by Betsy Herbert
As I stood on the border between Tanzania and Kenya in east Africa on September 1, the first day of our 15-day photo safari and tour, I had no idea how wild things would get. . .
Our tour group and guide. The tour was organized by Overseas Adventure Travel. When I arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport on August 31, I went directly to our hotel, the Kia Lodge, a collection of comfortable mud-walled, thatched-roof bungalows. It's only 5 minutes away from the airport. When I arrived, I was welcomed by smiling faces and endless greetings of “Jambo, jambo!”, meaning “hello” in Swahili.
Soon I met the other seven members of our tour group, who were gathering for the first meeting with our guide in the open-air dining room. As we all introduced ourselves, I was confident that I would be comfortable traveling with this group.
Our guide, Boniface Faustine, was a stocky, dark-skinned Tanzanian with a booming voice and an air of authority, but with an engaging smile and a ready laugh. As he began speaking, I felt lucky to have him as our guide.
Prior to signing on as a guide for Overseas Adventure Travel, Faustine had worked for three years as a park ranger in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, possibly the most famous big game park in Africa. He spoke very good English, was articulate, and was a storehouse of information. But his passion for Africa’s people and wildlife permeated everything he said.
Our itinerary. We began our tour in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, staying in a tent lodge in a game reserve, taking drives early each morning in our Toyota Land Cruiser safari vehicles. We would move on to some of the best national parks in Tanzania for wildlife viewing: Tangarire, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater. In the Serengeti, we would camp in tents within the habitat and grazing areas of wild animals and we would have remarkable encounters with them. We would also visit Oldupai Gorge (yes, that is the correct spelling! It's the Swahili word for "sisal" the plant that the site was named for). Oldupai Gorge is the archeological site with the oldest evidence of human evolution. The site was originally discovered and documented by Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1930s.
Foothills of Kilimanjaro. Our tour started with a trek led by a Masai tribesman in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
This game reserve was inhabited by the nomadic Masai tribe, who build villages in the plains where elephants, lions, hyenas, and other big game live. The Masai herd cattle and goats, but they don't hunt wild game. Instead, they co-exist with wild animals, having learned how to protect their families and livestock from predators.
The Masai know the tracks and scat of all the big game animals, so they make ideal guides for photo safaris. Our Masai guide for an afternoon walking safari was named William. We traveled with William in two Toyota Land Cruisers, each adapted for safari use with a pop-up top that allowed us to stand up inside the vehicle and brace ourselves and our cameras along the top edge. When we got to his chosen spot, we got out of the vehicles and followed him through the bush. As we walked, he pointed out the footprints of various animals. "Today," he said, "We will see giraffes."
After a couple of hours, as sunset was approaching, we saw and photographed lots of giraffes grazing in the canopies of the acacia trees that they seek out. They seemed oblivious to us until we got too close. Then they walked or galloped away.
The next morning, we took the safari vehicles out again and observed several herds of elephants, including bulls, cows and calves.
Elephants are not afraid of anything except people, and only then when they are being hunted. They seem able to tell when people are merely taking photos and then, other than a disgusted glare if you get too close, they seem to ignore you. If, however, a bull were to charge a safari vehicle, he could easily turn it over and destroy everything inside it. An elephant can kill a human with one toss of its trunk. Our guides could read the body language of the elephants, so they knew when to back away. In the wilds of Africa, your life depends on your guides!
Kilimanjaro game reserve accommodations. We slept at night in a permanent tent camp at the edge of the game reserve. I had my own tent with a thatched roof and a private bathroom, which included a flush toilet, a sink, and a shower. Water was heated by solar panels. The windows and doors were screened and the tents were fully enclosed. They were decorated with elegantly primitive textiles. We were told to expect to hear zebras and other wild animals outside of our tents at night, but that they would not bother us. Just in case, though, we each had a whistle inside our tent which we were to blow, just in case of an emergency.
Masai village visit. The last day in the game reserve, we arose before sunrise to visit a Masai village. Boniface explained that it was OK to take photos. We would arrive in time to meet village residents before the men departed to herd their cattle and the women to search for firewood and retrieve water.
