Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tanzania part II: The Northern Circuit

***Use the links in the text to find our pictures for each day***

The great white hunters slowly bellied through the deep bush. Their rifles slung high above their shoulders. Their senses heightened by the approaching kill. They unshouldered their rifles, allowing primordial forces to wipe any sense of guilt or remorse from their minds. They brought the scope loosely to their eye, giving time to focus. Once their eyes adjusted to the magnification, their prey lay bare before them: a steaming bowl of cream of asparagus soup, followed by roast beef, or was it pork chops? with a side of rice and salad?

The Tanzanian safari may not be the thing of yester' lore, however, being inside the National Geographic specials of our childhood does bring a sense of awe and makes one feel like a kid again. Names such as the Serengeti, or the Rift Valley, and animals like the black rhino conjure times of watching cheetah chasing wildebeasts and hippo fights for dominance on television.

Today's safari is much more tame than the thing of legend, and animals, despite fighting, killing and procreating on the tube, actually spend the majority of their day eating or sleeping, which is, I guess, what we would all do if we followed the laws of energy conservation. Today's safari is accomplished from the comfort of your own 4X4, well suited for the muddy roads of the Tanzanian plains, well equipped with a pop top, for easy viewing and your personal African guide, who is both a driver, supposed master mechanic, and has knowledge of the local fauna and flora. The recipe reads as follows:

4 part mzungu
1 part African guide
1 part Toyota Landcruiser (and for the schwanks, a Range Rover)
copious amounts of bottled water, butter sandwiches and boiled eggs.

toss in slow moving vehicle for 8-10 hours daily.

sprinkle in elaborate dinners of creamed soups, pork chops and beef wellington, 'cause God knows, that's what every red blooded westerner eats daily.

Now slowly stir occasional animal sighting beyond the grazing gazelle or zebra, an animal who may actually move apart from yawning ( though at times we were excited about the grazers as welll)

and voila! your northern Tanzania safari experience.

....Ok, forgive the clever wit my dear reader. The safari experience, despite what is written above is a once in a life time chance to come face to face with the great beasts of Africa, and to journey into a magical land that time forgot.

Our circuit was 7 days in length, starting in Arusha, Tanzania, and spending approximately 2 days in each of 3 parks, beginning with Tarangire national park. Tarangire is known for elephants, and boy, were there ever elephants. As I am sure all people are, we were so excited at first we stopped at every gazelle and water buck we saw, barely letting our guide advance into the park, we spent exceedingly long times watching these creatures that will soon become as typical as pigeons in St Marcos square. As we drove deeper we got our first glimpses of giraffes, ostriches and my favorite, the warthog. But it wasn't until lunch that we spotted our first elephant, walking slowly by the river below. Tarangire was our favorite park, its massive baobab trees surrounding by acacia bush, open forest allowing good animal viewing and a serenity that spoke of a lost world. We were lucky to be in the park during the wet season, as the grass was neon green and the ponds and water holes were plentiful and deep.
We spent the night outside the park in a tent camp run by local Masaai boys, where we had the camp to ourselves, probably because it was so hard to find: it even took our guide 2 hours of driving through Bomas to find it. The manager was 'fantastic' (his favorite word, done with a Maasai accent) and his crew treated us right, with all the amenities that Westerners could ever desire, as discussed in the first part of this entry. We spent the next day driving deeper into the park, exploring the lowland Selale swamps, and getting our greatest bag of the safari, an upclose and personal visit with a massive leopard. Unfortunately, and in accordance with murphy's famous law, our car decided to die just as we were feet away from this cat. And Rusha, who hadn't peed since her morning coffee had to gingerly exit the car to relieve herself under our careful gaze, as any movement from the leopard could mean that he was feeling threatened by Rusha marking her territory! Finally our car restarted with a little push from another friendly car, and we were off to see magestic elephant herds, lions, and vultures feasting on a dead buck.

The next morning we awoke and set off for Ngorongoro national park. NNP sits high above the eastern flank of the Rift Valley, a geographical formation that starts in the mountains of Lebanon, makes a deep incision through Israel to form the Red Sea at its bottom and reemerges on land to create the volcanoes of Tanzania, the plains of the Serengeti and Kenya and the rivers and lakes which feed the Nile. It is quite a steep drive to the top, but affords amazing views and rugged landscape. We spent a few hours at the top hiking down to the town of Mto Wa Mbu (Mosquito village). On the way we were taught of the local flora, the geography of the region, and even (oops) came upon some guys making bathtub gin in the river. We had several river crossing which Jessica enjoyed, finally to emerge below the rift.

Back in the safari vehicle (only a few hours of walking every few days for you, dear mzungu) reclimbed to the top of the rift, climbing higher to enter the NNP, and finally to stand on the rim of the collaped volcanic caldera which forms Ngorongoro crater. A beautiful site below with green sides of the massive crater forming the walls of a fertile plain of swamps, lakes, grasses and forests, and a plethora of geographically imprisoned animals in close proximity.

