MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “March, 2020”

Serengeti Safari

There’s no shortage of animals in the Serengeti. In fact in no time at all of me rejoining the rest of my group after a delightful hot air balloon ride were we in the company of giraffes. I enjoyed seeing so many of the animals roaming around Africa, but for me, the giraffes were something special. They don’t particularly do much, but their gait and their stature is just marvelous. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have hung around with them longer, but the rest of my group had already had a close encounter with them without me, and the park was huge, and we had so much to explore. It was really difficult for me to get my bearings, and I had no idea where we were, or where we were headed, or how it all related to where we camped at night. Our driver guide obviously knew where some of the wildlife hot spots were, and we just sat back and let him take us there. We passed zebra and spotted a well camouflaged leopard up an acacia tree next to a rocky outcrop, pausing briefly below it waiting to see if it would move. It just stared right back at us, an occasional flick of the tail its only movement.

 

In what might as well have been the middle of nowhere, we found a lioness hidden among some long grass. When it came to spotting lions, it was often the presence of a parked jeep that caught our attention. If you were a lion in the Serengeti, it was very difficult to be left alone, and sadly they would often be surrounded by multiple safari jeeps which regularly irked me. On this occasion, it was just us, and frankly she just looked hot, showing us little interest as she flapped away the ever present flies from her face. Two more lionesses were making the most of some shade under a tree. Even in that cooler spot they looked like they were struggling and one of them was fully lain out whilst the other sat up as if on guard. I spotted a tracking collar on one of them as we moved to the side before leaving. The vegetation grew sparser as we drove deeper and deeper into the park, so it was unsurprising to find yet more lions in the shade of a solitary bush, resting in the intense heat of the African day.

 

After a while we found ourselves on the true plains and this is where the herbivore herds seemed to be hanging out. In fact, the zebra herds stretched for miles into the distance, as the individuals spread out in smaller groups to feed. Visiting in February of last year, we were just a little early for the great herd migrations, but there was a ridiculously large number of them there already, and among them we could spot the odd juvenile. In the midst of them all, we pulled up on the track and sat listening to them bickering and barking, whilst watching them milling around, occasionally jostling with each other, and just generally meandering about. They walked in front of us and behind us, and the odd oxpecker bird flitted among them looking for a feed of flies. The odd zebra looked our way from time to time, but most of them didn’t care that we were there.

 

We drove for some time across the plains, a mix of deserted sections and those with zebra dotted around. On the horizon there were no landmarks visible, and it felt like we could drive on forever. Occasionally we would be aware of the odd other safari jeep but for the most part we felt like we were out here on our own. Serengeti National Park is a very popular place for safaris, and it has led to crowd problems at times. On a few occasions I hadn’t liked how many jeeps were parked up by some of the animals, especially the big cats, and wasn’t comfortable being part of the problem. Out here though, it was great to get away from the crowds, and our guide explained that they weren’t allowed to drive off the established tracks, meaning there was plenty of undisturbed land for the wildlife to wander. This all changed though when a flurry of chatter came over the radio. The conversation was in Swahili, but we’d learned the odd word to know what animal was being talked about. This time though we had no idea, and our car suddenly took off, meaning it was potentially something good. As we got nearer we could see a line of other jeeps, and we quickly turned off the track, taking a wide arc over the land to join the other jeeps. I was silently annoyed that we’d broken the rule about off-road driving, but immediately conflicted as I spotted what we had driven so hurriedly to see: a cheetah. I had been hoping to see one whilst in Tanzania, and this was to be the one and only cheetah sighting that we had out there. It strolled past us all, fresh blood smeared across its face: it had killed recently. Shortly finding a small rise in the land to stand up on, it surveyed its surroundings as the multitude of jeeps formed an arc behind it, complete silence falling on us as it stood there. Within minutes of its arrival, it slunk off into the tall grass, and we left it there, cutting back onto the road as if nothing had happened.

 

After the excitement of the morning, we pulled up in the shade of a large tree and bundled out to stretch our legs. Then, in a surreal moment, a picnic was presented to us, and we tucked into a feast of cold but delicious foods as we surveyed our surroundings for any wildlife. You never knew what could be sneaking through the long grass, but all we could see was the odd topi and gazelle in the distance. Thankfully there was some shade, because the heat outside the jeep was oppressive. With no toilet in sight, it felt like we were all marking our territory as the only spot to get some privacy from the rest of the group was behind the back wheel of the jeep, and one by one everyone took their turn to relieve themselves, thanks to all the water we’d been drinking in the heat. Not a single bit of litter was left behind by us, but just like hiking up Mt Kilimanjaro the week before, it was another eye-opener to the effect of tourism in nature.

