The Animal Kingdom
James McIntosh, March 21 2013
DAY ONE: ARUSHA
March 10, 2013
The Snake Park has a small sanctuary next to the camping grounds that is home to a variety of African snakes, crocodiles, turtles, lizards and a baboon that was rescued from the wild. The Snake Park also operates a clinic that provides free medical care for more than 1,000 locals each month.
Upon our arrival at the Snake Park on the afternoon of March 10 Tarynne and I set up tent 689 before spending a hour or so looking at the snakes, crocodiles and lizards kept in captivity.
Tarynne took the time to casually chat with each snake, telling them that she won’t do anything to them if they tell their friends in the Serengeti to leave us alone.
We’re both still alive and I’m sitting here writing this blog, so her little heart to heart with the Black Mamba must have worked.
After Tarynne finished chatting with all the reptiles in parseltongue we headed back to camp for dinner and a briefing on the protocol for our departure to the Serengeti the next morning.
An air of excitement hung over our camp as we headed off to bed that evening. In less than 12 hours we were going to be piling into three Land Rovers headed straight into the heart of the Serengeti Plains.
DAY TWO: SERENGETI
March 11, 2013
At 7 a.m. on March 11 three nine passenger Land Rovers rumbled into the Snake Park in Arusha and pulled up next to our campsite.
After a light breakfast of cereal and toast we began to load our tents, mattresses and day packs into the Land Rover named “Leakey,” which would serve as our supply vehicle for the next three days.
Once “Leakey” was packed to the brim with tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and other essential supplies we gathered outside the remaining two Land Rovers to meet our drivers and porters.
The lead driver for our mini expedition was Pierre, a local guide who has been taking groups into the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater for more than seven years. The second driver was named Ally. Ally has four years experience driving the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
After exchanging pleasantries with our drivers and porters our group climbed into the remaining two Land Rovers, left Arusha and began the 350 km drive to the southern edge of the Serengeti Plains.
Pierre led the way in a Land Rover nicknamed “Fossy” with five members of our group and the remaining six of us followed him with Ally behind the wheel of our Land Rover named “Irwin.”
After driving for about an hour and a half the small shops and markets lining the sides of the roads gave way to green trees and foliage and we began a sharp ascent to the top of a large hill that looked out over the landscape surrounding us.
We then continued our journey for another few hours until the vegetation on either side of the road became remarkably more dense. We finally came around one last bend in the road and looked up to see the gate to the Ngorongoro Conservation area looming above us.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a region of land that was originally included as part of Serengeti National Park, but has since been categorized as its own area. The region is 11,000 square km and is home to the Masai people. Inside the conservation area the Masai people live in small villages made up of wooden huts and fortified by wooden fences to keep the lions out.
The Masai are farmers and raise cattle and goats in the fields surrounding their villages. The livestock are protected from lions and other predators by Masai warriors who wear white face paint and wield long combats sticks.
In order for a young man to become a Masai warrior he must first kill a lion. The lions in the area are not afraid of park rangers armed with shotguns, but when they see a painted Masai warrior they quickly scamper off in the other direction.
From the gate of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area it is another 100 km on a dirt road to the entrance of Serengeti National Park.
The dirt road winds through hills covered in thick jungle up to the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater before making its way down past small Masai villages into flat green farmlands.
Eventually the green farmlands begin to dry out and the goats and cattle lining the roadside disappear and are replaced with thousands of roaming zebra and wildebeest.
We drove through endless herds of Zebra and Wildebeest for nearly 45 minutes before finally reaching the official gate to Serengeti National Park.
As our Land Rovers rumbled down the dirt road and through the gate into the park, the air outside felt damp and heavy. Menacing dark clouds loomed behind us, but over the plains ahead the sun shone brightly through puffy white clouds casting massive shadows over the endless expanse of land before us.
Only a few kilometers into the park we came across a small hill covered in large rocks. Our Land Rovers pulled over to the side of the road and we climbed to the summit for a bird’s eye view of the Serengeti surrounding us.
With the everyone back in the cars, we pressed on into the park down winding dirt tracks that cut sharply through the tall yellow Serengeti grass.
As our Land Rovers bounced over potholes and splashed through deep mud puddles we were treated to endless display of animals roaming or resting just meters from the road.
Eventually, as we passed a small cluster of rocks on the righthand side of the car, we spotted our first of many lions.
It was a lone lioness resting high above us on a rock.
From there we traveled deeper into the Serengeti and saw countless more animals just meters away from the Land Rovers.
A few hours later our 4×4 convoy went tumbling over a small rise down a short steep hill toward a plot of tall grass surrounded by vultures. It was there that we saw our first pride of lions.
