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Thursday, 28 October 2010

Tanzania Part 2 - Serengeti & NgoroNgoro crater

Arusha, home of African Trails workshop, was where we based ourselves for the Serengeti pick-up. This campsite – Snake Park - was awesome. There were about 4 other overland trucks parked up at the same time as us so it was pretty hectic. But…as the name suggests, there was a built in snake park and zoo-type-thing for us to look at for free. They had all sorts of snakes including massive and poisonous ones. They also had big crocs, tortoises, lizards and tiny baby crocodiles which the keeper let us hold if we wanted! The bar was also pretty cool. Run by a South African couple called Ma and BJ, they cater mainly for overlanders and the walls are plastered with photos of groups and stuck trucks, whilst the rafters are draped with donated signed T-shirts and flags from every nation in the world. It had a lot of character and we settled in for a few drinks that night.

Unfortunately, after my incident with missing money in Zanzibar, a few of the guys decided to do a quick money count before we left on safari. Sonya found she was missing 100 Euros and Matt and Kerry were down about $400. The worst thing about these cases was that their money had been locked in our onboard safe which only the other passengers have access to. Chris was about to experience his 1st issue (of many…) as our new driver. He sat us all down and had some serious words about the fact that theft will not be tolerated etc. And after a heartfelt/seriously pissed off plea to everyone me , Son, Matt and Kerry just asked for the money to anonymously be returned some time that night so we’d able to pay for the Serengeti which is what that money was set aside for. Unsurprisingly, no money was returned and there were a lot of suspicions flying around which is terrible but inevitable in this situation. It is just such a shame that the trip had been going for 6 months with no problems and everyone was so trusting of everybody else and now it’s hard to look at anyone without suspecting. Chris had told us that they had never experienced any onboard thefts on any of their trips before and it sucks that it’s us and that there is really nothing we can do about it other than tighten security and try to make sure your money is on your person at all times. (The general consensus in now that we would rather risk being mugged by a local in the street then let one of our ‘friends’ have free reign to our cash.)

The next morning, we all paid up our $430 to the company ‘Fun Safaris’ for the 3 day safari through the Serengeti and NgoroNgoro crater. This may seem like a high price, but it includes all transport to the parks and the park fees, game drives, 3 meals a day and camping costs etc. It had been on everyone’s budget from the beginning and we were all dead excited! Of course, everything was not going to run smoothly for us, because it never does when it comes to me: I woke up that morning and had my first case of African stomach of the 7 months so far. You’ll be pleased to know that this lasted for the entire 3 days on safari and involved me eating and then 2 minutes later rushing to the toilet. Then another 20 minutes later rushing off to the toilet again and then not eating anything else so I’d make it throughout the ¾ hour game drive. Thanks God.

Me, Ish and Yoichi at the start of our safari

The 2 cars arrived, 6 people in one and 7 in the other. In our car was me, AK, Jen, Jules, Ish, Sonya and Yoichi. We passed the 3 hour drive to the park playing some cool car games including charades and singing games which made the time fly! The cars were pretty cramped to make things slightly worse, however the roof space came open so we all could stand on our seats with our heads out of the window which would prove later to make awesome game viewing positions! To get to the Serengeti, we had to drive through the crater on the way in and out. So even before we hit the Serengeti we’d seen baboons, ostriches and buck on the side of the road, a sign of things to come.

We stopped for a packed lunch before we hit the Serengeti gate. I, of course, had to rush to the 'toilet' as soon as we stopped and passed on the lunch. However, this may have been a good thing as when the guys sat down to eat, suddenly these huge birds appeared overhead. (We think they may have been eagles or kites?...) Anyhoo, Sonya was happily tucking into her chicken drumstick when all of a sudden a bird swooped out of the sky and stole the chicken from her hands! This caused a bit of a panic as these birds meant business. Nobody reacted quite as dramatically as Ish though, who shrieked and threw his entire lunch box into the air and ran for his life!! The rest of the crew sheltered under a nearby log to finish their lunch in peace.

One of the offending chicken thief

Berbs, Matt and Yoich (always protective of food) hiding from the birds

As we were finishing up, (and I was on my way out of the toilet...) I was blocked off from the rest of the group by 4 zebras that had wandered into the picnic area. They seemed totally oblivious to our prescence and some of the guys got too close to take photos and ended up trapped behind the herd and couldn't back to us for some time!! But it was so cool to see them so close without them being at all scared by us.

AK with the zebras

Jules was trapped for some time!

