Days 5 and 6: Safari in the Serengeti
Today started early: we were all up and ready for coffee around 6:30am when Vincent, our safari guide/driver/camp-maker/cook, showed up. We left JBFC around 7:30, leaving Ben behind to catch the overnight (12-14 hour) ferry to Bakoba, his former PC town. After a couple hours of driving northeast around Lake Victoria, we came to the town of R/Lamadi, where we stopped in a cafe for breakfast: chai tea from a thermos (black tea, boiled milk, some spices and sugar) for me, mendozi (fried dough), and beef samosas. Maybe it was a bit late for breakfast, for these weren't all that warm or fresh. Still, we sat there a while and then bought cases of water from a small drink store across the street. The "street" was not really paved, certainly no lines down the middle of it, lots of stones/construction material/ trash /
trucks (one labelled ammonium nitrate, which made Ivory wonder...) /generators scattered around, people selling random things from little carts with homemade umbrella shades patched together from old t-shirts, and when we parked to buy the drinks, a crowd of boys and young men approached my window, offering peanuts, watermelon, pineapple (I didn't recognize it at first as it was rectangular and wrapped in white paper), bananas, sugar-cane stalks, and big diamond-shaped sesame bars. I said "no thank you" several times and then I tried distracting the child salesmen: "Hello, my name is Julia; what is your name?" Several were able to answer in English and then I initiated counting in English, we sang the ABCs and Happy Birthday, I named their products in English and they named them in Swahili, I tried asking how old they were (that puzzled them - I didn't get a single answer). Ivory wondered if those kids sold on the street every day or if they were out because it was a Sunday; their English ability suggested they may attend some school, at least.
We drove on to the gate of the Serengeti National Park and stopped for another half-hour or so (nothing happens quickly here) to buy sodas and beer, register for our entrance card, and use the bathrooms. There were several guards with rifles milling about and then we noticed that, in a truck behind the ranger station, were four men who appeared to be handcuffed. A couple of the men were wearing very ragged clothing, and were pretty unkempt...my guess is they were poachers who had been apprehended. The truck drove off while we were still waiting, with two rangers in the drivers' cab and four park-service men sitting on the frame of the truck over the four men in handcuffs. Yikes.
As soon as we entered the park gates (which wasn't very soon - probably around noon), we began to see animals. I spotted a baboon right away and then, off to the right, something that moved like a cat: CHEETAH! We didn't see it move like the fastest animal on land that it is, but it was cool nonetheless, and lucky: it's one of the rarest animals to spot, I guess. Over the course of the afternoon we saw elephants, hippos, giraffes, wildebeest, lions, warthogs, dik-dik, bush bucks, Thompson gazelles, a solitary crocodile, secretary birds, impala, and zebras -so cool! The Toyota Landcruiser that we're in has 7 seats and a pop-up roof that is open on all sides so that you can stand and get a really clear shot, and Vincent was great at spotting animals. At one point the road took us right across a dam in a river, so that we got really close to 15 or 20 hippos- they are ENORMOUS animals, but you could barely distinguish them from big rocks until they surfaced for a little air, or you would see only the tips of their ears and their eyes above the water level.
After a picnic lunch (pizzas the JBFC restaurant had made for us the night before), we stopped at a fancy lodge up on a hillside...big canvas tents built on top of stone foundations, a gorgeous dining room/bar/cafe area with colonial-style furniture and a Victrola in the corner, and amazing views of the Serengeti. David has been keen on exploring all options that might be included in a future D.A. student trip, so we took a tour, found out they have a naturalist on staff, and discussed the possibility of having students talk with the director of the lodge about the tourism industry. I happened to have my iPad in my bag, and took it out to make some notes while we waited (and waited, and waited) for our drinks, and then turned on my wifi searching just for kicks: ha! Wifi on top of a mountain in the Serengeti...and it turned out Joe was online just then in Newburyport, so we exchanged a few emails (FaceTime did not work) before my group moved on. From the lodge, it took almost 3 hours to reach our campsite and the last hour or so, with the sun setting in a sky that had gotten a little cloudy, Vincent was clearly in haste: he drove 50 mph down the sand-packed, gravelly, bone-jarring road - David and Sheryl and I stood in the van under the pop-up top enjoying the thrill of the ride and the wind in our hair.
