Friday, April 04, 2008

Lions and cheetahs and elephants! Oh my!

Being an animal lover and an amateur photographer, it's been something of a lifelong dream for me to go on safari in Africa and see the big animals in their natural habitat. I always felt silly about the term "safari," although really it just means "journey" in Swahili, and it does not necessarily mean that you carry a rifle and wear a goofy hat. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, to be greeted by hordes of locals calling out "hakuna matata" as they jockeyed for our attention and dollars, I started to feel I might as well have had the goofy hat. Thankfully we only spent one day in Arusha before departing on our 7-day camping safari.

We saw so many wonderful things that I can't fit them all here, so I'm just going to have to give you the highlights. I'll leave out the pictures, so you'll have to check them out here:

Day 1: Lake Manyara National Park

We were picked up at our hotel by our crew from Sunny Safaris: Severini, our super-friendly guide, and Felix, a cook, who arrived in an overloaded jeep and drove us to Lake Manyara National Park, famous for its flamingo-filled lake and lions that - unlike anywhere else in the world - sleep in trees. Lions like to be able to roll around and sleep on their backs, but there are so many elephants in the park that the lions have taken to sleeping where they can't be accidentally trampled. Luckily for us, we actually saw one of the lions in a tree, although we woke her up and she took off. We also saw many giraffes, who seemed more interested in us than we were in them and would stare and stare at us, lots of elephants, and tons of baboons and impalas. To finish off the day, we went to the lake, which surprisingly made the sound of the ocean - would you believe that thousands upon thousands of flamingos squawking in unison sounds like the tide coming in? We camped inside the park, and because it was the beginning of the rainy season, we were the only people there, so we went to bed listening to the sounds of birds in the trees, bushbabies rustling in the camp, and hyenas whooping in the distance.

Day 2: Lake Manyara to Ndutu Area (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)

Today we spent the morning in Lake Manyara NP and then drove to Ndutu. Notable funny animals of the morning were mongooses mating on the road and vervet monkeys, whose balls (forgive me) are so fluorescent blue you could see them a mile away. Seems like it would attract predators to a sensitive spot, but maybe I'm missing something. On the way to Ndutu we got our first view over the famous Ngorongoro Crater and some very close views of zebras and gazelles.

Day 3: Ndutu (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)

We had come to this area on the recommendation of someone who thought the wildebeest migration would be here at this time of year, but an added bonus is that, because it's not a national park, you can drive off the road for better views. In the morning we picked up a park ranger to help us locate the wildebeest, and not long after we set off, we came across four cheetahs hanging out just at the side of the road. It was a mom and 3 juveniles, who were playing around, practising their hunting skills, our guide said. Later we went to the riverbank, which was dotted with carcasses being picked apart by vultures - quite the dramatic sight. After lunch we came across a pride of lions lying in the grass. First we saw 5 females sprawled out and digesting, and then a little ways away, the male, relaxing and guarding what was left of a zebra. As luck would have it, the females (who do all the hunting) spotted a wildebeest, so we got to watch them hunt. They eventually gave up on it, but one of them did have a go at a jackal, who narrowly escaped. And finally we did find the "great herd" of wildebeest - over 2 million of them gathered on the plain. They are not migrating at this time of year, but they run around and chase each other to keep fit, and well, seeing 2 million wildebeest, even if they are just standing around, is still pretty impressive.

Day 4: Ndutu to Serengeti National Park

In the morning, the first animals we came across were two hyenas feasting on a dead wildebeest, surrounded by vultures and storks waiting their turn. Later on, we saw an abandoned baby wildebeest waiting for its (presumably killed by a lion) mom to come back and get it, and it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. The babies are totally helpless on their own - no other wildebeest adopts an abandoned baby, so they just stand around and wait till a lion comes to eat them. I wanted to bring him home, but we decided the quarantine process in Belgium was probably too complicated. Anyway, we arrived at the famed Serengeti and it looked a lot like you would imagine - the twisted acacia trees and impossibly flat landscape ("serengeti" means "endless plain" in the local language) - but unfortunately it rained all afternoon, so we hung out at the campsite.

