This is was Land Rovers were built for: the rough, rugged roads of Africa, not perfectly paved suburban America. We hopped in our beastly vehicle with our two guides Charles and Mody, two spare tires strapped to the back, two tanks of petrol full, and all the supplies we needed for four days of wilderness.
On the way to our first stop of Tarangire National Park, we passed a bounty of Maasai villages, still living with the traditions of thousands of years. Of all the tribes in Africa, these people remain stalwart no matter how much the government herds them around, taking their land. Scarred cheeks with smiling lips, sandals made of old tires, bright red-checkered robes, thin walking canes (in lieu of spears), colorful beaded jewelry, and drooping stretched earlobes, they herd cows to and fro the feeding fields between tiny villages dotted with circular grey mud and cow poop huts.
But undoubtedly the coolest part of the Maasai are how they dress for their circumcision ceremonies. While getting circumcised in your teens sounds unnecessarily painful, and painfully unnecessary, they consider it a coming of age to withstand the pain without wincing. Directly after being cut, the boys dress in all black, paint their faces white and many adorn white feathers atop their heads. This they wear and wander the bush in groups until they return healed and earn their red robes.
We waited at the gate of Tarangire with dozens of Wazungu (“white people”, as the locals have made us very aware of) in their similar Land Rovers, while all of our guides stood in line to fill out the permit info required for entry. There were some beautiful birds and Vervet monkeys with their bright blue balls to entertain us. Apparently the darker a males testicles, the higher up in the social ladder he is. Gives a different definition than we have for “blue balls”.
The exciting moment came where we got to pop the top roof of the Jeep so we could stand with our heads out for some panoramic views of the area. Within literally two minutes of entering, as if straight out of a movie, we came upon a tiny lake with a family of elephants bathing, in the foreground a group of rascally looking mongooses (mongeese?) sped by, and to the left, herds of zebra and wildebeests grazed. About the only thing missing was the Lion King intro kicking in the background: “AHHHHH SABADENYA, BADABEETSI BABA. EY, WENYA OOH” Yeah, I have no idea how to type that into song, but you get the idea.
But seriously, when we had Safari in mind we envisioned hours of driving without seeing anything, then getting excited by one sighting of something far away; nothing nearly as unbelievable as this! The ride through the park kept getting us mere meters away from every animal you imagine to find in Africa. The zebras do a particularly adorable thing where they rest heads on each others shoulders. Probably part to rest, but also the stripes confuse the crap out of predators.
The birds were also magnificent, Kingfishers, Finches, Vultures, an Owl, tons of deep pastel colored birds. Jessica and I were consistently squealing with excitement and telling Charles to stop every 2 minutes for a picture of something equally gorgeous from the last stop. He must be used to this being a guide for six years, but it got a little ridiculous. He kindly turned off the engine each time so the rumble wouldn’t disturb the pictures of the squaks and grunts of the animals.
We also got to see our first big cat species. A pride of lions lounging off the side of the road. There was a male, but we only saw him from the back, the females however were quite lively, one with a leather collar because she is being tracked by the park officials.
We left the park after a long day of pure awesome, and camped high up on a hill in a place far fancier than we imagined we would be camping. Tents all set up, with actual beds inside, electricity, clean bathrooms, nice views, huge dining area. Certainly not “roughing it”! The food Sandra packed and Mody prepared was scrumptious. Fried fish, salads with avocado, and I was even ultra impressed that a can of instant coffee and powdered milk could whip up such a tatsy brew.
The noisy British high school group thankfully went to bed early after all scrambling and bickering to use the few available outlets to charge cameras and phones. Soon we were fast asleep dreaming of wild beasts.
Tea, coffee, eggs, sausage, white bread, pineapple, watermelon, and oranges woke us up. Soon we were packed and headed to Ngorongoro Conservation area.
Same drill as at Tarangire; wait outside with the other Wazungu for an hour until the permits are ready. The information office gave some excellent information about the area; volcanic activity which made the crater, species found within, history of the Maasai, and the birth of early homo sapiens traced to this area. As a biology teacher I felt it was my duty to ensure the data was correct and was pleasantly satisfied.
Soon we were driving down the lip of the crater to the protected animals within. Similar Zebras, Empallas, Gazelles, Wildebeests as yesterday, but also nearly right upon entering we were met with Hyenas, Warthogs, Jackals, Ostriches, Flamingos, and this really cool orange afroe’d secretary bird you are sure to recognize.
