Sunday, October 1 – Waking up in paradise, a rare event early, and some more repairs…

Dancing Duma

It was decided by the group last night that they wanted to spend a little time in camp in the morning considering how absolutely beautiful Dancing Duma was. Having been to the Serengeti many, many times over the last 14 years and stayed every night in tented camps that have been spectacular, I can easily say that Dancing Duma tops them all when it comes to comfort and luxury. Don’t get me wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed every form of camping that one can imagine, from sleeping out under the stars on the fire line out west, to backpacking throughout the Sierra Nevada during my early years, but given the accessibility of the tented camps throughout the parks of Tanzania, I would have to say there is very little that compares when it comes to comfort while still being very close to nature. Dancing Duma, though, is on another level without losing that connection to the outdoors.

Panorama of the triple tent

After our ultralong game drive the day before, I had collapsed a bit early, as I’m sure the others had, but decided to get up very early before the sun to enjoy working in my tent. I had asked to have some coffee brought to my tent at 6 am and had heard the quiet hum of the generator, so knew that there would be a hot shower for me as well. Sitting on my deck with a cup of hot Tanzanian kahawa (coffee), with my computer on my lap and watching the sun just begin to light the distant hills, making its way slowly to our camp was like nothing other. The wildebeest and zebra had moved away from the area directly in front of our tents, though they could still be heard amongst the trees in the distance along with an occasion hyena whoop. The Serengeti was slowly coming alive and would soon be awash with the sights and sounds we had come for. But first, it was off to the mess tent for what we knew would be an amazing breakfast, and it did not let us down.

With the Dancing Duma staff

After a very leisurely breakfast that included cereals, fruit, eggs to order, meats, and, best of all, cinnamon buns with what tasted like sour cream icing, we all went back to our tents to pack up and say goodbye to Dancing Duma. For the others, it would be a true goodbye, though, for me, I would be returning here in three weeks and was quite happy for that. Once packed up, the entire camp crew came out to bid us farewell. Every one of them had played an important part with our stay here from the camp manager, Otto, to the chef, Francis, those who walked us too and from our tents, the assistant cooks, and the support staff. We packed up lunch boxes that we’d be bringing with us for the drive and then arranged everything into Turtle for our final game drive of the day and then our trip home to Karatu. It was then time to take photos with everyone.

Four cheetahs – mother and three adolescents
Whitney’s photo the first time she used the camera – National Geographic quality!

Once on our way, we were heading in the opposite direction than yesterday, essentially around the other side of the small mountain where our camp sat, but still in the direction of Seronera as we had to the visit the fuel station there before our drive home. The Land Rovers are incredibly fuel efficient with their 4-cylinder turbo-diesel engine and their single 70-liter tank will allow one to drive from sunrise to sunset (at the reduced game drive speed) for several days on end. If it weren’t for the worry about running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, we could probably make it home on what we have in the tank, but that would not make for a good day if we guessed wrong.

Turtle at the shop….again!
Bathroom sign at the Seronera service station

Shortly after emerging from behind out low mountain, we saw several vehicles in the distance which is an excellent sign that there is a cat somewhere close. Approaching the vehicles, Vitalis spotted several cheetahs in the distance just slowly walking along the edge of a rise while there were several groups of Thompson gazelle in the area, looking nervously in their direction, clearly worried about the cheetah’s intensions. We proceeded to position ourselves to watch as the cheetahs walked along and what we found was a mother with her three adolescent children following closely behind. Initially, she didn’t seem to be hunting, but in retrospect, she was lulling the gazelle into a false sense of security as there not taking their eyes off her, though they were also not running away from them. We sat and watched this family of cheetah for some time, slowly moving our vehicle forward as we followed their path with the gazelle looking more and more nervous all the time, and probably for a very good reason.

