Friday, October 7 – Departing for the Serengeti, and another Big Five record…

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The view of Oldupai Gorge and Professor Masaki with our group

Having been out last night to the African Galleria, everyone was a bit slow this morning, though thankfully, our departure for the Serengeti wasn’t scheduled until 8 am (still a tad early for Ankita, I think). For me, it was my second attempt at Anna’s birthday zoom that was scheduled at 6 am my time (now October 7, but the rest of my family was still enjoying the waning hours of October 6) and it did take just a bit more for me to get out of bed this morning than it had yesterday. At least I wouldn’t be doing the driving to the Serengeti, a task that Vitalis would be handling for the weekend.

We had originally planned to make our own lunches for tomorrow, but Vitalis had suggested that we instead stop at one of the markets in town that has good pastry type things and samosas that would work not only for our lunches, but also for a breakfast snack for those of us eating (recall, I’m still trying to operate on my intermittent fasting and not eating anything until noontime). Everyone picked out a bunch of little things to eat later as did Vitalis and we also stocked up on smaller bottles of water along with a few frozen bottles that would all fit into the cooler he had brought with him from Arusha. Once raiding the market of most of its baked goods and tanking Turtle up with fuel given the distances we would be driving over the weekend, we were ready to depart Karatu for our weekend of game driving in the Serengeti.

A bush about to be consumed by Shifting Sands

Driving up to the Loduare Gate and the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, it seemed like everyone had decided to drive to the crater or the Serengeti this weekend – safari vehicles were lined up side by side on the road even before we had arrived to the parking area one normally uses when going in to get your permits processed. After a few minutes slowly moving towards the gate, Vitalis parked Turtle on the side of the road and left to go to the office to get our permit processed. I jumped into the driver’s seat to keep us moving in a forward direction given the large number of vehicles and, at one point, an MP who clearly had things under control, waved us over to a parking spot where we could sit until we were ready to go through the gate. Vitalis came back moments later saying that he had already taken care of everything, clearly related to the fact that we had put everything through the reservations system this time rather than trying to pay with my credit card at the office gate. It also turned out that there was an international meeting in Arusha for travel companies and agents and they had apparently taken this Friday off to take trips to the crater. How lucky for us. Miraculously, though, we were through the gate quite quickly and on our way back up the crater rim once again, one of my favorite drives in the world as I have previously mentioned and, this time, I would enjoy it as a passenger for the weekend.

Our next stop would be to Oldupai Gorge and a visit with Professor Masaki and the museum there. I had met him about five years ago during a visit here with a close friend and he had taken us to the Leakey’s camp, which at the time had been closed to the public and used for fossil storage. I can still recall him taking me through the small warehouse where the original artifacts were and taking a several-million-year-old mammoth tusk off the shelf and letting me hold it. Since that time, I have continued to maintain my contact with Masaki and have tried to visit him every trip here with the residents, all of who have found a visit to this miraculous place well worth the time. When I first visited Oldupai in 2009 with my kids, the museum had been comprised of two small rooms with some makeshift signs and a few fossils that had been put together many years ago by Mary Leakey. Since them, a new museum has been constructed that is incredibly wonderful – it was built in a circular fashion starting with the oldest fossils here of Zinjanthropus and is divided into four sections with each one being closer to the present as you proceed. The last exhibits cover the modern day tribes here.

Since our first visit, the site has been transformed into a true destination, though I am still amazed at the hundreds of vehicles that pass by every day with only a small fraction of them stopping to visit the gorge and its museums. The Leakey camp has recently been opened to the public as the Mary Leakey Living Museum, and though I’ve yet to visit it, I plan to do so soon. For those of you who are not familiar with Oldupai Gorge or the Leakeys, it is essentially ground zero not only for much of what we know about oldest man, but it is also considered to be the cradle of mankind, for the fossils here tell the story of man’s evolution, the parts of our ancestral tree that made it and those not so lucky, and it was the Leakeys, both Louis and Mary, as well as their children, who were the ones that shared this story with the world. Standing at the overlook with Dr. Masaki telling the story of Oldupai, spread out in front of us in all its glory, one can’t help but feel as though a significant part of our history is still being written in our presence.

