UNBELIEVABLY excited about the next few days!!! We're going to the Serengeti….
The Serengeti National Park is one of the most recognised wildlife parks in the world and is the classic "African Safari". Anyone who has ever watched an African wildlife program on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic has undoubtedly seen images shot here.
Excluding the Ngorongoro National Park, which is linked to it and we'll be going there too, the park covers nearly 13,000km². It is also home to the world famous migration, where approximately 2 million wildebeest, 500,000 thompsons gazelle and 750,000 zebra migrate from the Ngorongoro region towards the spring ripened grass of the plains below. (Numbers vary depending on who you talk to but they're close enough and give you some idea of the scale of this event). During this time the wildebeest also give birth to around 500,000 calves! Remarkable numbers that mean the whole event is one of the 10 natural travel wonders of the world…and well worth seeing!
"Serengit" mean's "endless plains" in the Maasai language of Maa and aptly describes the area that sits below the Ngorongoro highlands. The Maasai people can also be found living within the national park where their relatives have lived for generations. They still live in traditional villages and follow traditional ways of life although many will go to school if they can.
The only people not taking part in this excursion will be Kay and Marcus. Both of them want to see the park but neither of them can afford it (Kay in particular is saving his money to see the gorillas - lucky him) and Marcus cannot see the point in a 4 day excursion as he believes he can see all he wants to see in 1 day.
Both Marcus and Kay will be speaking to other people staying at the campsite to see if they can get enough numbers for a 1 day excursion to the Ngorongoro Crater. This is a fixed price excursion so the more people you can get to go, the less you pay!
The whole tour will be run by a company called Tanzania Experience who will be supplying a guide and cooks so we have no need of Mandla or Vincent. Technically we have no need of a translator either as everyone speaks English, but Nomad pay for one member of the team to represent them on tour, and as Stefan's never been here before, he's coming with us!
We didn't have to pack too much either as Tanzania Experience supply tents and all equipment (they even put our tents up and take them down for us, how nice!) so we were ready long before it was time to go this morning. The two things we have been warned to bring are warm clothing (as on the last night we stay on the rim of the crater where it can get a bit cold) and mosquito repellent (as we will be attacked by mosquitos at night and attacked by Tsetse flies during the day)…
Our guide arrived, thankfully not the same guy as yesterday and this one at least wears deodorant, and we went to inspect our vehicle. It is an old converted Toyota Landcruiser with a roof that can be lifted up for better ventilation and picture taking and the seats have been set out a bit like a minibus but with only one seat on each side. So everyone gets prime position for game viewing!
There is another vehicle with a cook, assistant and all equipment already making its way to tonight's camp and we'll catch up with them later.
We waved goodbye to Mandla, Vincent, Kay and Marcus (gloating just a little if I'm honest) at set off further up the mountain towards the Crater. After about an hour of pretty steady driving we reached the entrance and we all trundled off to check out the information centre whilst our guide sorted out our passes. There was a big model of the area in there which gave me a much better idea of where we were, where we were going and the layout of all the National Parks that make up this vast area, so for that reason I'll try and find a map to upload so you can see too.
Moving on we entered the Ngorongoro National Park and climbed steeply up through jungle vegetation, everyone keeping their eyes peeled for animals of any kind. We didn't really find anything though and before long we reached the top and began to circle around the edge of the crater. We couldn't see much at this point as the trees were too high!
After we had driven around probably a quarter of the edge of the crater our guide pulled over at a viewing point where the vegetation has been cleared for a view of the whole area and…WOW… I've never seen anything like it!
I don't want to go into too much detail about the crater itself today as we'll be back here in a few days for a game drive and I'll tell you more then but you'll get some idea from the photographs of just how spectacular it is, although they're a bit hazy! It's so beautiful that, as other trucks arrived, there were little spats in different languages as everyone fought to get the better pictures without strangers in their shot! Haha!
We continued to drive around to the other side of the crater, but there were no further views from here, and eventually the track began to wind down hill towards the plains of the Serengeti. We were driving very slowly and at times I got a little impatient to get going. We saw a few giraffe and zebra and the odd gazelle but very little else and I wanted to see something different!
I was also looking forward to our Maasai village tour which I knew Mandla had arranged for this morning and time was passing quickly. Before long it would be lunch time and we hadn't seen much… Sounding a little impatient?
