Thursday, May 3, 2007

9 February: Tarangire to Ngorongoro

We’ve started to become accustomed to 6 am wake-up calls – somehow it is easier to get up in the morning when you have a game drive to look forward to! We saw another Rock Hyrax perched on the roof en route to the main lodge, where we enjoyed the ample breakfast buffet. At 8 am we gathered in front of the lodge, where we met our new drivers, Rodgers and Bernard. We had our eyes peeled for leopards all morning, but despite scanning every tree in sight, we saw no predators. (R, J&H skipped this morning’s game drive and slept in, which was probably a smart move given that it was a slow morning in terms of wildlife, and the lodge had a very enticing pool!)

Birds, on the other hand, were plentiful. My sighting list continued to grow, including: Crested Francolin, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Yellow-collared Lovebird (so cute!), Red-necked Spurfowl, Bare-faced Go-Away Bird, White-browed Coucal, Magpie Shrike, Pin-tailed Whydah (I spotted this one myself, fluttering alongside the truck, and identified it later), Namaqua Dove (the smallest dove in Africa), Tawny Eagle, Fiscal Shrike, White-bellied Go-Away Bird, and Southern Ground Hornbill (a large black bird with bright red markings on its face, which DH spotted sitting in the crook of a tree - despite its name!). We got a good look at an African Fish Eagle, which resembles a Bald Eagle, perched high in a sausage tree overlooking the muddy, boiling waters of the Tarangire River. We also disturbed a flock of Helmeted Guinea Fowl, which raced along in front of the truck before alighting in a dead tree, where they proceeded to shriek at us in protest.

This morning’s mammal sightings included a tiny black mongoose running across the road, a family of banded mongooses playing on a termite mound (DH spotted these too!), a few giraffes, a few elephants (which are much warier than the ones at Amboseli), three waterbuck, and a harem of perhaps 60 impala with one male trying to keep track of them all. Rodgers informed us that such males usually only last about three months because their job is so exhausting – then another younger, stronger male moves in. We stopped for a bathroom break at a nice picnic area with a view of an expansive swamp and took a great group photo in front of one of the trucks. We didn’t see much after 10 am and headed back to the lodge a little after 11.

After lunch (fried fish, potatoes, mixed salad), we left for Ngorongoro, bumping back along the road to the Tarangire park entrance. En route we came across a small group of elephants crossing the road. These elephants were much darker in color than the Amboseli elephants. They were not very happy with us as we stopped to watch, particularly a “teenager” who seemed very protective of the single baby in the group. He (or she) stood in the middle of the road in a very agitated stance until the little one got across, then stamped the ground for good measure. We stopped again to watch a large troupe of baboons that were playing in the trees on both sides of the road. One large male was visibly wounded, probably from fighting with his own kind.

Once we left Tarangire, we were relieved to get on the smooth, pothole-free “Japanese road” (which had the first painted lines we’d seen in a while) towards Ngorongoro. We stopped at a roadside curio shop to “support the local economy”; DH & I spent a lot more money than we should have on two Maasai spears (they break down into three pieces to fit in your luggage) and two carved ebony candlesticks. We could have used a lesson in bargaining – we might have paid half of what we did. (Note to others: ALWAYS bargain!) It was an interesting transaction because all we had were Euros and Kenyan shillings. We were a little surprised when the girl who was waiting for us came down a bit on the price but suggested that we slip her a little something on the side. We ended up giving her 1000 shillings - we figured she could use it more than us.

A little further along, we passed through a small town near the base of a range of velvety green hills. Rodgers stopped briefly and bought a huge bunch of bananas from two women selling fruit by the roadside. I’m not a big banana fan but I heard they were quite tasty – and they were the fattest bananas I’ve ever seen! Our next stop was the entrance gate for Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where Renny gave us a brief overview of the crater and its relationship to the Serengeti. Then we made our way up a mountain road, winding our way through lush rainforest with magnificent views out over Lake Manyara. The road turned to dirt – a rich, red-orange clay – and was threatened by washouts in places. We caught our first glimpses into the crater as we bumped along the ridge to the lodge. We saw an elephant browsing by the side of the road and spotted our first umbrella acacias – gorgeous trees whose spreading branches have peculiar flat tops, making them look very much like umbrellas.

We arrived at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge around 6 pm, so the drive from Tarangire took a leisurely four hours in total. The lodge has spacious main buildings that take advantage of the magnificent panoramic view of the crater. Renny checked us in and then we all got to pick out a bottle of wine to be delivered to our room or served with our dinner. (We wondered whether this was Micato’s way of apologizing for yesterday’s long drive). Then we followed our bags to our rooms, located in a long row of round buildings resembling Maasai huts (yes, there is a trend in the architectural style here!). Our room was vast, with two double beds (the elevation is high enough here that mosquito nets are not needed), two comfortable rocking chairs set in front of a floor-to-ceiling window, and a nice tiled bathroom that looked recently renovated, but there was no place to hang anything – not a closet or hook in sight! We ended up laying our wet laundry on the rocking chairs in the sun, where it dried fairly quickly.

We enjoyed cocktails (courtesy of Micato again) and snacks on a private balcony in the main lodge building. There was no sunset, as the far side of the crater was engulfed in billowing storm clouds, but as night fell we watched lightning bounce between the clouds off in the distance. The cavernous dining room was packed compared to Amboseli and Tarangire. (I later determined that there are only three or four lodges along the rim of the crater, so the density of guests is naturally higher here.) Dinner was quite good – mozzarella, tomato, and onion tart followed by lentil soup with ginger; I had spinach and mushroom lasagna with blue cheese, DH had the “African fusion” dish of spiced chicken with mixed vegetables and rice, and dessert was something involving chocolate and pineapple. This was by far the best dinner of the trip so far. We had an escort back to our room afterwards – he carried a flashlight and a long stick, and I wondered just how well he could fend off an attack with these basic implements! We went to bed full of anticipation for tomorrow’s all-day game drive in the crater.

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