December 17-20, 2008
Pnina and I took a 4-night, 4-day safari in northwestern Tanzania. We joined a group with three other people. There was an Italian couple, Giovani and Roberta, and there was a French woman, Bridget.
Giovani used to work for Ducati motorcycles, and now works for Piaggio (makers of the Vespa). Roberta does administrative work for a large Italian company that makes heating units. Bridget teaches marketing classes. She left France many years ago to live on the small French island of Reunion, east of Madacascar.
For the safari we had a Toyota Landcruiser, but it wasn’t like the wussy Landcruisers you see in America. This thing was built like a tank. Our driver was Abel, who drove well but had kind of a sour mood – seemed like he did his job because he had to. And we had our cook, Isack, who was very friendly and made great food.
Pnina and I joined the trip a little late, at the end of the first day. Giovani, Roberta, and Bridget spent that day in a park nearby called Lake Manyara. From what we heard it sounded very similar to Lake Nakuru (which we visited) so we were fine with skipping it. The main difference is that Lake Manyara has some rare tree-climbing lions, though our safari-mates said that they only saw one of these lions and she was pretty far off.
Getting to Serengeti
We spent a large part of the first day driving to to Serengeti National Park. The distances are pretty huge here. I think we crossed about 600 km.
In order to get to Serengeti you have to pass through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and the obnoxious thing is that you have to pay entrance even if you’re just passing through. More money for the government.
In these parts of Tanzania, and also north of here in Kenya, you find a tribe of people called Masai. Many of them still live a traditional lifestyle, living in simple huts and herding cattle. The government believes that the Masai are the rightful first inhabitants of the area where the Ngorongoro Conservation Area exists today, so they allow the Masai to live there, side by side with the wild animals. It’s pretty bizarre to see the Masai’s domesticated animals (cows, donkeys, goats) next to wildebeests, zebras, and giraffs. Abel said that he hasn’t heard of predators in the conservation area attacking domesticated animals, which we find kind of strange – aren’t they sitting ducks? We learned that Masai men take as many wives as they can afford – each one requires a dowry payment of some cows to the father of the bride, and each wife gets her own house. So for Masai men a good way to get cattle-rich is to have a lot of daughters.
The word “serengeti” comes from a Masai word that means “endless plains”. When we entered the park we saw just why the Masai chose to call it so:
Apparently some volcanic activity in the area caused these plains to be covered by ash. As a result, it’s hard for plants to take root in the ground. Grass gets by, but not plants that require deeper roots. Hence no trees.
When we entered the park, we saw huge herds of zebra and wildebeests. The big attraction at Serengeti is the annual migration of the wildebeests. Each year they do a huge loop around the park following the rain clouds. Around August they head north to Masai Mara National Park in Kenya. A few months later they had back south into the Serengeti. As part of this migration they have to cross some rivers. Apparently it’s an amazing site – they call it “the biggest traffic jam on Earth”. By the time we arrived in Tanzania the primary migration season ended and the wildebeests were hanging out in parts of the Serengeti, so we didn’t see migration but we saw big herds. By the way, the zebras actually lead the migration – they have the better sense of direction or memory or whatever it takes. Then come the wildebeests, and then come the predators looking for an easy kill.
Besides the wildebeests and zebras, we also saw a lot of Thompson Gazelles, some hyenas, and various odd birds:
Not all of the Serengeti National Park is completely flat. Some parts are more hilly. Near the entrance to the park we stopped for lunch at a place called Naabi hill. From the top there were some nice views of the surroundings.
But the highlight for us was when we saw a fight between two colorful lizards. They moved so fast that it was hard to follow what we happening. But Pnina set her camera to rapid-fire and later we looked back at the great action shots she got:
We spent two nights in Serengeti doing various game drives. We got some great views of various cats: lions, leopards, and cheetahs. It was great because in our other safaris we didn’t see any cheetahs and only fleeting glimpses of leopards.
We stayed in a nice simple campsite near the center of the park. Pnina and I didn’t have any particular expectations for the campsite so we thought it was fine. But the other three were told that we would be camping next door to some posh safari lodge and that we’d be able to use the lodge’s facilities (showers, pool, etc.). They argued this point with our driver, Abel, but they got nowhere, and it only made Abel’s mood even more sour.
The one exciting thing about our campsite is that in our dining hut we saw a Green Mamba snake:
It’s hard to believe but this little guy is so poisonous that, once bitten, you’re likely to die within a half hour. Except this was a baby Green Mamba so maybe you have 3/4 an hour. Yay! 🙂 The good thing about green mambas is that they don’t attack unless they are provoked, so we had no issue with our little dining hut companion. By contrast, we heard that the Black Mamba is even more poisonous and also has a tendency to proactively attack, which makes it one of the more dangerous snakes in the world.
After a couple of days at Serengeti we drove back east into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We set up camp at the top of the Ngorongoro Crater. It was much colder here. The guides warned us to avoid keeping food in our tents because the wild pigs in the area have a fantastic sense of smell, and they will happily plow through your tent for a snack. Luckily we didn’t see any of them. We did see a bunch of huge birds roaming around, and one elephant that came by for a drink from a hose. The elephant spent at least 40 minutes filling its trunk with water and then blowing the contents into its mouth. It was very amusing to watch.
The next morning we saw a nice sunrise over the crater:
Then we took a drive into the crater to look for animals.
The crater is pretty large – about 600 meters deep and 260 square km in area. Still, it’s very obviously crater-looking. And it’s interesting that so many animals chose to live at the bottom of the crater.
We spent about 5-6 hours driving around. Here are some of the best shots we got:
We saw one rhino in the crater but it was way too far to photograph. Looking through our binoculars we could just barely tell that it’s a rhino. It turns out that the rhino is one of the harder animals to see in Africa, so we feel pretty lucky for the nice views we got at Kruger.
Where to do a safari
At this point we think we’re done doing African safaris for the rest of the trip. We did four of them:
- Kruger, South Africa (4 days)
- Lake Nakuru, Kenya (1 day)
- Murchison Falls, Uganda (2 days)
- and now Serengeti/Ngorongoro, Tanzania (4 days)
Having done all these, what would we recommend? We think the best option is to go to Kruger National Park. Why? Because that’s the only park where it was easy to rent a simple car (4×4 not necessary) and drive yourself around, looking at animals on your own pace. You can stay in nice but cheap campsites and eat at the camp restaurants or bring your own food. All this means that it’s way way cheaper at Kruger than in the other places. We probably spent about $70-$80 for the two of us each day, including car rental, fuel, park fees, accomodation, and food. By comparison you typically have to pay $100+ per person per day to go on organized safaris, which are the only practical ways to see the other parks. Kruger wasn’t just cheap, though. It was also good. We saw all the major animals there with the exception of the cheetah, including the best views we saw of wild rhinos. Of course, be aware that all this depends on luck and season. You need to be at the right place at the right time to see the animals. While we had good luck at Kruger, you might have crappy luck there and great luck at another park. You never know.
As with other travelers we met along the way, we introduced our Serengeti safari-mates to our dice game: 10,000. Bridget wasn’t really into it, but Giovani and Roberta really picked it up. Weeks later Giovani wrote me a letter to say that after they returned to Italy they bought some dice and started teaching their friends how to play. Nice!
Anyhow, during one of our games at Ngorogoro Roberta had a perfect throw (all 1’s):
In case you don’t know the game, this throw gives you 10,000 points which essentially guarantees the win (it did in her case, even though she was way behind). Pnina and I have been playing this game for a while now and it’s the first time it’s happened. The odds of getting this throw are about 1 in 47,000.