant, eat native food, and see Lake Victoria. (instead of the planned afternoon drive).. and we wanted to take Saturday morning off to “relax!”.  We headed out early after a light breakfast, and soon spotted a Lion and lioness “on their honeymoon”…Lions mate every 20 minutes or so the first 3 days the female is in heat… then continue, but less often, for 3 more days round the clock (to insure conception)!  It was fascinating to watch the behavior – with the lioness definitely calling the shots – until the act was completed (in about 5 seconds)!  We enjoyed seeing lots of our old grazing and browsing friends on the western, wooded and grassy areas, and then wandered along the Grumeti River spotting many Nile crocodile and hippos – some posing, some “kissing and romancing”, and some just rolling around in the water (Click for Video).  They were huge and a bit scary, since we had gotten out of the jeep for a closer look!   Apparently three park rangers were killed by crocodiles recently, so they definitely are to be taken seriously – as many animals experience during the migration.

We returned to the camp for a brief rest, then headed out for our final adventure outside the Serengeti borders.  After driving about an hour, we arrived at a the local restaurant along the main road near Lake Victoria, not far from the park entrance gates (unfortunately, I did not write down the name!).   Zablon ordered for us, then we performed the ritual of hand-washing (the waitress brings a bowl with a large bar of soap and pours warm water from a pitcher as you wash your hands) – delightful!   The meals, which we shared, consisted of 2 grilled local tilapia platters with a mountain of French fries, vegetables and a small slaw salad, and a platter of beef stew, vegetables, and “stiff porridge” – which you eat with your hands.   It was accompanied by wonderful spicy sauces, and washed down by the local beers (and cokes for Zablon).   The food was delicious – the fish crispy, moist and flavorful – pulled up by strips by hand – and the stew rich and tender – eaten with a flattened ball of stiff porridge.  After lunch, we repeated the hand-washing ritual.   The bill, with 3 full meals, 4 beers, and 2 cokes came to $16.70.   Unbelievable – yet many of the villagers could never afford to eat there.  It’s popular with African travelers coming to or from Kenya, immediately north of here (Click for Video).

Our next stop was a local fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria (the largest lake in Africa, with more than half of its coastline as part of Tanzania’s western border).   On the way, we drove through a small village on market day, with countless people walking miles to do their shopping.   The fishing village, Mwabulungu, is self-sufficient – but painfully poor.   They fish for both local “eating” fish and sardines, which are dried in the sun (or roasted on open fires for quick drying) and processed as pet food or fertilizer.  The wooden boats and sails (made from the sardine bags) are handmade.   So are the mud bricks, which are fired in the hand-made local kiln.   They have some cows and goats, and sell items from little storefront shops to earn money for other foods.   Again – no electricity, running water, paved roads, etc.  These people would not be able to afford lunch in the place 20 kilometers up the road.

We headed back to camp for our last night in Africa… saddened to see the adventure coming to an end.   We were also very disappointed to learn that we would not be able to relax in the camp the next morning, because the Grumeti airstrip, where we were scheduled to fly back to Arusha, was under renovation – so we had to leave at 7:00 AM to drive back to the central Serengeti airstrip to pick up a plane there.   Bummer… Anyway, we had an enjoyable last evening at Kirawira camp… a delicious dinner with Zablon as our guest… and countless wonderful memories….

            The drive back to central Serengeti was pleasant, with all of our favorite animal friends showing up to say goodbye…and we had a brief stop at the visitor center near the airstrip.  We arrived in plenty of time for our 10:40 flight…. Which turned out to be 2 hours late (!), as we fried in the baking sun!   Anyway, we got back to Arusha safely, were met by our new driver Steve, and returned to the Mountain View at 3:00 (after a stop at the Cultural Center to pick up my earrings) where we were given a day room for a needed shower and supper before heading to the airport at 6:00 for a very long journey overnight and all next day home… arrived in Amsterdam at 8:00 AM, left for Dulles at 11:30 --- got to Dulles at 2:30 (gaining 6 hours)… and finally home to Baltimore by ~ 6:00!    Whew!  (About 30 hours from the Serengeti to home….)

There are more pictures in the "Photo Album" section.  The scenery was unbelievable!

            As we relive our trip by looking at videos and photos, we still feel that this was probably our most unique and fascinating vacation/adventure.   We learned SO much!  Africa is the second largest continent – almost 12 million square miles (the continental US, China, Europe, India, Argentina and New Zealand would fit inside its borders!)… Tanzania is the largest country in East Africa – twice the size of the state of California – with bountiful natural resources, impressive conservation areas & game parks, a fascinating culture, and beautiful people.   We had opportunities to meet many local people – something we cherish when we travel.   Our hearts were heavy with the poverty and struggling we witnessed – yet we were inspired by the determination and joy displayed by the younger generation in search of education and a better future for themselves and their country.   Seeing so many wonderful animals in their natural habitat was incredible – but that was only a part of the “safari” for us.   We felt welcome, in spite of the poverty, and it was genuine.   Several people told me that the people of Tanzania look at white people as their “candles of hope”, which goes back to the days of the white missionaries.   (Interestingly, may of the natives attend the Lutheran church, which goes back to the German colonization from 1865 to 1918.)   They told us that when the missionaries came, they built a church, a school, and a hospital, which helped their people.   Even today that is happening – for on the plane ride home we met the President & CEO of St. Joseph’s Hospital here in Baltimore and his parents representing their church in Virginia, who are assisting a local village in Tanzania develop schools and healthcare opportunities for the disabled.  (They’ve been back several times this year working on this project!)  Developing tourism is also a major goal for this young country, and we hope that the world terror situation (especially relating to neighboring Kenya and the State Department warnings) will not deprive them of this wonderful opportunity to share the natural wealth and beauty for the benefit of all.   The paving of roads will make the safari routes quicker and more comfortable, but we were relieved to know that Tanzania does plan to limit the number of vehicles allowed in an area (unlike some areas in Kenya, per our guides).   We enjoyed comfortable, safe accommodations (at a cost, but worth it), and relished the game drive adventures in our 4-wheeled vehicle.   Our driver/guide/naturalist was outstanding, and we consider him our friend – welcome in our home with his family at any time.   The Park East Tour arrangements were excellent – although the local in-country flights were not timely.   

            Soooo…. What would we do differently if we could do it again?…. We would allow a little more time to relax between locations… perhaps adding another 2 days to the itinerary, so that one could have a truly “free” morning or afternoon every few days..  Or perhaps a little beach relaxing in lovely Zanzibar before returning to the states….(Paul would skip the village tour – I would recommend it to “first timers”)   We would skip the shopping on arrival & leave a stop at the end of the tour.  That way, one could drive to Mountain Village for a leisurely dinner and night and leave early the next morning to drive to Lake Manyara or Tarangire National Park.   Paul is eager to return to see the migration, including the River Grumeti crossing.   I would prefer to skip the carnage, but would love to return to Tanzania – maybe I’ll try the pool for a change instead of witnessing the water crossing!   We’re tentatively looking at a return trip in June of 2005 and encourage anyone reading this to consider a trip to this fascinating part of the world.