My eyes opened early even though I was clean and in a nice bed so I got up and was showered and drinking coffee by 0630. That turned out to have been a good thing because I was still in mid caffeine fix and mid final pack when the knock came at my door and I was told that my driver was there already. It seemed that 0630, not 0730 was the time that I was to be picked up, but the driver was happy enough to wait ten minutes while I finished up. From this point to back home again, I had to haul around two bags which is very unusual for me but one had all my climb gear and the other smaller one had everything else.
Rebecca was as unnecessarily apologetic as a good host should be and we did hasty goodbyes as my bags were packed up and then I was on my way to the Arusha airport. I hadn’t been through the town of Arusha, having come and gone in the opposite direction to this point. I was told that it was a good thing that it was Sunday because traffic was really bad during the week, but there were still a lot of cars and people on the road making their way to church or other gatherings.
Arusha airport is small but it had all the accoutrements. My bags were weighed and tagged and bundled off as I checked in and then I had an hour wait in the little terminal. The terminal had several small shops, a coffee shop and a TV. A couple of groups with different coloured boarding passes passed through security before I got to wave the pink pass that I was given.
I had a moment to kick my heels in an outdoor waiting area before I was led, alone, to a waiting Caravan, an aircraft that I am endorsed on. The pilot was a young American expat and he was professionally friendly and conscientious. Note to self; on my next once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa: pack a headset. Small planes are noisy.
The flight was only supposed to be an hour and a bit but there was a stop added at the last minute. The flight itself was nice and I was given a close-up of a crater lake on the way. The stop was a long one, but after an hour and a half, we loaded up to the brim with people, and twenty-five minutes later, I was deposited at my destination. Ndutu airport.
My guide, Felix, was waiting impatiently for me. Felix was nice, polite and knowledgeable but we never quite warmed up to one another like I did with all the other guides. We talked and compared notes on our lives and suffered through the enforced social evenings, but it was definitely an arms-length camaraderie. We did agree right from the get-go that sitting around with a dozen other trucks for an hour watching a sleeping cat wasn’t entertaining at all. That was all that I really needed us to agree on but that he didn’t feel any need to talk unless there was something to say was a bonus.
There were a few moments spent tracking down the park ranger to get permits and then we headed off for a game drive before heading to the camp. The truck was a Toyota Land Cruiser and it was set up for safari. The rear seats were raised and the roof was open so that by standing, one had from chest up above the vehicle. It had a small fridge in it and it was well equipped for picnics.
I had seen zebras as we flew in but the first creature was a grants gazelle and then a cheetah. I had my first experience with the multitude of vehicles that roamed the area here. The guides relay information to each other so when there was an interesting sighting, it wasn’t long before there were a dozen trucks surrounding it. It did take away a little bit of the magic, but there was an awful lot of magic. We stayed with the cheetah until a truck chased it into the bushes and then we found a mama cheetah and four cubs, which were just lovely.
We headed to camp after this, trailing a big plume of dust behind us. The dust was a defining theme. I still have a pair of shoes that are covered in Serengeti dust.
The camp is set up in the middle of nowhere with each of the dozen tents separated by about fifty feet on other side of the dining and common area tents. My tent was huge, with a zippered screen entry in lieu of mosquito netting. The sleeping area with a king size bed was at the front, with an area behind it that could be curtained off that had a sink and dressing area and at the back, behind canvas curtains, were a toilet on one side and a shower on the other. The shower got its water from a canvas bucket that was filled up with warm water on request and then hoisted up a pole to gravity feed through an on-demand showerhead. The thinness of the tent walls made it convenient for the person filling the shower to yell that all was set and to wish me karibu (welcome in Swahili).
Each tent had solar powered lamps that operated at night and they came standard with bug spray and an air horn, which is a horrible thing to do to a person like me. I had to put it under the bed so I wasn’t tempted.
Warm water was provided in a pitcher for washing twice a day and bottled water was replenished as required. There was also a bucket of water for washing undergarments since the staff was afraid of women’s bras and panties, though they would wash everything else which was a blessing since I didn’t have time to do laundry after the climb.