As we arrived, Boniface showed us a typical Masai hut in the process of being constructed. The frame was made of tree branches bent to form a dome shape. Over that, brush was woven, and then cow dung was plastered over the walls.
Each hut housed one of the Masai wives of the chief and her children. Yes, the Masai are polygamous. Typically, a man seeks to marry as many wives as he can afford, since women do all the work except herding. A man’s wealth is measured by the number of cattle he owns.
Masai boys are circumcised when they are about 14 years old. This is a big passage of life ceremony. They go off in the desert with some of the tribal elders, who perform the ritual. Afterwards, the boys paint themselves black from head to toe and sometimes decorate their faces in bright white dot patterns, in order to ward off any evil-eye and to scare away infection. We encountered small groups of these boys wandering down the highways as we drove through Masai country.
After circumcision, the boys become warriors, whose job is to protect the tribe from marauders and wild animals. After they marry, men give up their status as warriors. Their role changes to watching over their wives and children and making sure the village runs smoothly.
Masai men are typically clothed in bright red patterned robes, and they carry a stick to herd cattle with. Masai herders are seen all over northern Tanzania. The Masai are very protective of their culture and they resist cultural change from the outside world. They are reluctant to send their children to school lest they go away and never come back or lose their attachment to Masai culture.
But the Masai are extremely poor and their children are vulnerable to diseases like malaria and typhoid. The women spend much of their time gathering and carrying firewood for cooking and heating and hauling water from wherever they can get it. Too often, that water is contaminated.
When we visited the Masai village in the game reserve, I was shocked at its primitive conditions. The small dung huts in which they live surround a central area where all the livestock is kept at night. Livestock was still there when we arrived at sunrise. As we walked in, we were overwhelmed by all the ongoing defecation and urination of the herds where children wandered and played.
We were offered the opportunity to milk some of the cows. I tried, but was not successful. I was told later that a cow will not give milk to a stranger.
We were invited a few at a time to enter a Masai hut where a woman was cooking with a wood fire. The smoke fumes were dense, as not all of the smoke escaped through the small openings in the roof. I admit feeling claustrophobic while inside the hut.
The children loved looking at the photos we took of them with our cell phones. But they would grab the phones and start pressing buttons. I quickly grabbed my phone back and held onto it. I was doubly concerned because some of the children seemed sick and feverish.
After the visit, the Masai women spread out blankets where they displayed their handmade jewelry for sale. I bought two exquisite beaded pieces, one bracelet, and one necklace for about $5 each.
Tangarire National Park. Next we set out for a drive through the city of Arusha and to the Tangarire National Park for more wildlife viewing. In the national parks, people are prohibited from building villages or grazing their cattle. Unlike the game reserve we visited previously, the national parks are strictly for the protection and viewing of wildlife.
We stayed at the beautiful Moivaro Lodge in the outskirts of a small village near the park, where a portion of each guest’s tariff is allocated to support the village.
On the way out of Arusha, we stopped at a local open-air market. There were thousands of people there selling housewares, produce, prepared food, and used clothing and shoes.
Once we arrived in Tangarire National Park, we encountered lots of other tourists, unlike the Kilimanjaro game reserve.
To enter the park, the guides pay an entrance fee for each tourist. You must stay on the roads, you must not get out of the vehicle for any reason, and you are also forbidden to feed the animals. All of these requirements make perfect sense because if you break the rules, you could become some animal’s next meal.
Tanangire looked different from the game reserve to the north; first, because of the sheer numbers of wild animals, which could easily be seen from the road. No doubt, these animals know they are safer in the national parks than they are in game reserves, where some hunting is still allowed.
Second, Tanangire hosts a multitude of baobab trees. Baobabs here are big, bottle-shaped trees about 60 feet tall, with enormously thick trunks and branches radiating from the top like a crown of thorns. The baobabs in Africa are different species than the ones in Madagascar, which are much taller. The baobab tree has a tasty bark that elephants enjoy eating and a fruit that looks like a yam and is full of vitamin C.
Many species of the acacia trees also covered the landscape. The spreading canopy of the acacia has become an iconic symbol of the African savannah as well as the major food source for giraffes and elephants. As we would witness, elephants will often knock down an entire tree and begin consuming it, branch by branch.
