After bumming around beaches and hiking up mountains, we decided to spend some time on a safari. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect - the notion of a safari brings up thoughts of men and women, wearing khaki and pith helmets, speaking in affected British accents and peering through binoculars at distant animals.
The truth of the matter is it’s an amazing experience - you are up close and personal with animals in way that’s almost impossible to replicate at the zoo. At the same time, there’s a strange sort of British holdover to parts of it…certainly when you stay in the traditional lodges. But…let me tell you a bit more.
For the trip, I didn’t want to try to plan all of the stops. First of all, travel in the civilized parts of Africa can be a bit of a battle. Trying to plan a trip through the rough and rugged portions seems insane, particularly to try and do it with sporadic Internet access from another country. Fortunately, I had a few good referrals from The Nature Conservancy, so I picked one that seemed pretty good and told them “I wanted to spend a couple of weeks traveling around”.
Serengeti Select Safari, with the unfortunate “SSS” initials, turned out to be a spectacularly good decision. The company is run by three bothers, originally from the midwest of the US, who grew up in Arusha and have been running the company for over 35 years. After hearing so many horror stories of companies that come and go, with diffident staff and inexperienced guides, it was a pleasure to get such a professional and organized response from them. They’re not huge - only about ten trucks to take people out - but our experience was unparalleled.
Patricia, their coordinator, put our trip together, and we met with Nathan (one of the brothers) after landing at the Kilimanjaro airport. After a meal and a briefer, Stephan, our guide, picked us up and we drove for about three hours to get to Tarangire National Park, the first stop on our trip.
So, what exactly is a safari? Well…in Tanzania, there are no fences or be - just zones where wild animals migrate (or live), oftentimes side by side with people. You sit safely in your truck (generally a Land Rover or Land Cruiser with a top that pops off or hatches that open up), and your driver/guide drives you around. You can either sleep in specially designated camps, or at lodges that exist within the parks (more on that below). Your luggage sits in the back of the jeep, and you spend most of your time standing on the seats, looking around for animals.
The wild parks are just that - wild. The dominant creatures are the lions, elephants, rhinos, hyenas, wildebeest, zebra, hippos…anything large. They own the land. They walk on it, sleep on it, hunt on it, poop on it. You are the guest, the interloper, and if it weren’t for the protection of your car, they would eat you, stomp on you, or…probably just ignore if you stayed far enough away.
Our trip was going to take us through Tarangire, Lake Eyasi, Ngorongoro, Ndutu, and finally the famous Serengeti. Ngorongoro is a conservation area, which means that people are living on part of the land. The others are all parks, so only animals live there, but since many of the animals migrate, they travel hundreds of kilometers, from one zone to another, and part of the safari planning is to try and be in place to see them.
The parks are huge…Ngorongoro is over 8,300 km2, and Serengeti is almost twice that - roughly the size of Belgium. And the parks are truly wilderness areas. Other than the roads, and a small handful of lodges, there is nothing there. No infrastructure of any sort. Ngorongoro is epic, itself, a gigantic bowl of wildlife, green on the edges, with savannah and grassland along the bottom, a bit of forest, and an alkaline lake:
Right when we got to Tarangire, our first lodge, within about six minutes of passing the park gate we started running into wildlife - herds of elephants, impala, gazelles, and this really cool flock of birds:
They moved like a school of fish, flitting over each other through the grass, eating bugs and seeds along the way. It was pretty nifty.
The lodges that we stayed in were very nice - clearly throwbacks to a different era. Most of them are permanent, but some are only transient; they set up shop in an assigned location for a couple of months, and then they have to tear everything down and move to a new location. Of the permanent ones, some are actual hotels, but others are “tented” hotels, in which you stay in luxury tents that have bathrooms grafted onto the back:
But there’s no fences, so animals are often right in the camp (which means you have to be super-careful at night; they generally escort you around once the sun goes down). Sunrise and sunset are both beautiful, and we saw a lot of both, particularly when doing early morning drives (the best time to see a lot of animals):
Even Ileana was ready for action in the morning…she would have spent another month driving around with Stephan if she could have, I think.