We spent the night at the Rhino lodge, a bunker like accomadation on the crater rim, eating plentifully of the local cuisine of beef or pork and cream of vegetable soup. The next morning we headed downwards into the crater through steep switchbacks. The fame of the crater comes from its steep walls, which act to concentrate the animals at the crater floor, trapping them for your viewing pleasure. The downside is that it attracts many other great white hunters, concentrating them beyond our liking. It was fairly impossible to spot an animal without soon being joined by 15 of your closest friends in their safari vehicle. It does not help that the drivers communicate with each other by CB, letting each other know where there may be a unique site, thereby overcrowding what would otherwise be classic wilderness scenes. In Ngorongoro we got our first look at bufalos, rhinos, thomposon gazelles, hippos, and hyenas. We also saw our first full-fledged lion, who was, as expected, sort of sitting around, doing..what lions do, which is sit around. We spent a second night at the bunker, waking up in the morning to bufalos grazing outside our back balcony. The next morning, after Jeff beat all the guides in push-ups (and people here in East Africa think that if you have made 60 you are OLD!), we drove off towards Olduvai gorge and the famed Serengeti.

Driving westward, apart from coming upon a car accident where the passengers suffered a broken hand and broken teeth (we stopped to lend a hand--some real doctoring), the trip was slow and bumpy. The road passes west down the back side of the crater and through the corridor which connects Ngorongoro conservation area to the Serengeti which allows relatively free movement between the parks and contributes to migration patterns and supplies fresh DNA to the herd. On our way we made an interesting stopover at Olduvai gorge, or as we learned, actually Oldupai gorge, a Maasai word that was mispronounced by the Germans.

Olduvai gorge is the site of one of the greatest paleontological discoveries in recent times, where Mary Leaky and her husband discovered the skull of Australopithecus boisei, our ancestor, and one of the greatest pieces of our evolutionary past. At the time of discovery, it was the oldest discovery of ancient man, only to be outdone by a chick named Lucy some years later. We got an interesting lecture on the subject and hiked into the gorge to get a look at the exact site of discovery.
After another harty boxed lunch of butter sandwiches and boiled egg, we continued to the south-eastern entrance of the Serengeti (which means endless plains in Maasai). After the usual half hour of logistics at the gate, we entered the park, driving 80 km to its core. We began to see massive herds of wildebeasts and zebra, participants in the famed migration that the Serengeti is known for, which happened to be happening around the easterm edge of the park. We camped for the night at a beautiful mobile safari camp, complete with safari tents, kerosene lanterns and bush showers. We could buy a bottle of wine and enjoy the sights and sounds that one can only get by spending the night in the midst of this famed park.

The next morning we awoke for a sunrise safari. We saw a leopard in a tree, ungraceful hippos, and beautiful lemon fever acacias in the morning light. We returned for a quick breakfast before heading out again for our great photo hunt. We scoured the Kopjes (rock outrcroppings) for lion troops, and spotted some playing cubs and their lazy mothers among the rocks. We tried to go southeast again to search for more of the massive herds that mark the wildebeest migration, but unfortunately the sky opened up and our efforts were prevented by high water in a stream and amazingly muddy and slippery roads which even challenged our Land Cruiser. That evening at camp we discovered that Jeff, Rusha's dad, who was until the day before on antibiotics for an infection, seemed to be getting ill again. It appeared that Jeff's infection was resistant to common antibiotics, and trying to find the one he needed in the middle of the Serengeti, hundreds of miles from the nearest major town, proved to be challenging. Thanks to cell towers, which, I believe are by law every 10 ft. in East Africa, even in the middle of the Serengeti you can get cell service. After several back-and-forths between Haddas, Rusha, and Jeff's doctor, all being coordinated from the bush with a 10 hour time lag, we were able to call a pharmacy in Arusha and had them ready for us when we returned there. Poor Jeff had to spend 36 hours with a very uncomfortable bacterial infection, and we spent our last day in the serengeti watching animals....and looking for cell phone minutes... and possibly looking for the antibiotics in question. We still got to see beautiful lion cubs lazing in the morning sun and by the afternoon, we drove to the serengeti grass airstrip, said an emotional goodbye to our guide, and got into the single engine Cesna that was to take us back to Arusha. We flew back over the beautiful parks we had just visited, and landed with clear views of kilimanjaro's snowy flat top, in Arusha. That night we put Jessica to bed, and we went with a relieved Jeff for some more of that tasty Kahn's bbq.

No Tanzanian safari would be complete without a visit to the police station, where we tried to claim that we had our return tickets to uganda stolen. (In all actuality, Rusha forgot them at home, but the airline wanted a police report.) After several hours lying to drunk tanzanian cops, we left with our police report, which didn't help in the end. The next morning at the airport, despite our names being on the computer, on the copy of the tickets that we had with us, said police report, and pleading, yelling, trying to bribe, and begging, we had to buy a new ticket home.


  1. I love reading each of your different styles. The stories are great. Keep em' coming. We miss you guys here!

  2. Great reports and pictures, you two. Sounds like a great trip, lots of adventures.
    Thanks for posting such a detailed blog. Love.

  3. These stories and photos are phenomenal! Can't wait for more

    Stay safe!
    Summer & Ryan