Initially we took a similar route back, passing once more through a large herd of zebra. This time we could see more juveniles, and we could spot the odd pregnant female. At some point we cut off on a different road and this took us to a rudimentary water hole where a number of zebra were congregating at one end. Amusingly, a hyena slept in the muddy margin in full view of the herbivores, and even though it didn’t flinch, it was given a wide berth and many eyes remained on it whilst they drank. As we sat and watched, a warthog and piglet came running to get a drink as well, simply fitting in among the many legs of the zebra. When we eventually left here we spotted a large eland wandering through the herd of zebra, and a topi beyond that.

 

After some time of driving we spotted a well camouflaged lioness in the long grass. She was barely visible so we left her behind, eventually finding a solitary male lion. He wasn’t in great shape, his spine poking up dramatically behind him as he lay in the shade of a tree. His face and ears were marked, and as he opened his eyes to pant, a broken canine became visible. As he rose to his haunches, he looked pained and it became clear as he struggled to walk, his back left leg weak and almost dragging behind. This was the great circle of life in action. As a vet, I’m acutely tuned in to the suffering of animals, recognising it and feeling it more than the average person, my entire career being built around being an advocate for the welfare of pets and a voice for the creatures that can’t talk. But whilst the rest of my group struggled to see the sight in front of them, pleading with our driver to contact someone to get a wildlife vet out to treat it, I stayed silent, much more accepting of the fact that nature was doing its thing. At their prime, the lion kills other animals, and in its decline, it will feed other animals. I have a very different opinion when a human has caused the animal’s suffering, and am very opinionated about the myriad of animal cruelty that goes on in this world, but playing out in front of us was nature. A snapshot in the great circle of life on the Plains of Africa.

 

Only a short distance away, we found a trio of much healthier males, and our guide informed us that the four were brothers. It was likely they would keep the injured male fed where they could, but as he was unlikely to be able to keep up with them, I suspected he would eventually be left behind to starve. I’ve seen enough wildlife documentaries to know that a hunt can go wrong, and it is possible the injured male was kicked by his prey, or thrown off during an attack. These other three males were beautiful, the typical colour and mane of every lion you ever see on tv, and they had no cares in the world right then, one of them completely rolled on its back to expose its belly as it slept. We stayed with them for a while, watching them do nothing, before eventually we pushed onwards. As we gradually worked our way back to our campsite, the acacia trees began to pop up more and more. A couple of vultures were spotted on the top of one, and at some point we spotted a dikdik in the long grass. They are one of the smallest antelope and would be easy to overlook were it not for the keen eyes of our guide.

 

As the sun was on its downward arc, and as the acacia trees grew taller, I was excited to see some elephants wandering through the long grass. The herd was a little spread out, but there was a mix of size of elephants, including a couple of youngsters who were only just visible above the grass. We’d seen some in Lake Manyara a couple of days prior, but seeing them here in the much more open landscape was just a little bit more magical. The landscape evolved constantly after leaving them behind, and as we returned to familiar looking surroundings, we circled round a small pond which had a hippo in it. It eyed us up with an evil-looking glare before we left it too behind, passing warthogs and lots of antelope before eventually finding ourselves at the office block with the bar that we’d stopped at the night before. Like last time, the rock hyraxes were running around everywhere, and as this was to be our last night in the Serengeti, we all got some booze to take back to our campsite.

 

The sunset was just as spectacular the second night. This time round we were getting prime spot by the fire pit and we gradually congregated in the lowering sunlight to soak up the alcohol in an incredibly stunning location. Some little birds bathed in the dust by our feet, and in the rocks behind camp I spotted more hyraxes jumping about. We ate as the light lowered, but while no hyenas rushed in to steal our food, we could occasionally spot the eyes in our headlamps just beyond the nearest bush. There was a nervous excitement knowing they were there, and I for one wished that we’d get the thrill of one coming in to camp, but they remained just out beyond the boundary while we sat there. Again in our tents with no security or fencing to protect us, we slept in bursts, intermittently disturbed by the calls of the hyenas, and the sounds of things we couldn’t recognise. It had been a thrill to camp wild in Africa, but even though we were moving locations the next day, we didn’t yet know that the next campsite would provide an even closer wildlife encounter.