Suddenly, and without any warning at all, the mother cheetah took off in a high-speed sprint in a cloud of dust, circling back in our direction and running right across our field of view. She had already locked on to her victim and was in high pursuit. The zigged and zagged, but they were not a match for the cheetah, and it was over in a matter of seconds. The fastest gazelle in Africa against the fastest land animal on the planet in a short sprint – the cheetah won, and it was over in a flash. Once it was over, she quickly stood, holding the gazelle by the throat, instantly suffocating it as every cat does with its prey in a rather humane fashion, though the reason is truly to prevent injury on their part (hyenas and wild dogs do not do this and begin eating their prey while they are still alive). The three younger cheetahs came running immediately to share in the kill, which was their mother’s intention all along as she was giving them a life lesson on how to survive on their own. The scene we witnessed was a rarity and one can go years without seeing a cheetah kill as opposed to a lion kill. If we had to drive home at that very moment, I don’t think anyone would have felt slighted.

A mating pair of lions resting at the present

We were all on a high having shared in such an event. LJ (being strict vegetarian) did have issues trying to rationalize what she had seen, though I reminded everyone that what had occurred was something that would have happened whether we were there or not. It was not a performance that we had somehow influenced nor was it a sporting event that we had paid to watch. It was reality and the circle of life and has been such from the beginning of time.

Flamingos on Lake Ndutu
Kitashu at his boma

We continued on to reach the fuel station in the Seronera, though when I came out of the bathroom, I noticed a large pool of diesel fuel under the vehicle with Vitalis and the attendant discussing something. When he tried to fill it again, the fuel leaked out well before the tank was filled suggesting that there was an issue with the normal overflow valve in our tank that would not only prohibit us from filling the tank but could potentially spill fuel as we were driving. Thankfully, there was a mechanic just next door to the station who could fix the issue for us, though it meant hanging out for a bit while the work was done. We hung out in the area while the fundi pulled out the old pipe that had corroded and installed a makeshift one as he did not have the exact part for us. After about 30 minutes we were good to go, though on filling the tank again, the repair needed a slight adjustment (tightening) that took another 15 minutes or so. When all was fixed properly, I paid for my fuel, and we were on our way.

The plan had been to head south in the direction of Naabi Gate and then to continue further south towards Lake Ndutu as the roads were better and we could avoid the heavily traveled, dusty, and rocky main road that runs from directly from the crater to the Naabi Hill and which we had partially traveled coming in. Last year, while driving the same road and just before reaching the gate, we had a major equipment failure when a huge rock which had been thrown in the air by a passing vehicle shattered our windshield. Thankfully, we had lots of duct tape with us and were able to cover enough of it to keep it from falling inward yet could see out of it…mostly. Despite the wonderful repair job, we still had an entire weekend of game drives ahead of us, though amazingly made it all the way back home in dire need of a new windshield.

Today, we drove the Seven Hills all the way back to Naabi Gate which is an incredibly scenic route that follows a series of hills leading south from Central region. There were no herds from the migration in this region as they were all further north of us, but we did find a lone mating pair of lions trying to stay cool under the cover of a low acacia bush. A mating pair of lions, or sometimes a male and several females in estrus, will leave the pride for several days in which they mate every thirty minutes or so for at least 48 hours. I am told that this is to ensure that the female is impregnated during that time as otherwise, the success rate of a shorter mating will be very low.

We waited for about ten minutes or so, hoping to catch them in the act, but our timing must have been off or either they were exhausted or taking a break. As we were about to leave, though, I heard Vitalis yell, “Dr. Mike, look…” On the opposite of our vehicle was a very rare cat that I have only seen twice before in my travels. The caracal is a medium sized cat with tufted ears that looks much like a lynx but has a tail. It is primarily nocturnal, but both of my prior sightings were during the daytime and one of them was for an extended time. We didn’t get any photos as the cat ran quickly into the high grass, but I was very surprised that it was even there so close to the lions as all cats are mortal enemies and the lions would have been more than happy to have killed it if they had known it was there. I suspect they may have been a bit pre-occupied with other matters.

Along the Endulin road

Once at the Naabi Gate, it was time for us to check out of the Serengeti, but apparently there was some snafu as it took well over an hour that was entirely too long despite the incredible number of safari vehicles that were both coming and going at that time of day. Apparently, there had been an issue with our reservation due to the newness of the camp and they were unable to figure out where we had been for the last three days even though we had been able to check in without difficulty. This is an all too often occurrence at these gates and entirely frustrating when it happens. Thankfully, it had nothing to do with me on this occasion. We eventually at our lunches standing in the parking lot as we didn’t want to spread out on a table anywhere (even if we could have found one given the crowds) hoping that Vitalis would come any moment and be ready to go. Unfortunately, that did not occur, and we continued to wait.

