Monday, February 7, 2011

Africa - Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti

Written Tuesday, January 25, 2011, on Zanzibar, Tanzania

From Nairobi to Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and Zanzibar

Zanzibar! The name alone is enough to tantalize and excite the imagination. My friend Kirk has been here before, quite a few years ago now, and my many conversations with him about his travels in Africa and his visit here have always fascinated me. We arrived this morning after spending a night in Stone Town in the old city. Some of our party did side trips to spice farms and the old slave prisons but a few of us opted to do nothing. Zanzibar was a major center of commerce for the spice trade as well as an important slave market in the old days and deserves a quick Google look up if you're interested. But lest I get ahead of myself I need to step back a bit in order to fill you in on our travels over the the past few days -- and very interesting days they were. When I last wrote we had just finished visiting Masai Mara Park in southern Kenya.

We left Nairobi on the Sunday before last, the 16th, in two Mercedes Benz touring trucks, big diesel rigs similar to the ones we had used for the Masai Mara trip but without the 4-wheel drive. They're fitted with comfortable seats, large windows up high where we ride and secure storage lockers below for the cooking stuff, food, chairs, our suitcases, tents and all the other paraphernalia needed for an extended camping trip like the one we were about to embark upon. For this particular portion of our 21-day trip to Victoria Falls there will be 33 travelers sharing the two trucks. We're getting to know one another now and it's a very nice group of people ranging in age from about 20 up to, oh about 70 with yours truly pushing the upper limit. We hail from Canada, Austria, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Australia, England and of course the four of us, me, Willy, Jambo, and Elizabeth, are from Alaska. Add to that number about 4 or 5 staff, Kenyans mostly, who drive the trucks, cook our meals, and steer us through the intricacies of crossing international borders, changing money, making hotel reservations and all the other little details I usually fret about when I go to a new country. There are definite drawbacks to traveling as a group with a guide and a strict schedule but on the other hand many of the hassles one is usually forced to deal with during a 5-country tour in the Third World are simply not present. The Africa Travel Company has done a good job so far. If you're contemplating a trip like this someday I can recommend them without reservation. There are many outfits located all around Africa that offer similar tours, some much more up scale, some not as nice. My only complaint so far is the awful tents which are heavy and difficult to set up.

Alaskan travelers at Kudu Camp, Karutu, Tanzania
Our jumping off place was a campground near Karatu, in Tanzania, and a camp site called Kudu Camp from which on the following day we would make our way to the famous Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti National Park after that. For the trip to Ngorongoro and beyond we left the trucks behind and loaded our stuff into a half dozen Toyota Land Cruisers. These smaller all-wheel drive vehicles are found everywhere in the parks because the side roads from which the animals can be observed are sometimes narrow, steep, and often muddy, too difficult for the big truck to negotiate. They're also set up beautifully for wildlife viewing because the roofs lift to allow you too use your camera and binocs from a safe vantage point. My spot was perfect — up front and next to the driver. In the following photo I'm standing on the passenger seat. Again, all the arrangements with this particular tour operator, Fun Safaris out of Arusha, were made by the Africa Travel Company.

I had a good seat in our Land Cruiser
I have been reading about the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti for many years. Here's my first view of the Crater from its rim just after we entered the park:

Ngorongoro Crater in morning mist
The morning was misty so the colors in my photo are a bit muted but the crater is vast, about 15 miles in diameter and although you cannot see them from the rim, it's literally packed with the large animals we had traveled so far to see. We spotted a pair of elephants on the rim of the crater just before we turned off to make our steep descent to the floor. We had already seen elephants at Masai Mara but those were cows and calves -- these were bulls, big bulls.

Bull elephant - Ngorongoro Rim

Early morning view of African hills from the Crater rim
Our goal was to eventually see all of the big five during our two-day visit to the area. The big five, at least according to our guides, are elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and cape buffalo. When hunting safaris were coming through here these animals were "big game" and are very dangerous to hunt. The weight of some of these guys can exceed 1000 pounds and I'd hate to be in the way if one decided to charge. We saw many cape buffalo, herds of them in fact both here and in Masai Mara, but this fine bull caught my eye.