Above the Serengeti

In the darkness of the early morning we drove across the Serengeti. I had no idea where we were in the park or where we were going, but after rounding up people from various accommodations that popped up out of the darkness, we took off at great speed along a road to nowhere obvious. Knowing that animals are often more active at night, I furtively scanned the outside world looking for the glimmer of eyes reflecting in the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. As we drove further and further away from our starting point, suddenly an unusual cat appeared in the headlights for such a brief moment as to almost be forgetful, but long enough to know I’d seen something special: a serval cat, one of Africa’s lesser known cats. It was the only wildlife we spotted on the drive that eventually took us to our destination just as a hint of dawn filled the air.

It was freezing cold when we got out next to a multitude of other jeeps, and next to us were the shadows of a multitude of hot air balloons. As we stood waiting for them to be readied, the horizon turned blue, then lightened gradually before a hint of red and then yellow arrived. These balloons were huge and took a lot of preparation to get them ready for boarding. We had to climb into the basket whilst it was lying on its side, meaning we had to lie down on the side of the basket staring up at the sky until everyone was loaded and ready to go. I was one of the first people to get on, and it felt cramped by the time we were fully loaded. As more and more hot air was pumped into the balloon, we were assisted to upright and among such a large group of balloons, I was excited to be on one of the first to take off. I’d never had much desire to go ballooning beforehand, but when the option had landed at my feet to balloon across the Serengeti, I jumped at the chance despite the added expense. I decided it would be one of those once in a lifetime experiences, and it certainly proved itself to be just that.

 

The sun broached the horizon just after we took off, quickly gaining momentum as we left the other balloons behind. The sky was by now a mix of orange and purple and as we silently lifted high above the ground, I no longer felt cramped in the basket. I couldn’t move much, but I was able to turn around, look up and over and absorb the expanse opening up right in front of my face. We’d taken off in an open area of the park, but we drifted towards hills, flying over a grazing topi and a large expanse of vague greenery. We spotted the odd safari jeep that was out early for a sunrise safari, including one that was parked up under a large acacia tree where no doubt a leopard was probably resting in its branches. Behind us the other balloons had finally taken off also and so began the balloon dance across the Serengeti National Park.

 

Initially flying low, we gained a bit of height in preparation for the hills that we would traverse over. Aside from the loud bursts of flame blasting into the balloon, the flight itself was incredibly quiet and it felt utterly peaceful to just drift over the land below. When we reached the first hillside, we flew tantalisingly close to the tops of the foliage, and I scoured the land for signs of life. For a while there wasn’t any animals, but eventually we spotted some giraffes among the trees, one of which looked up at us as we floated by. A little further was a small herd of cape buffalo who paid us no attention whatsoever.

 

After another rise we floated over a beautiful green stretch covered in trees, framed by small peaks and hills that rolled off into the distance. I presumed we were heading in the direction of where I’d camped for the night but really couldn’t be sure. We got quite close to a large herd of antelope, although they seemed unsure how to respond to the noise of the balloon flames, some of them scarpering, and others pausing to look up at us. In groups, their stripey bottoms stood out from a distance, with large groups of females being patrolled by an antlered male. Some of them looked positively inquisitive, others just plain confused.

 

For a long time we just drifted over an acacia-filled landscape. Occasionally we floated over a stream, some buildings, or another hill. We spotted a couple of zebra, and later a warthog took off at full speed. Behind us the other balloons continued to dance. I didn’t want the experience to end but sadly it had to. It was still so early in the morning, and there was so much of the day still to come, but after what did not seem like enough time, our landing spot grew closer. We were given instructions on how to brace for the landing, and we watched the first balloon come in to land ahead of us, a group of helpers ready immediately to assist everyone off and pack up the balloon. Then sadly it was our turn to return to Earth, and we had the smoothest landing possible and disembarked with ease.

 

The ground crew were incredible at herding the various groups over to some tables laden with flutes, and there in the early hours of the morning, I found myself drinking champagne in Africa. Standing somewhere unknown in the Serengeti, I watched as the other balloons lowered and landed nearby. All of them touched down gently apart from the last one which bounced before landing, a scream coming from one of the passengers within the basket. A little away some giraffes wandered by and I spotted a few antelope too. Once we’d had our fill of bubbles, we were whisked away to another spot that also felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, where a set of large tables had been set up for a banquet breakfast in the shade of a large tree. In the centre was more champagne, and across courses of fruit and bread and meats and coffee, all of us at the table were in heaven, and I myself felt warm and merry as the champagne continued to flow. A short walk away an open-sided tent had been set up so that you could look out at the open space of the national park whilst sat on the toilet seat.

