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Monday, July 8, 2013

The Song is You

Family Visit Part II: Tanzania

Our flight was around mid-day on Monday, so we had an easy relaxing morning. I got to do some catching up with my e-mails and some projects I’m working on, including some planning things for GirlTech 2.0. Even with all the things I needed to catch up on, we still ended up at the airport hours early and had to play the waiting game. Luckily, the game didn’t last too long because our flight was early.

When we landed in Kilimanjaro International Airport, we were greeted by our driver, Frederick, from Predators Safari Club. The vehicle was the stereotypical safari vehicle you see on television and in movies, a while Land Cruiser with a pop top and the upward flowing exhaust. It was kind of exciting since all the safaris I had been on were in mutatu-like vehicles, more like vans than 4X4s.
Let me just say, these tour companies in Tanzania really know how to do a safari. Our vehicle had a fridge in it…I don’t even have a fridge in my house and I got one in my car on safari? That is crazy.

Our first stop was Kilimanjaro National Park. We got to the Tanganyika Wilderness Camp site, Kambi ya Tembo, just as the sun was going down, so we got to experience an epic sunset see throughout the park. The sun hid just behind Mount Mehru, with awesome rays of red and gold. On the other side, we had a wonderful view of Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, our luxury tents were facing the mountain, giving us a very nice view in the morning at sunrise. The first night was spent enjoying the sunset and drinking some Tanzanian beers: Serengeti, Safari and Kilimanjaro (if you can’t climb it, drink it!). The dinner at the campsite was amazing. I lost count of how many courses we had, the food just kept coming and coming!

Mt. Kilimanjaro (photographed by Ankur Desai)

The next morning we woke up at 5:30 am to have an early morning game drive and a walk through a Masai village. The game drive was amazing; we got to see giraffe, zebra, impala, gazelle, and baboons. We even got to see a kudu, which is supposed to be really rare. Seeing the Masai village was also neat, though it was a little awkward because we were in the pen they keep their livestock in and there was hundreds of flies around. While we were looking around, the villagers sang for us. We then got to see inside a traditional Masai home, which was very small and dark. On the way out, the villagers sang some more songs and had some crafts for us to buy. Overall it was the stereotypical experience of culture, something I’m not really 100% fond of. Most of the time, I feel as if this is just another means for people to be exploited for money. I feel as though we’re just exploiting their culture and making them feel like it is something to show off for money, when in reality it shouldn’t be used as a means to get money but as a means of educating people.  I think the crafts were a good means of getting money and if I had seen something I liked I would have definitely bought it, but I don’t think tourists should be taken to these villages where they may be expecting some kind of tip (I’m not sure if this particular village did expect a tip, but it felt like they did at some points, at least to me).

After the game drive and village walk, we headed back to the camp for a wonderful breakfast (again, I cannot emphasize how awesome the food was at this place, breakfast was like five courses) and then left for Lake Manyara. When we were packing up the car to head out, the staff at Tanganyika Wilderness Camp all came out and sang for us. They sang the same song that everyone was trying to sell us in Zanzibar, the one that goes ‘Jambo, Jambo Bwana! Abhare gani! Mzuri sana!’ It was really nice of them and it seemed to make my parents happy, they couldn’t stop laughing and smiling the whole time. My parents even danced and sang with them at one point!

The drive to Lake Manyara was really long and fairly boring…I ended up completing all the levels of two free versions of Angry Birds on my dad’s iPad.

We arrive at Lake Manyara National Park around 5pm and headed straight for our game drive. This game drive was nothing short of phenomenal. We saw many buffalo, many different birds, a family of elephants, impala, gazelle, and a leopard! Now, my family might say the leopard doesn’t count since we saw it as it was going into a bush, so we just saw its midsection to tail, but I say it counts! During this game drive, our driver insisted that this wasn’t the best place to spot animals; he insisted we would see heaps more on the game drives in the Serengeti. We must have seemed skeptical because he made a view promises that he said if he broke his god would punish him. Here are the animals he promised us to see: lions (no less that 15), hippos (no less than 50), and zebra (no less than 500,000). Quite a hefty promise, I’d say.

