19.09.2016 - 24.09.2016
My first week in Africa has been absolutely outstanding – I truly cannot begin to describe just how awesome this trip has been so far (7 days down, 34 to go!). Since this is my first update in over a week, I’ll try and break down the events of each day.
Monday, 19 September
I spent the entire day at the hotel in Nairobi, relaxing before the overland tour started the following day. I had given thought to exploring some of the city on my own, but I decided against it. I stayed in my room and watched Netflix, binge-watching a television series called Versailles, which centered around Louis XIV of France and the building of the palace. I watched five of the ten episodes and really enjoyed it. I also spoke with my family via Skype, which was quite nice.
Tuesday, 20 September
Today was an early day as I met with the tour group for our departure. My tour dossier stated that the group would meet at 08:00, but I went down to the reception area shortly after 07:00; to my surprise, the time had changed and I was a few minutes late. Thankfully most people weren’t aware of the change and I wasn’t the only one.
I met our tour leader, Nyka, and our driver, TK, at the reception area. I then headed out to the truck to load up my luggage. Depsite all of my stressing over the size of my travel backpack, it fit easily into the locker, allowing me to also store my camera bag as well. After storing my bags, the entire group met for a quick briefing by Nyka. He quickly introduced himself and then we hit the road; we had a drive of around 360km to Arusha in Tanzania.
The tour group is a good collection of people from around the world, mostly young (around my age), though there are a few older people in the group. The group is split between those of us camping throughout the trip and the few people who are in actual accommodations/hotels.
The drive went well, though the road was anything but smooth. I sat next to Maite (from Chile), right behind Max (Austria) and Hana (Czech Republic). We chatted quite a bit on the drive, getting to know one another. The border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania was rather chaotic. We all got off the truck and walked around a fence to the Kenyan passport control, where we were all quickly processed through. We then walked over to the Tanzanian passport control, where they checked our yellow fever vaccine cards before stamping our passports. Those people who didn’t have visas for Tanzania were able to buy then at the border, which took a little bit of extra time, but it was easy.
We made a quick stop on the side of the road for lunch, where Nyka and TK prepared some things with witch to make sandwiches. The wind was blowing and it was rather dusty, so we prepared the food in the truck. The break was quick and the food was good.
We arrived in Arusha between 17:00 and 18:00. The campsite for the night had joint accommodations for those not camping. Several tents were already setup by a group that had just gone through a few days before us (we were swapping trucks with the group and so we used their tents). TK did a quick demonstration on how to put up the tents, which was far easier than I had anticipated. Max, Larry and I were the solo male travelers and decided to take turns sharing a tent; the first night I got the solo tent. We were camping out in the yard of the hotel.
Dinner was in the dining hall and prepared by Nyka and TK, but before that we all gathered to have some drinks at the bar. We had a local beer called Kilimanjaro, which was refreshing after the long travel day. The drinks also gave us all time to chat and bond more.
Camping out on my own wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. I slept quite well and enjoyed the experience; I didn’t hear any noises in the night.
Wednesday, 21 September
Today we set off on our 4-day safari tour to the Serengeti; this portion of the tour was handled by a third party provider, so we left the truck and the guides behind. The group was split into three smaller safari trucks; the group in my truck was Max, Larry, Rafa, Joana, Hana, and Maite. Our driver was named Ernest and he proved to be a really amusing guy. The entire group was amazing – I truly lucked out.
The drive to the Serengeti was a long one and we had to drive through the Ngorongoro Crater park. The roads progressively worsened: from paved roads to dirt roads to very bumpy rocky dirty roads. We drove through a small town that had several small shops along the side of the road – including one called “Hillary Clinton Shop”.
We stopped for lunch in a large field shortly after entering the Ngorogoro Crater park. Ernest handed out our boxed lunches (fried chicken, a biscuit, mango juice, “Glucose Cookies”, a banana, and a small piece of chocolate); he then warned us to be careful of the birds in the area. We headed out to an area of the field that contained several tree logs for us to sit on.
