SAFARI – The SERENGETI
Wildebeests behind us, we drove for a relatively quiet hour on the plains and then all of the sudden-BOOM–cheetah…a beautiful cheetah standing on a rock, looking anxiously around, searching for prey. 15 minutes later, her cub poked his head out from a rock, and we were in love. The Serengeti is a harsh place – cheetah’s give birth to a litter of up to 4-9 cubs, but 90% of the cubs don’t survive (predators). Cheetah’s are built to run down tasty antelope, not handle nasty predators who fight back. YouTube has some amazing video on what they sound like, but among other things, they chirp like birds, and do everything EXCEPT roar. Big kitties, indeed. You never forget your first cheetah. Unfortunately, since cheetah mom never spotted a good mobile meal, we didn’t get to see her stretch her limbs and run 70mph across the plains. We relished the encounter nonetheless. Beautiful creatures.
SAFARI – MAASAI VILLAGE VISIT
And now, for something completely different, and winding the clock back a bit. On our way out of Arusha on our first day of safari, we saw many colorful Maasai tribal people in their bright reds and blues and purples out in the fields herding cattle or goats, and we asked our driver Wenga if it was possible to visit a Maasai village. And for a relatively small price–$50, ostensibly to help fund the tribe and it’s little school–we met Chief Baraaka, who said he was chief over many villages, and just happened to be at the one we stopped at. So we were treated to a traditional Maasai welcoming and jumping dance, we joined in, then were given a tour of the small village of thatch roof huts (the women build them) smeared with cow dung for waterproofing, a tiny window, and a small fire pit in each. How do you keep the smoke out, we asked? The answer: they don’t, the smoke is used to keep the inside of the hut free of mosquitos. The chief then led us a to a small school hut, where the children counted off to ten and sang a little song. Then, of course, they led us to their little village “market”, to sell us jewelry their women had made. How authentic was the experience? Wenga said although the village supplemented their funding with tourists visits (most Maasai villages are government funded and stocked with tanks of government provided water), what we had seen was fairly authentic culture, traditions, and lifestyle. The chief and his 2 brothers were actually educated in Arusha and spoke decent to good English. We peppered them with questions about how they continue to try and live the pastoral life the tribe has always lived, while he asked us for emails.
The Maasai have a colorful and fascinating history, and were at their greatest population in the 19th century, before colonialism and disease ultimately reduced their numbers heavily by the 20th century. They are just shy of 1 million strong in 2015 census, one of the biggest, if not the biggest tribes of the 123 in Tanzania. They are polygynous – the men can take many wives…and do. The chief indicated his father had 23 wives. Interestingly, although they have a feared warrior history among the Tanzanian tribes, they have a long aversion to slavery of any kind, and have lived among wild animals but generally don’t eat game or birds, only their cattle and sheep. So what they did when the conquered and took great swaths of land in the 19th century was displace the people who they conquered (and kill many of them). There’s far more interesting facts to be found on Maasai, but in person, we found them very polite and somewhat shy (Except the chief). The women’s dances made Caryl and Irina a little uncomfortable, but Alex and I jumped with the boys on our still jammed toes while the chief snapped pics like a paparazzo with cameras slung all over him.
SAFARI – THE SERENGETI
We had seen scattered herds of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles on our way onto Naabi Hill, but leaving it was the true great migration spread out before us. Every year starting in January, 1.7 million wildebeests are led by 260,000 zebra from the southern Serengeti to ultimately the Kenyan plains in the summer, with around 470,000 gazelle tagging along, as well as other miscellaneous beasts of the plain, all moving towards the rains and water. Around 500,000 calves are born during a period from January to March, and around 250,000 wildebeests die during the migration (predators, exhaustion, etc) and we drove into the middle of this vast movement for several hours before the herds finally dwindled down to nothing. But…there is never “nothing” in the Serengeti – there are great winged birds flying, hyenas lying in the long grass, far off giraffes, and the occasional group of big cats sheltering under trees–or sleeping up in their branches– from the overhead sun. When the jeep would stop, we heard the bird calls or creature sounds carried on the breezes that swept the plains. It lifted our spirits to see this vast untapped and unspoiled wilderness teeming with such a profound affirmation of life on this beautiful planet of ours.
SAFARI – The SERENGETI
OK, cheating a little here – two pictures, but one is to give you context where we were. After driving a couple hours out of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and into the flat southern plains of the Serengeti, we came to the first hill we’d seen for the past hour, which was the Naabi Gate – the official registration and entry point for southern entry in Tanzania. There was a little walk up some rocks to the top of the hill where we had a panoramic view all around us of the infinite green plains to the horizon. While we were up there, we saw these gorgeous rainbow lizards sunning on the rocks and doing their little pushups to show off. Now apparently the Tanzanians have taken to calling these fellows (the males are rainbow…the females a regular old lizard brown) Spiderman lizards, but I think the colors might be a little off, as they look purple and blue to me, but folks think the purple looks red? Sounds like another Internet meme “What color is that dress?” controversy.
