Original articles written by Debra Grimes
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless then turns you into a story teller.” – Abu Battuta
Bumpy, dusty and amazing! A safari was one of my bucket list items for this trip and I had a general sense of what to expect – drive around in a jeep and see some wild animals. Those of you who haven’t experienced it here’s what’s like. I met my guide, Emmanuel, at a lodge near Arusha called Rivertrees – which was delightful. Our jeep like most on safari, but not all, was a Toyota Cruiser, ours had six seats though some have eight. They all have some way to open the top, basically a sunroof with a sunscreen popped up about three feet above you.
We went to three locations – Lake Manyara National Park, Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. The difference between a conservation area and a national park is that the Masai are allowed to graze there livestock in Ngorongoro. The initial trip is on paved roads through small towns that are active with markets and shops, gala galas – their minivan taxis, bodas – motorcycle taxis, bicycles and pedestrians. Between the towns you often see Masai boys and men herding their cattle, goats and sheep and the woman marshaling their donkeys – their backs loaded down with supplies and water. Their brightly colored shukas – reds, blues, purples, and greens, wrapped around their bodies make them easy to spot.
Other roads such as the one between the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater are dirt roads and very bumpy. Lots of free African massages here, the joke is almost getting old. It’s comfortably warm, especially with the windows open, but Emmanuel and I constantly have to roll our windows up and down to keep the dust from a passing jeeps from blowing into our faces. No automatic windows here. Before we enter any park we have to purchase a pass, the parking lots at each entry a mass of jeeps and people. They usually have coffee shops, souvenir shops and bathrooms for the passengers while the guides procure the appropriate paperwork. Your permit is then checked before you can go through the gates.
Once in the park you have some choices – you can sit comfortably in your seat looking out the windows until the guide spots something, slowing down or stopping for you to take pictures, maybe popping your head out the top for a better view. Or you can stand with your head out of the sunroof scanning the area for what you can see. Sometimes you can see better than the guide as he is managing the bumpy road. Or a combination of both. I choose to stand most of the time. I loved looking out at the scenery and searching for the animals and birds. Emmanuel called me eagle eyes. I was surprised at the end of the day that I earned 30 to 90 minutes of exercise on my Apple watch just managing my balance on the uneven trails. You do have to duck now and again, as the clouds of dust roll over the jeep, when another vehicle passes by you. Even though I played gopher throughout the tour, my hair stood up straight because of the wind and the ‘dirt’ mousse that was applied during the journey. It was so nice to be given a wet wash cloth at each of our accommodations at the end of the day. They were filthy when we handed them back to our hosts.
As soon as your enter the park, you start seeing animals and occasionally on the roads on your way. They are not fenced in in any way. On the way to Lake Manyara, we saw a troop of baboons just outside a busy market area. One large male was ready to cross the road, then stopped and looked both ways before he hopped onto the pavement. Oh how they do adapt. Most of the animals just look at you if they’re on the road and you come upon them, eventually jumping or flying out of the way. They are so used to the jeeps being benign. Lake Manyara is mostly jungle which transitions to a savanna woodland while both the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater are mostly all savanna. I was taken aback when we entered Lake Manyara, not expecting the forest.
So many things surprised me in the five days we were touring. The first was the ostriches – I thought they were only in Australia. It was odd to see them roaming the plains. The second was seeing so many animals by themselves, especially the zebras, gazelles and antelope as lions, leopards and cheetahs were roaming nearby. I thought they stayed in herds for protection. Not to say that there wasn’t big masses of them, they dotted the landscape sometimes as far as the eye could see. It was also interesting to watch them move. Once, we were surrounded by about 100 elephants near a marshy area. They were eating, taking mud baths, dusting themselves, playing, etc. when a group of about five started walking away in single file. Then another group followed, and another until there was a long line of elephants marching across the savanna with only a few stragglers left behind. It was if they had some order to ‘move the wagons’. This happened again with the zebras and the wildebeast or white bearded gnus. We also saw hippos just lying in the grass sleeping, I thought they didn’t leave the water during the day. The first one I saw, I assumed was dead until he twitched his ears.
My eagle eyes spotted many things such as our first two lionesses, each emerging from the jungle in Lake Manyara. I often saw giraffes roaming near the trees lines from a distance, their long neck reaching up to eat the leaves. Once I saw a big male giraffe start running as if being chased. I grabbed the binoculars to see what was after him, expecting to see a lion or cheetah but is was a baby elephant. Emmanuel and I had a good chuckle, the elephant was a quarter of its size. I also saw what I thought was a cheetah entering some rushes near a hippo pond but when Emmanuel backed up the jeep we were delightfully surprised. It was an illusive and usually nocturnal serval cat. He came back out of the reeds, cleaned himself well and then casually walked around the pond and out into the savanna. Emmanuel was really excited, explaining how rare it was to see one.