Lunch was a cold buffet, heavy on salad and fruit, which was good, but they had an unfortunate tendency to use curry in at least one dish. I don’t like curry. It was generally served around 1300 to accommodate the schedule of safari in the mornings and again in the afternoon. The guests on this first day were an American woman and her grown daughter and three Swedish couples in their mid-fifties. I didn’t get into any real conversations at this point because we were all heading out again.
I had arrived just as the birthing season was underway and there were lots of babies. I saw tiny versions of zebras and wildebeest and giraffe and water buffalo and lions and cheetahs.
The first day was spent gawking at things that would only be noted in passing in the coming days. I did find, to my delight, that Felix was very knowledgeable about birds and that he was the guide that was called when bird watchers came to camp. So as well as some sleeping lions, we saw guinea fowl and secretary birds and Verreaux eagle owls and eagle hawks, a Bateleur hawk eagle, tawny eagle, crowned hawk eagle….
The afternoon drive was a short one, from about four to six, to give time to shower and get ready for dinner. I did mention that it was very dusty so a shower was very nice and very necessary at the end of the day.
A huge solar powered flashlight was provided for each tent but I carried my headlamp that I wrapped around my arm. I never used it; the moon was coming up on full and it was so bright that I cast a shadow. Beautiful. I didn’t think to take a moon picture but I did manage a couple of shots of the lovely, deep blue twilight that seemed to go on for hours.
Dinner was at eight but all the guests were encouraged to congregate around a campfire in the hour preceding the meal for drinks and appetizers and conversation. Dirty pool. I love campfires and I would even socialize in order to sit by one and stare into the flames and smell the smoke and listen to the crackle and hiss. And the beer was good too. I stuck with Tusker Lager unless they didn’t have any cold and then I went with Kilimanjaro.
At the campfire that first night, I was set upon by one of the Swedish women who commandeered me like I was her best friend and it was as though she picked up a conversation that we might have had interrupted the day before. The conversation was mostly about her but she was an extremely nice woman. I’ve forgotten her name, of course..
Supper was served in the dining tent and it was a service with each dish being brought around the table by the servers. It was always very good with a couple of vegetable dishes and rice or potatoes and a meat of some sort thought there wasn’t any game served while I was there. Dessert followed which was always fruit or fruit based.
The tent full of people talking was a bit maddening for me so I would leave as soon as I had finished my last bite of dessert. I always managed to get a seat close to an exit. Sometimes I would just go to the common tent next door and finish my drink and listen to the babble from a safe distance and sometimes I would just go right back to my tent. It was usually ten by that time and that’s pretty close to my bedtime anyway.
Back at my tent, I found that the canvas door had been let down and the divider between the dressing area and the bed as well as the window covers. There was fresh hot water in my pitcher and my bed was turned down and it had not one, but two hot water bottles in it. It became my habit for the next eight days to wake at around 0100 and listen to what was going on around me. This is interesting when you are in a tent on the Serengeti.
The first night it was water buffalo grazing and snuffling and snorting and rubbing up against the tent. I could hear lions roaring and hyenas and jackals. Pretty cool.
Serengeti Day 2
Two older American couples arrived the previous day that typified the worst of the breed. Large, loud and entitled but they didn’t matter to me until this morning. I was awake at 0500 when I first heard the large, loud male yelling into a phone. And for the next thirty minutes I enjoyed a play by play of the last minutes of the Superbowl and I was absolutely thrilled when New York came back from a deficit to win in the final seconds. Yippee. I really like football but I leave it at home when I travel.
We would make an early start today and have breakfast on the Serengeti so coffee was brought to me in my tent. Very good coffee too, in its own little plungy thing. Felix and I set off in the pre dawn light which is very pretty and I would say that it’s the best light except for the twilight there that was blue and beautiful and it really did seem like it went on forever.
After driving through the zebras that seemed to make the area around the tents their home, we came across three lionesses that had killed and fed on a wildebeest. There was only one truck there and one more would arrive so it wasn’t the circus that it could have been.