We spent the night at Lake Manyara Wildlife Safari Camp, which was very nice. The pool there looked over the entire Lake Manyara National Park. It’s a shame we only had one night there, but Frederick promised that our days in the Serengeti would be much more exciting.

Dinner wasn’t as good as at the Tanganyika Wilderness Camp, but it was good enough. The site itself is so nice I suppose that makes up for anything else. A Masai tribe came and did a dance for all the guests at dinner. It was interesting to see how their cultural dance differs from others I’ve seen around Africa. The most distinct difference is a move performed by the guys where they jump straight up and down as high as they can. The interesting part is when they jump they are straight, like a plank, and they land flat on their feet, which seems rather painful. Some of them could jump really high too! Pretty impressive when you think about the fact that they are wearing sandals made out of old tires.

We headed out early the next morning for the long drive to the Serengeti National Park where we stayed at another Tanganyika Wilderness Camp site, Kati Kati Camp.

The first day of our Serengeti safari was beyond any expectation I could have had. We had to drive through the Ngoro Ngoro Crater to get to the Serengeti. The view of the crater was spectacular. The crater itself is huge containing grassland or savannah type area as well as a lake. The drive from the crater to the park entrance wasn’t that long in distance, but it took a long time because the road was quite bumpy. There were some points where when we hit a bump, I swear I was getting at least 5 inches of airtime. The scenery was mostly dry desert type land…it is the beginning of the dry season so it seems that there isn’t much green about, except at the entrance of the Ngoro Ngoro Park, where there seems to be a rain forest of sorts. Along the way we saw a few animals, including some ostrich, giraffe, and wildebeest. We also saw some camels but our driver told us they weren’t wild, that there were no wild camels in Tanzania. Once we got to the main entrance of the park, the game drive was on! Before we even got to the permit center, we saw two lions and heaps of antelope and gazelle. Once we got our permits and passed further into the park, we saw many more giraffe and gazelle. After that, it was just a matter of looking about you, there were animals everywhere. We ended up seeing at least 15 lions, probably more (scratch that off the list of animals our driver promised), and we even saw a lioness on the hunt! It was alone along the side of one of the paths so we stopped the vehicle and waited for a bit…best decision we ever made! After a few minutes the lion noticed a solitary gazelle wandering about and stalked it a bit. It then went into pouncing position, watching gazelle. Then, as the gazelle started to make a run for it, the lioness went for the kill! It was a mad dash, on one side for survival, on the other side, for supper! Too bad for the lioness, survival won. Apparently the gazelle are too last for lions; only cheetahs have the speed to catch them. We also saw an uncountable amount of antelope and gazelle, including eland, hartebeests, and impala. We also saw many hyenas, including some babies while we were heading to our camp site. We saw an entire family of elephants, even tiny babies which were so cute! They crossed the path directly in front of us so I got a good video out of that. We also saw three leopards! They were all in trees, but it was pretty impressive since they are quite the elusive creature. We finished off the game drive with some jackal, a bat-eared fox, and some more hyenas. 

Lazy Lions (photographed by Ankur Desai)

 Over all, I have to say it was a very impressive day. The best bit was definitely the lioness on the hunt. 

As I was videotaping the show, I was standing on one of the seats in the vehicle and the driver gunned it to try and catch up with the lion. Unfortunately, this caused me to lose my grip and my hand slid off the handle and caught on a sharp corner of metal on the vehicle causing me to bleed quite a bit. It ended up being a small wound, but the video ends hilariously, with a clear stumble and then ending on the floor. I did get the start and most of the progress of the hunt, giving me proof that I saw something very rare, something National Geographic and other videographers often wait months to be able to film!