In Tanangire, we saw herds of wildebeests and zebras, which often travel together. Zebras have better vision that wildebeests, and wildebeests have a better sense of smell. All the better to warn each other about approaching predators, such as lions and cheetahs. Zebras and wildebeests don’t compete with each other for food because each eats a different length of grass, due to their different jaw/tooth structures.
We also encountered our first hippopotamus herds, which were mostly submerged in big, foul smelling lagoons. Every so often, the beasts would bellow and groan and make loud flatulent noises with their lips. They’re so entertaining, it’s easy to forget how dangerous they are, especially once they get out of the water. They may attack and kill humans who venture onto their pathways.
Serengeti National Park. For the final four nights of our photo safari, we headed for the famous 6,000 square mile Serengeti National Park, where we would camp in rustic tents that were temporarily installed there just for the season. Serengeti means “endless plain” in Swahili.
In the Serengeti we were just about guaranteed to see African lions, and likely to see cheetahs, leopards, cape buffalo and maybe even a black rhino, whose population was reduced to zero in the park during the 1990s due to poachers. Both elephants and rhinos are victims of poaching in Tanzania. We would visit a rhino conservation project in the park to learn about ongoing efforts to protect and restore the black rhino population in the Serengeti. (See my 9/25/15 article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel for more).
The Simba Tent Camp in the Serengeti. The Simba (lion in Swahil) tent camp was well designed so that the kitchen tent was separated from the rest of the camp, which included a dining area and guest tents. There was a large fire pit in front of the dining tent. The food was prepared in the kitchen tent and carried down by camp stewards. Guest tents extended in a row on either side of the dining tent. Each guest tent had a flush toilet and a shower.
Each afternoon after we returned hot, sweaty and dusty from a game drive, a camp steward would fill each of our shower buckets with 20 liters of warm water, which he hauled to the tents from a stationary tank. He would hoist the full bucket up with a pulley, and when he yelled “Ready!” you could turn the valve to start the shower.
Bottled water for drinking and cooking was delivered to the camp by truck. Water for washing and cleaning came from a spring near the park. All electricity was supplied by solar panels at the camp. Once tourist season was over, the entire camp would be disassembled and hauled away for storage. Vegetation remained undisturbed by humans. The park prohibits any grading or leveling of the site, so the camp was not exactly flat. Water from the showers often drained across the floor of the tent to the front entrance, causing slippery puddles. Each guest pays $60 per night to camp in the park, in addition to the camp entrance fee. The fees are used to fund the park and pay the salaries of park rangers.
Wild Times at the Simba Tent Camp. Our guides explained that we were living the home of the wild animals, who would likelycome there and graze in the evenings. We were all given whistles and told not to worry if we heard animals outside our tents. We were assured that the animals would not try to get inside our tents.
The first night passed rather uneventfully. Since I was recovering from a bad bout of intestinal upset, I decided to stay in camp the next day and miss the morning game drive. I slept for a few hours after everyone except a few of the staff departed. I was awakened by a most enchanting and melodic birdsong. The bird was right outside the entrance to my tent. I could see it through the window screen. It had attached itself to the shaving mirror that was hung by a rope from the tent’s canopy pole.
The bird was singing to its own reflection, much like a parakeet. Except this bird was no parakeet. It was about the same size, but it had a long curved black bill, an iridescent turquoise head, and a multi-colored body. I tried to take a photo of it, but when I unzipped my tent, he flew away. Later, I identified it from a field guide as some sort of sunbird.
When the game drive returned, everyone was all abuzz about having witnessed a lion stalking a zebra. My story about the signing sunbird, though special to me, I’m sure seemed dull and unexciting to the rest of my group who had just witnessed such a thrilling sight.
The second night in camp, I heard something very close, walking, growling and crunching branches outside my tent. I also heard the moans and howls of a hyena coming from further away. The wind blew in gusts all night long, which made the tent flap furiously as if something were out there, shaking it.
The next morning at breakfast we all had stories to tell. It turns out that the animal outside my tent was an elephant, which was spotted by the camper in the next tent. The elephant had knocked down several acacia trees within 15 feet of our tents and was consuming the leaves all night long. Later, staff discovered that the elephant had also knocked over the water tank!
