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A nature walk with a Kalashnikov

After winding our way back up the switchback road, we got to the ranger station where we picked up a young guard with a weapon slung over his shoulder. He directed Emanuel to drive up to the rim of the caldera for the beginning of our game walk. Emanuel would meet us at the end of the trail.

I guess when we look back on it, our expectations were a little high. We were thinking we’d see wild animals close up, outside the protection of the Landcruiser. That’s why we had an armed ranger with us, we thought.

After we piled out I realized he’s got a damn Kalashnikov strapped over his shoulder. Twice he said, “If an elephant charges do not run, this is a very powerful weapon, I will fire a warning shot then aim to stop it!” Well, okay. I didn’t see any elephants around. “We won’t run,” Marce assured him.

He proceeded to repeatedly load and unload the gun with a ch-chung that was probably meant to give us a thrill. We quickly realized that in addition to climbing a semi steep rise, there were huge piles of poop on this trail that you kinda want to miss.

There are nature walks and then there’s nature and it soon became apparent that the Masai use this trail to move cattle around. Maybe too much nature. The only wildlife we were likely to see were the cows.

We spent some time taking the obligatory photos at the edge of the world’s largest caldera. Our ranger enjoyed using my new iPhone and Marce asked a few intelligent questions which he answered. Then he claimed if we went further we would struggle to keep up and he suggested we return to the Landcruiser. He spent the rest of our “walking safari” on his phone. I guess we can’t blame him. We were late getting there and he wanted to go home.

The road back to the ranger station was all washboard which set the whole Landcruiser to chattering and bucking. Apparently there is a prescribed speed which when adhered to, will launch the Landcruiser into the air and it just tiptoes over the ruts. Something like 50 kph. It’s a theory. Marce swears it’s how they drive in Philadelphia. Be forewarned.

Within shouting distance of the ranger station we caught up to a water truck laboring up a hill. We were heading directly into the sun and Emanuel was struggling to see through the glare in the windshield.

The water truck came to a stop. “Elephants,” Emanuel said, and we saw about 8 or 10 beasts crossing the road from right to left in front of the truck. Emanual stopped too, but the driver of the water truck, either impatient or struggling to ride the clutch on the steep road, kept inching forward toward the elephants. He eventually split the herd, let out the clutch and took off.

Emanuel, always respectful of the animals, paused as the last elephant crossed the road. Suddenly, we heard a loud trumpeting, the first we’ve heard in nearly a week of elephants. The three of us turned toward the sound, to the left, where Marce was sitting in the back seat.

Not six meters away, charging through the thick tangle of underbrush beside the road, was one massively pissed off elephant, trumpeting loudly, big tusks aiming right at Marce.

In an instant the ranger cocked his shotgun and lunged across to the seat behind Marce for a better shot. I thought, “My god if he fires that thing in the cruiser we’ll never hear anything again.” At the same time Emanuel mashed the accelerator and the Landcruiser surged forward up the hill in the nick of time. The elephant stopped just as he emerged from the bush at the edge of the road. He’d done his job, scared us off and protected his family. Emanuel and the ranger did the same, protecting us.

The adrenaline rush took quite a while to subside. What a day!

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Down, down down

I’ve really been looking forward to this day when we descend 600m (2000 ft.) to the floor of the largest intact caldera in the world. Ngorongoro Crater is home to about 25,000 animals in an area of about 260 sq. Km (100 sq mi.)

The steep switchback road was the first paved road we’d been on in any park and a joy for our bums, but as soon as we reached the bottom we were back to rutted and washboard tracks again.

At the bottom we encountered a stand of beautiful yellow fever trees. As promised by our safari company we’re experiencing different landscapes and ecosystems in each of the four parks on our itinerary.

The lakes and rivers in the crater guarantee easy sighting of the herds of zebras, wildebeests, and buffalo, and we saw our first jackals, flamingos, and ibises.

We never tire of watching hippos and there are plenty in the crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater is home to the densest concentration of lions anywhere in the world and the current population is somewhere between 40 and 60, depending on the source.

We were puzzled by this group of three lying in full sun in a dry creek bed.

“What are they doing there?” we asked Emanuel.

“Guarding a kill,” he said, but we couldn’t see anything nearby.

We drove a little further to find a lioness drowsing by a half-devoured buffalo. A couple of jackals circled closer and closer, hoping to sneak in for a quick bite, mostly ignored by the lion.

