With the end of our second week here and the mobile clinics now finished, at least for the first rotation of residents, it was time for our long weekend in the Serengeti. We were heading out for a multiday safari, though more accurately, we would be enjoying game drives throughout the weekend. In Kiswahili, the work “safari” really just means “journey” and has no relationship to driving around in a four-wheel drive vehicle viewing animals in one of the parks in Africa. When one arrives here in Africa, you are immediately asked by everyone you meet, “how was your safari?,” which merely means, “how was your journey.” When someone is heading out on a trip, or just going to the grocery store, the appropriate reply is to say, “safari njema,” or “safe journey.” This is never confused in the US where the word “safari” is always referring to a game drive and can be used interchangeably. Here, though, with the national language being Swahili, or Kiswahili, one must be more careful to understand exactly what someone is referring to – either a journey or a game drive.
But first, we wanted to attend a morbidity and mortality conference that was being held at 7:30 am today, and then morning report would follow at 8:00 am. The M&M conference here is run in much the same way that we do it in the US. The purpose of the conference is not to point blame at anyone for any perceived mistakes or problems that occurred in a patient’s care, but rather to learn from prior experience and to prevent the same issues from occurring again. It is always as important to discuss the things that were done right as it is to discuss the things that were not.
Following the M&M conference it was time for morning report which we all stayed for to hear about whether there were any new neurology patients on the ward that we could help with. We had planned with Vitalis, our guide for the Serengeti, that we would be leaving at 8:30 am, but I had received a message from him that he was running late as the rear door of the Land Rover was not closing properly and needed to be fixed. I had first met Vitalis in 2017 when he had taken me to the Serengeti with a friend for several days, and we had bonded then as he a remarkable guide and a wonderful person. Since then, I have always used him to measure all subsequent guides against, but none have come close. This does not include Leonard Temba, of course, who was my very first guide here in 2009, and had brought me to FAME in the first place. Everything I have accomplished in Tanzania, I owe to Leonard, and he has become family. I had taken a short trip to Lake Ndutu with Leonard back in 2012, but that was the last time he has guided for me as he has always been in high demand by the company he was working for.
Vitalis eventually arrived to pick us up at the house at around 9:30, putting us a bit behind on our schedule as I had hoped to be at Oldupai Gorge around 10:00 am, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen (remember TIA) this morning. We loaded up Turtle with all our bags and my camera equipment (quite a bit). I typically like to sit in the very back of the vehicle, which is the bounciest, so it is never a problem for the others. The reason I like to sit back there is three-fold – first, I’m usually the only one that can tolerate the back seat for the entire trip and, secondly, it allows me to spread out comfortably with all my cameras and other gear. Lastly, it allows the others to best hear Vitalis narrating as we drive along the amazing landscape of the Serengeti and the animals, and I want them to get their information from a real guide rather than from me. As we left for the Loduare Gate and the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, it was quite clear that the weather was tremendously better than it had been for us the last weekend as we could see further than 10 feet in front of us. The weather, in fact, looked as though it was going to be gorgeous all weekend for us.
The Loduare Gate was crowded, though having Vitalis there to check in made it a bit quicker than if it had been me. Not speaking the language has always been a hardship for me, but as I have told many others, I feel quite language handicapped in trying to learn a new language. I can speak only phrases in Kiswahili, essentially enough to get me in trouble when I respond to someone, but I cannot even come close to speaking conversationally. We were eventually through the gate and on our way to the crater rim, once again, and thankfully without the dense fog or cloud cover that we had dealt with before. The view from the backside of the crater rim, looking out on to the Serengeti plain was absolutely spectacular and it seemed as though we could see forever. Passing the descent road, we were now on our way to the Serengeti.
Our first stop was to be Oldupai Gorge. “Discovered” over 100 years ago (it had obviously been known to local Tanzanians well before that), it became widely known for the work of Louis and Mary Leakey who began working there in the 1930s, and continued until each of them had passed away, though work there has continued on by other academic centers over the years. The most famous find was that of Zinjanthropus by Mary Leaky in 1959 and was nicknamed “Olduvai George.” On the site of her discovery, there is a memorial that was built, and I have visit it many times for it is a very special place to me. When I had first come to Oldupai Gorge in 2009, with my children, all that existed here was a one room museum and the overlook into the gorge. The museum has been completely rebuilt and is now a lovely circular building that contains 4 separate rooms and tons of fossils or replicas of early man and all the animals that have co-existed with the various hominids living here.
When I visited here in 2017, I had met Professor Masaki, who I believe is one of the directors of at the Gorge and he has been so kind to always meet us and to give us a private presentation on the overlook amphitheater and answer any questions that the residents may have about the gorge and ancient man’s history here. In 2017, Masaki took us to the Leakey’s camp before it was open to the public and brought us into one of the buildings where original fossils were stored (though no human fossils) and pulled out an ancient mammoth tusk for us to see and touch. I was obviously in awe given the rarity of such an item.
Since we were running so far behind on our schedule, it was decided that we would eat lunch here at the Gorge. In Ngorongoro, we had premade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that had gotten completely crushed as we had packed them with containers of fruit that had essentially acted as bowling balls during our morning game drive. Not wishing to repeat the same mistake, this time we had brought all the ingredients separately to make the sandwiches onsite which worked tremendously well for us this time. I will have to admit, though, that this was not my idea as I’m usually much more conservative and don’t often change how I’ve done things in the past. Regardless, I was quite thankful for a “non-smushed” sandwich today.
