(Editors Note: Alex and I are collaborating on the safari posts, she is leading on the post about the animals and I am leading on the safari experience.)
Our safari guide, Selemani, met us at a lodge near the Arusha airport and loaded our gear into the back of his safari Land Cruiser that became our home on wheels for the next six days. Over that period Selemani became our guide, teacher, and friend. It is an intense experience to spend so much time in a jeep, bouncing over rough dusty African roads for eight hours a day – six days straight. I’m glad to say that we managed quite well during the adventure, enjoying ourselves most of the time. Of course at the end of the safari all of us were very tired and all of us had stomach problems that required antibiotics. Alex gave us one scary moment when she passed out when we stopped for a toilet break at the entrance of Ngorongoro crater – she recovered quickly and we went on with the business of searching for a rhino in the crater. Overall our African safari is the most memorable activity undertaken this year.
We began the tour at Olasiti Lodge which is an oasis of trees and greenery surrounded by the crowded, dusty, noisy streets of Arusha town. As we drove through the gates into the facility we were engulfed in the illusion of a luxurious forest resort. I can’t recall staying at a hotel where the world just outside the gate was so thoroughly masked. We didn’t even hear the incessant car horns from the roads behind the trees.
The first game drive in Tanrangire National Park overwhelmed us with the density and diversity of animals. I shot over 250 pictures and we were all very excited. Within a couple of hours I was concerned that we had “peaked” on day-one of a seven-day safari. It seemed like we encountered (usually at close range) every African mammal that I can remember seeing on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Remember that show from the 70’s? Every Sunday night at 8 PM a dude named Jim in a safari shirt did something stupid (like wading into a watering hole) to have a wild life encounter for the benefit of America’s prime time viewers. On these safaris everyone stays in the trucks because it is obvious that on exiting the car one moves from the top to the middle of the food-chain; just like our ancestors who evolved on the same African plains two million years ago. The danger of the environment was really driven home when we drove past a recently dead zebra lying in the grass, Selemani suggested that it was probably due to a snake bite because the carcass didn’t look like a predator took it down. Right, message received, don’t wander off into the grass around here.
We also passed a tree with a bunch of hanging logs. Selemani explained that the logs are Maasai bee hives that they use to harvest honey. These are the famous african bees that caused so much hysteria in the USA during the 1970’s – remember the movie “The Savage Bees” when a red VW Beatle and the Superdome air conditioning system were used to freeze the killer bees? The Maasai just use smoke from a camp fire when they harvest. Selemani assured us that the bees are very dangerous – it is not all hype.
The Maasai people live in this rugged land and maintain their traditional way of life. We spotted many individuals on the large plains, minding their cattle and goats. The men wear blankets and carry spears with an iron point. At first I thought the spear might just be part of their traditional garb, but it soon became clear that a spear is a handy tool to discourage wild animals (such as lions, leopards, hyenas, etc.) from eating them or their livestock. The national parks are not fenced, so the animals roam freely around the environment.
The Maasai boys enter training to become warriors after they are circumcised at about age 15 or 16. As part of their training they dress in black robes and paint designs on their face with white paint. They spend a year or so roaming around the countryside in small groups, visiting other areas and learning to be responsible men. When I mentioned to Selemani that a bunch of unsupervised 15 year old boys roaming around seemed like a recipe for trouble.
At first Selemani was a little confused by my comment, then he explained that in Tanzania children are under the supervision of all adults in the community. Adults have the responsibility, and authority, to discipline any child they see committing an offense. Parents consistently side with the punishing adult, so complaining to one’s parents about unjust discipline just brings more punishment… So, boys can roam around the countryside and if they get out of line, the local adults take care of it. We stopped on the roadside for a few pictures with these boys, they were very polite and friendly, and they were fascinated by Alex’s blonde hair.
Tsetse flies are nasty little buggers. They take a chunk of flesh with them when they fly off, and it hurts. Fortunately the Tsetse flies in this area are not spreading disease to humans, but they are still enough of a pest for the rangers to hang up blue and black fly traps. The colors attract the flies and the fabric is impregnated with insecticide. Unfortunately Alex’s fleece is the same shades of black and blue, so she was careful to not wear it when the windows were down.
The unique geology of the rift valley shaped this amazing environment. The rift is a result of the separation and collision of tectonic plates. One plate is rising and the other subsiding, which creates large abrupt cliffs with broad plains at the top and shallow lakes at the bottom. Also, about two million years ago a volcano fueled by the rift exploded and created a huge symmetrical crater (Ngorongoro) and an immense plain of hardpan that supports grass but prevents virtually all deep-rooted plants from growing (Serengeti).
The Serengeti plains are vast and rugged. We drove on unpaved roads for the better part of a day to reach our camp in the center of the park. The dirt road through the park is well-travelled by safari trucks such as ours and commercial vehicles carrying all manner of goods. The road is a “short cut” for the truck drivers, assuming there are no problems with the truck. We passed a few trucks broken down on the side of the road, one was full of large burlap sacks of fish on their way to market from Lake Victoria (the smell was intense). Four guys transferred the bags from the broken truck, the sun beat down on them, and thick dust billowed up as every vehicle passed. Sometimes short cuts don’t work out as one hopes. The road has a washboard surface that rattled our teeth as we flew along in our Land Cruiser. Selemani told us the African Massage is included in the price of the safari. That night I slept very well after eight hours of the African brand of massage.
The camps in Serengeti set a new standard for luxury and comfort in a tent. We had three hot meals prepared and served to us in a dining area with white table cloths. A camp fire was set up every night about half an hour before sunset so campers could congregate around the fire in comfortable chairs, sip cold beverages, trade safari storeys, and watch the sun set. Once the sun set the chef came out to the fire, described the dishes he had prepared for dinner, and invited us to be seated. It was very civilized. The tents were comfortable and kept all the critters out. We were warned to keep the zippers closed at all times so bugs (or other things) wouldn’t come in and bother us in the night. Each tent had a sink, toilet, and shower.
When a camper wanted a warm shower you just let the porters know and in about 15 minutes they carried over 5 gallons of heated water to the back of your tent, then hauled it up on a rope so the camper could enjoy a warm gravity fed shower. Suzanne and I only had the heart to take one warm shower while we were there because we didn’t want to impose on the guys to carry the water – but they didn’t seem to mind at all.
We were warned to only wear closed toe shoes and only walk in the cut grass, since “things” may bother us if we walk in the tall grass. We were also warned not to venture behind the tents, since wild animals move freely back there. We were also warned not to leave the tent after dark unless accompanied by an attendant. At first I thought this was overkill on the precautions, until the lions started roaring from the hill just behind the camp while we ate dinner. Then more lions roared from the area down the hill. Yikes! They were all around us. That night I woke up a few times and heard animals walking around just outside the tent and saw their tracks all around the tent in the morning. We never left our tent during the night.