The rain of yesterday evening was a very brief event and the night was once again breezy and cool in the tent, perfect for sleeping under the cozy comforters, but making it all the more difficult to get up early in the morning. We were going for a pre-dawn game drive today at 6 AM, meaning that Mike and I were up again early and having coffee at the main tent by 5:30. It was cool outside, but so delightful that a light second layer did the trick for most of us. The camp staff were up and had some munchies to eat, though I was still full from dinner the night before. Sunrise on the Serengeti is a miraculous event that is truly difficult to describe. Once you’ve experienced it, though, the opening scene of The Lion King becomes that much more relevant as corny as that may sound. From the orange glow of the horizon to the east, it is clear what is happening and when the sphere of the sun begins to rise and meet the sky, there is an intensity that continues to build with the songs of the birds and the movement of the animals now that the day is upon them.
We left camp shortly after 6 AM and in the distance you could see four balloons from the two companies slowly rising after their lift-off and continuing downwind for the short, one-hour flight before landing and then enjoying a wonderful breakfast on the open plain. I had the good fortune to have been invited on a flight back in 2014, with Danielle Becker, as one of the pilots is a good friend and they happened to have had open spots in the gondola that day. Danielle and I shared a compartment in the giant basket that held 16 guests in eight small cubicles and the pilot in the center space. You are picked up at 4:30 AM and driven to the launch site where you receive instructions on what to do during takeoff and landing and what to do in an emergency. You lift off well before sunrise so that you are well in the air before it becomes light and you are then watching sunrise from a position that is well above the clouds and, given that the balloons fly in tandem, you have perfect views of the other gondola and its guests. It seems like you’re up forever, but the entire trip lasts only a bit more than an hour and then it’s time for the landing, a rather exciting event that’s over before you know it. We toasted the successful flight with champagne in the long tradition of ballooning and then sat down with all the other guests to enjoy an incredible breakfast before heading back to meet our guide at the visitor’s center.
There are now two ballooning companies that fly here in Seronera, so there were four balloons in the air this morning, rising and falling with the thermals, as well as the hot air supplied by the burner on board. We watched the sun slowly rise to the horizon and then above as it illuminated the bush in the soft glow of the golden hour before the temperatures rise. With the rising sun we continued our trek past the lion pride we had seen the day before, still drawing a crowd of vehicles, and towards the river where we had seen our lion kill the day before. Near one of the crossings, there was another large pride of lions that we stopped to watch for a bit, but they eventually wandered into some tall grass where they could no longer be seen.
We soon left the river area and were heading off to the southwest in the direction of the where we had seen the young leopard hidden and her mother nearby so I knew that Dodo wanted to go back to see if we could find the leopards again and, this time, possibly a better view of the two. Driving up to the kopje where we had seen the young one yesterday, we were alone which wasn’t a good sign considering the crowd that a leopard will draw if it’s visible. With no leopard in sight, we soon left the kopje and drove over to where we had seen the mother at the base of the tree yesterday. She wasn’t there, but we received word that the two leopards were a short distance away and not far from the kopje where we had seen the cub. We reversed course and were quickly there with several other vehicles and as we pulled up, there in front of us was the mother leopard and her cub strolling in the tall grass heading in the direction of the kopje that we had visited earlier. The two were absolutely gorgeous, with their bright coats of open spots and sturdy tails.
The mother would slowly walk along while her cub would run ahead and then lay down in front briefly rest while mom caught up to it. Leopards are most often seen in a tree or up on the rocks from distance and rarely close up. They are solitary except for a mother and her offspring. I had seen only one leopard cub before, but it was from a far distance and in a tree, much different than what we now had before us. We sat and watched as they continued to move off towards the kopje and then we chose to drive back over to the rock where they were heading, though unfortunately, the word had gotten out by now and there probably dozens of vehicles already waiting for their arrival there. It was so crowded that it became very difficult once again to see anything, and so we stayed for an only a brief while, but were more than pleased with the time we had to watch them crossing the field. Leopards are so incredibly impressive to see when they are out of the trees and it was a rare sighting for us. Everyone in the vehicle was tickled that we were so lucky to have had that opportunity.
We left the kopje with just enough time to make it back to camp for breakfast and were glad we did as we were all starving. Our breakfast was as delicious as the day before, though I think everyone ordered a Spanish omelette today other than Dodo and Andrea, who ordered over easy and scrambled, respectively. We again had fruit, cereal, yogurt, muffins, and. Fresh squeezed juices. After our meal, we picked our food for our picnic lunches that we’d probably eat at Naabi gate on our way crossing back into the NCA heading home. We packed our bags and settled our bar bill for the two days we were in camp and headed out to Turtle to pack everything up. Our plan now was to head towards the Maasai Kopjes on our way out of the park with the intention of hitting Naabi Gate around 1 PM so we could get to Kitashu’s boma round 3 PM and visit.
Before leaving Seronera, though, we did have to add fuel to Turtle as we were still running on the original tank from Friday when we had left from Karatu. The fuel station there was of course run by TANAPA, the government park administration, which meant that I would again have to deal with the same bureaucracy as I did at the Serengeti gate and that had almost been a nightmare. The attendant at the station informed us that the machine for taking credit cards was down that morning and they were not allowed to take cash which had been instituted a few years ago to curtail corruption. There was one other option, though, and that was to use the M-pesa, which is the system here where you can put money on your phone and then pay for things with it. I guess it would be similar to ApplePay, only it works on debit system rather than credit. There was a small shop nearby in the worker’s compound where we could put the money on my phone so we traveled there to make the transaction.