Other times, you knew where to go because there was a cluster of jeeps, like a wake of vultures clustered around a kill. Most often this was around the lions. It was exciting to see them but also a little boring as all they did was stretch and yawn or just sleep. But they are beautiful creatures. One we found lying next to a jeep, resting in the shade it produced. On our last afternoon, I had not seen a rhino yet, when we saw a regiment of vehicles lined up along the road. We went to join them and there was an adolescent rhino just standing in the field about 50 yards away facing the jeeps. Emmanuel said the rhino wanted to cross the road but was leery of the traffic, he advised patience. One by one the other trucks left and we were alone with him. We moved up until we were right in front of him. Slowly and hesitantly he started moving in our direction, until he was about 30 feet away, then he stopped and stared at us. When more jeeps pulled up he turned around and walked away.
We got a tip from another driver when we were driving back to our camp on the Serengeti, that there was a leopard in a tree nearby. Emmanuel turned around, headed in that direction, cautioning me that there was only a 50/50 chance he would still be there. But when we got there, there were two other jeeps so we knew we would see him. At first, you just see the big paws and tail hanging down from a branch, as he blended in so well with his surroundings. He was sleeping when we got there, then stretched and yawned and stared at us. Then he popped up and jumped to another branch in the tree where a Thompson gazelle was stored for his dinner. He had caught it earlier and dragged it into the tree, about 30 feet up, and had taken a rest before he was ready to eat. You could hear the bones crack as he bit into his meal. Emmanuel called it a National Geographic moment.
Our first sighting of a cheetah was from a distance. Again, another guide pointed him out to us. I could only see him through the binoculars and even then it was hard as he blended in with the grasses so well. Our second sighting was by joining a cluster of jeeps. A first I saw one cat sitting in a clump of grass, staring at a herd of gazelles about 150 yards away. Then I saw another face in the weeds next to him. Every so often the first one would lean forward like he was going to make a run for it and catch his dinner, but he always sat back down. Emmanuel said the grass was too short here for effective hunting. Slowly the gazelles moved away. Every so often the second one would get up and resettle on the ground. Then the first one lowered himself down as if to sleep and we thought the show was over. But in a few seconds he got up, grabbed something from behind him and pulled a gazelle into the clump of grass. Dinner was served!
We saw the big five – lions, leopards, elephants, rhino and Cape buffalo. The Cape buffalo were every where, big herds of them. And you often saw two or three old bulls wandering together. As they get older, they’re replaced by younger, stronger males and are forced to leave the herd. They become very aggressive, as they are easy prey to the lions due to their age and physical condition. Other than the things I’ve already mentioned, we also saw several kinds of monkeys, impalas, hyenas, warthogs, hartebeests, topi, waterbuck, bushbuck, dik-dik – the smallest antelope only 12-16 inches high, and others I can’t remember. Serengeti means endless plains and there was so much space we barely covered part of the terrain so I am sure there was even more animals out there.
We also saw lots of birds! There are over 600 species in Tanzania. I met several birders along the way and shared sighting with them. One, the superb starling was everywhere. They are bright iridescent blue with a red chest and white eyes. We saw a secretary bird who got its name because of the feathers that stick out of the back of their head like pencils in a secretary’s bun and because they use their long sharp talons to quickly peck peck their prey to death, a similar motion to typing. We saw several Kori bustards which is the largest flying bird in Africa, weighing up to 44 pounds. And to name a few more – flamingos, several kinds of ibis, cattle egret, crested cranes, storks, Eqyptian geese, ducks, grey herons, bobbitts, snake eagles, vultures, and the list goes on. If you’re a birder I encourage you to go, just get a guide who knows his birds.
