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.