It was actually interesting to visit this area (I have in similar places before when traveling with Sokoine) as this is where all the Tanzanians who work at the lodges and shops live with their families during the year. It is a little village in itself with restaurants and stores for supplies and there were plenty of people waiting for the many buses that come through here. Dodo and I walked to several shops and finally found the right one where the man pointed to a woman sitting out front who would take care of it for us. I gave her my phone number and she confirmed the name with me whereupon I gave her 100,000 TSh to put on my phone. This is a huge amount of money for people here and it obviously spoke to the safety of these areas that you don’t have to worry about being robbed by anyone. We traveled back to the fuel station to take of things, but the adventure wasn’t over there. No one had asked me if I had ever used the M-pesa system before, which I hadn’t, and when I punched in the numbers to access the money, it asked me for a PIN. Having never used it, though, meant that I didn’t have a PIN. We worked on it for some time, continuing to dial the numbers and getting the wrong menu on the phone, until I finally tried putting in a PIN which seemed to get us closer to where we needed to be. I did have to call Airtel (the company my phone was using) once, to have them help me, and somehow, we got it to work. We put in the code for the fuel station and paid for 95,000 TSh worth of fuel, or about 40 liters, and we were finally off with about ¾ of a tank which was more than enough to get us home.
The rest of our game drive in the Serengeti was a bit of a blur, but we continued to see more and more lions as we drove, to the point where the response was, “oh, just another lion.” It is truly amazing the number of lions the Serengeti supports and we were only exploring the central portion of the park. The drive back to Naabi Gate took about an hour or so, and thankfully, we had all the necessary paperwork to exit the Serengeti and to enter the NCA on our way home. We had our lunches at the gate where there were more vehicles and people than I had ever seen there and it was difficult to even find a table to sit at. We were on our way again in short order, though, and traveling back on what has to be one of the very worst washboard roads I have ever been on. To make matters worse, every so often, there are short stretches of very soft dirt that has to be taken slowly to avoid driving off the road or tipping. Thankfully, Dodo is a great driver, so we sped along the road quite safely and managed to maintain a good pace as we were trying to get to Kitashu’s boma by around 3 PM.
I had to make one short stop at the Olduvai gate, which is just a short distance off the main road, to drop something off with a friend who was waiting there for us. When we pulled up, we discovered that the driver’s door wouldn’t open as the latch had loosened with the bumping from the rough road, so Dodo ended up having to climb out of the window. He worked on it briefly, but it wasn’t cooperative would have to be fixed later. Between the fuel station fiasco and Olduvai Gorge stop, we were a bit behind schedule, so ended up getting to Kitashu’s about 45 minutes late which was a shame as we had really wanted to spend some time there.
His boma is in the NCA on the Endulen Road which is very near the Crater Lodge. His entire extended family lives there in very traditional fashion with all of their livestock that grazes over the nearby hills when there is enough vegetation. On occasion, though, they will have to travel far with their animals to find adequate grazing, sometimes all the way to Ol Doinyo Lengai, the active volcano on the. Lake Natron road that is sacred to the Maasai as the Mountain of God.
There were many, many children at the boma, but we learned that there were many from other bomas who had come when they had heard that we would be visiting. There are “cultural bomas” throughout the NCA where safari companies bring their guests and pay them to put on dances (we had done this on our original trip here), but this visit was very different as we were guests of the boma due to our relationship with Kitashu. We had brought some small gifts with us – rice, sugar, soap, tea leaves and candies for the children – to show our thanks for having us. The woman of the boma immediately brought Leah, Andrea, Kyra and Marissa into a nearby hut to have them dress in traditional clothing and jewelry as we would be doing a dance with them and Mike also dressed in shukas and jewelry for the festivity.
We all walked to another area where the men and women demonstrated their dance and song with everyone participating (except Dodo and me). Mike hadn’t been feeling well prior to this, but managed to be a good sport and do some of the jumping that the Maasai men are famous for, though I suspect he could have gotten much higher had he been in full form. After the dancing, we went and walked around behind one of the animal enclosures to eat some roasted goat that Kitashu has prepared for us. The Maasai men never eat in front of the women of their village as it is believed that it is bad luck for the women to watch and that the men will become sick if they do. It was on skewers that it had been cooked on and after we all washed our hands, Kitashu proceeded to slice off chunks of tasty goat meat and pass them around to each of us in turn. The goat was cooked perfectly for us and was incredibly juicy and tender. I have eaten at a number of goat roasts in the past, and I will have to say that the meat is at tender and tasty as pretty much anything I have ever eaten before.
Once we had our fill and had again washed our hands, it was time to depart the boma so we would make it through the gate by 6 PM or else spend the night in the crater which wasn’t something we were planning. We ended up make it through the gate with literally minutes to spare and, for the first time in several days, breathed a sigh of relief with the smooth surface of the tarmac and the absence of the continual chatter and bouncing of the washboard roads we had been driving on since entering the NCA on Friday. It had been a wonderful adventure in the Serengeti and now it was back to our primary mission here, seeing neurology patients at FAME and working with the doctors here.