Back in Stone Town from safari in Tanzania’s Northern Circuit! It was an amazing experience – so much to see, both animal and nature wise!
We ended up flying to Arusha from Stone Town to save some time, and it was so nice traveling on a plane again. Not to mention the flight lasted 45 minutes – it barely felt like traveling! We actually flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport, but the clouds were so thick we couldn’t see the top of the mountain. I’m still upset that I couldn’t climb Kili on this trip, but at least it gives me an excuse to come back to Tanzania!
We ended up spending our first night at the Arusha Travel Lodge (it did not appear in any way to be connected to North American Travellodges). However, it did have a room with four double beds and a television – we got to watch a terrible Jackie Chan movie and Ocean’s Thirteen – so it felt pretty luxurious to us. The next morning we were up early to get a move on with our safari.
The company we went with (Shadows of Africa) came highly recommended by a European couple we had met in Paje, and after reading their reviews online, we decided they were legit. But, as always, this is Africa, and, especially in Tanzania, credit card machines are hard to come by, which meant that the company only accepted credit card payments if the safari booking had been made over a month in advance. The bank machines here also (wisely) limit the amount of money you’re able to take out each day – in Zambia, it was 700 kwacha, roughly 125 CAD. Which wasn’t a problem unless you had to pay everything in cash, which is generally the case the further north you go. The exchange rate of Tanzanian shillings is 1557 to one USD, so you can imagine the stacks of bills we had to withdraw to pay for this safari. Once our payment was (essentially) sorted, we were out and headed to our first stop, Lake Manyara!
Lake Manyara is named after a plant that looks like a cactus growing out of a tree, called Emanyara in the Masai language. The park has an area of around 650 square km, with 263km2 being covered by lake. It is also home to a lot of baboons. They’re kind of terrifying animals, but it’s cute to watch them play with each other. And the babies, like all baby animals, are adorable.
We also saw what we thought, at the time, were huge herds of zebra, wildebeest, and African buffalo. Compared to what we saw later on, they were tiny!
The bird life was also really impressive (this coming from someone with a fear of birds).
And of course, the lake itself was gorgeous. It’s really hard to show how vast it actually was with photos (you’ll just have to go there yourself some day).
We got to drive up above the lake on the way to our lodge for the night, and it was so beautiful seeing the sun set over the lake. I could’ve stayed just there for a few nights, but there was more to see!
We were up the next morning at a fairly reasonable time (considering that I generally wake up around 6:30 every morning) and I was able to look at some of the plants around our lodge. With the weather being so hot in Africa, it’s easy to forget that it’s already almost mid-December, so it was a funny surprise to see poinsettias growing.
That day, we were driving through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) and into the Serengeti. The NCA is around 8300 square km, and is a world heritage site. Not only is it home to the Ngorongoro Crater, but also includes part of the Serengeti as well as important archeological sites. I don’t hesitate in saying that the Crater is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life.
Many geological processes, taking place over the course of 20 million years, have formed the crater. By about two million years ago, the crater was essentially similar as to how it is today, but ongoing erosion also affects the current topography. The crater actually used to be the Ngorongoro volcano, and the lava of that volcano formed a lid of sorts that collapsed when the rock subdivided, forming the crater as we see it today. We stopped for a quick view of it on our way to the Serengeti (on the way back we descended into it) and it actually took my breath away. I don’t know what exactly it is about it – I really didn’t know what to expect – but it just looked so perfect and peaceful. It’s 310 square km, and at its lowest point, is 760 km below the crater rim. It’s so steep that you won’t find giraffes in it because they can’t walk down!
The Northern area of Tanzania is home not only to many cute animals, but to the Masai people as well. We stopped at a Masai village after seeing the view of the crater, and were given the opportunity to visit their houses and school. I don’t even like kids, but seeing them rattle off the alphabet and their numbers was pretty adorable.
I’m generally uncomfortable with ‘cultural tourism’ (is that the right term?). Although I appreciated seeing the village, how the houses were constructed, and how welcoming everyone was, I still felt quite awkward when the chief essentially threw a necklace on me and strongly urged me to go dance with the women. I mean really, have you seen me dance? It’s not the prettiest thing even when I know what I’m dancing to. But it seemed to make the chief happy to have us participating, and I guess visits from tourists break up the day.
After the visit at the village, which concluded with me nearly coming home with another dog (the chief could quote me the price in either dollars or shillings, depending on what I had), we drove to a picnic spot to have our lunch break. The spot overlooked the Oldupai Gorge, which is home to one of those important archaeological sites I was mentioning. The gorge itself contains the bones of three kinds of early people (Australopithecus boisei, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus) as well as Homo sapiens.