We were finally underway and heading towards Lake Ndutu, whose high season is in March when nearly the entire migration is there along with every form of cat looking for a meal. Driving next to the lake, the others were amazed at the number of skulls and other bones scattered about and heavily bleached from the last migration to have come through months ago. There were scattered flamingoes throughout the lake and a lone hippo bathing in the shallows. We had encountered some heavy rain driving here, but it was now behind us and accompanied by streaks of lightening and loud thunder. We continued past Lake Masek which sits next to Ndutu following a very unused trail with the Land Rover that went behind Mtiti Mountain (a prominent mountain in the region that was named for its similarity to women’s breasts) and stayed well out of the valley below.

We eventually connected with a new road that had recently been completed and was like a superhighway for Tanzania. It was freshly graveled and leveled and essentially came out of nowhere but would take us in exactly the direction we needed to go. Unfortunately, we had scheduled a visit to Kitashu’s boma at 4 pm the latest and it was very clear that we were not even going to come close. The scenery we were traveling through, though, was some of the most spectacular in the region, continuously rising towards the crater rim and traveling through beautiful valleys and canyons along the way through the Endulin district where a great many of the Maasai live in the conservation area that we are traveling through. At one point, as we’ve gained further altitude, you can see all the way down to Lake Eyasi, another of the rift valley lakes that also includes Lake Manyara.

Approaching the crater rim road, we finally reached Kitashu’s boma, but it was tremendously later than we had anticipated. We typically spend time here as Kitashu likes to show the residents about life in the Maasai boma with his family and all his cattle. Kitashu family has lived here for many years and has grazed their cattle within the conservation area alongside the wildlife here. The problem with our timing (i.e., having reached his boma at about 5:15 pm) is that the Loduare Gate into and out of the conservation area closes at 6 pm and we have quite a distance to travel before we get there. We handed out candy that we had brought for the children and Kitashu wanted to show the residents around just a bit. By the time we left his boma, though, it was nearly 5:45 and there was no way we’d make the gate in time. The conservation area is a completely separate administration that has very strict rules and I have never wanted to test the voracity of their rules regarding the closure of the gate. We’ve gotten there with a minute to spare in the past, but never this late. One thing we had in our favor was that we were giving Kitashu and his niece a ride back to Karatu and there are no restrictions for them to pass through the gate, but that did not include us or the vehicle.

Driving home with Kitaushu and Magdalena

As we approached the overlook to begin our descent off the rim road, there was a ranger with a machine gun standing at the smaller gate that was closed and blocking our path forward. Vitalis pulled up to the gate and handed the ranger our paperwork at which point he walked away for a moment with the paperwork in hand and didn’t give a clue as to whether he was going to let us proceed or not. After what seemed like an eternity but was only a few moments, he walked back to hand Vitalis the papers and then raised the gate for us to pass. It was a good sign, but we still had the main gate to pass and it definitely not a sure thing that they would let us go. As we approached the gate, it was still open and Vitalis pulled the vehicle through the gate for us to check out so they could not try to lock us out. He took care of getting us check out and we were shortly on our way. I could breathe again and wasn’t sure whether I’d like to challenge it again.

At Annie’s house

We rode home in the waning light of a beautiful day and the sun was quickly approaching the horizon as we drove into FAME. With all of Turtle’s troubles over the weekend, I decided to send Turtle back to Arusha for repairs and have her ready for our next safari. Myrtle would serve us well over the next weeks until our next game drive and hopefully Turtle would be fixed by then. I had called ahead to have hot water for showers as we were all quite filthy from the drive all day and had plans to visit Dr. Anne for dinner tonight. She had made some Tanzanian dishes for us and some mandazi for dessert. It was a nice evening, but we were all exhausted and ready for sleep by the time we got home. It had been an incredible weekend, and it was now time to get back to work at FAME.

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