Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Hour Of Bewilderbeest

We spent three days in cold, dull and grey Arusha waiting for Stepan and Thomas to join us from Europe for a four-day safari to Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. The sky was covered by a layer of grey, brooding clouds which parted only occasionally to reveal the hulking mass of Mount Meru looming over the city.

Despite being bumped from his flight the previous day Stepan managed to make it to Arusha just 3 hours late for the safari and within a few minutes we were all aboard our safari jeep and on the way.

Going on Safari in Tanzania, and Kenya, has become a very expensive business. Despite taking our own camping equipment and shopping around for the best deal we still ended up paying $150 per person per day. Even though this is about 7 times the amount we normally spend per day in Africa we were still travelling at the low end of the budget scale. So we were amazed by the service we received from Forsters Safaris.

Leaving Arusha we headed first for Tarangire National Park. Although not one of the premier parks all safaris start at either Tarangire or Lake Manyara National Park to reduce the amount of travel time on the first day. It is also a nice taster in anticipation of the main event at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. We chose Tarangire over the more popular Lake Manyara for several reasons. The first is that it is less popular, so more chance of having the animals to ourselves, and also we had just come from a couple of National Parks with lakes in Kenya. The main reason however was that Tarangire has the highest concentration of wild elephants in the world. The baobab studded landscape is literally crammed with elephants, along with wildebeest, zebra, a few buffalo, baboons and giraffes. The two highlights of the visit for me were seeing the elephants drinking from the river as we watched from the picnic site on the escarpment above and witnessing three giraffes drinking one-by-one from the river as the other two stood guard, creating a 360 degree vision against the threat of a lion ambush.

The next day we passed Lake Manyara and drove through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the gates of the Serengeti National Park. Passing through the crater highlands the scenery changed to one of thick jungle and deep red earth and the view down into the crater felt as if we were looking back in time to the dawn of mankind. Back on the plains we visited a Masai village. This was nothing more than a commercial venture. We paid $20 per person to enter the village, see inside a hut, view the ‘school’ and take as many photos as we wanted. It was a truly artificial experience, just like a Masai theme park, this is the reason we did not visit the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, lest it should speed the transformation into this monster.

Serengeti is a Masai word which means ‘endless plains’, and from the view from Naabi Hill at the entrance gate (or the border between the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area) you can see why, just a few dusty tracks going off in various directions, disappearing over the horizon.

Within 45 minutes of entering the Serengeti we stumbled across a cheetah and two cubs, visibly exhausted as they guarded their kill from the baying crowd of vultures.

Further highlights on this first game drive included two lions resting in a tree as well as a leopard, usually so elusive, lying in an acacia tree just by the side of the ‘road’. We also saw more elephants, though I never feel jaded at the sight of them, nor of the 1m zebra or 2m wildebeest that live in the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem. We tracked one of the lesser-spotted serval cats, trying to eke out a living amongst its bigger cousins, amongst the large supporting cast of various antelopes and birds. That evening in the open campsite at Seronera slap-bang in the middle of the Serengeti we all lay awake wondering if the sounds we heard were other campers snoring, the cooks cleaning up after dinner or a lion slowly encroaching in the darkness?

Apparently the lions did not pay us a visit as we all awoke safe and sound and were welcomed on leaving the campsite by a visit from a large herd of wildebeest and zebra and we soon found ourselves right in the middle of the annual migration. It was by accident that we were in the region just as the migration was taking place but a very happy accident indeed. Indeed, despite the BBC documentaries we have all seen, the migration is something that cannot be explained without witnessing it first hand. The animals do not simply up and leave, like migrating birds, they wander back and forth, moving one way then be driven back by a change in weather, then shifting in another direction, then hanging around a river for a couple of weeks, then finding a new corridor north to the Masai Mara…… that’s why it takes them so bloody long to get there! The symbiotic relationship between the wildebeest and zebra is something amazing to watch. The wildebeest leave a scent though glands in their hooves for their friends to follow, the zebra, which have no such navigational powers, tag along with the wildebeest and protect them from the lions with their superior senses. This is how they find their way along whilst also protecting themselves against the lions that stalk them incessantly, picking out the old, young or infirm which resemble fast food. We watched a lioness slowly creep up on one of these groups that was crossing a river until she was close enough to pounce. My heart was beating in a way that it hasn’t since those few minutes during extra time in the play-off final of 2002! In the event the lioness failed, she could have turned her head, opened her mouth and had it stuffed by the wildebeest that had stumbled onto her but she was too focused and went for the group in the river. I bet the male lion was annoyed that she messed up his breakfast! It is whilst they are drinking, or even just crossing water that all these animals are most vulnerable, which is why they are most nervous around water, always on the lookout for cats or crocs.

As we left the Serengeti we were given a send off by a lion, standing sentry guard on one of the ‘Lion rocks’ that dot the Serengeti landscape. We passed again through the NCA and up into the crater highlands. The only campsite in the area is ‘Simba A’, located right on the crater rim. The campsite was populated by as many zebra as campers and is apparently visited by buffalo and other animals during the evenings. In any case, the sensation of waking up and hearing a zebra munching the grass just outside your tent was excitement enough for me.

