It’s often quite difficult to fully explain what goes into setting up a visit to the Serengeti or even to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and I’m not even sure I entirely understand the process, but dealing with the Tanzanian government and their online systems when it’s not several months in advance is apparently very tricky. You would think that I’d have learned this a long time ago given my twenty-four trips here, but for some reason I have chosen the insanity route on this one (“insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” likely misattributed to Einstein though may as well have been) and this morning was no different. I would attempt to offer some defense for my reasoning, though even that is quite weak. The trips are quite costly and I am always worried about the sticker shock for the residents when I tell them the cost, yet when it comes time to pony up in the end, it has been a rare occasion that anyone has not participated and, in those two cases, there were other reasons such as several years ago when Daniel Cristancho had already booked a safari for he and his then fiancé, now wife, Roxanne, immediately after our time at FAME.
Our trips are always booked at the last minute thanks to the hard work and dedication of my long-time friends, Leonard and Pendo Temba. If not for them, I wouldn’t be here now, and it’s been with their help that I have been able to navigate much of what has become an incredible experience for those residents and others who accompany me to FAME and Tanzania twice a year. Our Ngorongoro Crater trip last weekend had gone seamlessly despite having to book the trip in the computers days in advance. The Serengeti adventure has more moving parts, though, that includes the transit fees across the Conservation Area (booked on a daily basis), entry fees into the Serengeti (that are booked on a 24 hour clock from when you enter), lodging fees for the camp (that also includes three meals a day), and camping fees for the Serengeti National Park (in addition to the fee to the tented camp). And this didn’t include the second vehicle cost as there were eight of us plus the driver which was just too many to cram into a second vehicle.
Vitalis and Kindu, our guides, were meeting us at the houses at 8 AM sharp for our departure, though we would first have to go to the bank to use all of our cash to pay for the park fees that would be deposited into the park accounts. There has been a long-standing issue in Africa with counterfeit American dollars since I first came here 2009 meaning that they only take bills that are recent and fresh (which doesn’t make all the sense in the world to me as counterfeit bills are usually hot off the press), and though I know that I’ve told everyone in advance, they don’t seem to believe me. Honestly, I go to the bank teller and tell them I want bills after 2009 that are fresh and I only bring large denominations for converting into TShillings for the best rate. So, after having to exchange some of the other’s bills that were old or worn looking for my fresh bills (I’ll carry back the old bills to States as they are fine there), I still ended up with several thousand dollars in 20s that were probably in somewhat iffy condition.
It was this cash that Vitalis went into the bank with that morning, and though I don’t that was the only issue, it was one of them and it was not until over two hours later that we were finally on our way out of Karatu and to the Ngorongoro Gate. It was a painful wait even for me, who well understands why we use the expression “TIA” (this is Africa) here, but the others, I think it was a bit intolerable. Still, we had no other options and just had to wait outside the bank in our vehicles, though many ran across the street to the downtown Lilac Café for snacks and the bathroom. Once on our way, it was a quick hop to the Lodoare Gate with our two vehicles, one for the girls and one for the boys as there were of each. As we rose slowly up the road towards the Crater, the rim became completely shrouded in the mist of the low lying clouds, entirely enveloping us and blocking the hope of any view down into the crater for most of our drive around the rim road. This road, windy and curvy, often only wide enough for a single vehicle, is the only route to the Serengeti and is driven by large trucks and buses transporting goods and people across Northern Tanzania towards Mwanza on Lake Victoria and back.
Our plan was to initially visit Oldupai Gorge which lays immediately on the other side of the crater on our way to the gate for Serengeti National Park. One of the directors there is an old friend of mine and I have stopped by to visit on several occasions in which he has been able to give us guided tours that have included Leakey’s camp before it was open to the public. I have always used the correct and traditional spelling of this park that comes from the Maasai name for the local sisal plant that grows in the region, rather than the anglicized and misspelled “Olduvai” that unfortunately occurred when the name was first put in print by the founder of the site long before Louis and Mary Leakey did their ground breaking work here that began in the 1930s. This Western version of the name has been carried forward, though there are efforts to revert back to the current usage of the word that will probably take several more years effort to take hold.
After eating lunch in full view of the Gorge and the amazing sediments that have yielded the birthplace of humanity and oldest man, we took a fairly quick tour with Professor Masaki guiding us through the brand new museum on site that contains mainly casts of the most important fossils of early man, but many original fossils of ancient mammals that populated the region during the reign of each of the species of hominoid that the museum is divided into, ending at the near present with homo sapiens. I could have easily spent days just in the museum as I know the others could have also done, but unfortunately with the late start, we needed to make our way to Serengeti, otherwise we would be reaching our camp far too late for dinner and we still had more to see here in the gorge. We descended into the gorge, making our way down to the volcanic bedrock in the river bed, driving over large patches of bare rock as we did. From the bottom, looking up at the sediments, the many layers exposed by erosion that have created the single most famous site for human fossils in the world, it is easy to see why the Leakeys spent over twenty years working here before they made their most important discovery, Zinjanthropus, or simply, “Zinj.”
The site where Mary made this discovery is marked and there is a small display acknowledging the importance of this remarkable event that forever changed our understanding of human evolution. Though massively understated, anything more here would take away from the remoteness and ruggedness of the region that is necessary to understand the challenges that would have been faced working here in the past or even now. The sun beats down with such intensity that anything inanimate is completely bleached of all color and surviving here is hard to imagine. The topography and paleobotany of this region, though, was quite different during the epochs of early man here, which is why they flourished and what has made Oldupai the remarkable and rich treasure that it became. For those of us who have concentrated on physical anthropology in the past, this is Mecca.
