I just survived a 2-week safari in the wilds of Tanzania! Can you say "lions, and tigers, and bears?" Well, maybe not exactly. How about trying "lions, and leopards, and tsetse flies?" OK, I'll admit that every entry isn't exactly overflowing with life-threatening carnivorous critters. In fact, this travelogue contains more than a few verbose accounts of events no more dramatic than a sunburn. However, you have my money-back-guarantee that you'll find humorous episodes if you keep on reading… provided that you’ve already been drinking. There will be a test.
July 12, 2004. London, England.
Standing in line for the Air Kenya counter, I surveyed my fellow passengers bound for Nairobi. Judging from the plethora of baggage that most of these people had, I surmised that they must have been bringing their favorite lawn chairs and an assortment of kitchen appliances. I felt somewhat better about having filled a backpack with nearly 30 pounds of photography gear.
July 13, 2004. Nairobi, Kenya
At sunrise, the airplane landed just a whisker south of the equator in Nairobi. I jumped aboard a bus to take me south across the border into Tanzania, where I would begin a 14-day safari. In southern Kenya, the bus rolled down the highway across open savannah with dry golden grasses, scattered acacia trees, and huge agave plants. I spied a few zebra and even an ostrich. Low-lying cumulus clouds checkered a deep blue sky, interrupted only by distant mountains. Beneath the clouds, errant dust devils spiraled upwards to touch them. The only signs of human development were the Masais’ scattered huts and the occasional desiccated corn field ravaged by drought.
This land clearly belonged to the Masai. They walked along the highway and across the savannah. Boys herded flocks of goats while men tended free-roaming cattle. Both the men and women wore sandals and were brightly dressed, primarily in red, but also in shades of purple and orange with a smattering of other colors. While the women wore dresses, the men wore robes with capes. White beads and earrings adorned both sexes and complemented earlobes stretched to form holes the size of golf balls. Additionally, the more prosperous women sported oversized beaded white collars like fashionable dinner plates. Most of the men carried walking sticks and spears. Many women effortlessly balanced large baskets or water containers on their heads. Everyone seemed tall, thin, and elegant.
A couple of hours after crossing a vendor-infested border into Tanzania, the bus arrived in the city of Arusha. A driver from the safari company drove me to the guest cottages where I met the other three tourists on the safari, a man and two women, as well Alex, who would serve as both our guide and driver.
July 14, 2004. Arusha, Tanzania.
The cockadoodldoing rooster had started the day early. Including our guide, five of us cruised down the highway in a Landcruiser towards Tarangire National Park and took in the sights of the savannah. From some of the acacia trees hung logs that housed African killer bees from which the Masai harvested honey. While a few Masai had recently adopted agricultural practices, most strictly followed the traditional practice of raising livestock. Their customary diet included beef, milk, and blood but nothing else, even water or vegetables. Those Masai that chose to use water, traveled between 5 and 10 kilometers daily to obtain it.
While the Masai were amazing to behold, three ceremonially dressed young Masai men stood out in particular. They wore black robes, instead of the customary red. Their faces were painted with white designs. They bowed and tossed their heads to display ostrich feather headdresses. Circumcised sometime within the past six months, they had left the family home and were celebrating their passage into manhood. At the end of the 6 months, they would be given their own cows and would seek their own home. Their solicitations worked; we stopped and paid them to take photos.
By the afternoon, we had arrived at the permanent tent site bordering the western edge of Tarangire Park. For two nights, each of us would have our own luxury tent, complete with running water, flushing toilets, and solar-powered electricity. The tents were perched on a cliff formed by a bend in the Tarangire River, which flowed only during the rainy season. Beyond the dry river bed, a plain dotted with acacia trees and a few baobobs stretched to distant mountains. The camp's open-air restaurant and bar were built around an old baobob tree, more than 20 feet in diameter. Love birds darted in and out of nests hanging from its branches.
The enormous baobob tree housing the restaurant was more than 300 years old, as were all of the baobobs in the area. During a severe drought in 1974, the park's elephants discovered that water could be obtained from the interior of baobobs. They systemically destroyed every baobob smaller than a house. Now, during every dry season, the elephants kill young baobobs with the result that none reach maturity.