Before long two hyenas inched toward the kill, and at this point we chose to stop trying to photograph and just watch the drama unfold as Emanuel narrated the action.

Emanuel was puzzled that the hyenas didn’t signal for backup, but when they did eventually bark a small group answered the call and immediately chased the original two away. Emanuel said that was because the first two were from a different territory, interlopers on the range of the larger group.

The new group howled for reinforcements, and when the lion saw that a genuine threat was gathering she made a run at the hyenas and chased them back. The lion retreated to her guard post exhausted by the effort in the heat on a bloated stomach. More hyenas arrived in twos or threes until there were over a dozen. The jackals continued to flit around trying for scraps but the lion paid no attention to them.

A few times the lead hyena tried advancing toward the lion, but not enough of the pack followed. Emanuel said they were missing an opportunity, that there were plenty of them to overpower the lion and chase her off, but they were too timid, or the leader wasn’t assertive enough.

“Look over there,” said Emanuel, and he pointed back toward where we saw the original three lions in the creek bed. One by one they shuffled toward the guardian lion and the kill. The hyenas had no chance now, and they meekly dispersed.

The whole drama unfolded in slow motion over the course of about 30-40 minutes. We were fascinated with the ebb and flow of the power struggle. It’s a numbers game, a kind of Jets vs Sharks with so many hyenas equal to one lion but Emanuel said just look at their tails. If they’re vertical they are feeling brave. Tails down and they’ve given up.

Just as we were about to move on we heard a desperate howl and one of the hyenas ran right in front of our vehicle with a baby jackal in its teeth, chased by the howling mother jackal. It was hard to watch.

Our day in the crater was coming to an end when Emanuel heard over the radio that two black rhinos were spotted at the far end of the caldera. He drove like Lewis Hamilton to get us there as fast as possible, and when we got in the vicinity it was clear that the two rhinos were too far off the track for a good sighting.

There were four other Landcruisers, all trying to get a look at these hardest to spot animals. Our guides convinced a ranger to allow an overland jaunt to get closer, and we bounced and jangled off-road over the savannah, then lined up so everyone had a good view. It was still just beyond easy reach of our 200mm lens, but we got to see rhinos and that’s what matters. One of the hippos tried to upstage the rhinos, lumbering through the frame from left to right. I could hear Flight of the Cosmic Hippo in my head.

Seeing the rhinos was another peak experience but it almost made us miss our scheduled rim walk with a ranger. Emanuel called to make sure we could still make it in time, and it was goodbye to the caldera and a race to the ranger station to pick up our guard.

What a day so far! But there was more to come.

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Goodbye to the Serengeti

After the hot air balloon we met up with Emanuel and turned south again towards the Ngorongoro Conservation area. Along the way we encountered banded mongoose, more lions and warthogs, and a bonus find, a serval cat, a rare sighting according to Emanuel.

It was another stunner of a day and I think our photos compare favorably with the best travel posters. You can’t lose with this scenery.

We paused for a while to watch an elephant family group taking shelter from the heat.

And then it was time to leave the endless plain. But first Emanuel took a detour to the Mbalageti River so we could watch a branch of the wildebeest migration. You may have seen video of the famous river crossing at the Mara River which happens earlier in the year. What we learned is that the migration is constant in a great circle from Tanzania to Kenya and back again as the herds seek new grassland.

We drove to an area with thousands of animals grazing their way through the landscape as far as the eye could see. We spent a long time appreciating the sheer numbers and struggled to take photos that come close to recording the majesty of it. In the end we admitted defeat, but it was a peak experience to be in the middle of it and take it all in.

And then it really was time to say goodbye to the Serengeti. Down came the top on the Landcruiser and we went into serious drive mode to get to our mountain camp at Ngorongoro before dark. It’ll be a cold night in the forest at higher elevation. When we got back to our tent after dinner we found the staff had tucked “bush babies” (hot water bottles) under the covers to kept us warm and toasty all night under the big down comforter.

Tomorrow we drive into the crater. I can’t wait.

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5th dimension

Our story begins with the tattoo of our first African rain on the tent roof. The sailor in me says there should be calm after rain and an old Masai gentleman agreed saying, “Tomorrow you will fly.”