It was fascinating watching the lionesses that were pretty bloody and pretty bloody amazing too. They were full but they ferociously guarded the carcass from a couple of jackals and the vultures that always roosted near the lions. What I found even more amazing is that when a lone wildebeest came wandering through the area, they went right into hunting mode again though they were a bit too far away to make a success at it and I can’t be sure how hard they actually tried.
We left the wooded area and set out on the plains in search of a trio of male cheetah siblings that we wouldn’t find that day. We did see ostriches and a hunting secretary bird and buzzard and a tawny eagle and more vultures.
The truck was specially equipped to house table and chairs and breakfast was served under a tree on the plains with another full of chirping weaver birds nearby. Plunger coffee with real milk and sugar and crepes and breakfast sandwiches and fruit. Too much, but very good and right up there with the most thrilling breakfast a girl could have.
We saw the first abandoned baby shortly after this, a wildebeest that hadn’t a hope in hell of surviving. Poor thing.
The list of creatures spotted included lilac breasted roller, Eurasian roller. Dik dik, cranes, giraffes, wart hog, bunny, grouse, peahens, water buffalo and lots of sleeping lions.
Lunch that day was pretty quiet as most of the other guests were still out on safari. I resisted the urge to shower because there would be more dust later on the afternoon drive and spent the afternoon reading. I had a bit of a deck on my tent but it was swarming with bugs so I went to the common tent, which was shady and reasonably bug free, and traded French lessons for Swahili lessons with the waiter in between chapters.
The afternoon drive was from four to six and stayed pretty close to the camp. There were always sleeping lions to look at and lots of birds and zebras and giraffes.
After a shower, which was a bit chilly since it had been filled earlier, I headed to the fire. The swedes were still there but they would be leaving the next day and an American couple had arrived with a younger man that I took to be their son.
People would arrive and leave on any day here usually with a three or four day stay. The guide that was assigned to them would pick them up and be their escort for the duration of their stay until they were dropped off at the airport again.
The dinner meat was pork with a sage stuffing. I ate only a tiny bit to be polite as I’m not a pork fan, but took extra helpings of the cauliflower. My Swedish friend stopped talking as soon as dessert was done and wished me goodnight and we exchanged nice-to-have-met-you’s as she would be heading out early and I would not be seeing her again.
The next day would be a later start so I would breakfast at camp, but lunch would be on the plains as we were going to head out and find the migrating herds.
Serengeti Day three
Breakfast was funny, as the waiter didn’t count me when he set the table so I had no cutlery or napkin. An older British couple noticed my situation and furnished me with what fork and spoon and knife they weren’t using. I think using my fingers to eat offended them a bit but I am an accomplished savage. The looks on their faces later that evening as they watched in horror as I carefully rescued a bee from my glass of beer and placed it on the table to dry and recover while i finished the beer were pretty priceless to me.
Felix and I headed out for the long drive to where the wildebeest were congregating. There were stops to see birds and a warthog mama and the further we drove, the more wildebeest and zebras there were. It was very hard to get a picture of the number of them, though, because while there were millions of them, they were spread out over miles and miles of plain.
I took my phone with me here because there was spotty cell service but I was a bit surprised to get a text while I was out this day. My friend wanted to know if I wanted to join him for a drink. I texted back that I would love to but I was in the middle of the Serengeti at the moment. I tried to send him a cell phone pic of a bunch of lions but the network wouldn’t let me.
There were patches of trees here and there and in one there were two female elephants and a baby and male. That rated a bunch of pictures. A group of impalas was cool with the lone and presumably very happy male herding his couple of dozen females around. And it was neat to see all the herbivores mingling together.
I saw lots of hyenas, which is good ‘cause they’re cool. They were staying cool by laying in tiny little ponds of water and Felix made them run for a bit by getting out of the truck, but like the water buffalo when he did the same thing, they didn’t go far before turning around to see if he rated being attacked.
There was a beautiful little lizard doing a mating dance and Elands that kept their distance, unfortunately and a martial eagle that was hunting guinea fowl chicks. The noise the adult birds made was incredible and also so was how well camouflaged the chicks were but the eagle was quite impressive so I think I was rooting for him.
