Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Lake, a Crater, and the Place Where You Can't See the End

       Last week I did something I didn't think I would be doing for a long time. I didn't plan on coming to Africa this year, but this internship came up and here I am in Tanzania. So last week I went on safari (the Swahili word for journey) in some of the most beautiful places on Earth:  Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. CHECK

       Five other interns and I took a bus from Dar es Salaam up to Arusha in northern Tanzania, a trip that was supposed to take 9 hours but instead took 11 and a half, even with the excessive speed we were going and all the passing we were doing. But this is Africa time, I'm getting used to it after two months. A driver from the safari company, Bush Routes, picked us up at the bus station and took us to get supplies (ie. beer and popcorn). We thought it fitting that the duka (store) we stopped at was called Mzungu Super Market. Mzungu means "white person" here in East Africa, and that's what I'm called nearly every day. It used to bother me, but after a couple of months I guess I've gotten used to that too.

Wearing our Masai shukas in the Ngorongo
The expert tire changers, Hassan and Said
        In the morning of day one we were picked up by our driver/guide Hassan, our cook Said, and a trainee, Richard. We stopped at a market out of town to get Maasai shukas, a checked fabric that is the traditional clothing of the Maasai tribe, to use as blankets. They were originally made of animal hide but now I think they're mass produced in China. Meh, they still look authentic. And they kept us warm while we checked out zebras at 6am.
       Before we set off for the 120 km drive from Arusha to Lake Manyara we stopped to check the tire pressure. Not that it did us much good because about halfway there one of the back tires blew out. Hassan and Said had us back on the road in no time though and we made it safely to the entrance of Lake Manyara. Once we were inside the park entrance we had a slightly larger problem: this time the clutch went. It was starting to seem like this safari was doomed from the get-go. But being the positive, plucky Canadians we are, we cracked open the beers that we were smart enough to get at the Mzungu shop and spent the next three hours drinking our Kilis and watching the troop of olive baboons that had surrounded our truck looking for any ndizi (bananas) we might possibly drop. Sorry rafikis, only bias here.
Baboons and beer. I think they go well together
        After three hours of entertaining ourselves by taking pictures of baboons, a friend of Hassan's that was driving by offered to take us to the hippo pool while the clutch was being repaired. His truck looked cool, and who doesn't want to see hippos? So in we hopped and we went off to the hippo pool. On the way I saw my first ever wild giraffe and then the first live wildebeest I've ever laid eyes on. They were quite a ways away from us, but it was still exciting to see animals other than baboons. Then we came to the hippo pool, where all the hippos were underwater. All you could see were their ears. I now know that is the way a hippopotamus spends most of its life. Seeing one out of water is a major event.
This vervet was happy to see us
        Hassan and the boys must have got the clutch fixed right after we left because a few minutes after we arrived at the hippo pool our truck pulled up. After that all the animals started coming out of the woodwork. Lake Manyara is the most underrated of the three parks we went to, and I absolutely loved it. The setting is beautiful under the dramatic western escarpment of the Rift Valley, and it is the only park in the area that is green all year round. It may not have wildlife everywhere you look, but that's the exciting part: you have to seek them out. We saw more wildebeest and giraffes, and then there were zebras, cute little dik diks, impalas, and many other animals. When we saw the vervet monkeys every one of us yelled out "blue balls!" at the same time, which would be really odd if vervets didn't have bright blue and scarlet genitalia when aroused. There are vervets on a university campus here in Dar, so we'd just been waiting to see them in the wild. Our first day ended up being really good in spite of the breakdowns. Plus dinner was awesome (Said makes probably the best homemade soup I've ever had) and we got to stay in a lodge that night when we had only paid for camping.

       On the way out of Lake Manyara on day two we saw the tree climbing lions that the lake is famous for but many people think are just a rumour because they're rarely seen. But they're real, people! And they climb trees like no other adult lion does. This was the first lion I've ever seen in the wild, and it was in a tree. That was pretty awesome. After the lion sighting we had another hours long drive from the lake to the Serengeti. Along the way
   we saw many Masai, from very young boys to older men, herding goats, cattle, and donkeys just as they have always done. And somewhere along the way, just because it was us in the vehicle and we're not meant to get anywhere in Africa quickly, the same back tire blew again. It didn't take too long to get it fixed but we still ended up getting to the Serengeti late. We had time to do an afternoon game drive, but it was pouring rain so I think most of the animals were in hiding. It's not like there weren't any animals at all though. We still saw herds of buffalo, hartebeest, elephants, ostriches, and more zebras. We also saw Pride Rock (you know, from the Lion King?). It does exist! But then we saw it again. And again. And again. It turns out there are at least a hundred granite kopjes in the Serengeti that could have been Disney's inspiration. Oh well, the first one was exciting anyway. And from then on  I had "the Circle of Life" stuck in my head. Even when the pop top roof didn't close properly during a heavy rain, and we got soaked while inside the truck. But I'm from BC, I love rain.....It's all part of the adventure.
What? Getting rained on inside isnt normal?
       We got to our campsite and started to set up our tents just as the sun was setting. Then this Aussie guy appeared out of nowhere and said "you can't put those tents there, there are safety rules", and he got very angry and rude. Apparently tents can't be close together for safety reasons? What are they going to do, catch on fire? I think we would  rather be closer together with the lions, hyenas, and warthogs roaming around outside. Our guide, who camps here all the time, had never heard of this rule but we moved anyway. Normally I love Aussies, but this guy was a major jerk. No wonder there was so much space around his tent.