… We should have listened to Ernest! The birds were insane and aggressive. Maite had just unwrapped her chicken when a bird dove down and snatched it right out of her hands – literally! She was holding it and BAM, it was gone! Several birds began to circle the group, driving down to try and snatch our food. Several other people had their food grabbed before we all headed back to the truck to finish eating.
After we finished eating we saw a new tour group heading into the field to eat their lunch; they setup an elaborate picnic table and their meal. We all piled out of the truck to watch the birds attack them as well; Dennis even got out his huge camera and tripod to film it. We were all laughing hysterically as we watched for the attack to come. After several minutes a bird finally attacked and grabbed some food.
We drove on for a little while longer before reaching the Serengeti park. At this point Ernest opened the roof of the truck so we could stand up to see any wildlife that we passed on the way to the campsite.
The first animals that we saw were three lionesses sitting in a field. They sat there as we drove around and we were able to snap several pictures of them. After that we saw a warthog as well.
The next animal was a treat: a lion eating a gazelle! He was laying down on the top of a hill, chowing down on the head of the gazelle. We drove to within 20 feet of him and could even hear him chewing on the carcass. Around the hill was a hyena, eagerly waiting for his turn to nibble at the carcass. A second lion on the hill went down to chase the hyena away.
En route to the campsite we passed by a giraffe and an elephant, which was right next to the road. Right next to the campground were tons of zebras.
The campsite was quite large and there were a few other people staying there as well. There was a large cement building that served as the dining hall; right next to that was a similar building that was the kitchen; further away were the toilet and showers. These three buildings surrounded the grassy camping area, though there was a lot of open space between everything. The tents were arranged in two rows. During the Serengeti safari I shared a tent with Larry; these tents we didn’t need to put up or take down ourselves.
Dinner was at 19:30, which consisted of a soup and then a main course (which I forget now). Ernest gave the group a briefing, warning us to not wander around alone at night as the animals were able to wander around the site at any time.
After dinner several of us needed to trek out to the bathroom, but it was pitch black outside now. We put on our headlamps and headed out. Right near the bathroom were several water buffaloes; being very aggressive animals, we needed to have them scared off so we could go to the bathroom. I headed back to the tent to get some sleep, but much of the group remained in the dining hall to have drinks and hang out. Later that night they saw several lions around the site and even a hyena running toward them near the bathroom! They had to take shelter in the women’s bathroom and the guides had to scare the animals away.
Thursday, 22 September
After breakfast we set out for a full day of game driving in the Serengeti.
We got back into the same trucks; again I was very happy with the group I had in my truck. Throughout the day, Rafa and Joana would burst into song snippets, often taking a cue from something that someone said (for example, if someone didn’t understand what another person said, they would sing “What do you mean?” by Justin Bieber). They provided the musical “radio” entertainment throughout the four days we spent on the safari truck, which was the source of a lot of laughs.
We saw several gazelles, zebras and water buffalo as we left the campground; they proved to be the most common animals that we would see throughout the game parks. We then spotted an elephant out in a field along with some beautiful birds.
Right before lunch we spotted several other trucks parked around a tree and we drove over to see what was there; it turned out to be a leopard! It was sleeping on a branch in the tree and we were able to drive right up to the tree (within 15 feet of the leopard!). As we sat there watching him, he sat up and looked around… and then took a piss while just sitting on the branch. He then climbed down from the tree and went to sleep on the ground.
After stopping for lunch, where we ate the same boxed lunch from the day before (we’d have the same boxed lunch every day during the excursion), we drove around and didn’t see any animals. All I could think of was Jurassic Park: “There will eventually be dinosaurs on this, uh, dinosaur tour?”
“There will eventually be animals on this, uh, animal tour?”