The drive to the camp was beautiful, with a few sporadic animals. We got to see the beautiful sunset over the Serengeti. The sky was filled with rays of gold and pink and the clouds were lined with silver. It was a beautiful end to an amazing day. At least, that’s what I thought. Once we got to the camp site, I realized it wasn’t going to be as luxurious as some of the other places that we stayed at, which was fine. We were camping in the middle of the Serengeti so I couldn’t complain! That and there was a herd of zebra right outside our tent doors! That is definitely something special, something rarely experienced by anyone!

The second day started at 6:30 am as we headed out for a full day game drive.

The full day was pretty intense. We woke up at the crack of dawn to try and find some predators on the hunt. We saw at least 15 different types of animals before noon. We left the camp around 7 am and got to watch the sunrise along the Serengeti, which was beautiful. The initial part of the game drive was a bit slow; I suppose all the animals were still waking up too. After a few minutes though, the animals started coming out. We saw many antelopes, gazelle, and ostrich. We even saw more lions (eventually we saw at least 50 lions over the two days of game driving). There were some points where we were along with a group of animals and some points where we were surrounded by vehicles. At one point we were watching a group of lions and I looked around and saw at least 12 different vehicles. Another time we saw a lioness and her young cubs and there were at least 15 vehicles around us. Finally, there was a lioness in the middle of the track which caused a huge jam, with at least 20 vehicles getting stuck and having to go off-road just to be able to pass the lion. Of course no one wanted to just back up to make room for the vehicles that were leaving, that would’ve been too easy.

Two of the most exciting parts were when we saw lionesses on the hunt! The first lioness we saw was watching a group of gazelle. Eventually the gazelle started going further away from the lioness, so she had to get up and follow them. When they were crossing the road, the lioness felt this was the time to spring the attack, so she darted towards them. The gazelle all scattered in different directions in a panic, causing the lioness to run frantically trying to find the weakest one. Unfortunately, she did not catch one. The second lioness was similarly watching another group of gazelle. She was stalking them for quite some time, watching and following them as they changed their position. Unfortunately, there were at least five other vehicles watching which distracted both the lioness and the group of gazelle. A couple of warthog eventually came on the scene and scared away the group of gazelle, ruining all the hard work the lioness had put in to get supper.

One of the last highlights of the day was the amazing scene of zebra we ran into (not literally, we just happened upon them while driving in the park). We were driving around one of the larger hills and as we turned the corner, BAM! There were a group of at least 300 zebra staring us in the face. Some of them got a bit startled, but for the most part they remained where they were. It was so amazing seeing so many animals in one space, breathtaking actually.

Other than that, the game drive went similarly to the day before. We found some really rare animals, including a cheetah, and we found some not so rare animals, including impala. Overall, I’d have to say the Serengeti trumps any game drive I’ve been on before. Seriously though, I’m glad this was probably my last game drive-vacation in Africa because it set the bar pretty high. I don’t think many other game reserves could meet these kinds of numbers, especially in terms of predators.

The next day, we headed to our last stop, the Ngoro Ngoro Crater National Park. We stayed at the Ngoro Ngoro Farm House which was super swanky. Before I start on that, let me describe our last game drive in the Serengeti.

Our driver decided to take us on one last game drive the morning we were heading out. We went to a spot that was further out in the park, towards the black rhino sanctuary. We didn’t spot any rhino unfortunately, but we did see a pride of at least 20 lions, including a 10 year old male with a full mane. That was pretty awesome. We also got to climb some giant granite stones that were part of the old Masai villages, when Masai still lived in the Serengeti. We also saw three more leopards, putting our total at six for the whole duration at the Serengeti. After an hour or so we headed out of the park. We had lunch at the entrance and visitor center and then headed down the bump road to the Ngoro Ngoro Crater and our swanky final destination.

