Ngorogoro Crater to Serengeti

Jul 22

We rise again early for a long drive to the Serengeti. Little do we know that these will be the worst roads yet! Could they really be any worse? The answer to that is definitely YES. Its interesting because I was recently reading an article about the fight over building a super highway through the Serengeti. It was in national geographic. I tried to insert a link here but its not working. Look up – the story is in the 2010 August issue of National Geographic.

This road is what I would call bone rattling. At the same time I can’t imagine building a super highway through the middle of this area that is the major migratory pathway for so many animals. In the US we build game trails over and under the highways in the west but our animals are far less than those in Tanzania. We will all have to watch and see what happens as this story continues to unfold.

Back to the road trip. We packed up again to head out to the Serengeti. One car of people had decided to stop at a Masai village (staged) so there was some rearranging in the cars. Since one of the Land Cruisers was fairly empty due to this shift Monique and Sierra moved to that car to get a little more room (our car was full with 7). At first I thought we were going to have a game drive through the Crater on the way out but quickly learned that was not the case. The plan was to drive around the western rim of the Crater and through the Olduvai Gorge . The drive around the rim to reach the Gorge was more than an hour long. As we approached the Gorge I was surprised at how much the landscape reminded me of South Park in Colorado. The Malanga Depression in the Gorge is a beautiful valley surrounded by hills/mountains much like this spot in Colorado. Even the grasses and the grassing cattle reminded me of home with one exception. In the distant herds of cattle there were dots of bright red. Red is the color of the Masai. They wear this bright color so that they can spot each other from great distances. It works – we could see the red clearly against the muted browns and yellows of the arid valley. The herds were large, typically shepherded by 2 or 3 Masai. Along the road there were villages set up with anywhere from 5 to 20 “houses”. These are similar to the houses I described earlier made with sticks coated with manure with a small hole in the top to let out the smoke from the cooking fires. The other difference in this landscape from Colorado were the ever present Acacia trees – Acacia drepanolobium and acacia xanthophloea . The drepanolobium variety is also known as the whistling thorn and it produces something called an oak apple. There is a variety of black ant that lives inside the oak apple that protects the tree from being eaten by all the animals (giraffe’s, elephants, etc) grazing in its habitat. When an animals tries to eat the tree the ants come out of the oak apples and bite the animal on the tongue and lips. Pretty good symbiotic relationship if you ask me. The other tree is also known as the Yellow Fever tree. People originally thought that the tree carried Yellow Fever because it was present in the areas where people were contracting the disease.

As we drove through the Gorge clouds began to dot the sky casting large shadows across the broad plain emphasizing even more to me how much this looks like Colorado. The landscape is barren in so many ways but beautiful in its simplicity. We made our way along until we started seeing a group of giraffes off to the right. All of our cars took an “off-roader” and drove right up to the giraffes out in the open space to let us get close up shots. Apparently the game wardens are not as vigilant in the Gorge as they are in the Crater. This was a lot of fun though because we were much closer to the giraffes (my favorite African animal) and got to see some of the smaller ones with their mothers. The Masai giraffe is darker in color than most of the giraffes I have seen in zoos in the US. After about 15 minutes of this we got back on the road. Within a few minutes we saw a group of the young circumcised warriors ahead. I really wanted to get a picture of them with their black and white painted faces. Usia said that they would let us take pictures if we paid them. We pulled up along side the road and paid them 10,000 Tanzanian Shillings (about $7.50). This turned out to be one of my better shots from the trip and it came from my iPhone. .

We were back on the road which was starting to get worse. Just after we pull back on the road we see a Montague’s Harrier flying low to the ground stalking her prey. We are past her before we see if she catches anything. I think it was about another hour before we got to the entrance of the Serengeti. Along the way Usia was making phone calls back and forth with Bushbuck Safari’s trying to make arrangements for John and me and possibly Monique and Sierra to stay another day in the Serengeti and fly back or stay somewhere else along the way driving back. We had decided that we did not want to waste a day sitting around in Arusha where there is pretty much nothing to do. It turned out to be a half day affair figuring out what would work with reservations and within our acceptable cost limitations. The first option was going to be something like $700/person as I recall. More about the option we booked in the next installment of “Martha’s Safari Times”.

I REALLY needed to go to the bathroom but wasn’t in the mood to pee on the side of the road. I think Nan was having the same issue and I started asking how much longer to a bathroom. Thirty minutes later we were at the park gate( Naabi Hill Gate) with bathrooms. Little did we know that we would be waiting here for the fifth car that had taken the detour to the Masai Village. We all skipped this side trip, not because it was $20, but because we thought we would get to the lodge sooner and get some extra down time. But it was not to be. We piled out of our cars while Usia went to do the paperwork and pay the park fees. It was after noon and we were starting to get hungry. There was a little shop at this spot selling snacks – cookies, beers, sodas, chips, etc. After a quick trip to the loo, not the best but not the worst we had seen, we went to the snack shop and loaded up on munchies. We stood around under an acacia tree trying to escape the hot sun and thinking we would be heading out any minute. No sign of any of our drivers. Eventually, the fifth car showed up and we realized that we had been waiting for them all along. After just a few minutes for them to take a break we started out in to the Serengeti.

The Serengeti is the largest game preserve in Tanzania. We are only going to see a tiny fraction of this landscape. The road through the Serengeti is the main artery to Lake Victoria and there is actually trucking traffic of some sort on this road. I found it shocking that a tractor trailer truck could make it very far on these terrible rock strewn roads without going through 10 or so tires a day. It reminded me a lot of the road into the Via Vidalle National Forest in Northern New Mexico that popped three of the tires on our old “Traveling Lunch Box” – but that’s a story for another day.

