Arriving in Africa was a whirlwind of activity and not a great deal of sleep. With an 11 hour time difference as well, it was difficult to get any quality sleep, despite being exhausted. Day 1 involved a long drive in our truck to Snake Park (the name of the campsite outside Arusha) and the very next morning, we were picked up in two safari jeeps for our 3 day/2 night excursion to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park.
That trip was an incredible experience, especially considering the abundance of wildlife that we were able to observe. However, it has set in motion what is at least true up until now – Africa is a series of incredible pleasures that are experienced only with a measure of simultaneous suffering.
To paint a picture of the good the bad and the ugly for you: we spent many long hours driving in the jeep over extremely bumpy and rocky terrain. Our guide, Benjamin, explained that it was simply a “free back massage”. Temperatures would soar to well into the high 80s/low 90s during the heat of the day, the air is very dry and we would often bake and sunburn just from sitting in the jeeps themselves. For me, however, the greatest challenge to my enjoyment has been the dust. The sheer volume of dust that envelopes us at all times so far in Tanzania is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. My clothes are literally filthy by the end of the afternoon – I wring black water from them as soon as they are wet. I’ve started just wearing my clothes in the shower and using them as washcloths as a way of cleaning them of the dust. This is by no means the worst, however. The worst thing I have to suffer through is trying to keep my contact lenses clean in this dusty environment. The first two days in the Serengeti, my eyes hurt so bad I could barely see out of them. I would use eye drops every few hours with little relief. Switching from my two week lenses to my ultra thin monthly extended wear pair has helped a little, but it is still a constant battle.
The dust and dirt is making camping that much more challenging as well. On my first night in Arusha, I didn’t use the rain fly because it was so warm and the skies are clear (the rainy season, which was meant to have started two months ago has yet to make an appearance.) However, a dust storm developed in the middle of the night and blew half the campsite dirt onto my tent floor. With my backpack unzipped inside my tent – all the red dust got into my bag and all over my clothes. Having learned my lesson, I now leave my big bag in the truck and only bring a change of clothes into my tent with me at night. It is still a challenge to try and keep anything clean – your feet, your face, your skin, your sleeping bag, your backpack – everything is just caked in dust and dirt.
I am guessing that I will just have to get used to it, and almost every aspect of this trip is an adjustment – from sleeping in a tent every night for 56 days straight, to setting up and taking down camp each day, to cooking for 15 people when its your “cook group’s” turn – to getting to know 15 very different and unique individuals and having to get along as a team, respecting the group dynamic.
With that being said, the 3 day excursion was wonderful. After a very very long drive leaving at the ass raping crack of dawn, we arrived at the lookout over the Ngorongoro Crater – a 300 square kilometer reserve formed by the extinct crater whose walls have naturally formed a barrier to the 42,000 animals that have made it’s floor their permanent home. Looking out over the crater you could see the green/brown expanse’s shape and crater-like structure – but it took on an entirely different meaning from the inside after we descended its steep walls.
Very soon we were watching groups of zebra, Hyena and water buffalo foraging and drinking along the shores of lakes, dramatically set against the expanse of green. However, as we got further into the crater – we were soon witnessing a spectacle of creatures – thousands of them all gathered in the same area of fertile grass around a watering hole – Wilderbeest, zebra, Thomson Gazelle, Hartesbeast, Elephant, Rhino, Hyena, Hippos, buffalos, and other antelopes. It was a spectacle that made you feel that you were literally participating in an episoe of Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough.
We were also lucky enough to observe two lion prides during our game drive in the crater, and even more rare – we got to witness a Servel cat stalking it’s prey from a very close distance.
Stunned from the experience, we began our now 3 hour drive to the Serengeti, stopping briefly at the entrance to file paperwork and make our camping arrangements. We would be camping at a bush camp – with no fences and nothing separating us from the wildlife all around. I have to admit this was particularly unnerving, because our tents did not have a zipper that went entirely around the outside door, and one of the members of our group, an experienced Safari guide herself, insisted that a hyena could easily just make it’s way into one of our tents if it thought it smelled juicy inside. Even more disturbing, our guides warned us to be sure and check for signs of “eyes looking back at us in the dark” if we were to leave our tent in the night, or when we went to use the bathroom in the night or early morning. Apparently, a few years back, a lion decided to go into the women’s shower room in search of water.
Probably the highlight of the day was spotting a family of Cheetahs hanging out in the tall grass by a large acacia tree. Mom, dad, and baby cheetah were taking it in turn to roll, stretch, sleep and walk around the base of the tree. Just when we thought nothing much more in the way of activity was going to pass, baby cheetah decided he was going to climb the tree.
According to our guide, Benjamin, Cheetahs do NOT climb trees. He has never seen a cheetah climb a tree, not in his 5 years of being a safari guide.
Baby cheetah got about half way up the tree and then started to meow, almost like a domestic cat, as it struggled to get back down to his parents. It was such a special moment to witness that I immediately teared up and then noticed that my guide was emotional as well, especially since he shared that it is textbook that Cheetahs do NOT climb trees.
We were oh so very lucky to witness such a thing.
Our night at the bush camp thankfully passed without incident, and I found my earplugs to not only be a welcome barrier to the sounds of howling hyenas in the night, but they served to drown out the sounds of snoring campers all around me.
The following morning, with only one missing animal from the ‘Big Five’ to spot – we came upon a leopard snoozing on top of a rock. She was stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately, not so beautiful was a truck full of boozing youngsters who thought it would be approprate to start playing their music on their truck and having a party in the middle of the game drive. Zach, a member of our group asked them to turn it off, rather sternly. They turned it down, to which he remarked, ‘Off. Not down, Asshole!’ – which we all got rather a kick out of.
The Serengeti Wilderbeest migration is not yet in full swing because of the delayed rain, but we still did witness thousands of them galloping alongside their zebra counterparts heading to waterholes in the early morning mist, getting stuck in the mud, and screaming in their dumb fashion to get away. They were quite a sight.
A monkey also decided that he wanted to climb up on the roof of our vehicle and I shrieked with panic as I imagined contracting rabies if the thing got into the cab and started getting defensive. Luckily, the monkey got scared and scampered away.
It was an incredible 3 days. In the end we saw almost every form of wildlife that you could see in those parks – even Hyena scavenging on a recent kill. The only thing we missed was perhaps a rhino doing a full on song and dance show…
Exhausted from our 5am starts, I went to ‘bed’ right after dinner upon our return to Arusha and had myself some super crazy Larium dreams.
For those of you who don’t know – Larium, or Mefloquine is a weekly malaria medication which can affect one’s emotional state and/or dream cycle. That night I dreamt that our safari vehicle drove from Paris, across a glacier, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and then back to Africa where I was falling down a raging rapid alongside a lion.
Then again, my days had been almost as crazy as those dreams.