We got to the Ngoro Ngoro Farm House just after 3pm, so we had the whole afternoon and evening to hang around and unwind. My brother and I changed into our swimsuits and headed to the pool, where we were met with ice cold water and old folks swimming laps. We decided to get drinks and just hang out by the pool rather than swim. Eventually we headed back to our room, which was basically a house. Seriously, there were two beds in each room, a giant tub and an epic shower (boiling hot water, always) and even a fire place. We had a balcony that we shared with our parents’ room. Each building was split into two rooms, kind of like a super nice duplex. So we headed back to the room and had some drinks with our parents and relaxed on our back lawn. Yeah, that’s right…we had our own back lawn. RIDICULOUS. Eventually we decided we had to shower and get ready for dinner, so I took a ridiculously long shower with continuous hot water, probably the first time in a very long time (even at the other places we stayed at, the hot water often ran out after a shower or two). We headed to dinner, which was a buffet. Awesome pasta and mixed veggie dishes as well as a real salad were nice changes from the soup, rice and beans combo. The dessert table was also well stocked with cheesecake, chocolate brownies, and homemade ice cream, along with fruits and cheeses. I decided to try the cheesecake and chocolate brownie first since the ice cream was being replenished, thanks to the little children who decided to eat it all. The cheesecake and brownie looked really good. I took my first bite and was instantly reminded that I was still in Africa. FAIL. My mom and I were severely disappointed. We waited a bit and tried the ice cream, hesitantly. Luckily, it was good. I happily ate two bowls with some chocolate sauce, and my faith in the super swanky lodge was restored.

The rest of the night was spent digesting and revisiting adventures from the Serengeti…memories that will last a lifetime.

The next morning we headed out for our game drive in the Ngoro Ngoro Crater. We didn’t have to leave as early as when we were in the Serengeti, which was nice, but we still left fairly early.
We spent the whole day at the crater, searching for awesome animals, especially the elusive rhino.

Unfortunately, we did not find a rhino, but we did see some more lions (I think the count was up to 70 at this point) and we missed a kill by only an hour! If we had only stayed with the lions, we would have seen them take down a zebra. A part of me is kind of glad we didn’t see the kill though; I would probably have been a little wigged out by it. We also got to see probably 500 wildebeest and zebra. I don’t know if we ever got to see the promised 500,000, but we got to see at least 1,000 and that was quite a bit for me. There were so many points where we were just surrounded by zebra. I didn’t know if I should be in awe or nervous that they might make a group attack on the car.

Elephants and zebra at Ngorongoro Crater (photographed by Ankur Desai)

Even though we didn’t get to see the rhino, the Ngoro Ngoro crater was pretty cool. The views and the animals we did see made it worth it.

The rest of the day was spent hanging out at the farm house, drinking and just enjoying our last night together. Dinner was another amazing meal, stir fry and loads of amazing cheese. I must have eaten at least half a block of cheese. The dessert was not too bad this time. The lemon tart was especially lemony and the chocolate pudding was a little more brownie like than pudding like…it was also quite bland. My mom believes the cooks forgot to add sugar to both desserts. Luckily, the homemade ice cream was present again…yum yum yum, delicious!

The last day was spent driving to Arusha, where we had lunch at Shanga, a really awesome restaurant and rehabilitation facility for people with disabilities. The facility helps people with disabilities hone skills like glass blowing, weaving, painting, and sewing to create IGAs. All the IGAs are housed in the same facility, but all the items are on sale. They were fairly reasonably priced and we got to meet a few of the workers. It seemed like a fairly legitimate organization that really seemed to help improve the lives of people who made have had to live on the streets if they weren’t given this opportunity to further develop these skills.

We got to the airport and it was a little bittersweet. I was looking forward to getting back to Uganda to hang out with my PCV friends and go through the close-of-service conference, but at the same time I didn’t want to leave the family. When I landed in Uganda, I almost instantly got bitten by a mosquito and got stuck in a traffic jam on the way to my lodging. I definitely missed the luxury private drivers and not so hostile roads in Tanzania.

Oh Uganda…

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