 

From the sunrise to the peaceful flight over the plains, and from the champagne welcome to the gorgeous banquet in the shade of an acacia tree, the experience was one of my highlights of my time in Tanzania. I had missed out on a morning safari with the rest of my group, but I returned to them mid-morning with a lot of excitement for the day ahead. I’d missed out on a couple of close encounters, but with the day still young, we had a full day safari ahead of us and a lot more wildlife spotting to come.

Serengeti National Park

I was raised on David Attenborough documentaries, with Sunday nights spent watching the television, ogling over creatures I never imagined I’d see in the flesh. I didn’t spend my childhood thinking I’d ever travel or see some of the things I’ve seen, but as an adult I’ve had the privilege and excitement of some incredible wildlife exposure. The African Plains in the Serengeti National Park has always been a regular backdrop to these BBC programmes, and last February at the age of 35, I found myself bouncing up and down in the back of a safari jeep, sending a cloud of dust behind us as we went in search of Africa’s animals in that exact location.

Initially there was a dearth of vegetation but it wasn’t long before we came across a male lion who was just chilling out next to some abandoned man-made structure. He seemed a million miles from anywhere, but in the late afternoon, he just sat there, ignoring the presence of the couple of jeeps that had stopped to look at him. He had a few scars on his face and his mane was pale, and he barely moved. When we pressed on deeper into the park, we found a lioness asleep on top of a rock. Clearly hunting was not on any of their minds at this time of the day. As we continued, small pockets of acacia trees appeared and dotted in random places were rocky outcrops which broke up the otherwise vast expanse of the plains. In the far distance, hills were on the horizon, and they grew closer as we continued on the road in search of wildlife.

 

These rocky outcrops with their trees were potential wildlife hot spots, but with the coverage of the vegetation, spotting anything there was difficult. Luckily our driver guide was an expert at spotting things that our naive eyes couldn’t see. It also helped that we’d occasionally come across another jeep that was parked up which would allude to an animal’s presence, so when the word went out that there was a leopard in a tree on top of one of the rock piles, I was beside myself, straining my eyes to see it through the vegetation. I was grateful that my camera had a decent zoom on it, as this was pretty much the only way to spot it aside from binoculars. If I hadn’t been told it was there to know where to look, I’d have never spotted it on my own. The camouflage was incredible.

As we continued on our safari, the acacia trees grew taller. At one large singular tree we found a few jeeps parked up near its base, and we were quick to learn there was a lioness up in the branches. As we once more strained to see it through the foliage, we became suddenly aware of another couple of lions approaching from the other side of the jeep. As we watched, the numbers of jeeps grew and as the lioness in the tree climbed down to join her pride, I experienced my first annoyance about the management of safaris in this popular park. As the lioness walked on our right, and her pride walked on our left, the drivers of the jeeps ahead of us were so intent on their clients getting the ultimate view that they actively moved and blocked the path that the lioness was taking. She stopped to re-evaluate, her chosen path suddenly gone and the pride found themselves divided by several jeeps that kept jostling among themselves for a better view. We hung back where we were and I was grateful our driver was more respectful. Eventually, the lioness walked in front of the melee and joined the others.

 

The bulk of the jeeps drove off shortly after, leaving just our two jeeps behind. We stayed where we were, watching the social interactions from a distance. Suddenly my attention was drawn to a figure moving through the long grass towards us and I realised it was another lioness. She stood on a little mound right by my window and as I shamelessly took a selfie through the window, a juvenile appeared behind her, shortly followed by another one. Although the lioness left, these two older cubs hung around by us for quite some time, before the pride gradually joined together and began to move away. For a first safari in the Serengeti, it had been a magical start.

