Story and photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Back To Africa
Anthropologists tell us that hundreds of thousands of years ago, when homo-sapiens was still a young species, they/we walked out of Africa and populated the Earth. But regardless of how far we have traveled, Africa remains deeply buried in our collective unconscious and just as all species are driven to return to their place of birth, we yearn to return home… to connect again … to go “Back To Africa!”
Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again”, well perhaps you can’t… but you can visit! And that is precisely what I did in March. I visited Africa, specifically Tanzania, “The Cradle Of Mankind” and current home to millions of free roaming wildlife that dedicated, conservation-minded humans, are protecting. In fact, Tanzania is one of the most conservationally committed countries in a world that has finally awakened to the peril of our diminishing resources and seeks to preserve them for future generations.
Tanzania, is the largest country in East Africa with approximately 28% of its land mass under Government protection. I had the privilege of visiting the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater in the northern circuit, and Ruaha in the southern circuit, just three of the 16 National Parks and 31 game reserves that welcome tourism to support the work of conversation and education. Tourism is strictly controlled through the use of permits and fees that minimize the impact on the wildlife population and leave the delicate ecosystem undisturbed.
A country of abundant natural beauty, Tanzania counts an amazing seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tanzania also shares the highest mountain peak on the African Continent,–in fact, the highest free-standing mountain in the world - with neighboring Kenya. Kilimanjaro is an awe-inspiring picture-perfect Mountain, with its conical-shaped, snow-capped peak floating above the clouds and at 19,336 feet is still one of the world’s most claimable summits.
Situated between Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria to the north, is the 5,700 square mile Serengeti Plain spread out endlessly below. In fact, the word Serengeti comes from the Maasai word Siringitu which translates into “endless plain”.
Part of the same ecosystem as the Serengeti, but visually a world apart, the splendiferous Ngorongoro Crater has to be seen to be believed; it is the largest unflooded and unbroken caldera in the world, with its steep walls rising 2001 feet above the crater floor.
And for anyone interested in who we are and where we come from, a visit to Oldupie (Olduvai) Gorge, in the greater Ngorongoro Conservation Area, is a must see. Olduvai is a derivative from the Maasai word Oldupai named for a type of sisal that grows wild in the gorge. More than 50 years ago archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey found evidence of the earliest known ancestor of man, the 1.75 million year old skull they named Zinjanthropus. A find so significant that it laid to rest forever any doubt as to the place of the origin of man… “The Cradle of Mankind”.
The morning dawned cool and clear as we greeted our tour guide Robert from Asilia Africa, and climbed into the modified Asilia Land Cruiser to negotiate what passes for roads in the fabled Serengeti. It was not long before we spotted brightly colored lilac-breasted rollers with their iridescent blue wings flitting between the more than 120 varieties of spiny Acacia trees that pepper the savanna; zebra bands crowding the road, cuddling their heads on one another in a bonding ritual; young male giraffes fighting for dominance; lions lazing in the sun; hippos rolling in mud; a leopard crouching in a tree; impala harem and kids with lucky boy (Robert’s description of the dominant male and his extended family); troupes of baboon grooming each other; elephants teaching their young how to grab trunkfulls of grass and eat only the succulent shoots above the root and below the dry tops. Exhilarated and eager for more, we reluctantly returned to the comfort of our rooms at the Bilila Lodge Kempinski located at the edge of the Serengeti National Park. www.kempinski-bililalodge.com
And on the next day we saw it! There was no beginning and no end – just a huge undulating dark shadow moving across the horizon of the Serengeti. As we got closer we could distinguish forms, and closer still, individual animals. It was the annual great wildebeest migration slowly eating its way across the green fields; an ocean of lush grass from the rains that began early this year. At last count 1 ½ to 2 million wildebeest make the hazardous journey, including as many as 300,000 newly born calves, along with hundreds of thousands of zebras and Thomson’s gazelles, moving in concert. The herds annually cross the Serengeti from their breeding ground in the grasslands of the south, westward past the swampy savanna, across the crocodile infested Grumeti River, and into the northern woodlands, eating as they go. The long columns of migrating animals, drawn north by the rains and the promise of food and water, is one of the most amazing spectacles nature offers. It is a never ending saga, as once the grasslands in the north are depleted, the herds return to the south in a clockwise circuit to mate and calve and begin the trek anew. It is an often recounted and photographed intense journey that challenges the survival of all but the heartiest of animals. Survival of the fittest insures that the animals strong enough to make the journey will maintain a vigorous stock while the fall of the weakest will unwittingly but necessarily contribute to the survival of the carnivorous lions, hyenas, cheetahs, wild dogs, leopards, vultures and other scavenging birds and animals, that thrive on the migration.
