Thursday, November 12, 2009

Africa Calling (3) : Sights and safaris of Tanzania

The rest of my African trip, of about six days, am clubbing it all into this one article, the sights and safaris of Tanzania….

Day 10:

After the Kili climb, and on the tenth day of our African trip, we started towards the national parks of Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. We did two days of safari at Serengeti and half a day of safari in Ngorongoro. These parks are at some distance from Arusha, so on the way we also visited a Masai village, the Oldupai museum, and Lake Easyi, and also stayed in a bungalow in a coffee farm.

From Arusha, we left in a land rover, with Swai as our guide and Jeffrey as our cook. We were still tired from the climb, and so started late. On the way, we stopped at a local market and saw that there were three colours of bananas at display there!! Green, yellow and red... we did manage to taste some red bananas there (have never seen those before). We also roamed a bit around in the local market, selling all varied types of vegetables, most of which we could not figure out.

Otherwise it was a long day of travel, the roads were quite decent, thankfully. The landscape was quite varied in this part of the drive, from small green hills to bare lands, from slightly tree-ed areas to small shrublands... We got to see it all in the drive. In between we did sight some wildlife, like giraffes and zebras, but our guide wasn't really interested in stopping at these places, as he said we would get to see it all and much closer when in the Serengeti. Also another think we noticed during this drive, was that all billboards on every shop had the same poster, of a woman drinking coca cola. Quite interesting to see the scope of penetration of the poster, each and every shop all the way! And the woman on the poster must be a celebrity there!

Lake Manyara comes on the way, a national park where you can see lions, which can climb trees. We skipped that, and went on to Lake Easyi. Lake Easyi was a huge lake, which is now dry, thanks to global warming. There were some fish remains scattered in the lake, which we saw. It was very windy there as it was a huge vast bare expanse with no vegetation, and with the water source of all those people gone.

At this point, we also saw the Baobab tree, which is supposed to look as if its been planted upside down. The branches look like roots. We saw a couple of these trees there and the landscape was dotted with these upside down trees.

We also visited a tribe there, to see how they live, how they make their weapons, their huts etc. We saw one person show us how to melt a lock, and make weapons out of it. It was all done manually as can be seen below, using very primitive methods and tools.

As part of the visit, we could also see how the tribes there lived but somehow the poverty and lack of basic amenities in the village just hit us all.
This was the Africa we had known before going there, this was the Africa we saw and this was the Africa we could not handle. We couldn’t stop there for long somehow, I think just seeing this was enough. And so we cut this "cultural exchange" short and left

Also apparently, Lake Easyi is the place where you can spot Bushmen if you come very early in the morning. The Bushmen still live their lives in their own primitive ways. Some land has been allocated to them, where no one else ventures. They do not practice agriculture or rearing of animals, and kill wild animals for food, including elephants! (They are the only tribe still allowed by the government to kill wild animals and allowed to live their life as they have lived earlier). They sometimes trade their kills with the other tribes for arms. The Bushmen are shorter than usual, about 4 feet or so and can run very fast while hunting. They speak in a very different language, using different sounds for words, and are also very difficult to spot. We couldn’t see them as we reached there too late. But if you go in the early morning, you may be able to see them hunt. Also, you need to pay about $15-20 for this Lake Easyi trip.

After the Lake, we went to stay at the coffee farm bungalow.
It was owned by our travel agents themselves. Was a pretty little place, with a lot of flora and fauna around. We had a campfire in the evening, nice dinner in the tent, a walk around the coffee farm to see how coffee is grown and then off to sleep.

Day 11:

Off from the coffee bungalow, we moved towards Serengeti. The landscape again changed from one form to another, green forests, bare lands, reddish dust covered forests, vast bare lands…. anything and everything.. We were just too tired from the Kili climb though, to see most of the things around..