That same night, at one of the tents on the other side of the kitchen, a leopard had chewed the lid off a water bucket and tops from water bottles left on the table outside the tent entrance. The guides knew it was a leopard because it had left tracks in the mud. The campers in that tent had slept through the whole event!
At dinner that evening, Boniface informed us that the elephant that had visited our camp the night before had also visited another tent camp a few miles away, where he had up-ended the entire kitchen tent. The park rangers were familiar with this elephant, and that night two of them, armed with AK-47s, decided to stay with us, just in case the elephant decided to up-end one of our tents. (They would not shoot the elephant, but only scare him away).
As it got dark, we were sitting at the kitchen table finishing dinner when I saw a hyena approach a table a few feet away that still had leftovers on it. I stood up and whirled around, just as the guide yelled at it, and the hyena ran away. It would be back, though, several times. After all, hyenas are highly evolved scavengers and they are used to being chased away by scarier beasts than humans!
That night, as usual, Boniface escorted us back to our tents with a large flashlight. I was nervous about going to sleep for fear of my tent being upended or worse. I went to bed with the whistle around my neck. The wind gusted all night long, rocking the tent and flapping the flaps. I could also hear the elephant outside munching again. I slept very little.
Some of the other campers found baboon spiders, a type of large African tarantula, in their shower areas. These hand-sized knobby legged spiders are not poisonous to humans, but they can bite and are intimidating, to say the least. One camper reported that one crawled up his leg as he was taking a shower. I am so happy to report that I did not find one in my tent!!!
One day as I was sitting in the dining area writing, I struck up a conversation with the Simba Camp Manager, named Mack (Camp Manager, Simba Camp, Rongai Extra 2, Serengeti). I asked him about his experiences at the camp.
He said several years ago, during his second day on the job at the camp, he watched lions kill a wildebeest within 100 feet of the camp. Another time, he and other camp stewards were bringing dirty dishes back to kitchen tent after dark from the dining area, when they spotted lions next to the tent, where they were attracted to the water stored there.
Mack knew they had to get to the trucks to be safe, but the trucks were parked near the lions. So they went back to the dining area to get flash lights, which they then flashed on and off to confuse the lions. It worked and they were able to get to the trucks, which they started up and drove to chase lions away.
Mack works 9 months of the year at Simba camp. During this time, he works a 30 day stretch and then takes a week off to stay with his family in Arusha.
Game drives in the Serengeti. We typically took two games drives each day in the Serengeti; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Our guides knew where to go and what time to go to have the best chance of spotting wildlife. We saw all of the Big Five (lions, elephants, cape buffalo, rhinos, and leopards). We also saw cheetahs, several lion prides, and two lionesses starting to consume a fresh zebra kill. We saw hyenas, giraffes, lots of zebras and wildebeests, warthogs, and many kinds of birds including ostriches, owls, vultures, secretary birds. We saw some rare cats, including the caracol.
At first, seeing each of these wild animals was thrilling and exciting. But after awhile, we became used to seeing large numbers of elephants, giraffes, zebras, gazelles, and even lions. The three sightings that impressed me the most were the lion kill, the black rhino and its young on our last day in the Serengeti, and a hyena pup that came within touching distance of our vehicle, just to investigate.
At some sightings near the roads, there were traffic jams of safari vehicles full of photographers with huge lenses, all snapping away. The animals typically seemed to ignore our presence, but I wondered what the real impacts of so many people around might be.
As we would finish photographing, we would chant “sawa-sawa” to our driver, which means “OK, let’s go” or something of that nature, in Swahili.
During the drives, the roads were very bumpy and dusty. At times, tsetse flies would fly into the truck. At first we were terrified, but our guides told us that the type found in Serengeti does not carry sleeping sickness. Still, we actively shooed them out of the vehicles, since they have a painful bite.
There were many more stops on our trip to visit local people and places. I will have to wait until another time to describe those. When our trip ended with a trip back through Arusha to the Kilimanjaro airport, the entire group became silent as we each looked back on our strange and wonderful experiences in northern Tanzania.