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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Day #7 (Jan. 24th, 2014) - Leaving the Serengeti

Click here to see a photo gallery featuring 20 photos form today.

Today was our last day on the Serengeti. After our usual Western-style breakfast, and packing our usual lunch boxes, we packed up all our suitcases and said goodbye to our hosts at Lake Masek Tent Camp. We departed around 9AM for our final game drive across the Serengeti.

Game driving reminds me a lot of snorkeling on a coral reef: it's basically the same each time (you're always traveling over the same landscape) but different every time, and you'll never know what you see. You see a lot of the same organisms as you usually see, but then you'll see new combinations, new conditions of light and weather, and the occasional rarity that really grabs your attention. During this particular drive, for example, we just happened to come upon an ostrich egg. Just sitting there on the ground. No ostriches in sight. Weird!

This lead to a long conversation with Nickson about the mating and nesting habits of ostriches.  :-) 

The most common sight on the Serengeti is large herds of wildebeest, numbers from dozens to thousands:

Few things are as impressive as a thundering herd of wildebeest crossing your path. They have evolved behaviors that help ward off chasing predators: they tend to cut back/forth a lot when they run (like a soldier trying to avoid bullets), and they tend to kick their hind legs in unison, like a bucking bronco. It's impressive to watch such a large beast move that way. Whenever I saws a herd crossing the road, I wanted our truck to speed toward them so that I could watch them scatter! Not cool, I suppose.

This shot gives a good sense of how close we could sometimes get to the wildlife:

We spent about 45 minutes watching/stalking a cheetah as it watched/stalked some gazelles:

It is amusing to see a dozen safari trucks scrambling for position every time the cheetah moved. The drivers try to anticipate where the cheetah is going, and then place the truck in the path. As is so often the case, nature was more patient than we were, so we left without seeing any pouncing.

We drove our way out of the Serengeti National Park by speeding across the wide-open plain for about an hour. It was really awesome. Forest and I stood in the front row facing forward (me standing on the floor of the truck, he in bare feet standing on the seat) as we raced across the Serengeti, sometimes on well-worn trails, sometimes across open territory. The wind whipped our faces as we viewed the wildlife dotting the landscape out to the horizon in every direction: wildebeest, gazelles, and zebras being the most common. This photo shows a jackal, with wildebeest in the background:

The scale of it all was so vast, and yet we knew from the previous day that dramas play out on every patch. Here is how we looked when it was over:

Upon leaving the Serengeti, we spent several hours driving across local roads to our next destination. We frequently passed individual or groups of Maasai tending to their flocks along the side or the road, or congregating in the shade:

By late afternoon,we arrived at the Escarpment Lodge, our last overnight accommodations in Tanzania. This lodge was unusually nice, with lovely common areas, a stately dining room, and a porch with views of Lake Masek on the valley floor below:

This lodge also had a pool, always a welcome sight after a hot and dusty day:

In this photo, notice the trail down the dirt ridge to the right. This trail was used by locals because there is an exposed freshwater spring on the valley floor. As we sat at the pool, we watched children leading lines of goats for a drink. The children climbed back up the hill carrying containers of water for their homes. It didn't take a very active mind to appreciate the difference in circumstances.

As with every lodge, this one featured Maasai warriors to act as security and escorts:

We enjoyed a nice dinner (the best one in Tanzania) and settled in for bed in adjoining bungalows, knowing that tomorrow would be our final day in Tanzania.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Day #6 (Jan. 23rd, 2014): Game Driving on the Serengeti

Click here to view a web gallery with 36 captioned photos from the day.
Click here to view a YouTube video from this day.

We awoke at the Lake Masek Tent Camp and had our usual Western-style breakfast (omelets cooked to order, bacon, fruit, yogurt, fresh juice, coffee/tea, etc.) and then packed our lunch boxes for the day. We agreed to take one long game drive today instead of two shorter ones, giving us more time to drive farther afield into the wide open Serengeti. Nickson prepared our truck as he did every day, by cleaning and organizing it inside and out:

We settled into the routine of game driving. We would careen down dirt paths, splash through puddles, struggle through muddy patches, seeking out interesting wildlife:

Once spotted, Nickson would drive off road to get us close, giving us enough time to observe and discuss and take photos, leaving only once we said "We're good, thank you!". Look! A giraffe!

I know how that giraffe feels! We also spotted a pride of lions feasting on a fresh kill. They all had full, swollen bellies, as they took turns eating within the protective shade of some bushes:

On this day, we ventured far into the "never-ending plain" of the Serengeti, a wide open expanse of scrubby grassland with few trees. The landscape was dotted with (in order of popularity) wildebeest, gazelles, zebras, and many other species. Their numbers were staggering, covering vast areas all the way to the horizon in every direction. And yet in every small patch, unique stories unfolded.