In the Serengeti you can expect to see herds of Thomson and Grant gazelle, lion prides, families of cheetahs, parks of hyenas, harems of impala, dazzle of zebra, troupes of baboon, crash of rhinos, pods of hippos, kaleidoscope of giraffe, sounder of warthogs, bands of mongoose … well you get the picture. Plus over 500 varieties of birds and water fowl, as big as the ostrich or of startling beauty like the above mentioned lilac-breasted roller or the European roller with its rose colored back, black tipped wings and pale to dark blue head and breast. You will also encounter the kelly-green body and orange head of lovebirds truly sitting in a row, and the steal-blue whydah with its incredibly long split tail trailing out behind it in flight or hanging down a foot or more in resting position.
Frequently we came across pools of muddy water with rafts of hippos lazing in the swollen depressions. Periodically the massive rock-like back of a hippo would break the surface of the water from under which it had spent 6 to 8 minutes languishing. Hippos can hold their breath under water for long stretches of time before their massive hulk begins to float upward, first looking like a smooth large rock in the water until the head breaks trough with its protruding eyes and snorting nostrils, and finally the mouth, with its enormous canines and lopping pink tongue.
The stench of the hippos hung in the air from yards away and their effluvia saturated the atmosphere. There is no mistaking their odor. Surprisingly to me, a city dweller, none of the other animals gave off an odor; in fact, the savanna had a gentle sweet scent, possibly due to the profusion of wild flowers: pink and lilac, yellow and red, purple and white - fields of flowers covered the landscape, making the rainy season a fragrant time of the year to visit. When it did rain it was at night when we were snugly tucked into our tents protected from the weather and roaming animals in as much luxury as the territory could provide.
For hours we drove north over a flat scrub bush landscape, occasionally broken by Acacia trees wildly twisted, sometimes cradling a lion or leopard in its branches. Periodically we passed outcroppings of huge rock groupings called KOPJES that are evidence of underground mountains and that are know to shelter carnivorous hunters. Bands of animals usually give the Kopjes a wide birth and we were instructed to do the same.
Suddenly we rounded a curve and halted to take in the view before plunging down a precipitous drop-off with Lake Ndutu at its base. Flocks of white gulls swirled over the calm pale waters, while hundreds of pink flamingos preened themselves in the sparkling sunlight. We crossed the mud flats and Robert, with unerring navigation, located Olakira Camp within the maze of rutted roads and entangled woodlands. Olakira Camp is a mobile encampment that follows the Wildebeest migration, and like all the Asilia Africa Camps, offers an authentic bush experience but with luxury features such as comfortable beds, running water, flush toilets, gourmet meals and constant vigilance for the safety of their guests. www.olakiracamp.com
There is in fact a remarkable range of luxury accommodation available on safari in Tanzania, from temporary encampments like Asilia Africa’s Olakira Camp, to traditional full-service resort properties like the above mentioned Bilila Lodge Kempinski - both situated in the Serengeti National Park - to permanent tent structures such as Mwagusi Camp in Ruaha - and elegant boutique hotels like &Beyond’s Ngorongoro Crater Lodge.
For details see Luxury Safari in Tanzania in the Hotels & Resorts section.
On To Ngorongoro…
On the way to the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, poised at the edge of what some call the eighth wonder of the world - the Ngorongoro Conservation Area - we paused to visit Olduvai Gorge, after a detour at Oldupai Maasai Village. The Maasai people have lived in the Ngorongora Conservation Area for hundreds of years and still maintain their simple pastoral lifestyle. These tall, thin, very dark-skinned people, with beautiful facial features sporting high cheekbones, straight noses and elongated necks, wear brightly colored fabrics and intricately beaded jewelry to decorate heads, ears, necks, wrists and ankles. They welcomed us warmly and performed for us. The men sang and danced their warrior songs and the women responded with their songs. Afterwards we were shown into a traditional hut made of thatch and cow dung. The polygamous culture supports women cooperating with each other in building separate huts where each wife lives with her children while the “husband” moves from hut to hut. The entire Boma (village) is enclosed by a fence. A secondary interior fence was festooned with hundreds of pieces of beaded jewelry available for sale to tourists, made by the Maasai to augment their income.