         On the third day we got up very early for the morning game drive and saw the sun rise in the Serengeti, and once again "the Circle of Life" began playing over and over in my head. We got a much better view of the Serengeti on this day than we did on the day before, and I could see where it's name came from. Siringit, in Maa, the language of the Maasai, means "place where you can't see the end" (in the words of Hassan). Or more simply put, "endless plain". In the light of day the Serengeti stretched on forever, and I really couldn't see the end. It was like the Canadian Prairies, except there weren't any farmhouses or towns to break it up. In the Serengeti there are only lonely acacia trees and herds of animals, and the occasional Maasai village which blends into its surroundings.
Sunrise in the Serengeti

       The Serengeti, easily Tanzania's most famous park, covers an area of 14,763 sq km and is contiguous with the Masai Mara in Kenya. It is between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara that the great migration, a mass movement of over one million wildebeest in search of food and water, occurs every year. This is the largest movement of animals on Earth, and seeing it on the Discovery Channel made me fall in love with this (what some would call ugly) animal called the wildebeest. They do have a quite comical appearance, and according to African legend they were assembled from spare parts, but I have a soft spot for them. I think we just missed the migration this year, but we still saw the occasional bearded rebel wildebeest that stayed behind. What we did see on this day were more elephants and warthogs and hoofed mammals such as gazelles, and zebras (there are 200,000 zebras in the Serengeti alone). And we saw not one, or two or three, but four leopards. Three of them were a mother and her two teenage cubs playing together, and then we saw another lone leopard later. We also saw a very handsome male lion lounging on a mound with what appeared to be a collar around his neck. I guess they're studying him, but a collar doesn't seem to me to be the best way to study a wild animal.
Impalas keep their eyes on two playing leopards
        We had more truck adventures in the Serengeti, of course, because we're just lucky like that. First we had another flat tire (a different tire this time though) and then we got stuck in the mud. Another truck stopped to help but we still had six girls in flip flops standing in the mud trying to push the truck out. On top of that our truck started to have radiator troubles, and the boys had to put litre after litre of water into it. On our way from the Serengeti to the Ngorongoro Crater that afternoon we had to stop numerous times to let the truck cool down and put more water in it. I don't even know how much water we went through. We actually had to get bottles of water from other safari groups driving by, it was that bad. And one of the windows started leaking. Luckily not on my side this time, because our quick fix of stuffing a dirty rag in the window didn't work all that well.

      Late in the afternoon we stopped at a Maasai village that does tours. Not really because we wanted to, but because the truck needed to cool down anyway. The tour that we did was very awkward. We paid 20,000 Tsh each (about $12CAD) to go into this village, where we were rushed around and then rushed out. We first went with a Maasai in groups of two into a house. The Masai live in small round houses called bomas, which are made by the women out of sticks and mud. They have no windows, only a small entrance and a very small hole in the roof for light and for the smoke from their fire to escape. The boma I entered had a very low ceiling and only had room for two beds and a fire pit. Five people live in this home; I hope they like each other.  The bomas are arranged in a circle inside a fence made of sticks. In the centre of the circle is another enclosed area where baby cows and goats are kept, and on the edge of the village are fenced in areas where the adult goats and cattle are kept in close quarters at night. We paid a visit to the cattle and the goats and then we were rushed outside the fence to a small building that serves as the school. The children were in the school at almost 6pm, so they were obviously there just for the tourists. We were in the school for all of a minute and heard the children sing part of a song before we were ushered out again, followed by a room full of dirty children. We were brought to an area where they were selling overpriced beaded jewelry and we were urged to buy something before we were rushed off back to the truck. This whole experience was disappointing and I hate that people live like this, in this village that's basically been set up for tourists.
A Maasai boma