Lunch was served under a tree that was close by bushy tree that Felix circled very carefully because, being an experienced guide, he knew I would need to go to the bathroom. I had a successful pee under the tree but I came close to having it scared out of me when I flushed out a gazelle from the brush. I’m pretty sure he felt the same way.
Lunch was good and it was apparently a popular lunch spot since I was accosted by splendid starlings begging for treats. Of course I obliged but I probably shouldn’t have fed them cheese, though they really liked it.
I only had a short time at camp before the afternoon drive and it was pretty laid back. There was a warthog running as they do with its tail in the air which was cute and more sleeping lions which seemed to be a standby if there was nothing else to see and the marabou storks that hang out with the vultures were grotesquely impressive.
Dinner was as usual but I forgot to add that appys were served at the campfire each night and some of them were really good. I was scolded after dinner when the manager caught me walking without using my light. I was casting a shadow for gods sake, what did I need a light for. I was punished with a light bearing escort back to my tent that evening and let that be a lesson to me.
That night I was serenaded by munching and nickering zebras that occasionally also stampeded past the tent.
Serengeti day four
An early start again this day and we headed off in the predawn towards lake Masek. The sun came up spectacularly over the Ngorongoro crater. The crater, which sometimes hid in the haze on the horizon, was my landmark and it was a bit disorienting when I lost sight of it.
A family of bat eared foxes was our first creature sighting. Very cute and quite shy; disappearing into their dens the second they were startled. Water buffalo, dik diks peeing and some grouse of some sort. I do like the pic of the two water buffalo that look like they’re talking. ‘Hey buddy. You know you gotta bird on your back eh?’
Searched for a male lion that was known to be in the vicinity and found a tree that had the breakfast of a leopard in it that had been scared off by trucks earlier. We ate breakfast on a ridge and from there we could see the male lion sleeping in the bushes. He didn’t look like he was going anywhere so we took our time over coffee and headed down when we were done.
The truck had a bit of a time of getting over and through the brush but Felix found him sleeping with a very pregnant lioness. They weren’t thrilled at being disturbed, but they just got up and went to lie down further in the bush. I got my picture so I was happy.
Off to the lake there were vultures with a neat carcass, Egyptian geese and a muddy lump of hippos. There was a herd of wildebeest on the other side of the little lake and I watched through binoculars as a lioness lazily chased the herd before stopping for a drink from the lake. She turned around and started stalking and that’s when I noticed the calf that had been left behind. She was on it in a heartbeat and took it down before it could run two steps and then she dragged it off into the bushes. It was an awful, fascinating thing to witness.
Kori bustard and buzzards. I have always had a picture like a vulture when I think of buzzard, but they seem to be hawks here. I suppose I can thank loony toons for that.
The wildebeest made their way to the other end of the lake and we met up with them there. Felix didn’t think they were worth looking at but I asked him to wait for a bit. You can’t be raised on a farm and not know the signs of a cow (or an antelope) that is about to give birth.
It was pretty cool because there were several of them at the same stage of labour. I wondered if there is some pheromone that is produced when the herd is safe so that they all give birth at once.
We sat and watched the birth that started with mama laying down and ended with her standing up and the calf dropping to the ground. It didn’t take long. It was nine minutes from when I first saw the little hoofs to when the calf was up and walking away with its mother. It is important that the mum and babe get away from the scene of the birth, as the blood will attract predators. Pretty, bloody amazing.
You can check out the series of pictures that I took of the birth here.
That afternoon there was a leopard sighting so we headed off to watch it sleeping in a tree for a while with a dozen other trucks. I’m still missing a rhino, but there were none to be seen in this place. Saw a funny Lilac breasted roller and a Eurasian one too and more sleeping lionesses and cubs.
Dinner was as usual and I left right after to pack up, as I would be leaving the next day. The weather was sunny and hot the whole time I was here.
There was no hurry on my last morning on the Serengeti. Had a casual breakfast and afterwards got into the truck with my bags to meander to the airport. Remembered to tip everyone.
Flamingos feeding on lake Ndutu were neat to watch in the way they did a little circular dance around their submerged beaks. And we came across a big herd of elephants right close to the airport where I would catch a small plane to my next camp. Those same elephants caused a few minutes delay of take-off as they wandered across the runway.