 

The cloud looked a little ominous as we headed towards our accommodation for the night. We had to pop into one of the local offices for me to pick up my ticket for an add-on that I’d booked onto the following morning. The office building had a bar and small shop attached to it, but wandering around the site were lots of little rock hyraxes, a peculiar looking creature that live in large groups. They ran fast making them difficult to photograph as they popped up and around rocks and logs. We didn’t have far to drive from here to where we’d be spending the night, and as we watched the sky grow dark and rain move across in the distance, we pulled up and unloaded our stuff. As someone who usually travels independently, I’m used to being responsible for the choices of where I stay, but probably because it was an organised tour, I either hadn’t bothered to read the itinerary or hadn’t really understood it if I had, but we found ourselves at an open campsite, our tents already pitched and waiting for us. I have no idea where this campsite was in the grand scheme of things, but here we were completely unfenced in the Serengeti, and at our briefing we were informed that there was no guard and nobody would be patrolling for wildlife through the night. For all intents and purposes, we were wild camping in Africa.

Another group had bagged the campfire, so we had a quieter dinner before watching the most stunning sunset that faded to a gorgeous purple sky as the rain clouds sweeped past us a little way off. We’d passed some kudu not too far away so knew at least that there were herbivores near by but what we found out was that hyenas patrolled the campsite at night, and as such there was a no-food-in-the-tent policy, and all food had to be securely locked in the jeeps. As darkness fell, we were given strict instructions not to wander further than the toilet block on the edge of camp, to always walk with another person and to have a head torch on at all times. In pitch black, as we readied for bed by visiting the toilet block, our headlamps picked up the sparkle of animals’ eyes not far away. On our walk back to the tents we discovered that a hyena had just run into the group by the campfire and stolen some of their dinner.

 

There was a nervous excitement as we nestled into our sleeping bags within our tents. In the darkness as we tried to sleep, the cries of hyenas reached our ears. I wouldn’t have knowingly chosen to camp in such a manner in Africa, but this was an experience like no other. I would sleep for a bit then get woken up by the sounds of something outside. Occasionally a hyena’s cackling laugh would pierce the air, and I would lie there still before eventually dropping back to sleep again. When my alarm woke me the next morning it was still pitch black outside. I had paid extra for an add-on activity, but I was the only one in my group doing so, meaning against advice, I had to walk to the toilet block on my own to ready myself for the day ahead. The toilet block had a security gate meaning it was possible to lock yourself in the building should an errant animal follow you there, and I had to hover nearby with just my head torch for company, waiting for my ride to pick me up. I was joined by another person who was part of the other group and before long, the two of us were collected and driven off into the darkness for an activity I’d never done before.

Maasai and the Serengeti

As someone who usually travels independently, it can be hard to know that the money is going to the right place when using an organised tour company. This was my second G Adventures trip, having toured the Galapagos Islands with them a few years prior, and I had so far been impressed with them from the Kilimanjaro portion of the trip, having spoken to the local guides and porters who seemed happy to work for them. The company is linked with Planeterra, a not-for-profit organisation that funds social enterprise projects and supports healthcare and conservation projects around the World. One of those projects was the Clean Cooking Stove Project which was helping families reduce the air pollution in their homes created by the fireplace that would be traditionally used. This particular project was also empowering women by teaching them the skills to install the new chimneys and stoves, and our first stop of the day was to a small Maasai village to see the project in action. As a portion of G Adventures profits goes directly to Planeterra, it was effectively a show and tell of where some of our money was going in to the local communities.

I’m incredibly introverted, so always find these kind of things awkward, especially when some of the women and girls seemed very overwhelmed with the group of strangers that came into their small homes. That being said, it was interesting to see how they lived, and the huge difference between the homes that didn’t have the clean stove, and those that did. We met the ladies who were currently installing a chimney and they showed us how they did it all by hand. The village chief was lovely, and he spoke a little English, with our guide aiding with translations where required. Those of us who had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro the week before, had already picked up a few key phrases of Swahili, and although the Maasai language had some key differences, the chief seemed genuinely excited when we spoke what little we knew. Maasai men are polygamous so each house we visited was inhabited by a wife and the children that he’d fathered to that wife. The age range was incredible, and the youngest wife looked to be in her teens, and frankly looked like a deer in headlights when we went into her home.

 

A few of our Kilimanjaro porters were of Maasai descent so we had learned a little about their culture from them during our climb up the peak. It had made a few of my companions indignant to hear about the forced marriage of women and the adult circumcision of the boys (without anaesthetic) upon coming of age. What we’d also learned though, was that the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai was gradually losing its traditions, and this was evident on the village tour, not just because of the houses that they lived in but also by the motorbike that the chief drove about on. As we wandered around, the children were either fascinated by us or scared of us: the younger ones hiding behind mum, the bolder ones following us and laughing at us. A few of us played games with them, and surrounding us all, a large herd of goats milled around the place, tearing up what little vegetation there was to eat.

