Monday 17 October 2011
How many people have an African safari on their bucket list? We certainly did. As young children, we were influenced and inspired by movies like “Born Free”, TV shows like “Daktari” and stories like “The Jungle Book”. We put a safari on our wish list for our journey this year, but recognized that it might be a challenge. Many people spend two to three years researching and planning to go on a safari, booking far in advance. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands?) of safari and tour operators in Africa. During our travels, we have typically spent 3-4 days (maybe…) doing some online research and organizing our travel plans before heading to a new country. In this case, we decided to rely on recommendations from a few friends and fellow travelers and roll the dice… We booked a 7-day safari in Tanzania and hoped that, if nothing else, we would see a lion or two in the wild.
Our 30 hour journey took us from Rome to Cairo to Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro to Arusha. We were thrilled that we, along with our luggage, made all of our rather short connections and arrived together as scheduled. From this point on, we were in the hands of our tour operator. The particular safari that we selected would take us through four different parks in northern Tanzania – Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area and Lake Manyara National Park. We were joined by a mother and daughter from the UK - passionate animal lovers who, between the two of them, had been on three previous safaris in Africa.
Our guide, Julius, was brilliant at taking us away from the other safari vehicles and spotting birds and animals that we often had trouble seeing, even after he pointed them out to us. Luckily for us, often the animals were crossing the road in front of us or standing close by as if posing for the countless photos we endeavoured to take. By the end of the first day alone, we had seen countless impalas, gazelles, warthogs, giraffes, mongoose, elands, ostriches, hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, dozens of elephants, and… 12 lions!! Overjoyed and overwhelmed by the animals, their proximity, and the beautiful landscapes, we left the park and carried on to our lodge, where we would spend the night in a tent. Walking into the reception area, we were knocked over by the stunning view – the property was located on a bluff overlooking a huge flat valley with a river winding through the middle. From the lodge (and from our tent) we overlooked the vast expanse and could watch (without needing binoculars) elephants, giraffes, zebras, impalas, warthogs, etc. grazing below. Our tent was a large, permanent walk-in with a lovely ensuite bathroom and a small covered deck with chairs. We enjoyed a glass of wine before dinner, observing the animals in the valley below and, after the sun set, watched the stars twinkling in the immense sky above. During the night, Warren heard a rather strange noise just outside our tent and looked up through the mesh to see a giraffe stroll by not more than 10 feet away!
During the days that followed, we explored the parks and were privileged to observe so many animals in their natural habitat. Within three days, we had seen the “big five” (defined as the five most dangerous animals to hunt: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros) as well as the ``big five ugly`` (the five ugliest creatures as defined by the local guides: warthog, hippo, maribu stork, ostrich and hyena). We were fortunate enough to have many opportunities to spend some up close and personal moments observing the animals, especially the elephants. However, in addition to all of these amazing observations, there were a few exceptionally memorable experiences.
- We had a picnic lunch in our jeep, next to male lion and his lioness, dozing at the edge of a stream. While we were sitting there, out of nowhere a hippo sauntered across the road across from us.
- We came across a leopard in a tree with a fresh kill (a gazelle) in the fork of the tree next to him. While we were parked taking photos, the gazelle fell from the tree. As we watched, the leopard leaped down after it. Too tired to drag it back up the tree, the leopard began to feed as vultures began to circle. Not too far away, we had observed some hyenas and knew it was only a matter of time until they too would approach. We observed as the leopard was torn between dealing with the gazelle, and fending off the vultures. Drama in the Serengeti!!!
- We spotted a lioness with a gazelle carcass in her jaws, striding through the grass beside the road. After crossing the road, we saw two female lions in the distance rise and begin to approach. The lioness with the gazelle clearly indicated they were not welcome, however, a few minutes later four young cubs came bounding through the grass towards the adults. We were witness to some very affectionate nuzzling between the lionesses and the cubs. Then, much to our delight, the cubs set out towards our jeep, playing follow the leader until they were not more than 20 feet away.
- Heading out early one morning on our way to the Serengeti, we rounded a corner not far from our lodge and met a rather large bull elephant coming the other way on the very narrow road. We crept forward as the bull came towards us, as far to the side as possible. At the last moment, Julius hit the gas and shot us past with a reminder that the animals in and around the parks are quite used to safari jeeps but they are also completely unpredictable and dangerous.