We bumped along at a much more rapid pace that we had been driving. We were running behind – AGAIN. It was kind of like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. This landscape was VERY dry with rocks and tall grasses waving in some areas along the road. Not many trees in the beginning. The word Serengeti means “endless plain” and that is certainly an apt description. We drove past some large rock outcroppings that reminded me of Pride Rock from the Lion King. These are known as the Simba Kopjas. We continued to drive along for what seemed forever when the landscape started to be a bit greener and have more trees. We were now nearing an area were several rivers converge. The only animal we’ve seen up to this point is the Thompson Gazelle. We make a turn off to the road to take us back the Sopa Lodge and Usia says we may start to see some wildlife in this treed area along the road. At this point we are tired and bit road worn so we really aren’t paying much attention. Just ahead in the road there is a sign saying that the bridge is out and we have to take a detour.

We turn off on an even bumpier road but we are soon at the lodge. We are greeted again by wet towels that are desperately needed after this dusty drive. They send us to sit on these oversized “Edith Ann” couches in the foyer. Many of the group are talking about skipping the afternoon game drive to rest and relax at the lodge pool. We are all starting to show signs of exhaustion from this rabid pace following such a rigorous climb. After a few minutes they bring us the keys and hand them out one by one. We are escorted to our rooms again by another porter (female) in bright colored African dress. After a quick drop off we zip up to the dining room for another hot lunch. At this point we are hoping for US comfort food and low and behold they have a hamburger on the menu. Half the table orders a good old burger and Kili beer. We actually have an hour or two before the next game drive. April is already down at the pool enjoying the water. We decided to put on our suits and go for a dip. The water was cool but it felt fantastic. Tina and Gina were having a belly flop contest in the pool and talking about being on Amazing Race. I think they will be a fun team to watch and really hope they make it. Lots more folks made their way down to the pool and about a third of the group decided not to go on the evening game drive. Sitting at the edge of the pool and flying all around are these beautiful bright orange dragonflies.

I searched the internet a bit but wasn’t able to find a name for this pretty insect. Anyone know the name?

We went back to the room to change into our safari clothes. On the way to the room I ran across a Blue Agama Lizard which is actually more purple than it is blue. It was about 6 inches long and really beautiful against the brown landscape. I wonder why it is such a bright color since most animals in this sort of environment are trying to disguise themselves. There is no disguising this guy. He sticks out like a sore thumb!

Back in the Land Cruiser with Usia we drive back out along the same bumpy road and then make a turn off in a different direction. We see a jackal, some Defass Waterbuck, black faced monkeys (with blue balls), a Cook’s Heart beast, more Thompson gazelles (100’s) and a large group of guinea fowl that were just beautiful with the black and white speckled feathers. We saw lots of elephants with small babies maybe 2 or 3 months old. We were driving along looking for the elusive black rhino (see other blog post about how rare these guys are). Finally Usia spots one off in the distance and I mean distance. With the binoculars Nan and Sean manage to see the top of his head. Usia keeps pointing me in a direction but all I see is something that looks more like a rock than a rhino. I am unimpressed at such a great distance and such uncertainty of what i am seeing. It is starting to get late and we have a ways to go to get back to the lodge. We are supposed to be back by 6:30 for a meeting about our balloon ride and it is close to 6 now. We start the drive back and are 1/3 of the way there when one of the other guides, Solomon spots a black rhino at much closer range. He radios Usia in our vehicle and we take off like mad men. It is much like a ride at the carnival and is actually pretty fun for me though probably not that good for my back. I am laughing and really enjoying the craziness of the chase. We arrive at the spot with about 15-20 minutes of sunlight left (our trigger for being out of the park before we get in trouble with the game wardens). I decide not to waste time trying to take a photo with my small camera with no good zoom. Its really not that far away and I can see it clearly without the binoculars but a lot better with them. He is looming large in some bushes with most of his body visible. Sean and Nan are working feverishly together to get the “shot” with Sean’s camera. Nan’s got him in the binoculars – Sean hands over the camera and she gets the picture – See on Facebook. We have the PROOF. We’ve seen the black rhino. It makes the trip worthwhile just the sheer excite of the chase made it worthwhile, actually seeing it was the icing on the cake. How many people in the world can actually say they’ve see a black rhino in the wild? Not many.

We are late getting back to the lodge and there is a line to fill out release forms for the balloon ride in the morning. We have to get up at 4 am to go to the launch site. No rest for the wicked! Daniel tells John they’ve just sat down to dinner and have two seats so John heads in to the dining room. I am covered in dust at this point and feel desperate to wash it all off. I rush to the room for a quick shower (less than 5 minutes) and back up to the dining room just after everyone has order. I get my order in for the traditional African dish – I think it was beef stew type dish served with a polenta like side dish. It was quite good. Mickey shared a bottle of wine with us and we enjoyed each others company for the last night. The wear and tear of the last few weeks was starting to show. Daniel is ready to get home and has been for a few days. Nathan is quieter than usual and the conversation just isn’t as lively as it has been. The exhaustion and the thought that soon we’ll be leaving each other is hanging over us all. We hurry off to bed because of our early wake up call.

Back at the room we are greeted again by the overwhelming odor of mosquito spray. Its suffocating. I have to get a wash cloth wet and cover may face in order to breathe. I think we’ve entered just after they finished spraying. I can’t imagine having to sleep with this every night. But malaria or sleeping sickness (from the Tse tse fly) is even worse.

We drift off to sleep dreaming of the days escapades.

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