 

Returning to Mto Wa Mbu where we’d spent the night in our large tents, the road heading west climbed almost immediately upon leaving the settlement behind. The altitude gain brought us to a lookout overlooking Lake Manyara and the National Park that we had visited the day before. It was hazy, so we could only just make out the lake margins, and we tried to work out where exactly the different features we’d driven past were. After stopping at a large tourist trap near the top of the ridge, the landscape opened out again and for a long time we drove through a red landscape, past towns and villages: open, empty lands merging into urbanised hustle and bustle. After what seemed like forever, we reached the gate for Ngorongoro Conservation Area, beyond which lay the large expanse of the Serengeti.

There was a lot of paperwork involved in entering these more western parks, so this was to be the first of many stops hanging around waiting for permits to be okayed. After finally getting cleared to proceed, we were immediately into thick bush and from here onwards, the road climbed high up the edge of Ngorongoro Crater. It was such a contrast to the arid landscape we’d been through in the last couple of days. The bush was unbelievably thick and green and as we climbed higher, we got sneak peaks of the view far below, although it wasn’t until we reached the crater rim, that we got our first sight of Ngorongoro Crater floor itself. From a lookout at the top, the crater looked green below us, but it seemed difficult to imagine that it was teeming with life. We knew we would be doing a safari here in a few days, but from so far away we couldn’t make out herds or much in the way of animal life at all. With the amazing zoom on my camera, I did spot a rhino which was an exciting find, and my mind wandered to thoughts of the safaris ahead.

 

We’d been warned that the picnic site we were stopping at for lunch was patrolled by birds of prey that liked to harass people for their food, so we were given the option of eating outside or eating on the jeep. It was stuffy inside though, and I, like most of us, opted to eat outside. Sat on some well placed logs, we started to tuck into our chicken drumsticks, sandwiches and snacks, all the while watching as 3 tawny eagles circled above us. Every now and again they dropped down suddenly, and we watched as they swooped on some other people that were there. I thought we were doing a good job of looking out for them when all of a sudden I was whacked on the back of the head, and as I realised what was happening, I saw out of the corner of my eye, the hawk that had just hit me with its wing, grabbing the chicken drumstick out of the man’s hand that was sitting opposite me. Amongst the hilarity, several of my companions retreated to the jeep, but I remained steadfast, eating the rest of my food al fresco. What appeared next was one of the weirdest looking birds I’ve ever seen, a marabou stork. Large birds, they looked both reptilian and jurassic, and reminded me of pterodactyls. Their size was almost intimidating, and the look they gave you uncomfortable, but although they were there to scavenge, they didn’t try to steal, instead just wandering around the site looking for scraps. I spent the rest of our time there just staring at them in awe.

 

As we descended down the far side of the crater wall, we passed by another Maasai village where incredibly, wandering among the villagers and their goat herds were zebra, antelope and wildebeest. We’d left the lush vegetation of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area behind and were back to open, deserted landscapes again. The odd animal was spotted as we drove, but when we reached a ridge where the road dropped down, there were some trees again, and to our delight, this area was rife with giraffes. I adore giraffes, and they were one of the species I was most excited to spot. At first, they were far from the road, and again surprisingly mingled with some nomadic Maasai walking their goat herds. As we continued along this stretch of road however, we came across some that were close by, and I was grateful to spend some time here and watch them.

 

Once on the valley floor, it was full speed to the Serengeti National Park. It was a long drive to reach the sign that marked our entry into the park. There were a few herd animals visible in the distance, but from this point onwards we were officially on an afternoon safari, so as we headed west deeper into the park, we stopped to see some ostriches and kudu, and even spotted our first lions. The females were just sleeping on the rocks, and knowing that there would be much more to see, we didn’t stay with them for long. Eventually we reached Naabi Hill Gate, the official entrance to the park where once more, we had to bundle off the jeeps to wait for our permits to be sorted. A colourful bird entertained me in the picnic area, and behind the office, a short trail climbed up a small hill to a rocky outcrop where we got a bit of a view over the complex and the African Plains beyond. There were lizards everywhere, different sizes and colours lounging on the rocks to warm up. They were entertaining to watch, and filled up what seemed like an endless time to get the paperwork sorted at the gate. I’m as interested in reptiles as I am in birds and mammals, so although my companions weren’t fussed, I was happy to be entertained by these little creatures. Finally though we were allowed access into the national park properly and now we were officially on safari. The initial sightings had been a great start, but boy was there so much incredible things to follow.

