Safari - CONTAINS VIDEO!
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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The tour operator, a round-faced guy named David, pokes his head in the driver side window of our Land Rover.
"Well everyone", he says cheerfully to the five of us assembled in the rear of the vehicle, "I just wanted to wish you a great trip. I know you'll have a wonderful time." Then he points at Gordon, the guide and Ibrahim, the cook, who occupy the driver's and front passenger's seat. "And of course, don't forget to tip your guide and your cook. Ten percent is a normal tip." Gordon and Ibrahim squirm and smile uncomfortably.
I love it when people tell me how much of a tip we 'should' give them. "Hey, David", I call back. "We'll tip however much we feel like tipping, so fuck off and let us get on with it."
Our fellow safari-goers are Jamie and Joe from Ann Arbor, Michigan and Rolien from Holland. Joe and Jamie are both teachers and we like them straight away. They are intelligent, engaging, funny and our age. Joe teaches social studies at a school that lets him choose his own subjects. For the next term he has decided to teach a unit on the recent civil war in Mozambique, the next country on their itinerary. Joe is also a bit of a photographer and has all the gear - tripod, big lenses, etc. Rolien is also around our age, she has been working in Tanzania and doing the safari at the end of her stint here. She studied tropical agriculture at uni (how did I miss that one on the course list?) and has been working with some local tomato producers to improve their tomato-growing procedures.
The drive out to the National Parks is a bit of a stop-start affair. We make a number of stops before we even get out of Arusha, picking up various supplies and other bits and pieces. We hit the open road and everything seems to be going well, although our guide and our cook have not said a word between them since we started. Then Gordon pulls over to the side of the highway and begins to poke around the engine, which is conveniently located under his seat. Some random men show up from nowhere and a lot of pointing and Swahili discussion follows. Gordon finally puts his seat back over the engine and we wordlessly drive off. Except we only drive across the street where the whole process is repeated but this time involving more locals, some who have wrenches and other mechanical tools. These guys look like they are in for the long haul so one of us asks "is there a problem?"
"Fuel is leaking."
We all get out, stretch our legs and resist the advances of the people who have materialised from out of the blue like the car experts and are now trying to sell paintings, curios, Maasai bracelets and other stuff.
Once the fuel leakage crisis has been resolved we proceed harmlessly to the Serengeti National Park. Pretty much immediately we are out into the wide open savannah that you see on the telly, vast plains dotted with acacia trees, chunky rock clusters and dots on the horizon that may well be ferocious predators. Ibrahim opens the roof of the Land Rover and we pop our heads up to start spying wildlife. We spot a couple of giraffes and a few migrating wildebeest but Gordon is reluctant to stop and let us take photos. The Land Rover is still not a hundred percent and he fears that if he cuts the engine he may not get it going again. We can't argue with that - being stuck in a vehicle all night with wild animals wandering around us is probably not ideal. Also, due to our earlier delays we are running behind schedule. This doesn't bother us but Ibrahim is getting quite anxious about getting to camp. Sure enough, when we get to the camp, Ibrahim and Gordon leap out of the car and race to unpack the truck and set up our tents as though they are competing on some game show for a fridge and freezer set.
"Guys, relax!" we call out to them, "we'll take care of that". Ibrahim, now wild-eyed and frantic in contrast to the picture of serenity he was in the car, is concerned about getting a spot in the crowded kitchen to prepare our meals, and Gordon needs to rush off and get the car fixed.
Everything works out in the end, us five wazungu enjoy a tasty dinner and chat for a while before retiring to our respective tents. Compared to the camping on Mount Kilimanjaro, this feels like luxury - it's not freezing cold, we have comfortable mattresses, we aren't lying on rocks and there are no dangerous cliffs located right next to our tent.
