The Living Edens of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

A day’s driving takes us through the rolling green hills from Kenya to Tanzania. Interestingly, the visa was USD 100 for Americans, USD 50 for everyone else — unfortunately something I’d get used to hearing throughout the trip (I guess it has to do with the US charging visitors expensive visa fees, so in the spirit of turnabout’s fair play…). We drive past workers bent akimbo in lush tea plantations, fruit sellers with their produce piled neatly into orange, onion, mango and watermelon pyramids and funny store signs like ‘Excellent Fashions & Utensils’. Really? Unlike Reese’s Pieces, these are two things that don’t normally go together. Perhaps it’s for the housewife who wants to shop for frocks and spoons at the same place. Get it? Frocks and spoons? Forks and spoons? Sigh. Sometimes I feel like I only amuse myself… Countless children wave and shout ‘Jambo’ as we drive on by. Some take off running as soon as they spot the truck with bright toothy smiles.

All smiles

Unfortunately, not all are so nice.

‘Hello! Give me money!’ they shout from the roadside.

‘Wenna taka credit card?’ (‘Do you take credit cards?’), retorts someone from the truck, reading from a Swahili guide, already exasperated.

Today’s photography workshop is on aperture, shutter speeds and ISO settings. I can feel my eyes glazing over. I know that I really need to know all this stuff. I do. But it’s already starting to feel a bit daunting. I must admit that I was a smidge nervous before the trip. I imagined being in a line-up with semi-professional photogs, and me with my entry-level Canon SLR pragmatically  purchased from Costco. Apparently, Africa in Focus has hosted professional photographers on other trips before. However, of the 11, surprisingly only 3 of us have SLRs ranging from the basic to the colossal and the rest have point-and-shoots. I have a feeling we’ll all be on the same learning curve.

Everyone wants to become a better photographer but is just not sure how, so the workshops are most welcome and quite accessible to all. George gives the workshops with a whiteboard in hand, and afterwards, makes the rounds of the truck to help us with our individual cameras and settings. I got my camera just months before the start of the trip, but had yet to read the intimidating manual. With all the traveling I do, though, I figure having the ability to take good photographs is a must to capture even a fraction of what my eyes see…

We camp on the shores of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, the sound of waves lapping the shore a tonic. The chirping of ubiquitous weaver birds fills the air. No one swims in the water, though, reputed to have parasites causing bilharzia and we have yet to buy our tablets.

A splash of color

Dinner is a magnificent feast conjured up by Ebron, the wizard-like trip cook, of grilled lamb, Spanish rice, buttered carrots and roasted potatoes, the first of many sumptuous meals that he miraculously cooks up over a campfire… This is not your grandmother’s camping.

One of my first camping memories was camping at the beach with my non-cook of a father. I can’t remember why my mother and sister joined us a day or two later, but safe to say, sans maman, our meals mostly consisted of fried eggs, pan unwashed between uses, an unappetizing scene, even for a child of 7… Happy to say that this trip is more like camping on steroids. Important when two months of tent set ups, campfire meals and long travel days stretch ahead.

The next day, we enter the Serengeti (Maasai for “Endless Plains”). An apt name, as the grasslands stretch as far as the eye can see, interspersed with bizarrely contorted trees, looking like they came from a time long ago. We barely have time to take it all in before we spot large herds, hundreds strong, of wildebeest, cape buffalo and zebra. Shy giraffes in groups of more than 20 crane their necks to stare as our truck rumbles past on the uneven red earth.

The highlight of the day is “spotting” two cheetah by the side of the road, basking in the warm afternoon sun. It must be because there are no tall buildings here, but I catch myself staring at the huge African sky that seems all-encompassing…

Can you spot the cuddly Hyraxes?

By the end of the day, everyone is ravenous for dinner which is spaghetti bolognaise (dubbed “spag bol” by the Brits) with side dishes of cauliflower and cinnamon squash. We’re in a wild camp for the night, one with very limited facilities and no fences to prevent wild animals roaming through the camp.