The whole region from here till Serengeti is dominated by the Masai, they are one of the most famous tribes here. We also visited one Masai village on the way($25 per person), to get an idea about how they live and about their culture and traditions. A Masai village is made up of the headman, his wives (each wife has her own hut) and then their children.
Once the sons have more than 6 wives, they leave to form their own village. Each village is just one such family. In case of a marriage, the guy has to pay 30 cows for the bride. So as and when his number of cows increases, and he needs more children to rear them, he marries!

The Masai rear cattle and that is their main occupation. Masai don’t hunt wild animals otherwise, except if a wild animal kills their cattle. Apparently Masai men are able to kill lions, and they do, if a lion attacks their cattle. The cattle are the centre of the Masai's lives. Masai drink their cattle blood too, as it is considered healthy!!
The Masai make handicrafts with cow horns, and make beads which is used for jewellery etc, which they display in their village to sell to tourists.

The whole Masai village visits have become very commercialized now. You have to pay $25 per person for the visit. From each village, there is one child who gets to go to the government school to learn English, so that he can come back and in case of tourists act as the interpreter. So, once you reach the village, the interpreter guides you around.
The village visit starts with the men and women doing the welcome dance. The women sing, and dance a bit and the men also dance (which is essentially jumping very high).

The Masai lead nomadic lives, so their villages are temporary and they keep shifting depending on water availability.
The huts are small with an area to cook, and small beds for the family members to sleep.

The young kids go to a school next to the village, where they study for a couple of years, and
once one of them is picked to go to the English government school, the rest are back to rearing animals.

The clothes Masai wear are colorful: red, and blue, woven by themselves, in varying patterns. They pierce their ears, making very big holes there. And their jewellery is mostly bead jewellery covering their whole neck. Masai can often be spotted on the bare African plains, kilometers away, dotting the yellow landscape and taking their cattle from one place to another.

Seeing their life, you just feel how far off they are from where you are. And you also feel bad why these simpler people have become so commercialized. We encountered many more Masai across Tanzania, selling beads and handicrafts at tourist places. Was not a nice sight, seeing some people's life uprooted and changed to suit the changes in the developed world.

After the Masai village, we stopped at the Oldupai museum, which has history over the ages of Africa, and is the proof that human life originated in Africa. Lots to read, if you are a lover of history.
You can also see the gorge where all these remains were discovered.

And then we reached Serengeti in the evening. The next two days were a blur! The whole experience, out of this world. Serengeti is just 14000 km2 of grasslands, yellow at the time we went. Wherever your eyes can see, you will see scrubs, interspersed with trees, with gazelles sprinkled on the landscape. The next 3 days, we saw so much wildlife, it was not funny! Will just try to capture as much of my thoughts during that time as possible, though I think it’s quite impossible...

Anyways, the first day, after entering Serengeti, we did an evening safari. The first sight that met us when we entered Serengeti was the sight of a lioness leading 17 cubs across the road!
The sight completely awed and stunned us! The lioness ignoring the jeeps on the road lazily crossed the road onto the grass on the other side of the road, with 17 cubs falling and playing with each other, following her across. We hadn’t even taken out our cameras by then:). We just sat there in our jeeps, mesmerized and just watching the cubs play. Two more lionesses then followed them, as the cubs all kept on playing with each other. This was one pride, with three lioness taking care of the young children, while the rest of the lionesses went out to hunt.

After that we saw two lions sleeping next to a waterbody, with their legs up in the air, completely in the open, unaware about what’s happening around them.

This is one thing you would notice when in the Serengeti. The animals just don’t seem to care about the humans, completely ignore them. Its as if for them, the humans are just a part of the landscape, harmless and of no use to the animals, and so they don’t even bat an eyelid when they see lines of jeeps carrying humans. This was actually very different from how we’ve seen animals behave elsewhere.

The lions of course go a level further, they don’t care about anyone and are not scared of anyone either! They just sleep wherever they want to, without fear of hiding anywhere!
Truly, king of the jungle, in the real sense of the word. And of course, 90% of the times you see the lions, they would be sleeping.
They can even sleep close to 20 hours a day apparently.