As no fences separated the park from our campsite, the elephants freely wandered around the area. Fresh elephant dung nearby the tents indicated that they had no qualms about coming through the middle of the camp. Of course, the park's hyenas, lions, and leopards were also free to roam beyond the park's borders. Unsurprisingly, we were prohibited from venturing beyond the immediate camp vicinity. In fact, we were advised to go nowhere other than directly back and forth between the restaurant and our tents. True, a Masai armed with a spear patrolled the camp, but he didn't instill enough confidence for me to go on long leisurely strolls in the area. In the case of an actual emergency, each tent came equipped with its own whistle to signal for help, although I suspected that it really indicated that everybody should run for their lives.
Late in the afternoon, we removed the Landcruiser's roof panels and followed a dusty dirt road into the park for our first game drive. All four passengers eagerly stood on our seats with our heads poking through the roof as we watched for wildlife and ducked to avoid low-hanging thorn branches. Once in the park, we immediately encountered a line of wildebeests departing a mixed herd of zebras and gazelles. A line of elephants ambled alongside the trees behind them. Baboons descended from trees and raced across the dirt road with guinea fowls. Eagles proudly surveyed the lively scene from the barrent branches atop a baobob.
After a couple of hours, we had encountered many elephants from the safety of our vehicle, but none quite as large as the enormous bull elephant who dwarfed our vehicle as he stubbornly blocked the road. His mammoth tusks aged him around 40 years; during this time he had no doubt become accustomed to getting his way. Alex cautiously inched our vehicle forward, but the elephant still refused to let us pass. His massive body blocked the entire road as he nonchalantly munched on roadside bushes. After a couple of minutes, the elephant moved partially to one side of the road…not to let us pass, but simply to eat more vegetation. Alex inched the car towards the opening, but the angered bull turned towards us, huffing and flapping his ears. We backed up to a second vehicle waiting behind us. The oversized bully turned his attention back to eating and Alex gunned the engine to sneak past him. The off-guard bull trumpeted with outrage, but we had already sped down the road to safety. Infuriated, he vented his anger towards the vehicle left stranded behind us. The elephant charged the defenseless vehicle it as it sped backwards up the road more than a 100 meters before the elephant relented the chase.
The golden light of sunset revealed a lioness crouched in the long amber grass. In front of her, I could just discern the bloodied stripes of a zebra. Aware of our presence, she glared at us before resuming her feast with a carefree cub who appeared by her side. Insensitive to the fate of one of their own, other zebras casually grazed in the orange glow of the sun's final rays. As we headed back to camp, I admired the majestic silhouette of a baobob tree against a fuchsia sky.
July 15, 2004. Tarangire, Tanzania.
We awoke just before sunrise for a treehouse breakfast before our morning game drive. The elephants had not come during the night, but a group of seven of them dug a water hole in the river bed below us as we ate our meal.
Our guide Alex has the most incredible eye for spotting wildlife. All four of us passengers will be standing with our heads through the roof while Alex, driving, spots most of the animals. This time, he had scored big with a notoriously reclusive animal. A large male leopard lied in a baobob tree enjoying a fresh wildebeest kill. Below him, his mate sauntered through the grass to savor one of the wildebeest's legs in privacy.
On our game drives, we had encountered two active female lions, but no males. Apparently, males sleep for as many as 16 to 22 hours per day; two brothers were doing exactly that on a distant river bank. Both sexes tend to be more active at night, their usual hunting time.
July 16, 2004. Tarangire, Africa.
Economic progress was beginning to flourish in Tanzania. The principal road to the Serengeti was being paved; the first 40 kilometers from Arusha had been completed, but the remaining 200 remained a bumpy, dusty road. We had crossed westward into Africa's Great Rift Valley, which extends from north to south across most of the continent, to head into Lake Manyara National Park.
In contrast to arid Tarangire, lush vegetation abounded in Lake Manyara. In the undergrowth near the park entrance, we watched dwarf mongooses huddled atop a mound. On the ground nearby them, blue monkeys groomed each other with little interest in our presence. Relatively smaller, a vervet monkey monitored the scene from a sycamore branch overhead.
As we drove towards the lake in the shade of large trees, baboons scavenged the forest floor. At the forest's edge, we came to a small plain that extended to the lake beyond. We stopped for a pair of giraffes that watched us curiously before amorously twisting their necks around each other. Close inspection of a mud pit revealed a comfortable mud-caked hippo.
As with the other lakes in the Great Rift Valley, Maynara is a shallow soda (salt) lake, prime habitat for waterfowl. Countless flamingoes, pelicans, and storks waded for food in the shallows. Nearby, partially submerged hippos lounged, floated, and grunted to one another in a casual social affair.
We departed the lake to encounter an elephant herd in the forest. A 2-day old baby safely stood under the belly of its mother. The herd moved onward and crossed the road in front of us with the timorous baby encouragingly pushed ahead by its mother's loving trunk.