We spotted a lioness sitting under a tree in the shade, along with a group of hippos in a large pond. We were also quite lucky to spot a cheetah, though it was VERY far away; we had to use binoculars or camera zooms to see the animal.
Our next discovery was a lion and lioness in a field… and we saw them fuck a couple of times. According to Ernest, lions mate every 15 to 30 minutes over the course of several days. These lions were around 25 or 30 feet from the truck and we saw them fuck twice.
We drove around a rock formation that rose abruptly out of the flat Serengeti plains; nestled among the rocks was a large group of hyenas. I was reminded of The Lion King and the den of hyenas from the movie. Throughout the time in Tanzania I saw the name “Simba” scattered all over the place; I was curious if the locals used the word (which means lion) much before the movie came out or if the movie drove the usage of the word.
The final sighting of the day proved to be the highlight: a cheetah and her cubs. The four cubs were sitting still in a small clearing to the right of the truck and the mother was walking through the field on the left side. In the distance we saw some gazelles and it became quite clear that she was stalking one of them. As we sat there watching, she circled around down-wind of the gazelles. Several minutes passed before she suddenly darted out and chased down the gazelle on the end of the line. The gazelle tried to run, but the cheetah jumped and took it down; the kill itself was blocked by some tree branches, but we saw the dust cloud that it generated. After the kill the mother sat up and looked around; after several minutes the four cubs ran across the road and over to the mother, where the carcass was. We got to see the cubs eating, though it was too far away to take decent pictures.
During the driving time we found ourselves joking around with Ernest quite a bit. Max kept asking about rhinos, which became on our many running jokes during out time. Ernest laughed and always said that we’d see them tomorrow. Then Rafa and Joana asked Ernest if he had ever see a unicorn, specifically the Portuguese unicorn. Rafa explained that it was a horse, with a horn and wings, but it couldn’t fly very far because it was so big; a male was white and a female was pink. Ernest wasn’t familiar with the word unicorn, so he stopped to Google search it on his phone; he found only cartoons and didn’t believe us, but Rafa found a cartoon of Portuguese soccer star Christian Ronaldo riding a unicorn!! The unicorn was the second of our running jokes.
Max (and the rest of us) repeatedly asked after the rhino though. After every animal sighting we’d ask about the rhino. Lions fucking. “What about the rhino?” Cheetah killing. “Where’s the rhino?” He’d bring it up at the most inappropriate moments and it was constant, which made all of us either laugh or join in the demands for a rhino. Ernest laughed about it all too, wondering why we wanted to see a rhino so badly. We asked about the rhino so many times that we decided to name our truck “RhinoMax” and our motto was “Shit Happens”… thus “RhinoMax: Shit Happens!”
Finally, Ernest kept flirting with Maite throughout the game drives. She sat in the passenger seat next to him and thus had the most opportunity to chat with him. Those of us in the back of the truck noticed it every time he would say something and we would laugh, turn around to “chat amongst ourselves” so as to give them privacy, etc.
We arrived back in camp around 17:30 and spent a few hours relaxing before dinner. I took a quick shower, which was rather cold, but refreshing. Rafa, Max and I gathered in the dining all early to play some card games. Max taught us a game he learned in South America called Carbo, which is all about remembering the various cards in play. It took me a few rounds to truly catch on to how the game was played, but once I did, I really loved it.
After dinner we had to scare off several water buffalo that were wandering around the tents, along with some lions laying outside of the campsite. In the middle of the night we were woken up by a loud commotion, which turned out to be hyenas viciously attacking the garbage bins nearby. The bins were tied up on a tree about 40 feet from out tents and the hyenas kept knocking into them in order to get to the trash inside. I also heard some large animal, mostly likely a water buffalo, walking in between our tents. During this commotion I heard several people talking and the zippers of other tents either opening or closing, which shocked me. It was both exciting and scary at the same time.