Day 5: Serengeti National Park

We saw a lot of animals, but we were a bit spoiled by our luck at Ndutu, plus the fact that we could no longer drive off the road and that there were 10 times as many people here made it less impressive. We saw more lions, 2 leopards far away and sleeping in the shade, lots of birds, a big group of hippos (including one baby nursing under water), a horny elephant trying unsuccessfully to mate, an endless herd of buffaloes running past us, accompanied by a flock of egrets, some of whom were getting a free ride on the buffaloes' backs, ostriches, warthogs (who run with their little tails straight up in the air), zebras (who really do roll around on their backs like they show on the Tanzanian postage stamps), and more. There must have been 30 jeeps clustered around the leopards and lions, though - we were lucky it was the low season. We heard in summer the jeeps are so thick you can barely even see the animals.

Day 6: Serengeti and Olduvai Gorge

Today we went to the "cradle of humanity," which they asked us to tell everyone was misnamed by a German guy with poor attention to detail, and the real name of it is the "Oldupai" Gorge. Anyway, the oldest known footprint in the world is there, but it's been covered up for conservation, so you can only see a cast of it in the museum.

Day 7: Ngorongoro Crater

For many people, this is either the highlight of their safari or the only thing they do if they have only 1 day free in Tanzania. Essentially it's a big natural zoo - it's a caldera: a giant plain surrounded on all sides by steep walls. So there are many animals in a small area with very little to hide behind. The same could be said of the tourists. Still, it's one of the only places in the world you can see rhinos in the wild, and we did, complete with baby rhinos. Not just that, but a lake full of flamingos, various members of the antelope family, jackals, many kinds of birds, zebras (lots and lots of zebras - did you know baby zebras are brown?), wildebeest, buffaloes, ostriches... We also got a nice show from a hyena nursing her baby about 20 feet away from us. We learned that hyenas are really good moms - they take good care of their babies and most of the babies survive to adulthood. This was pretty clear to see, as the mom let the baby nurse as long as he wanted, and she put her arm over him to protect him. It was touching.

The highlight of the day - of the trip, even - came when we followed the trail of jeeps to a pride of lions lounging around on the grass. There were two adult males, several adult females, 4 adorable 1-month old cubs, and a young (maybe 1 year old) one too. The lions were all panting in the heat, and so when cars would come up, the lions would lie down next to them to get some shade. Now, male lions have two jobs in life: 1) mark their territory by peeing on everything, and 2) mate once every 15 minutes for a week when a female is in heat. Not a bad life. Anyway, one of them decided he liked the shade provided by our car, so he made sure nobody else was going to take it by, er, marking it. A lot. And then he and a female lay down half under our car.

Our guide did not like this very much, so he very carefully and slowly moved the car until we were able to get away from the lions. At this point we went a little further to check out the wildebeest they had just killed. A young male was still eating, and there must have been 30 hyenas waiting nearby for him to finish before they descended on the carcass. The lion left the carcass and came towards us with a whole leg in his mouth and settled in the grass to eat in peace, and the hyenas and vultures had a major party on what was left.

We eventually went back to the group of lions, where the cubs were now jockeying for a place underneath the mom for shade, but the mom was having none of it. We learned now that lions are terrible mothers, and that most of their cubs do not make it to adulthood, simply because they get neglected. We saw the contrast with the hyenas - one of the babies tried to nurse, and the mom let him for about 30 seconds before rolling over, taking the baby, still clinging desperately to the nipple, with her.

Well this was quite the grand finale for our safari. It was something really unique - and we know this because our guide, who has been doing this for over 8 years, took out his camera for the first time and started taking pictures. You know it's special when that happens!

Day 8: Return to civilization

Today was our drive back, and we visited the human zoo that is Mto wa mbu, a village put together by Dutch people in which all the tribes of Tanzania live together and let tourists come see them. Highly not recommended. And then we went to the snake park, where we saw many of East Africa's venomous (and non-venomous) snakes, thankfully behind glass. After we returned to Arusha, we were whisked off to Moshi to shower (finally!!) and begin the next phase of our trip, which I'll write about later on, since most people probably already stopped reading several paragraphs ago.

Anyway, for anyone considering going, I highly recommend our company Sunny Safaris and going in the low season - it really didn't rain that much, and it was totally worth it for the relative peace and quiet.

Stay tuned for tales of Kilimanjaro...


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