There were three types of trees that stood out to me. First the baobab, the crazy big tree that looks like its roots are showing. The sausage tree, which had these big poisonous fruits that hung down like salami drying in a butcher shop. We stopped once so I could check the tire pressure -pee, and I picked one up and it was very heavy. It weighed enough to knock out a lion or even kill it, if one dropped on its head. Then the acacia trees of which there are about 14 varieties. The umbrella acacia is the iconic tree painted with the African sunset. The green acacia or fever tree has very long thorns, 2-3 inches which are super sharp. One fell into our jeep and I stepped on it, puncturing my heel and even though that part of my foot is super tough, it penetrated about 1/2 inch. No really damage done however. The Masai cut it and use it to fortify their bomas, encircling it in branches to keep the wild animals out and their livestock and families safely inside. Then there is the whistling acacia which has a hollow nut that whistles in the wind. It is host to a very tiny insect called the cocktail ant. The ant protects the tree against giraffes, cocking their tails to sting their tongues as they try to eat the plant. More than you wanted to know about trees I’m sure.
The Masai are herders and the more cattle, goats or sheep you have the richer you are. They are polygamists, one man along our route was rumored to have twenty wives. You buy your wives with livestock, so you have to be pretty wealthy to have so many brides. Each wife also has their own house within the boma or compound- these men are smart. It’s great to have daughters, especially beautiful ones, because the bride price adds to your wealth. But sons are a source of pride. Basically, men are responsible for the herds and nothing else. The women do everything related to their daily lives, including building their houses. Shukas are their traditional clothing, basically blankets that they wrap around themselves but many have added pieces of western wear to their wardrobes. I loved the guy with the Chuck Taylor high tops. All they eat is what their herds provide for them – milk, fat, meat, and blood. Though they do indulge in honey and sell it along the roadside.
I stayed a several types of accommodations along the way. The Retreat at Ngorogoro seemed new and was beautiful, with lovely landscaping, a big pool – it was too cold to swim, and cottages dotting the grounds. In the Serengeti, I stayed at the Olmara Camp, sleeping in a big tent with a nice sitting area and big bathroom. Best to take your shower at night though, as the water tanks are solar heated and won’t be so warm in the morning. Above the Ngorongoro Crater , I stayed at the Lemala Ngorongoro. At all of them you have to be escorted after dark by one of the Masai to and from your room, as wild animals are lurking nearby. The morning I left Olmara, a giraffe came into the camp to say goodbye, eating contently in the early morning haze as I ate my breakfast. Heading to bed at Lemala, a water buck was standing the bushes watching us walk by. The food and wine was good and plentiful. It’s amazing what they can prepare in a camp tent. It gets cold at night here and the sun sets quickly, so I really appreciated the hot water bottles placed in my bed each night during turn down service. Yes, even in the wild they turn down your bed … and close the mosquito nets. I can’t compliment the staff enough at all these places, they were so warm, kind and helpful. Especially Praygood, yes that’s his name, for setting up the hot water for my shower and bringing coffee to my tent when he came to turn on the heat n the morning. Each night you are zipped into the tent for warmth and protection.
This trip has been amazing and it’s not over yet. Allen with Wild Reality Safaris who has done a fabulous job arranging my trip has also booked me several days in Zanzibar. But first I have to say think you and goodbye to Emmanuel who has guided me throughout this adventure right up to the airport. He was kind, patient, knowledgeable and listened to an old lady about growing a business. I am so grateful the big global company canceled my safari and I was able to work with this wonderful small, local company.
Zanzibar has a totally different vibe than the areas I saw on my safari. You’re at the beach baby. My first night I stayed in Stone Town, at this old but very nice hotel on the beach. The town is old, the buildings date back to the mid-1850’s when the Arabs settled here. The population of Zanzibar is 95% Muslim so head scarfs, abayas, skullcaps and throbes are seen everywhere amongst the tourist in their shorts, t-shirts and sandals. A guide takes me through the winding streets, observing the beautiful old carved doors Stone Town is known for, amazed at the fruits and vegetables sold – I have never seem grapefruit or avocado so big, and intrigued by the seafood sold at the fish market – octopus, prawns, tuna and many other very big and tiny fish. Seafood is plentiful here and inexpensive. There is a market every evening in the town square where dozen of vendors set up grills, cooking the catches of the day. Your order is as fresh as it gets. Not much alcohol in town however, only a few bars that cater to the tourists.
The next morning I head to a beach resort for a few days of R&R. Sunshine Marine Resort is right on the ocean and my room has a view overlooking the water. I enjoy a massage, a facial and a yoga class – it felt so good to stretch. I miss you Tania. And I take another kind of safari, this time in flippers and a snorkel. The water is filled with a plethora of brightly colored fish – blue, yellow, teal, peach, purple, white and black. so close you can almost touch them, if they’d cooperate. At one stop, there is a big school of long, narrow fish almost like a baton that shimmers like blue foil streamers, swimming just under the surface. I am sorry to be leaving.