Friday, 23 September
We left our campground for the last time this morning, heading out for a half day of game driving around the Serengeti. We saw animals all over the place in the morning: zebra, elephants, warthogs (which we routinely called Pumba – we wanted to see a Timon riding a Pumba, but that never happened), even another lion. We stopped by a small watering hole and saw a small crocodile as well. Despite our requests, a rhino did not appear.
Later on we stopped to see some vultures that were sitting in a tree. Nearby we happened to see some baboons walking along the side of the road, including some with their small babies hanging onto the adults. Was there a rhino? Nope. Shit happens.
We stumbled across a large herd of water buffalo standing on either side of the road, so we stopped to take some photos of them. As we were watching, the herd to the left side began to rapidly run to the right side of the street; the entire group stampeded across, clearly frightened by something hidden in the grass (though we couldn’t determine what it was).
Our next find was a family of lions: two lions, several lionesses, and two small cubs. They were lounging under a tree sleeping. The two cubs were curious and walking around among the adults; at one point they were playing with the tail of one of the lionesses. One of the lionesses was sprawled on her back in the sun, just like a house cat would. Alas, no rhino though.
Nearby was a large watering hole that had quite a few hippos laying around in them. We also spotted a small family of elephants walking around and even managed to get near a warthog on the side of the road (they are quite skittish and would always run away when we got near).
Ernest took us over to see a group of three lions: one lion and two lionesses, who were taking turns mating with the male. We got to see them mate twice during our stop; after each round the lion looked exhausted. The mating itself lasted for less than 30 seconds, during which the lions would snarl and growl at one another. Lions fucking is cool, but where the hell is the rhino??
This was our last stop in the Serengeti, though we spotted several animals on the way out of the park, including a female ostrich… but no rhino.
During the day Rafa and Joana taught Ernest the Spanish phrase “Mi amor” so he could refer to Maite by that, feeding into his flirting with her. However, he had never heard of it; we explained that it meant something similar to friend. He got the idea that it was a name that could be applied to anyone, so we said that today Joana was “mi amor” and we all called her that. Ernest didn’t believe a word we were saying and wanted to Google the phrase to understand it, so Rafa spelled it out for him: “U-N-I (space) C-O-R-N”… We were laughing hysterically at this point, saying that we would die in hell for this, but it was just too much fun. Ernest too laughed when he saw what came up on his phone.
Our final stop for the day was at a Maasai village. The Maasai people are the nomadic people of this area that still hold to their old traditions. They build temporary housing out of grass, branches, with roofing made from cow dung and urine to make it waterproof. We were greeted by the son of the chief, who spoke English quite well. Many of the villagers performed a small dance and song for us, before welcoming us to the village.
We had to negotiate the price for entry as this was not included with the tour. Some of the group members didn’t want to visit the village and remained in the car, however the Maasai charged entrance by truck rather than by the person. We got a small discount and managed to negotiate that each of the women get a small gift of jewelry.
We were draped in Maasai robes (blue for the women, red for the men) and then participated in a dance. The women did a small dance together and then the men. The men simply stood around and jumped straight up into the air while holding different objects (I was holding a long stick). After this we were shown around the village and the inside of the traditional huts. The women are responsible for building the homes while the men handle the hunting and defense of the town. Each of us was paired up with a villager and shown around on our own; my guide was the chief’s son.
After seeing the huts, we were shown the jewelry and trinkets that they had for sale. The village is laid out in a large circle, with the huts making the outer ring; the inner ring consisted of the stalls with jewelry. They were pressuring us to buy something, though I found nothing I wanted to buy (which I think annoyed the chief’s son). Strangely, every time I walked up to another group member to chat, the chief’s son would come up and usher me on to the next stall.
The last stop in the Maasai village was the schoolhouse, where the kids welcomed us with a short song. The kids are taught in the village through primary school and then attend a public school many miles away, which they have to walk to each day.
