Friday, August 08, 2014

African Adventure: Tanzania - The Serengeti

June 24th

Coming down from the Ngorongoro Caldera on the way to the Serengeti.
We left our camp on the rim of the Ngorongoro caldera and headed west.  As we descended you could see vast expanses of grassland ... dry grassland.


Our first stop of the day was at a Maasai village.  We passed several villages before we got to ours.  The others had two, three, or more jeeps parked outside the village walls.  We had ours to ourselves.  The village was roughly circular.  Livestock (goats in this village) were gathered in the center surrounded by a multiple rings of living huts.  The edge of the village was surrounded by a wall/fence made of thorny acacia branches.

The High Jumping Maasai Dance.
The Maasai came out of the village and greeted us with a dance.  We were escorted into the village where another jumping dance was performed.  I filmed and took pictures while the rest of our group participated (I do not dance).

After the dance our group was split into two groups of two and we went inside a hut where a Maasai explained their life and customs.  The hut was made of branches, grasses and animal dung.  The tiny room had two beds - one for adults and one for children.  There was a small fire in the center.

The educational part was followed by the shopping part.  Items made by the villagers were arrayed in a circle around the livestock pen.  We walked around and picked out some interesting items and gifts for the family.

After the market we visited the small school where the children demonstrated there recitation skills by saying the alphabet and their numbers.  We distributed some of the gifts that our travel mates (Ls and Gg) had shared with us and donated to the school fund.

This whole visit felt more like a dog and pony show for the tourists.  It was interesting but it felt very staged.  Frankly, I doubt it is easy to get an authentic experience nowadays.  I think the authentic experience that I'm thinking of is now a piece of history ... a piece of a bygone era when the world was a much larger place.

The road into the Serengeti from the top of the hill.
We said our goodbyes and continued on to the Serengeti.  We stopped at one of the entrances of Serengeti National Park.  As our driver was taking care of the formalities, I followed a short trail up a hill next to the entrance.  From the top you got a great view of the flat brown landscape.

The expanse of the Serengeti awaits.
The drive from the entrance to our camp was the first of our five safari drives in the Serengeti.  The landscape reminded me a lot of the Maasai Mara which made sense since the southern Maasai Mara butts up against the northern Serengeti - they are essentially two halves of one big area.  While the landscape was the same, the animals were different.  More accurately, the quantity of animals was different.

Zebra  and Wildebeest everywhere.
Two million wildebeest and over eight hundred thousand zebra migrate north to south and back following the rain.  This year the rain had been a bit strange.  The herds had been heading north toward the Maasai Mara but the rain had returned to the Serengeti and the herds had turned around and returned to the central Serengeti where we would be staying.  During our first safari drive we witnessed for the first time what a large number of animals there are in the Serengeti. The herds stretched out to the horizon as far as the eye could see.  It's kind of amazing that one zebra is interesting but thousands of them inspire awe.  It's one of those things that are hard to explain and the pictures don't quite do it justice ... you have to see it for yourself.

Zebra Butt.
Before heading for camp our driver/guide found us a leopard.  It was lounging up in a tree.  There was a thompson gazelle carcass hanging in the tree as well.  I wish we could have gotten closer but we could not go off road and leopards are pretty skittish anyway and would have probably run away.  We still got a good look at it.  It took us a while but we finally got good looks at all the big five.

A leopard in a tree on the right.  Its kill is on the left just below the leaf line.
We stopped at our camp.  It was set up similar to the Ngorongoro Caldera camp.  We had a late lunch and took a few hours off before heading back out for our second safari drive.  There was a reminder of my life back home on the table in the lounge area - I resisted the urge to play.

Zebra and wildebeest grazing as the sun goes down.
The second safari drive was like the first - animals everywhere.  You would think after being on safari for ... nine days that we would be tired of it all by now.  You couldn't be farther from the truth.  Every drive was accompanied by the anticipation of seeing something new and we saw something new almost every time we went out in the jeep.

Yawning lion.
We returned to our camp and headed for our tents to freshen up before dinner.  We walked by zebra grazing outside the tent.  That night we enjoyed some more bush TV along with a large family of fourteen (Grandparents all the way down to grand children) and a British mother-daughter couple.  The family was obviously wealthy and, while they were nice, they kept dropping names.  I lost interest in them when one of them mentioned golfing with the Dalai Lama.