I use the proper name of “Oldupai” for a reason as it is the Maasai name for the sisal plant that grows wild and everywhere here and how the gorge received its local name. Unfortunately, the German scientist who “discovered” the gorge over 100 years ago, misspelled the name when it was published as “Olduvai”, and the error has stuck ever since. No matter the spelling, though, the gorge is the single most important anthropologic site that exists and for many reasons. It is the Mecca of archaeology, or ground zero for human evolution. It is hard to describe what a visit to Oldupai Gorge means to someone who has spent their life pondering the origin of man, and even to those who have not. Leave it to say that visiting Oldupai Gorge was a place I never believed I would visit and not that I have, I want to share it with everyone.
After visiting the museum and having lunch, it was now time to drive into and across the gorge in the direction of Shifting Sands. This remarkable landmark is a sacred place for the Maasai and a one-of-a-kind geological formation. It is virtually a pile of black sand about 8 meters high and 25 meters in diameter that was ejected from Ol Doinyo Lengai many thousands of years and has slowly been pushed by the wind in one direction across the plain. There are markers demonstrating the progression of the formation and its movement each year. The sand is also magnetized so that it remains together as it travels at a snail’s pace across the plain, typically moving 3-5 meters a year. The leading edge of the pile forms a perfect crescent with a very sharp face, and watching its surface, you can see the waves of moving sand swirling around.
There is often a family of Maasai hanging around Shifting Sands to sell their beaded jewelry to the tourists, though we didn’t see them today. Thankfully, though, two Maasai women came walking through the area while we were there as we had left over peanut butter, jelly, and bread that we had planned to give to someone along the way, so we didn’t have to carry it with us for three days. They were quite happy to take it from us.
The drive from Shifting Sands to Naabi Gate, the entrance to the Serengeti, is definitely off the beaten path and is essentially a trail of two tire tracks that are taken for many kilometers. It’s saves us, though, from having to drive the main road with its horrible dust and rocks. We have shattered a windshield from rocks on the main road, which, heading into the Serengeti, is a definite problem as there is no place to fix it until one is back in Arusha and, therefore, requires a roll of duct tape to continue. Today, we had no issues and were at the Naabi Gate in decent time, though quite later than we had anticipated as we were originally going to eat lunch there and it was now nearly 3 pm.
The Serengeti, which is derived from the Maasai word “Seringit” meaning “endless plain,” is beyond description to anyone who has not been fortunate enough to have experienced it. Entering the Serengeti from Naabi Gate, you descend onto a plain that literally goes forever and is covered with animals. Though we are currently in the dry season, it had rained in the last week and the plains are green with new growth grass which is good news as it means that there’s an excellent chance the migration will be very close. The Great Migration is the largest such movement of wildlife on earth and involves millions of wildebeest moving in a clockwise pattern throughout the year following the grasses and delivering their young north of the Mara River in Kenya. They are typically crossing the Mara in late September, but with the rains that have occurred, their movement has been delayed and they remain in the Central Serengeti. This is good news for us as the tented camp we are heading towards will put us in a great position to view the migration.
The camp we’re staying tonight, Dancing Duma, is a brand-new camp that has been created by my good friends, Leonard and Pendo Temba, and has been their dream for many years. It is so incredibly exciting to be heading to their camp as I know how much this means to them. It was getting late, and the sun was beginning to set by the time we arrive at camp but based on the number of wildebeest and zebra we saw on our way to camp, it’s pretty clear that we were going to have a night of loud animal noises.
The camp hasn’t been completed yet and there are only five sleeping tents plus the lounge and mess tents. there, three of which we’ll be using, but they are magnificent. Three of the residents would be staying in a larger triple tent, two of them would be in double tent, and I would be staying in a tent of my own based on the breakdown of our group. The tents were absolutely amazing in their design and comforts. The tents have oversized teak floors with sitting areas inside and out and a deck that overlooked the valley below and the distant sun getting ready to set for us. There is electricity in the tents, a luxury as it’s usually available only in the lounge tent, meaning that we can charge our phones and extra batteries in the rooms. With the dusty journey here, everyone is desperately in need of a shower and, thankfully, we’ll have hot water as well.
Dinner was to be at 7:30 and everyone was starving by now as our lunch had been at noon. I returned early to the lounge tent and ordered a drink to have around the campfire and the night was lovely. We could hear the wildebeest and zebra in close proximity to the camp and as soon as darkness fell, I could see the reflection of their eyes in the distance when I shined a flashlight in their direct. Dinner was a wonderful affair of a delicious butternut squash soup followed by a buffet of boneless chicken in sauce, vegetables, and salad. For dessert, there was a chocolate cake with chocolate sauce. We were all mostly exhausted, a bit stuffed, following dinner so we all retired to our respective tents to get ready for bed. I sat out on the deck in the dark listening to all the animals who were now coming much closer to camp in the cover of darkness. I didn’t last as long as I had hoped and quickly discovered the comfort of my bed and think comforter as I had asked that they leave the flaps open on my tent so I could feel the cool breezes through the night and hear the animals better. Our plan was to meet at 5:45 am for coffee and then depart camp at 6 am for a pre-dawn game drive with breakfast in the bush.