Monday, July 12, 2010

The Great Serengeti Adventure

Editor’s Note: I sincerely apologize again for not updating my blog faster. I’m a horrible blogger. But give me a small break, I’m in Africa. If I blogged all day, then I wouldn’t have adventures and then it would be some vicious cycle of me telling you about what I ate for dinner. I will continue to try to update the blog at a more frequent pace. Most importantly, none of these entries, nor can any stories I tell can truly explain what has happened over the summer. To know Africa, you really have to go experience it yourself!

WOW. Three weeks ago, I went on perhaps the greatest trip of my lifetime. The two second summary of the trip was, was that five other ICTR interns and I went to Serengeti National Park and the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, [affectionately known as the Crater] from June 18 - 20. I enjoyed every second of the trip and I will probably talk about the trip for months, but here are some of the main highlights.

Friday – Welcome to the Serengeti

We booked our adventure through Soko Adventures, because we new interns had heard from the leaving interns that this company was a) legitimate, yet b) reasonably priced. Our group assembled around 8 AM in the morning in downtown Arusha, and met our guide/drive, Mohammed, and our cook, Safe. I immediately liked both of them, especially Mohammed, because he had a deep laugh and reminded me of an African version of my dad.

We left Arusha for about a five hour drive. While the drive was not an American five hours away [I believe Mohammed said it was 350km], it took longer because we drove on bumpy roads, 45 degree uphill and downhill climbs, as well as congestion in the road, often animals such as goats/zebras. Our first thing of interest that we saw along the trip was two freshly killed Zebra roadkills.

We thought this was crazy, because we’ve all seen roadkill before in the states, however, we’ve never seen exotic roadkill. This experience got even crazier when a Maasai woman literally walked up to the Zebra roadkills and cut off a leg to bring home for lunch. We found out from Mohammed that hunting Zebra is illegal; however, because there are so many Zebra that run into cars [or cars that run into Zebra, if you side with the Zebra], it is actually legal to eat the meat from Zebra roadkill. He said that it tastes like cow [I don’t know if Mohammed was talking from personal experience.]

A side note, three days later on our return home, we passed the scene of the Zebra roadkill. It was literally scoured clean, except for the head and the skeleton. It was a tragedy that the zebras were killed accidentally; however, the Maasai made sure that this death would not be wasted. I really admire this.

On the way to the Serengeti, we got our first glimpse of the typical safari excursions by making a brief stop overlooking Lake Manyara National Park. By choosing a three-day safari, we had skipped an actual tour of Lake Manyara, which would have occurred on the fourth day, but the previous safari interns said that this was unnecessary. I think I agree, but the view of Lake Manyara was breathtaking.

We then arrived at Ngorogoro Conservation Area, “The Crater”, as we travelled along the rim to the Serengeti, which is located below. From the rim, Ngorogoro looks like the Garden of Eden. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful sites that I’ve ever seen in my life, and no picture can justify it.

I apologize for religious interjection into this blog; but after viewing a site like Ngorogoro, there’s no way that this place [or many others on Earth] were created by random chance. God is a great artist.

To give you more background, Ngorogoro Crater is actually the remnants of a collapsed super volcano. According to Lonely Planet, there are areas around Ngorogoro that still have active volcano activity from time. Regardless, the pictures I took do not do Ngorogoro justice. Neither does my pathetic attempt at trying to explain it.

While we circled around the Crater rim to get to the Serengeti, Mohammed said “I’ve changed my mind, we need to turn around and go have lunch.” He then reverses the car about 100 meters and we go to a site where zebras are grazing while overlooking the crater. Our group ate lunch on Friday literally five feet from zebras [alive zebras, at that.] I can’t describe it; other than it was crazy and I loved it. Lunch was good too, but I don’t really remember/care what it was.

Later in the afternoon, we finally arrived at the Serengeti. The Serengeti is basically one giant, flat plain that goes on forever. It is like a much drier Everglades, if you’ve ever been there.

In terms of animal highlights for the day, we got to literally see cheetahs five feet away from our safari car. Most of the animals in the Serengeti are incredibly lazy, especially because it’s hot all of the time, and basically the cheetahs are no exception to the rule. I also saw my first giraffes and we also ran into an elephant crossing in the middle of the road on the way to our campsite.

