Friday, March 28, 2008

My work recently took me to Mwanza, Tanzania, on the south shore of Lake Victoria. Through a quirk of the calendar and some good luck, I had a day to spend in the Serengeti park. Shane, a Canadian living in Australia with his family and working for us in Tanzania, was going to be my driver and companion for the trip, since he had never been to the park either.

CAMERA disclaimer: I just had my normal little "document the damage" camera I travel with. Had I known what wonderful things I was about to see, I might have spent a months wages on a new camera. Sorry. It will help if you click on the pictures to expand them.

On to the Serengeti, first 80 km paralleled the southern shore of Lake Victoria. It’s the day before Palm Sunday. We see a procession of bicycles carrying palm fronds, followed by about 30 well-dressed people walking and talking. Like every other road in Tanzania, we are passed by a bus. Several times. It stops to discharge or pick up passengers, but it seems to really bother the driver to be behind anyone.

The road climbs slowly, no mountains or anything, just a steady climb. We have been told about a last restaurant before the park with restrooms, since you are not allowed to pee on the roadside (or even get out of your car) in the park. Mostly, you are not allowed to harass the animals and must stay on the roads. We order lunch, garlic grilled beef. Urban legend says it keeps the mozzies away. If not, the lions will have a pre-seasoned dinner.

Stopping at the gate, we pay the $50/each entry fee. We complete an entire line across two pages of the guest book, name, passport #, license #, number of people, home town, where we are staying; on and on. You can have a lot of columns across two large pages. We are handed two copies of our permit, which we then take to the ranger outside. He is sitting at an outdoor table; double-checking permits and making sure people don’t feed the monkeys. Monkeys, meanwhile, are doing their best to convince us otherwise.

We had been told to hire a warden for the day (about $50, depending on your negotiating skills), but none were hanging around as we were told they would be. Off season. When I asked the ranger where we might find a warden, he very helpfully directed me to the washrooms….

Oh well, into the park. Deciding we “don’t need no stinkin’ warden,” we head on hoping to find our “wild Kingdom moment.” The plains stretch out before us and we are only missing the cheetahs and weak wildebeest for such a moment to happen. There are gazelle, wildebeest, baboons everywhere right from the gate.

At first we stop whenever we see animals, taking pictures no matter how far away. Zebras, cape buffalo. Our average speed on a fair dirt road is 20 km./hr. 12 mph.

Wildebeest Family

Why did the Mongoose cross the road?

Zebra Family

Symmetrical Giraffe

Dinosaur-looking Birds

We detour toward another lodge to cross the river bottoms hoping to see hippos. We see them, or at least their ears splashing and wiggling in the still water. They are about 100 yards away and don’t come out of the water, so off we go. There are all the previous animals, plus warthogs, giraffe and a million birds we don’t know. We try another road across the river, hoping for hippos. Instead we see a crocodile snout moving slowly. Only a foot or foot and a half of the snout visible above the water an inch or so. No idea how long he is because there is no other ripple or disturbance in the water.

Continuing on, we round a corner to see two elephants 30 yards from the roadside. So excited, the two of us exclaim, “Oh, oh, oh,” we can’t even talk to say elephant. We are suddenly two 8 year-olds in the park. We take all the pictures we can while the elephants ignore us, walking on and feeding on any shrubs they have a mind to.

More stops, more animals, taking pictures all the way. Crossing another savannah, I spot a rounded ear in a clump of grass. Stop! I shout, certain we have spotted a lion. The driver gets the idea and stops. When we peer as hard as we can into the grass, taking pictures at the same time, a hyena stands up and walks away, his disgust at the exposure of his great hiding spot evident.

PO'd Hyena

After about 60 km, we come to our turnoff. The sign says, “Luxury tented camp.” We have no idea what that means as we drive through wide valleys with trees and savannah. Colorful birds are everywhere, iridescent blues and greens, large water birds, predators and scavengers. Every bird function seems represented in every color. There are even small (8-12) flocks of ostriches running around. More zebra, cape buffalo and gazelles going about their business. We find out the next day that the migration through this area won’t even start for another two months.

No idea what kind of birds these are, click on the pic for a closer look

Two more elephants, one is crossing the road in front of us while the other is either munching on a tree or scratching his back. Too far away to tell for sure.