However, it wasn’t just the animals that kept us mesmerised. The landscape was achingly beautiful. Immense vistas stretching forever under an infinite sky, casting a light that made us feel we were somehow inside a delicately painted watercolour. When you touched the land, you could literally feel the energy contained within. Perhaps we picked up some of the residual life force of our distant cousins at Oldupai Gorge, where their 2 million year old skeletal remains and 3.6 million year old footprints have been found.
Equally amazing are the people that inhabit the region today. We saw countless Masi, brightly covered in their traditional blankets, tending their cattle and goats, including small boys as young as 6-7 years, in the middle of nowhere on their own with their own little herds. Small villages and individual rondavels were scattered throughout (with the exception of the National Parks), encircled with brush and thorns to keep the predators away from their livestock (and family). We saw one poor calf, high up in a tree, the victim of a leopard. With conservation an important part of the overall region’s future, the Masi are no longer permitted to hunt a predator that takes one of their herd. Instead, they are compensated so they can replace their loss. Pressures continue to mount as population growth envelopes more and more land around the Parks and Conservation areas, but there are dedicated efforts by many to ensure a balance is struck enabling people and the wild animals of the region to cohabitate.
While we never felt unsafe, we were constantly reminded just how dangerous the animals can be, such as being told in no uncertain terms not to leave our tent after dark (the afore mentioned giraffe and countless growls, howls and other noises certainly solidified that rule for us). Even outside the parks, where we could walk to our hut in the dark, there were guards posted with shotguns. However, we learned the most significant danger at one particular lodge was to the water tanks. As our lodge was right on the very edge of the conservation area, the elephants would sometimes come to drink out of the water tanks. If they couldn’t reach the water in the tanks with their trunks, they would simply push the tanks over, dumping thousands of gallons of water. We slept soundly knowing our hut was on the opposite side of the compound from the tanks.
By the end of the week, we had seen so many animals and so much beautiful countryside. Our hope when we set out was to see two or three lions; our final tally was an incredible 34! We felt we had seen and experienced all that we could have hoped for and were happy to check safari off of our bucket list.
After a week of stalking animals, we were ready for a rest. So after an overnight stop in Dar es Salaam (where we were also warned not to go outside after dark due to predators of the human kind) we jumped on a ferry and set off to Zanzibar.
We headed to the east coast to a small, delightedly dishevelled hideaway on the edge of the Indian Ocean. It was perfect! Although the rain that we had managed to avoid for the past eight months finally caught up with us, we found some breaks in the weather that allowed us to walk the sugar-white beach, hang with the locals at one of the nearby beach bars and swim in the luxuriously warm water. We also spent countless hours at our little ocean side lounge playing Bao, a local game played in East Africa for hundreds of years. Known as a game that “takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master”, we quickly found ourselves having developed just enough skills to defend but not enough to win, which meant many games being called a draw after several hours. However, when there was a winner, it was usually Lee-Ann (with Warren blaming the ice cold Serengeti beer as his downfall).
After a lazy week on the beach, we returned to Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar, where we wandered through the narrow, twisting streets (past the ubiquitous souvenir stalls), taking in the legendary, ornately carved doors in the old town, smelling the piquant scent of spices and listening to the familiar sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to their prayers. It was comforting to once again hear the now very familiar sound and see the minarets of the many mosques in town outlined against the bright blue sky. In this small town, notoriously famous for once being the center of the slave trade on the east coast of Africa, the multicultural blend of the many “dhow nations” – countries that ring the Indian Ocean – can be seen and heard. A heady mix that combined for us to be alternately welcomed, ignored, scowled at and invited into shops “just for looking”. The beauty of Stone Town is that although there is a touristy core, within that core and in particular just outside of it, raw daily life transpires right on the narrow streets, allowing a glimpse of how life is lived by the locals. We marvelled at how so many people from so many racial, cultural and religious backgrounds live together successfully in this tight labyrinth they call home; one of countless memories that we will hold onto when we return home. However, home is not on the agenda just yet as our time in Africa is not over. Setting our sights on the tip of the great continent, we are on our way to South Africa. Next stop – Johannesburg!