April was one of the rainiest months I have ever experienced. Every afternoon like clockwork, round 4 p.m., the heavens would open up. I had to plan every move outside around the imminent threat of rain.
Luckily for me, the rains abated right around the beginning of May, when we went to Zanzibar for the YAV retreat. And an even better reason for the rains to dissipate in early May was that Erica, my younger sister, was coming to visit for almost a month!
Erica landed in Nairobi town on Friday May 11 and we were on the go for the next three weeks. I arranged for a visit to Wangu Primary School, a CWS-affiliated school in the Dandora slum of Nairobi. Erica and I had a great time with some of the children, singing and teaching songs. I’m glad Erica suggested that activity instead of coloring because there were over 100 kids in the class! We sang “Old MacDonald” and “I’m a Little Tea Pot” and as a fun ending, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” both the English and Swahili versions.
The next day we were off to Tanzania to link up with Simba Safaris for our four-day Tanzanian safari. Stephen, our driver-guide from Simba Safaris, picked us in Arusha and we were on our way to the Ngorogoro Crater Conservation Area. As we drove up and onto the crater rim, it became colder and colder. The foggy, low-lying clouds obstructed our view but we were able to see a fellow Simba Safari LandCruiser stopped on the side. It was certainly a good sign as we embarked on our safari—we were within feet of a huge male lion! It was very unexpected but awesome nonetheless. We were quite tired from traveling all day and we needed a good night’s rest before a busy day of game watching the next day. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and snuggled down (it was very cold!) and before we knew it, it was breakfast time and we were both eager for the day ahead.
We started down into the crater floor, a very chilly and cloudy morning. The clouds were ominous but we had faith that the rains would not interfere with our game viewing. The crater hosts a dense population of all types of wildlife: Buffalo, elephants, hippos, lions, hyenas, black rhinos, warthogs, jackals, baboons, flamingos, leopards (although we didn’t see any here, they’re too elusive!), and of course, zebras and wildebeest. Wildebeest and zebra make up the “Great Migration” and it begins in the crater, then they migrate through the Serengeti finally making it to the Masai Mara in Kenya.
Within 15 minutes of descending to the crater floor, we saw hundreds of buffalo and a large herd of elephants. Just a few minutes later, we spotted a lot of LandCruisers, so we knew at least the “mzungu migration” was in full force. As we pulled up to investigate, sure enough, there was something to see: Several lions were snoozing in the middle of the road. We clicked away and then proceeded through the crater, seeing hyenas, beautiful birds, hippos, zebras, wildebeest and a black rhino waaaay in the distance. We were about to round out our crater game drive when we stumbled upon two elephants very close to the road, foraging in some trees. I had to change lenses since my zoom was too much for the close encounter.
We ate lunch at the top of the crater rim before making the drive to the Serengeti. As we drove out of the crater and to the Serengeti, we passed many Maasai herding cattle, goats and sheep, alongside the grazing zebra and wildebeest. It was quite surreal.
We arrived in the Serengeti mid-afternoon and were on the hunt for close encounters with the Big 5 in one of the most famous places in the natural world. Right from the start we saw the sheer magnitude of the “Great Migration”—the zebras and wildebeest blended together on the horizon so much that it looked as if someone had drawn a thick, black line with a Sharpie.
The size of the Serengeti is daunting: Serengeti comes from the Masai language, Maa, wherein the word “serengit” means “endless plains.” It is certainly true, the land rolls on for miles. It was a warm afternoon, so I was having a tough time keeping my eyes open as we bounced along the main road in the park.
Then, all of a sudden, Stephen veered off onto a path and we rounded a giant, grassy hill to find two lionesses. Lions like to lounge on elevated surfaces so they are able to see prey off in the distance. We continued our trek into the Serengeti and came close to a small elephant family, complete with very young calves. Elephants and lions are two very social animals, so it is always fun to stop and watch them.
We were cruising around, on the hunt for the leopard, when I heard some very excited Swahili over the radio. Stephen then changed directions and started driving a bit faster than normal; I knew we were about to find something extraordinary. In the distance, I saw several LandCruisers stopped by a tree. My heart leapt: A leopard must be near.