We did some more of the evening safari after seeing the lions. Saw a lone hyaena in the grass.. Hajaar gazelles of all types.. And hippos floating in the water.

The hippos all float together in groups, in ponds, lakes etc, all close to each other, packed together tightly. And they stay like that all day! Not moving, with just their noses and backs slightly above the water, sleeping and wallowing in the mud, THE WHOLE DAY! Whatay life! And they are huge and heavy, so I guess they like that, the weightlessness in the water!

We saw a herd of elephants crossing the road, captivating sight again. The matriarch leading the herd through the waters.
The elephants' social system is amazing, seems very developed. Apparently the matriarch trains another female from the herd for about 20 years before the young female can take over as the matriarch, a very smooth transition of power (looks like!!). The kids of the herd are protected by everyone, in fact when the herd senses danger around, they hide the kids of the herd.
Elephants don’t in-breed, so they exchange male or female members of their herd with other herds. The male members when they misbehave, are sent off from the herd. If a member of their herd is ill, the head matriarch will go and get herbs for the sick one. Also, elephants never forget!! If a member of their herd dies, they circle the dead body for a couple of days to avoid vultures eating the body. Also, every year for a couple of years, the herd returns to the same place where the dead elephant was on the day he/she died. Very very interesting. Its anyways always a pleasure to just watch the elephants enjoy themselves, walking around happily and playing with each other.

The landscape at the park is varied. You have vast grasslands, where you see all types of gazelles grazing, till as far as your eyes can see. Then you have small hills here and there, scattered in between some rock formations and then trees near the water streams or lakes.
(Our guide, Swai was well-informed about animal behaviour and told us all these interesting facts and stories).

After the evening safari, we setup camp at the campsite inside the Park itself. There were lot of tents there already, a dining room and a kitchen area for making the food. By this time, we so seriously needed Indian food, we asked our cook, Jeffrey to cook Indian food. He did though, modifying the pastas he had brought along to Indian taste by adding spices, as well as vegetables like carrots, potatos, peas etc.

The campsite was not full as it usually was at that time, owing to the recession. And there is no fence surrounding the campsite.
Apparently, rangers patrol the area at night, but on the whole you are left on your own! Was quite scary actually the first day, the thought that animals can roam around there freely. There were some baboons actually who were walking around the campsite. Also, our guide told us that even when lions come to the campsite, don’t move or make noises. They will go away themselves. That did nothing to drive our fear away!!

The campsite was quite clean, especially the toilets etc. After dinner, we all sat down and played cards till late at night. And then off to sleep. With total calmness all around, no human sounds, except the occasional (and scary) calls from the wild! One of us also heard a lion’s roar at night, I was asleep by then though (thankfully!!!).

Day 12:

Next day again we set out on our safaris, we did two, one in the morning and one in the evening. It was again in our land rover, which is an awesome vehicle by the way, modified for African conditions. It's dust proof which really helps, as in the Park, there is so much dust which floats in the air. The vehicle can cross through water also. Also the roof opens up, and you can stand there, so that you get a view of the park around till far. We had binoculars too, but somehow Swai spotted the animals faster, even with a naked eye than we did with our binoculars :(.

The morning safari was very good, we spotted loads and loads of animals.
We missed the hippos out of the water though, we were too late. Apparently morning is the only time they get out of water.

We saw 20-30 lions I think.
They were all scattered around the Park, and always sleeping. I think by then we had lost the charm of seeing lions too, just too many of them!

We did see one interesting sight though, of three lionesses stalking a pack of zebras.
They just took their positions and sat waiting for hours, waiting for one zebra of the herd to venture towards them. However, till the time there were these ten jeeps waiting to catch a look at the chase, they did not hunt.
When we all left after losing patience, and then came back to the same site, the lionesses had hunted a zebra and were enjoying the meal. Their mouths were completely red with blood!

