The journal of our week-long safari through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and other parks. For pictures of this trip, please visit hankettrips.shutterfly.com

Fri 31 August 07 - Changing Gears ...


I never knew a shower - even a lukewarm stream of water dribbling out of a showerhead - could feel so good. Letting the grime of a week-long climb drain away rejuvenated me. Then it was time to redeem my other suitcase from storage and repack for the safari.
Deo collected us at 4:30 to escort us downtown to shop for tanzanite (a rare gem mined in this region). Since the shops would close soon, he had us take a public bus the quarter-mile into town. Chalk up one more adventure! The 'bus' was a 10-seat minivan already packed with twice that many people. Somehow the four of us managed to squeeze on board - I had to stand with one foot atop the other, leaning over a standing Deb to brace myself against a seat back. I could only think of college students stuffing into a phone booth.
Deb chose not to buy any tanzanite, so we wandered to the restaurant to treat Deo to dinner. After eating, we returned to the lodge where an agent of Maasai Wanderings (my safari outfitter) met us to give Ken & Deb tickets for their shuttle tomorrow. We all chatted over beers and soda; when the Tanzanians left, the three of us played cards before calling it a night.

Sat 1 September 07 - My Day Off


After living the ascetic life of a mountain expedition, it's nice to dip into luxury - even if only for one night.
After months of negotiating details via email (and pre-paying thousands of dollars on faith), I finally met Donna Duggan, co-owner of Maasai Wanderings. She came out personally to transfer me down the road to the Arusha Hotel. You never know who (or what) to expect when meeting someone you've e-communicated with. In this case, Donna was a bubbly, vibrant Aussie woman who had married a Tanzanian native and moved here three years ago, after several years of traveling here on charity missions.
The Arusha Hotel - I have looked around fancier hotels, but I don't think I've ever stayed in a nicer place. Among the amenities: Arusha's only heated pool; lush gardens down to the river; a restaurant with open-air seating overlooking those gardens. The room has a balcony with chairs overlooking the gardens; a programmable safe; a bathrobe; toothbrush and paste along with the soap and shampoo. The staff are all uniformly friendly, smiling and greeting me with "Jambo" (hello) or "Karibu" (welcome) when we pass. A few notice my Kilimanjaro tee shirt and congratulate me on surviving the climb, or tell me how they used to porter.
Of course the hotel (just like other hotels here) is in a closed compound, and it's hard not to feel like a pampered prisoner. As soon as you leave the premises, flycatchers will leap to your side, escorting you wherever you go - for a tip, of course. Ih this economy with few real jobs, those people fancy themselves free-agent tour guides. Only a steady chorus of "Apano asante" ('no thanks') and a quick stride will give you a chance of avoiding them.
Now I'm relaxing on my balcony, looking over the pink and white and red tents and tables set up along the river for a reception. Every few minutes a pickup truck with a small brass band in back drives by the hotel, sounding like a parade as they drum up enthusiasm for whatever event is planned here. In 45 minutes I'll catch my ride to the airport to pick up Sue and give her a well-deserved respite from flying.