That afternoon, we continued the short distance to our accommodation, the Ngorongoro (Oldukani) Farmhouse. Oldukani was recently converted from a traditional farm into an organic farm with luxury tourist accommodations. Its palatial lodge boasted solid wood timbers, a stone fireplace, and a floor-to-ceiling window view of Oldeani Volcano. My cabin featured a prime view of the volcano, a vaulted ceiling, and modern African décor with solid wood furniture as well as metal furnishings welded from reclaimed materials of the former farmhouse. A poolside Tanquaray and tonic proved a winning way to conclude the afternoon.
After a neo-traditional African dance performance, we enjoyed a candlelit 4-course meal made from the farm's own fruits, vegetables, and animals. A kettle of hot coals kept us warm as we dined. Afterwards, I retired to my cabin to discover a fire had been built for me for me in my fireplace. I couldn't complain.
July 17, 2004. Lake Maynara, Tanzania.
The walk from my cottage to the farmhouse lodge should have taken at least five minutes. In the predawn dark of 5:45am, I made considerably better time after my flashlight died and whooping hyenas nearby inspired my pace.
In the predawn twilight, our Landcruiser spit fine clouds of red dust as it bounced past a small coffee plantation en route to Lake Eyasi. Lake Eyasi provides one of the final holdouts for the dwindling Hadzabe, a tribe of Bushmen. Due to displacement by the much more numerous Masai, loss of habitat, and loss of wildlife, less than 400 Hadzabe exist. They are expected to become culturally extinct within a few years. Before this happened, I wanted to at least glimpse their culture.
The Bushmen were not the only people losing their traditional culture. In recent years, many Masai had abandoned their adherence to strictly raising cattle. We watched an orange sun rise over a Masai hut with a failed corn field next to another with a failed wheat field, both victims of the drought.
As we continued towards the dry lake, the huts grew fewer and farther between and the arid environment became even less hospitable. Only the most resilient thorn plants survived in the dry dusty conditions. Surprisingly, we came to a bleak town of several hundred people who somehow managed to find a living in this windswept wasteland. We hired one of these locals to serve as a guide and translator for the Hadzabe we hoped to find.
Locating Bushmen is no easy task, as these nomadic hunter-gatherers live in the open without any structures and move camp every few days. After driving on nearly non-existent roads though the thorn thickets for twenty minutes, our local guide managed to find a Hadzabe family clan that had established a camp near a dry creek bed. This clan consisted of two men, four women, and four children.
We were greeted by the head of the family, a dark-skinned, boy-faced man who couldn't have been more than 25 years old. He wore a few beaded necklaces, a beaded leather skin draped over one shoulder, worn cotton shorts and sandals. He sat down in an alcove in the thicket, next to a slightly younger woman who tended a boiling pot of water on an open fire. The small metal pot, a wooden bowl, and a knife appeared to be the only household items in the camp. Otherwise, the only possessions I could see were a couple of homemade bows with a handful of arrows. Across from the man and his wife sat the other women with the children. Small strands of meat were drying on the thorn bushes above them. Two slender dogs played in the dirt.
From the flame of the fire, the leader lit a tobacco pipe (they sometimes use marijuana) for a ritual pre-hunt smoke that shared with another man of roughly the same age. They each grabbed a bow and a handful of arrows for the morning's hunt. Taking their cue, the dogs jumped up after them and we were on our way.
We quickly and silently crossed a stretch of open desert scrub to a wooded dry creek bed. (Truth be told, the fleet-footed Bushmen were the only people quick and silent; we clumsy tourists loudly struggled to keep pace.) We followed the creek bed as the Bushmen scanned the sycamore and acacia trees for wildlife. The dogs anxiously sniffed for animals to tree; their feeding depended upon the outcome of the hunt. The Bushmen were looking to shoot any animal they could find, most likely, a monkey or a knee-high deer called a dik dik.
The history of the Hadzabe's hunting practices painted a bleak picture of the ecosystem’s health. Years ago, the Hadzabe had initially hunted elephants. After the elephants vanished, the Hadzabe switched to hunting cape buffalo. In turn, as they disappeared, they switched to giraffes, then wildebeests, then impalas, followed by gazelles, and now monkeys and dik diks. It seems that the fate of the Hadzabe is tied to that of the dwindling animal population.