We reached the bottom of the highlands and the road began to spread out in front of us. There were scraps of vegetation here but mostly it was short, sunburnt grass and there were no signs of the migration it was promised we would see!
A little further on and we caught sight of another Maasai village, but this one had other trucks parked outside and is clearly open to tourists! A little disappointing but what did we expect, they need to be able to speak English after all!
We pulled up and our guide spoke to the man who came to great us. I'm not sure if they spoke a few words or Maa or whether it was Swahili (much more likely but it didn't sound like Swahili) but the arrangements were made for our tour and several other men from the village came over to greet us as well.
One of them said that he would be our guide initially but that we would each get the opportunity of a guide for every 2 people giving us the chance to ask questions and see their homes.
At this point half the village descended upon us and separated into two groups, men and women. The women began to chant and sing whilst the men began to dance around us doing a weird kind of hop, skip and jump, all the while making some very strange noises. We were told it is a welcome dance although I personally thought it was a little intimidating! Some of the women also walked around and would move their heads back and forwards on their necks causing the big frisbee type necklaces they were wearing to wobble strangely. This is supposedly attractive!
As they came past us one of the men grabbed Roen to join in and we spent the next few minutes giggling furiously as he attempted their complicated hop, skip and jump. After a few more circuits everyone turned and started heading, still dancing and singing, into the village itself, beckoning for us to join them.
The Maasai villages are surrounded by fences which are constructed of broken bushes and twigs of a particularly vicious thorn tree found in the area. This is to keep out the lions! We walked through the gap that forms the entrance and found the men all standing in a circle, Roen still with them, and the women still stood to one side watching them. The singing continued but the dancing had changed, now the men are jumping up and down! Ah, I've seen this one on TV!!!
Each man takes it in turns, or sometimes two go at once, to walk into the middle and jump into the air as high as they can, and believe me, they can jump VERY high! They do this over and over again, sometimes the more popular men seem to receive cheers and encouragement from the others. I've never seen anyone who can jump as high as this. They jump straight up, barely bending their knees at all, and their feet are between 3 and 4 feet off the ground!!! No wonder all these men are always so skinny!
Soon it's Roen's turn and he receives lots of encouragement. (Apart from the women who are trying very hard not to laugh!) He gives it his best shot but somehow manages to jack knife sideways and doesn't jump very high or straight. Everyone laughs but congratulates him for trying, at least we call all appreciate how difficult it is now!
The reason for all this jumping is to impress the women that are standing nearby. The man who can jump the highest is said to be the strongest and fiercest warrior and will therefore make the best husband and father. If a woman likes what she sees she will wobble her head in that funny fashion to show that she has accepted the man as her husband. She will have only one man but the men can have as many wives as they want, within reason but we'll get to that later!
All around us many other villagers have come to watch. The children are hiding around a nearby tree clearly shy but each is watching what's going on and no doubt learning for when they are old enough to join in. The little girls are watching the women and the little boys are watching the men!
There are also some elderly ladies around who have clearly just come for some amusement!
Jumping over, the group begins to disband and some of the men come to join us. Each is introduced and chooses a couple of people to take to their home. Our guy is one of the bigger men, in height as well as build, although he's still incredibly skinny.
He takes us though the village and towards a little round straw hut and takes us inside. This is easier said than done, even for me and I'm almost half his height! (Joking!) The door, although it's just an opening really, is on the side but instead of going straight in, it follows a little spiral around the outside before you arrive in the middle. This little tunnel is only about 3 feet high so I was bent double with my legs bent and anyone taller would be crawling on their knees. The hut itself is barely any taller and it's impossible for anyone to stand up inside.
I asked why they build their huts like this, it seems weird to me when it wouldn't take much to build the whole thing a little taller meaning no one has to bend down, but he told me it's because the huts are temporary, they migrate each winter to much higher grounds, and it saves on materials. They also have no need to stand up as it's only really the women who spend any time in the hut and they will either be sitting to cook or sleeping. Oh, it's also the women who build these huts!
When our guy introduced himself (I can't pronounce or remember his name) he told us he is the son of the chief! Oh wow, aren't we lucky! He lives in this hut with his mother and younger siblings and is currently home as it is a school holiday, he's 19. During the term time he walks to the high school in the city which can take several days unless he manages to get a lift. He'll still have to walk out of the National Park to the main road though which in itself is a pretty long way!
