Saturday, June 2, 2007

11 February: Ngorongoro to Serengeti

We left Ngorongoro at 8 a.m. sharp, retracing our steps along the crater rim and then taking what passes for a highway in Tanzania in the direction of Lake Victoria. (As we passed the ritzy Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Rodgers regaled us with stories of all the famous people who have stayed there: “Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, and…Rodgers!”) En route we passed many Maasai villages and an incredible lush volcanic “depression” that stays green year-round, even in the dry season. We passed one village where a group of Maasai in their customary bright red garb were dancing for a small group of tourists. A little further on we stopped to drive off-road to observe a large group of giraffes – 15-20 of them – all munching contentedly on shrubby acacia. There must have been some choice shoots of grass too, because we watched one giraffe splay its legs way out so it could get its head close enough to the ground to graze. It looked like an incredibly awkward position for the poor fellow! Renny was in the other truck and as they turned around to return to the road, he stuck his head out the window, pointing and waving at us and shouting, “Helloooo homo sapiens!” as if we were a rare wildlife sighting. It was really funny at the time, trust me.

Our first stop of the day was Olduvai Gorge (the name is most likely a misspelling of Oldupai, the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant that grows in the gorge), known as the “Cradle of Mankind” – a steep-walled, 30-mile-long ravine of striated orange rock where, in the 1950s, the archaeologists Louis and Mary Leaky first discovered extensive hominid remains and stone tools dating back more than 2.5 million years. The excavation work continues today by members of the Leaky family. Seventeen years after beginning their work at Olduvai, Mary Leaky discovered an amazing series of fossilized footprints from a human ancestor who walked along the riverbank some 3 million years ago. A casting of the footprints is on display in the small museum, along with a detailed explanation of how the original footprints were covered up in order to protect them from erosion. Since then, archaeologists working at Olduvai Gorge have uncovered skeletal remains of many ancient hominids, including Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Australopithecus Boisei, along with other artifacts such as hunting weapons, tools, and fossilized remains of the fauna that once frequented the gorge.

We listened to a short lecture in a covered outdoor “classroom” and had some time to peruse the small exhibit rooms. For practical reasons I will mention that the restroom facilities at Olduvai were the worst so far on our trip; the only positive thing I can say about them is that the view from the men’s open-air cement “trough” was stunning!

On our way back to the main road, we encountered two little Maasai boys who flagged us down and asked for water. We handed them a couple of ice-cold bottles from our well-stocked cooler. They seemed pretty pleased, although we all wondered what they would do with the plastic bottles after they drank the water.

A short while later we passed through the largest herd of wildebeest that we would see on the entire safari. Granted, this was probably nowhere near the size of the herds that one sees during the height of the migration, but it was impressive nonetheless…hundreds of wildebeest dotting the green plain, stretching all the way back to the hills of Ngorongoro. Not too long after the great herd, in a fitting completion to the “circle of life” we had witnessed over the past few days, we came across a group of vultures pecking viciously at a dead wildebeest not ten feet from the road. (I suspect the carnage was the result of a wildebeest-car collision rather than natural causes.) We watched for a few minutes as the huge vultures (truly the nastiest-looking representatives of bird-kind that I know of) and various storks fought over the remains, but the stench was so overpowering that I think I was the one who said “sawa sawa” first, just so we could get away from the smell!

We crossed a number of dry, rocky riverbeds as we continued along a relatively smooth dirt road cutting across the shrubby plains. We came around a bend and spotted a forlorn zebra foal standing splay-legged in the middle of the road. It couldn’t have been more than a few days old, and had obviously gotten lost, been abandoned, or else its mother died. We drove right past the little guy, who just stared blankly at us as he wobbled on spindly legs. It seemed like he may have already been attacked by some predator or another, perhaps a hyena. Rodgers told us it was unlikely that he would last the night. It was a terribly sad sight, but of course there was nothing we could do to help him.

We crossed the border between Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park at midday. The boundary is marked by a clump of acacia trees and a wooden sign suspended across the road that reads Karibu hifadhi ya Serengeti (“Welcome to the Serengeti”). We walked out into the middle of the road; all we could see in either direction was endless green plain stretching to the horizon, with the most amazing expanse of blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds arching over our heads.