Sun 2 September 2007 - A Near Disaster; Party Animals; Luxury Digs

Tarangire National Park

The trip nearly ended in disaster before it began. Due to two flat tires, Dennis didn't pick me up until 8:00, when Sue's flight had already touched down. By the time we reached the airport, she'd been waiting for over an hour with only one airport worker there to tell her, "Car problems. One hour late."
Thankfully, today made up for it. We marvelled at the human landscape as we left Arusha: the bright Maasai robes; the pedestrians with loads balanced on their heads; bicyclists carting huge loads over their rear tires; ranchers herding cattle through the dusty landscape; the thatched-hut Maasai bomas.
Inside Tarangire National Park, it took but a few minutes for Dennis to stop and point out our first wildlife. A good fifty yards away, almost hidden in the brush, a few wildebeests grazed. With my camera barely picking them up, I wondered how exciting this would be.
Two minutes later we drove into the midst of a mob of wildebeests, zebras, impala, and two warthogs - many within twenty feet of our vehicle. For the next hour, we kept spotting new species - Sue spotted the first giraffe and the first ostrich, and we spied baboons, dik diks, and several birds. Later, we saw a young giraffe running - what a sight! It looked almost comical, as if it ran in slow-motion.
As we stopped for a picnic lunch at Matete in the park, I half-heard Dennis mention something about not giving your lunch to the baboons. I never feed wildlife, so I didn't pay much attention. As we sat a picnic table and opened our lunchboxes, a few baboons noticed and slinked over, eyeing our food. One jumped on the bench across from us and stretched out full-length with a despairing, starving look. "Look at that," I started to tell Sue.
Before I could finish my sentence, three baboons were on the table, grabbing the sandwiches and potato chips from our hands. Stunned, we shooed them away as Dennis ran up and threw stones at them. They managed to snatch half a sandwich and a bag of chips before running off.
Five minutes later they pulled the same trick at another table. Then, showing true teamwork, two of them got into a safari vehicle whose pop-top had been left open. When those tourists noticed, they ran over to shoo them out. As soon as they left their table, other baboons ran up to it, opened their ice chest, and grabbed the contents (which included a few beers). Tonight they'll lend new meaning to the term 'party animals'.
We had a few more hours of driving after lunch. Besides more closeups of our earlier species, we saw the animal for which Tarangire is best known: the elephant. (This park has more elephants per square mile than anywhere else on earth.) We saw several herds, and got within 20' of at least one elder bull. (Back in the days of of big-game hunting, people rated themselves by bagging the 'big 5' - five animals that could kill you as easily as you killed them. Those five: lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhinoceros. We now had our first of the big 5.)
At 4:00 Dennis delivered us to the Sopa Lodge in the park, our newest luxury accomodation. You know it's prime lodging when the staff is waiting in the lobby with warm towels and mango juice. Rooms were arranged as four suites per building constructed to resemble thatched huts; the pool had an 'island' in the center and a swim-up bar; every room had a safe. Outside the rooms, agama lizards (with the males colored an irridescent blue and red) climbed on the walls and the thatched roofs. Other animals wandered about the grounds; I saw a dik dik and a rock hyrax.
All in all, a great start to the week. Tomorrow we head to the Serengeti!

Mon 3 September 2007 - Cross-Country to the Serengeti

Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks

On the way to Tarangire Gate, we had two additional memorable scenes: a dozen Egyptian vultures perched in a baobab tree (which, according to legend, God uprooted and replanted upside down); a line of zebras and wildebeests and zebras stretching a mile or two through a meadow spotted with acacia trees, moving along on their annual migration. According to a guide, the zebras are the 'brains' of the savannah, the wildebeests falling far behind on the intelligence meter. They don't know how to find the best grazing grounds, so they simply follow the zebras.
When we left the park, we started north on the same potholed highway that we'd taken south. After a few miles, though, we turned onto one of the country's best roads - a smooth, three-year old strip of macadam that ran all the way to Ngorongoro Crater. Dennis cruised through a landsape reminiscent of Arizona until we reached the town of Mto wa mbu (Swahili for 'Mosquito Creek'). There we picked up our camping gear and our chef and headed up the wall of the Great Rift Valley.
The landscape suddenly changed from Arizona desert to California wine country, with farms dotting the verdant hills. We enjoyed the smooth ride another 45 minutes, until we entered the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where the macadam ended. We climbed up a dirt road through a lush rain forest to an incredible view overlooking the Ngorongoro Crater.
That was the figurative and literal high point of the ride. We now faced over two hours riding over the rough, washboarded dirt road (at up to 50 mph), severely taxing Sue's bad back. By the time we reached our picnic stop in Serengeti National Park, she had popped pain pills and barely hung on.
A hour-plus break to down lunch, and for Dennis to pay our national park fees, followed. (National park fees constitute one of the major expenses of a safari. The sign there mentioned the rates in Serengeti: $50 (US currency) per day for each foreigner, and 1500 Tanzanian shillings for citizens - which translates to $1.20.) We used the time to hike to an overlook several times, stretching our legs.
Now came a game drive as we headed for our campground. We looked at the vast, dusty plain (Serengeti means 'endless plains' in the Maasai tongue) dotted with an occasional tree or rock outcropping (kopje) and wondered if we would see any animals - how could they survive here? By eating the grasses! We found herd after herd after herd of Thompson's gazelles, mixed in with Grant's gazelles and hartebeests. Dennis turned to drive close to Simba Kopje, where we saw two lionesses sunning on the rocks. #2 of the big 5!
We saw other predators and scavengers as we proceeded through the park - spotted and striped hyenas, black and silver-backed jackals, a cheetah slinking through the tall grasses. Then Dennis pulled up next to a yellow-bark acacia tree and said to look up. There, high in the branches, a leopard (#3!) lolled, its tail hanging low. A few branches below we made out the carcass of a dorcas gazelle that the cat had dragged up, saving it for another meal later on.
On to camping, and more firsts for Sue: using an outhouse that had a hole in the concrete floor, but feasting on a gourmet meal prepared by our chef Prosper. That, plus an incredible sunset, completed the day.