We woke up to a dead calm but very dark morning, if you can call 4am morning. Everything had a deja vu quality to it. I kept wondering if I’d taken care of something, or was that yesterday morning.? You can’t just leave your tent at night. We are actually inside a national game reserve and all night long we hear game walking through the camp, sometimes we even step in the evidence. After we convinced ourselves that everything was packed I radioed camp HQ and they sent one of the Masai to escort us to the waiting land cruiser. He smiled, “Today you fly.”

Immediately our darting headlights scared up several rabbits and soon we left the proper track making our own slightly less rutted trail, navigating from blue flag to blue flag hung every so often from a tree, like a ship navigating from buoy to buoy. It would be so easy to get turned around just like at sea.

We shuddered and bounced to another camp and picked up a couple who, it turns out were the birders of big game driving, ticking the box of everything they’ve seen, and now they’ve moved on to your lesser cats. He had a lens so long the camera looked like an afterthought hanging off the end. I, on the other hand, use an iPhone 12 and Emanuel gets us close.

Darting headlights ahead seem to coalesce at the meeting place with several amoeba shaped dark blobs. We’re going to fly. This pre flight orientation was even better than the last one while the balloon envelope continued filling with cold air. This is called a cold air fill.

There are hellacious looking burners used to heat things up a bit.

Marce and I were assigned a cubby and they tied the balloon basket to a land cruiser. Soon our skipper pointed at us and we hopped up into our compartment and after a few healthy burner blasts you could feel her tugging at the land cruiser.

Suddenly we had slipped the surly bonds of earth, as they say. Skipper wanted to stay low to catch the breeze toward the river. I could hear the basket skimming the tall grass. That’s low.

At one point we hit an old rotten tree that turned out to be a very sturdy old tree. A lady in front said, “I told him there was a tree coming.” Soon we gained altitude reveling in the majesty of the Serengeti

Hippo tracks to the river
A bloat of hippos

We watch as the hippos form a line and head down stream.

Floating over our breakfast camp we start our descent to touch down near a herd of wildebeest.

We enjoyed a traditional champagne toast followed by a full English breakfast.

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Seize the day

We were back at our camp by 8am and the whole camp crew were as disappointed as we were that our hot-air balloon flight has been canceled. Four hours of our day was gone, we were hungry and tired and I was sick. We ate a quick breakfast and I asked Emanuel if I had time to take a nap. I’ll be useless if I can’t rest for a while. He assured us the animals will still be there later.

We got on the trail about 11, and as inauspiciously as the day began, it quickly became our favorite day yet.

After more impalas and our first wild ostrich, we noticed Emanuel looking even more intently than usual as we drove the dirt tracks. “What are you looking for?” we asked. He told us leopards often spend the heat of the day in a tree, and you can spot them because there’s usually a leg or a tail hanging over a branch. We all started looking but of course it was Emanuel who spotted one. He positioned the Landcruiser as close as he could but it was only one of two sightings that would remain just beyond the reach of my 200mm lens. I did the best I could with the camera, but we all enjoyed watching the beautiful cat through binoculars as he panted in the noonday heat. If you click on the second photo so that it’s full screen you get a pretty good look at this stunning animal.

On the day we entered the Serengeti we passed some interesting rock formations but I hadn’t taken any photos. I asked Emanuel if we weren’t too far I’d like to see them again. On the way we saw topis and our first eland.

The rocks are beautiful and the day was perfect. I could have spent hours just soaking in the scenery. But Emanuel had other ideas.

In a cleft in one of the rock formations he spotted a three month old leopard cub, snoozing in the heat, waiting for mama to come back. What a find! We watched quietly for a while until he woke up, stretched and walked to the other side of the rocks.

We followed him around and found his brother, also snoozing. We watched again until he woke up. Both eventually returned to their preferred spots and went back to sleep. We never saw mama. Emanuel speculated that she was probably hunting.

The rest of the day brought more and more wildlife to our eyes and lenses. Emanuel understood by this time that we hadn’t come with a checklist, or the need to get the perfect shot of anything. We were happy just to watch and enjoy this privileged proximity to a rich and complex ecosystem. We appreciated his knowledge of the habits and behaviors of the various species. As we watched, he said, “It’s like living in a National Geographic film.” And it was.

This turned out to be our shortest game drive day, but one of the best. Tomorrow we’ll try again for the balloon safari. It’ll be our last chance.