On our way into the park we spotted two separate lion prides, both lounging in the grass a few hundred feet from the road. A small herd of zebra stood on the alert with ears perked, not far from one of the prides. Next we drove through an immense herd of zebra, who posed artfully for our photographs. We stopped at the main park entrance for box lunches (good but way too much food – Renny piled all of our leftovers in a box and said he would give it to the guys who wash the trucks) and took a short hike up to a flat rock outcropping that Renny said was the inspiration for Pride Rock in “The Lion King.” From there we had a magnificent view out across the grasslands (Serengeti is Maasai for “endless plains”). Once again we marveled at how green and lush it looked – definitely not my image of the parched, golden African plains from a childhood of National Geographic programs. This was by far the hottest day so far. I was so hot when we came back down from the rock that I poured half a bottle of water over my head, prompting Rodgers to ask me very earnestly if I was okay. I am sure they are trained to recognize the first signs of heatstroke; I knew I was not in any danger, I just get overheated (and likewise chilled) very easily! (Note: The bathroom facilities here were, amazingly, even worse than at Olduvai. I will refrain from describing just how disgusting it was, but suffice it to say that at this point MIL and I would have given just about anything for a friendly bush, but there simply wasn’t enough privacy. What made it even worse was that there was a sparkling new restroom building right nextdoor to the old outhouses, but the doors were locked! We don’t think the plumbing was hooked up yet.)

Back on the road again, we added several bird sightings to our life list – European Roller, Hildebrandt's Starling, Red-Billed Buffalo Weaver, and Fiscal Shrike (some of these may actually be repeat sightings - my notes are in several places). Then we learned just how good Rodgers’ eagle eyes are – he spotted a Serval cat prowling through the grass several hundred feet off the road. I have no idea how he was able to see it while he was driving, particularly when the rest of us had our eyes peeled on the surrounding landscape for any sign of movement! (Rodgers had already warned us about the commonly-sighted A.L.T., or “animal-like thing” and P.O.P., or “pile of poop.”) We turned off and rushed out to watch the Serval – a gorgeous, slender, spotted cat with large tufted ears, a black nose, and golden eyes. The Serval has the longest legs (relative to body size) of any cat, allowing it to see over the tall grasses of its savanna habitat. It uses its large ears to listen for its prey, which mostly consists of small rodents. While hunting, the Serval may pause for up to fifteen minutes at a time with its eyes closed (I learned that on Wikipedia). The Serval is a very efficient hunter, catching its prey on nearly half of its attempts, compared to around one in ten for most cat species (also Wikipedia). Our Serval took absolutely no notice of us as it sat in the jeep track in front of us for a few moments, walked slowly towards and past our truck, then disappeared without a sound into the tall grass. The other truck caught up with us a few moments later but the cat was gone; all we could do was point into the waving grasses where we had last seen it.

As we continued across the plains, we saw many of the rounded granite outcroppings called “kopjes”, which seemed like perfect lookouts for lions à la Pride Rock, but we didn’t see any. Not long after our Serval sighting, we came across a lone jackal curled up by the side of the road. He/she looked very hot, panting heavily, and I felt sort of sorry for it, sitting there all alone in the heat of the day.

A range of low hills grew steadily larger on our horizon. Somewhere nestled in those hills lay our destination: the Serengeti Sopa Lodge. The road grew steadily worse as we approached – a rutted, muddy mess, with the occasional eroded ravine cutting its way threateningly across our path. The last 45 minutes were the worst (and we learned that we would have to traverse this same road several more times on our game drives tomorrow!). As we headed into the hills, we had to close all of the windows and put the top down on the Land Cruiser in order to keep the tse-tse flies out. Rodgers told us about the symptoms of sleeping sickness as he slapped absentmindedly at a few tse-tse flies buzzing around his arms. I was absolutely miserable from the heat and just hoped it would be over soon.

Once we were out of the tse-tse fly zone we were able to roll down our windows again – ah, the breeze! – and stopped briefly to watch a large herd of impala with a number of tiny babies grazing alongside the road. We also got our first view of Topis, or rather the rear-ends of a couple of Topis, heading off into the bush. They are a large species of antelope with distinctive slate blue-colored legs, for which they have earned the nickname “blue jeans.”

We finally arrived at the lodge around 5:30 and retreated gratefully to our rooms. The lodge itself looks a bit aged from the exterior, but the rooms are gorgeous and obviously recently renovated. We had two good-sized black iron beds (which looked quite atmospheric with their floaty white mosquito nets and funky built-in lamps), warm-stained cement floors, a cobalt blue-tiled walk-in shower, and the most breathtakingly beautiful view out over the Serengeti that I could have ever hoped for.

After a refreshingly cold shower (I didn’t have the patience to wait until the hot water came on at 6 pm!) and a change of clothes, we watched a rain squall move over the plains in the distance, then the sun came out and cast a brilliant golden glow across the grasslands. We regrouped for cocktails (on Micato) around a roaring bonfire, watching the lightning show on the horizon, until we were driven inside by a sudden thunderstorm. We retreated to a cozy room deep inside the lodge, where we got to choose another complimentary bottle of wine from the wine list. Dinner in the warm-toned dining room was quite pleasant. I had fried fish cakes, skipped the tomato soup, then chose the vegetable-filled “pancakes” and a banana-custard creation for dessert. DH had chicken terrine, a beef stir-fry with mashed potatoes, and the same banana dessert. After dinner the lodge staff performed several songs and dances for our enjoyment. We fell into bed at a reasonable time for once, looking forward to our day out on the plains.

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