       That night we set up camp right on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Once again we set up close to another tent, but this camper didn't mind. He said we could move our tents closer, or even come on into his if we got lost. How nice! During the night there were wild boars sniffing around the tents. We didn't see them but we sure saw what they left behind. I'm just happy I didn't step in it.
Chilling in our tent on the rim of the crater, staying safe from wild boars
     We definitely saved the best for last. Hassan had taken the truck into the mechanics the night before so were good to go and on the fourth day we got up before sunrise and descended over 600 metres from the heavily forested rim of the Ngorongoro Crater to the plains of the massive caldera below.The Ngorongoro Crater is part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, an 8300 sq km area consisting of the Crater Highlands and vast stretches of plains, bush, and woodland, as well as a long string of volcanoes and calderas, most of which are inactive. Large calderas such as the Ngorongoro Crater are now teeming with vegetation and wildlife because of their fertile soils and favourable climate. At about 20 km wide the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the largest calderas in the world and is said to have the most dense concentration of wildlife in Africa, and this seems pretty accurate. Animals flock here due to the permanent water and grassland. Everywhere you look there are herds of zebra, wildebeest, impalas, gazelles, and massive buffalo. I couldn't believe how many wildebeest there were. They may have already migrated north from the Serengeti, but there were hundreds of thousands of them in the crater. And where there were wildebeest there were zebras. I think most of the 200,000 zebras that are supposed to be in the Serengeti are actually here. I've never seen so many animals in one day.

       The many animals we saw also included several hyenas. There were some on their own but there was also a large family, including pups, playing and darting in and out of their den. Hyenas are surprisingly cute when you see them up close. I always had this image of hyenas giggling maniacally, piling on top of each other and rolling around as they tear into the flesh of a recently killed wildebeest. Or even disemboweling still-live prey on the run. Hyenas are terrible, frightening creatures, but when they're just hanging out, sleeping next to road or playing with their pups you kind of forget all that. They look rather sweet actually. If a little bloody.

Cows on steroids?

    And the best part of this whole safari? The lions. We saw quite a few lions in the distance, mostly sleeping, but we did see a couple males out for a walk. And then we came upon three females: two laying down in the grass and one literally right on the road. Being this close to a lion is a crazy feeling. We were obviously in the safety of the truck, but still, she was right there! This is nothing like seeing them in a zoo. This lioness likely just took down a large animal, like the dead buffalo we saw surrounded by other lions. She is powerful, she is beautiful, and she doesn't care in the slightest that we're there. She was just sauntering around the road between trucks and even laying down right behind some of them. I was standing up out of the top of the truck, practically right next to her, separated by nothing more than a few feet of air. If she was desperate for food she could have easily had me or anyone else there for breakfast. Not that this ever happens in the crater, but the possibility is there. Ever watched The Ghost and the Darkness? Yeah, that was a true story and man-eating lions exist. Even if this was the only exciting thing that happened on this safari, being this close to these massive felines would have made it all worth it. 

        Even on our way out of the crater we were continually seeing animals. We actually saw hippos out of water! One big guy sleeping in the grass and a whole family, including a baby, playing by the water. Just to prove to us that they do come out of the water occasionally. We saw a lot more zebras, some elephants, and some monkeys just before we started the climb out of the crater. On the very bumpy and windy (we stood up out of the truck the whole way) way up we each cracked another Kili, put on some Bob Marley, and watched the herds on the crater floor fade away til they looked like ants. When we reached the rim of the crater we saw another tree-climbing lion. She crossed the road right behind us, and walked into the woods and up a tree. Two sightings in one safari? That's luck. 

These guys eat prickle bushes. Yum?

Probably the last tree climbing lion I'm going to see for a while

     Despite the challenges we faced, I think this was probably the best safari in the history of safaris. We may have had a lot of car troubles, but it was still an incredible trip, and it was definitely the girls I was with that made it so.  If even one person had been angry, upset, or sullen about any of the problems we had it would have changed the mood of the whole trip. But J, K, D, A, M and myself were really positive the entire time and made the best out of every situation. Whether it was a leaking truck, a flat tire, disgusting drop hole toilets, angry campers, or the lack of cheetahs and rhinos (not so surprising, as they are both endangered), we all accepted it and made the best of it. How many other people get to visit a mechanic shop in the middle of the Serengeti? Twice? I couldn't have asked for a better group of girls to travel with. Driving through the plains of Africa with these girls, singing Buffalo Soldier with a Kili in hand, surrounded by zebras, hyenas, lions, and wildebeest will forever be one of my favourite memories.
You may have eluded me this time rhino, but I still love you

      This trip also left me with hope for the future of my adopted home of the last couple months. Twenty eight percent of Tanzania's area is under some form of protection such as national parks, game reserves, and conservation areas. This is a higher percentage than any other country and is a huge commitment for such a poor nation. Living here in Tanzania I've learned that the Tanzanian government makes a lot of poor decisions, but the decision to preserve heaven on Earth was definitely the right one. It leaves me wondering what else the government of this country could do if they cared enough to do it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Jesse! You are so lucky to see the things you are seeing! And to think I got excited to see a real skunk in my backyard! Continue to have a fantastic time. And your pictures are incredible too!-----Sherri


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