The next morning we rose early (no such thing as sleeping late in Africa) and piled into two safari vehicles for a week amongst the animals. We booked our tour through a company based in Arusha called Sunny Safaris and they were wonderful. Six to a Land Cruiser, we each had a window seat and the top opened up so we could stand up and ogle as we drove. We dubbed our vehicles Team A and Team B (I was in A, of course) haha. And developed a significant amount of competitive spirit as the week progressed. Francis was the driver for the A Team and accordingly, he was definitely the cooler cat.
We were hitting up the cluster of game parks in Tanzania called the northern circuit—arguably some of the most well-known in Africa. These included Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Wildlife Conservation, and Lake Manyara National Park.
Our first day was in Tarangire—famous for its elephant herds and numerous baobab trees. Sure enough, we saw loads of both. It’s funny to reflect on our changing tolerance as the week went by. At our first sighting of gazelle, we implored Francis to stop the car and we spent about 5 minutes snapping pictures and marveling at the beast. By the last day, we had seen thousands of gazelle and impala and were not the least bit phased by their presence. We had eyes only for the big cats and predators. Some of us developed a strong interest in exotic bird species after the sighting of so many large animals had exhausted their mystique. My favorites were the lilac-breasted roller and the grey-headed Kingfisher. At camp that night, a local trio of boys gave an incredibly impressive acrobatic and bongo drum-playing performance.
The next day we drove straight through a portion of Ngorongoro to the Serengeti. It was in this brief section of Ngorongoro that I saw my favorite sight of the trip—the fascinating Maasai people. The Serengeti is an enormous expanse of savanna—the kind one would picture when thinking of Africa. This is where the great migration of wildebeest occurs each year and we saw herds with thousands of them! They are really dumb creatures and it’s hilarious to watch them get scared because if one takes off running, they ALL follow suit. And they run in single-file lines so you’ll see a massive line of wildebeests running for absolutely no reason. Almost equally numerous where the zebras, and they are generally mixed in with the herds of wildebeest.
Our first day in the Serengeti, we saw eight lions, two cheetahs and a leopard. This is almost unheard of! One of the lions was in a tree, which is apparently a completely new evolution in this region of Africa. It used to be that trees were only the domain of leopards and if they could drag their prey up into the tree, they were safe from competing carnivorous cats. This is no longer the case, and apparently, the first sighting of tree-climbing lions was in Lake Manyara National Park a few years ago (another park we visited). In total, we spent two nights and three days in the Serengeti and saw pretty much everything you could hope for on safari.
The highlight for me was when we saw a lioness and her two cubs at very close range. I had already exhausted both batteries of my camcorder on less interesting footage, but I managed to get a 30 second video of her playfully biting and batting at her cubs as they crawled all over her on my digital camera. The mating hippos were a slightly more traumatizing, but fascinating sighting. Hippos are the most dangerous animal to humans in all of Africa. We came across this one hippo pool with probably over a hundred beasts in it. Most of the time, you couldn’t tell how big they were because you could only see the tops of their backs and their eyes above the water, but once and a while, a couple would briefly fight each other, launching their massive bodies straight out of the water to clash with the other and snapping their huge, sparsely-toothed jaws. It was terrifying. At one point, two of the biggest hippos were mating and another male came over to challenge the first, mid-mount. They had a pretty ferocious battle, and once again, I was sadly out of battery juice. We also saw a cool sort of hippo initiation or rite-of-passage…we think. A very small (comparatively, of course) baby hippo climbed out of the water and approached a crocodile lying on the beach. The baby hippo seemed to freeze up about ten feet from the croc, looking back and forth from the croc to the pool of hippos—who interestingly enough, had all turned to watch. After about 5 minutes, two slightly larger (lets say teen-age) hippos climbed out of the water and nudged the baby forward with their snouts. It progressed hesitantly forward until the croc suddenly scampered off and the baby hippo splashed back into the water…very odd.
Our forth day, we drove to the Ngorongoro crater. The park was named Ngorongoro by the Maasai, because that is the sound that the clay bells that they attach to their cattle make as they walk. The crater was formed 2 million years ago by the collapse of a huge volcano. It is seventeen km across in every direction and most of the wildlife is trapped inside its steep walls. You can find pretty much every animal except for the giraffe because they cannot walk down the steep decline to get inside. The Park is well known for the 20 or so rhinos it has—rhinos are extremely rare in Tanzania. We only saw one from very far off. The highlight was definitely a lion kill of a zebra and I got great footage of the lioness dragging the carcass around. We also saw loads of spotted hyenas, which is rare because like lions and cheetahs, they are nocturnal and usually just sleep in the tall grass during the day.
I’ve been on safari before—a five-day trip in Kruger National Park in South Africa, but this was entirely a different experience. For starters, Kruger is much more touristy, with loads of vehicles, better roads, and even man-made watering holes to facilitate wildlife viewing. But the biggest difference is that in Kruger, each camp ground is behind huge electric fences so you are protected at night. There are no such fences in Tanzania (nor are there fences surrounding any of the parks!) I found this to be a bit worrisome at night—especially when I had to go to the bathroom. We were told to not keep food of any kind in our tents or it would attract animals. We were also told to not wear scent of any kind, which made using shampoo at the two camp sites that had showers, very nerve wracking. At night we could hear the howls of hyenas and the snorts of wildebeests, among other things, and it was often hard for me to fall asleep. On the second to last night, I had to pee pretty badly so I opened the window of my tent to peer outside and I saw the enormous head of a cape buffalo right in front of me. They are really aggressive animals and it was pretty terrifying!
Our last day was spent in Lake Manyara National Park—famous for its massive flocks of flamingos and tree-climbing lions. I think this park was my favorite because of its dense rain forest and exotic trees. Didn’t see any more lions, but we saw a ton of hippos and birds. All in all, it was a pretty amazing week and I feel guilty that I got to enjoy it instead of my nature-loving sister, Stella. Biscuit, I promise I’ll take you some day!