YOU ask him why he crossed the road....

We cross a river, seeing a walking bridge and a small camp area. We check it out. Obviously set up for tourists with skulls, tables and grills, even a story-telling area that would be obvious to anyone who ever went on a group camp-out. Surprisingly, the coals are still warm at 5 in the afternoon. Hmmm. We never did think to ask about this area as the subsequent wonders piled on our senses.

"Tourist Toilet"

Arriving at the lodge, we stop at an empty grass gate shack and a closed gate. Hmm. Silently, behind us appears a Masai. Spear in one hand, two-way radio in the other. He opens the gate and waves us through. We continue down the dirt track until we see a sign that says “car park.” As we pull in, a young man in pressed pants and a white shirt is waiting. He takes us to the reception center, an open half circle on a hilltop overlooking hills and plain.

Reception Center

2 glasses of Mango juice are poured to refresh us and we are seated in deep leather sling chairs to receive our orientation. We will have power from 5:30 to 23:30, the lights will flash 10 minutes before the power goes off to warn us. A candle is provided for late-night light (along with a flashlight and fluorescent lantern). If we travel to our rooms after dark or before sunrise we are to wait for a Masai escort. In case of emergency, there is a whistle in the room. Now that I think about it, I never did look for the whistle. I’m sure the screams from being lion dinner would be enough….

Room Porch

View from the porch

I thought the Masai escort was a bit much, but I’ve heard even baboons can be dangerous and we had certainly seen plenty of those. Into the room to prepare for dinner, at least it wasn’t jacket and tie (lions aren’t big on formal meals). 500 meters from the reception center to the “Standard rooms.” The restaurant and gift shop were an equal distance the opposite direction from the reception center.

The lounge and restaurant were also on the edge of a steep hill. 300 meters below (yards too, I don’t know the exact distance) was a river valley, thick trees near the river, grass, then brush on the hillside. Just as we arrived the staff was gathered at the railing watching elephants move slowly (very slowly, it seemed) though the woods. We watched for a bit, then were seated at the point of the terrace so we could both watch the elephants during dinner. Light was fading fast and I had never had to learn to use my little travel camera in such a situation – long distance, fading light, moving subjects.

Click on pic, dark spots to right and left are elephants

I didn’t learn over dinner either.

We watched as two groups of various sized elephants, one of 5 and the other of 6 elephants moved through the forest before becoming one group (though each group still traveled together) and rounding the corner out of sight. We had our “wild kingdom moment.”

Families join up

Dinner service was extraordinary. We were the only people at dinner, there was only one other guest in the whole place that night.

I had a Caesar salad, French onion soup and beef medallions for dinner accompanied by a nice cool Kilimanjaro (just say “Kili”) beer. The French onion soup didn’t have the cheese crust I was used to, instead having a bit of cheese melted onto a few croutons floating in the soup. Not as filling and very tasty, as was the salad and the beef. The gift shop was staying open for us, so we obliged. The prices seemed very reasonable and everyone knows I’m cheap.

After dinner, it was dark, of course. Our required Masai escort was waiting at the door, having probably been notified by radio that we were skipping desert. The Masai fellas kept up a pretty good pace for the near-kilometer we had to walk (executive suites and “chalets” were closer than the standard rooms). It occurred to me that accomplished killers of the weakest wildebeest would have no problem choosing and culling the fat old guy huffing and puffing between the warriors. Shane, my traveling partner, driver and fellow 8 year-old on this excursion, asked if we could take our pictures with them and they agreed. I quickly realized it wasn’t the warrior’s first rodeo as the one to my left thrust his spear into my hand. I came out looking like an armed tourist….

Entering the room, I found the turn-down service including draping the mosquito netting and a can of “Hatari” (it really does mean “danger” in Swahili, just like the old movie) bug spray, discreetly covered in a fabric jacket.

Reading the lodge printed material I found out many new things about local spiders (harmless), scorpions (no worse than a wasp sting and if you are lucky you might see the male and female lock pincers in a mating “dance”), snakes (“if you see one, do not go closer” – best advice ever). Thus educated with no CNN, cell or internet it was time for sleep.