Back to the hut and inside are little wooden structures built into the framework that basically separate it into areas. The hut is really very tiny and each section varies from hut to hut and how many people are living there. This one has two "bedrooms" which are just raised wooden planks. Blankets have been put down which he said is "for show to please the westerners" although it's still incredibly uncomfortable. In the centre is a fire which is permanently lit but there is no chimney or ventilation other than the door which spirals out so the hut is thick with smoke.
We learned that, like many other African tribes, this village consists of just one family. His father is also the father of many of the other children here (perhaps not so lucky after all!) and he has one wife for each day of the week. He spends one night a week with each one and during that time the children are made to leave their home and stay with a relative. Going back to what I said earlier, he clearly doesn't want/need any more than 7 wives!
The aim of all young men in the village, this one included, is to be a warrior! All men and women here are circumcised, without anaesthetic, and when the men have had their operation, between the ages of 12 and 25, they are required to dress in black, paint patterns on their faces in white (we've seen a few of these walking around) and move to another village with other boys like them for a period of 4-8 months. Upon their return they can complete the ritual to become a warrior. Whilst there they will learn how to hunt, (and to kill a lion that endangers their livestock), and to improve their strength and stamina learning the tricks of their elders.
I asked him about his jewellery which is obviously a very integral part of their way of life, particularly the large heavy earrings they all wear that drag their ears down so they end up with massive flesh holes. He seemed confused by my question though. I got the impression that he thought everyone does this! There seems to be no particular reason anyway, at least not that he is familiar with. I also asked him about the earrings, which must be really heavy. I have my ears pierced but cannot imagine wearing earrings so big and heavy they stretch my ears, although I know a lot of people do. However, he once again seemed to think it was normal and told me that it doesn't hurt! Hmm!
He also showed us a container with a lid on it a bit like a water bottle that is made of a gourd, similar to a pumpkin, which was cleaned, dried and then hollowed out. This Maasai calabash is called a "kibuyu" in Swahili and is used to contain and drink a mixture of cow's blood and milk. This is a tradition of the Maasai men, they nick the jugular vein on a cow, collect the blood and mix it with milk. He told us that once he has tried this drink he never needs to drink anything else again, not even water!
Moving outside he practically snatched my camera to take some pictures of us both. I'm sure this wasn't just him being thoughtful, he is as fascinated by electronics as many other less privileged Africans. He seemed to have a fair idea of how to work it though!
We were taken next to a little stall selling jewellery. There are lots of different stalls but each family (yes I know they're all related!) has their own stall and he practically told us that we could only buy off his! There were a few nice items but they were very expensive for what they were. Nevertheless I saw a bracelet I really liked and we did eventually manage to haggle to a more reasonable price although he was clearly dissatisfied that we even tried!
At this point he then asked if we have any eye drops we can spare. As it happens we do although they are in the truck. Several minutes later, as we were taken to the local infant school we forgot all about this strange request.
The school is just another reed hut where a local lady is teaching all the little boys and girls the basics of reading and writing in their own language and English. The youngest was 3 and the oldest boy was 7 and there were about 20 of them in total. All from this small village. The girls sit on one side and the boys sit on the other. Some of them were in such tatty clothing that it was actually very difficult to tell if they were boys or girls so on first glance we didn't even realise they were separated.
The children said hello and then sang a little song for us but it was quite an uncomfortable experience as there was a big tips jar in the middle of the room and everyone was staring at us and practically begging so we left and re-joined the rest of the group. We are not made of money and we have already paid for the tour and the bracelet so there are only so many "donations" we can afford to leave.
Once we were all back together we said goodbye to the villagers and headed off on foot to a nearby tree with our guide to eat lunch. It was only after we were sat down that we noticed some animal bones around us. This is where they slaughter their cattle! Our guide already knew this of course, the fence around the tree was a giveaway for him, but he kept quiet so as not to put us off. I wondered if some of the bones weren't human! After all, the Maasai don't bury their dead but leave them out to be eaten by hyenas as they believe a dead body pollutes the ground!
After lunch we went back to the truck and were just driving off when a couple of the men from the village walked over, I recognised one of the guys as our guide. He walked straight up to my window and asked if I had those eye drops! Someone in the village has an infection. We fished them out and handed them over before driving on. It was probably his way of making up for the fact we haggled so hard for my bracelet, and we didn't mind anyway!
Eventually the scrubland type bushes that surrounded us disappeared and the flat land began to spread out before us in one big vast plain as far as the eye can see. Shortly afterwards we crested a low rise and the sight took our breath away! It was the migration!!!
