Life on the Savanna

We spent the day after our return from Kili lazing around the compound. We actually mustered enough courage to walk past the guarded gate and take a stroll against the recommendations of the staff. You would have thought that everyone we ran into while walking down the unpaved road wouldn’t have been as pleasant and friendly as they were.

After an evening of drinking beer and cocktails and a night of sleep, we awoke early to leave on our safari. Our driver, Louie, was not what we would have expected from a safari driver. He was a well-dressed, young man with a hip-hop vibe and bulging biceps.

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Food thief!

We drove for hours past villages, Arusha, abandoned houses, herds of cattle, Masai, and a military base to Lake Manyara National Park, our first destination. We arrived around the same time as Matt and Amanda, from Canada, who were also on safari with Ahsante. We had previously run into them at the compound and during our Kili trek. The four of us ate lunch observing the blue monkeys playing in the trees nearby.

For the rest of the day, Louie navigated the Land Cruiser through a network of unpaved park roads as we checked species after species off our lists. We saw countless monkeys, baboons, egrets and other birds, warthogs, reedbucks, zebra, wildebeest, impala…the list continues. Truly the concentration of animals was just astounding.

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Hungry, hungry hippos.

Pulling off the road and parking next to a dozen other Land Cruisers, we got out and approached the other tourists. Following the eyes of everyone else we managed to get a well obstructed view of a small group of hippos soaking in a nearby waterway.

The biggest treat came on the way out of the park. Louie, wrestled the Land Cruiser in between a few others stopped along the road. Rustling in the trees not 10 meters away were two elephants. This first encounter with the world’s largest land mammal took our breaths away.

On the way to the night’s camp, Luke had his first haggling experience. Stopping at a souvenir store, we made our way into the back room where countless tanzanite stones were on display. Scanning the display cases for a piece of memorabilia we could afford, we soon realized everything was above our spending limit. Then, Sharon spotted a little box filled with multi-colored, jagged-edged, tiny chunks of the precious stone. How much for those? $20 a piece. How about $20 for two small pieces? Make it $25. Though we were still probably ripped-off, as these were manufacturing waste, we proudly returned to the car.

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Luxury quarters

The camp was something straight out of the movies. The tents, if you could call them that, were giant canvass, military-surplus tents, complete with flushing toilets and showers set up out back. As the evening approached, one of the workers lit kerosene lamps all around the camp and informed us dinner was served.

We shared the dining tent with Matt and Amanda, as well as another couple, Marc and Lora, from North Carolina. Somehow, the fact that we wanted vegetarian food was lost, and our plates carried fish and steak. At least the six of us reached a consensus that it was fish and steak.

In the morning, more meat. This time it was sausage, and Luke ate it. And after finishing his piece, he ate Sharon’s. Maybe developing world sausage isn’t the best one can do after not eating meat for two years, but he did not like it.

There was some confusion about who was driving whom. Of the 3 drivers from the first day, 2 were replaced by new ones. We got in the car with Isaac, the driver who took us to the Kili trail head, but after a few minutes of driving he received a phone call and we went back to camp. Isaac would be taking Matt and Amanda while Collie would take us. For the next few days we would follow the same itinerary as Marc and Lora and their driver George. Isaac would take Matt and Amanda on a different trip.

Collie was an experienced driver with a very laid back attitude of a Rasta and sported a fro. He was filled with knowledge and liked to make jokes, mainly ones about animal reproductive organs. Steering the Land Cruiser to the North, we climbed the paved road to the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. After taking in an amazing view of the caldera, we descended into Serengetti National Park.

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The transportation

The roads no longer paved, vehicles seemed more like high speed gliders, making minimal contact with the dirt. We took in the scenery and sat back for our African massages, wondering how the cars survived decades of use on these roads. It was no surprise that we saw a few broken down. We even pulled over to assist another driver whose gas tank had come loose.

While the drivers made repairs to the dislodged gas tank using a piece of rope, we interacted with a couple of Masai women and their children. One of the women, holding a baby and wearing only one sandal, pointed to the baby’s reddened eyes and asked for dawa in broken Swahili. Knowing that dawa meant medicine, Luke handed over his eye drops.

En route, we saw lions lounging in the tall grasses, a cheetah scoping out prey, and a leopard sleeping in a tree. We saw gigantic ostrich and tiny dik-dik. There were gazelle, zebra, and wildebeest by the thousands. The herds sprawled out as far as the eye could see. Though this was part of the Great Migration, the animals were not moving much. They tended to graze one area before moving to the next.