We nervously use the facilities before bed and hide away all traces of food. In the night, we are awoken by the plaintive ‘whooping’ of a solitary hyena and the distant sound of lions. A hyena comes to sniff at Wil’s feet but apparently finds the scent unappetizing. We have a good laugh as my overly cautious sister produces a can of pepper spray she has brought along. In the event of an emergency, I think any wild animal would’ve thanked us for adding spice to its dinner…

Eat or be eaten...

We take another game drive in the morning which starts slowly but picks up suddenly and fortuitously, starting with a solitary male lion hovering over a fresh kill of wildebeest, with a patient cheetah and a pair of jackals looking on in the distance. We watch in morbid fascination as he disembowels the luckless calf with bloody, unsated teeth. This is nature at its most unforgiving. He lugs it with some effort over quite a distance behind a ridge, away from prying eyes. We continue to stare. Part of the fun of game drives is you’ll never know what you’re going to see. Arrive 3 minutes earlier or later and you’d have missed all the action…

Spectacular Migration

We keep going and the turquoise truck passes hippo pools filled with the behemoths, with only their ears visible, staying out of the hot morning sun. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a dense grouping of wildebeests, zebras and antelope, as far as the horizon in every direction, part of the annual migration between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Hundreds of thousands of animals graze, shocking in their sheer number.

It is a ‘pinch yourself’ moment, harkening back to what the Wild West must have looked like in the Pioneer days. We stare, mouths agape, necks swiveling, trying to take it all in. (I take about 30 consecutive pictures and later piece them together for a phenomenal panoramic view, about 15 feet long that barely captures the essence of what we saw…)

From the Serengeti, we make our way to the Ngorongoro Crater, passing through hours of outstanding desolate, arid landscape, nothing to break our view except for the occasional dust spout. Once we near the Crater, the scenery changes dramatically, turning into lush greenery, towering trees covered in vines. I half expect to see King Kong around every bend as we ascend to our camp for the night. We fill our stomachs with delicious beef stew over pasta, mashed potatoes and crunchy green beans. A hot shower is welcome after the dustiness of the Serengeti that is all pervasive. It’s been an incredible day, filled with the most amazing animals. We go to bed dreaming of what’s in store…

Descending into the Crater

‘Watch out for the kites when you when you have lunch. They’ll swoop down to grab your food!’ With this warning, we descend into the Ngorongoro Crater, our 4x4s taking the hairpin turns in stride. A heavy mist surrounds us as we start our descent, but the morning sun soon burns it off. The sight that greets us is ethereal, otherworldly, ageless.

The Crater is actually an extinct volcano which long ago collapsed upon itself, leaving a caldera 22km wide, rimmed by mountains. In itself, it’s a breathtaking scene, so beautiful, it feels like a Hollywood created fantasy. I feel as if I’ve been transported to another world, another time, before everything had been ruined.

Ngorongoro Crater

Then we see them. Thousands of animals dot the pan-flat caldera bottom, the steep walls acting as a natural barrier, keeping them in the crater year-round. The crater is a living Eden.

I have to remind myself to breathe as I struggle to take in the beauty of herds thousands strong against the lush green mountainous backdrop. I’ve been a lot of places in my life, and this is definitely one of the most beautiful spots I’ve had the good grace to lay my eyes on. The animals are so used to the land rovers, they barely deign to move out of the way which makes photographing them a simple pleasure.

A fully grown male lion lies inches from the wheel well of our sister truck, deep in carefree slumber. The photography in the crater is so good that we jokingly say we need a ‘zebra intervention’ as we can’t seem to stop taking photos of them – standing, grazing, rolling in dust, adults, babies, alone, in a group. Seconds after we announce with finality that we’ve taken the last zebra (or wildebeest) picture, another guilty shutter goes off.

This is SO going to be my last zebra picture, I swear!

In the rainy season, the crater has a lake, filled with thousands of bright pink flamingos (Fun fact: they get their color from the algae they eat). It’s so indescribably beautiful here, I think to myself that it’d almost be worth being a prey animal, just for the sheer pleasure of waking up to life in the Crater, however short.