The Laetoli region is 25km south of the site we ate lunch at, and is famous for its 3.6 million year old fossilized footprints, belonging to an early hominid (Australopithecus afarensis) scientists believe is directly linked to Homo sapiens. The site is so important to researches that it does not allow tourist visits, and is so sensitive that it has to be covered in order to preserve it. There is a museum at the gorge that houses a silicone cast of the footprints, however.
The footprints show a lot about the way this early hominid used its feet, which can be compared to the way other primates from that time period used their feet. For example, A. afatensis used its big toes for walking instead of grasping (which can be determined because the toe is directly in line with the foot as opposed to at an angle) and has an arch in their feet (something found only in humans), which allowed them to absorb shock more efficiently.
After getting our learn on, we were Serengeti-bound! And trying to avoid the rain that seemed to be chasing us from Arusha. Despite promises from just about everyone that this much rain was uncommon in the area at this time (we’re in the light-rainy season, the real rainy season hits in January), there always seemed to be some clouds off in the distance.
But, luck was on our side and we made it to the Serengeti with minimal rain!
We stopped at a viewpoint at the entrance to the park, and I was delighted to see more brightly coloured lizards. We could also see more rain in the distance, but for the most part, it passed us by. Serengeti means ‘endless plains’ in the Masai language, and it’s quite fitting – it looked like we were looking out on an ocean of grass.
We had to go set up camp for the night, but were still able to get a quick game drive in, and I was not disappointed – I saw two serval cats, one leopard (which meant I had crossed off the Big Five!), and a group of lions taking a nap in the road!
We also got to see secretary birds, which are birds I actually enjoy, because they stomp on snakes to kill them. It’s not that I have anything against the snakes, it’s more just that I find it a hilarious way of killing something (does that make me weird?)
We got our camp set up just as the sun was going down. I was actually really happy to be sleeping in a tent again – this past season planting was all in motels, and though I stayed in a tent for Rocking the Daisies, music festival tenting is not exactly the same as camping tenting.
Like the first time I camped in Africa (back in the Kalahari), hyenas visited our camp at night. They remind me of black bears in Canada, but slightly more unnerving. I don’t know if “woah, hyena” has the same effect on them as “woah, bear” has on the bears.
We were up early the next morning to get our game drive started, and one of the first things we saw (and my ability to identify it) would have made Bob and Darcy, my old birding safari friends from Tembe, quite happy.
The Lilac-Breasted Roller is actually the national bird of Botswana, and we did see it in Botswana, though not well enough to get a decent image. It’s called a roller because it rolls in the sky, but apparently that’s a rare sight to see.
There was so much to see in the Serengeti! We saw more baby zebras, hippos, five leopard in total (three of which were a mom and two juveniles), a pride of about eight lions, vultures feeding on a kill, elephants, and, to cap it all off, a lion sleeping on Pride Rock.
After that, we set out to drive back to the rim of the Ngorongoro crater. I know, as a Canadian, this sounds ridiculous, but I have never seen so many giraffes in my life. Maybe I should say I never expected to see so many giraffes in my life. We passed a group of twenty giraffes, and several smaller groups. The land changed quite quickly as we climbed in elevation – a lot more trees, which is more the giraffe’s style, compared to open plains.
When we reached our camp, a visitor greeted us to share a drink!
That night, I didn’t hear any hyenas, but the following day I saw plenty! We were headed down into the crater, which is full of animals (over 25, 000 herbivores and 300 predators, with an estimated one lion and four hyenas per kilometre of land) – they have little reason to leave it, as even in the dry season, rivers flow into the crater. The size of the herds of wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo are hard to describe. It made me sad in a way to know that in Canada, we used to have herds of bison like this.
Again, the bird life was amazing (maybe Bob, Darcy, and all the other birders I’ve met along the way have really started rubbing off on me). The flamingos were spectacular, and we saw several types of hawks, bustards, and cranes.
I also got to see a few new animals, as well as my favourites, the predators.
I’ve decided I quite like hyenas. When they lie in mud puddles they remind me of my dog, and they’re so funny looking I can’t help but find them cute.
After our drive through the crater, we headed back to Arusha to spend a night before flying back to Zanzibar. The last couple days of our trip are to be spent in Stone Town, and then Julia and I are flying back to Cape Town on the 13th. I’ll miss the quirks of Tanzania (a package of pringles is more expensive than either a pack of smokes or a beer) but it’ll be nice to be back in Cape Town and off the road for a bit!
It is officially two weeks until Christmas! I hope you have all your shopping done!