Later on, we saw a family of four adult cheetahs under a tree. They were getting ready to sleep, but one would always be on the lookout for any danger nearby.
Apparently, cheetahs are the worst off in terms of survival in the cat world. They are even hunted by the other cat like leopards, lions etc and that too for fun and even hyenas and vultures are known to attack them. They are even more endangered than the lions, and the survival rate of their young ones is very low. The reasons, one, of course is the danger from other carnivores, and second is paucity of food. Of five times that a cheetah hunts for food in a day, he may get the food for himself only once. The rest of the times, other animals steal it from them. Also since the cheetah run so fast, they lose a lot of energy in each such chase, and so need constant replenishment. Another thing is that cheetahs are highly prone to infection. If they once get hurt, the wound never heals. Hence mortality among them is also very high. You feel very sad for the cheetah actually, poor creatures. They are much weaker than most people think them to be. In fact, they also have signboards outside the Parks, that in case you spot a cheetah, to not make any noise at all, as cheetahs have been known to die because of a loud sound from a starting vehicle too!

Next we got to see some leopards. Leopards are among the most difficult animals to spot in the Serengeti. They generally sit on top of trees, well hidden from view. And if one is spotted, all jeeps land up there, with people looking through binoculars and spotting the leopard even if they can barely see it:)). We saw a couple of leopards, all the same, spotting a yellow and black skin, on tops of a tree far off, and we trying to feel happy that we saw a leopard:)).

However we did get to see a good scene, there was a deer and a giraffe grazing in the field, and we suddenly saw the giraffe running.
(Giraffes actually run very gracefully, it looks as if they are running in slow motion!). And then in the grass below, we saw a leopard walking. He lazily then climbed up a tree, while the giraffe and deer kept observing him. The leopard sat there for some time, got down the tree then, and then climbed another tree farther off and then again sat there lazing.
Was good to see the leopard not from far off, but then we did not get to see a chase scene again:(.

We also saw big herds with hundreds of wild buffalos, many times. They just stretched uptil wherever the eye could see. They were the most dangerous looking animals of all!
They are very aggressive and known to attack without provocation too, even though they are vegetarians!!! Apparently, experiments have been done to see if they can be domesticated, but their nature is so aggressive, it has always failed. If you look at a buffalo once, you will think they are staring at you and will come after you soon. It's very very scary.

Also some trivia, don't try to climb up a tree either when you try to run away from a wild buffalo. They have a solution to deal with that too. Apparently, if their prey climbs a tree, they then piss on their tail, and then sprinkle the piss on the prey which is up on the tree by the tail. Their urine is poisonous, and if drops fall on anyone, scratching starts and the prey would end up falling from the tree. And the buffalo will trample on the prey till its dead. Of course it doesn't eat the prey, being a herbivorous. But still, ouch!

We also saw a lone buffalo calf lost in the woods, separated from its herd.
Swai told us, for sure by the end of the day, this calf will be dead, by hyaenas or some other predator. This made us too senti, but isn’t that a fact, the law of the jungle?? Still seeing the fact in front of us, wasn’t as easy as we would think it would be.

We saw a couple of ostriches also in the park, you can spot them from very far off also. Black dots on brown landscape. Spotted some small foxes running here and there.

Of the herbivores, the giraffe was the most beautiful and graceful of animals.
You would always find them in a group of at least three, blissfully eating up leaves from high branches. A very calm and carefree animal. They have three horns on their heads, though at a time only two can be seen. Their saliva is supposedly antiseptic, hence they can even eat the poisonous plants, as well as leaves from trees with thorns. They can be dangerous too though, apparently a giraffe can kill a lion with a kick.

Zebras also abound the park. At this point, there were not too many though, since they had migrated to Masai Mara, which is the north part of the park, and in Kenya. Still there were lots of them. Zebras are just black and white donkeys, seriously. They even look like just that, idiots:). They just stand at a place and stare on... Very captivating again though, and sweet!