Charles told us the names for each animal in Swahili. Many of which we knew without knowing we knew. See if you recognize these names. Lion – Simba, Warthog – Pumba, Father male lion – James Earl Jones. Funny thing that last one…all so uncannily similar to the Lion King.
We came across another pride of Simba just lounging along in the grass, and passed a huge family of wandering baboons, I might have even seen uncle Peter among them (that’s for you dad). Ngorongoro is teeming with unique creatures of all sorts smushed together in the safe confines of this crater. It was simply astounding how many separate species you could be looking at all at once.
With our stomachs grumbling we stopped for some fried chicken lunch in a little valley enclave with other tourists and some bathrooms. This little lake area was the first place we have seen Hippos and they gave us quite a show; covered in birds, yawning with their huge teeth poking out, snorts and grumbles, and bobbing up and down in the water.
The highlight of the day for me were all the Hyenas. I think they are my favorite because they are related to dogs, and there are simply hideous in a beautiful way. We even came across a mother with two babies, literally just a few meters from our truck. Fun fact about Hyenas, the packs are matriarchal, the female even grows a “fake penis” to assert her dominance over their inferiors. If a male prostrates to a female and she denies him, she bites out his throat and eats him. Oh…maybe that’s why I like Hyenas.
Coming in close second for the hideously beautiful prize would be the stout, stocky, warthogs. Always running with their tails straight up like a pencil in the air, their hysterically huge tusks seem to make little room for an actual face, of which is pretty hideous already. How does this species even manage to propagate? Lots of alcohol I suppose, lowers inhibition, makes even a warthog look mate-able.
After another long, dusty, fantabulous day and a quick text to wish my brother Mike a Happy Birthday we headed to our much more spartan campsite, ate another expertly cooked beef stew dinner followed by fresh fruit, then went to bed in our cozy tent under a sky filled with brightly shining suns and galaxies.
Where are the giraffes you might ask? A good question, but after an hour driving and not ten minutes into the periphery of the Serengeti, BAM, Giraffes!
Each park has been a completely different ecosystem, only separated by a couple hours driving. The Serengeti is a sprawl of yellow grasslands, spotted with little dots of rocky greenery, and the occasional field of Baobab, Acacia, and other trees. Though this picture was taken of grasslands when we had to get out so our guides could fix a flat tire.
The rest stop at the park entrance had a myriad of bright birds, multi-colored lizards and more wazunga. This wait took an especially long time, but soon we were on our way to the depths of the Serengeti!!!
The first couple hours of Serengeti seemed like the same old, same old. The massive herd of elephants was exciting, but otherwise lots of wildebeests, trees, grass, rocks, that’s about it. Not to say this scenery wasn’t especially beautiful, but the last two days spoiled us with consistent unique animal spottings. All was made up for however with our first sighting of a leopard dangling in a tree!
It was the first of many sightings of leopards, and also lions hanging out safely in trees, their fours limbs dangling like a sleeping baby on mom’s back.
Then came the unforgettable climax of the day, and possibly the whole trip: five lionesses and five cubs feeding on a wildebeest corpse. As close as they were, the high grass skewed our view a bit, leaving only imagining the state of the dead beast. But when they were full, the lionesses and cubs came out and quite literally rubbed against our vehicle. If I were braver I could have reached my hand 2 feet away and pet momma’s back.
Then one lion just laid down and hung out right by our car. We just sat stunned and stared at this awesome mammal. Her split nose had clearly been kicked in during a fight, maybe this fight, and the blood from the wound and from feeding trickled off her lips and whiskers. Brutal. Also below is the incredibly National Geographicesque shot of three lions in a tree.
The day could not have been better. Okay maybe if we’d seen a kill happen it could have. Also if a male lion got thrown in the mix, or even some animals mating would have been exciting. But the trip was nonetheless far beyond all expectations. We even managed to check off our cat sightings by getting up close and personal with a Cheetah lounging by a broken tree.
Sunset was soon falling over our even more spartan campsite, as everyone lined up to get in a quick shower washing off the dust from the day. There were only two plugs in the dining call this time (see what I mean by Spartan), Jess and I snagged one as soon as possible to give our camera battery a much needed charge.
We took a late start today. Both spare tires have been used and Charles had to go get them repaired to ensure a smooth journey home. We did manage to see the tail end of the herbivore migration which was impressive, and get up close with some baboons.