Lake Manyara National Park

There was no rest for the wicked, despite returning from the Roof of Africa, Mt Kilimanjaro, the day before. There was one last chance to see the Kibo Massif from the hotel before leaving it behind to start the cultural part of the tour. I had combined two of G Adventures tours together to allow me to experience some Tanzania highlights. With the physical part of the trip behind me, things were going to get a lot more sedate, but no less exciting. There were five of us that headed into Moshi to visit a local co-operative known as the Moshi Mammas, an enterprise giving local women the chance to earn a living through selling their crafts. They showed us how to make the bracelets that they sell in their store and we were able to make our own too, which we wore with pride alongside the bracelets that we’d received as part of our summit celebrations, having made it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro just two days prior. Then we had the nearly 2hr drive west to Arusha where we’d be meeting the rest of our group. Of the five of us, four of us had been together hiking up the mountain, and the fifth, whilst also tackling the mountain, had summited on a different route. We were a combo of North Americans and Europeans, although two of us were expats now living abroad.

Our hotel in Arusha was down a back street, low key and nestled amongst tall trees which made it feel like we were on the edge of a jungle. There was a swimming pool and a bar and it had a very different vibe to the lodge near Moshi. After the lengthy process to get into our room, three of us headed into Arusha for a wander around. Like in Moshi on the first day, we were approached often by locals, but unlike in Moshi, I didn’t feel so overwhelmed or uncomfortable, and in fact, feeling much more relaxed post-hike, I was more willing to reciprocate the interaction, and briefly chatted with one gentleman who walked with us for a bit. Rather than feeling like he was trying to sell us something, he did instead just seem genuinely interested in talking to us, and although the city itself didn’t really stand out as offering much for a visitor, I preferred its vibe. Perhaps if I’d visited here first it might have been different, but who knows.

Back at the hotel we met our new guide and the rest of the group that would be travelling with us: a mixture of nationalities that had come down from Kenya and were pursuing safaris in different national parks. After dinner and the meet and greet, it was time to sort out our belongings, ditching the no longer-needed hiking gear in favour of safari clothing. As myself and my roommate spread our stuff around, out the corner of my eye I saw something dart across the floor. This was of course Africa, so my immediate response was to cry out. This startled the creature, which turned out to be a rat, and what ensued was the two of us giggling and running around whilst filming the performance as we failed miserably to shoo the thing out of our room. I sought out a member of staff, but he was no better, and in one of those surreal moments that will stick with me for some time, we found ourselves as a trio, failing to get rid of the poor creature who was terrified. Great woops came out when at last it headed to the open door and happy that we could sleep without fear of rodents in our beds, we said goodnight to the porter, closed the door and went to bed.

 

It hadn’t quite been the African wildlife encounter I’d envisaged, but it was a funny story to regale at breakfast the next morning. However we had bigger creatures in sight, and before long we were off, heading west towards the national parks. As we drove, we left suburbia behind, and the land opened up before us. We saw Maasai people wandering with their cattle herds at the side of the road, we saw belongings balanced precariously on bikes, women carrying baskets on their heads, and small houses and the occasional business were dotted about the landscape. After about 2hrs of driving we pulled into a walled campsite in Mto Wa Mbu, a settlement who’s name translates as ‘River of Mosquitos’. It is an area rife with farming and cultivation and we were taken out with a local guide to show us around.

Down the road from our campsite was large rice paddies, something I’d seen on television but never seen for real. It’s a staple food source that I’ve always taken for granted, so it was interesting to me to see it in situ. We visited some carvers who sell their wares, and I was given the chance to do a bit of carving myself, being presented with some wood that was being fashioned into a giraffe. I was so worried about ruining the man’s hard work, that I didn’t try for very long. Out the back of the village on the far side, we were led past a beautiful white temple building, across a stream and through more grain fields to a banana plantation. The guide was a local woman, and I’m always pleased to see women being given the opportunity to become independent and earn their own wage. I’ve taken my childhood privileges for granted but as an adult, I’ve realised how lucky I am to have been born into a progressive society where I can work, and be independent and have choices. I’ve seen how women can be suppressed and held back in so many countries and I’ve witnessed first hand the attitude differences between myself and male companions when I’ve been abroad at times. Even in 2020, in my home country of New Zealand, I still get people surprised that I travel alone, a surprise that I never hear exclaimed to a solo male.