And the gazelles, there are so many types of those! I don’t remember the names either.
The Thompson gazelle is everywhere, cute looking with the black stripes. We also saw Grant’s gazelle giving us a kodak pose:).

The birds in Serengeti were numerous. Never seen such a huge variety of birds, there were some 400 of them.
The secretary bird, which walks like a human being!

The bustard, another big bird we spotted many times.

Vultures and kites sitting on top of trees, scouting for prey.

And the smaller birds you see here and there are just too many and too splendid to describe. In all possible colours, as if God just mixed up his palette and made the birds. In all shapes and sizes. Some photos we took are here…

The weather was very hot this day, we slept a bit in the afternoon. In the evening, we went for another safari, and it turned out to be quite boring. The first two safaris, we spotted so many animals that we thought that was the norm rather than the exception. However, this safari made us realize, it was just the opposite. The evening safari, we just drove all across and just spotted some birds, and some buffalos I think!

Came back to our camp in the evening, had another round of cuisine catering to Indian tastes, another round of cards in the lantern light and off to sleep, hoping none of the wild think of taking a tour of the campsite that night!!

Day 13:

The last morning in Serengeti, we did another morning safari. It was better than the previous days' evening safari though. We spotted lot of animals, the usual lions sleeping in the sun, elephant bathing in the ponds, hippos still there where they were before, buffalos scaring you with their looks, zebras giving you the dumb look and the giraffes the graceful one:).

One new and different scene we saw then was of a cheetah hunting, quite unsuccessfully though!
He chased some gazelles and then gave up. Then walked across, scouring for prey, giving lot of good poses for photos again. Found a couple of deers here and there but was not able to hunt anything. Was quite a useless cheetah actually:). Its also said, that cheetahs may not kill a prey if its very near and within reach. They like the chase so much that they want to chase and then kill their prey. How inefficient! We did not get to see the cheetah running either, it would have been quite a scene.

Another interesting point we noted was that, the smaller gazelles like the Thompson gazelle, without fear came very close to the lions. That’s because since it’s a small animal, the lions rarely kill it: they are not enough return for the effort:). So that’s why, the gazelles are not scared of the lions. It’s the zebras, buffalos and the bigger animals which are more scared of the lions. Surprising na?

It also when you are there in the wild that you realize that animals never kill unless for food, or they are provoked. They never harm anyone just for the sake of it, and WE humans call THEM animals??!!

At the end of the safari, we again went to the place where we had seen the big pride of lions earlier. They were still there, 6 lionesses and 2 lions, and the 17 cubs. The lionesses were again stalking some gazelles, spread out at different locations, all sitting patiently waiting for the right time to attack. We waited an hour or so, but again missed out on a hunt:(.

At the end of the safari, we just realized how rich this park is. At any point, you pick up your binoculars, you will see a range of animals at a distance, gazelles, giraffes, zebras, buffalos, and if lucky the cats too. Just so difficult to imagine..
and so difficult to take in the view completely too.. And leaving the park, we also realized, this kind of experience we may never get again, this far away from the world, in the wild.. what an experience it was…

You can hire a balloon also in the Serengeti, for a view of the park from the top. It's expensive and mostly worth it only during migration time, when you get to see hundreds of animals all moving in a direction. (Btw, zebras and wildebeests are the two animals which migrate. The rest don’t. I always assumed everyone did!)

In the evening, we drove on to Ngorongoro crater and took a couple of hours to reach there.
We reached the campsite, which is on a raised ground, on the rim of the crater. The crater is about 40km square, a depression caused by a volcano. At the crater rim,the height is about 4000 mtrs where our campsite was located. You could get a view of the crater from the campsite. It also was very cold there, unlike the rest of the safaris. Also, when we reached the campsite, there were some zebras roaming around, while some elephants came there to drink water.
Was not reassuring at all!! Anyways we were tired by then, had a quick dinner, some cards, and off to sleep in our tents. (By the way, the tents though they look so small from the outside, have a lot of space inside!). Also even though we camped in the parks, you can stay at the park resorts too. They are located within the parks, but are quite expensive!

