Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kilimanjaro Sneak Peak!

We have a friend visiting us at the moment, so instead of giving you the detailed rundown of Kilimanjaro, I'll start with a preview courtesy of my mother-in-law, Jill, who made a video of our climb. I'm also sharing a video of our climbing team (guides, cook, waiter, porters) singing the Kilimanjaro song on the last day of our hike (please excuse my obnoxiously loud scream at the end!). Here are the lyrics and translations for the main verse of the song:

Jambo, Jambo Bwana (Hello, Hello Sir)
Habari gani (How are you?)
Mzuri sana  (Very fine)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Foreigners, you’re welcome)
Kilimanjaro yetu (to Kilimanjaro)
Hakuna Matata (There is no problem)


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ngorongoro Crater

We actually got our first glimpse of the Ngorongoro Crater on our way to the Serengeti, a few days before we would get to explore the crater. The crater is a caldera, formed by a volcano that exploded and collapsed on itself, creating a sunken hole that stretches about 100 square miles. 
Lawrence, Erik and I with Ngorongoro Crater in the background
When entering back into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the first thing that struck me was how green the landscape looked. We passed many Maasai villages, where the men and boys (some who looked as young as 3 or 4 years old) herding cattle were often wearing red, causing them to stand out against the green pastures. I have no idea how the clothes of the Maasai stay so bright, as I would think the vibrant colors would be bleached by the strong African sun on a daily basis. 
A Maasai village with a group of Maasai people (in red) gathering next to the village.
The second thing that struck me was how many Maasai children were begging for food and water on the side of the road. They have learned to recognize that a safari truck typically carries white people who might like to give them leftover water or food. We were encouraged not to give anything to the kids even though we wanted to, as we were told it causes the children to become dependent on begging for food.

After passing groups of zebras, giraffes, and wildebeests, we arrived at our campsite on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Immediately, I spotted a few elephants walking through our campsite! I was surprised because the campsite is at 2300 meters (almost 8000 feet), and I did not expect animals to be up that high. Later that night, around dinner time, a HUGE elephant came to drink from the water tank at camp. Jill and her safari crew were at our site that night as well, and she claimed there was a buffalo a few feet from her tent in the middle of the night!
Our campsite for the night. From the edge of the campsite you could look down into the crater.
Kind of a dangerous move, but a picture was in order!

Imagine seeing this on your way to the toilet!
We were up early to head into the crater. The morning was filled with a few dramas, one of which included learning that the cook for our Chicago friends had been arrested the night before for being rowdy at the campsite! Just after that, Erik "lost" his wedding ring, which we searched for in the area were we had eaten breakfast until we ultimately gave up. Fortunately he found his ring in the safari truck not long after the search!
Erik, Lawrence, and our truck, T888 ACE.
Starting the descent into the crater.
James cooking breakfast from inside the truck!
Not a bad spot for breakfast!
The crater itself is breathtaking. All of the animals are concentrated, so it makes for amazing game-watching. A few of the highlights from our time in the crater included seeing two endangered black rhinos (from far away...these guys are difficult to spot up close), a group of active hippos, several male lions, and a serval cat, which is apparently a rare animal to see. 
Buffaloes and jackals hanging out in the early morning hours.
This elephant is very old. You can tell by the length of his tusks.
The crown crane. I think these are such cool-looking birds!
Lots of activity in the hippo pool...
...this hippo had enough and decided to head to a different hippo pool!
A male lion on the hunt and he has many gazelles to choose from!

A female ostrich with wildebeests in the background
Our first rhino sighting. We could see slightly better with our binoculars when compared to this shot from the zoom lens of our camera, but he was far away!
This picture was taken by one of the people on Jill's safari, as they were in the crater on the same day. Either she had a much bigger/better lens, or they were able to get closer to a rhino than we were. The population of black rhinos in the crater is thought to be about 15.
Serval cat
Pumbaa, aka warthog!
We spent the allotted time in the crater (which is about 6 hours due to the fact that the government is trying to preserve the life that exists there) before driving out along the crater rim. The negative of Ngorongoro is that there are a lot of safari trucks in the crater. In the Serengeti, we could drive for hours without seeing another truck. In Ngorongoro Crater, it was easy to know when an animal had been spotted because a group of safari trucks was gathered in one spot. It actually started to rain on our way out of the crater, which was the first rain we had seen on the safari. Once we said farewell to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we were thrilled to be on paved roads again! The bumpiness of safari trucks should not be underestimated!
James and I as we left Ngorongoro
From the crater we drove back through the same towns we had passed on the way out. First the landscape was lush and green with rolling hills, and I noticed that much of the soil looked like red dirt - similar to the island of Kauai. Towns were bustling with people. I noted that most buildings and stores were built from wood or mud, though some sophisticated places were made of cement. While passing through one of the towns, I watched a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, playing with a bike tire and a stick. 