Sleep came quickly and easily, probably from the excitement of the day (just like an 8 year-old). I woke early Sunday morning. The Masai were going to come for us at 6:30, but I chose to risk my life sitting on the porch steps listening to birds, bugs and the occasional Serengeti sound I couldn’t identify (many of these). The stars were out though not many were visible through a light cloud layer. Half moon in the sky and I thought I saw Mars overhead but my astronomy is as good as my Serengeti and it could have been any reddish non-blinking point of light in the sky.

Dawn was breaking when two Masai appeared. Both asked me the same question but I couldn’t understand them. Exasperated (but not showing it) one finally pantomimed his head on his hands while saying slowly (like I didn’t understand English) “Did you sleep well?” I finally got it. It was the rhythm and lilt to their voices I couldn’t understand. I found it was a common morning greeting, but I was prepared now and responded appropriately.

Breakfast was back at the same table. Wall Street Journal would probably call it the “power table”, but tell that to any of the wild animals and they would probably laugh at the notion. Sun coming up on the terrace, morning bird songs all around. We were invited in to the breakfast buffet. We had not even noticed the indoor dining room the night before. Now the sumptuous breakfast buffet occupied an entire wall. The only other lodge guest was there for breakfast but I think the staff also enjoyed a Sunday brunch after we left.

My omelette included some local peppers and the chef wisely limited the number of them. They were hot in the mouth, but the whole omelette didn’t taste like peppers. But, we had animals to see.



The park is shaped roughly like a “Y,” if you imagine the left leg nearly horizontal and the right leg nearly vertical. The right leads to Kenya and another park, while the left stretches toward Lake Victoria. We were headed near the junction, the center of the park, where we would find the headquarters, visitor center and a large lodge. To get there, we still had to cross miles of park and pass jillions of wild animals.

Whole wide Serengeti

Running Wildebeest

To give you an idea, Serengeti Park is about 1- 2/3’s the size of Yellowstone. We were only going to cross about 1/3 of it in 26 hours out and back. All roads are dirt; two vehicles can pass if one is stopped or careful. Many of the river crossings include a small dam on the upstream side. Where there is year-round water, these provide a pool for hippo viewing, though the hippos seem to know it and prefer to hang out in the deep water just around the bend from the road. We noticed that when we turned off to the lodge where we stayed, the animals seemed to hang out 100-200 yards from the road and were still occasionally spooked by our passage (we saw no other vehicles on the lodge road – about an hour of driving and fewer than 10 in 3 hours on the main road). Later, when we were near the main lodge, the animals didn’t even seem to notice the traffic, staying very near the road even though the larger elephants, hippos and giraffe were still often 50 yards away.

We had just discussed that there didn’t seem to be many animals in the area we were driving through, a small grove of stunted trees, when we encountered a giraffe herd! There were 7 animals that we counted immediately, when some of the excitement wore off there were almost 20 in an area 200 yards either side of the road. There was even a calf that was still nursing. We stopped and turned off the truck, but the giraffe were not too concerned, continuing their browsing. Only the calf seemed nervous, returning to mom for a quick drink. More pictures taken, we eased away from the herd.

The drive seemed uneventful after that, though we still watched for animals, caught sight of more unfamiliar birds and just looked at the ever-present gazelles, zebras, warthogs and wildebeest.

Coming out of a turn, we saw a break in the road, old culvert piled high, softball sized rocks placed across the road in typical African hazard-marking fashion. My driver hit the brakes and backed up 30 meters, scanning as he went. “Check left” came a terse command, very different from the easy conversation we had enjoyed during our travels together. I checked left, not immediately sure what I was looking for. “Might be bandits” he said. In the park? But he had been working near Burundi/Rwanda and things didn’t look right. I looked for bandits or any possible place for them to hide. We actually had a discussion on whether it was safe to proceed. We were in the park; we had seen 2 cars that morning, both coming from this direction. And though there was some brush, we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. We scanned the area again, discussed our escape route (readjusting mirrors to see the roadway better, we were going to back at least to this point in a hurry). Driving on, there was a worn path to the left and we could see the culvert was in fact being replaced. The rest of Africa had momentarily intruded on our thoughts, even in this great treasure that belonged to the world. There were two more culvert replacement projects and we saw the work crew at the second one, so returned to 8 year-old mode.