The lodges are “all inclusive” - and logistics are a nightmare. They have to account for everything, from roads to food to electricity to water. All of them had “electricity hours” and “hot water hours”, so you had to take that into account for charging your computers or taking a shower. One of the temporary camps we stayed at provided hot showers by heating water in a large barrel and bringing it to your tent when you wanted a shower. The water went into a soft bag that was hoisted onto a post, and that way you could get a nice four or five minute shower after getting back from your trip:
And boy did you need that shower…the rains are late this year, and things were dusty, dusty, dusty. The worst, by far, was our first day at Ndutu, where the soft volcanic soil turns into an incredibly fine dust, almost like a fluid, that puffs up in huge clouds as you drive along. The suitcases are covered with it, and when you blow your nose, it comes out brown from all of the crap you’re breathing in.
Dust aside, though, the creature comforts were good - great, even. Although the difficulty in obtaining ingredients led to some…shall we say, interesting adjustments to common meals. Dinners are four-course events, served by waiters in tuxes or traditional outfits. In some lodges, you got a menu to chose from, while in others, there was only a single set of courses to enjoy. Of course, no dinner can be started without the obligatory cocktail hour, given everyone a chance to unwind and chat about their day after getting back from their drives. Alcohol was readily available, and the only cold thing to be had.
While you eat your dinner, an attendant goes to the tent (or room), turns back the beds, adjusts the mosquito nets (as necessary), and sprays a bit of insect killer to make sure nothing bugs you (haha) overnight. There’s a certain amount of irony in the fact that it’s necessary to douse your room in poison every night as a prophylactic to getting malaria.
Three of the lodges had views that can only be described as spectacular. The Tarangire Safari Lodge was on a ridge, overlooking a river. You could sit out on the enormous deck with binoculars and watch all of the animals wandering to the river and back to drink:
The Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge was perched on the rim of the crater, with a swimming pool and edge-to-edge view of the entire 17 km expanse. And the Serengeti Sopa Lodge was on a ridge, overlooking the vast savannah, with an unbroken view of the plain until it was obscured by the dust in the distance.
Even the Kisma Ngeda Tented camp, which wasn’t on a reserve, had a gorgeous view of the lake at sunset:
We also stopped by Olduvai (actually supposed to be Oldupai, after the Swahili word for wild sisal, but due to a silly transcription error….) Known as the cradle of mankind, it’s a four-million year record of human evolution:
Louis and Mary Leakey found some of the oldest bones ever of our distant australopithecine and homo habilis relatives. Not too far from there was where Mary discovered the amazing Laetoli footprints, considered by many to be the most important single anthropological find in the world:
In any case…enough about the lodges. The thing that makes the safari is your driver. Stephan was our guide, and he was incredible. A good guide knows all of the parks like well-read books…and Stephan clearly was a good guide. It turns out he spent three months camping in each park with a special off-road permit and a tent that pitched on the roof. Clearly the right way to learn your way around. It was part of a special bachelors degree in Wildlife Park Management that the best guides attend near Arusha.
Our backup driver (and not a bad spotter, either, as it turns out):
Alas, knowing where the animals are is only the first part. The second part is learning to see them. Most animals have all sorts of camouflage and hiding behaviorthat make them impossible for mere mortals to pick out of the background. Impossible, that is, unless you are a guide. Stephan was able, while driving, to pick out a tiny smudge, two or three hundred meters away, on a tree or in the grass and point it out to us. Even with binoculars, it would often take us a moment to figure it out.
