Arusha and the Northern safari circuit – The slap

The full set of safari photos can be found here

We started our animal pageantry in a hotel at Arusha, the town most used as the base for the northern safari circuit in Tanzania.  The hotel has a large lush garden populated by a sleepy dog, Skippy, and his unusual companion, a crested crane called Henry.  Henry prances around the garden preening his punk hairdo, flapping his wings and running away from bratty French kids throwing rocks at him.  Henry is the national bird of Uganda and appears on their flag and coat of arms.  He’s a bit of an attention-seeker with his distinctive call which is unleashed as he inspects breakfast leftovers. Sarah tried to feed him my leftover muesli but he decided her thumb looked the tastier option and pecked her there, not strongly enough to cause any damage.

We booked into the cheapest safari we could find, not necessarily the best policy but it meant less budgetary pain further down the road.  Katie and Ty were splitting the costs with us and sharing the Land Cruiser with a popup roof on a planned drive through the national parks of Tarangire (pronounced taran-geary), Ngorongoro Crater (the pronunciation here is obvious) and the famous Serengeti. We were lucky to stumble across a decent tour company among the 600 safari companies in Arusha.

However the safari got off to a rocky start when we were picked up from our hotel (where Skippy was busily urinating on all the safari companies’ four wheel drives to send his scent out into the wild) and driven back to the safari offices where we had to wait for over an hour while they packed the car with ancient camping equipment and food supplies.  To be fair we had given them less than 24 hours notice but it didn’t inspire confidence.  When we finally hit the road our vehicle was driven by our guide (Hugh) Heff(ner), also known as the Heffinator, a spectacled 37 year old with clean shaven head and a precise way of speaking.  He was thoroughly professional, a great driver and knowledgeable guide.  In the passenger seat was our cook, Juma, a quiet young guy in a leather cap who looked more like he belonged in a jazz band but turned out incredibly delicious vegetarian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  His pasties and quiche were amazing given that they were cooked under basic conditions at camp sites and his soups were always tasty.  In the five seats behind these two were Sarah and Katie, Ty and I, speeding through the remarkable landscape in Northern Tanzania.

The most startling presence on the road out of town are the Maasai dressed in bright red, blue or blue shúkà and tending their herds of donkeys, goats and cows.  We saw some dressed in their initiation/circumcision garbs: all black with black and white masks painted on their faces.  They were waiting for tourists to stop and pay them a few bucks to have a photo taken which is either a sad side-effect of the tourist trade or just entrepreneurial on their part.  Heff explained that the circumcision ceremony takes place when the boy is in his young teens.  They spend the night at the top of a mountain, are then taken to a stream for a ceremonial washing in cold water, and once their nether regions are as numb as you’re going to get without sitting on a block of ice, their foreskins are sliced off.  To prove their warrior mettle the initiates should look straight ahead without moving a muscle during the procedure.  They are then spoiled rotten for a few days while their wound heals, and are thereafter known as Warriors.  Maasai do not have to be warriors in order to fight other people.  They rarely have armed conflicts with other groups.  They are warriors because in tending their flock they have to fight off the assortment of carnivores common to this part of the world.  In earlier times they would have killed a lion who threatened their cows.  These days if a lion takes a cow of theirs they go to the government for compensation and leave the lion be.

Our first stop was Tarangire National Park, famous for its elephants.  To be honest, and not wanting to come across as a safari snob, it was initially disappointing.  We saw a couple of elephants in the distance, some giraffe, mongoose, foxes and more warthogs than you could poke a stick at, but the animals just weren’t there in the numbers we had been so dazzled by in Mikumi.  Amends were made late in the day by a close sighting of a herd of elephants, with one male in particular standing right next to the road. He plucked up grass and dusted it off with sweeping motions of his trunk before stuffing it into his mouth.  The elephants here are much bigger and darker than in Mikumi but they wear the same baggy pants.  One notable absence from our wildlife sightings in Mikumi were lions.  This was to be amply made up for in the coming days.  In Tarangire we spotted a buffalo carcase lying under a bush, a great tear in its hindquarters.  On our first drive-by we couldn’t see any lions but when we came back later in the day we joined the ten other cars lined up by the side of the road to stare at a beautiful lioness through the binoculars.  She had a couple of teenager lions lying beside her.  They seemed pretty happy with the world at the thought of tucking in to some fresh meat at their leisure.

We ate lunch at a picnic spot overlooking the river which was plagued by velvet monkeys who will snatch the sandwich out of your hand, given half a chance.  Heff chased a lot of them away but they lurked on a nearby fence trying to look casual.  The younger monkeys chased each other up and down the fence while the mothers looked a bit more serious about getting some sustenance.  The velvet monkey has two odd anatomical features.  The females have nipples so close together that we thought they were mono-nippled at one point.  The males don’t escape biological strangeness as they literally have turquoise-blue balls which, along with their red bums, make them the most colourful animals ever to have run away from me.

We spent the night at the Panorama campsite on the escarpment overlooking Lake Manyara.  The landscape was peppered with trees in blossom, hazy white against the blanket of greenery.  Although we were on the budget safari, this was not camping as we in Australia know it.  Our tents were set up for us while we had some beers at picnic tables watching the sun go down over the incredible view. Our personal cook was busy in the kitchen whipping up a feast for us which we ate in the dining area and the post-dinner entertainment was a local acrobatic troupe who flipped, juggled and did the limbo under a burning bar.

The next day we safely negotiated the maze of paperwork required to pass through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and headed on through it to the Serengeti.  It is a spectacular drive through the highlands where Maasai cattle graze, watched over by their brightly-robed herders.  This is Olduvai Gorge country and although we didn’t stop in at the gorge itself you can really feel the epic nature of the landscape as you drive down from the mountains, through the grazing giraffe and elephants, and into the savannah of the Serengeti.  The big sky was filled with big clouds and the plains were covered in wildebeest, zebra and gazelle of all description.  The wildebeest calve at this time of year.  Their babies are light brown in colour and very cute.  They are accompanied by their friends the zebra who have their own cute-as-a-button foals of their own.  Baby zebra have light brown stripes and look a bit fluffier.  On the afternoon we drove through the plains they were cavorting in the sun having a great old time. The adults featured clusters of two, three or even four zebra standing next to each other in opposite directions, heads resting on hindquarters – it looked very companiable but apparently is a way of watching for danger. We also saw a few elephants walk off from us after having a drink, no doubt heading for shelter from the sun which was a long way off in the distance on the grass plains.  By the side of the main road we also saw a lioness lying in the shade beneath a bush.  She had a radio collar on which made her look like a massive domestic cat, so she must have been interesting to the researchers in some way.  We just enjoyed staring at her beautiful features.

Our campsite that night was one of the more rustic Serengeti public campsites, a scarily open square of savannah with thorn trees planted around it, an amenities block and two concrete structures for the cooks and diners respectively.  It felt strange to be going from spotting buffalo just down the road to pitching a flimsy tent in what amounted to the open given any animals even half-hearted attempt to wander in.  After an outstanding meal we headed to bed.  Sarah heard noises during the night which strongly encouraged her to nurse her full bladder until first light.  In the morning we could hear the grunting call of a lion in the not-too-distant distance.  Baboons definitely wandered through the camp overnight as well.

The next morning we saw the usual assortment of warthogs, gazelle and zebra munching their breakfast amid the small thorny shrubs that punctuate the grass in this part of the world.  An ostrich or two dotted the horizon.  Heff pointed out a dik-dik, a tiny gazelle with improbably large eyes that look as though they have been drawn by an anime artist.  Sarah misheard Heff calling them big-dicks, but this seems unlikely.  Their noses are very expressive, twitching nervously as we watched it.  They mate for life so generally there are two dik-diks wandering around together.  Apparently when one dies they don’t remarry.

A couple of hot-air baloons rose and fell on the horizon, stranded by the absence of wind.  Later we saw them packing up in the Serengeti grassland which has to be one of the more hazardous occupations on the planet.  We drove slowly along a creek looking at the vultures and maribu stork perched up in the trees.  We had been successfully lulled by the landscape slipping by when we nearly ran into a lion and lioness walking down the road.  If we had been driving at normal speeds no doubt they would have been roadkill or at least severely dented.  It is startling to see lions that close in the wild.  Their eyes were calm and penetrating as they sauntered down the road and passed by us as we quickly hit reverse.  A gazelle leapt out crazily in front of the male lion but he didn’t bat an eyelid or give futile chase.  Lions don’t go for the kill unless they are in control.  The lioness perched herself on a dead tree trunk and used it like a big scratching post.  It’s difficult not to see lions as just big cats.  It’s tempting to jump out and go over to give them a scratch under the chin, until you see them hear something in the bushes and lock their laser eyes on to it.  Then it is easy to imagine yourself as the mouse they would pounce on.  As the male lion, mane blowing proudly in the breeze, wandered into the reeds beside the river all the gazelle that had been in there leapt away with bleating and a crazy look in their eyes.  Lions create a natural buffer zone around them wherever they walk.  It would be kind of lonely if not for other lions.  Heff thought that these lions were honeymooners nearing the end of the week they initially spend together to procreate.  Typical of honeymooners, lions will go at it like crazy for the first few days, every five minutes apparently, until they wear themselves out and get back to hunting and sleeping in the sun like normal.  Sleeping in the sun is what lions do best and these two soon settled down in the grass to do just this, no doubt with ears pricked for any gazelle foolish enough to come to the creek for a drink.

Seeing the lions seemed to jumpstart the day.  Heff then somehow spotted a leopard sitting up in a tree branch, straddling it like a jockey with relaxed hind legs dangling casually either side of the branch.  Despite strong competition I think the leopard has the nicest coat of any animal in the Serengeti.  They look so sleek, smooth and content to be stretched out in a tree watching the world go by.  In the coming days we saw a lioness sitting in a tree in much the same manner, so the leopard is not totally secure in its perch.  A leopard will often have a partner in the area and coming back along the other side of the creek we saw another leopard sitting in a tree in the same relaxed pose.  We were helped in spotting this one by all the cars parked on the road and staring in its direction.  The mammoth camera zoom lenses are a giveaway as well.  The men (it is always men) holding these phallus replacements often don’t look like they would be strong enough to hold it up.  Lacking a masculinity enhancing telephoto lens ourselves (or in fact a functioning zoom) you will just have to imagine what the leopards looked like with that fertile imagination of yours and this helpful photo setting the scene.

Baboons are always fun to watch although I got the feeling Heff thought they were about as interesting as watching kangaroos would be for an Aussie.  You definitely get a lot of monkeys outside the national park , and they can be a pest at the picnic spots, so I guess strictly speaking we should have been on the move looking for other animals but there is just something entertaining about watching toddler baboons leap out of trees into the bushes below, baby monkeys making tentative steps away from their Mum before rushing back again, and the eating, grooming, play fighting and sleeping that make up the baboon day.

We saw herds of giraffe craning to eat from the thorntrees, hippos rolling over in their ponds to keep their backs moist, crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank.  It was a cornucopia of animals only broken by brunch back at camp which was a smorgasbord: crepes, spanish omelette, quiche, fruit and toast were all gobbled up gratefully.  We had been rattling around in the back of the Land Cruiser since before dawn which, despite an elevated heart rate, really build an appetite.

After lunch we headed to the hippo pool.  There are hippos dotted throughout the waterways in the Serengeti that are deep enough to hold their fat asses.  The main hippo pool holds dozens upon dozens of hippos, and was the closest we had yet been to these behemoths.  They merrily swished the foetid water over their backs with their tails which initially looked and sounded like they were doing massive farts every five seconds.  Sarah loves the way their little ears twirl when the emerge for a breath, clearing them of water.  Every now and then one will roll over or yawn, shoving their neighbour in the process and a jostling will ripple through them before they settle down again to some serious tail flicking action.

On the way back we struck another congestion of cars all looking deep into the bushes.  Lying there hidden by the grass was a mother lion with her teenaged cubs, lounging around after feasting on some fresh meat.  Lying around is what lions seem to do best, at least during the heat of the day.

The following day we spent a fairly fruitless morning driving around the plains.  We saw a couple of lions in the distance and a few wildebeest and zebra but not in big numbers.  It’s amazing how many stumps and termite mounds in the Serengeti look like animals from a distance, especially when Sarah isn’t wearing her glasses.  The animals were hiding from us and had obviously moved on elsewhere.  We packed up the camp and headed off to Ngorongoro.  On the way through the Serengeti we had more interesting animal sightings that the entire morning which was unfortunate as, under the terms of the permit, Heff had to get us out of the park by 2pm and had us on a strict schedule.  We saw a lioness perched in a tree: “You have one minute only for viewing.”  We came across a big male with a stomach stuffed with a feed lying under a tree: “You have thirty seconds for this viewing.”  He was a cool old lion with a big shaggy mane.  The most agonisingly-rushed animal sighting was an enormous herd of elephants who were walking up the same road we were driving down.  Elephants don’t feel a huge need to get out of the way of cars so Heff got into off-road mode and careened onto the grass by the side of the road.  We bumped our way past a long line of these gorgeous creatures with their babies as they turned, with a hint of alarm, to watch us go by.  The last elephant in the line looked like she was about to charge us; Sarah ducked and yelled at Heff to ‘go, go!’.

We had taken the back road out of the Serengeti which was nothing more than a muddy track with Heff sliding the vehicle around in his haste not to get fined for leaving the park by the appointed time. “The elephants are trying to make us late!” he yelled as we sped past them and the nearby huge herds of zebra and wildebeest.  It was an exciting drive, especially in comparison to the 20km/h trawl through the barren grasslands we had experienced in the morning.  Later on, Heff told us a story about a car that had overturned on the Ngorongoro road.  A female passenger suffered broken ribs and all the drivers along the road staged a protest, blocking the road until a helicopter ambulance was provided.  They also demanded that the head of national parks and road engineer address the crowd about the poor state of the road and were not satisfied until the road engineer had been fired.  The roads are terrible and you wonder where all the hefty park fee revenues are going.  The drivers plan another protest in the high season if their demands for an increase to their pitifully low pay aren’t met.

We drove back up into the highlands and camped the night on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, one of the largest craters in the world at 20km across.  It is also one of the most famous wildlife viewing arenas in the world.  It’s kind of like a big open-air zoo crammed with wild animals with nowhere to hide.  The public campsite is in an amazing spot perched on the edge of the crater almost 3000 metres above sea level.  Having baked ourselves during the day on the savannah we were now buffeted in a cool breeze as the clouds skittered overhead.  You can’t even relax here though.  As Katy brought a plate of popcorn from the kitchen for everyone to share an eagle swooped down and snatched a clawful of popcorn from the plate.  Moments later from the big tree the gladwrap fluttered down along with scraps of the half-pecked popcorn.

We heard stories from fellow Aussie travellers about their terrible driver/guide who made us thank our lucky stars for getting Heff.  Their car kept braking down and he made them get out and push start it, which is not the most comfortable feeling in the middle of the Serengeti.  He also got lost frequently and had to have possible animal sightings pointed out to him. He would on odd occasions try to crack on to the Aussie girl by saying “waka waka baby!” (beautiful in Swahili, apparently).

Overnight the temperature dropped but Sarah carries her little hot water bottle for just such emergencies (thank you Rach and Tone!) and got it filled up with the boiling water that was then used to cook our pasta for dinner. At some ungodly hour in the morning the heavens opened and we were buffeted by wind and driving rain.  The alarm went off at 5.45am again to reveal a grim day in the pre-dawn gloom with mist and fog roiling around – not ideal animal viewing weather we thought.

The first drama of the day was enacted by the human zoo that is the safari circuit.  I was enjoying a warming cup of Milo in the open-air dining area and watched a pony-tailed Israeli man have a slanging match with an American woman.  She wanted to leave in the car and he refused to go before having a cup of coffee, and was waiting for his water to boil.  “Just borrow someone else’s water,” she snarled. He told her that he didn’t want to talk to her.  She responded that she didn’t want to talk to him either. Their driver/guide said ‘pole, pole’ which means ‘slowly, slowly’ or calm down. They broke apart and I got on with my Milo but Heff told us later that the argument had resumed in the kitchen area where the cooks witnessed the Israeli guy slap the American woman.  The cooks leapt to her defence and threatened to turn the Israeli guy into a sausage, saying that they liked white meat.  We saw this safari group later in the morning.  They had been pulled over in the Ngorogoro Crater by the rangers for questioning and the Israeli guy was eventually taken into custody and was going to be put on a bus out of town which, given the state of Tanzanian buses, seemed like an appropriate punishment.

As we descended from the rim into the crater we emerged from the clouds to behold the fantastic site of this natural cauldron filled with wild animals.  Our first interesting sighting was a group of three male lions and a lioness feasting on what looked like a zebra.  As usual there was a lot of lolling around on the part of these big cats. We drove on a little further, through the hordes of wildebeest and zebra, and saw a hyena chasing a wildebeest around and around.  They were circling and winding through the other hundred-odd wildebeest who looked totally disinterested in this slow speed chase, unless they had to shuffle out of the way to let them pass, as though the wildebeest being chased was the not the most popular in the herd.  There looked to be no way that the hyena would catch the wildebeest, the way it was just slowly loping after it, but the wildebeest seemed to tire and then ran into another group of hyenas.  This was all the opportunity they needed.  They latched on to the wildebeest’s ass and just didn’t let go.  It would be hard to run with four big hyenas hanging off your rear end.  They kept ripping away, drawing flesh of its flanks until eventually it collapsed.  Yipping hyenas converged from everywhere and they essentially ate the wildebeest alive.  It was all done in about five minutes.  It was shocking, but incredible to see nature in the raw.

Further on we saw another two male lions lounging around a zebra carcass.  One even seemed to be using the carcass as a pillow.  Jackals lurked around the kill; they are surprisingly small looking, like a small dog or a fox.  Across the caldera we went.  It is amazing to think that this was an active volcano that erupted with such force that it sent rocks flying out into the Serengeti where they cracked the granite shield, allowing trees and bushes to grow on these random outcrops whereas most of the Serengeti can only support grass.  At a lush green pool we saw three hippos come out of the water, as the day was drizzly enough for them to risk their sensitive skin in the daylight.  If they were human, we would call them obese; they look like the animal equivalent of the Fat Bastard character in Austin Powers.  They trump the baggy elephant pants by a long way – it’s like they’ve shoved bags of fat down their pants, and it is amazing they can move with any speed at all. As they exited the pool they excreted and urinated, using their thick fleshy tail like a windscreen wiper to spread their waste around behind them. Heff explained that they do this to mark their scent. Inspired, we had a toilet stop at the hippo pool (no, we didn’t piss on the hippos).  They had deep water to luxuriate in here so we only saw their heads pop up at random intervals.

Heading on we saw a couple of black rhinos, possibly a mother and her child, in the distance.  Given that there are only 45 rhinos in the crater this was a rare animal to catch in the wild.  Even with binoculars it was hard to get a sense of them other than they were big with slender pointy horns, and seemed relaxed lying on the crater floor.  They are the animal that all the other animals fear because they are extremely aggressive and loners.

Further on we saw another lioness who padded along the road near us.  She had a big belly which Heff put down to her being pregnant.  He thought she would give birth in the next few days and was looking for a safe place to do so.  Sure enough she headed straight for some bushes to lie down away from prying eyes.

We saw wildebeest calves so young that their slender umbilical cords were still dangling from their belly buttons and they struggled to stand up on their new, shaky legs.

Going on safari was a mind-blowing experience.  Seeing the animals that we’re used to being in the zoo at home on their natural soil and in such large numbers was surreal at times but a massive buzz.

The full set of safari photos can be found here

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