We left the creek bed for the thickets, following small gaps in the brush. Thorns grabbed at my clothes, but they raked the sleeveless arms of the unfazed Bushmen. As the dogs trotted past me, I noticed that they were both bleeding from the thorns. Suddenly they started barking and broke into a run with the Bushmen following close behind. I caught up to them, as one drew his bow to shoot at a treed monkey. The monkey's screech registered a hit, but it jumped to another tree with the arrow lodged in it. After a chase, the monkey escaped with the poisoned arrow, a heavy price for the monkey and the Bushmen both.
After another hour of hunting, the Bushmen managed to shoot a hand-sized bird in a tree. The couple of ounces it weighed would provide little meat for the waiting family; however the feathers could be used as part of a replacement arrow. Upon our return, the family sang a song celebrating a successful hunt; however there was no real cause for celebration, only the obligatory entertainment for the money-paying tourists.
Several miles from the Bushmen, we visited the Datoga of Lake Eyasi. This tribe followed similar practices to the Masai, a polygamous society with wealth measured in cattle, currency for buying wives. The Datoga chief wasn't home, but four of his six wives were. The tallest stood at six feet, while the shortest measured five. Each woman wore a bead-fringed leather mini-dress or shirt with a skirt. Brass rings covered their wrists and ankles. They wore numerous brass and bead necklaces; however, their stretched earlobes remained bare. Their faces were adorned with two rows of raised dotted scars formed in the outline of an eye mask.
They warmly welcomed us (we paid them for the visit) into one of their homes, a rectangular three-room stick and mud house, with a low roof, a dirt floor, and no electricity. Inside, the house contained nothing more than some mini stools, an ornamental wall-hung cow-hide, and a few hanging clay pots for cooking over an open fire (with no fireplace).
After they performed the obligatory tourist song and dance, they noticed my African wildlife pictorial foldout guide in the pocket of my backpack. They removed it and marveled with delight at the pictures of the animals. They pointed excitedly at those they recognized from the area; the other animals were totally new to them. I gave it to them as a departing gift. As our Landcruiser drove away, the women remained transfixed by their astonishing new acquisition.
July 18, 2004. Lake Maynara, Tanzania.
At 7,000 feet, we stood at the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, surrounded by clouds and the lush vegetation of the cloud forest. Serpentine vines and hanging moss covered most of the trees. By contrast, the sweeping view of the crater floor 5,000 feet below us revealed a drier environment. Golden grasses and a dry white salt lake dominated most of its flat expanse while patches of green forest clustered around the perimeter. Upon further inspection of scattered dots, I realized that they were herds of grazing animals.
Driving through the crater, we encountered wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, jackals, hyenas, elephants, and cape buffalo. At lunch we watched gregarious hippos float lazily in a pond as we ate inside of our vehicle. We questioned Alex why we couldn't eat outside like the people next to us and he told us to watch and see. On cue, a black kite (hawk) dive-bombed an unsuspecting woman and snatched her sandwich from her hand.
We departed the crater park to enter the conservation area, a land of golden hills and green acacia trees. En route to our camp we passed many Masai villages with circular straw huts. As elsewhere, the Masai tended cattle and goats. They also dressed in red, purple, and orange. In one village they had painted white faces, indicating some type of ceremony. Our vehicle slowed and, from afar, I discretely snapped a few photos with a huge telephoto lens. They were onto us. Shouting, they brandished their spears and shook them in the air as they started approaching the vehicle. I had no idea what they were saying, but it didn't sound inviting. I felt like I was in one of those old Tarzan movies. Alex apparently felt that social pleasantries weren't in order and he sped off.
From our "primitive" camp (no flushing toilet or electricity) atop a hill, we watched a Masai boy walk beneath us with a herd of cattle as the setting sun paint the clouds surrounding Oldeani's peak in vibrant orange. Our two Masai guards accompanied me as I walked to capture a photo of a lone silhouetted acacia tree. From its other side, a Masai warrior approached; his orange-dyed braids glowed in the last rays of sunlight. His spear stood at 6-feet, almost as tall as him. Luckily, he was not from the village I had angered; he was a friend of the two Masai guards.
After a three-course candlelight dinner with cold beer and wine we gathered round a campfire and silently admired the Southern Cross. As a leopard had been spotted in the camp the previous day, the Masai escorted each of us back to our tents. As with Tarangire, each tent came equipped with a whistle for an emergency. Additionally, we were told that our lanterns would scare away any predators. However, I could only take a time-lapsed photo of the Milky Way without any extraneous light. Never before had 5 minutes spent sitting in the dark seemed so long.
July 19, 2004. Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.