One of the things of the Serengeti that people don’t really think about is that the animals are not every five feet away from each other, like they are at the zoo. We would literally drive miles, stop, and see two cheetahs or a giraffe or an elephant, and then drive 10-15 more miles.

Finally, we arrived at our campsite around sunset. We had an excellent dinner of pasta, wine, and soup, and then headed off to sleep. At campsite, we literally had to put all of our stuff in our tents, otherwise, the hyenas would attempt to destroy our stuff. Later as we were going to the safari car the next morning, Mohammed said, “Did you hear the lions/hyenas last night?”

Supposedly lions were sleeping on rocks above our campsite [It looked like “Pride Rock” from the Lion King] , as well as hyenas were roaming through the camp at night. I didn’t hear them, because I slept like a rock the first night. As Mohammed told us, when you see the hyena’s eyes staring at you; you might as well pray instead of run, because it doesn’t make a difference. Haha. I promise I didn’t die everyone! Actually, my roommates will be finishing this blog for me.

Saturday – Main Serengeti Day and Back to Ngorogoro

Saturday was the main day of our safari into the Serengeti. Mohammed woke us all up at 6:00 AM in the morning, because animals are most active in the morning, when its cooler out. One of the first things that we saw in the morning was a herd of elephants eating breakfast. Literally our car drove up right next to them, and we got great pictures of a baby elephant as well. Mohammed was so patient, and he would stop and wait as long as we wanted to take pictures, observe, etc.

Later in the morning, we saw a group of three or four lionesses marching along the road, looking for prey. One thing that I learned over this trip is that male lions are the “deadbeats” of the animal kingdom; they lie around all day while lionesses do all of the hunting. After the lionesses kill the animal, then the male lions will fight each other over the dead carcass. They are basically scavengers. Therefore, we did not see any male lions on Saturday, because they were sleeping, but we saw lionesses everywhere.

One of the unique animals that we saw on Saturday was the leopard. Hanna, who had been to Africa before, had never seen a leopard from the times that she had gone on safari previously, and she really wanted to see one. They are incredibly difficult to spot, unlike cheetahs and lions, because leopards literally spend most of their day hiding in trees. Fortunately, Mohammed used the safari radio and found out that there was a leopard approximately 15 miles out of our designated route. Mohammed drove us to see the leopard, and it was incredible to see the animal literally five feet away. We also saw some unrecognizable carcass that the leopard had dragged up into the tree, as a snack for later. I think it was a zebra, but I’m not sure.

After our morning/early afternoon safari, we went back to base camp, packed up our gear, had lunch, and then travelled back to the rim of the Ngorogoro Crater, where we arrived there around 5:30pm or so. The rim of the Ngorogoro Crater is approximately 2,000 meters above sea level [1/3 of the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro for comparison], so needless to say, it was incredibly cold, especially that night. I had trouble sleeping, because even though I came prepared with sweaters/jackets/long pants, etc, no matter what you did, you could not get completely warm. It was a good wake-up call for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro later in July, in that I need to buy even more warm clothes [such as sweatpants] before I make the trek.

While I slept that night, I also swear I heard something breathing next to my tent. I was told later that there were warthogs running around, but I don’t know. I was very quiet that night, and understandably chose to not go to the bathroom.

Sunday – Rhino Hunt, Completion of the Quest for the Big Five and Return to Arusha.

What is the “Big Five”? It is a quest of many safari goers to see these five specific animals when one goes to Africa, and supposedly, you haven’t done a safari until you saw all five animals. Specifically, the Big Five are Lions, Leopards, Buffalo, Elephant, and Rhino. Not only did we see the Big Five, but we saw the Big Five up close.

I actually think that the Big Five is a little stupid, and instead it should be the Significant Seven, the seven animals you must see on safari to have completed the experience: Lions, Cheetahs, Leopards, Rhino, Giraffe, Zebra, Hippos, and Elephant, which we saw all of these animals [Buffaloes are stupid. Sorry, but you can see those in America. And if you want to see them play football poorly, all you have to do is go to New York. Heyo! Apologies to Jordan. Haha.]

