Sunday, September 18 – Heading home from an amazing weekend and visiting Kitashu’s boma…

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Around the campfire, or what is known as “bush TV,” the night before

It would be incredibly difficult to conceive of anything that would top yesterday in regard to the diversity of experiences that we saw. Even if we had not found the rhinos and completed our Big 5 before noon, it would have still been a truly remarkable day. As I mentioned, Cara and Alana had each decided to go up in the hot air balloons that ply the skies about Seronera this time of year, taking guests on an exciting safari in the sky, launching before sunrise and floating across the sky at altitudes between the treetops and a thousand or more feet to view the wildlife from above. Leonard’s brother has been a balloon pilot now for over ten-years and I had the opportunity to fly with him back in 2014 – it was really an experience and far beyond what I had anticipated, to be honest. With this in mind, Cara and Alana were more than onboard with this once in a lifetime experience. They had to get up very early, though, to be picked up at camp and taken to the launch site well before sunrise. Their ride would meet them at 5:15 am!

Getting ready to take flight

Meanwhile, last night we had a group of hyenas that had come into camp and broken into the kitchen area looking for anything edible they could find. I woke up in the middle of the night to the loudest hyena howl that seemed to be only inches from my head and immediately behind our tent. I reached up quietly to double check that there was some metal of the headboard separating my head from the hyena and thankfully I was reassured that there was indeed a barrier. This went on for several minutes and I swore that I could hear heaving breathing just behind me during the entire episode. The next morning, it seems that everyone, other than Cara, had been awakened by the loud hyenas and had also sworn that they were just outside their tents – either there were a number of hyenas last night, or there was only one and it seemed like they were closer than they actually were. Regardless, they had apparently caused some damages in the kitchen though no more details were available.

After a successful landing

With Cara and Alana having left for the balloon ride, the rest of us (Alex, Moira and me along with Vitalis) had a relaxing breakfast with plans to leave camp at around 7 am. I had gotten up at 5:15 am as I had wanted to do some work with the internet early and enjoyed some coffee at the same time. The sunrise was absolutely spectacular and I shared it with someone back home on a WhatsApp video call as it was around 11 pm on the east coast and a perfect time to share the experience. Alana and Cara had packed completely before they left for the balloon, so it was just a matter for us to check out and pay the bar bill as the rooms had all been paid in advance of our stay. We said goodbye to the Tanzania Bush Camp, though I’d be back in three weeks with my next group and was quite happy for that as this camp had met our expectations and then some without question.

A pair of mating lions

We left heading west over some of the nearby woodlands and very quickly encountered very large herds of wildebeest and zebra that were part of the great migration coming down from the Maasai Mara in Kenya and heading for the Southern Serengeti. The numbers of animals here were really incredible and we encountered ever increasing numbers as we headed further west. In the midst of all this, we spotted a mating pair of lions not far in the distance and were able to get quite close to them only to find that the brother of the male lion of the mating pair was relaxing nearby in the trees in a somewhat voyeuristic position given that lions will mate approximately every thirty minutes for around 48 hours to ensure that the female is impregnated. I’ve seen a mating male with several females before, but never had I seen two males and one female. After the mating, which takes only about 15-20 seconds, the female walked a few feet and then plopped down on her side readying herself for their next interlude which goes on like clockwork for the several days. We decided to give them some privacy and moved on quickly encountering the migration herds that were truly immense. The zebra and the wildebeest migrate together as they both help each other out both from the standpoint of the different grasses that they eat as well as from the standpoint of protection as the zebra have amazing eyesight and can spot predators at a far distance while the wildebeest are good at finding water for the herds during their travels.

A dik dik

Along our drive, we encountered the landing site of the balloon that Cara and Alana were on just after they landed. We could see everyone taking pictures with the pilot and the balloon gondola. Alex was able to get a few shots of them before we drove on and they were heading out for their breakfast in the bush that would be prepared special for them before being brought to the visitor center where we would pick them up. Along one of the rivers as we were circling around back towards the Seronera Village, we encountered a massive group of zebra and a lone lioness that was hunting. She dipped down into the river depression hoping to surprise the zebra, but they unfortunately spotted her and quickly moved away and out of reach for her. A single hunting lioness most often indicates that she has her cubs stored away safely someplace and is hunting for sustenance. It was a loss in more ways than one that the zebra had spotted her for she was going to go hungry and we were deprived of what would have been an excellent opportunity to watch a lion kill.

Secretary bird

Continuing to follow the river, we encountered more of the large zebra herds mingling through the woodlands here with families of giraffes and some incredibly large extended families of elephants. We stopped for fuel to top off Turtle on our way to the visitor center to pick up Alana and Cara – amazingly, we had used only 2/3 of a tank over the last two days of driving and though we probably could have made it home on what remained, running out of fuel on the return drive is not an option as being stranded in the bush does not end your day well. The visitor center at Seronera is the center of activity in the Central Serengeti and where the passengers from the balloon flights all return after their exciting experience.