Everything is different in Africa -- A weird straight rainbow

We stop for lunch overlooking a hippo pool, a cloud of white butterflies flitting in the air. As if the day has not been spectacular enough, a phenomenon appears above – a rainbow – though not an arc but rather a short straight ribbon of color high in the clouds. Kites lazily circle above, waiting for a distracted luncheoner.

In the afternoon, we see two more cheetah, this time closer to the road, and a pride of lionesses, fourteen strong. Pellets of rain start to fall and begrudgingly, we begin our ascent out of the crater, silent and contemplative. Since Ebron has had the day to cook, he sets out a three course meal with a mushroom soup starter, followed by roast chicken and gravy over rice, with sides of stuffed pumpkin, crunchy green beans and mashed potatoes. I think most of us were hoping to lose weight during the trip, resigned to a life of deprivation and the absence of creature comforts. However, we’re surprised when Ebron unveils a dessert of black cherry cake with freshly made custard. It’s been a good day.

Through the night, a heavy rain falls, turning the red earth into thick soup, splattering and caking where it has no business. We soon give up trying to stay clean and take down our tents in glum silence. A short morning’s drive takes us to Arusha, where we stop for lunch and stock up on supplies.

We’re given money to find our own lunch from the many restaurants in the plaza, offering pasta and toasted sandwiches, Tanzanian cuisine and even wine and cheese. We gleefully visit “Chocolate Temptations” for dessert. A handy internet café reconnects me to the world after which I find it all too easy to tune back out. On the road, the days meld together with one incredible adventure after the next, and I’m just happy to ‘be’.

In the evening, we camp at Snake Park, a comfortable site with an odd menagerie of cobras, pythons and other snakes along with sedentary crocodiles. We also visit the Maasai Cultural Museum for a glimpse of Maasai nomadic life (Fun fact: They don’t eat vegetables, only meat and milk mixed with cow blood!) We then walk through muddy fields and arrive at the Maasai village. Before we even get close, dozens of children from toddler to teenager temporarily leave their goat herding duties and rush out to surround us,playfully holding any available mzungu hand, some shyly asking for pens.

Maasai Children Under Umbrella

The Maasai are polygamists and it is not unusual for one man to have up to 8 wives (each with their own hut) and dozens of children. Their mud splattered faces light up at any type of interaction and they have a ready laugh when one of us opens up an umbrella. Even though the Maasai are rich in land and cattle, they live quite poorly. We tour the simply built school and clinic where a victim of a spitting cobra bite lays in recuperation.

Maasai Child with Cloak

We notice something strange, though. No matter how muddy it is, the Maasai’s brightly colored cloaks are always sparkling clean, ready to light up the countryside as they tend their animals, staff in hand. It’s hard not to stare at them, with their colorful beadwork and elongated earlobes, and I realize that we must be equally strange to them.

Shopping tip: The village tour comes complete with a stop at some of the huts where crafts are eagerly displayed and hung up on the walls. The people are easy-going and bargaining is an accepted practice. Items include lion tooth necklaces (which are actually made from buffalo horn) and lots of beaded trinkets. The brightly colored bracelets for a dollar or two make authentic gifts. Or if you fancy a fly swatter made from some luckless animal’s tail, you’ve come to the right place…

Again, Ebron has an uninterrupted afternoon and whips up a hearty vegetable soup, followed by lamb stew over rice, with sides of squash, cauliflower and potatoes. Pudding rounds out the menu. Before going to bed, we survey the other overland trucks in the campsite. We all feel fortunate to be with Benji and Africa in Focus. Most of the other trucks squeeze in up to 24 people in the same space we have for 16. Our tents are substantially roomier and we have more locker space than we know what to do with. We catch looks of envy on the faces of our fellow overlanders as they pull out their wrinkled gear from overstuffed lockers. Sure, the truck takes a lot of wear and tear as it grind thousands of kilometers over bumpy roads. Some things are even held together by duct tape and elbow grease, but overall, the truck has a terrific design and we settle in to the comfortable life on the road. Has it only been a week since we started? We all tuck in early as tomorrow is a long driving day of more than 600km to Dar Es Salaam, gateway to mystical Zanzibar…

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