We saw cheetahs again in the Crater. I include a photo of the "traffic jam" that results when a viewing opportunity as sought after as the pair of cheetahs in my photo presents itself. Everybody wants to see a cheetah so when one gets spotted the call goes out on the VHF radios and all tour operators within range converge immediately on the spot bringing along their grateful clients to oooh and aaah over the animal. One might hope to be the only one around when an interesting animal is spotted but that's seldom the case. These parks of full of people like us, people who I laughingly label experiential dilettantes, and who can afford to hire a car and driver to make forays "into the wilds" of Africa such as we find it nowadays.

Everybody wants to  see the cheetahs (click to view full size)

Cheetahs on a hunt - Ngorongoro Crater
We also saw zebras, wildebeest, warthog, hyenas, jackals, gazelles, elands, hippos and ostriches along with various other land birds like bustards, cranes, ibises, egrets, secretary birds and eagles. The crater floor is literally teeming with wildlife. There are no elephants down there, nor giraffes but we did see a rhino at a distance. These hyenas were lounging alongside the road. In Hemingway's book, The Green Hills of Africa, he says that these brutes are known to have bitten the face off sleeping campers. They are, at least to this observer, ugly and misshapen. I found this interesting note about man-eating hyenas in Wikipedia: According to hyena expert Dr. Hans Kruuk, man-eating spotted hyenas tend to be very large specimens: a pair of man-eating hyenas, responsible for killing 27 people in Mlanje, Malawi in 1962, were weighed at 72 kg (159 lb) and 77 kg (170 lb) after being shot.

Spotted hyenas - Ngorongoro Crater

We got quite close to some of the animals
We drove back up and out of the Crater after having lunch at a peaceful pond, Ngoitokitok Springs. I might have been tempted to take a swim in the clear water except for the herd of hippos occupying center stage. Big, boisterous and odd looking to the  max, they are also territorial and very dangerous. We saw hippos in every spot where there was water deep enough to swim both here and in Masai Mara. Next stop, the Serengeti Plains.

After a bone jarring ride over some of the roughest roads I've ever been on (and over which our drivers pushed the old Toyotas at speeds approaching 60 mph) we crossed into the Serengeti late in the day. We took a short drive in search of animals but didn't see much. It was a bit of a disappointment after the bountiful Ngorongoro but near dusk we finally managed to see a  leopard. It was not close to us and wasn't doing anything, merely lazing on one of the lower branches of a "sausage tree". Too far away for a photo. We also saw a group of giraffes and some gazelles. There was some rain coming in and I got a good photo of the gazelles with the distant squall in the background.

Just before we drove to our campsite I took this photo of a tree with some nice evening light backing it.

We drove to a public campsite near the center of the park and set up our tents. Dinner soon followed and after a bit of chatting with our fellow travelers we turned in. It had been a long day. We had been up at 6 am so as to have plenty of time to get into the Crater early. The word went out that tomorrow's start was to be at 6 am. That meant we had to be up at around 5 o'clock for breakfast and to pack a lunch for a longish tour of the park. We would finish watching animals and then drive all the way to Arusha so we could be in a better position for the long drive to Dar Es Salaam on the coast the following day, which would be another early day. We had a choice to make concerning this drive. And luckily we didn't know what the starting time for that trip would be or we might have made a different decision. If we wanted to spend 4 days at the beach on Zanzibar then we had a 700 km drive to Dar. If we settled for only 3 days on the beach we could get up later and divide the long trip in half. We unanimously voted to get up early, make the long drive and spend 4 days on the beach.

But let's first return back to our last day in the Serengeti. Having dragged ourselves out of bed long before dawn we were breakfasted, in the Land Cruisers and out on the plains before dawn. I got a nice shot of the sunrise that day.

The Serengeti is immense. If I thought the area encompassed by my gaze in Masai Mara was on a grand scale, I had to revise my thinking now because the scale here was grander still. Seemingly endless grass covered plains stretch to the horizon on all sides. It's big country, stark, and very flat. Again, we didn't see all that many animals with the notable exception of zebra and herds of wildebeest. These strange looking antelope were forming up for the big migrations that would begin when the water holes dried up during the long parched summer ahead. Many thousands of these critters will then move north, following the rain and the green grass. And the predators that depend on the wildebeest for food will come along as well. Eventually they will cross the Mara River en mass, near where we had lunch a few days ago in the Masai Mara. There the big crocs await to take them as they struggle to cross the river.

