There I was, in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, trying to find the gate to our flight to Tanzania while simultaneously scoping out bathrooms. I spotted one, and told my fellow companions (my husband V, my cousin NK, his wife RT, and their friends J & K) that I’d be out in a second. “No, let’s find one closer to the gate”, RT said, a woman on a mission to get to the gate in the minimal time left on our layover. So we trudged on, and finally found our gate. As luck would have it, there was a bathroom right there. It said ‘Gents’ so I confidently walked to the one right next to it, expecting that it would be the Women’s bathroom. Except, this one said ‘Gents’ too. I thought that maybe my sleep deprived eyesight was tricking me. Only to hear K say, “We have to go back – these are both men’s bathrooms!”
And that’s how on Day Zero of our Africa Trip, I learnt my very first lesson – When you see a bathroom, just GO!
On Day 1 of our trip, we drove from Arusha (where we spent our first night post landing in Tanzania) to Tarangire Safari Lodge. Along the way, we went on our very first game drive through the Tarangire National Park. While the drive until the Park entrance was largely uneventful (highways all around the world look largely the same), we saw a dazzle of zebras as soon as we entered the park, thereby raising the bar for the overall trip right there (incase you’re wondering, I also did NOT know the collective noun for Zebras up until I Googled it). Before we could process what we’d seen, the Zebras began crossing the road, thereby bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Zebra Crossing’. V provided entertainment by responding to NK’s question, “How do Zebras recognize their mate?”. In case you’re wondering (and knowing his PJ skills you may wonder why you did), the answer is – “They can’t get confused. It’s all black or white for them!”
We also spotted wildebeest grazing, and got very excited thinking that they were all still in Tanzania and we would get to see the migration, which in our heads looked EXACTLY like what we’d seen on NatGeo specials. Our guide gently explained that most of them had already migrated, and these were just the lazy ones that continued to hang about on this end, and were likely not migrating this year.
In true Type A city-dweller fashion, I decided to re-visit the objective of the trip and work toward spotting the Big 5 instead. My quest began with spotting a memory of Elephants (language nerd alert – loving these collective nouns as much as I loved seeing the animals!). Check one for Day One!
We got to the Tarangire Safari Lodge in the evening and discovered that we were glamping in some fantastic tents. There’s no real fencing of the property so animals come right up to the tents! Their outdoor eating area also had a great view of the forest, and we got to see the Milky Way at night. I must admit, that the uncluttered view of the stars beat any city skyline hands down.
Tip: While at Tarangire Safari Lodge, try out the local Mango Wine and Honey Wine. They’re both quite awesome.
Our second day was another game drive at Tarangire. In addition to everything we’d seen the day before, we also saw elephants at lunch time. This was the closest that we’d seen them, and watching them eat was quite a relaxing activity.
We also spotted some Wild Buffaloes, even though they were way off in the distance. We decided to count this as No. 2 on the Big 5 list, as well as consider this a ‘migration’ because they were crossing the river. After all, who knew if we would see the lazy Wildebeest migrate given how green everything was in Tarangire? As we discussed the technicalities of what we saw, we were also lucky enough to spot a Leopard (OMG! No 3!). Like the ones in India, this one was shy, and on a distant tree, so we had to be satisfied with blurry pics (and the hope that V’s photoshop skills could somehow make the yellow blob look more Leopard-like).
The highlight of the day (other than the Leopard), was spotting everyone’s favorite Disney character, Pumba, and his friends, leading to a ‘Hakuna Matata’ moment. Only to realize later that night, that we didn’t even know the REAL Hakuna Matata song. This was one of my favorite discoveries on this trip, and lesson 2: Disney does not always have the best version of the song. . For what it’s worth, this is a birthday song. On my next birthday, I’m requesting this instead of ‘Happy Birthday’.
Overall, the Tarangire game drives were fantastic, and we were quite convinced we’d seen a LOT. We even wondered if there was going to be anything new to see on the next couple of days.
Tip: Do NOT wear dark blue or black, if you do not want to be hounded by the dreaded Tsetse fly (bonus PJ – “Tsetse, tsetse, tsetse mujhe log bole!”). I made sure not to pack anything in these colors, only to forget that V’s sneakers are black with blue laces. Basically, he was wearing a Tsetse attraction flag on his feet!