SAFARI – The SERENGETI
The Serengeti is 12,000 square miles spanning Tanzania and Kenya, and more or less the size of Maryland, which is a horrible comparison, since virtually no one–in the US at least–has any idea how big Maryland is, only its little state-within-a-state District of Columbia (containing Washington DC – the US capital). Anyhow, Serengeti comes from the rather straightforward Maasai word that means “plains that go on forever” – a very observant tribe, that one, sprinting in their rubber tire sandals and herding all their cattle on foot, including Serengeti National Park, where they are not actually allowed. Bandits! 🙂
Anyhow, the secretary bird is today’s photo, and we saw his distinct strut from really far away just as we entered the Serengeti. He’s a tall dude, maybe 3+ feet high…a combo stork and eagle head, and in fact, the secretary bird is a bird of prey that interestingly, while it can fly, is actually a terrestrial attacker, clawing, stomping, and eating small rodents and mongooses that are abundant on the great plain. So why secretary bird? He’s an incredible fast typer. Jus’ kidding. I have no idea. It’s one of those names you certainly associate with this bird once you’ve seen them. I’m not even a bird guy, but I thought the birds of Africa were a super interesting mix of color, swagger, and beauty.
SAFARI – NGORONGORO CONSERVATION AREA
I’m easing down to one picture a day, and a little blurb. We climbed out of the Ngorongoro Crater amazed by what we’d seen there, and passed through a smaller valley, dotted with Maasai thatch roof huts, Maasai driving their cattle, and up in the foothills, the now ubiquitous wildebeests and zebras with their spinning tails. Although pastorale is a musical reference, it seems apres pro for the serene pastoral setting we saw here (and everywhere, honestly). On the horizon, we could see the great Serengeti plain stretching for miles, and couldn’t imagine what we’d end up seeing there would top the Crater…but then again, we were headed straight to the Great Migration. Africa the amazing!
This is a photo blog series about my February 2015 trip to Tanzania, Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and go on Safari in western Tanzania. I’ll take you day by day through the trip, written after the fact because, after hauling a small army of electronics with me–a tablet, iPhone, GPS, PS Vita, everything short of an actual laptop–it turns out that Tanzanian internet is pretty feeble, still cable connected, and the country is largely all about cell service, dashing my dreams of any reliable real time WiFi blogging. Lesson 1 learned.
DAY 1 HIGHLIGHTS
After having dealt with a last minute lost passport in San Francisco that delayed my flight by one day, I arrived the night of Feb 11 in Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) to find my main and only bag of camping gear delayed or lost back in the US (thanks, Delta!), meaning I had only a pair of pants, the shirt on my back and a goofy grin–“I’m in Africa!” to start the hike. Guess we’ll figure it out, since this is unlikely to be the first time this has happened.
An hour and half drive from the airport, then a quarter mile up a dirt road fully worthy of a four-wheeler, I enter a gated compound for Iboru Safari Lodge, an oasis of thatch roof huts and mosquito net beds. I crash, and in the morning, my friends Caryl, Alex and his wife Irina are waiting at breakfast.
Our lead guide, Justin Thomas (JT), of the African Walking Company, briefs us on the 9 day climb up the mountain, and makes arrangements (paid for by me..but I’ll file insurance) to have a porter haul the missing bag up the mountain to wherever we happen to be and in the meantime, I’ll use rental gear to make up anything missing. JT is a sunny, articulate fellow who’s got great social skills and has guided clients up the mountain since 2004.
There are four additional summiteers joining us on our journey: Kitt and her husband Rhys, US Marines currently posted in Senegal, Cort, a cybersecurity specialist from St Louis, and Paul, whom we call Buddha, an animator from the Carolinas.
We drive 2.5 hrs ascending from dusty dry plains past an assortment of tin roof shack, half finished brick houses, vibrantly dressed locals and Maasai herding cattle, up into the lush green forested foothills to the Londorossi Gate, where we register for the trip. Then it’s another 30 minutes down twisting dirt roads to the Lemosho Gate, our starting point. We’re doing the newest route on the mountain, the Northern Circuit, which is a combination of routes from the wet side of the mountain–Lemosho, Shira, Rongai, plus its own stops.
At Lemosho Gate, we first see the army assembled to help and guide us up the mountain: lead guide JT, Assistant Guides Said, Halid, Viviano, Chief Stomach Engineer (Chef) Joseph, 6 helping porters who carry our luggage, and a whopping 28 regular porters who carry mess tent, cooking tent, mobile toilet and tent, all food and water. The fellow with the AK-47 on his back is reassuring…wait, what?
We start at last! It’s raining steadily and after donning rain gear, we first learn the meaning of the Swahili word “Pole Pole” – “Slowly”…as we take one achingly slow step after another behind lead guide Said with Viviano and JT following up the rear– enough so that it’s actually calf work to move that slow, ascending up through the plush green jungle to Tree Camp. One the way, the army of porters ascends past us, luggage precariously balanced on their heads, backpacks on, rock and rolling ahead to get the camp setup by the time we arrive
Roughly 2 hrs and a 1000 feet later, we come into Lemosho Forest Camp, elevation 8700 feet, where we find our tents setup, along with the mess and cooking tents. JT then briefs us about the small blue tent he calls the Internet Cafe (pronounced with the long A), where we can send email, and do all manners of Internet activity. He’s referring to the mobile toilet, of course, but this will become our staple sense of humor for the duration of the trip, approaching the tent in the middle of the night and asking “Cafe in use?”
Along the rim of the camp, we can see and hear the clatter of monkeys; with long 3 foot tails of flowing black and white, it’s the black and white colobus monkey; we rush into the trees to capture pictures. Later at night, we’ll hear the staccato chatter of an alpha, and the call and response all around us as well.
After dinner, JT briefs us on the hike next day Eventually, we drift off to sleep in the rainforest to a star filled night and the chirps of forest birds, a full and fulfilling day behind us, and more adventure to come.