Otherwise it was a speedy exit from the park before our 24-hour time limit was up. We officially ended our Safari at a small town where Charles and Mody bid us farewell as we boarded a bus to Mwanza.
For once it was a very comfortable bus ride. We made it to Mwanza in good time, then boarded a dala-dala which left us kind of near a street mentioned in our guidebook, but really we were just mostly lost. City center seemed close, we were tired, hungry, thirsty and had to pee so we ducked in to a fancy-ish looking hotel and booked a room. It was a great room and an incredibly reasonable rate, we counted ourselves lucky we couldn’t find the hotel we were searching for from our book.
Soon we were in the city center, and grabbed some dinner at a pizza place. Mwanza is the second largest city in Tanzania, which rests on the second largest lake in the world, Lake Victoria. So far the city still feels more like a big town. It is noticeably clean and the people are very friendly. Still not much as far as cities go, but it is one of the nicest we have been in thus far!
We got lost on the way back and stumbled upon the most bustling markets we have seen in Tanzania yet. Street after street was packed with people selling all sorts of goods, used clothes, fish, fruits & vegetables, shoes, textiles, all laid out on tarps on the ground. Everywhere else we have been in the world, markets like this seem to be largely set up for tourists as well as locals, however, we seem to be the only tourists in the whole city. No longer on packaged Safaris, the elusive white people seem non-existent everywhere else in Tanzania!!!
We finally found our way back and enjoyed some slow internet and beers at our hotel where our very friendly waitress sat with us and enjoyed our pictures from Safari. She spoke only a few words of English, but she simply exuded friendliness!
First thing in the morning we booked boat tickets to Bukoba on the other side of Lake Victoria, towards the Ugandan border. Lunch at our hotel then took almost two hours to come, while the TV in the background involved a funky-haired Indian televangelist healing the “ill”, and the “disabled” (but really just a plethora of crappy actors) with the power of faith and shouting “MAXIMUM JESUS CHRIST!” in their face. Really, that should have been the blog title.
We spent the rest of the day walking around town, and making our way up to the rocky peninsula which housed the wealthiest of Tanzanian’s citizens. Most of the wealthier Tanzanians are traditionally of Indian descent who came here even before, as well as brought with European colonialists and set up businesses which thrive to this day.
The neighborhood was eerily modern in contrast to every other neighborhood we have seen in this country. Huge, sprawling mansions, showing the true contrast between the wealthy and the poor. But there is one thing you can say about most rich people around the world, they do build their homes around places with a nice view!
On the way down we popped into a really swanky hotel for a soda and a lake view. Upon walking through the gates and up the stairs to the pool area we discovered something truly shocking: white folk! Apparently all the white people in Mwanza were hidden right here in this very hotel! We must have missed the memo. It actually felt foreign not to be the center of attention and curiosity; here we just blended in, what a concept!
We walked back to the hotel, Jess got some nice textiles at the market, we used the internet, had some drinks, grabbed our bags, and a quick-ish (nothing is quick here) beef stew dinner downtown then headed to the port for our boat.
From the outside our boat looks like a WWII relic. A steel behemoth meant to mount guns not manufactured goods and locals. From the inside it was clearly built by the English for human travel, but yeah, probably a long time ago. But, it floated and we had our own room!
The boat ride, we determined, was one of the most sincerely pleasant ways we have travelled. All other travel wastes a day and leaves us exhausted and dusty. On the boat however, we sipped whiskey and beer from the bar and watched the city lights get dimmer and dimmer.
And the best part, when we woke up, we were at our destination! Getting off the boat to the swarm of harmless little lake flies, gave some splendid views of the ship. An unforgettable journey! Our boat is the one in the background, not the sunken one.
We walked along the nice sandy beach of Bukoba and found our hotel, Spicy Beach Motel among straw pagodas along the water. We were, as always, received warmly, showed to a room, quickly served a delicious breakfast, and then headed out for a walk to city center.
This city is ultra cute. The people somehow even more friendly than usual, and the slow, relaxed, “pole-pole” sense of the town was truly felt. We booked our tickets to head into Uganda tomorrow then headed back to the hotel to sit on the beach and do nothing but read, listen to music, eat fried chicken and eggy french fries (delicious local delicacy), and watch the town go slowly by. It was great!
Well that was a satisfying blog! Stay tuned for our adventures into Uganda!