There were wildebeest EVERYWHERE! Little calves running around and darting in front of the truck, zebra and gazelle dotted among them here and there. I've never seen so many animals in one place, and the noise, although calm, was constant and loud.
We stopped to take pictures, but it's just impossible without the right equipment, to convey the sheer size of what we were seeing.
Our guide was keen to keep moving as we had to get to camp which was still several hours away and he advised that we would be seeing much more of this so we drove on. After another half hour or so we reached the entrance to the Serengeti National Park, it's really just a big archway across the track at a cross roads but it signals the border between the two areas. To be honest I thought we had been in the Serengeti from the moment we hit the plains but apparently not.
We stopped for 5 minutes and were allowed to get out and stretch our legs. There were a few Maasai women dotted around trying to sell touristy products. The migration still surrounded us on all sides as well meaning there could easily be a cheater or other potentially dangerous animal out there but it seems that it's ok to walk around here!
Back in the truck once more and we drove on for several hours. We saw, amongst the migration, numerous birds and even elephant or two. At one point Adam yelled "STOP"! He had seen a dead zebra in the long grass just next to the track and was hoping there would be a lion or some other animal eating it but there wasn't. It was clearly a kill, although the animal looked old, but there was no sign of anything else around.
We wanted to wait a little while and see what turned up but our guide said we could be waiting all day and see nothing, he wanted to move on.
Eventually the plains disappeared and the land began to become slightly hilly. There was the occasional Kopje around too. This is a rocky outcrop which appears almost in the middle of nowhere and is the result of ancient volcanic activity. The word is pronounced "copy" of "copies" in plural. One of these Kopjes's was the inspiration behind the home of Simba in The Lion King! Incidentally, Simba means Lion in Swahili!
Eventually the land changed again, it was slightly hillier still and there were more and more trees around. Our guide began communicating with other guides around him to find out what they've seen, we were getting close to camp and he was willing to slow down!
The first thing everyone had said when asked this morning what they wanted to find was "leopard"! Well, we saw one!!!
We started driving down a much smaller track, we guessed we were heading towards something as there had been several phone calls alerting us, we just didn't know what. It wasn't long before we saw a number of trucks parked up and everyone had their cameras and binoculars pointed at a tree! Oh wow!!
We pulled up behind the other trucks and our guide explained that there is a leopard sat in the tree, he didn't tell us where it was though, to see if we could find it. Stefan and Roen have binoculars and of course I have the telephoto lens for my camera. It didn't take long, the bottom large branch is almost horizontal and there, lazing by the trunk was our leopard. Such a beautiful and graceful sight. I love my animals and am often excited to see something new but this was something else! I just wish we were closer!!! Then there is the added fact that the sun is in front of us casting shadow across the whole tree.
On the other side of the tree is another track with a few other trucks parked up. They appeared to be closer so we persuaded our guide to drive around. Now this is not as straightforward as it sounds, the vehicles can't leave the tracks and the only way to get to the other side is a 10 minute drive around! I hope she doesn't leave!
We arrived and she was still there, perhaps she had lazily moved a paw since we had last seen her (I'm guessing she's female by the way) but it was clear she wasn't leaving any time soon. Now the sun was behind us, the tree is no longer in shadow, but, she is facing the other way, and we're not as close as we had hoped, the appearance from the other side was deceiving!
I must have taken 100 photo's trying to get the best shot I could but it's no good, they're all the same and too far away, eventually we headed on to camp and hopefully we'll see another leopard tomorrow!
Once at camp we were assigned tents, which had already been put up waiting, and dumped our bags before heading off for tea and biscuits. After about half an hour we set off again for another game drive!
Chantelle wasn't feeling too well and decided to stay back at camp as she knew we would only be covering the local area and would be back shortly after nightfall, which isn't far off but the rest of us were raring to go.
We found a pool off hippo's, more birds and watched a spectacular sunset as we drove along, but nothing else. We all wanted to head back to the leopard tree and see if we could see her leave and head off on her nightly hunt but our guide was adamant she was already gone. After dark we saw some buffalo but they were too far away for my camera flash to reach and all I ended up with was black shots.
Seeing that it was a waste of time we headed back to camp for dinner and an early night in preparation for tomorrow. It's been a long day and, finally, we've actually managed to find that elusive leopard!