Sight we saw that day included a flock of ostriches, which look so funny when they run:

A lion lounging beneath a tree, sporting the only radio collar I saw during the trip:

A large pride of lions resting after a meal, including the only full-maned male I saw on the trip, and the only lion cubs I saw on the trip:

 We stopped for lunch beneath some acacia trees:

After lunch, we spotted a cheetah eating a recent kill (a pregnant gazelle). Cheetas are usually fairly weak after the spring, so they gorge on their meals, knowing that they will not be able to defend them from other predators. As we watched, a group of vultures slowly gathered about 50 feet away. As their numbers increased, they crept slowly closer to the meal. We left before the final confrontation.

Death is everything on the Serengeti. We would see at least five kills a day, usually with vultures and other birds picking apart the fallen animal. There were bones and skulls everywhere. Once you started to notice them, their bleached-white appearance became easy to spot:

We headed back toward the Tent Camp, stopping to see some lions along the way. This photo gives a good sense of how close we were able to get:

Just as we were returning to camp, Nickson spotted a family of elephants bathing. This was a highlight of the trip, seeing two babies, several adolescents, and several parents frolicking in the mud and water. They were clearly enjoying themselves, bleating and running around. This was a real treat to see:

Click here to view a YouTube video of these elephants.

We returned to our Tent Camp around 4PM, very satisfied with our day on the Serengeti. We spent the afternoon relaxing, playing games, wandering the grounds, and working on our trip journal. We enjoyed drinks on the back patio, where we could see hippos rising out of the lake to feed, in front of a fire. We had our usual buffet dinner, which always included dishes both familiar and local. Once darkness settled, we were required to always walk with a Maasai warrior escort in case we ran into any animals. We settled down for our final night on the Serengeti and were treated to a loud thunderstorm. That was a real highlight for me: hearing the wind and the claps of thunder just a few inches beyond where I was sleeping. Thanks for the great send off, Serengeti!

Thanks for reading.

Tomorrow: We depart the Serengeti and head into Maasai territory.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Day #5 (1/22/2014) - Lake Masek and the Serengeti

Click here to visit a web gallery with more photos from today.

After our visit to Ngorogoro Crater, we drove into Serengeti National Park. After several hours of driving, we arrived at the Lake Masek Tent Camp, our home for the next 3 nights:

To call this camping is a bit of a stretch. Our large canvas and wood tent slept four:

It had a seating area:

and four 4-post beds:

The bathroom had a tub, toilet, and outdoor shower:

All is all it was a comfortable way to live right within the Serengeti. We were close enough to hear Cape Buffalo snuffling outside our tent (and to see the poop, footprints, and damage they left behind). And experiencing a thunderstorm from within the tent was fantastic.

The Tent Camp featured large tents for dining:

Oh, and if you want a massage, just turn left at the pile of elephant skulls:

After the sun set, you were required to be accompanied by a Maasai warrior back to your tent in case of wild animals. I was deeply disappointed that we never did encounter a single wild animal during these walks, thereby depriving me of the chance to see a Maasai warrior in action! Overall, this was a lovely way to spend 3 days feeling part of the Serengeti:

Each day within Serengeti National Park was spent game driving. This involved piling into our Land Cruiser with the top raised so that we could stand and look out. We drove on roads, trails, and off road, looking for wildlife. Whenever we spotted something interesting, Nickson could drive the truck to be as close as possible:

We saw many many wildebeest in groups of a few dozen to a few thousand, and countless other wildlife. Here is a small sample (you can click on the web gallery at the top of this page to see more):

One of the coolest aspects of spending a day on the Serengeti is watching small dramas unfold. We encountered this pair of leopards (a mother and daughter), a very rare site on the Serengeti:

The mother spotted some prey within a clump of bushes/trees:

She sent her daughter off to sit in the shade of some bushes:

After stalking the invisible prey for about 20 minutes, she suddenly pounced. An African wild cat scampered out of the bush and ran away, eluding capture. The leopard, temporarily spent, jumped up a tree to rest:

As we drove back for the evening, we were surprised to round a turn and run into a family of elephants, including some young ones:

When they noticed us, the elephants jockeyed position, placing the babies safely in the middle:

This was a behavior that we encountered many times: mothers protecting their young from us. It was all very Wild Kingdom!

All in all a fantastic day on the Serengeti. Let's do it again tomorrow!

Thanks for reading!