With the biting cold and the whipping wind violently shaking the tent, it would be technically incorrect to say that I awoke just a few minutes before sunrise. Nevertheless, we started our day early for another drive of Ngorongoro Crater.
As always, the reclusive male lions remained catatonic during the daylight. I really wanted to see them active and I found myself wishing that they weren't nocturnal. Regardless, I enjoyed watching the lionesses and cubs cross the road in front of us. Still, the highlight of the day was the black rhino with her year-old baby.
Highly endangered due to poaching, only 17 rhinos remained in the crater. Armed guards patrolled the crater around the clock to prevent poaching. (While vastly larger, only 5 rhinos remained in the Serengeti, due to the inability of guards to protect such a large area from poachers.) If poaching wasn't enough of a threat to the future of the rhinos, the babies were vulnerable to hyenas. Consequently, two volunteer vehicles attempted to corral the mother rhino and baby away from the open grasslands favored by the hyenas. Angered by the persistence of the two patrol vehicles, the obstinate mother rhino repeatedly charged them, ramming them in the side. The lively scene was like watching an I-Max episode of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."
July 20, 2004. Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.
At the start of the drive from the conservation area to Serengeti National Park we watched a magnificent sunrise over the mountains. Just a few minutes out of camp, we spotted a cheetah with four juveniles lounging in the tall grass. Just 20 meters from our vehicle, they eventually tired of our company and sauntered into the cover of acacias.
At Olduvai Gorge we stopped at the famous site where Richard Leakey discovered the oldest evidence of humans, some 3.6 million years old.
At the western edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we entered Serengeti Park. Short grasses covered the vast open land. The shallow volcanic soil supported no trees; only a few granite rock formations broke the flat plain of the horizon. Perfectly formed cumulus clouds patterned the azure sky. Upon further observation of the scene, I noticed a few grazing gazelles that had blended in with their surroundings.
As we drove west, the short grass plains yielded to taller grasses, where some acacia trees provided shade for zebras and impalas. Predators also utilized the trees. A lion pride napped in the shade, as the cubs scampered within the safety of their mothers. A lioness awakened for a hunt. Slowly, silently, and patiently she stalked a group of impalas, until she came to nearly within striking distance. As she awaited her move, her rigid body found release only in the twitch of her tail. Her opportunity didn't arrive. With a loud hiss, the male impala signaled danger to his harem and they fled unharmed.
Outside a pool of hippos, a lone male grazed on grass in the daylight, unusual behavior for a nocturnal grazer. Bleeding gashes criss-crossed his scarred back and sides. He had most likely been ejected from the pool by another male. An unsympathetic ox pecker bird capitalized on the losing hippo's misfortune. Standing on the hippo's back, it pecked at the wounds to keep them bleeding. The bird did not seek the blood, but rather the flies that the blood attracted.
We passed a forest of small acacia trees that appeared to have been destroyed by a hurricane. Elephants had been the culprits, ripping down the trees for food. Often, an entire tree had been felled merely to strip the edible bark from just a few branches. On one of the fallen trees, a tawny eagle eviscerated a baby gazelle it had caught.
Just before sunset, we arrived at our camp on the Grumeti River in the western part of the Serengeti. As with the other camps, Alex had warned us not to wander far. At this camp, the chances of encountering lions and leopards were considerably higher, given our proximity to the river. If this wasn't enough of a deterrent from straying from the safety of the tents, hippos left the river to graze at night. (Hippos kill more people in Africa than all of the predators combined.) Just for good measure, the river was filled with Nile crocodiles. In short, we were not to go anywhere but directly to and from our sleeping tent, our bathroom tent, the dining tent, and the campfire, all of which were located within 75 meters of one another. Under other circumstances, I would have been happy that my tent, at the end of the row, was the one farthest from the main camping area.
After sunset, the camp erupted with a plethora of animal sounds. The forest adjacent to the river had come alive. Many of the strange sounds were unrecognizable, but one was unmistakable. We sat gathered in the dining tent listening to the distant roaring of a lion. We listened intently as each roar came closer to us. About 30 meters away (I wasn't about to go outside and measure the distance), a male lion circumnavigated our tent. After a couple of minutes of silence, I heard the lion calling from farther away and in a hushed tone I calmly announced to the attentive group that it appeared to be leaving us. Alex corrected me and said that we were listening to a second lion. Indeed, the first lion responded with a call just 20 meters from our tent. As we ate our dinner, we listened to the two lions calling to one another. As best I could tell, they were discussing their plan of attack. Somehow Alex remained cavalier about the situation, advising us not to worry if lions scratched and sniffed at our tents during the night; they were simply curious. He claimed that they would not enter the tent if we remained quiet when this happened. Personally, I imagined that a hungry lion would have no more difficulty getting inside a tent than I would have getting inside a 7-11 burrito wrapper. Once again, I found myself wishing that lions weren't nocturnal. We all must have had similar thoughts about venturing out to the bathroom tents in the middle of the night. Someone asked for a pee bottle and everybody followed suit.