Tues 4 September 2007: the Anti-Zoo

Serengeti National Park

Random notes: besides Prosper cooking incredible food (lunch today: vegetable quiche, salad with mustard sauce, lamb stew over macaroni, and fresh fruit for dessert), he has coffee mugs with house cats pictured on them, that meow when you pick them up.
This morning, a hyena wandered into camp, but left quickly. In the dining pavilion, one table had dirty dishes and leftover toast on it. Minutes after the diners left, a dozen birds descended on it, pecking at the food.
Today's biggest sighting - #4 of the big 5 - was the cape buffalo (a.k.a. water buffalo). We sighted a lone pair at first, then spotted a herd of fifty or more.
It's as if we've turned the concept of a zoo inside out. Now, the humans are the ones in a metal-and-glass cage (a safari vehicle) while the animals go about their lives looking at us. Even when we're in camp, it feels like a prison without walls - signs warn you not to wander because "animals may attact you."
Our morning drive lasted nearly five hours. However, it lacked the National Geographic moments other parties boasted of: a lioness nursing her cubs; lions fighting over a kill; crocodiles chewing on a hippo carcass. Of course, who knows what we'll see the next time we venture out.

Wed 5 September: Say Goodbye to the Serengeti

Serengeti National Park

The hyenas outside our tent woke Sue up at 1:30 this morning. Of course, she couldn't believe I could sleep through it instead of getting up to protect her...
We enjoyed one more drive for game in the Serengeti this morning. Dennis took us to the far hippo pond, where we saw the hippos basking side-by-side with crocodiles - and near the four-week-old hippo carcass. While I photographed them, a few hippos began jockeying for position, which set the whole lot of them snorting and belching. What a cacophony. We also got scenic views of a giraffe herd, grazing amid the acacia (or umbrella) trees.
Then we buckled down for the long, bumpy drive back to Ngorongoro crater, where we would camp on the crater rim. After two days of primitive Serengeti camping, at least this site had hot showers, flush toilets (instead of concrete holes in the ground) and electric lights in the dining building.

