Thursday, 12 July 2007

Masai Mara; Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater

The next week and a half was concentrated touring, thanks to Jocky Tours in Nairobi with whom we arranged a three day trip to the Masai Mara, and then a week down in Tanzania to see the Serengeti and neighbouring Ngorongoro crater.

It was just four of us in a 4WD heading to the Masai Mara, a drive of around six hours. We stayed in a tented camp, this means permanent tents with, incredibly, beds in them. Wow! In the late afternoon we drove around the reserve (Masai Mara has been degazetted as a national park, allowing the Masai to continue to roam across it, graze their cattle, and live in their villages). We saw a pride of lions devouring a wildebeest, the first time we've seen lions actually eating anything. The next day was a full day in the reserve, and we saw a few animals that we hadn't seen before - bat eared foxes, a group of cheetahs relaxing in the bushes next to the road and then late in the afternoon a fantastic sighting of a single cheetah wandering through the grass with the sunshine glowing off its coat. There was also a bit of a walk, always nice as it gets a bit tiresome driving around all the time, along a riverbank to get a close look at the hippos and the crocodiles. We were shown a narrow path across the river and told that this was where the wildebeest migration would pass. The crocs were already gathering in anticipation, a bit like us. We have seen large groups of wildebeest with their migration partners the zebra, but you would be pushing it to say they're moving, let alone moving with anything like a sense of purpose. We saw fires on the horizon, and asked "Uncle Dan" our guide if they were natural or man made? He said they'd been lit on purpose, "by the Tanzanians, who want to keep the wildebeest on their side (ie, the Serengeti) as long as possible". Who would know - but it was certainly dry enough for fires to start spontaneously. My hair was full of static, my skin slurped up moisturiser, and we dried our washing in two hours in the evening after the sun had gone down.

The Masai people are obviously also part of the Mara experience. They are really colourful, and apparently quite resistant to many Western influences, but they don't mind the odd dollar or two! Both men and women wear lots of beads and have the most amazing huge holes in their earlobes. As we left the Mara we took a local man with us to the town of Nakron, where his wife was in hospital. He had a woollen beanie on, and had folded up the lobes of his ears over the tops of them, and tucked them under his hat! All the men carry long pointed sticks, which are used to manage the cattle, and even the little boys carry them. Masai houses are made of cow dung, which is stuffed into wooden frames, with flat dung rooves. The women build them, as the men are far too busy doing important things with cows. They're built close to each other, and often the settlement is surrounded by a pole fence, so the cows can be brought in at night. We've read many stories in the paper about cattle rustling.
The other thing that's become apparent since we were last in Nairobi a couple of weeks back, is how many more tourists there are here now. It's school holidays in the northern hemisphere, and there are loads of families and young people here.
We have another night in Nairobi, before we are on the shuttle back to Arusha, and Tanzania. It was a long drive after that to the Serengeti, but the roads in Tanzania are remarkably good - so good in fact that some even have lines painted on them. Our drive to the Serengeti took us past the Ngorongoro Crater lookout. It was a bit misty, but a fantastic sight nevertheless. We could see herds of animals, and were told that we'll find most things down there except for giraffes and female elephants (it's too dangerous for the young as there are lots of predators - good!). En route to our campsite we spotted a couple of black maned lions relaxing in the late afternoon sunshine. We stayed two nights at Ikoma camp, in the company of two Norwegians, who fortunately spoke excellent English. This time we had tents to put up and slept on the ground, but we did have snuggly cloth covered foam mattresses, which made our tent very nest-like. The next day was a full day in the Serengeti; lots and lots of animals but most special was a leopard. They're solitary, and quite hard to spot, so it was a real treat to see one slumped asleep in a tree with its tail and front paws dangling. There was the remains of a gazelle in another branch, so he was obviously sleeping it off. Much to our delight he woke up, stretched, and jumped out of the tree and toileted right in front of us ... and then walked between the large number of viewing 4WDs (it is the high season after all), and wandered off into the grasslands.
Later we saw three female lions stalking a waterbuck, who was preoccupied with showing off for the tourists and seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was being sized up. Quite funny, specially when there was a group of zebra nearby watching this all very closely. In the end nothing much happened - but it does feel a privilege to see nature in action like this. The visitor centre at Seronera in the middle of the park is really good - it has a short walk, is really informative and includes some video footage of that elusive wildebeest migration. What a sight; unfortunately we are not destined to see it - seems the bulk of the animals are still in the south of the park, they won't move north till the water supplies there dry up, and after the heavy rains they're running behind schedule.
The next morning we headed to a campsite on the edge of the Crater, via the Oldupai Gorge and its museum. This area is where loads of fossils of early hominids have been discovered, and the museum contains a cast of the oldest hominid footprints ever discovered, found about 40km away, dating back 3.6million years or so. "Lucy" the fossilised skeleton discovered in Ethiopia is a contemporary of the creatures who made the footprints, so we will look her up when we're in Addis Ababa. It was a really interesting hour or so, and a nice change from wildlife. There were a lot of photos from the 80s, when many of the first discoveries were being made by the Leakey's and their teams, including one of John Reader, the author of the book I'm reading at the moment.
Simba (Swahili for lion) Camp had hot water, so we raced off to have a shower, and got back to find a couple of elephants had wandered into camp. Not only had they wandered into camp, they'd wandered to the tree under which our tent was pitched. We were in there snapping away at them when it occurred to us that we probably ought to leave (Max has posted some photos on his site - worth a look). They were really close, and vigorously pulling down branches of the fig tree. We then spent a chilly hour or so waiting for them to go so we could get some warmer clothes from our tent. It was really very chilly, and is apparently often foggy and damp in the morning. While we were eating dinner, the elephants headed off and we could finish dressing.

Elephants, seemingly oblivious to our tent, but keen on the fig tree branches above it.

This close encounter got us excited about the crater trip - but the morning was really cold, and there was very little action in the crater. We did see quite a few spotted hyena, and jackals too, and eventually a group of female lions with two cubs, which were really cute. However it was disappointing, and I think must have been due to the weather. The vegetation around the crater is so different to the open grassy plains of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, it's verdant and lush, so I guess needs a bit of moisture. Just a shame it had to happen today. We drove down to Mto Wa Mbu, a Masai village at a much lower altitude, and by the time we got to our next campsite it was so warm we contemplated a swim in the pool.
Our last day on the trip comprised our own private safari, that just meant Max and I in a 4WD cruising around Lake Manyara National Park. It's quite a small park, but had some gorgeous forested areas, swamps and a bit of grassland, and a very large lake. Lots of birds of course, elephants (the bush variety, which are a bit smaller and have narrower tusks than those that live on the plains), zebras, hippos, baboons, oh yeah, and leopards. We saw another one sleeping in a tree; we left him there while we went to see the hot springs, and when we came back he got up stretched, turned around and went back to sleep. There are also, apparently, tree climbing lions in this park, not that we saw any!
We decided to spend half a day in Arusha, and went to the UN tribunal hearings on the Rwanda genocides. It was really interesting to see the set up; we could see the three judges, both sets of lawyers, and a bevy of observers, translators and transcribers - but the witness or the accused (we couldn't actually tell from our position in the public gallery) was screened from view. The lawyer was asking questions about whether or not files had been burnt, or whether the questionee had been asked to burn files. Very evasive answers were being given, and with the delays for translation it seemed quite difficult for the lawyers to maintain a flow of questions.
That afternoon, while we waited for the shuttle bus to have a tyre repaired, we ended up chatting to a family from the Kapiti coast who live in Arusha, teaching at the international school there. Quite a small world.

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