Listening and watching for lions, I made my way back to my tent. I emptied the water basin that stood in front of the tent, as lions and hyenas were fond of drinking from them. I brought my shoes inside, as hyenas were known to steal them for some unknown reason. For the next order of business, I moved the cot away from the tent's screen wall. I would say that I then peacefully drifted off to sleep, but I didn't. Instead, I earnestly listened to every sound on the Serengeti. I felt like I had the superhuman hearing ability of the Six Million Dollar Man, but not the benefit of his bionic arm to find off the advancing lions. I monitored their locations by their roars and the screams of the frightened baboons. The baboon screams indicated that the lions were not exceedingly close, but the grunts of a grazing hippo were just outside the bathroom tent. Unfortunately, for some bathroom calls, a pee bottle simply wouldn't suffice.
July 21, 2004. Serengeti, Tanzania.
We started our morning game drive at sunrise. We had just barely driven outside of our camp when we spotted a pair of lions. From the safety of our vehicle, we could see a male lion coupled with his mate. Mating lions spend seven days together. During this time, they separate from the pride and don't eat. I would say that I was happy for their conjugal bliss, but I was more relieved to know that we wouldn't be eaten.
We silently watched a pride of lionesses and cubs eat a fresh wildebeest kill. A dining cub removed its head from inside the wildebeest to reveal a bloodied face. Its mother lovingly licked it clean. It was great entertainment to watch; I was only wishing that it wasn't within sight of our tents.
Wherever we traveled in the park, we were sure to encounter two types of animals: baboons and tsetse flies. Tsetse flies seem to be attracted by insect repellant. I think they savor the flavor as a sort of appetizer. Consequently, you defend yourself by wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants. Unfortunately, the tenacious tsetse has no problem biting through clothing. Thus, your only defense is to swat at them. If you're lucky enough to hit one, your hand will simply bounce off of it. You can almost hear it laughing as it circles round for another bite.
Early in the night I was relieved to only hear hyenas and hippos outside of my tent. Then came the lion roars. They roared every few minutes throughout the night, getting seemingly closer to the tent each time, until I heard roaring on both sides of me. I could hear their steps not 10 meters from my tent and I hoped that these were the non-eating mating lions, versus the rest of the hungry pride. I decide against venturing outside to investigate.
July 22, 2004. Serengeti, Tanzania.
We awoke just before dawn and congregated around the campfire. There were no lions visible, but one roared in the distance. Alex informed us that during the night he had looked out of his tent to see four male lions thoroughly investigating our camp, including walking through the dining tent. Despite the plethora of lions, we still hadn't seen one of the males up close
Congregations of safari vehicles always indicate a worthwhile animal sighting. We saw three vehicles parked in the road and I was reasonably sure that they weren't gawking at tsetse flies. We joined them. A hundred meters from us, a male and female lion lied in courtship several meters apart from one another. The haughty male snubbed the female's advances and walked away stoically upwind with his thick main billowing. He waited a few minutes for the female to follow. She didn't. Alex sensed what would happen next and he repositioned our vehicle. The male swallowed his pride and returned to the female. En route, he passed directly in front of us, so close that his massive head filled my camera's viewfinder. The male mounted the female and roared loudly during his exhibitionist act. Despite his boasting, I was unimpressed by the king of the jungle in this regard, a mere five seconds from start to finish. However, my opinion didn't matter. The female blissfully rolled around on her back, as if she had overdosed on catnip. Lions don't have TV, so they can't watch SportsCenter. The male lion contentedly scratched on some tree branches and wandered off.
We exited the western border of the park for a day trip to Lake Victoria. It boasted impressive credentials: source of the Nile River; second largest freshwater lake in the world; and home to hundreds of species cichlid fish found nowhere else in the world. The region was home to the Sukuma, one of the largest tribes in Tanzania. After passing through some tiny roadside towns, we reached a Sukuma fishing village on the lake. Unlike the Masai, the Sukuma wore contemporary African clothes: brightly patterned dresses for women, casual western clothes for men. On the dusty entrance road, we passed women balancing buckets of water on their heads, men mending fishing nets, and small children wearing only t-shirts.