We still had one more stop at the site, though, and that was to drive to Shifting Sands, an important cultural site for the Maasai. Shifting Sands is about a 25 min drive, much of it without road, from the main part of Oldupai Gorge and can be seen from a distance as you approach it, looking like a tall mound of rich black sand that is several meters high. I have visited here on several occasions and have been equally impressed each time. The mound, which has a crescent shape on the leading edge that looks like a cornice of snow in the high mountains, is constantly moving in one direction across the plain, traveling approximately 5 meters every year. It’s location in the past years is marked with columns that have been place over the last ten years or so.
Shifting Sands was created by an eruption of Ol’ Doinyo Lengai, or The Mountain of God in Maa, the language of the Maasai. This is why the site is so very important to the Maasai of this region. They will travel here from far away for various ceremonies or to gain good fortune. The sand does not scatter as it is heavily magnetic and sticks together, slowly moving across the land at its slow pace, leaving very little of itself behind as it has been traveling for thousands of years. I have seen photos of visitors standing on the mound, but no one I have ever been with has done so as there is a clear energy about the place that is to be respected. Maasai do stand on top, but Shifting Sands is a religious site to them and should not be defaced in any way such as with the footsteps of Westerners.
As we were so behind in our schedule to get into the Serengeti park proper (for all of the region of Oldupai and this part of the Conservation Area is technically part of the same geologic formation), we left directly from Shifting Sands to head across the plains and eventually intersect the main road as we crossed the border into the park, for there you can only stay on roads and not drive cross country. It wasn’t the easiest route to follow, even for seasoned guides like Vitalis and Kindu, though the missteps were few and of no consequence. As we approached the part, it was clear we were in for some very unseasonable precipitation and by the time we reached Naabi Hill Gate, where our paperwork had to be presented for us to not only leave the Conservation Area, but also enter the park, the rain was quickly coming down quite heavily and the roads were wet and slippery.
As you enter the Serengeti through Naabi Hill Gate, the road ascends northwest in the direction of the Central Serengeti and the area of Seronera. The Central Serengeti is dominated by the kopjes, or the large rock outcroppings that were depicted perfectly in the Lion King and represented by Pride Rock. All life is centered around these little oases that are each like a tiny island in a sea of the Serengeti plains. Some are more famous than others and many are scattered far and wide, while others may look like an archipelago or pearls on a necklace. You begin to see some smaller kopjes shortly after entering the park, but they become larger and more numerous as you travel north towards Seronera. Also, you begin to see smaller groups of lions under the many trees along the roadside, typically parts of prides that are out hunting or may have been hunting and are now resting in the shade in the typical hot sun, though now it was a pouring rain.
As we drove north, we received word of a very rare sighting here in this part of the Serengeti, a black rhino, an endangered species that is kept very close tabs on wherever they are as they are and each of their whereabouts are constantly known. The Moru Kopjes, off to our west is a place where there are rhinos nearby, but recently, they have enacted a separate fee to visit this area and hopefully spot a rhino, though I’ll have to admit that I’ve been there a number of times in the past when there was no extra fee and had never seen one. We turned off the main road onto a muddy mess of a trail that more like a slip and slide than anything else, but there were several other vehicles there as well so it looked like the search was on.
I’ll have to put a plug in here for Land Rovers, of which Turtle is one, versus Land Cruisers, which is what our other vehicle is. On these types of roads, a Rover will never get bogged down or stuck, but Cruisers are not nearly as sure footed. It’s easily seen in whether like this as all of the other vehicles were Land Cruisers and were constantly slipping whereas Turtle handled the mud like it was an ordinary day. Probably 95% of the safari vehicles used today are Land Cruisers, more a fact of good marketing by the Japanese manufacturers (i.e. Toyota) and the fact that Land Cruisers require less maintenance, but when they do, it’s much more expensive. The Land Rover requires more TLC, but when given, it performs like no other.
Sure enough, in a matter of minutes, we had the rhino in sight and though it was quite a distance, being the size of a Volkswagen beetle makes it easy to spot with our binoculars. It was roaming along minding its own business and grazing on grasses as it went. It appeared to be a male and was incredibly beautiful and impressive to see on the open plain. I’ve been lucky enough to see rhinos a number of times in the crater, where there are just shy of 30 living there, and had also seen a mother and her calf in the Northern Serengeti in 2015, but had never seen one here in the Central Serengeti. It made me realized just how serendipitous it is to spot these rare animals, such as the caracal last weekend, for had we been on time getting out of Karatu this morning, we would have mostly like missed it.
We watched the rhino so some time, but it was getting late and we took a more indirect route to routine to the main road, stumbling upon two very young lion cubs that were in a tree and next to a small ravine. It was clear that they had been put here by their mother, who had likely gone on a hunt and these were far too small to assist in that activity. They looked very skinny, though after seeing others later, they were not likely to be malnourished, but just not fat from a recent kill perhaps.
We made our way to our camp in the pitch black that is Africa, with animals appearing on the side of the road unexpectedly, or running across at inopportune times so as to make the going a slower than in the daylight, but Vitalis found our campsite which was near Turner Spring. In fact, the campsite faced the spring, where there were plenty of hippos that we would later see in the light of day as they leave the water to feed at night and are the most dangerous in that setting. The camp was marvelous and was a semi-permanent one with raised wooden platforms for all the tents including the mess tent and lounge. We had four tents between us with Emily, Cat and Denise in one, Paul and Kelley in another, Akash and Phillip in another, and me alone in the fourth. I decided not to subject anyone to my snoring. We had an amazing dinner shortly after arrival and everyone went right to bed after, tired from a long day of exploring and excited for the day tomorrow. We would leave camp before sunrise and bring both breakfast and lunch with us, prepared by the camp.