A long exposure of the night sky and  tree lit by firelight.  Doesn't really do it any justice.
After dinner and admiring the incredible sky full of stars we went to bed in our tents.  In the middle of the night I woke up to the sound of hyenas yipping and lions growling and making other noises behind our tent.  This was followed by the sound of people running.  Took me a while to go back to sleep that night.

June 25th

In the morning we talked to the staff of the camp.  They confirmed some lions went through the camp the night before ... probably looking for water they said.  When we asked what they did when lions came around they said they got in the jeeps.  Made me wonder ... they were in metal vehicles while we were in canvas tents.  That explains the waivers we signed when we checked in.

A spotted hyena.  We all agreed they were ugly and a bit evil looking.
We went out for our third Serengeti safari drive.  We approached a group of four or five jeeps - a group of jeeps almost always guaranteed an animal was close by.  They apparently were waiting for some lions to get up out of the tall grass.  That's when our guide/driver worked his magic.  Our guide had a recording of different animal sounds ... including the sound of lions roaring.  As a matter of fact we thought the lions noises the night before might have been our driver playing a joke.  He put on the lion roars and cranked up the volume.  Two lion heads immediately popped up above the grass and looked around.  As soon as they appeared you could hear whirring of dozens of cameras going off.  This was followed by a cheer.  The other jeeps had been waiting for a while.  I think our guide should have gotten a tip from the other jeeps.  He repeated this trick several times during our stay in the Serengeti.

Two cheetah sitting on a termite mound.
The termite mounds were everywhere and a favorite perch for cheetah and other animals.
During our two safari drives we saw lions, leopard, elephant, giraffe, cute little dik-diks, and our first ... and only ... nile crocodile. We watched elephants drinking. We watched birds dive bombing a monitor lizard. We watched a hippopotamus try to eat palm fronds. We saw a lion hunting a wildebeest but she didn't make a kill. I was so excited when she started to sprint that I forgot to take the action shot (D'OH!). We saw two cheetahs stalking some thompson gazelle. Nearly a dozen jeeps also saw these cheetah (there can be over sixty jeeps in one place during high season). As the cheetah slowly approached the herd of gazelle, jeeps repositioned themselves between the cheetah and the gazelle. This ended up discouraging the cheetah who turned around and sauntered off. Another kill opportunity missed.

Elephants enjoying the shade of an acacia tree.
Every night when we returned to our camps we would talk to the other guests and compare notes on what we all saw.  The large rich family had the bad habit of always one upping us.  When we saw a lion, they saw a lion make a kill.  When we say a cheetah, they had a cheetah jump on the hood of their jeep ... on their son's birthday.  On this day we topped them all by seeing a unicorn ... well, it was an impala with a broken horn but they didn't need to know that.  When we said we saw a unicorn some of the young members of the family looked at us wide eyed and asked "really?"

A rare unicorn.
This night we only hear hyenas and, yes, they sound like they are laughing ... sort of maniacally actually.  Freaky sounding.

June 26th

Peek-A-Boo I see you!
Our last day in the Serengeti consisted of one long safari drive with a picnic lunch.  This drive was mostly on the savannah.  The grassy expanse seemed endless at times which explains the name 'Serengeti' which means 'endless plains' in the local Maasai language.

Mother and baby elephant.  The baby was pestering the mother.
On this drive we ended up taking a few movies ... something we should have been doing all along.  We saw more lion (including one with a radio collar), mongoose, elephant, giraffe, and many others.  We ate our picnic lunch within sight of a lion.  We saw a confrontation between a lion and a ridgeback antelope but neither of them seemed interested in running.  The guide thought the lion was probably full and not interested in another kill.  We saw a leopard.  We saw a pair of cheetah who had just fed - they both had distended stomachs.  Here are the videos the Wife took that day (her favorite is the dung beetle):


The large family had moved on this morning so in the evening our group of four, the two British, and a newly arrived Swiss couple had the whole camp to ourselves.  We had a nice night of conversation and excellent food.  We asked to meet the chef here too and we discovered the kitchen was nearly identical to the Ngorongoro Caldera camp kitchen.  Amazing they could serve high quality food to twenty people all at once with such limited equipment.  Their food was so good that even I ate the soup ... and I'm not a fan of soup but it was good.

Loved these red and blue lizards.
Our safari was nearing its end.  Tomorrow out travel mates would be heading home and we would move on to Zanzibar.  It was an incredible experience that I will not soon forget.

A whole lot of pictures of the Serengeti and its wildlife can be found in my 2014-06 Tanzania Google Photos album.

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