Thurs 6 September: Ngorongoro

Ngorongoro National Conservation Area

Maybe we went too far on the camping side of mix this trip. It got chilly at 6100', and a windstorm woke us up around 1:30. Later, a lion roaring from just outside camp added to our chill. Still, the night sky blazed with stars, due to the total lack of light pollution.
Clouds blanketed the rim at daybreak, so we broke down the tent and descended to an overcast, surprisingly cool morning in the crater. Huge herds of zebras, wildebeests, and buffalo awaited us. We still had to bag the last of the big 5, the highly endangered rhinoceros - the crater served as home to around twenty of them, total. To search for one, Dennis drove us through the lush grounds of the Lerai Forest. No luck, so he headed toward the picnic site.
When we saw a dozen or more vehicles stopped, we knew what it meant: lions! This time it was a lioness with two cubs nearly hidden in the tall grass, and - here comes our National Geographic moment! - another lioness guarding two wildebeest corpses they had taken down earlier. This scene played out only twenty feet from the road!
As we watched the big cats lazing around, letting their meal digest, seven or eight hyenas started circling, keeping a safe distance but waiting for the cat to finish with the not-so-fast food. A short distance away, a flock of a dozen vultures sat on the ground, waiting for their chance at the food chain.
We ate our picnic lunch next to a fresh-water pond with hippos at the far end. Dennis gave us another warning about 'sharing' our lunch, this time with the kites (birds) flying about. Again, we had no idea, though we did take extra care to protect our food. As Sue finished gnawing on a piece of chicken and lowered her hand, a kite swooped down from behind her, hitting her hand and grabbing the chicked bone from it. Again, they also surprised several other picnickers.
From there, we began our drive across and out of the crater. Halfway to the ascent road, Dennis stopped, pointed his bnioculars to the right, and declared, "Rhino!" It was nearly hidden in the grass, but it soon stood up and posed for my photo. Five minutes later Dennis spotted another one, but it was too far away to take a picture of.
Then it was off to check in at the Ngorongoro Farmhouse, another luxury lodging choice. (I could describe our overnight choices with the opening words of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.") The owners of the Farmhouse have carved fifteen acres out of a 500-acre conservation easement, used five acres for a coffee plantation, and converted the other ten for gardens, central grounds, and rooms. The central area housed a restaurant, gift shop, reception, bakery, and pool. Four walkways headed away from that nexus, passing through the coffee plantation to reach the rooms up to 400 yards away.
We arrived at the Farmhouse to be greeted by staff with trays of hot towels and papaya juice, again. Happiness greeted us at the front desk, giving us the key to our room. A nice touch - the rooms have names, not numbers! We were assigned Kipepeo (Swahili for 'butterfly'). The bellmen grabbed our bags and wheeled them down the concrete path, showing us to our quarters. It was very clean, with a spacious bathroom and a back porch looking onto the conservation land.
I took the Farmhouse tour, learning all about making coffee, and seeing people pick and plant the vegetables served in the restaurant. (They grow 80-90% of the vegetables they serve.) Then I relaxed on our lanai, watching the sun set over the crater.

Fri 7 September 2007: Going Native

Lake Manyara National Park

One last day of game drives. En route to Lake Manyara National Park, Dennis took us to a few Maasai craft markets. We finally bought a few gifts (of course, we haggled over the price - "Ghali sana" [too expensive] is our battle cry) to do our bit for the Tanzanian economy.
As we entered the park, I saw a sign that struck a chord with me, being a fan of national parks. It read, "From this park, take only: Nourishment for the soul, Consolation for the heart, and Inspiration for the mind."
LMNP was (in parts, at least) far different from the other parts were more of the savannah we'd grown used to; at another point, a hot spring leaked radium-infused water into the soda lake.
The most numerous species was baboon. We saw a whole herd (school? troop? gaggle?) of them covering a field. Elephants dotted the landscape - we got to watch them eating (they twist their trunks around the branches and pull them off the trees) and drinking (they suck the water into their trunks, then spray it into their gullets). We also watched giraffes feed, saw hippos mingling with the largest flock of pelicans we've ever seen, eyed zebras, wildebeests, flamingos, buffalo, impala, and more.
We aso added banded mongoose, blue monkee, ground hornbill, and monitor lizard to our list of species we'd seen in the wild - over sixty species in six days! (And that doesn't count all the small birds that we never bothered trying to identify.) This park, though, is most famous for something that occurs nowhere else in the world. Sure, they have lions here - and they climb in the trees! Dennis hadn't seen one in three years, but today he broke his losing streak. The one we saw was too far away (and too hidden in the greenery) to get a photo of, but we could watch him watching us through our binoculars.
Back in town, we set up camp and then walked a couple of miles on the sidewalk beside the main drag along which the town of Mto wa mbu (Swahili for 'Mosquito Creek') spread out. This street hosted more foot and bicycle traffic than automobiles, despite being the main east-west route across northern Tanzania (and the road to Ngorongoro). Nearly everyone we passed smiled and said, "Jamo! Karibu!" Small children would wave excitedly, calling out to us across fields. One youth, after asking where we were from, asked if we knew Barack Obama.
In camp, we discovered the showers were stalls inside one building, with no separate men's and women's buildings. As Sue asked where she was supposed to dress after showering, a black man stepped out of his stall, buck naked, and proceeded to brush his teeth. "You might want to dress inside the shower stall," one woman suggested.