They were all female loins laying in the grass after a kill. The largest lion in the group was tearing into a wildebeest carcass with her massive canine teeth.
After the lion sighting we began to make our way toward our campsite in the middle of the Serengeti.
When we arrived at camp the porters had already pitched our tents. Hot tea and coffee was waiting for us on a table that had been carefully set with placemats and silverware.
As the sun set and darkness cloaked over the plains the temperature dropped significantly and I put on jeans and a sweatshirt for the first time in more than six weeks.
The stars lit up the night sky and the Milky Way shimmered above us as we headed toward the rain shelter for dinner.
The food was fantastic. Cream soup to start followed by beef stew, vegetables and garlic bread.
During dinner Pierre briefed us on the campsite protocol.
Shoes needed to be worn and a headlamp needed to be on at all times. The campsite was in the open with no fence and a number of visitors, both friendly amd unfriendly, could be excepted throughout the night.
We were instructed to go to the restroom with a buddy and as we walked to search for a pair of eyes that might be glistening in the dark. If we stumbled across an unwelcome guest in the night we were told to go back to out tent.
“Go back. Quickly,” he said.
After eating we chatted around the dinner table for a short while before retiring into the darkness and into our tents.
Aside from the snickering growl of a hyena a few feet from our tent (T: and the drunk dingdong Russian who stepped on a black mamba in flip flops and screamed loud enough for the entire Serengeti to hear), the night passed by quietly and uneventful.
DAY THREE: THE GAME DRIVE
March 12, 2013
We were up before sunrise stumbling around in the dark getting dressed and pulling our camera gear together for our morning game drive.
The rain clouds from the day before were gone and the air was crisp and cool. A soft wind pushed the tall savanna grass back and forth, which looked more gray than yellow in the low morning light.
With cameras recharged and packed back into the trucks, we headed back to the shelter where we found a hot breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausage.
As we ate the warm African sun began to cast its light across the endless plains surrounding us and our porters began to dismantle our tents.
By 6:30 a.m. we were on road. The six of us in “Irwin” stood on our seats with our heads poking out through the gap in the popped up roof peering out across the Serengeti Plains.
Our first sightings of the day were a few giraffes and elephants.
As we made our way toward the Orangi River and the tall green reeds and lush grass covering its banks we stopped to watch a few baboons playing in the road.
As we approached the river we could already hear the “haw-haw-haw” of hippos in the distance.
Hippos generally spend the entire day submerged underwater with only their ears, eyes and nostrils breaking the surface of the water. At night they leave the safety of the water and move up onto the river banks to eat the nearby reeds.
Fortunately, on this particular morning we not only saw the tops of submerged hippos heads, but also a group of the massive creatures out of the water waddling around the river bank.
From the river we moved back out onto the plains and passed thousands of zebra, wildebeest, impalas and gazelle roaming freely through the grass.
Eventually our path led us to another pride of female lions. This group of lionesses were laying low in the yellow grass waiting patiently for an unsuspecting zebra or wildebeest to take a drink from a nearby watering hole. Then the hunt would begin.
After leaving the lionesses behind it wasn’t long before we came into an area scattered with acacia trees. It was here we found the male contingent of lions patiently waiting under the shade of the trees for the females to return with their food.
With midday quickly approaching and the Serengeti beginning to warm up, we retreated back to camp for lunch.
The food was once again fantastic. After we ate the porters packed up the kitchen into the supply truck alongside our tents and drove ahead to our next camp site on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater.
While our equipment was already on its way to the next campsite, we piled back into “Fossey” and “Irwin” for an afternoon game drive.
The drive would wind through the plains as we slowly made our way back out of the Serengeti toward the Ngorongoro Crater.
At one point we pulled up to a cluster of large rocks and looked up to see a group of lion cubs sleeping in the shade.
It was just a few hundred meters down the road that we had our closest encounter with a group of lions. We found them spread out across the road preventing us from passing by. When Ally popped “Irwin” into gear and attempted to drive right through the group they still held their ground, completely unaffected by the two 4x4s revving their engines before them.
With a little bit of off-roading we able to get around the lion blockade and we continued our journey out of the Serengeti, back into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, passed the Masai villages and toward the crater itself.
It was about 5 p.m. when our Land Rovers finally rolled into Camp Simba, positioned on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. When we arrived our tents were once again already set up.
As the sun set and a heavy mist began to cloak the rim of the crater in the distance, we looked out over the enormous crater below and could see herds of wildebeest and zebra moving slowly across the lush, green crater floor.