Poverty surrounded us. The better structures featured concrete walls, a tin roof, and a single room. More numerous were circular mud juts with reed roofs and doors. I felt conspicuously like a wealthy tourist with my two cameras dangling from my neck. I raised a camera to take a picture of a man building a wooden row boat, but I reconsidered when I saw his reaction. As we walked about, I could feel the withering stares of people. Instead of the people, I focused my photography on the colorful wooden row boats anchored on the beach. The rest of our group had decided to go on a boat tour, but I had declined... until Alex informed me that during their tour I would need to lock myself in the vehicle because of my camera gear.
Two hundred meters from the shore, the water was still waste deep. In fact, despite its size, the lake was no more than 200 feet deep. A boy had driven his cattle into the water, where he splashed them to keep them cool. By the reeds on the bank, women washed clothes. Wading fishermen set up stationary gill nets to catch small cichlids. (These would by dried and crushed for chicken feed.) Cormorants and egrets lined the sides of the anchored row boats.
On a personal walking tour of the village, a friendly family invited me to join them for lunch in the shade of an acacia tree. They ate some type of cornmeal paste from a large communal pot with their bare hands. I doubted that they had all washed their hands with antibacterial soap. I declined their generous offer, explaining that I was already full from the lunch that I would soon be eating. At least I had gained their enthusiastic consent for photos. These people had apparently never seen a digital camera. After a group shot, I showed them the image. Amazed by this feat of technology, they nearly rioted as they clamored to see themselves.
I moved on to visit a family that lived in a simple hut. Three small children repeatedly called me "white person" in their native tongue. They vied to hold my hand as I ducked through the doorway to enter their tiny home. A pot sat on an open fire on the floor. By the light of the door I could see only a single sleeping place on the dirt floor. I took heart from the fact that the woman of the house seemed proud of her home.
En route back to camp, vultures and marabou stork circled over lions with a zebra kill. Closer to camp, we passed two more groups of lions. I realized that they were everywhere. The baboons must have realized this too. At dusk, they loudly fought for the sleeping places highest in the trees: the lower the branch, the greater than chance of being eaten by a predator. I contemplated my own sleeping place on the ground level as I slipped into sleep.
July 23, 2004. Serengeti, Tanzania.
Our morning game drive had started slowly, but we found a pride of seven lions. The alpha female dined on a small gazelle that she refused to share. A smaller female nearby watched her from a respectful distance. She had fresh wounds on her back; she had apparently tested her place in the hierarchy and lost. Such fights weren't uncommon in the Serengeti, as evidenced by the hippo we'd seen, as well as a wildebeest sitting in the road. He had a single horn; blood flowed from the flesh that had recently supported the other. He would likely survive, but not with a high social position. On our safari we had seen other one-horned wildebeests, as well as impalas, gazelles, and elephants.
We realized that our final game drive on the Serengeti was slow when Alex resorted to pointing out a mouse on the side of the road.
July 24, 2004. Serengeti, Tanzania.
Leaving the Serengeti, we happened across a male lion with two females. Behind them lied the carcass of a cape buffalo, an impressive kill. They had good reason for gorging themselves; both of the females were in heat, which meant no more eating for seven days. He mated with one of them, looked fondly at her and purred. As she rolled around on her back, the second female made her pass. After finishing with her, he licked his lips and strode into the woods.
We had previously seen young Masai men with the painted white faces and black clothes that signified circumcision. This time, the black clothes and painted white faces on the side of the road were those of recently circumcised young women. Typically, they did not make such a public showing.
July 25, 2004. Arusha, Tanzania.
After spending the night in the city of Arusha, we headed north to the dry and dusty private reserve of Sinya, which borders Amboseli Park in Kenya. Until three years ago, hunting had been allowed in Sinya so the animals tend to be skittish and difficult to approach. Consequently, most tourists visit these Masai lands for the views of Kilimanjaro.
Most of the day, clouds covered Africa's most famous mountain, obscuring its signature white glacial top. Just before sunset, the departing clouds unveiled the 19,000-foot peak. The drumroll in my head proved anticlimactic. The magnificent white glacial band that had encompassed the mountain was now reduced to a kidney-shaped splotch, another victim of global warming.
