Despite having been on many, many safaris during my time in Tanzanina, there is no question that it is one of the highlights of every trip here. Most often I am the safari guide for our day safaris, but every so often we are able to get away for more than one day to a more distant area and for these I prefer to have a driver. This enables me to do some photography which is clearly what I love and also allows those with me to have the full experience of a guided safari because, face It, safari work is not my day job.
We awakened well before sunrise for our trip to Lake Ndutu in the Southern Serengeti. Nick, Jess, Jackie, Pauline and myself were traveling there in hope of seeing part of the great migration – the circular route of the wildebeest and zebra following the grasses through the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, calving in February, March in the north and then moving to the south. I have been to the Ndutu region on several of my trips before including last March when we were fortunate enough to witness a lion kill which may be a daily occurrence, but is still not seen by every visitor to this region. Four years ago I witnessed a cheetah kill, which is something rare to witness on the other hand.
For the start of our trip we would be passing by Oldupai Gorge, the Mecca for anyone with an interest in anthropology. It just so happened that Jackie (who has an anthropology degree from Brown), Pauline (who has a keen interest and is currently reading “Sapien”) and myself (with essentially a physical anthropology minor) were very much looking forward to visiting this incredibly important site. I had met the director of Oldupai Gorge, John Paresso, last year and he had invited me to visit some time so I contacted him about stopping by to say hello. We arrived slightly behind schedule, but after meeting with John he offered to take us down into the gorge for a private tour of some of the sites and at the end of the visit, to stop by the Leaky Camp which is currently being preserved with plans to make a living museum there. John gave us an introduction to the site and it’s history and after a short visit to the museum, we were descending into the gorge to do some exploring.
We first visited the site where Mary Leaky had found Zinjanthropus, or australopithicus bosei, a hominid that was 1.6 million years old. This was a discovery of monumental importance at the time, and still is to this day. There is a memorial that stands on the site and there are lots of fossilized and non-fossilized bones there from ancient animals of all sorts. The hominid fossils are, of course, all in museums.
Are next visit was a site called “shifting sands.” I had no idea what we were in for when we drove off towards the east and well away from the gorge, but it was worth the drive of several kilometers past Maasai bomas and herds of goats and sheep. As we continued to drive along wondering exactly what we were all looking for, we began to notice a large dome of black sand appearing in front of us. It looked somewhat alien and the closer we came it was clear that it was moving. The shifting sands of Oldupai is a collection of fine volcanic dust or sand that was ejected from an eruption of Oldonoi Lengai very long ago and has continued to move 17 meters a year in one direction with the wind. The surface of the dune appears to be in constant motion as the wind blows over it’s surface depositing the grains of sand to the far side. It is really an amazing sight to see.
Our next stop was a special vantage point that John wanted to share with us that he says only 2% of the guests to the gorge get to see. It was well to the north and afforded a view both up and down the gorge. At the bottom, the river was full due to the season and the Maasai were watering their stock as they have done for many years. It was easy to imagine australopithicus or homo habilis roaming the countryside in search of ancient game. It seemed very much as it was in the beginning.
We moved on from our wonderful lookout for our final stop at Oldupai and reached the Leaky’s camp after a short drive. The camp looks as it was when Mary still lived here and the buildings are mostly unchanged from that time. Mary’s house is still present – a round sheet metal home that would never pass in today’s world, but yet served her well for many years that she spent here. There were similar buildings that served as scientist housing as well as stone buildings that were used as storerooms. They are in the process of constructing thatched roofs over the buildings to protect them. John took us in the storeroom that has been used for fossils and it was like walking back in time, literally. One interesting piece was a 2 million year old elephant tusk that was just sitting on the shelf next to a cast of an elephant or mammoth tooth. All very amazing and to imagine that we were there, having read and studied about Oldupai and the Leakys, gave all of us a sense of awe that is not often felt.
We all left Oldupai Gorge with a sense of huge accomplishment having seen and felt what we had and were on our way now to Lake Ndutu. We arrived to our camp later than expected and a bit weary from the travel, but after a nice hot lunch we were all revived and ready for a game drive. The drives in Ndutu proper mostly revolve around several locations that not only include the lake, but also a system of marshes and streams . We drove towards the little marsh and immediately spotted a number of vehicles parked near some trees in the distance. That typically only means one thing – a big cat. On this occasion, everyone was looking up which meant that were about to see a leopard. Just before we reached the cars, though, we saw something climb out of the tree. The leopard was in the tall grass between the vehicles, but had left its prey – a baby wildebeest – hanging in the highest tree limbs, well away from any intruders or would-be thieves. We waited for a very long time and eventually the leopard climbed into another tree and was cooperative enough to climb into the limbs were we could see it. The leopard is the most elusive of the big cats and many go without seeing one after many safaris. We watched this gorgeous animal for some time until we had to head back to camp for dinner as it was dark outside and ready to return.
On our way, though, we ran into a cheetah that was laying quietly in the middle of a dry marshy area. It was almost as if it had been waiting for us. So we finished up our game drive having see two of the big cats and one being the rarest in a very short period of time. We arrived back at camp in the dark and after having a wonderful dinner, all went to sleep having had a very fulfilling day that encompassed the beginning of mankind along with the amazing Tanzanian wildlife that seemed to fit so well together.