There are several shops, a restaurant and, most importantly, bathrooms available for the weary travelers in need. The Central Serengeti airport is also not far and is where many guests arrive on a regular basis as many of the tour companies have you drive only one way to the park and fly out to save time. Many flights also depart for Zanzibar and other remote areas in Northern Tanzania. In 2009, while on our original trip here, while flying through this airport from the Northern Serengeti where we had finished our safari, the president of Tanzania had landed briefly to refuel and I remember sitting on the tarmac for some time waiting for his plane to land and then depart. Certainly not unlike Air Force 1 with our president, but the plane was much smaller and was chartered from Air Tanzania.

Reinforcing the windshield for our ride home

Once we had our full contingent intact and everyone had taken care of any essential needs, we were once again ready to hit the road. The drive out was long as we drove first to the Moru Kopjes, the sanctuary for the black rhino here in the Serengeti, though we had our sighting yesterday and for free as it costs an extra $100 to drive through the actual sanctuary in search of the rhino, something that was not at all necessary for us. Lake Magadi is in this region and is one of the larger saline lakes that attracts flocks of flamingoes to this region, though there were only a few to see today. We were now on our way to Naabi Gate and ready to depart the park which meant that we would also have to stop in the NCA office to pay our transit fees to travel back to Karatu. We were also going to have our lunch boxes here and use the facilities before our drive back by the Crater and home. There were many, many vehicles arriving at this time, all with the same plan for lunch, so tables were at a premium, though we found one sufficient for our number and enjoyed our final box lunch from the camp, which was again delicious.

Alex displaying his jumping skills

After lunch, Vitalis and I went up to the office to take care of payment only to find the office packed with guides and a single window available for credit card payment which was my plan given the cost of $60 each for the transit fee. Once again, the system failed us as they were having difficulty with the payment by another private traveler in front of us. While all of the guides proceeded to have their entry permits stamped as they were already in the system, we waited and waited, finally getting taken care of after the office was entirely empty and we were now more than 30 minutes behind schedule. The road back to the Loduare Gate past Oldupai and the Crater was going to be incredibly bumpy so I decided to secure the windshield a bit more before we left, adding just a little extra insurance. Amazingly, the windshield had lasted throughout our game drive the entire weekend, but I was concerned about the rocky drive home. If the windshield decided to let go, there was no way we could have safely driven Turtle as the mere thought of another rock flying into the car would have been enough to have stranded us, not to mention the dust. It was a pretty untenable situation and I’m surprised that this doesn’t happen more often to make it profitable to have a shop in the Serengeti that could replace them if needed. It would take a little of prayer, crossing our fingers and the insurance a bit more duct tape to get us home.

As we were somewhat behind schedule for our visit to Kitashu’s boma where the others would meet his family and we were to have a goat roast, Vitalis was forced to drive a bit faster than I’m sure he wanted, but he did a wonderful job navigating a treacherous road in a wounded vehicle. We made it to Kitashu’s home up on the crater rim with just enough time to enjoy our visit. Kitashu was raised here in this boma and had made his home here, commuting back and forth to Karatu during the week until only recently when he moved his family to town for his son’s education at Tumaini Primary School. He still has to travel back and forth, though, to take care of his herd of cows at the boma and to visit his brothers and sisters.

Their boma sits atop a ridge with a lovely view of the highlands surrounding Ngorongoro Crater which is only a short distance away across the rim road. As a youth, he grazed his animals throughout this region, often traveling many days away in search of the best grazing spots. He knows all the regions of the NCA incredibly well which came in handy last March when he led the search for the surviving boys who had been exposed to two rapid dogs and required prophylactic immunoglobulins. Had we not had him as a resource both for his knowledge of the area and the people it is unlikely that the children would ever have been located and treated.

Kitashu’s family dressed all the residents in their traditional, though more fancy, dress to do some dancing and then we enjoyed eating freshly roasted goat with the most incredible backdrop of scenery, sitting on the ground and doing our best to wash our hands first, while Kitashu and his brothers sliced chunks of goat for us with their long knives freshly “cleaned” with the surrounding grass. The goat quarters sat on the spits it was cooked on with no spices used at all, but the tastiest and most tender meat. Everyone enjoyed partaking in this ceremonial feast, though it was getting late and, if we had any hope of getting out through the gate by 6 pm, we had to leave rather quickly. Vitalis had already distributed the “pipi,” or candy, to the children, so all that was left to do was to give the gifts we had brought for the village to his oldest sister and mother – rice, sugar, tea, soap, flour and other essentials that is traditional here when visiting someone’s home.

We were on the tightest of schedules and Vitalis drove like a banshee to get us to the gate in time and, even though we had Kitashu with us as we were giving him a ride back to Karatu, it was not likely that the guards at the gate would have much sympathy for us if we were late. Amazingly, we arrived at exactly 6 pm to the gate and, using a strategy I knew well from previous times I had cut it this close, we drove to the other side of the gate before stopping to check out. That way, they couldn’t lock the gate in front of us, but rather behind us. Though Kitashu could have just walked through to leave the NCA, we would have been stuck there for a very unpleasant night in the car or an expensive night at one of the lodges back up on the crater rim.

Vitalis handing out pipi to the children

All in all, it had been an incredible weekend in the Serengeti, well worth the time and money for the residents to have experience one of the most remarkable landscapes in the world that has no equal. Our windshield had held, we were all in one piece and we had seen the Big Five in less than six hours yesterday. What more could anyone ask for?

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