On the way through the guys were also offered the chance to stop and look around a traditional Masai Mara village. I couldn’t participate as there were no available toilets nearby, but most of the others did it and they all absolutely loved it. They looked inside the houses which were tiny but housed so many people; the school where the kids sang them an alphabet song which AK managed to video (well done AK!); the warriors did the traditional jumping dance for them and told them about how they survive only on meat and a blood and milk combination. AK came back from the tour with a Masai beating stick and a dancing stick as keepsakes. Jen and Jules almost arrived back sporting a spear and shield but decided against it due to the sheer size of these weapons!

I cannot believe how high these guys can jump!!

Shoes made out of pieces of tyre

The tiny huts where the whole fanily live

The kids at the school singing the alphabet song

This is my all time favourite photo of Ish

AK with the Masai

I met the guys at the official entrance to the Serengeti where we would buy our permits and meet the supply truck at a campsite for dinner. Should have been dead easy I hear you say. An hour went by and our guides were still not back at the cars. Another hour and the guides returned saying that as the Serengeti officials do not accept any cash payments, only credit card, and the bank machine was down. We had to wait for the bank manager to arrive and sort the problem out. Ok. At this point it was 4.30 and park gate was going to close at 6.30. The bank manager did arrive at about 6 o’clock only to tell us that the problem was that the company had insufficient funds in their accounts to cover the cost. If they were to let us in and we would pay the next day, we would incur a 50% surcharge on top on the park costs which was not an option for the drivers. We later found out that the company had paid our cash into the bank that morning and had a confirmation that the money was in their account. But due to a problem with the bank itself, the money wasn’t cleared into and the sh*t hit the fan. In the end, Saviour Sonya as we like to call her, came to rescue and put the cost on her card with a different bank. Unfortunately at this time it was already after 6.30 and it took another half hour to agree for them to let us in to the park as driving was prohibited after 7pm and we still had an hour’s drive to get to our campsite. We eventually got the go ahead, and 4 hours after arriving at the gate we were finally in. We were supposed to be doing an ‘evening’ drive as the sun went down on the way through the park, but the sun was already down so we just bombed it along the road as fast as possible. (Although we did catch a glimpse of a MASSIVE lion right on the side of the road before it was swallowed up into the darkness again.)

The group still waiting to get into the Serengeti even as the sun was already going down

Cutest. Animal. Ever. (Baby hyrax!!)

When we got to the camp site the supply truck guys had already pitched our tents for us and a delicious dinner was waiting. I will mention that all the food the guys provided us with was absolutely amazing. Some of the best food we’ve eaten this trip and even at breakfast at 5 am there was sausage, eggs and toast waiting for us. We were all so impressed.

The next day instead of a 5 hour game drive, the guys were going to take us out for 8 hours to make up for the time we had lost the day before. This did sound a little daunting as 8 hours is a looooong time spend in a car, but in the end time flew by so quickly it was an amazing day. The first thing we came across was a leopard in a tree!! Amazing, I have never seen a leopard before and we were all so chuffed. It was just chilling at the bottom of a branch sleeping. Then as we watched it woke up, stretched and yawned, climbed up the branch of the tree to where we hadn’t spotted a dead buck wedged into a corner between 2 branches. We then watched the leopard tuck into its meal it must have caught the night before, hauled it into the tree and had a snooze before breakfast. We couldn’t have imagined we’d see anything like this, let alone the first thing we came across.

Please forgive the rubbish quality of the photos - 1 I only have a point-and-shoot camera which doesn't zoom in very far! And 2 the sun was coming up behind the tree so the pictures are all in silhouette...

Throughout the day we really were so lucky with what we saw. There was a pride of 7 female lions walking along the grass towards the road and they crossed over the road right behind our car. I could have reached out and touched one if I had wanted to. (If I had wanted to…) Then after that excitement, a massive male lion came out of the grass from where it was lying down and walked straight behind them, again so close I could have touched it. (Again, if I was so inclined!)

I love how grizzled this lioness is

Passing right in front of our car (our driver was so good at getting us as close as possible!

The daddy following his ladies

So close

We also saw ostriches, warthogs, hyenas (some bathing in rain puddles in the middle of the road!), jackals, giraffe, loads of buck and even 5 cheetahs on our way out of the park. They were pretty far in the distance but we spotted one full sizes cheetah with 4 young ones. Our guide thought maybe 2 years old. It was such a good spot by the car in front of us because even when they were pointed out to me I still couldn’t see them!!

Jackal or wild dog


Some kind of deer (I lost track which type there were so many!)

