East Africa Day 9 – Serengeti safari

Tanzania — By on October 6, 2009 11:54 am

Woke early, like everyone else, and ate breakfast – a delicious and varied one prepared by Lawrence – pancake with honey, toast with butter and jam, fruit and loads and loads of sweet Kilimanjaro tea.

After Lawrence had packed away my tent, we set off for a long drive to the Serengeti via Ngorogoro Crater.  We passed a number of villages on the way, and a Masai market, full of the ‘keepers of the land’ in their colourful red, purple and blue robes, carrying their trademark sticks and knives.  We saw them later herding groups of donkeys.  At one point, Baraka stopped the jeep, and a group of them came over, 3 women and a child, burnt blacker than I’d ever seen anyone by the relentless sun.  The women were all completely bald, and one of them carried a black goat on her shoulders.  They approached the jeep with caution, but were smiling when Baraka spoke to them.  I said ‘jambo’.  I couldn’t believe I was here talking to these people in their lands, lands which they have presided over for thousands of years.  These are a simple people, who preserve a very traditional way of life in their little mud huts and their land.  Their earlobes had holes that had been stretched wide apart, golf ball sized.  They looked at the strange white person in front of them curiously.  We drove slowly off, and the fascinating encounter stayed immortalized in a photograph.

We drove up the side of Ngorogoro volcano, and saw its huge crater from a viewpoint at the top.  The crater is huge and stretches for 20km, and is teeming with life.  Animals can pass in and out of the crater, and it is one of the most famous places to see animals in the world.  Its blue green expanse seemed otherworldly, and I knew that in a couple of days I would be right down there observing the wildlife at first hand.

We continued our drive, now through significantly rockier terrain, terrain which shows even hardened safari jeeps no mercy.  A jeep not far in front of us began slowing down suddenly.  Baraka pulled over in front of the jeep, as it had stopped.  We inspected the damage.  The front axle had somehow snapped, leaving one wheel wobbling dangerously.  It wasn’t a problem that could be fixed on the spot.  The car was carrying 6 people – an old Canadian lawyer called Ron, an Italian couple hid behind expensive designer sunglasses, a biologist from Canada, and his girlfriend, a typically sporty and adventurous Aussie of Asian descent.

The solution was obvious, but Baraka asked me kindly anyway.  Spare parts would have to be flown to the closest airstrip, and only then could the other jeep be fixed.  This is not an uncommon occurrence, apparently, so planes are always available on standby.  And so, there were now 8 in my jeep, which I didn’t particularly mind – I enjoyed the company and the chance to meet some new people, and, crucially, to talk!  We stopped occasionally as I sat in the front, and Baraka explained a little about the animals we saw.  He also stopped to allow me to put sunscreen on my face.  God knows what the others were thinking.  Probably that I was a spoiled rich brat on a private safari, which it certainly looked like.  They would have got the rich part wrong.

We stopped for lunch at the gate of the Serengeti.  It was a simple lunchbox this time, and everybody had one.  A banana, chicken leg, sandwich and some sweet bread.  Brightly coloured African starlings were in abundance here, their glistening blue feathers and orange breasts shining like coloured tin foil in the sun.  There was a Malibu stalk too, nearly as tall as me, wolfing down food from a rubbish bin, the scavengers that they are.

There was a viewpoint here, and I climbed up to the top after lunch.  Here, I could see the sprawling, bleak, dry savannah spread out for as far as the eye could see all around.  The Serengeti.  Acacia trees dotted the parched land, their thorns testament to their strength to endure such arid conditions – though they couldn’t stop a hungry giraffe from eating their leaves!

Back in the car, we entered through the gate of the Serengeti National Park, the most famous of all, and the subject of countless BBC documentaries.  Here at last, dusty, dry, savannah….African sun beating down without mercy.  Both hatches of the jeep were open, to accommodate 6 of us trying to stand up and view the surrounds.  We came across a number of animals on our way to the OkOk campsite.

We saw many antelopes, herdebeest, a few warthogs, many different types of gazelle, including the pygmy gazelle, the smallest in the world, which was just about making knee-height.  The Thomson gazelle, or course, was most prominent, with its black stripe running down its tan side.

Luckily, we came across a magnificent sight.  2 lions, a male with its huge tan mane, and a female.  They were plodding up the road lazily, and then they split, before the male came back, as though they had had a lovers’ tiff.  The male lion was really close to the jeep, and was an amazing site of power and elegance, so powerful yet soft in its manner – a show of reserved strength.  The female had spotted a gazelle, but the gazelle had spotted her, so the lion just lay down in a heap in the straw-coloured grass, barely visible.

We continued and saw a hyena prowling the savannah, drool running from its mouth, its eyes looking, yet strangely dead.  Its hunched walk, its shoulders and front legs are bigger than its back ones, and its spotted, unkempt hair make for a rugged and rather scary sight.  We saw a vulture, scanning the horizon, and some other birds of prey.  We even saw a cheetah, lazing under a tree, its long, slender, toned body stretched out.  A warthog may have noticed something wrong too.  It started hopping away, tail raised in the air.  Somebody in the group likened the sight to someone running in high heels, and it’s quite an accurate description, and comical how daintily they run despite their oversized, ugly heads.

We came to the campsite after this rewarding day.  It started raining just before we got there, and everyone had to run and hurry to put up their tents in time.  Apart from me, of course.  Lawrence was putting mine up for me.  Now I really did feel like a spoilt rich brat.    I watched the sun set over the mountains and the acacia trees in the savannah, in the middle of the Serengeti, and felt at one with nature.

I felt lucky, and a little embarrassed, to have such personal service, and such a good cook as Lawrence over dinner.  Baraka and I had eaten before the others had even begun.  Tea first, then a bowl of delicious hot leek soup with bread, and then minced meat sauce over rice, potatoes, and vegetables, fruit and hot chocolate to finish.  Delicious.  Baraka opened up a bit more over dinner.  He told me some safari stories, including a fight he’d seen between a lion and a crocodile, and a camp he’d been on where a young boy wandered out of it and was pounced on by a leopard in a tree, which then dragged the boy into the branches and killed him.  He told me to expect animals around the camp tonight – and he was right.

I woke at midnight to the sounds of a Serengeti buzzing and bustling with life.  I heard the whoooooop of hyenas from just behind the camp, the whooomph of elephants and the roar of lions.  It was an exciting, if frightening, experience, especially as I wanted to go to the toilet.  I went just outside my tent, not daring to walk further.  Later on I could here the soft padding of animals just around the tent.  In the morning we swapped tales of the night.  Apparently, a buffalo had been in the camp, and an elephant had been eating trees just behind our tents.  Incredible stuff.  Camping in the middle of the Serengeti, in a campsite that had no fences or gates, totally exposed to the wild.  An amazing experience.

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