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Watch your course matey

Flap…
Flap, flap…
Flap…flap, flap

I reached over to tap the hull, our signal to trim the sheets or mind her course. No hull. In fact we’re in Tanzania in a tent on safari. I know that sound though and that’s around 8 knots which is about cutoff for today’s activity. It’s 04:00 hrs and we’re catching a ride this morning.

So it’s going to require some warmish clothing and all the cameras at full charge. Don’t have much that’s warm. Living in 95 F in Malaysia for three years will tend to winnow down the warm stuff.

Africa’s deeply rutted and washboard dirt roads are hard to take at 04:45. We pick up a German woman at a remote camp about a half hour from us. Back on the road a sated and blood-covered lioness appeared in our headlights. She strolled down the center of our narrow lane unconcerned that we followed her at a crawl for fifteen minutes before she veered off into the undergrowth. After a while we are at the meeting spot. Brilliant light beams probe the blackness, turning the Serengeti grass to fire, darting dancing at all angles as Landcruisers come from all over to converge at this spot on the plains of Serengeti to watch the sunrise. The vast majesty of this place, especially at sunrise, must be seen to be believed.

Frank is a short spunky bloke with a funny tie under his well worn leather flyboy jacket, who was not pleased with the 8+ knot gusts passing over the Serengeti plain. No, not at all pleased. We are happy just to watch the sun come up.

There are over 10 trucks and 30 paying guests and even more ground crew waiting for the word from Frank. The word is no. Safety first. We will not fly today.

Poor Marce freezing and fighting a cold

The entire process reverses, the chattering, the bouncing, but without lioness. Maybe tomorrow.

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Long day’s journey

We knew our second safari day would be a doozy. We had a lot of ground to cover, from Lake Manyara all the way to the Central Serengeti with stops inbetween.

I started in Rebak Island Marina fashion by getting up early to watch the sunrise over Lake Manyara. It was a perfect beginning.

If our first day was a bit underwhelming, day two got better and better with each passing hour. We started with some game driving in Lake Manyara where we saw our first impalas, more monkeys and hornbills different from the familiar residents of Rebak Island we’d lived alongside for three years.

We left Lake Manyara behind and entered Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but just as a drive through. We’ll be returning to the explore the crater in a few days but for now the road to the Serengeti goes right through the park. We stopped for our first look at the largest intact volcanic caldera in the world.

It’s impossible to convey the size of this thing in a photo so we didn’t try. Back in 2014 we hiked to the second largest crater, Sierra Negro on Isabela in the Galapagos but this one is nearly double the size. Emanuel pointed out that those tiny dots down there were animals, probably wildebeests. We could barely make out the dots. We couldn’t wait to spend a day down there.

As we drove through the conservation area we continued to see more and more animals, and while we technically weren’t game driving we stopped again and again to take pictures.

If you’re as old as we are and interested in science you probably remember the news in 1959 that Louis and Mary Leakey found remains of early hominids in a place called Olduvai Gorge in what was then called Tanganyika.

As a college freshman I took a course in Physical Anthropology and learned more about the discoveries here and in Ethiopia. While we were planning our safari I saw the Olduvai Gorge on Google Maps and asked that a visit be included in our itinerary. You can read more here if you’re interested.

We were the only visitors when we arrived and I asked Emanuel if many people come. He smiled and shook his head. “Why?” I asked, incredulously. But I know why. Most people come for the animals, not for fossils. Still, we found it interesting and wouldn’t have missed it. There’s a new visitor center and beautifully presented museum and we had a guide tell us the history, geology, and significance of the site. For us it was worth the stop.

Not long after the Gorge we arrived at the outer gate of the legendary Serengeti. The Masai word means “endless plain” and it’s aptly named.

Almost as soon as we entered the park our animal sightings went through the roof. We saw our first secretary birds, now my favorites.

Lions were everywhere, and often so close! One female walked right past my open window, and Jack hissing “close your window!” almost made me miss the shot.

We were amazed at how oblivious most of the animals are to the presence of the Landcruisers. Maybe not oblivious but certainly not bothered by them.

Many of our photos were taken on normal focal lengths and we were often only about 5 or 6 meters away.

As the sun dipped low in the sky we saw our first hippos, a large group of elephants and our first hyena.

We got to our camp just as the sun set, and we were tired and hungry. What’s worse, I felt the beginnings of a cold coming on, caught, no doubt, while jammed in the airport bus in Doha to be driven to our plane out on the tarmac. So much for social distancing. And we had our sunrise balloon safari the next day. Four AM is going to hurt. Time to sleep.

