22 July 2007

Safari Post VII: No, Really!

We never did get all the way through the safari, did we? Well, it's time to get started again! Safari was great! We'll pick it up where we left off--heading for the Serengeti--after the jump.

Now then. You may want to go back and review where we were when last we discussed safari. (Links to the rest of the safari posts are at the bottom of this one.)

We left the Lake Manyara Lodge in the morning after packing up box lunches. The plan for the day called for... well, I'm not sure. It called for going to the Serengeti. Did it call for a game drive at the Serengeti? I don't know. In any event, departing Manyara we drove through some of the prettiest countryside we saw on the trip. Tanzania is just an absolutely gorgeous place. Pity it's so poor... but if it was rich like America, this view would be trashed up with billboards and gas stations and tire stores and fast food joints, and instead of a jumble of little farms it would be one big mechanized field owned by ADM. So it goes.

Leaving behind the settled part of the countryside we eventually arrived at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. You may have heard of the Ngorongoro Crater if you watch any nature shows on Discovery Channel. I didn't realize it but we had to drive right along the rim of the crater on our way to Serengeti. Along the way there's an observation point. We stopped and took photos into the crater. Notice that cloud there in the foreground that looks like so much fog balled up into a cloud? Yeah, quite the cloud...

Anyway, we took a couple group photos as well, but because of my strict "No Pictures of Smitty" policy I can't post those. Nyah nyah! But we did happen to peer over the rim into the crater, and what did we spy there? Cape Buffalo! Walking in a line to a pond to take a drink. And an ostrich behind them. At least, we think these are cape buffalo. They could be something else equally large, possibly rhinos, but these do not look like rhinoceri. At this point we were using my camera like binoculars, because it was a little clearer. Cool, huh? I like my camera.

We drove along the crater rim for a while, then stopped at the Serena Ngorongoro Lodge to pick up some ice for our cooler. Remember we'd purchased beers, ciders, chips and such back in Arusha? They were warm. (Not so bad with the chips, you know, but the beer and cider...) So were the box lunches. And it was pretty warm in Tanzania, too, so we needed to get stuff on ice. The Serena Lodge was gorgeous, just beautiful. You could do the same safari we did, but stay at Serena Lodges every night (except Manyara). Costs several hundred dollars more, but let me tell you, these are nice places. Still, you don't go on safari to stay in nice hotels. We were happy with where we stayed.

In any event, we eventually passed on over the crater rim and started down the back side of the extinct volcano. Beyond the crater itself lies the Maasai Valley, a bit of a misnomer as far more Maasai live elsewhere than live in the valley itself, but it's a pretty spot, no doubt. This is fascinating country, very rough. If you want, you can stop at a Maasai village in this valley. You have to pay some money, and of course it's appreciated if you bring gifts--pencils and paper for the children, mainly, though sodas and other things are appreciated--and you get to go into one of the village huts and look at handicrafts and whatnot. And, no doubt, be swarmed by people selling things. Back in Arusha we had purchased the so-called Maasai Gift Bag, which is a mix of all things they like as gifts, but as our spines turned to jelly on the rutted road through the valley we became inert and decided to keep driving.

One thing we had not counted on seeing--I didn't even know we'd go by it--was the Oldupai Gorge. You know it better as the "Olduvai Gorge," but the guides there will tell you that pronunciation and spelling is incorrect.

This is the famous gorge where Mary Leakey first discovered footprints of early humans frozen in the million-years-old ash of the eruption of the volcano that created Ngorongoro. It is one of the most important paleoanthropology sites in the world. And it was on the way. Bryson asked if we wanted to go, and I think largely on my urging we agreed to do so.

On the road down to the gorge welcome center, we passed five giraffes galloping along in a line, one behind the next. Fascinating to watch. Giraffes walk differently from most other four-legged animals. When ambling around, as they generally do, a giraffe moves his front and back legs on the same side at the same time. This creates the amusing "loping" gait they have that you've seen at the zoo. But when they really get cranking--and giraffes can run at about 30 mph--the giraffe moves his back legs together, and then his front legs. And, with each step, the two back legs land ahead of and outside the front legs. It's extremely strange; I'd never seen it before. Here's a video so you can see what I'm talking about. He starts running at about 0:48.

We went to the Oldupai Gorge visitor center, and looked out into the gorge. The ranger will give a talk, and you can walk through the museum.