It is a biggish campsite, with around forty to fifty tents set up. Everyone is sound asleep, wrapped up cozy and warm in their sleeping bags, resting from their day's exertions. At around four in the morning, the night's silence is shattered dramatically by a blood-curdling man-scream and some thrashing against the side of a tent from a nearby tent. The sound is a cross between that of someone who has just seen a ghost and someone having their back waxed unexpectedly. Being out in the Serengeti, with no fence between us and the millions of wild animals that we share it with, you automatically fear the worst. I imagine a ferocious, deranged man-eating lion dragging some poor bugger out of his tent by his feet. Jane envisions a nosy hyena, as she had heard one whining earlier in the night. Within seconds we hear footsteps, the unzipping of tent flaps and worried utterances of concern. "Are you okay? What happened?"
It seems like he is okay so everyone goes back to sleep. In the morning, Ibrahim explains that it was just one of the cooks having a bad dream, maybe one involving a vegetable soup gone horribly wrong. All the cooks and guides know the guy and apparently he is very embarrassed and keeping a low profile today.
We are all fine and we head out after breakfast for a good long game drive. In terms of animal sightings, it is fairly successful, I guess. We see some lions breakfasting on an unfortunate wildebeest, a heap of mostly-submerged hippos, a couple of distant elephants, a few lolloping giraffes grazing on acacia trees, groups of dainty gazelles and antelopes, plus plenty of migrating zebra and wildebeest. The Great Migration was one of the major attractions of a safari for me, having seen those National Geographic documentaries with the millions of animals charging across the plains or plunging headlong by the herd into the Grumeti River. Sadly, it sounds as though most of the charging and plunging has already taken place, so we have to settle for a lot of sedate strolling or the odd burst of jogging.
Joe and Jamie had heard, somehow, that a good portion of the migration was due to be passing through the north-eastern part of Serengeti tonight, in particular near a camp called Lobo. Accordingly, we drive right across the Serengeti to this campsite that is, predictably, completely deserted. The migration has either decided on a different route or is a little behind schedule.
Jane and I don't mind too much. In fact, I've seen all the animals I wanted to so I'm a little bored of the game drives now. All we do is drive around until someone spots an animal and cries out "stop the car, Gordon! I see the backside of an ostrich way in the distance." Then we stop for five to 10 minutes while everyone takes their photos of the ostrich's arse that you can barely see. If it is one of the 'big five' animals (lion, cheetah, leopard, rhino, elephant), there will usually be a long string of jeeps all stopped next to the poor old animal, all bursting with gawking tourists wearing stupid khaki jackets with dozens of pockets and ridiculous long-lens cameras. This creates a traffic jam on the small dirt roads, which is worsened when one jeep load complains that they can't see the animal properly and their driver tries to squeeze in front of another jeep. As a result, the whole road is now blocked and no one can get out. It's really no different from a zoo except there's no ice cream stand and you can't walk around.
The Lobo camp site remains deserted apart from one jeepload of young poms who are driving themselves around guideless. As they start to unpack their stuff, a pack of baboons begins circling the camp site. At first they just sit and watch from a distance but grow bolder once the campers start bringing out their food. The baboons think we can't see them as they sneak around the camp's unfenced perimeter, gradually getting closer to the jeep. Then the two biggest males make a charge, racing in and grabbing a bag of sausages from the hamper. One of the campers, a floppy-haired chap with a posh accent, yells at the baboons and chases them away by banging a metal pot and lid together. Ibrahim tells us that the baboon is one of the most aggressive animals around and should not be messed with. To avoid any baboon confrontations of our own, we eat our dinner in the safety of the dining hut, a small enclosure with a metal grille all around, designed to keep the animals out. It's almost like a reverse zoo.
Day three is really just a lot more game driving. I know I sound spoiled but the sight of another herd of wildebeest or some submerged hippos isn't grabbing me too much any more. We drive back through Serengeti and cross over into the neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). With all the fuss about big cats and mass migrations, it's easy to overlook the fact that another significant species, namely humans, had their origins right here. Remains have been found in Olduvai Gorge, within the NCA, of human remains dating back around 3.75 million years. I am quite excited to visit Olduvai, even though there is nothing really there, just for its evolutionary significance. To stand there on the ground that our oldest ancestors trod, with their knuckles dragging on the ground and their oversized jaws grunting about matters of ancient importance.
To be continued . . .