Of these animals, I would rank them from easiest to most difficult to see:

1. Zebras
2. Buffaloes
3. Hippos
4. Giraffes
5. Cheetahs
6. Lionesses
7. Leopards / Male Lions
8. Black Rhino

As of Sunday, we had seen all of these animals with the exception of the male lion and the black rhino. Fortunately, we saw both of these animals on Sunday. Almost immediately into our trek into the crater, we saw two male lions drinking near a water source. I didn’t get great pictures because of my camera’s poor zoom, but fortunately, my friend Laura shared her pictures, one of which is just spectacular. Although deadbeats, male lions are one of the most magnificent animals of the animal kingdom. Such beautiful creatures.

Finding the Rhino was supremely more difficult. Ngorogoro Crater is 8,300 square kilometers, and in the crater, there are only 22 black rhinos left, due to the number of rhinos that have been killed in the past due to the [now illegal] ivory trade. Mohammed, however, knew we really wanted to see a rhino; and he was truly determined to find us a rhino.

Initially, he said it would be too difficult to get to the rhino, because the rhinos were drinking from Lake Magadt, which is an unreachable lake by road in the middle of the crater [you’re not supposed to go off the road or the safari driver can get fined/fired]. He would hand us his binoculars and say, “see that speck in the distance, it’s a rhino.” While we could barely make out the horns with the binoculars, we weren’t satisfied, because we had seen all of the other animals up close, and for all we know, it could have been Safe, our cook, in a rhino costume. Then again, we never conclusively proved that it wasn’t Safe later, either. [I’m here all night, everyone.]

Regardless, after several hours of searching for the elusive rhino, we had nearly given up, and were on our way home out of the crater, when Mohammed got a call over the radio that there was a way to get closer to the rhinos on Lake Magadt, because they had moved to the other side of the lake. We were happy, because at least we could make out the rhino with our own eyes, but then the incredible happened.

Literally one of the rhinos began walking our way to the road on which we were on, immediately towards our safari car. By this time, the other safari vehicles in the area had realized that we had gotten an awesome spot, and literally 20 safari vehicles showed up.

When the rhino got approximately 40-50 meters away from our car/road, we could sense that it was getting tense, and I swear, I literally saw it stomp its front hoof, a sign that it was preparing to charge if necessary. Mohammed understandably became concerned, and we immediately moved our vehicle out of the rhino’s direct path, so that it could cross the road. Unfortunately, when we moved from our spot, not all of the other safari cars were as courteous, and then we lost our perfect spot. The rhino finally crossed the road and then walked off into the distance.

Summary of the experience:

This trip was incredible, one of the top ten moments of my life. I’ll remember this trip forever. I really don’t think this blog entry did it justice, because you have to see it for yourself. My safari mates were phenomenal people, and we’ve become even closer since the trip.

Brook, Hanna and Erin are even climbing Kilimanjaro with me at the end of the month, so I’m excited to have another adventure together, because they are such cool people. Everyone got a long really well, even without showers for three days.

I’m never been an environmentalist, but at the end of the experience, it was somewhat sad to go back to civilization, because after seeing all of this natural beauty, I really think that we’re all desecrating the Earth. Of course we need electricity, houses, buildings, etc., but do our cars need to pollute so much when there are cleaner possibilities. Realizing that there are only 22 rhinos left in Ngorogoro is incredibly sad, and if we don’t continue to try to fix these problems, they’ll go extinct while we’re still alive.

I particularly enjoyed the whole experience, because it was incredibly quiet for long parts of the safari. I had the opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’ve going, and I’ve realized that I’m incredibly fortunate. Heck, with my luck, it’s like winning the lottery everyday. With a great family, fiancé, friends, education, really why should I complain about anything? What don’t I have? I’ve sweated the small stuff my whole life; and while I’m still occasionally getting aggravated over here, I’m trying to recognize that things are pretty damn good. I need to be more appreciative of what I’ve been given, and less concerned with what I don’t have.

Lion Cubs in the Serengeti.

Maasai in the Serengeti coming from a "Meeting"

Male Lion in Ngorogoro Crater

Wildebeest up close in Ngorogoro Crater

Eating Lunch with the Zebras


Giraffe Roadblock

Elephant in the Serengeti

Me, riding in the Safari Car in Ngorogoro Crater


Leopard in Tree

Our group right outside of Ngorogoro Crater [2000 meters below] with a Maasai.

Zebras in Ngorogoro Crater

Zebras crossing the road.

Ostrich in the middle of the road.

Rhino in the Distance of Ngorogoro Crater


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