The next day we descended into the crater, another hot bed of high animal concentration. Again, within just a few minutes we had spotted a cheetah, and then a spotted hyena amongst the other animals and birds. Later we watched an eagle devour a rabbit before we stopped by a pride of 7 lions, sitting lazily in the midday sun. The hippos had got out of the sun, they get easily sunburnt, and were wallowing in the lakes, by one of which we stopped for a picnic. As we made to ascend from the crater, vehicles being restricted to just 6 hours inside, we stumbled first upon a hippo out of the water (a rare sight during the day!) and then upon two male cheetahs wandering along, looking for a snack. We were totally alone, no other vehicles nearby, as we watched them catch the scent of the family of warthogs by the side of our jeep. Again I thought we were on the verge of witnessing a kill until the warthogs wandered off, up wind of the cheetahs who stood bemused in the long grass. In the end the simply wandered up to our jeep, passed under the spare tires at the back and continued on their way. We all held our breath for a moment as we thought they were going to jump on the bonnet for a better view around!

Perhaps the most amazing part of being on safari, whether in Tanzania or Kenya, is seeing how all these different animals, birds and plants live, and die, together. Everyone is connected to the system and therefore the actions of each animal affect all others. The way in which the wildebeest and zebra live together, the way the zebra rest in pairs, facing each other, to give them a 360 degree vision. The way the lions hunt these bigger prey, mostly leaving the smaller antelope and warthogs to the leopards and cheetahs. The leopards only hunt prey up to 60kg as they like to drag their kills up into the trees, their preferred habitat, the cheetahs meanwhile like to hunt on the plains where they can unleash their incredible speed. They usually hunt the grazing species of antelope, the leopards prefer the browsers, and will only hunt larger prey in groups. Leopards also like to hunt baboons, so if you see a lot of baboons around you know there are no leopards, the primates are smarter than that! The vultures follow the cats, as do the hyenas, to scavenge the scraps left over. Nothing is left to waste, these lands being littered by remains of animal skeletons stripped right to the bone. The lions will even attack buffalo but this is risky as the buffalo can, and will, fight back. Even the various antelope do not compete for food, they are spread out, split into groups of browsers and grazers, meanwhile the giraffes and elephants eat the fruits the other animals cannot reach. The plants affect the system in other ways too, the elephants are always rubbing up against the trees, especially the baobabs, breaking off the bark and releasing sap, but in response the trees grow back a much tougher skin of bark. Then the birds get involved, feeding off the backs of the larger animals such as elephants, hippos, giraffes and buffalo or waiting for the animals to disturb the fish in the water or the insects in the ground so they can swoop down and carry them away. Even the two species of flamingo can co-exist in peaceful harmony as the greater flamingo feed on larvae found in the submerged lake-beds whilst the lesser flamingo feeds on the carotene-rich algae which give them their rick pink hue!

Just being on safari revealed all these traits and more, made especially possible by the excellent, professional service we received from Roger, our driver-guide, and Amani, our cook/assistant guide!

Our trip was entitled ‘Big Five Game Drive’, after the ‘Big 5’ animals that were grouped during the old days as being the hardest to hunt. Of course I could not comment on this one way or the other but these five are – Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Rhinoceros, and Elephant. For me the buffalo always seems to be the odd one out, why not a cheetah or hippo, surely they are more dangerous? I imagine its due to the buffaloes tendency to fight back, and to stick up for each other. Incidentally, for those more interested in viewing the more minute side of wildlife there is a ‘Little 5’ – elephant shrew, ant lions, leopard tortoise, buffalo weaver and rhino beetles. Spotting those might be just as fun as their larger namesakes! For the purpose of modern wildlife viewing I would add a ‘Medium 5’, those animals that continually keep one in awe whilst not being perhaps such a challenge to kill – zebra, giraffe, hippo, cheetah and blue wilderbeest! Maybe the zebra and wildebeest are too commonplace to be on such a list but they are both such strange and beautiful creatures!

After our safari was over we spent two days in Moshi, our plan was to swim at the outdoor pool there and gaze up at Mt. Kilimajaro overhead, perhaps at the same time. This however was not possible as the sky remained cloudy through our stay in Moshi, bar one short period when Africas highest point briefly revealed itself, and the pool was anyway closed for renovations! So all that was left was a two day trip via Nairobi to Uganda. The highlight of this trip was watching the two nuns in the seats in front of us devour bags of sausages and chips and several bottles of Sprite along the way!


  1. Hello Allan and Monika

    Who is writing this comment? It is Nadia and Mark who you met in Petra. We are the poor Belgians whose camera broke down the first day in Petra. You helped us out and we are following your stories but as always, working we did not take the time to write...

    Once again thank you for all that you did for us. We welcome you in Belgium anytime...

    At this moment we are drinking a beer in the biggest muslim country in the world: we are in Lombok now and we came from Java. Then Malaysia again on the end of our trip that will last for 8 weeks.

    We are jealous of ALL your stories and especially all the DAMNED good pictures you took especially from all the same national parks you did in Tanzania.

    We did the same things but for one reason or another, luck? you took so many great pictures. We saw a cheetah but one and not with a kill... and we did not see leopard, and ...

    GREAT pictures; very jealous.

    We don't notice the spot on your pictures so your camera must have been repaired. We bought another camera (even two; one is for taking pictures underwater). We took great pictures from turtles eating seagrass... in the Perhentian islands.

    Tomorrow we are off to the Gili islands for hopefully some more snorkeling.

    We keep you posted...

    I don't think you can sent us if one day you would want to come, but if you want to sent an e-mail or something but here are our adresses:
    Mark: aelenm@gmail.com
    Nadia: ndecuyper@gmail.com

    Enjoy your time and keep on travelling ;-)

    Take care

    Warm greetings from Lombok where it rained today...

    Mark and Nadia

  2. Interesting article, added his blog to Favorites