We ate Spaghetti for dinner and afterward took our chairs outside the shelter to sit around a fire and relax after a long day of driving.
We sat and listened to the noises of the jungle around us, and Pierre reminded us of the campsite protocol.
Always have your headlamp.
Don’t go to the restroom alone.
If you see an unwelcome visitor, go back. Quickly.
By 9:30 our entire group had abandoned the campfire and gone to bed.
At 2:30 a.m. I awoke suddenly to Tarynne shaking me in my sleeping bag.
“Wake up,” she whispered. “There’s something outside.”
Sure enough there was. And after further investigation we soon realized there was an elephant stomping around outside our tent, flicking its tail back and forth.
Unimpressed I went back to sleep only to be woken up about an hour later by another visitor outside our tent. This time it was a wildebeest bumping into the side of tent 689 and munching loudly on the grass surrounding us.
Finally the wildebeest moved away and silence settled over the camp. Exhausted, I finally closed my eyes and fell asleep.
DAY FOUR: THE CRATER
March 13, 2013
When we opened our tent on the morning of March 13, cool crisp air rushed inside and for the first time since leaving Seattle I could see my breath in front of me.
Looking out across the crater we could see heavy mist clinging to the jungle-covered crater rim opposite us. Below the morning sun reflected off the surface of Lake Magadi in the middle of the crater floor.
It was 6 a.m. and after another breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausage we were in the Land Rovers and on the road headed for the crater floor.
Ngorongoro Crater is only 82 kms from the southern edge of the Serengeti, but its landscape is very different. There is no yellow grass or dry, arid plains. It rains year-round in the crater and all the vegetation is green and full of life.
The animals are different too. A majority of the animals are permanent residents. They don’t participant in any migrations and instead spend their entire life in the confines of the crater’s rim.
Only one pride of lions lives in Ngorongoro Crater and they fight off any other lion who tries to enter.
As “Fossey” and “Irwin” descended down the bumpy dirt track toward the crater floor, the difference was apparent.
We were surrounded by green grass and lush foliage. The ground was damp and a few kilometers away we could see the muddy shores of Lake Magadi, littered with thousands of flamingos.
As soon as our 4x4s rumbled down the final slope of the rim and out onto the crater floor we were met by a group of water buffalo chomping on the fresh, green grass.
As we made our way out into the middle of the crater we began to notice the sheer number of animals surrounding us.
It wasn’t long until we reached an area of grass that was strangely absent of zebra and wildebeest. We soon realized this was for good reason, because we were suddenly able to make out the outline of two lions resting the the grass. One male and one female.
As we moved further toward the middle of the crater and closer to Lake Magadi we came across three black rhinos as they grazed slowly across the green plains.
As we watched the rhinos there was a sudden commotion from the wildebeest nearby, and we looked up to see a lone female lion walking slowly toward our car. The wildebeest looked confused. It’s strange to see a lion all by itself and the wildebeest in the area seemed extremely suspicious.
Upon further review we determined the lion was sick and had strayed from the rest of the pride. She didn’t look healthy and certainly wasn’t in any shape to be hunting. Whether they knew it or not, the wildebeest were safe. At least for now.
We continued to watch the rhinos for a while longer before continuing down the road to a small wooded area where a restroom was hidden among the bushes. We stopped for a bathroom break and Tarynne and I found a cute little monkey to watch while we waited for everyone else.
After the restroom break we continued down the road across the crater, winding our way through herds of zebra and wildebeest. We saw the occasional water buffalo next to the road and a few more lions that were resting in the shade under some reeds in the distance.
At about midday we drove up over a small rise and down the other side into a small clearing with pond in the middle. The pond was filled with hippos and they could be heard splashing and grunting in the water.
Our Land Rovers pulled up next to a grassy spot on the side of the pond. We got out of the cars and set up a picnic lunch on the grass next to the water. As we ate we watched the hippos flick their ears back and forth and listened to their “haw-haw-haw” sound as it carried across the water toward us.
After lunch we climbed back into “Fossey” and “Irwin,” drove back across the crater floor and began the ascent up the side of the crater rim.
When we reached the top of the crater we turned left and began the three hour car journey back to Arusha and the Snake Park.
When we arrived back at the Snake Park the porters had once again set up our tents.
It was the 40th night of our overland tour. The next day we were driving to Nairobi, Kenya where we would be dropped off in the city center and our 41 day overland tour through Southern and East Africa would come to an end.
We spent the evening packing our bags and socializing with the rest of the group. Starting the next afternoon we would be on our own, with plans to travel briefly through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania before finally leaving the continent of Africa on March 28.