On Day 3, we awoke to discover waterbucks peering at us through the thicket near our tent. I thought this was the pinnacle of what we were going to see, and wondered what we’d do over the next few days. That day, we drove from Tarangire to Ngorongoro, with a game drive through the caldera, home to the highest density of wildlife in Africa. I’d been hoping to spot the Black Rhino over here. Yes, that’s Type A crazy city girl for you – I took the “Rhino” requirement off the Big 5 list, and raised it to “almost extinct Black Rhino of which there are only 21 left in Ngorongoro.”
Ngorongoro is beautiful, with plains framed by mountains. As we drove down into the crater I realized that even if we saw no animals, the natural beauty of the landscape alone was worth the trip here. But, Tanzania doesn’t disppoint when it comes to animals – we saw our very first glimpse of lions amidst great excitement! V was also thrilled to see hyenas, jackals and wolves up close.
We got a better look at the buffaloes up close, looking all judgy at us and leading to our philosophical question of the trip – “What do the animals think of while they stand around all day?”.
There were also vultures, kites and eagles perched on the trees here, in addition the the ostriches and other birds ranging from the Starling to Grey Crested Crane, and our favorite the Secretary Bird.
By this point in the trip, V was wondering where the African food he was promised went. RTs friends who’d visited Kenya a year ago mentioned that they got local food (and meat), and we’d thought this would be the same. However, all our lunch boxes offered us were sandwiches, chips, juice, mini pizzas, and enough fruit and peanuts to start a business selling them! V tried convincing our guide to take us to a local African restaurant enroute to Ngorongoro, but he was told that he should ask the chef at the hotel. That night, at Sopa Lodges, V asks to see the chef. The chef shows up, and he’s very clearly of Indian-origin. As V begins to ask his question, I can’t help but point out that V Singh was speaking to B Singh. A little more questioning revealed that B Singh came from Rishikesh, and moved to Tanzania about 5 years ago. He could name African dishes, but claimed they’d all take time to make, and instead tried to subtly convince us to request dal khichdi for our lunchboxes the next day. Thus ended V’s quest to eat local African food.
Lesson 4 – There may not be a Malayali on the moon, but there’s definitely a Singh in Ngorongoro!
Since this was our last day at Ngorongoro, I was all set to see the Black Rhino, and it seemed like our guide was, too. We stalked a black blob in the horizon for hours before it got into a reasonable zoom range and we could spot a horn and confirm that it was indeed a rhino, and not a hippo that had accidentally wandered away from the ‘Hippo Pool’. Unfortunately, these rhinos have been poached so brutally that they don’t come anywhere near the paths (except during mating season) because their survival instinct drives them to stay away from humans. So, while we managed to see the Big 5, I have no real proof of the fifth. For those of you who say pictures or it didn’t happen, that distant blurry, grey-ish blob, is indeed a Black Rhino.
Also, we saw two of them, because we spotted the second later in the day. OK, maybe it was the same one twice. Nevertheless, we spotted the Big 5, with 3 days to go!
We also saw many more hyenas – they’ve apparently evolved enough to scare away all the leopards in the area, as well as a cheetah in the distance. V insisted that our best view of a cheetah will come when we are closer to the river, because “Cheetah bhi peeta hai” (if I have to listen to this on a daily basis, you may as well hear some of these once in a while!).
So far, our best views have been of the buffaloes, giraffe, elephants, zebras and wildebeest. We’ve also spent some time trying to learn how to say ‘zebra’ (more like see-bra) and wildebeest (‘wild beast’ NOT ‘wilderbeast’) correctly.
Lesson 5 – When in doubt, pronounce it like the locals do. It doesn’t matter what the British vs. American pronunciation is, if the animal is African.
Just in case we felt we’d seen everything, we spotted a dead buffalo as we drove off from the crater toward Serengeti. “Oh my God! That poor buffalo’s head has been cleanly chopped off!”, I said. Only to be informed that I’d seen the wrong end, so I’d basically been looking for a head up the buffalo’s ass. Clearly, 4 days in the jungle haven’t really gotten rid of my city slicker ignorance.