Sat 8 September 07 - Wrapping It Up

Mto wa Mbu to Ilkurot to Arusha

As evening grew long and we tired of reading on our last night, we heard a percussion band start up by the pool. Sue retired to the tent, but I opted to check out the music. After a set of drumming that nearly sent me to join Sue, the band announced a performance: four women and two men entered to do a dance. The women did what I would label an African belly dance - or maybe a hip dance. I kept waiting for their hips to dislocate!
After two sets of that, they segued into gymnastics. Incredible! One-handed cartwheels, flips, juggling while balancing, synchronized tumbling. I was thinking they could change the music and make it a Cirque du Soleil act with no other alterations.
This morning our day began leisurely, as we read our books then took another walk. On our drive back to Arusha, a police car with sirens blaring raced toward us, forcing all cars to the shoulder. Moments later, another police car followed, closely trailed by the presidential motorcade. (We waved at the president, but he didn't see us.)
Saturday morning traffic in Arusha astounded me. We inched forward, marveling at the crush of humanity - pedestrians, bicycles, carts, trucks, cars, all mixing on roads with no traffic lights and no lane markings. Dennis finally turned down a side street, then parked in front of a line of shops. He led us into a Maasai herbal remedy shop, where he interpreted as the Maasai proprietor explained the properties of his wares. For joint problems, boil this tree bark in your tea; for chest pains, drink this fluid extracted from zebras; for rashes, rub this ground root on the skin; and more fascinating details. You'll never find that in America, since the drug companies can not profit from it.
We then headed north on the Arusha-Nairobi highway, through a hilly landscape dotted with farms, bomas (Maasai compounds), and grazing lands. As we admired the scenery, Dennis asked if we were ready for our picnic lunch. "Want to climb that hill for a view while we eat?" he suggested. Next thing we knew, the Land Rover was parked at the base of the old volcano, and we were carrying our chairs and lunch boxes up the 300'-400' slope, trailed by four Maasai kids and a herd of cattle.
The view from the top stole our breaths away - a sweeping 360-degree view of the surrounding hills, volcanic cones, farms, bomas, highway - all anchored by the dominating presence of Mt. Meru, Africa's 4th-highest peak at ~15,000'. We ate while soaking in the vista as the Maasai kids (now numbering nine) watched us from a respectful distance. Then Dennis held out a bag of potato chips. One child left the group to take it, then returned to share it with his friends.
The rest of our lunch followed this pattern, as Dennis, then Sue, then I, offered the children parts of the abundant lunch Prosper had fixed for us. We then hiked further up the rim, letting the kids guard our chairs. From the top, we looked into the collapsed crater of our volcano.
Back at our picnic site, we sat to enjoy the view a bit longer, the kids again moving a short distance away. Then I pulled out my journal, remembering that I hadn't written down the message on the sign at Lake Manyara. Before I knew what happened, the Maasai kids had surrounded me, watching intently as I moved my pen across the paper. (Dennis told me later that the Maasai kids wanted nothing more than to learn to read and write. Thus, before we left, I wrote them sentences on two sheets of paper and handed it to them.)
After we hiked down the mountain, Dennis took us to the Ilkurot (Maasai for 'dusty place') Nursery and Primary School, which is a charitable project started by our safari company. Donna Duggan met us there, giving us a tour of the grounds and telling of the school. Most of the younger kids attending the school have never developed fine motor skills - instead of crayons and coloring books, the children learned to wield a stick with which to herd cattle, or to carry a jug to get water. As a result, when they were first handed a pencil and paper, the kids would mash the pencil into the paper, breaking it. And when they installed monkey bars, the kids would try to walk across them.
To finish the day, we followed Donna home, where she let us shower and freshen up before beginning our long trip home. We spent our last ground hours in Africa chatting with Donna about safari, and travel, and exotic places. Quite a fine way to wrap up an incredible journey.
Of course, we still had the ride to the airport. People lined the road leaving Arusha as market day wound down. And as a going-away present, the near-constant ceiling of clouds had disappeared, leaving us with unobstructed views of Mt. Meru - and our only distant views of Mt. Kilimanjaro, glowing in the fading light. it's hard to believe that I climbed that a week ago...
It's hard to believe most of this incredible vacation!

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