Vitalis saving the day with his coffee

Leaving the visitor center and museum, we drove into the gorge, passing by some of the most famous archeological sites in existence, then up the other side and out heading west in the direction of Shifting Sands. This is a remarkable geologic feature that is unique to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and is the result of an eruption of the sacred Maasai mountain, Ol Doinyo Lengai, which means “Mountain of God,” about 1000 years ago and is composed of black volcanic sand that is magnetized and is slowly being blown west across the grasslands at a speed of about 15 meters per year. The sand stays together due to its magnetic nature and the mound is about 8 meters high and about 20 meters across with a crescent leading edge due to its windblown nature. Both during our last visit and again today, there is a small group of Maasai women who shelter close by during the day, coming out when there is a visitor to sell their beaded jewelry and knick-knacks that are actually quite nice. Living out here in the grasslands must be a very harsh existence and we purchased a number of things from them which was just the right thing to do.

Our first lion after entering the Serengeti

Leaving Shifting Stands, we drove along the smallest of roads heading south towards Naabi Hill and the gate into the Serengeti, though you cross the actually border into the park a bit earlier than the gate. It’s a wonderful drive as we’re off the beaten path and instead of the heavily rutted main road with all its loose and flying rocks (remember our shattered windshield last visit) such that we could enjoy the surroundings more thoroughly without constantly having to slide our windows shut to prevent the dust from coming in. We also enjoyed lunch along the way rather than fighting the crowds at the gate as we had planned and Vitalis won Ankita and Sara’s hearts by having brought thermoses of hot water and a French press to make a picnic pot of coffee that I shared in as well.

An eland, the largest of the African antelope

We eventually arrived to Naabi Gate and as soon as Vitalis exited the vehicle, the heavy latch to his front door fell off the jamb such that his driver’s door would no longer remain closed properly and was essentially swinging freely. We were now down to one operational door and this one was a problem as both of the bolts had sheared off, with the inner portion remaining in the two holes and no way to fix it without a drill gun to drill them out and replace them. Thankfully, something similar had happened to us in the past and what’s required is that something, either a cord or a rubber strap, is wrapped around the pillar between the driver’s window and the one behind with the only problem that neither could be closed when driving and it had to be removed each time he needed to enter or exit the car. There was the additional problem of not being able to lock up.

A topi, one of the many medium to large antelopes of East Africa

Thankfully, there was a repair shop at one of the research garages and Vitalis had repairs done there in the past. We later stopped by the shop and then he brought the car back to them before dinner and we were able to fix the door with no problem. Meanwhile, we began our game drive much earlier than we had three weeks ago, broken door and all, and in short order had pretty much bagged everything necessary for the weekend. I had mentioned previously about the Big Five, those five animals, the elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, leopard and lion, that were the most dangerous to hunt back in the 20s and 30s when the Great White Hunters were coming to this region, some of who were mortally wounded by their intended victims after they had merely maimed them rather than killing them.

Our female rhino and her young calf

Driving into the park, we encountered the Cape Buffalo, elephant and lion readily, but it is always the rhino and leopard that pose the problem in “bagging” this group. The rhino has been pretty much non-existent here in the Central Serengeti, though we had seen the three of them three weeks ago when we were here and I had little hope of doing so again. Miraculously, Vitalis had heard something on the radio and drive us right to the spot where there were several other vehicles viewing something far off in the distance, but could actually be seen with the naked eye and even more definitively with the binoculars. What we saw was actually a mother and very small calf, clearly not the group from several weeks ago as that group had a nearly full grown calf with them. We watched them for quite some time moving about in the low grass and enjoying themselves.

Now that we had seen four of the five, we were in search of a leopard to complete our quest and didn’t have to wait all that long as we ran across a leopard in a tree along one of the rivers. We still had plenty of sunlight to spare and had found the Big Five in probably a record time of less than two hours after having entered the park. I don’t believe I had ever seen the entire group in a single day until three weeks when we did it before noontime and now we had done it in what seemed like an inordinately small amount of time such that we rolled into our camp knowing that we had really accomplished something significant. It was clearly due to Vitalis’s excellent guiding and perhaps a little help from his fellow guides on the radio, though that is not at all an unusual tool that guides use on a regular basis, sharing information with each other. I just wish that I spoke Swahili if for that reason alone.

Our leopard in the tree to complete our spotting of the Big Five the first afternoon

We checked into our camp where I had stayed three weeks ago and had a relaxing evening. Vitalis left momentarily to have Turtle fixed and returned in plenty of time for dinner. It was a gorgeous night out and one could hear the sounds of many animals out in front of camp – zebra and hyenas were the loudest, though I believe some lions joined the chorus sometime during the night.

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