At the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge we bid farewell to Robert and said hi to Eddie our &Beyond guide for the next phase of our safari. www.andbeyondafrica.com Part of the thrill in visiting the Ngorongoro Crater is the hair-raising ride over torturously bumpy and steep roads until you reach the rim and spy far below the deep blue spring-fed Lake Magadi with its carpet of pink flamingo’s so numerous it takes your breath away.
When visiting the parks you must not stray off the roads and you must exit by 6pm., however tempting it may be to cross the fields or delay departing while the light holds. It was at Ngorongoro that we had our one and only black rhino sighting. Considering there are only 25 in the entire park we considered ourselves lucky especially since it was a female with calf. In the distance we could make out the distinctive up-turned horn on both animals but could not get closer. At any rate we could now brag at having seen all of the big five: elephant – up close and personal, lion – even closer, buffalo – not so close but close enough, leopard – elusive but photographable, and rhino – in the distance.
In fact, for the past few days the sheer number and variety of animals we saw was overwhelming and I would hardly lower my camera for fear I would miss something. Good thing I was poised for action because as we were taking the road out of the Crater to make the 6pm park curfew, a singular bull elephant, instead of ignoring us as all the other animals had, for some reason saw a threat in us and charged with a warning salvo, ears flapping and trunk lowered. Eddie stopped the car but the elephant kept coming, so slowly he inched backwards until the elephant saw we were not going to challenge him and losing interest, moved off. The safari guide’s knowledge is the most vital component to a safe and awesome experience. He knows where to go to find the best sightings; is a fund of information about everything from habitat to husbandry; and most importantly he is trained to respond to the unexpected. Thanks to Eddie’s instinct and experience, instead of being a frightening incident, our encounter with the elephant was an electrifying highlight that ended another exhilarating day in Tanzania.
Ruaha Last But Certainly Not Least…
But it was far from my only excitement of the trip. One night after being escorted back to my tent at Mwagusi Camp in the southern circuit of Ruaha, I discreetly waited outside while my “handler” checked my tent for uninvited guests (an absolute necessity in the bush). Once given the go-ahead to enter, as instructed, I carefully zipped myself in, making sure not to leave an opening for a clever monkey, or not so clever, but smaller critter, to join me. I felt secure in the knowledge that once ensconced, I was protected from the wildlife that shares the land next to the riverbed with the camp. We were assured that the wandering lions, elephants, zebras, baboons, and all manner of animals large and small, somehow understood that they are not to encroach on the large khaki unmoving thing in their way… although not persuaded, I suspended disbelief and choose to trust that was true despite the activity surrounding the tent at night from nocturnal partygoers.
As I prepared for bed with only a small solar-powered bed light and my hand-held flashlight, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Shadows I thought, but just to satisfy my now rapidly beating heart, I flashed the light toward the movement. Yikes! What IS that? It was way larger than my fist, with a black and hairy bulbous body and long crab-like pinchers. Like everyone at the camp, I was given a whistle to blow in case of danger, but I couldn’t take my eyes off this “thing” that was crawling its way around the corner of my tent. Trying to be bush smart, I considered covering it with a basket and dumping it outside, but it had such long claws what if it escaped and “got me”! I didn’t want to hurt it, I just wanted it to go away so I grabbed the closest defensive weapon I could lay my hands on, a can of bug spray, and gave it a squirt. Thankfully, my uninvited friend got the message, and happy that we both survived the encounter, I climbed into bed exhausted from my big game hunting experience, and fell fast asleep.