Cool hippos

Amazing shot (thanks AK's SLR!) of giraffes which the whole Serengeti backdrop

The cheetahs in the far far distance

More hippos

Hyena wallowing in the mud in the road made by the rains

Second. Cutest. Animal. Ever. (tiny baby jackal!!)
So out of the Serengeti we went feeling so elated, back through the crater and to our campsite for the night. As we drove in we knew this was going to be a cool experience as 2 huge bull elephants we chomping on grass right on the side of the road. And then as we were putting our stuff in our tents the BIGGEST elephant I have ever seen walked into camp and started having a drink out of the water tank. I swear to God its tusks were the length of a person. I managed to sneak a picture of Jules in front of him (at least 10 metres away, don’t worry!) and at her full 5ft 9 height she only reach up to the top of his leg. Then as we were marveling pretty close to this giant, someone dropped some kitchen equipment behind us, made the elephant jump and start backwards which in turn made Jules, Jen and I shriek and run away at top speed to hide in the toilet block next to us giggling like crazy people!

Of of the elephants from the car window - pretty close!

The cars in the background are dwarfed by this elephant

Biggest elephant I've ever seen - pre-scared Jules looking tiny in comparison!!

We got up dead early the next morning to get a full day’s driving in at the crater, and we had rather scary experience driving down a very narrow and very steep hill in dense fog. I have no clue how the driver saw the road because I was looking out of the same window and could see absolutely nothing. As we descended a bit further, we drove under the fog and saw the stunning view of the extensive crater. From a distance the crater looks big, but you can still see the whole thing in one view.

Everyone on the top of the crater

When you get nearer however, the same of it takes your breath away. You can see the huge open space around you, with a lake right in the middle. Dotted around the edge there are patches of bright green lush land.

Such amazingly random greenery in the middle of the desert-like crater

 There are wide areas of savannah with massive herds of thousands of wildebeest and zebras all around you. The edge of the lake is one mass of luminous pink with so many flamingoes all along its bank. They are interspersed with hyenas waiting for a snack and hundreds of hippos wallowing in the shallows. The diversity of the landscape shocked me so much and I would recommend if anyone wants to do a safari where you will everything and anything you could ever imagine then this is the place for you.

I’ll sum up the highlights of the day, and then let the photos do the rest of the talking for me…dotted around the area there are zones which have been deemed (by some unknown persons) safe for people to get out of their cars and use the toilets or take photos of views etc. It should be mentioned that these areas are not fenced in at all and are essentially just a part of the park. As the guys went off for a quick toilet stop, AK and I hung back checking out the bush around us. AK suddenly stopped short and said in a hushed voice, ‘Oh my God, is that a lion??’ As AK is known for making jokes at any opportune moment I just immediately told him to shut up and stop taking the piss. But then upon closer look, sure enough there was a lone male lion lying underneath a fallen tree no further the 30 metres from where we were standing. I repeated his earlier sentiments of ‘Oh my God!’ The guides were having a good look and were we with our cameras poised. In any other park I’ve ever visited, if this had happened it would be a mass rush to get back in the car and get rifles out. However, this guides just let us hang around having a good gander for about 20 minutes before deciding to usher us back into the vehicles. Yoichi was having a great time wearing his black and white striped hoodie and imitating a zebra to try to lure the lion in closer!! The lion was having none of it however, and just gave a yawn and rolled over back to sleep. Noble effort on Yoichi’s behalf to ‘take one for the team!’

Another amazing find was a lioness with 4 baby cubs!! The one thing I’ve always wanted to see in the wild is cubs and sure enough there they were. And they were so, so, so, close to is. They started off just chilling in the distance, but slowly the mama lion led the babies to the road to cross over. There was 1 of the cubs who must have been the runt of litter. He was pretty small and kept on getting left behind. When he was with the others he wouldn’t leave the lioness’ side and when he did fall behind she had to keep going back and shooing him along. At one point she even had to pick him up and carry him on a way before he would start behaving himself! After stopping on the way to have a quick drink and play around the lioness walked calmly across the road through all the cars. The cubs were a little bit more dubious, and the hung back for a bit and suddenly all shot across the road at top speed to catch up. They must have only been a couple of months old and were absolutely adorable. After we left, we realized we had been sat watching them for over a hour. It felt like 5 minutes and was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in a game park.

These were the 2 highlights of the day which I had to talk about in more detail. The rest was just as cool though and as we spent the whole day in the crater I think we saw everything we wanted to (even a rhino which was so far away it was just a tiny speck on the horizon).

A queue of zebra

So many wildebeast just after the migration

Cute vervet monkey chilling in a tree

Something's leg in the middle of the road!

A zebra having a good roll in the dirt

Some kind of cool bird

The rest of the afternoon was just the drive back to Snake Park to reconvene and drive on to Kenya and more excitement.