Our African safari was an amazing experience. On this trip there were no museums or churches full of medieval art or ruins of ancient temples. Just the great outdoors with plenty of blue sky and more animal than you can count.
We started by flying into Nairobi and spent a day at the Giraffe center where they breed Rothchild giraffes. We were able to feed them from a viewing platform, but if you did not feed them fast enough they would headbutt and with a head weighing 12 kilos they can knock you on your butt. There are 9 different species of giraffes, 3 of which (Masai, Rothchild, Reticulated) are at the center. Their brains weigh about 3 kilos, they have very long tongues (22 cm), and their heart pumps blood about 3 times as fast as humans and like humans they have 7 neck vertebra (very very big vertebra). They live about 17 years in the wild and at the center they live about 25 years.
Our first safari stop was the Masai Mara and we flew there on a small 14 person plane. You get a good feel of the beauty of the country seeing it from a couple of hundred feet up. You are low enough to spot the animals below and the wide trails of the migration of zebra and wildebeests. We stayed at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge which is on top of a hill overlooking the Mara River. Our guides was a Masai warrior with the traditional red garb. The lodge has a very organic feel to it and was well integrated into the environment. We saw baboons, wart hogs and a water buffalo at a water hole just outside our window. The Mara plains were teaming with animals and within 2 days we saw the big five (Lions, Leopard, Cheetah, Elephants, and a Rhino).
One of the trips highlights was a balloon ride across the Mara. The sunrise was excellent as was the weather for the ride. The inflating of the balloons was fun to watch and our Captain (Mike) did an excellent job explaining what to expect and how to prepare for landing. Often, we were cruising not more than 10 or 20 feet over the ground or tree tops. The scenery was beautiful with water bucks, hippos, impala, topis, elephants, giraffes and other animals all looked at us with curiosity and not fear. The landing was good and the champagne breakfast on the savannah was excellent with a wide variety of food and even fresh crepes made on modified balloon burners.
During our trip we visited a Masai village that was just outside the confines of the park. The village was at the top of a hill and had a tall fence around it made from tree branches surrounding it to keep lions out. In the center was a smaller stockade to keep the cattle and goats in at night. Wealth is still based on number of animals one has, cattle and sheep and goats. The houses were mud walls with branches embedded for strengthening. The hut had a sitting room, connected to bedrooms for the parents and children as well as a small storeroom. There was a small fire pit to keep the place warm at night. They had a traditional “jumping” welcome ceremony by the men followed by a women's singing welcome ceremony. We were told that the village had 48 hut and the women "owned" the huts despite the chief being male.
While we did not see an actual wildebeest river crossing we did see the remnants of a crossing at Masa river. Many dead wildebeest were making a meal for carrion eating birds and crocodiles. Just down the river was a bloat of hippos which were good to watch. No one bothers hippos, crocodiles and lions seem to know that in a fight with a hippo they do not come out well, that is if they survive. Looking at Hippo teeth and their tough skin I can understand that. It is interesting that hippos sunburn easily, which is why you generally see them submerged in rivers and water holes.
The next place we visited was Amboseli Park which was hot, dusty and windy with lots of dust devils dotting the arid lake bed which stretches for miles. Kilimanjaro looms large over the park and is called the shy lady. There are waterholes and marshes fed by the runoff of Kilimanjaro, choked with water plants and green and red algae scattered around the plain. The water does not seem to help the shoreline vegetation much due to the high salt content of the soil. Still there are lots of wildebeest, zebra, thomson gazelles, impala, elephants, hippos, around the plain. The elephants and the hippos seem to always be munching in the water. Pride of lions were lounging in the heat and the dust, often in the shadow of the infrequent trees. We stayed in the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge was as amazing as the first lodge had an overlook where we could sit and watch the herds of animals in front of us over drinks.
From Amboseli we drove to Tanzania and headed to the Tarangire river camp next to Tarangire park. The Tarangire river camp is on a bluff overlooking a dry river bed on the edge of the park. It is a permanent tent camp where the sleeping tents are raised about 12 feet off the ground because of animals which roam freely at night through the camp. Masai warriors with spears guard the camp at night and they provide escorts for us once the sun goes down. They whistle to communicate at night, which sounds like birds. We had a great time looking at the southern constellation with nice clear skies over dinner and drinks. Late that night we heard elephants come through at night eating the tree leaves and bark. The Tarangire park is home to the boabob trees which were an amazingly huge tree that can live over 2000 years. Unlike most tree which will leave a huge log when they die, the boabob just disintegrates into small pieces very quickly. Even though termite mounds dotted the landscape, termites do not eat boabob trees. This was a tsetse fly area, which are a light brown fly that can spread sleeping sickness which is bad for people, but lethal to horses (and zebras). The stripes on a zebra essentially make them invisible to the tsetse flies protecting them from contracting the disease. We saw a lot of baby elephants with their herds and the high point was seeing a lion taking down a zebra. While the river is dry, elephant dig into the dry river bed and drink from the water just under the sand.
Our next stop was Ngorongoro park. This is a huge caldara of what was a massive volcano millions of years ago. The view of the crater lip was pretty amazing the height of the wall to the floor. We stayed at the Ngorongoro Sopa hotel and like the other lodges we had to have a security escort to our rooms due to the proximity of wild animals. There are different terrains in the crater as one might suspect. The animals for the most part never leave the crater, only about 20 to 30% do, so they do not get inbreeding issues in the crater. There were plenty of animals and birds in the crater.
On our game drive we saw ostriches mating. What a wild dance the male ostrich does. Our drive from Ngorongoro park to our Serengeti tent camp was a long one, but we stopped at Oldupai Gorge to see where the Leakeys found the first evidence of human evolution. The Oldupai museum (I guess we did see a museum after all) is original and old, but not for long! They have finished construction of a new museum complex that will include exhibits from the National Museum and it is scheduled to be open next month. It would have been nice to spend more time at the site, but there was a raging dust storm so we couldn’t get down to the gorge.
We arrived at the Serengeti Explorers Camp which is a "mobile" tent camp that moves 3 times a year to follow the migration around the Serengeti. It is luxurious with individual tents with bathrooms, showers, a bedroom and front sitting room. They have gravity feed showers which are filled with 25 liters of hot water by the camp staff. We awoke on the Serengeti to a beautiful sunrise. We saw lots of elephants and giraffes as well as huge herds of zebra and wildebeest slowly migrating across the landscape. They migrate together because the zebra have good sight and wildebeest have a good smell so it makes it easier to spot predators. The other interesting thing about migrations are the Zebra walk in single file and the Wildebeest travel in columns. There were at least two large lion prides, which were apparently very well fed. We even saw two lions mating but honestly the ostriches were more entertaining.