At the visitor’s center, I was approached by a young man with heavily accented English who wanted to practice his English and share his park. I have found over the years, in museums and parks, that if you ask the staff a question you will find more information than would ever fit on the signs. I walked with him through the first few exhibits. Even though he was hard to understand, he explained the buffer zones that surround the park and the adjacent parks that support the migrations. There has been similar discussion of such a system in North America, linking Glacier, Yellowstone and Canadian parks to provide migration routes for animals so inclined. I don’t think our animal population approaches anything like what the Serengeti has. The visitor’s center could have been anywhere, explaining the local animals, plants and geology (oldest rocks in the world outcrop here). One interesting sign was a quote from one of the park founders, in 1959. “in 50 years, when visitors speaking English, Russian, Chinese and French visit the park, they will find it as we see it, and thank us for our work.” Or something like that. Anyway, it is 49 years later and I think his thoughts have come true.

After the visitor center, we visited Seronera Lodge, a large place in the middle of the park that looked distinctly motel-like. Much of it was being renovated, but the lounge area was open. Designed in a way that would make Frank Lloyd Wright proud, large granite boulders formed walls, floors and seats throughout the high-ceilinged area, connected by wood beams and railings. It felt like a large shady veranda where you could enjoy the view while enjoying a Kili, so we did.

There is a 24-hour limit on time in the park, after which you are charged another day’s permit fee. We had seen several cars going hell-bent against the clock the day before, trying to make the gate before time ran out. While enjoying our afternoon Kili, we decided we would gladly pay another $50 each for this amazing experience. With that, we moseyed back out to see what we could see.

My camera batteries had given up and despite the fact I had this really cool charger that plugs into the USB port (somewhere I should list the gadgets I travel with, I’m getting an assortment), I had forgotten to do that after the Masai escort the night before. So I had no camera when we saw a hippo out of the water, but far away, cruising for another water hole. Or the hippo that got out of the water (halfway) to crap on the water side brush. Never thought about them defecating in the pools where they lived, but that is apparently what they (don’t) do.

There was another lodge up the road, so we headed that way. Maybe their gift shop would be open and would have batteries. This lodge had a different character. Seemed mostly older crowd interested in bird watching from the conversations we could overhear (and understand). Nice enough, but I still thought the Mgalabeti more to my liking. I was able to refresh my battery supply and off we went. Little quicker, not as many stops today for the same shots we had the day before.

Crossing a river, I told Shane to Stop! Again. I thought I saw several hyena ears, maybe we would see a group like wild kingdom. Nope, as we turned down the road alongside the river, we could see that under the tree were lions! We whispered to each other just like Marlon Perkins did to his various sidekicks back in the wild kingdom days, even though we were in the truck and the truck was running. Windows down, cameras clicking, we slowly drove closer until we were 30 feet from them. Several looked our way, and one stood up to rearrange himself (herself?) so he was looking at us, but it was getting hot and they were conserving energy in the shade. We decided to stop there as we didn’t want to be accused of harassing wildlife. Clicking away at the same shot until we realized none of them had the energy to stand and roar, we slowly backed away, high fiving while saying “we don’t need no stinkin’ warden,” and continued on. We saw more animals, including Cape buffalo very near the road, but mostly just the same stupendous Serengeti scenes and animals we had seen driving in.

Whoa, Lions!

Think they saw us?


But they don't seem to care....

Huge Birds flew down the road in front of us, no idea what kind

Cape Buffalo, getting personal

A thunderstorm crossed the road ahead of us for a half hour or so, sometimes so thick we could barely see, with high winds blowing rain sideways. The Wildebeest bedded down, the buffalo and zebras just stood there and the birds were no where to be seen. We drive on, but more slowly through the rain. You just don’t want to collide with an elephant you didn’t see….


More rain

Elephant-hiding rain

Looks like it's letting up....

This Wildebeest isn't so sure

26 hours after we signed in, we were back at the park entrance. Several rangers were there now, including the guy we had talked to the day before. We were perfectly prepared to pay extra, but there was a quick conversation in Swahili that neither of us understood, the outcome of which was that we didn’t have to pay anything. It must have gone something like: “they were late” “yeah, but they drove through that killer storm” “yeah and they don’t look like guides or typical tourists, one even has a Tanzanian driver’s license” “let them go, they look happy.”

And we were…..