Once we arrived back in Mto wa Mbu, we asked Lawrence to take us to the market so that we could make a few purchases. Erik really wanted to have a matching pair of sandals to Lawrence, as they are made out of car tires. I picked up some jewelry while he tried on sandals and had them fitted to his feet.
The sandals. Notice the car tire tread on the bottom?!
We started making our way back to Arusha, noticing a big temperature change, as it became hot and dry. Unfortunately, we were really close to our accommodation in Arusha when the safari truck essentially started to break down. A mechanic at the closest petrol station had a look at the vehicle and tried to work out what was happening, and while that occurred, I made friends with some local girls. They kept asking me "how are you this morning?", and I would respond, but I don't think they understood much English, particularly since it was evening. I figure it must be a daily routine they say in school but otherwise learn mostly in Swahili, not English.
How adorable are these girls?
Eventually the truck was up and running again, so we made it back to L'Oasis, where we started our journey a few days earlier. We said goodbye to Lawrence and James with hugs and tips (which are essential on safari - as the wages are not great and the employees rely on tips). We were in a different room this time, and it resembled a tree house, which I thought was fantastic. That evening we did our laundry in the sink (our clothes were FILTHY with dust!) and then had dinner with our Chicago friends.
Our tree house
A good way to finish a safari!
In the morning, we dried our clothes in the courtyard and arranged for a late check out. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast, again chatting with our Chicago friends. Lawrence showed up around midday to take us to Moshi, where we would start our Kilimanjaro climb. Fortunately Lawrence is a good driver, because we had several brushes with death on the road from Arusha to Moshi, one by a local bus driver who pulled out right in front of us heading straight at us, essentially running us off the road, and another by a Dar Express bus (a coach bus that runs to Dar es Salaam,) who was passing cars without having enough room to actually pass cars. A few hours later, we arrived in Moshi, where we were reunited with Jill to begin the next part of our African adventure!
The gardener at L'Oasis found this chameleon for us...
...and then put his camouflage to test on the tree. So cool!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Serengeti National Park

We got an early start on the road from Mto wa Mbu, as we were in for a long day of driving. The Serengeti requires some time to get to, however, it is absolutely worth the effort! If you are planning to visit Tanzania and you only have time to do a safari in one park, the Serengeti is THE place to visit. Our drive took us through the Great Rift Valley, where we passed towns, lush green landscapes, and Maasai villages. Eventually, we arrived at the gates to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is the gateway to the Serengeti. From that point forward, the roads were unpaved and we would spend the next few days bouncing around in a safari vehicle. We drove on a narrow, winding road along the crater rim and before we knew it, we started to see giraffe and zebras from our windows!
This is taken from the safari truck window. This picture, like all of our Africa photos, are unedited!
Our lunch spot was Olduvai Gorge, where we learned about the early discovery of human existence in Africa.

After some additional driving, we finally made it into the Serengeti! Once we entered the park, the first thing we noticed was the wildebeest migration. From a distance, we thought we were seeing a river, but when we got closer, we realized that what we were seeing was hundreds of wildebeests crossing the road in front of us moving into the southern Serengeti. Alongside the wildebeests there were zebras and gazelles. We were actually in awe of the amount of animals in front of our eyes!
The "river" of animals
Lawrence popped the roof of the safari truck up so that we could do a "game drive" on the way to our campsite. We spotted our first lion of the trip, sunbathing on top of some large rocks, but she did not move a muscle while we watched her. We also witnessed more of the migration and spotted our first hippos up close. Eventually, we made it to the Seronera campsite, where we would be camping for the next 2 nights. There, we were reunited with our San Fransisco friends, and we shared wine and warm Kilimanjaro beers (there is no means of refridgeration on safari) over dinner. The campsite was quite busy (they had solar powered electric and there was a massive fight to get access to electricity for camera re-charging), and there were more people than there had been at our previous campsites. I had read that the toilets at Seronera were really bad, but I thought they were clean and well-kept most of the time.
My favorite African beer. I also tried Safari, Serengeti, and Tusker.
On our first full day in the Serengeti, we decided to skip breakfast and start our game drive at 6:30am. Just seconds after leaving our campsite, we encountered buffalo (a little too close for comfort to our campsite!), giraffe, and hippos.
African buffalo
Our first adult male lion sighting

A few hours into our game drive, we found a group of lions feasting on a wildebeest. This was happening right next to the park road, which made for great watching. While the lions were eating, hyenas, jackals, and vultures were gathered in hopes of scavenging the leftovers once the lions were finished. We watched for over an hour, and it was a fascinating event to watch.
There are a few lions with full bellies in this photo!