Amazingly, we saw more cheetahs. I had the idea, whether correct or not I still don't know, that cheetahs were an endangered species. It seems as though we saw them everywhere we turned.

Cheetahs - Serengeti

The Serengeti is studded with many interesting rock formations called kopjes. The term derives from the Dutch word for head. They were interesting little oases in an otherwise featureless and grassy expanse. We drove around several hoping to coax some wildlife into view but all we spotted were some hydraxes and a few vultures.

Then just before we were about to point our noses north towards Arusha, Hamadi, our driver, got a call on the radio. Leopards had been spotted a few miles from where we were. Off we sped and sure enough, there in a tree not far from where we'd spotted the lone leopard the night before, was a female leopard and two cubs. What made this sighting especially cool was that she had a small animal, a dik-dik perhaps, in her jaws and when we arrived on the scene she was carrying it up on to the tree to hide it from other predators. It would feed her and her cubs for a couple of days. Leopards are relatively small compared to a lion or hyena, the latter being one of those animals that can steal a leopard's meal right now. A leopard is apparently no match for a hyena intent upon taking what it can. Later I reckon one of the cubs had been playing with the dik-dik because it fell from the tree. Mom immediately jumped down and fetched it returning it to an even higher branch this time. It was an interesting scene to watch because most of the cats we had seen earlier were doing nothing much other then sitting there acting oblivious to the many observers clustered about. I don't have photos of the leopards because once again we were just too far away for my camera to capture a good, detailed photo. But Pete and Desan, both having long lenses on new dSLRs, were snapping away furiously.

As I add photo after photo of animals to this blog I had this thought - you can see all these animals and more, and in higher quality, just by going to Google Images. But I do want to include one more by special request from my buddy Kirk. Here is your warthog photo, Kirk.

Oh, I beg your pardon. I must add just one more. We saw tons of zebras. Zebras, along with wildebeest, were the most common animal we saw. But during our drive in the Ngorongoro Crater Hamadi  pointed out this pair and described their interesting pose. He called it "zebra pairs resting for mutual protection" or something like that. When positioned like this they can watch for predators in all directions. One of them is watching us as this shot was made but ordinarily its head would also be resting on the other ones back.

Zebrras - a pair of them resting for mutual protection - Ngorongoro Crater
As I was saying earlier, we got up very early next day to travel to Dar Es Salaam, the capitol of Tanzania, and the island of Zanzibar beyond. How early? Try 4:30 am! Without our venerable guides, Moses and Mwangi,  pushing and prodding us there's no way we could have organized ourselves for a 5 am sortie. Off we went with breakfast still three hours off, to be eaten on the road somewhere. Here is Mt Meru at breakfast time. The moon is still in the sky, riding low at left.

Mt Meru at sunrise - on the road to Zanzibar

After suffering through a very long truck ride through the country, enduring almost two hours of heavy traffic in Dar Es Salaam after that, and then a ferry ride to a peninsula opposite the city, we finally arrived at a very nice campsite on the Indian Ocean. We had been in the truck for over 15 hours! We took a dip in the ocean, ate whatever was put in front of us and fell into our tents for a well deserved rest. Next day we would board another ferry, a fast ferry, and make the 40 mile run to Zanzibar in about 2 hours. Our hotel here, while not cheap at $75/night, is not outrageously expensive either because it's a fantastic room right on the beach. That brings me, and you my dear friends, up to the present.

Time to pack. Later this morning we'll leave this beautiful island as we begin moving toward Malawi. We will spend two more nights in Tanzania as we make that journey. I haven't done much of anything other then to enjoy the beach and the comfort of our very nice air conditioned room here at the Sunset Bungalows since we got here four days ago. We continue heading south into Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and finally Victoria Falls. Three more countries to add to my "life list." Talk to you later....

Zanzibar Channel