Over the last several years, it has been become somewhat of a given that we go on an overnight safari for our last full weekend before wrapping things up. At that point in our time here, we’ve had plenty of days of clinic and would have only taken off the Sundays to go on a day safari. We have various options for the overnight trips and I have taken the residents to the Serengeti as well as to Tarangire National Park. This month, we’ve received lots of reports of that the tsetse flies have been overly obnoxious at Tarangire which was enough to have everyone unanimously voting for the Serengeti. Not that the tsetse aren’t there as well, but they are much more limited in the areas they infest, which is usually the wet woodland areas. I’ve written numerous times about these nasty creatures and they have become no less nasty over time. There is very little in the way of trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, here, but that does not lessen the sting of this blood sucking nemesis. If you ever have the gumption to watch a very short horror flick with a very small leading character, just go to YouTube and search for tsetse and you’ll quickly run across videos of tsetse flies engorging themselves with blood until it looks like they are going to burst. Their bite is very painful and typically leaves a significant welt that may take some time to recover. I have several scars on one hand from blisters that formed after a tsetse bite.
So, when offered the choice, there was very little question that everyone was interested in seeing the Serengeti, which, to be honest, is a real shame to miss coming all this way. We had been to Ngorongoro Crater last weekend which is quite impressive, but it doesn’t compare in the shear magnitude to the Serengeti in all its diversity. Throw in the Great Migration, and the Serengeti becomes a spectacle that can rival just about anything else in nature. We had all packed the night before or in the morning, that is, everyone but Daniel. As he would be extending his visit by a week to go on safari with his fiancé and most of being in the Serengeti, he elected to stay back at FAME and spend a relaxing weekend. Our plan was to be in clinic until about noon at which point our guide, Vitalis, would pick us up and we’d be on our way. At least that was our intention. Vitalis had taken Turtle the night prior so that he could check her out and make any last minute repairs that might be necessary before heading off into the bush where the chance for rescue after a breakdown becomes exceedingly slim. The flow of patients in the morning was steady, but we were able to head out by around noontime, though it did take some persistence on my part to prevent the OPD from continuing to send patients our way even after I had told them we would be leaving.
We had time to eat some of the mac and cheese we had saved from yesterday’s dinner so we’d have so food in our stomachs as we departed. Again, Daniel was staying behind to man the fort, the rest of us got our bags together and waited for Vitalis to show up so we could get packed. Since we were going for only two nights, there wasn’t an excessive amount of baggage for us to load and once it was done, we were on our way down the FAME road in the direction of town. Despite our intention of getting an early start on the drive, we discovered that we had to go to the bank to pay for our entrance fees to the Serengeti. Last year, I had been able to pay with a credit card at the gate, but as is typical here, the gate and park protocols change on a regular basis and there is little in the way of any notice. The problem was that none of us had anticipated needing this type of cash and all of our money was back in the safe at FAME. Thankfully, Dan and Marin had taken their money and passports out of the safe since they would be leaving the morning after we return, but it was touch and go as to whether we would have enough. Also, we didn’t know the exact amount that was needed until we went into the bank and had them process the quotation that had been entered into the system. What should have been a relatively simple affair turned into well over an hour of frustration trying to get our papers processed and then, trying to get all of the money together that we needed. Everyone contributed, including Vitalis, leaving us with just enough between everyone to cover the necessary tip at the camp and nothing whatsoever to spare.
We stopped at the market on our way out of town to stock up on waters and we were finally on our way. To get to the Serengeti, you must pass through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area which requires you to pay for transit. This is the same drive we took last Sunday on our way to the Crater and luckily, the necessary transactions at the gate were a snap and I was able to put everything on my credit card. Plastic is wonderful. In no time at all, we were climbing up towards the crater rim and through the primordial forest that makes up what is left of this massive mountain that has left for eternity its enormous caldera. Given the time, we drove by the overlook and continued on our way, past the descent road we had taken down to the bottom of the crater and turned in the direction of the Southern Serengeti, past Olduvai Gorge, the site of Mary and Louis Leakey’s famous discoveries, and on to Naabi Hill, the official entrance to the Serengeti from the Conservation Area. The drive from the Crater Gate to Naabi Hill usually takes several hours and is a very long and very dusty ride. As vehicles pass by in the other direction, there is the immediate sound of everyone sliding their windows shut to avoid the pounds of dust that will be immediately sucked into our vehicle. The dust here is ubiquitous and permeates essentially everything.
Early in the drive we begin to see small groups of wildebeest, the tail end of the migration, with many babies and the always present Thompson and Grants gazelle that cover the open plains. Occasional groups of Eland, the largest of all the antelope in Africa, show up from time to time. The closer we get to Naabi Hill, the more animals we begin to see along with the many birds, particularly the Corey Bustard, the largest flying bird in Africa. Naabi Hill serves as the entrance to the Serengeti and, most importantly for the government, where one must pay their fees to enter the park. With our luck today, nothing was going perfectly smoothly and Vitalis found out that the bank had made a mistake when we paid our fees there and had forgotten to charge us an additional small amount for the vehicle and guide that had to be paid in TShillings. What would have taken us a minute at the bank ended up taking about 30 minutes for Vitalis to pay them the money using his phone (M-Pesa is similar to Apple pay except you have to put the money on your phone in advance – no credit and no debit cards). We all took the time to climb up on top of Naabi Hill which offers an amazing view of the surrounding plains that clearly have given Serengeti its name which means endless plains in Maa, the language of the Maasai.