Unlike Sinya's other animals, the bull elephants that wander into Sinya from Amboseli are accustomed to people. Despite Sinya's dearth of water, the big bulls are attracted by the trees, a valuable food source that they have almost obliterated in Amboseli. Of course, the elephants still need to drink, which is the primary reason they frequently visit the permanent campsite in which we stayed. Elephants can smell water over long distances, even the small amounts of water in the shower buckets behind each tent. In front of my tent, fresh dung balls the size of cantaloupes testified to an elephant's recent visit. In fact, the elephants visited each of the tents daily to check for water in the shower bucket or the wash basin. Not surprisingly, we were instructed to empty these as soon as we finished using them. Additionally, we were told not to leave our tents open, as the elephants had been known to remove backpacks. Recently, these preventative measures had proved successful... perhaps too successful. The previous day, a frustrated elephant had resorted to tearing down an acacia tree that prevented him from drinking from a small bird bath. Despite their potentially aggressive behavior, we were told that elephants wouldn't normally bother humans. Somehow this wisdom didn't comport with the fact that each tent was equipped with a whistle and a machete. Additionally, we were instructed to remain quiet if an elephant approached our tent and, most importantly, not to flush the toilet (the sound would reveal the water source to the elephant).
With the threat of marauding lions in the Serengeti, I had almost bought Alex's claim that I was safe inside of my tent. At least, it seemed plausible with lions. I found this much harder to believe with an animal that regularly tore down large trees. If the tents protected us, why couldn't we flush the toilets any damn time we wanted? The machete didn't provide much comfort. At best, I imagined that with a bit of luck I might be able to poke an elephant in the foot.
With these pleasant thoughts, I tried to fall asleep. It was no use; the excitement had over-stimulated my bladder. I quietly approached the toilet and listened for elephants. I figured that an elephant larger than my tent would be easy to hear. I heard nothing. I had to be certain; I listened more intently. Still, I heard nothing. I decided to take my chances. My bladder felt better and no thirsty elephant had come crashing through my tent. Emboldened, I flushed the toilet. "SWIIIISSSSHHHHHHH!!!!" Never before in my life had a heard anything so loud. What had I been thinking? "You stupid fool!" I braced myself for the inevitable trampling of the tent. There wouldn't even be time to grab the machete. Miraculously, no elephants stampeded into the bathroom. With a sigh of relief, I crawled back into bed. I had just about fallen asleep when I heard two sounds: 1) the dripping of the toilet; 2) an elephant munching on the branches above the next tent. I frantically thought to myself. "How good is an elephant's sense of hearing?" The size of the ears led me to a terrifying conclusion. I ran to the toilet and jiggled the handle. Still, it continued dripping. Each drop deafened my ears. I could hear them echoing off of Kilimanjaro. "DRIP! drip. DRIP! drip." I had no time to lose; the next tent the elephant visited would be mine. I needed to flee my tent or stop the dripping. I lifted the top off of the toilet's basin and fiddled with some of the plumbing. "DRIP!! DRIP!! DRIP!!" As a last resort, I stuck the plunger into the path of the offending water... silence! The elephant left me in peace.
July 26, 2004. Sinya, Tanzania.
At breakfast, the other guest in the camp and Alex both complained that the elephant had come to their tents and kept them awake as it ate vegetation.
That afternoon, we visited a local Masai village, a single-family compound of four huts enclosed by a 300-foot diameter ring of thorn brush. The village consisted of one man, four wives, nine kids, about 20 cows, and 900 flies. The flies were attracted by the cow dung. As the family came out to greet us, flies circled around their heads. Flies covered the face of a baby in a sling on his mother's back. With his arms pinned by the sling, he could only turn his face from side to side to seek relief. Somehow, only the two of us seemed bothered by the pesky germ spreaders. Totally unconcerned with the unrelenting annoyance, the women happily carried on a conversation with our Masai guide. Meanwhile, I tried not to be disrespectful by suddenly screaming and running from the village with flailing arms. I was about to abandon this propriety when we were invited inside a hut.
The hut was all but totally dark inside. A thin beam of light illuminated the interior from a tiny rectangular window cut into the mud wall. Our hostess removed a stick from a second window of the same size. Apparently, if the windows were larger, animals could crawl inside. On the other hand, the smoke from the smoldering fire had almost no space to escape. This probably explained the absence of flies inside. I concluded that even with the elephants, my tent wasn't so bad after all. I called an end to the tour and gladly returned to camp to face the elephants one final night.
July 27, 2004. Sinya, Tanzania.
Alex drove me back to Arusha, where I caught a bus to Nairobi. The next day I was to fly to Rwanda. Having survived lions and elephants, it was time for two days of gorilla trekking.
> Africa Travelogue: Rwanda! (2004-07-28)
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