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!
Yeah, I know you can get burned out on too many animal pictures. One of the things I’m mixing up here to try and keep it interesting is closeups–or as I call them “The National Geographic shots”–and some wider views of the plains with the animals dotting the landscape, to give you perspective on what we saw, and reassure you this is not some open air zoo, but their homes. There is an unmistakeable vibe of peacefulness and contentment with the animals here, and though the law of the wild/circle of life still applies, the tranquility of the crater and these magnificent beasts is unmistakeable. That’s part of what makes a trip to Africa a spiritual journey of sorts. Which says a lot, since in my regular life, I’m an earthbound, pragmatic fellow in general. Moreover, if the zoos back home were hard to visit before the trip, we all agreed wed have a very tough time seeing these guys in small enclosures ever again. their spirits soared on these wide open plains, and ours with them.