How did he get so good at this? Well, one of the courses he took was a semester-long class on “animal spotting”, which was pretty much an unending series of slides thrown up in the dark with animal silhouettes. To pass…you have to see them all. ;) A number of times our jeep was the only one to stop and see a particular animal or another…and when other jeeps in the distance saw us stop, eventually one or more would come join us and we’d head off to the next one.
Ileana was our second best spotter - including spotting this male Agama lizard hiding under a rock:
Vultures fighting over a zebra or wildebeest carcass next to the water on the way to the Serengeti Lodge:
Safaris have one more component, one you can’t plan for…and that’s just plain, dumb, luck. By that measure, we had an amazing trip - among the highlights, all of which are one-in-ten or one-in-a-hundred safari treats:
Not one, not two, but three black rhinos, one of the most endangered species in the areas:
A hyena chasing down and eating a baby wildebeest that got separated from its mother:
A baby elephant, scratching her trunk on the hood of the car before following her mother across the road. Elephant mothers are usually very careful with their kids; this was the first time our guide had ever had a baby allowed that close to the car:
A pride of lions, meandering down the marsh, and all sitting down to share a drink at a pool:
Getting stuck in the marsh…with a fully-grown, male lion:
…only 15 meters away (look through the window):
Aside from the lion watching, this was fun also. Stephan is pretty careful about not getting stuck (and gives other drivers a hard time about it!) In this case, first one driver got stuck, and Stephan was trying to push him out. But, it wasn’t working, so he started to drive around so we could pull the other jeep out with a chain. Unfortunately, we hit another “invisible” patch of mud (dry on top, but soup underneath) and we sank to the rear axle! It took us quite a bit of work to get out, but we were able to jack up the jeep, put wood under the tires, and finally get out with the four-wheel drive in low:
Another one of our rare sitings: the reclusive honey badger:
The honey badger gets it’s name from it’s love of honey. It’s also an incredibly fierce and dangerous scavenger, with jaws that can puncture a Kevlar tire (so don’t get too close with your jeep!) They have a very baggy skin that other animals have trouble penetrating with claws and teeth, so even lions and hyenas will back off when a honey badger shows up for some food. One of the more interesting mutualism relationships is between the badger and the honeyguide bird. The bird finds hives, and then chirps at a honey badger to lead them to the nest. The badger than rips the nest up, eating the honey, and the birds eat the grubs and wax of the bees. Humans, of course, bat cleanup once the badger is finished!
We even saw a hippo - on land - moving from one waterhole to another, but a bit too far for a good picture. We named him “Hasty Hippo” because he was booking….
A close-up view of a leopard:
And later, on the ground:
A cheetah with four cubs - we almost ran her over looking for her:
She jumped up when we stopped only a few feet from the bush she was hiding in, but after a few moments, she relaxed and lay back down. They’re pretty cute! A little later, they came out to play:
Cheetahs have to be very wary of hyena and lions killing their cubs before they are old enough to escape.
We saw lots of babies. The kids counted at least 16 different baby animal types that we found, and they’re all pretty cute:
It turns out that February is baby time - the rains are coming, grass and other forage will be plentiful, and (for the predators) the meat supply is outstanding. Wildebeest and zebra use the “overload” technique, which means they pretty much all have babies at the same time. This way, the predators are saturated with prey and it helps ensure that lots of babies will grow up before they can get picked off…an excellent strategy, unless some sort of external event (like weather) affects their grass or water and kills a very high percentage of them.
They really are just giant cats, aren’t they:
We also saw two different cheetahs hunting. The first one was in the distance, but the second one…oh boy…wow. Watching the cheetah look for her meal was probably the most impressive thing we saw on all of our drives. Stephan spotted her clambering up on a rock to search for a meal:
Since this was in Ndutu, the only park where you can go offroad in certain areas, we were able to follow her. For the next two hours, we slowly drove in front of her, pausing to wait for her to catch up, and watching from our slightly better vantage point for possible prey:
After tracking her all the way past the scrub into the savannah, we saw a couple of Thompson’s Gazelle in the distance.