We were finally on our way to camp once we were able to take care of everything at the gate and we were way behind schedule. We stayed on the main road for a bit, but then veered off somewhat to the east in the general direction of the Maasai Kopjes and to our camp. The Central Serengeti topography is dominated by a unique feature called Kopjes, which are essentially large boulder islands, some of which can be quite large, and are arranged all throughout the endless plains, some that are in a line like a mountain range, but separated by flat plains in between, and others that are quite random. Rough roads, or really trails, connect the Kopjes to each other so that you drive from island to island and it is here that all life is centered in the Serengeti. True, the wildebeest and zebra are out in the grasses, but it is the lions and leopards that live in the Kopjes who prey upon them. The other “big cat” is the cheetah that likes to lay on one of the many termite hills so that it can scan the distance for its prey. Cheetah have to sneak up on their prey and for this, they require grass that is high enough for them to hide as they move close enough to unleash an attack, which is sudden and powerful. Cheetah have the highest “kill rate” of all of the big cats here at nearly 60%, while lions have a meager 25%, and leopards are in between (African hunting dogs, very difficult to find in the Serengeti, have the highest success rate of all of the predators here).
Driving along, Vitalis spots a lion off in the very far distance and as we come closer, it turns out to be a group of five younger males traveling together on their way to a watering hole. It’s hard to tell if when they’ve eaten last, but they don’t look like they’re hunting at the moment and besides, there are no prey as far as the eye can see at the moment. We’ve had the opportunity to watch them for a bit, but really have to get on our way as the sun is beginning to set and we’re still a long way off from our camp. Sunset in the Serengeti has to be one of the most amazing sights and tonight’s event does not seem to be disappointing us in any way. Once you think it’s at its maximum, it continues to impress you even further and never seems to end. We had noticed some fires in the distance, and some of the color may be enhanced by the smoke, but regardless, it was spectacular. Red and orange and yellow hues of every imaginable combination seems to add to each other as if they are competing for dominance. It just seems to be never ending.
I can recognize most of the roads we’re taking, having driven here on numerous occasions, but the light is now really disappearing and the world slowly shrinks to whatever we can see illuminated by our headlights. It is difficult to explain darkness here as there are few external lights and the moon has yet to rise. I know we’re heading in the direction of camp and can vaguely make out some landmarks in front of us as we are approaching the area where our camp should be. As we get closer, it becomes readily apparent to all of us that one of the fires we had seen from the distance is actually burning right in the vicinity of our camp and we can see the line of flames on the hillside. At that moment, there were plenty of nervous jokes about the good price we had gotten on our lodging being a part of a “fire sale,” but in the end, it turned out to be a further away than we had originally thought. We turned on the road to get to camp and in the incredible darkness of the night, everything was a bit disorienting so that we ended up initially pulling into the wrong camp, but ours was only a short distance away. They had cool washcloths and fresh juice for us to drink and though we all would have loved to have taken showers with all of the dust, it was getting late and we needed to get to dinner.
I had stayed at this camp previously and it is really luxurious. There are two main tents, one that serves as a dinning tent and the other that serves as a lounge while doubling as the charging station for the entire camp. The table is a jumbled pile of cables and chargers for every device known to man. On each side of the main tents are seven individual, though quite large, tents that each have two double beds and a separate bathroom area with a shower, toilet and dressing area with sink. The beds and linens are nicer than anything that I’ve ever had at home. Since we were running late, dinner was served to us rather than the normal buffet and the food was delicious. Soups here are especially tasty and fresh and have always been my absolute favorite part of the meal at any camp that I’ve stayed at as they are clearly made daily and every flavor imaginable.
The unique feature of staying in “tented camps” as opposed to lodges is the absolute closeness of nature. Though the tents are fabulously comfortable and certainly nothing like backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail (I will have to admit, though, that the little pup tent I started out camping in years ago has vastly changed and has morphed into an ultra-comfortable, lightweight, aluminum tubed structure that bears no resemblance whatsoever) nor what people refer to as “glamping” on the East Coast, they do all have one thing in common. And that is a very thin layer of fabric between you and the external world. Admittedly, there are bears in the High Sierra and wild concertgoers at many of the glamping sites, but neither of those compare to the nearby sounds of hyenas or of lions that sound as though they are sitting right outside of your tent and wanting to join you inside for a little nighttime snack. At all times during the night and in the early morning darkness, you are never allowed to walk outside of your tent as you must be escorted by a guide who is often armed with a spear, though sometimes not, in which case your only hope is that you can outrun him (and in my case, that would be wishful thinking). There is really never any fear of being attacked in your tent and I’ve been doing this long enough to be very familiar with the sounds of the bush, but for anyone doing it for their first time, it is definitely an experience. I think everyone tonight must have had these thoughts in their minds at some point or another (read Marin), though I was quite confident that all would be present in the morning for breakfast unscathed.