Having imagined a private campsite with one big tent for us and a low table out on the plain (as I had experienced 20 years ago while on a tour with a family friend who owned a travel agency), I was surprised when we reached a public campground with several Landcruisers in a parking lot, about 25 tents arrayed in a lot with numbered signs, and two long dining hall buildings. It was dusk, and so we hurried to unload our Landcruiser and settle in before dinner (we'd been told that a private chef would be cooking for us.) Ivory and I were first out and loaded up, and Vincent pointed towards the tents and said we could "pick a spot." So we headed for a good area and unzipped a couple of tents to see which were empty. After claiming three more-or-less empty tents, we hurried back to the van, only to see Vincent unfurling our group's tents: he had meant that we should pick a camping spot, not a tent! We retrieved our stuff from someone else's tents and tried to get our three set up before it was dark, changing into long pants and shirts and socks to protect against mosquitoes and tse-tse flies.
We then carried our camp chairs into one of the dining hall buildings where, it appeared, different groups of campers had designated areas: there were 8 or 9 tables arrayed around the edge of the hall, which had windows and doors without screens, but with bars. I was curious about what the cooking hall looked like, and where the food would come from, so I walked over to the other building and found 8-9 chefs, corresponding to the dining groups, each preparing a dinner. There was a long, big work surface that took up a good part of the middle of this hall, and on floor next to the countertop most chefs had set up a small propane-powered stove. There were vats of things steaming and the place smelled good - curry and stew smells - and there were a couple of charcoal braziers outside of the hall. Our dinner turned out to include: white sandwich bread with margarine, a salty "pumpkin" soup, a fresh chopped salad (which I didn't eat) and cooked carrots/green beans, homemade fried potato "chips," and a delicious stew with a little meat that you scooped up with the potato chips. And orange wedges for dessert- the first oranges (or dessert) I've had here. The only thing marring the otherwise lovely dinner was what we saw running around on the floor and then, worse, among the rafters: rats. (When we asked Vincent if that was typical he said, "yeah, sure; they are at home"!)
A quick trip to the latrine, a quick wash of the face and brush of the teeth, and we piled into our tents, where, despite the very short sleeping pad that I shared with Sheryl, the sleeping bag that has been used by who knows how many people, and the possibility that the very kind of animals we'd seen during the day might visit us at night (Vincent informed us when we asked, hoping for reassurance, about rangers, that "there are many campgrounds in the area, so they come, they go"), I slept very well.
For breakfast the next morning, our chef, Emanuel, prepared thick spongy sweet pancakes, fried egg whites in triangle shapes, lots of cut up fresh fruit, sausages, and toast. It was delicious, no rats, packed up, and out we went on safari! Today we saw lots of animals in groups: 15 lions arranged in three different groups in close proximity to one another; 25 hippos; hundreds of zebras surrounding us at a water hole; a big flock of ostriches; a crowd of baboons; a family of 4 giraffes...it was a wonderful day of watching animals. We spotted 2 or 3 different leopards and spent a while watching them lie lazily in tree branches; we spent 20 minutes watching a pair of lions; we had a picnic lunch in the truck while watching a family of 6 lions; we saw 10-15 warthogs run across the road on their funny little short legs with their tails up in the air. A wonderful day out on the hot Serengeti.
It was a long, bumpy, hot ride back out of the park, and then another couple of hours back to JBFC. When we turned off onto the JBFC road, Sheryl, who had been practicing her Swahili with Vincent, had evidently sweet-talked Vincent into letting her drive: they switched seats and, with great aplomb, she drove the 6 km back to campus. It was a riot to see the expressions on the faces of people walking by: surprise, consternation, delight, distrust, befuddlement...it was really, really funny to see men, women, and children respond to a white woman driving this safari van down the really bumpy rural dirt road! As we got closer to campus, we began recognizing people and, between that familiarity and the gorgeous landscape with the lake in the distance, we were very glad to come "home." I have to say I'm starting to miss home and feeling very far away but, knowing that a snowstorm is due in Deerfield tonight, I will enjoy these last few days of 85-90 degree heat, and the bizarre world of expats, and pythons in chicken coops, and giraffes on the Serengeti, and the chance to read books to children learning English in Tanzania!