Next morning I inquired from our host Riaan Labuschagne, about my visitor and he was amazed. Turns out it was a Tanzanian Giant Tailless Whip Scorpion. Sightings are extremely rare for this shy but harmless scorpion. Of course hearing this I was understandably upset that I had not grabbed my camera instead of the spray can. In retrospect I was really glad that I had not harmed it and that it had not harmed me… heart attack not withstanding. Riaan tried to make it up by showing off a beautiful bright green flap-necked chameleon that was the inspiration for the decorations in my tent. www.mwagusicamp.com
Ruaha was much hotter and more humid with a markedly different flora then the dry savanna of the north. Instead of the thorny Acacia trees, wide-girthed Baobab trees populated the landscape. The Ruaha National Park was much less trafficked then the Serengeti and you could travel for hours without seeing another safari vehicle. The advantage is obvious in that you have the animals all to yourself, but it also means that you have to be lucky to happen upon the action. In the north, there could be 4 or 5 safari vehicles watching the same scene but because of the camaraderie between the guides, when one guide sees something of interest he immediately broadcasts it - on 2-way radio which every vehicle is equipped with - to the others. www.tanzaniaparks.com
Nevertheless we did not want for sightings in Ruaha and even on the ride from the airport to Mwagusi Camp we came across a pride of lions sitting next to the road and cooling themselves under shade trees. The so called Kipunji pride of 25 animals, named after our guide Samson who was the first to identify them, was led by two alpha-male brothers and seemed to be as fascinated by us as we were of them. They let us come within a few feet of all but the very youngest cubs which were kept hidden from prying eyes (ours) and teeth (hyena or eagle or other predator).
The next morning our game drive began at sunrise and we drove to the river bed where our Kipunji pride was lolling about. The brothers with full stomachs were apart from the ladies with their cubs and youngsters, when all of a sudden a bull elephant came to drink. It was fascinating to see the females and youngsters immediately bound to their feet and retreat to a safer distance while the brothers hardly lifted their heads.
Mwagusi means gratitude, and there was a river crossing that instantly created a religious fervor in the group, not the least of which was gratitude that the vehicle – and us - survived it. The very narrow cement bridge was very low to the river, which swollen by the rains caused the water to overspill the bridge. The constant stress of rapidly running water gouged deep pot holes that, covered with rushing water, made the going hazardous, and caused the top-heavy vehicle to rock precipitously from side to side. Our Ruaha guide Samson in an unusually forceful manner strongly suggested we “Sit down! And hold on tight!” which we did, and then anxiously watched an even larger vehicle safely make the crossing. Later in the day the bridge crossing was relatively uneventful.
As usual the day was filled with sightings but as we returned to our river crossing we came across hundreds of male black-headed weaver birds with their bright yellow bodies and wings, noisily working upside down building their nests to attract a mate. The female will select the best nest and so it behooves the male to be attentive during construction.
Just before dusk, we passed a huge troupe of baboons densely covering the riverbank where earlier in the day we had not seen one. Samson had our driver Moses stop the vehicle while he explained that they were preparing to climb into the safety of the trees for the night. He pointed out the youngsters engaged in playful fisticuffs; adults occupied in sexual pursuit; babies clinging to their mothers; females concentrated on grooming dominant males; and all sorts of very human interaction. It was like viewing a town’s population settling down for the evening without the shelter that protects their activity from prying eyes. Most fascinating was the guardian baboons, extremely large older male animals that were positioned away from the main activity of the group, and were watching the periphery ever vigilant, prepared to send a warning call if there was a threat. It was a captivating voyeuristic experience that falling darkness cut short.
The heat was building in anticipation of the coming heavy rains and so I was not unhappy that this was to be our final game drive before leaving Ruaha and the Mwagusi Camp at the bend in the Mwagusi Sand River. As usual I was standing up, camera at the ready, just behind the driver, as we were driving parallel to the river in the tall, thick grass, when we rounded a thicket and came across a bull elephant taking a drink of the cool water. Startled he swung his head around, mouth and trunk full of water, spraying me as he turned. As I tried to steady myself to get “the shot” of a lifetime, Moses jammed on the brakes and I was able only to capture the elephant’s eyes. As he backed away into the field covered with purple ruellia flowers, he turned again towards us and posed for his “close-up”… a truly spectacular ending to a truly spectacular trip.
As we sat ready to depart Ruaha on our Coastal Airways 12 passenger craft, we laughed at the delay caused by gazelles on the unpaved landing strip and zebras grazing too close to the plane. As we watched, a chase vehicle gently shooed them away so we could take-off, and as I turned to look back down I was enthralled by the sheer numbers of animals that returned to their feeding as soon as we left… as if we had never been there.
For Information Contact:
Tanzania Tourist Board
Tanzania National Parks
Africa Adventure Consultants
South African Airways
Kempinski Kilimanjaro Hotel, Bilila Lodge Kempinski
Mwagusi Safari Camp
© May 2010 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.