 

After wandering through the cultivation sites, we were lead into a local art gallery, effectively a walled area among some palm trees where local artists displayed their incredible work. It was absolutely stunning, and I would have loved to have bought something. I’d already bought a painting of a giraffe in Moshi, and neither have the wall space at home, nor the desire to own too many possessions, to entice me to purchase something, but that didn’t stop me being jealous of the stunning lion painting that my companion bought. When we were eventually dragged away, we were led to someone’s garden to be fed a banquet of local foods which were utterly delicious. Several of us went for seconds, including myself. I’m really prone to gut problems when travelling, having had several bouts of poisoning whilst abroad, so can at times be over-cautious, but despite knowing I’d be on a jeep for the rest of the day, I couldn’t deny how good the food was. Thankfully, it did not come back to haunt me.

 

Lake Manyara National Park was only a little out of the village, so it was a relatively short drive that led us to our first safari. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, having never heard of this park before booking the trip. The road headed into tall trees initially, and we spied some warthogs through the foliage. After a short while, the road cut down to a small river and suddenly there were monkeys everywhere: males, females, and youngsters. A large troupe lounged around, occasionally looking our way or casually walking around, displaying their colourful butts. These fully grown olive baboons were a decent size and ended up being the most plentiful monkey that we spotted. A little further along the road were a small number of blue monkeys, well hidden within the foliage. I had missed out on seeing them on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro so was ecstatic to see them here. A little further still we found a small group of vervet monkeys, including a small number of adorable babies that looked stunned among the foliage, watching us fascinated as we watched them.

 

The deeper into the park we drove, the more the sightings came. Impala, warthogs, and wildebeest started to pop up everywhere, and the closer to the lake we got the more the birds began to appear, including large hornbills and storks. We reached a wetland area, which aside from the bird activity, was surrounded by many large cape buffalos, a hefty-looking, and potentially dangerous herbivore. Their reputation precedes them, and they are notorious for charging, and using their bulk to cause great injury and damage. But here they were so busy munching on grass, that they barely batted an eyelid in our direction. The occasional one lifted its head to stare as it chewed the cud, but they seemed more bothered by the flies buzzing around them than of us, so we were able to watch them for a good bit without upsetting them.

 

When I spotted the zebra beyond them, it was hard not to get a bit excited. For me, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and zebra are what I think of when I think of Africa, so to see a small herd in the wild for the first time gave me a thrill. Little did I know how spoiled I’d be over the next few days, but among the gazelles wandering about in between the zebra, I spotted a baby zebra through the crowd. We had to move on though, passing more blue monkeys, more antelope, and more birds I didn’t recognise, until a raised area overlooking Lake Manyara gave us the opportunity to spot flamingos, and then suddenly, some giraffes. They were so far away, I needed all the zoom of my camera to appreciate them, but it was enough to make me happy, until we turned a corner and were greeted with a couple of giraffes right by the road. Their heads bobbed up and down, watching us initially, then deciding they wanted left alone, they wandered off and left us behind.

 

We saw more monkeys, more warthogs, more cape buffalo and more birds as we retraced our steps back towards the entrance of the park. As we reached the waterway where we’d seen the baboons earlier on, we got stuck behind a stationary car that was looking at something to our left. I couldn’t see what it was, so started looking around, when all of a sudden I spotted something grey moving to my right, and quickly exclaimed ‘ELEPHANTS!’ to attract the attention of those in the jeep with me. Everybody whipped round to where I was looking and we all watched in silent awe as a herd of elephants came out of the trees and down to the water’s edge right next to us. They kept closely bunched together, at least eight of them, but every now and again we got a glimpse of a very small baby that was being shepherded and protected by the adults as they moved. After having a good drink, they moved on, disappearing back into the trees as silently as they had arrived.

 

The safari was supposed to be over, but round the corner as we headed back to the entrance gate, we were quickly met by two full-grown elephants. They seemed unfazed by the audience as they ate, swaying gently on their feet, their large ears flapping away the incessant flies. The driver graciously gave us a bit of time with them, and even stopped once more when we came across more baboons as we drove out the park. It had been a successful first safari, and after dinner back at the campsite, we were able to enjoy some beer under the cooling sky. Little did I know how much our tents would mean to us the next few nights, as we went to sleep ahead of another push west the next day. After a lifetime of being glued to every David Attenborough programme as a child, I couldn’t quite believe that I was actually heading to the Serengeti.

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