Day 14:

We drove into the Ngorongoro crater in the morning, you get about 6 hours permit at a time to go around in the crater. The animals were similar to the ones in Serengeti. Two differences was that there were no giraffes in the crater, as it is not possible for them to enter the crater because of their height. The second difference was that, since the crater was a complete ecosystem in itself, with swamps, water etc, there was no migration of animals from the crater. Hence, we even got to see wildebeests in the crater.

The usual animals were there. A pride of lions soaking the sun, and eating the caracasses of a buffalo.
We could see the horns left after they were finished with the eating. There were a pack of foxes sitting nearby, to eat on this once the lions had their fill.
As well as a pack of zebras just standing at one place and staring dumbly at the lions! I mean, why would you do that? Stare at danger at such close quarters, and with so much sincerity, why??!!

We saw hippos again wallowing in the water, and even saw one of them get out.
They are huuuge and look so heavy! One of the hippo got away from the group, and was swimming in the lake, in fact many times going underwater and surfacing somewhere else.

We saw an ostrich doing a dance, with its wings open and going up and down, apparently it was the mating dance. A cheetah sleeping in the open, a couple of lions sleeping next to the water etc.. The lioness started walking towards us, and what majestic poses it gave!
It truly is a royal animal…

We also saw wildebeests in the crater, they all look like old animals, with beards.
Here is this nice picture, where the zebras, the wildebeests, and the buffalos were all standing together.

We tried hard to locate a rhino though, that we could not do. They are apparently very shy animals, so as our luck would have it, that day they were just too shy!!

Anyways, there is the Big 5, a list of 5 animals which are a must see when in Serengeti. They are supposedly the most dangerous of the ones in Africa. Of these, we saw 4 of the 5..
  • Elephants : We saw hundreds of them I think, many herds time-passing everywhere. Highly cute:)
  • Leopards : We spotted three of them faraway on trees, while one clearly, walking around lazily, climbing trees and lazing around. Very stylish and graceful animal, and their eyes are a shining emerald green. Would love to own one:)
  • Lions : Saw 40-50 of these, got bored after a time. They are royal when they walk, but tend to sleep all the time:(
  • Wild buffalos : Spotted many of them, the most dangerous of the Big 5 apparently
  • Rhinoceros : Did not spot any:(
Anyways, after the safari there, we drove back to Arusha. Shopped on the way for Tanzanite. It’s a rare blue stone found only in Tanzania. We also went to the local market in Arusha, and bought some handicrafts, made of wood as well as some jewellery. Its always a good idea to shop from the local markets than the big shops the driver may take you. You get a lot more bargaining and cheaper stuff this way.

We came back tired to Arusha, stayed at the Bungalow again, and Indian meals at the restaurant nearby. By this time our journey had ended, and we were ready to say goodbye.

Day 15:

Last day in Africa, came back in Rainbow Shuttle to Nairobi, another 6 hours of rickety drives. Bumpy but with fascinating views of the landscape around, and dotted with red and blue Masai, with their wooden sticks. Back at Nairobi airport, and then back to the fast and full life in Mumbai…

Adieu Africa, till the next time!


  1. wow! this is like a book by itself....and u can put a link to your other blog on this one :)

  2. shilps darling
    had a great experience arm chair travelling reading ur blog. much was arm chair travelling but got a wonderful feel of the place through your eyes, mind and memories.
    hope u do as many more trips over time.

  3. thanks a ton for the complimentsssss...:) am already smiling ear to ear?

  4. such splendid record of wat u went thru... dying yo go to serenghetti even more. till date i just thought abt lions, leopards n cheetahs wei thot abt it. thnks for making me realise there is so much more...

  5. Hi,

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