As we drove toward Central Serengeti, the grass got yellower and shorter. Everyone was concerned that no animal would show up in plain sight in these plains when suddenly we spotted a pair of lions by a signboard in plain view! We were thrilled to get such a good view of the lions, without realizing that we were going to see way more by the end of the day. Our grand total when we headed to the Wild Frontiers Central Serengeti camp was 34, including a 19 strong pride of lions that were taking an afternoon nap on the side of the road. In addition to the predators, we also saw all the usual suspects, none of whom seemed particularly concerned by the predators in the vicinity. There were more lazy wildebeest still lazing around, even though the yellow grass offered them slim pickings.
That night, V finally managed to get some African food. Our dinner included Ugali, a rice like preparation made with maize. No signs of any weird meats – looks like we will have to go back to South East Asia later this year, to update his chart. Meanwhile, for all the vegetarians reading this, I can assure you that you will get enough and more food to eat on a safari trip.
Lesson 6: While looking for a head, make sure you’re looking in the right direction.
As we began driving from Central Serengeti toward the North, the grass got taller and greener. This didn’t stop us from seeing lions – we saw the same pride of 19 having breakfast that morning, as well as some others. We also managed to see a pair of cheetahs (likely a parent-child pair) that crossed the road in front of our jeep so they could go catch some gazelle. Unfortunately, the cheetah gave up chase early on so we didn’t get to see the complete hunt.
Our disappointment was soon forgotten, however, as we were able to spot a Leopard on a tree, and this time we were able to drive up to it. The Serengeti truly lived up to its reputation of allowing you to see all predators during the dry season!
As we drove by the Mara river, we saw crocodiles, and spotted wildebeest that appeared to be interested in crossing over from Kenya to Tanzania. However, on that particular day they didn’t summon the courage to cross because one wildebeest had died in its attempt. Not to mention, that there were quite a few crocs who appeared to be awaiting the crossing as eagerly as we were! This is when the guide decided to finally tell me that wildebeest cross over back and forth multiple times in this area, so we could still see the migration, so to speak. Given that the plains looked similar on both sides, this was clearly a case of wildebeest believing that the grass was greener on the other side!
On that last day, we truly believed that we’d seen all there was to see, especially since our personal bar had been raised every day. We were no longer impressed by the zebras, warthogs, giraffes, or even the birds. They seemed like everyday creatures, as common as pigeons on my balcony in Bangalore.
The Serengeti had saved it’s best for our last day though! We started out by stalking the wildebeest by the river in the hopes that we’d see a crossing. Until lunchtime, all we saw was one very brave wildebeest that tried really hard to escape the jaws of death as a giant crocodile attempted to drag it under. The animal put up a really good fight, and I was rooting for it. Until the guide informed us that even if it escaped it would likely bleed to death on land, at which point I decided that Nature was willing the crocodile to have a good meal that day.
Post lunch though, we spotted about 3000 wildebeest all set to cross the river. Once the first animal jumped in, the hordes followed and we watched them cross the river in full force. However, there were quite a few wildebeest who went back and forth in confusion, owing to which some friends were left on the opposite side. The friends and family looked for each other on the opposite bank and even went as far as the edge of the banks to cross over and bring their friends with them. However, they seemed to wary of being the first to jump. All it takes is one brave wildebeest to set off the move, otherwise they wave a sad goodbye at the bank and abandon their friends – until the next crossing. It’s interesting to watch how these disoriented and confused group of animals suddenly rally and go forth in a single direction.
Lesson 7: There’s a very real reason why the collective noun for wildebeest is ‘confusion’ (I did not make this up!)
On our last day, we took a bush flight back from the Serengeti to Arusha. The bush flight was an interesting experience, and offered us some nice aerial views over the Serengeti. I quite liked it, until NK told us how many risks the pilot took, and how many errors he made. Thankfully, he chose to tell us these after we were in Bombay, and not while we were on our way back.
Lesson 8: (For all pilots) The guy sitting behind you on that bush flight may just be another pilot who trains pilots.
I went to Tanzania expecting to see wildlife. What I didn’t expect was just how beautiful and varied the Tanzanian landscapes would be. I went to Serengeti to see the animals, but instead I felt the silences of the forest at night, I saw the blues of the daytime sky, and the silvers of the stars in the night sky. I’ve always been a total city girl, but something about these forests brought this city girl a few steps closer to being one of those “nature types”. And that’s probably the biggest lesson I learnt on this trip.
Until next time, Africa!
Tip: If you’re planning a Safari, I highly recommend BaseCamp Tanzania. And ask for Josef – he plans to retire soon, so go while he’s still around!