Our camp for the night was on the ride of the Ngorongoro Crater – quite high up. The temperature there was much cooler than what it had been in the Serengeti: the Serengeti was quite warm, though it was a dry heat; the Crater was a refreshing cold. This campsite was packed with other people, row after row of tents. There was one large dining hall for all of us to share, but each group in the camp had their own section. Max, Larry, Rafa and I all gathered there and played Carbo until dinner was served.
During the night the temperature kept dropping, though not severely. Everyone was bundled up in long pants and jackets, while I was sitting there in shorts and a t-shirt. It was cool, but not freezing cold for me. Towards the end of the evening I finally got cold enough to put my jacket on.
When we left to head back to the tent I was shocked by the number of stars in the sky. It was just as breathtaking as what I saw in Greenland. We could very clearly see the cloudy band of the Milky Way streaking across the sky, which was awe inspiring. Dennis, who has the most powerful camera in the group, had his tripod setup and was taking some truly amazing photos of the night sky.
Saturday, 24 September
Today was the final game drive of the excursion. The 4-day/3-night excursion was optional, though everyone on the tour went on it (who would go all the way to Tanzania and not visit the Serengeti?!).
We had a very early start to the day, leaving the camp at 06:30 so we could descend into the Ngorongoro Crater for the game drive. The road down into the Crater was amazing: it was a slightly cloudy morning and we could see the clouds start to rise over the rim of the crater. The Crater itself was huge and we were able to drive around a good portion of it during the day. I had expected the Crater to be rather lush with many green plants spanning the entire area; however, only a small portion was actually green, with the remainder being grasslands (granted, it is currently just starting spring here in Tanzania and the rainy season is still months away, so the green plants may appear then).
Our route took us through the lush green area on one side of the Crater, which had a stream running through it. In this area we were able to spot some elephants and monkeys. At one point we thought we had finally spotted a rhino off in the distance, but to our dismay it turned out to be a buffalo. This only fueled us to continue asking… where are all the rhinos??
Soon after we left that area we entered the grasslands and discovered a lioness with a fresh buffalo carcass. She was just starting to eat, but there wasn’t any blood or gore to be seen. From what we could tell, she had only eaten the tail.
We continued to drive into the Crater and saw one of the more amazing parts from the entire game drive: a male lion hunting a zebra. There was a large herd of zebras ahead of us that began to hurriedly run around, stampeding across the street. At the tail end of the group was a lion chasing after a zebra. Somehow the zebra managed to escape, leaving the lion standing, exhausted, on the other side of the road.
Lion photos courtesy of Petra Pinotage - a big thank you to her for sharing them!
Driving through the park we saw tons of other animals on our way to the hippo pool, which was full of hippos. They were all clustered together in the watering hole, though this group was far more active and restless than the group we had previously seen. Several got in and out of the water, including a mother with her small baby. Was there a rhino though? Hell no.
All around us during the day we were amazed by the beauty of the scenery, especially the clouds rolling over the rim of the Crater; in many areas the clouds looked like they were pouring over the rim or like a giant wave about the break. After seeing a male ostrich, we came upon a group of vultures and hyenas fighting over the scraps of a hippo carcass. The hyena was clearly the dominant predator there and fending off many of the vultures. Can you guess what wasn’t around there? Yep, no rhino in sight.
We stopped for lunch along a large lake in the river, which was beautiful. There was a large tree right on the bank of the lake and there was a buffalo skull at the base of the tree. We posed for several pictures with the skull – and yes, I did hold it – and yes, I did wash my hands after handling it. After eating, the RhinoMax group took some group pictures with our truck and Ernest in front of the lake.
We then took several group photos with the truck as well, which was quite nice.
After lunch it was time to leave the Crater and head back to Arusha and the same campsite that we had stayed at the first night of the tour. The road back out of the Crater provided some amazing views back down to where we had been. It was a good ending to the amazing 4-day excursion.
“But Ernest, what about the rino??”