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Land cruising

Emanuel picked us up at 8 and after spending an hour finding an ATM that would give me more Tanzanian shillings, we were off toward our first destination, Lake Manyara National Park. I was excited about this park because it reportedly has 2.5 million flamingoes (cue the theme to Out of Africa.) It has most of the other famous African animals too, but the wetland birds would be a strong contrast to the dry Serengeti plain we will visit next.

As we drove we got to know Emanuel and it didn’t take long to learn how good a naturalist he is, knowledgeable in every aspect of the parks with a deep understanding of the delicate balance of ecosystems. It was around the time we entered the park that he told us that unusually heavy rain in 2018 and 2020 had flooded Lake Manyara so much that it greatly reduced the salinity of the water and killed off the algae the flamingoes feed on. The flamingoes were gone.

I was profoundly disappointed from a personal standpoint, but even more saddened by the abrupt environmental changes.

“Global warming?” I asked. Emanuel nodded.

“Will they come back?” I was thinking about the flamingoes but it was clear the bird life wasn’t the only consequence of the floods.

“No,” he said. The damage has been done.

We saw our first African elephant in the wild just then and while I was happy to see it, I felt a cloud had moved overhead and the sparkle had dimmed on the day. As time went on I started to appreciate the scenery and especially the trees, so different from the tropics where we’d been for so long. We were looking at a completely different color palette of browns and greens, instead of the blues we’ve lived in for nearly ten years.

When Emanuel stopped the vehicle and we listened, the silence was so complete we felt our ears were cartoon hearing trumpets reaching out for any sound at all. I knew then that coming to Africa was the right decision after selling Escape Velocity. We needed this.

The park continued to deliver. Our first giraffe, our first lion, and a bonanza, two young lion cubs resting in a tree.

In between there was no shortage of baboons, reminding us, in behavior if not appearance, of the macaques we’d been living among for the past three years.

We made our way down to the lakeside and saw for the first time what the heavy rains did to the lake. I read that it’s only ever about 10 feet deep all the way across, but the rain flooded the shoreline so far that trees that once stood at the water’s edge are now well into the lake, dead or dying.

Emanuel drew our attention to the color of the water, now brown instead of clear. In a normal cycle, by this time in the dry season the rainwater would have evaporated, preserving the salinity and the shoreline. But, as Emanuel said, “there’s just too much water.”

Near the lake we found our first camp. We’d elected tent camps instead of lodges because we wanted the whole classic safari experience and it was the right decision. The camps rest lightly on the land. There are no permanent structures, no hardscape, no concrete pads. The whole operation could be pulled up and moved and within a short period of time, the savannah grasses would reclaim it, then the trees. The animals and birds are always there, and we were serenaded all night by the calls of the wild.

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From motor scooter to the land of the smallish motorcycle

Wheels down in Kilimanjaro, after a layover in Doha, and in minutes we knew this was going to be different. It’s a smallish, but certainly not the smallest airport we’ve ever landed in. We found our bags sitting on the floor in the terminal.

A guy, who looked like he had highly discounted Rolex watches to sell leaned in and said, “I get you tru these lines tout de suite. Show me your Covid papers.”

He frowned. Evidently we were missing the secret most important form. He smiled and said, “I get you tru anyhow,” followed by the standard awkward pause while we fumbled for shillings in astronomical quantities. It is something like 2,301 Tanzanian shillings to 1 usd. As a reformed cheapskate Yours Truly finds it hard to hand over 20,000 anything as a tip.

Dazed and confused, we’d been traveling continuously for two straight days, schlepping all our bags. We squinted out into the African sun to find our new friend Emanuel, smiling his humble smile, holding a sign that proclaimed “Jack Archer.” Close enough! He stowed our bags and we scrambled up into a genuine nine passenger indestructible 4×4 Toyota Landcruiser, standard transportation in African bush.

Forty-five minutes later Emanuel pulled into the lush deep green oasis of our game sanctuary lodge just outside of Arusha, our home for the night.

We hadn’t had to dodge one motor scooter the whole trip. We’re in the land of dodging the small engined motorcycle.

We knew we’d have to rest fast because tomorrow morning Emanuel would pick us up in the Landcruiser for the long ride up to Lake Manyara National Park to start our African safari. I have to say it felt like we’d already been safari-ing.

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The view from the front porch

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