We set up to watch, and saw her drop down into her stalking mode, low to the ground, slowly moving towards the gazelle. The gazelle, unaware of the cheetah, continued to browse until the cheetah leapt into attack. We were lucky enough to record the video…impressive all by itself…but the video doesn’t show what came next as we started driving towards the kill.
By the time the cheetah was ready to pounce, we had attracted a game ranger jeep and one other safari group. When the cheetah made her kill, a hyena that none of us saw (not even Stephan or the rangers) leapt out at her and tried to take her kill. Hyenas are powerful scavengers and are quite capable of stealing a kill from a leopard or cheetah. Because the cheetahs are endangered, the rangers tore off towards the cheetah and started chasing off the hyena with their car.
We didn’t see the aardvark hole the rangers hit until it was too late - our jeep slammed into it, and we all almost flipped out of the jeep. We were very fortunate we didn’t break an axle, but we all got some bruises from slamming into the side of the roof. But…undaunted, we went the last 40 meters and stopped near the cheetah. She seemed a little confused by the rangers (off in the distance at this point, in hot pursuit of the hyena) but as soon as her breathing slowed down, she dug in and started eating the carcass:
On safari, you see animals in their natural states, doing things the way they’d always do it. Most of them are utterly unconcerned by your presence…or if they are concerned (as a mother elephant might be), they give a warning shake or threat to make sure you keep a distance that they’re comfortable with. You’re a car, though - neither predator, nor prey, so as long as you stay aloof, as a proper observer, you are a welcome guest:
And you get very up close and personal, sometimes:
A mother ostrich with her babies:
I’m trying to imagine her laying all of these gigantic eggs. Ostriches are pretty interesting - the parents both sit in the eggs, and the males are dark (to better blend in during the night shift) and the females are that brownish color (for better camouflage during the day).
Sometimes you’re more than welcome - you’re part of the view:
These monkeys and baboons like to hang out at the Serengeti Sopa lodge. If you accidentally leave your door open, they will come in and rip your belongings (and the furniture in the room) to shreds. There’s a guy with a couple of big bungee bands who’s job it is to walk around the lodge (where they serve dinner) and shoot them with the bands when they get to close. Otherwise, they will leap off the roofs onto your table, take your food, and run off.
The cute (and aptly named) bat-eared fox:
Going on a safari is expensive. Unlike a zoo, it’s a big commitment of time, and the land can only support a limited number of adventurers. As it is, there are too many people in too few parks. The animals and wild areas are under threat from population pressure and governmental corruption. The Great Migration itself, a seemingly unstoppable river of over 1.2 million wildebeest and zebra, is losing an estimated 100,000 animals a year to illegal poaching, not to mention the ongoing encroachment of herders and agriculture. We watched one of the herds going by:
Cape Buffalo with a Cattle Egret (who eats ticks, flies, and other bugs off the buffalo’s back in a win-win situation):
Although it would be nice to think that it will never end, one doesn’t have to look that far to find an allegory - in the United States, we had a great migration of our own. Over four million buffalo, with all of their associated megafauna and predators - wolves, coyote, moose, deer - migrated across areas of the Great Plains that dwarf Tanzania. In the space of under fifty years, that entire ecosystem was wiped out - to the last wild buffalo - for food, sport, and in the end, just because we could. We were a young country, immature, coming into our own, but I regret that nobody alive today can recount what an impressive sight it must have been.
It’s a sad legacy to realize something of such gravitas, in existence for thousands of years, could be ended so abruptly. Tanzania is a desperately poor country, struggling with poor infrastructure, high population growth, and weak leadership. Without the money from tourism, they would be in even more dire straights. Although the path is fraught with challenge and difficulty, I hope that Tanzania is able to preserve the great natural wonders that the country has been blessed with, and find a way to balance the pressures of civilization with the natural history of the area.
I leave you with my favorite picture: