The Kilimanjaro climb first and the safari later - that was the plan. If it was the other way around, the impending climb would weigh on our minds impeding full enjoyment of the safari. September was chosen for the trip as would be a good climbing month (before the rains but after the peak season) and the precise dates were chosen to coincide summit night with the full moon. This meant that trip would be well into the dry season and the massive herds of Wildebeest and zebra would be further north in the Mara. But we were assured that there would be plenty to see even in the dry season and in fact it would be easier to spot them in the low grass.
The US representative from Good Earth Tours recommended a 5 day itinerary that would cover Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, all part of the famous Northern Circuit. We rejected the lodging option in favor of the camping as it would provide us an opportunity to camp out in the wilderness.
We pored over books on Tanzania to familiarize ourselves with what we could expect to see.
Lonely Planet - Tanzania
Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, Zimmerman, Turner
Safari Companion, A Guide to Watching African Mammals, Richard D. Estes
The travel clinic at our HMO offers immunization shots and we got the mandatory "Yellow fever" vaccination. We also got adult boosters for vaccinations that we had got as children, namely typhoid, polio and Hepatitis B. These were not absolutely necessary, but this was as good a time as any other to get them. Malaria prophylaxis was recommended but we declined it since it could have adverse side-effects that could interfere with the Kili climbing plans. We would depend on DEET to protect ourselves from mosquitoes and other insects.
The numbers in the parentheses refer to the circled numbers in the map above.
Day 1 - 10:30 am. Start from Arusha (1), reach Tarangire N.P (2). Lunch. Afternoon at Tarangire. Night camp near Karatu
Day 2 - 8:30 am. Drive towards Serengeti. Brief stop at entrance to Ngorongoro Crater Conservation area (3). Brief stop at crater overlook. Detour to Oldupai Gorge (4). Arrive Serengeti in the afternoon for game viewing. Camp at Pimbi campsite inside Serengeti N.P
Day 3 - Inside Serengeti all day. Afternoon break at campsite for brief rest. Late evening return back to Pimbi campsite
Day 4 - Early morning drive in Serengeti. Break camp in the morning and return to Ngorongoro. An hour's stop at Maasai village just outside crater. Drive down to crater floor and explore crater till dusk. Drive back up to crater rim. Camp at site overlooking crater.
Day 5- Drive down to crater floor looking for elusive species only. Afternoon drive back to Arusha. Pack and leave for airport.
We had returned the previous afternoon after having successfully ascended the summit of Kilimanjaro and were really looking forward to enjoying the safari. At the lobby of Le Jacaranda, we met up with Nacho, a Spaniard from Barcelona, who would be with us on the safari, making us a group of three. The driver-cum-guide and cook made up the rest of the contingent. The 4X4 Toyota Land Cruiser was packed with supplies for the next five days tents, water, food, supplies for cooking and all our backpacks. We were even lugging our laptop on this trip to be able to transfer photos each night. We would each get a liter of bottled water a day on this trip. Once everything was loaded into the vehicle, we were on our way. We made a brief stop at a shopping center in Arusha town to pick up bottled water and other supplies.
We were hoping for a knowledgeable guide with a knack for spotting animals as that could make a big difference. Over the next five days we were amazed at Abdul's capacity to spot well camouflaged animals from great distances. He was also an expert birder and, at our request, ensured that we got to see plenty of bird life.
First we were heading to Tarangire National Park. It derives its name from the Tarangire River, which flows through the park to provide the only permanent supply of water for game in the area. The Great North Road between Arusha and Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania, passes by the park which is about 120 km from Arusha. On our way to the park we passed by several small towns and it was 'Market Day' in one of the towns. The place was teeming with Maasai in their garb.
The landscape was quite barren and the wind kicked up mini dust storms that the guide referred to as a 'wind whirly'. The road, built with Japanese aid, seemed new and was in very good shape and we had an excellent view of Mt. Meru.
We arrived at the park before noon and headed straight to the visitor center. The park covers an area of 2600 sq. km. to encompass several varying habitats. At the start of the dry season in June, the Maasai plains begin to wither and the game, led by Wildebeest and Zebra, remain massed together in large herds along the Tarangire River until the coming of the rains when they begin to disperse again.
Tarangire is famous for Zebra, Elephant, Buffalo, Waterbuck, Gazelle, tree-climbing pythons and abundant bird life. The variety of bird life struck us immediately and even as we were having our 'picnic lunch' at the visitor center, we were chasing a large variety of birds with our binoculars in an attempt to identify them. Once the guide completed all the formalities for entering the park, we commenced the game drive into the park.
Game viewing was fabulous at Tarangire and we saw several species including lions, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, elephants, baboons and several species of birds. It was an excellent start. The open top Land Cruiser was ideally suited for a safari. You could stand up on your seat with you upper body sticking out, so you had a 360 degree view.
At dusk, we exited the park and headed to Panorama camp, located at the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. Though we would be sleeping in tents, this campsite had electricity and associated amenities. It also had a bar and a local dance troupe performed some Maasai dance during dinner.
After breaking camp this morning, we were headed to Serengeti National Park via the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. As the road nears the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, it climbs steadily and passes through a heavily forested area. It enters the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and skirts the southern half of the crater along the rim.
Ngorongoro Crater is a spectacular sight, a caldera formed by the collapse of an ancient volcano's cone. The caldera is vast, measuring over 200 sq km, but it makes up only a small part of the 8300 sq km of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The vista point along the rim affords a panoramic view of the Ngorongoro crater.
Scanning the crater floor from the vista point we could make out some solitary elephants and large herds of wildebeest. Long lines of wildebeest seemed like a parade of ants from that height.
Ngorongoro is not part of the Tanzanian National Parks system, but rather is a separate entity administered by an independent body, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority. One of the unique aspects of the NCA is that it is shared by both animals and people. The Maasai are the main residents of the NCA and they herd cattle, goats and do some limited farming. The Maasai are not allowed to live in any of Tanzania's other parks, therefore the sight of Maasai cattle grazing near zebra and wildebeest is unique to the NCA.
The landscape was dotted with flat-top Acacia and was abound with giraffes and both Thompson's and Grant's gazelle.
Since we were headed to the Serengeti, we did not descend into the crater at this time, but continued west to visit Oldupai Gorge.
The Oldupai Gorge is a 30 mile long, steep-sided ravine, part of the Great Rift Valley which stretches along eastern Africa. It is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world and has been instrumental in furthering understanding of early human development. Excavation work there was pioneered by Louis Leakey in the 1950s and is continued today by his family. Millions of years ago, the site was that of a large lake, the shores of which were covered with successive deposits of volcanic ash. Around 500,000 years ago seismic activity diverted a nearby stream which began to cut down into the sediments, revealing seven main layers in the walls of the gorge. The oldest finds date back to about 2 million years.
Above the gorge there is a museum explaining the significance of the various archeological finds at the site. Canopies have been erected overlooking the main excavation area and we ate our picnic lunch in its shade.
Serengeti National Park
We proceeded to Serengeti, briefly stopping at the boundary between the two parks. We also stopped at the park visitor center and a short trail took us to an elevated location from where we got a panoramic view of the crater. We also spotted some colorful Agama (lizard) here. We were then off for our first game drive within the park. The Serengeti plain is dotted with 'kopjes' (an Afrikaans word pronounced copy) which are rocky outcrops that stand out against the surrounding plain. They consist of very old granite rock which, because of erosion and weathering, has broken up into a rough and jumbled surface.
During the afternoon game drive we saw animals including lions, topi, reedbuck, buffalo and hippo. Birds spotted included large birds like the Secretary bird and the Kori Bustard.
In the evening we camped at the well appointed Pimbi campground, which is located right inside the park. The campsite was busy with several safari groups. There was a communal kitchen for cooks from various groups and there was a general sense of bonhomie. We had a sumptuous dinner by candlelight before turning in for the night.
Serengeti is the most famous of Tanzania's national parks. The name is derived from a Maasai word that means "endless plain" Encompassing an area of 14,763 sq. km , it is Tanzania’s largest park. It claims to harbor the largest concentration of wildlife in the whole world in its one-quarter of a million Gazelles, two hundred thousand Zebra and one quarter of a million associated Species of herbivores and carnivores. It is the one and a half million Wildebeest and their annual migration that give the Serengeti its legendary status, however.
Despite this being the dry season when massive herds of zebra, wildebeest and Thompson's gazelle were spending their time north in Maasai Mara, we still saw large herds of each of these species. Most other species do not participate in the migration we 'bagged' several species including the spotted hyena, golden jackal, Reedbuck, Hartebeest, more lions and more elephants. We also saw our first Leopard, an amazing piece of spotting by our guide. Resting on the lowest branch of a large tree, the leopard was well camouflaged behind leaves. A dead gazelle hanging on a high branch was evidence that it had hunted recently and was guarding the kill. We also encountered a pair of lionesses guarding a Zebra kill.
One advantage in SNP over NCA is that you are able to drive off road in many areas and this gives you the chance to really get out in the bush in search of animals or that "perfect" camera angle. The Serengeti also offers very diverse terrain. There are vast areas of flat, open plains and other areas of rocky foothills; dry regions and patches of lush vegetation around rivers and streams. Parts of the park are also dotted with kopjes - islands of rock formations which rise suddenly from the plains.
We returned to the campsite for lunch and after a short rest during the hottest part of the day went out for an afternoon game drive. Additional species we saw that afternoon included the Waterbuck, dik-dik, impala and buffalo. We stopped by a hippo pool where a large number of hippos lay submerged in a putrid pool snorting and continuously splashing around. Vervet monkeys were very active around the pool and at dusk larger numbers of Marabou stork returned to roost at their favorite tree looking like ornaments on a Christmas tree. We camped for a second night at the Pimbi campsite.
On this morning we set out at the break of dawn for an early morning game drive. The Serengeti looked beautiful bathed in the golden rays of the morning sun. We chased every single one of the Lilac-breasted rollers we saw (and we saw several) to get the perfect picture of the stunning bird. Among the bird species we spotted this morning were an immature Bateleur eagle putting on a show for us by strutting along on the road, an adult Bateleur looking dignified as it perched high on a tree, a Yellow-billed stork, a black-billed sandpiper and a three banded plover.
We also spotted out second leopard which lay resting on a branch for long time before deciding it had had enough. It sauntered down the tree, looked around briefly before descending to the ground and disappearing in the grass. On our way back to the campsite, we stopped one last time for three lion cubs peering out from their hideout in the grass. After a hot brunch, we broke camp and headed east towards Ngorongoro
Our first stop was a Maasai village. Our driver/guide dropped us at the entrance to the village and went on to the Simba campsite at Ngorongoro to take care of logistics for the evening. Villages like these are designed primarily to give tourists a taste of Maasai lifestyle and culture. We were given a formal welcome into the village by group who performed a welcome dance and we were escorted in by the village headman.
The dancing continued for an extended period even after we entered the village. The dance of the Maasai men primarily consisted of jumps and men took turns to jump as high as they could in keeping with the rhythm of the singing. The women of the village waited just inside the gate and formed a welcome committee of their own. They wore heavy jewelry primarily made of silver and beads and burst into a second song distinct from the men.
The headman was the only person in the village who spoke some English and he invited us into his home. As with all other houses in the village, the headman's house was built with cow-dung slathered over a frame made of dried wood. The village had no electricity and it took a few minutes before our eyes could get accustomed to seeing in the near darkness indoors.
All the houses in the village were situated along the outer perimeter. Livestock, the most important possession of the Maasai, were corralled in the center of the village each night. We got a tour of the village and also a chance to see jewels and other handicrafts made by the villagers for sale.
We also paid a visit to the kindergarten and the kids recited the alphabet and numbers for the benefit of the visitors.
The Maasai are primarily herdsmen and the cow and goat herding duties are shared by all the villagers on a rotational basis. A row of spears graced both the front and back entrance to the village.
The village headman answered many questions we had about their daily life. Not many in the village had ventured even as far as Arusha or Moshi (let alone Dar-es-Salaam). The headman admitted that he had once been to Dar-es-Salaam but did not enjoy the experience. When someone in the village got sick, they would first seek the assistance of the village witchdoctor and only serious illness warranted a trip to the closest town. The headman explained that every child in the village attended the elementary school within the village but would have to travel to town to get secondary education. We visited the village nursery and the kids sang a song for the benefit of the visitors.
The Maasai herd cattle and goats, sharing the land with animals like the lion and the cheetah. The distinctive bright red garb is meant to warn these predators of their presence and keep away. After spending about an hour in the village we made our way out in time for our guide who returned to pick us up.
From the Maasai village, we headed to the Ngorongoro Crater. There is a one way descent road to the West of the crater and a one way ascent road on the southwest side. The roads are bumpy and narrow and one has to hold on tight to prevent one from being thrown from side to side. The trip down to the crater floor takes about 20 to 30 minutes and we saw several Maasai herding their cattle down on narrow trails.
Most of the crater is open grassland surrounding a lake near the center of the caldera. A large swamp lies south of the lake and the thickest forest in the crater, the Lerai forest, is to the southwest. Vegetation was sparse in most areas, but the Lerai forest was lush and green. Off road driving is prohibited inside the crater due to the small area and high traffic.
Ngorongoro boasts on the highest concentrations of wildlife in East Africa. The walls of the crater are 600m high, and this deters (but do not stop) animals from moving in or out of the caldera. Supported by the availability of water year-round animals in the crater do not participate in the migration each year.
Prides of lions and wildebeest accustomed to noisy Land Rovers lay unconcerned, totally ignoring the excited. The guide picked out what seemed to be a log and declared that it was a cheetah. Only when the 'log' sat up and looked around were we totally convinced. It was the first cheetah we had seen on this trip. We also got a close-up look of pair of spotted hyenas in deep slumber. Bird life is abundant within the crater and among others we spotted a Sacred Ibis and a Black-bellied Bustard. We also stopped by the Hippo Pool in the crater.
At sundown we ascended back to the rim and headed to the Simba campsite located at the crater rim.
We had now seen four of the Big Five - Lion, buffalo, elephant, cheetah. Only the Black Rhino remained elusive.
The Black Rhino is an endangered species. Due to poachers seeking the very valuable rhino horn, the continental population of more than 100,000 in the 1960s has declined to less than 2,400 today. We found out that there were less than 20 black rhino within the crater walls and our primary quest for the day was to find at least one
'Lerai' is the Maasai word for the Yellow-barked Acacia or the fever tree. The small forest patch is an excellent place to see monkeys, baboons, bushbuck, waterbuck, elephant and rhinos in the crater. We spent the better part of the morning covering much ground in this area. We saw some majestic looking elands, the largest of the antelope family, and several elephants both solitary and in herds. But the rhino was still eluding us. After a couple of hours, we gave up temporarily and left the Lerai forest to cover more of the open grassland.
A Pride hunts down a Buffalo
We headed in the direction where a few vehicles had congregated and came across what seemed to be a very large pride of lions. Besides one adult male, it consisted of several females and juveniles. The pride was spread over a small area on both sides of the vehicle track. We duly photographed several members of this group, even posing with them in the background.
Soon we realized that all the lions were purposefully looking at some zebras. Three zebras were separated from the main herd and the lions picked on them as possible prey. Suddenly, one by one, they headed purposefully towards the three zebras. By this time several 4X4 converged on this location and members of the pride were weaving their way around the vehicles. A pair of lions even set off at an angle in what seemed to be strategy to cut-off a potential escape route that the zebras might take.
Slowly the zebras seemed to sense danger they were in. They stood around for a while, confused, but then immediately set off in the opposite direction, away from the lions. The lions realized that the zebras were probably too far for them to be worth chasing. The zebras were safe, at least for now.
But that was not the end. Almost immediately they were all staring hard in the opposite direction. About 200 feet away, was a solitary buffalo grazing separated from a large buffalo herd. The lions had decided that this was their new target. How they all came to the same conclusion at the same time would make an interesting research study. In a matter of minutes three lionesses made their move and headed in the direction of the buffalo. They would cover some ground and then lie low in the grass stalking the intended victim. Once the buffalo realized that it was in danger it tried to walk away. It looked back a few time to evaluate the danger and at some point realized that it was futile to flee. It decided to stand its ground and face the fight.
By this time a large number of vehicles converged near the area and the air was thick with anticipation. We were all in for a 'National Geographic moment! All cameras and binoculars were trained at the buffalo. The lioness spearheading the attack approached the buffalo from the rear, jumped on its back and tried to bite the back of its neck. We barely blinked while this scene played out and gasped. Now the buffalo was doomed. The other two lioness were trying to get at the buffalo's legs and back. By this time other members of the pride were working their way towards their next meal. The buffalo bellowed occasionally and spun around a few times in an effort to get the lionesses of its back. With more than 5 or 6 lioness having a go at it, the buffalo did not have a chance. It struggled valiantly for a lot more than a few minutes but finally got down on its haunches. Even before it was dead the attackers were already nipping at its sides. The head of the pride, the adult male finally made its way to kill, to claim its 'Lion's share'.
In the last two days, we had seen both leopards and lions guarding their kill but we had not expected to see a live hunt, leave alone a concerted effort from a pride of twelve. We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to see the laws of the jungle in action. It was amazing and we could not ask for more on a safari!
All Good Things...
After watching the lions torment the now downed buffalo for a while we decided to move on. We saw more of the same animals that we had already seen that day, more zebras and more gazelles.
Then it happened ! We spotted a solitary Black Rhino at a distance. It stood still for a while and then got down on its knees to sit down and rest. We had finally bagged the last animal that made up the Big 5. We were elated !
During the two days in the crater, we were able to observe almost all of the major animals including the lion, cheetah, rhino, elephant, hippo and the African cape buffalo. Gazelle, wildebeest and zebra were plentiful as well. Only the giraffe and impala are not found in the crater.
The game drive concluded in the early afternoon since we had to leave enough time to drive back to Arusha and catch our 9:00 p.m. flight. On the drive back we were happy to recollect and recount our experiences of the last few days, a truly amazing experience.