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Lobo Lodge.

Believing that our accommodations would resemble those of the first night, we were in for a surprise. Lobo Lodge, at which we arrived in the afternoon, was barely visible until we were driving up to the gates. Well disguised among the surrounding kopjes (islands of rock), it was LUXURIOUS. The dining hall resembled a 5-star restaurant. The natural-rock pool had a waterfall and a bridge over it.

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The demon family

Tourist were not the only residents. Along with a family of baboons and a troupe of monkeys, there were many colorful lizards and rock hyraxes. The latter, possibly the most vicious looking animals on the planet. About the size of a large rat, these rodents were excellent climbers with beady little eyes, and no fear. Truly the spawns of the dark one, they even chased Luke up a staircase.

After being told by Collie to climb to the top of the rocks, Luke (a.k.a. Mr. Take-everything-literally) went rock climbing. It was only after finishing his bouldering problem, that he realized Collie was referring to a viewing platform one could reach by walking up a staircase. The view, nevertheless, was amazing. One could see elephant, zebra, wildebeest, and cape buffalo.

The next morning, the four of us, with our two drivers and two separate cars, left on a game drive. Barely outside the gates, Luke decided to see whether a buffalo would react the same way as a dog to being stared in the eyes. No. It was worse. The buffalo charged at the car. Frantically, Collie stepped on the gas and got out of the way only to enjoy a good chuckle with George.

We saw evidence of the early morning savanna activity. The remnants of big-cat feasts were being picked at by vultures. Through binoculars, we could see the blood stained bones with chunks of flesh.

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Ladies and gentlemen…the King!

Then, we got to see THE big cat. Illegally driving off-road, Collie got us within 5 meters of a very large male lion; royal mane and all. The lion, resting with his female companion, seemed barely perturbed by our presence. We wondered what would happen had he decided to leap on the car.

Lunch at the lodge. Rest by the pool. Then an afternoon game drive. While every view, and every animal was awesome, driving around the Serengeti we saw much of the same. Our itinerary had us there for one more day. Over dinner, however, we learned that Marc and Lora were to spend the next day back at Ngorongoro Crater and persuaded us to do the same.

Finding Collie in the morning, we asked him about our change of plans and he made it happen. We spent the day driving and chasing more big cats. We saw lions resting under brush right by the road and a leopard sleeping in a tree in the distance. A film crew were the only lucky ones able to drive up close.

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Lodging on the crater’s rim.

Ngorongoro Lodge was every bit as exquisite as Lobo. The building was on the very edge of the crater’s rim. The views were unforgettable. The doors were locked after dark to keep the tourists in and the predators out.

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Luke getting his eyes filled with sand.

On the final day of our safari, we woke up earlier than before, and drove down into the crater, hoping to see the last of the big 5, a rhino. Though we didn’t have any luck tracking down one of the 23 3-ton animals residing here, the trip was worth every grain of sand in the eyeballs. Standing up in the Land Cruiser with it’s top opened there were lots of grains.

We finally saw hyenas. Though we didn’t hear them laugh, or see their female penises, we did see them ripping flesh off of bones, and otherwise sitting around.

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Dangerous beauty.

The most wonderful experience was encountering a pair of lionesses strolling casually down the road, with a entourage of Land Cruisers and their gawking tourists in close pursuit. The lionesses walked in the pack of safari vehicles for a few hundred meters before turning off the road to get a drink of water. Soon after, a young male followed the same path. He roared, and looked around, as if trying to find his ladies.

The bumpy road and cool weather did not play well with Sharon’s bladder. The world’s largest concentration of predatory animals was not conducive to peeing outside of the car. And so Collie took us to the only bathrooms in the crater. Along the way, we were sure we saw a rhino in the marshes, but Collie didn’t stop, so we may have been wrong.

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Luke moments before being tossed.

Sad to leave, our permits expired at noon. The drive was exhausting. Sharon enjoyed watching the daily life go by along the road as Collie swerved around slower vehicles. Luke fell asleep, only to be jarred awake as the Land Cruiser swerved off the paved road onto a dirt detour. Speeding to show-off and pass George, the car hit a bump, got some air, and threw Luke straight out of his seat. You had to be there.

Worn out, we reached Weruweru Lodge. This last night signaled the end of our prearranged travels. What comes next?