It's very pretty there. We ate our lunches and looked over the gorge, and fed shockingly bright ravenous little yellow birds. While we were eating a fellow came up through the gorge, leading cattle and goats in search of some good grazing. It brought some interesting points to mind. Oldupai is not the most hospitable of areas. It's quite dry; although areas around there get a lot of rain, much of what falls between the Serengeti and Ngorongoro falls on very hard ground and runs into dry creekbeds. It's semi-arid, like southwestern Texas or southern Colorado. Humans evolved here, or in areas much like this in Ethiopia and elsewhere. But once modern humans left here... well, what impact did modernity have on this area? None, really. The Maasai have domesticated animals and crops, but apart from that--and agriculture itself is thought to have arrived in these parts about 8000 years ago--there was nothing but hunting and gathering. Modern humans--and anatomically modern humans lived in these parts by at least 100,000 years ago--hunted and gathered here, in the Oldupai, almost from the time they appeared. Anatomically... well, we could have been 100,000 years in the past. Even 10,000 years ago men were here, and they hunted animals (which are in abundance) and gathered edible plants (not quite so many in this area), and the Maasai do this now. They herd their cattle and goats, but they do still gather edible plants, and, outside of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the national parks, they hunt wild game. Modernity has arrived for them in the form of fat white tourists with cameras. But here was one, in the gorge, in this place where man has done what he does for untold millenia. To us on the ridge, it was food for thought. To the herdsman down below... did it really even matter?

We left the Gorge and headed on toward Serengeti. On the way we passed two Maasai children with a herd of goats and several camels. Camels are funny looking animals. Ben attempted to take a picture of the herdsmen--boys, really, they were probably 14 or 15--and has a terrific picture of a hand. No pictures without money. This is the change modernity has wrought. So it goes.
As we drove along it slowly grew darker and more ominous. Thunder could be heard. Rain was coming.

We finally made it to the Serengeti National Park entrance. Technically of course we'd been in the Serengeti plain for some time, though it was mostly a sparse and desolate area. Rain seemed imminent as we pulled in at the entrance at Naabi Hill. Bryson had to go into the office and clear paperwork. A few of us decided to get out of the truck and climb up Naabi Hill, which is a low rock hill with a nice path. Some pretty trees had bright red seeds on them that were too tempting for me to leave behind, but I misplaced them in my luggage and never got the chance to grow them at home.
We climbed up the hill and stood and looked out in the distance across the vast Serengeti--a Maasai word meaning "endless plain." The name was appropriate.
Unfortunately as you can see, the rain was coming. We didn't make it down the hill dry.

Bryson came back and we headed out into the endless plain. The rain was pretty endless, too. I don't know how far we drove, but it was slow, painfully slow. Tanzania has this theory about roads, see. The roads through the national parks cannot be paved; so far so good. A nice packed dirt path is fine. Gravel works, too. Hundreds of tires driving over it every day will compact it down just fine.

But that's not good enough. The Tanzanian government, for whatever reason, employs crack Road Disimprovement Squads to see that nature is not allowed to take its course on the national highways. We first noticed these before the rain hit. Every mile or so, there will be, say, a dozen or so gigantic lumps of fresh red clay dumped in a neat line on one side of the highway. These lumps are as big as the safari truck. They're just sitting there, baking in the sun. We saw these all the time, all over the place, but never did I see a road where the lumps had been recently flattened out to "repave" the highway.

No surprise, when the rain started coming down in torrents--it was literally raining gnus and gazelles, or at least it seemed that way--the fresh piles of red clay turned into six-inch-deep mudpits, and worse. This is the main highway from the city of Mwanza, at Lake Victoria, to Arusha and Dar es Salaam, thus the main route for freshwater seafood from the Lake to the consumers at Arusha and Dar and the great wide world. Trucks hauling fish were stopped axle-deep in mud all along the highway. It was only a matter of time, of course... you remember the picture of our safari chariot, back in post 3? Remember those two big tires on the back of the truck? Turns out we need them. We managed to get a flat. Now, I don't quite know how this happened, to be honest--I mean, it wasn't like there was anything hard or sharp in that mud, it was just... sticky, deep mud. But whatever. We got a flat. I mean, Bryson had been driving over ruts in the mud like he was driving a motocross, so I guess it was only a matter of time. He got out, jacked the truck, changed the tire--all this in the pouring rain, while we fat white Westerners sat on our duffs inside (adding 850 pounds to the weight of the truck) and ate chili-lemon chips.

Okay, it wasn't that bad. Jim and I at least got out and, you know, stood around and looked at the tire. Which is what men do, you know, is stand around and watch. We don't help, we watch and comment. But then it started raining harder and we got back inside, at Bryson's insistence. Can't blame him.

Soon enough the tire was replaced, the flat one rehung on the back of the truck to be patched or retubed or whatever at the next lodge, and we were on our way. We passed more animals, all of them standing in the rain looking vaguely annoyed. When at last we arrived at the Seronera Lodge, the rain was letting up. There was no power at the lodge, however--they only have electricity during certain hours of the day, from about 5-9 morning and night, and I guess some at lunchtime. They did have fresh pineapple juice, though, and once we were unpacked into our rooms we went into the lodge's main hall, where there was ample tea and coffee and wine and nice comfy seats that weren't jostling us around. It was nice.

The next day we went on our first Serengeti game drive. Lots of fun pictures!

Safari Post I (Introduction)
Safari Post II (Nairobi)
Safari Post III (Arusha – The Safari Begins)
Safari Post IV - Lake Manyara A
Safari Post V - Lake Manyara B
Safari Post VI - Lake Manyara Lodge
Safari Post VII - Off to Serengeti!
Safari Post VIII - Welcome to the Serengeti

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