Imagine our surprise when we spotted not one but TWO leopards, in the mid-afternoon. Leopards are usually most active at night, so that makes finding them active extremely difficult. One was in a tree and the other was across the road, hiding in some tall grass. Cue trigger-happiness via camera. This was the last of the Big 5 I hadn’t seen in the wild and I was determined to photograph these magnificent creatures from every angle possible. We must have spent at least 30 minutes watching them (Erica can tell you she began to feel restless). I could have watched them all day. They were very active, always switching places, climbing up the tree and down. Toward the end of our viewing session, one of the leopards climbed higher and higher in the acacia tree because a small herd of elephants was passing through. The elephants, oblivious to the leopard in the tree, began munching around the trunk and one elephant even felt the need to scratch his but against the very tree where a scared leopard was hiding. Life in the animal kingdom never disappoints!
To make room for the other LandCruisers, we headed out and found giraffes drinking from a small waterhole nearby a light aircraft runway. It was getting dark so we headed onto our lodging for the night, ready for a night of rest before another busy day. We woke up to a gorgeous Serengeti sunrise and Vervet monkeys on our porch!
We started the day with a mission: Find rhinos. Stephen was very determined in this endeavor and we ventured into new parts of the Serengeti known for a rhino or two. We weren’t so lucky this outing, as we saw no rhinos, however we did get to see the Maasai rock paintings, which was pretty interesting. We were en route out of the Serengeti to Lake Manyara when we found a small pride of lions resting on a rock outcrop. It was Pride Rock (sorry, had to make a “Lion King” reference at least once in this post!) so to speak; we were able to get so close to one of the lionesses that we were able to see a tracking collar on her.
We also stopped by two cultural visits: One was to a Maasai village and the other was to the Olduvai Gorge, home to some of the first hominid prints and fossils. The Maasai village was fun and we were able to see that the profits from our entry fee were going to community projects, such as school fees, water access points and teaching children too young to go to primary school. I admit, I was a bit skeptical because it seems very much like a tourist trap, but Stephen reassured us and said that he too is skeptical of some of the money handling in some Maasai villages. However, he knew this village very well and we agreed that it would be a memorable moment.
After the village, we went to the Olduvai Gorge. It is actually the Oldupai Gorge, but some researchers misspelled the translation and it is commonly known as Olduvai. Oldupai means sisal plant in Maa. Oldupai is also referred to as “The Cradel of Mankind” since fossils of homo habilis, homo erectus and homo sapiens have been found in the area. It was made famous in the 1930s and 1940s through the work of Louis and Mary Leakey, famous archeologists. Former First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton visited Oldupai in the 1990s on behalf of Bill Clinton. Oldupai is not only a mecca for archeologists, but also for geologists. The rock formations are unique and feature a large monolith that helps show the various layers of rock and sediment. We certainly learned a lot about culture and the evolution of humans on safari!
We headed out back through the Ngorogoro Crater Conservation Area to get to Lake Manyara, a Great Rift Valley soda lake. We stopped for some curio shopping along the way; I knew we were in a very cha-ching curio shop when they were quoting prices in US$. We came away with a few purchases, including a cool painting for Erica of a Maasai homestead at night. We reached the lodge for the night and enjoyed a last night of fine dining in Tanzania. Erica and I enjoyed sundowner cocktails as we watched the stars come out. You haven’t been stargazing until you’ve done it in the African wilderness. Away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi, I was able to see hundreds, albeit thousands, of stars. Erica and I rested up for another early, busy and adventurous day.
Lake Manyara was a fun, quick game drive. The terrain was much different, more forested, which led to seeing several different kinds of monkeys, including Vervets, Colobus and Blue monkeys. The highlight of Lake Manyara was when Erica spotted a teeny, tiny baby elephant. Oh my, was it so small and precious! We then saw a huge familial herd of elephants, must have been over 60! We didn’t see any predators in the park, but we enjoyed the elephants a lot. After a quick morning game drive, we were on the road back to Arusha where Erica and I said goodbye to Stephen and took the shuttle back to Nairobi.
So ends our Tanzanian safari adventure. But there is still much more to cover, including a healthy overdose of adrenaline.