Vulture and hyena waiting for leftovers
Once we left the lion pride, we kept driving in search of more animals and we were successful. Additional game viewing that morning included seeing baboons, more lions (this time in a tree!), and more hyenas. The highlight of the afternoon (besides the lion feast) was spotting a leopard in a tree. Leopards are hard to find and not that common to see on safari.

I love how it looks like these two are having a conversation!

Around 1pm we headed back to camp for lunch and a bit of rest before going on an evening game drive around 4pm. Two highlights of that drive were seeing buffaloes up close (African buffaloes are HUGE) and visiting two hippo pools. We went to a small pool first and were loving watching the hippos, but Lawrence later drove us down the road to a massive pool with about 50 very active hippos. In addtion to hippos, there were crocodiles in the pool. We must have done about an hour of hippo watching that evening, as I had become slightly obsessed with watching hippos!
My favorite hippo pool!
Check out the crocodile on the rock behind the hippo!

On the way back to camp, we encountered a group a giraffe who crossed the road in front of us, then watched us to make sure we were not a threat.

The acacia tree is filled with thorns, but the giraffe's tongue can handle it!
We arrived back at camp just before dark, and as we were heading into our tent, I heard someone scream my name, which seemed really strange. I looked up and Jill (Erik's mom) was running towards us! We knew that she was on a safari, as she would be meeting us to climb Kilimanjaro in a few days, but we had no idea where she was going and when. There are several public campsites in the Serengeti, and our tent was set up about 25 feet from hers!!! We caught up about our trips and met Jill's fellow travelers. That night, we had a big herd of elephants come into our camp just after dinner, some passing just inches from Jill's tent. We also heard hyenas around camp and saw a few jackals traveling with the elephant herd. Camping amongst the wild animals is what makes Seronera such an awesome campsite.

We wanted to make the most of our last day in the Serengeti, so we decide to start our game drive at 6am. If you are on a private safari with Base Camp, you can essentially dictate to your driver and cook how you want things to work and they will plan accordingly. We left camp around 6am, before most trucks, and it paid off.
One of the benefits of an early rise. This is the hippo pool near our campsite.

First we saw a herd of about 30 elephants. They could have been the ones in our campsite the night before. A few minutes later we came upon a lone female lion. We followed her back to her group, where there were 13 other lions! In that group there were no adult males, but there were some young males. This group also had a kill, another wildebeest, that 2-3 lions watched over while the rest went to hunt. We could see the migration moving close to the where the lions were hanging out and the lions were definitely keeping an eye out for any young or weak animals that might make good prey. Jackals were waiting for the lions to leave the carcass, but this angered the lions, so they chased the jackals away from their food.
A bit blurry, but check out that group of lions!
This part of the migration was VERY close to the lions!
Just before the jackal got chased away! Here the lion is dragging the wildebeest to a spot under a tree.
It turned out that our last day in the Serengeti was the day of the lion! We saw 3-4 other prides of lions, some at a big groups of rocks, some in a tree, some by the river, and some on the road, one of which we spotted at the same time we saw Jill and her safari truck.
Nice and comfy in the tree!

Lions like to use the shade of the trucks for hunting!

We were lucky enough to spot a second leopard, and this one actually had a small zebra kill up in the tree with him (they do this to keep their kill safe from lions, who do not typically climb trees).

I also developed an obsession with zebras. They are such beautiful animals. Seeing a zebra in Africa is like seeing a horse in the US, so I'm not sure our safari guide understood why I wanted to take so many pictures of zebras!

During this game drive, we played Africa by Toto for our guide Lawrence. He was outraged that Toto lied about being able to see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti! He called Toto a liar and a cheater. Apparently, even on the clearest of days, it is impossible to see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti.
Another migration shot from far away.
We headed back to camp around midday to have lunch and pack our bags. Leaving the park we saw the lion pride that we had seen earlier in the morning and they had made another wildebeest kill. Also on the way out of the park we saw a male lion sleeping on the same rocks where we spotted our first lion on the first day in the Serengeti. Overall that day, we saw more than 50 lions! According to Lawrence, this is quite unusual, and most people are lucky to see a handful of lions in 3 days, whereas some visitors do not see any lions.

Needless to say, we had an amazing experience in the Serengeti, and we felt extremely fortunate to have had the chance to see so many animals. That did not prevent us from being excited about our next stop though, and we headed out of the park on our way back into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
A hot air balloon safari would have been amazing, but it was a little cost prohibitive!