Sunday, September 26 – A balloon ride for Kelley and Paul, more cats and a visit to Kitashu’s family…

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Paul and Kelley’s balloon ride

Our second night in the Serengeti seemed to be pretty uneventful, though, as we later discovered, the lions had been busy in the night quite nearby camp. As we weren’t leaving on a pre-dawn expedition again, it was quite clear that all were accounted for in our party and we were the only ones at camp once again. Though there had certainly been an influx of tourists over the last months, the numbers still remained down due to COVID and I know that the camp staff were more than happy to have us there. I should say that everyone was at breakfast other than Paul, Kelley and Vitalis. They had all risen before 5:00 am as they Paul and Kelley had a date with the balloon gondola and Vitalis had volunteered to drive them to the launch site.

As I had mentioned before, Leonard’s brother, Jones, has been a balloon pilot in the Serengeti now for over ten years and, when the planets seem to align, there are often opportunities for a few of us to go up in the balloon with him for a reduced cost, crucial to our ability to do so, as the experience is quite expensive. Back in 2014, Danielle Becker and I had spent a week in Serengeti and, on boarding our flight in Arusha to head to the Northern Serengeti to watch the migration, we bumped into Jones, who was heading to the Central. He volunteered that, if possible and they had some open seats, he might be able to get us on a flight with him when we arrived in the Central Serengeti. Well, things worked out and Danielle and I had an amazing time and the experience of a lifetime.

You arrive to the launch site in the pitch black darkness that is the night in Africa and, when your eyes finally adjust to the darkness, you realize that there is this enormous balloon laid out on the ground and beginning to fill from the hot air that is being supplied by the jet burners on the top of the gondola. The gondola, by the way, is lying completely on its side for that is how you take off – once the balloon is filled with hot air and begins to ascend, it drags the gondola along the ground for a bit until it stands fully upright and lifts off. There are nine compartments in the gondola, four on each side and a larger center compartment for the pilot. There are two passengers typically in each of the compartments, as well as a bolster pillow that is for takeoff and landing, allowing you to lay back with your knees and legs above you resting on the bolster. You’re buckled in and, once aloft, are standing up and watching the simply incredible scenery. There are two balloons that usually fly in tandem and you slowly make your way across the Serengeti Plain at slow pace with the pilot guiding the balloon based on what thermals are at what altitudes.

The feeling of being in a balloon is that of simply floating in complete silence as long as the burners are off, which, when they are on to gain altitude, do make a noise that sounds a bit like a soft jet engine for it is burning gas to create the hot air that makes these balloons float. The flight is about an hour and you’re constantly going up and down so you’re heading in the right direction, but there is much more silence than there is noise. If you spot animals, the pilot will usually try to take you down so see them up close. You are often flying below treetop level which can be a bit nerve wracking, but the pilots are incredibly experienced and I know that Jones has trained in Europe and the US and continues to receive training even though he’s been a pilot for so many years. Landing is interesting as it is essentially a controlled crash, lowering the gondola to the ground while the balloon is still traveling with some speed, albeit slow, and being dragged for some distance on your side as the gondola just falls over while you hang on for dear life.

Once on the balloon is officially down, though, it’s time to proceed to the breakfast spot where they have tables set up for everyone from both balloons to enjoy a totally homemade breakfast with eggs, meat, fruit, toast, orange juice, and, of course, the traditional champagne that is drunk with every successful flight, or at least that is what they have told us.

It was an amazing adventure when I went up and I knew that Paul and Kelley were going to have a wonderful time on their trip and I was happy to be able to do it for them. What I didn’t know, though, was that Jones had decided to put Vitalis on one of the balloons as he had never been up on one despite having led safaris here on hundreds of occasions. I found this out later, when Jones, instead of Vitalis, came back to the camp with Turtle and told us that he would be driving us for the morning until we met up with the others at the Visitor’s Center.

Meanwhile, the rest of our team, including Kindu, who had stayed back at camp with us, were treated to a delicious breakfast of eggs, fruit, beans, veggies and toast. Though we were all packed up, we had wanted to take a walk to the nearby hippo pool after breakfast, led, of course, by our camp manager, Lydia. We all followed in close proximity as we walked between two of the tents on the opposite side of camp and were soon walking along a fairly open area in the direction of the pool. We couldn’t go before breakfast as the hippos may have still be out of the water, grazing, which they do for most of the night, eventually making their way back to their pools for the day to stay cool. Hippos are very neurotic and anxious and, coming upon one out of the water, you must be extremely careful as they are the most dangerous animal in Africa and responsible for more human deaths than any other animal.

So, on our little trek to the hippo pool, we were going to make certain that we did not run into any of these humongous animals with canines the size of sabers for we all did wish to make it home in one piece. As we crossed an open area bringing us nearby the shore of the small creek (called Turner Spring) where the hippos would be relaxing in the water, what we did not expect to see was a pride of lions on the other side of the water, seemingly chilling in the morning sun, though, as we would find out shortly, there is only one time that lions like to chill and that is after they’ve eaten. With the lions in plain sight of all of us, and us in plain sight of the lions, we all decided, and clearly supported by Lydia, that the best strategy at the moment would be for all of us to reverse our direction, head back to camp and come back with the protection of our vehicles. Or, for those fans of Hanna-Barbera and their cartoon character, Snagglepuss, we decided to quickly “exit stage right!”

I truly doubt that we were ever in any real danger, but seeing lions while on foot is just something that you don’t expect. We made our way back to camp and, after packing the vehicles for our departure, headed back over the hippo pool to check things out. Sure enough, on the opposite back were not only two males and two females, one with the tiniest of cubs, but also another male down at the waterside guarding their freshly killed Cape buffalo from the night before. Apparently, several of the camp staff had heard a commotion over the night that must have been the battle which, it became quite clear, the buffalo had lost and we were now watching a solitary male lion attempting to drag the massive carcass further up the bank through the tall grasses. We watched the lions for a bit, then checked out the hippos in their pool, all from the safety of our vehicles. Eventually, though, it was time to make our way to visitor center, where the balloon crew would be dropping off Paul, Kelley and Vitalis, and we would once again be together.

Dragging a Cape buffalo carcass up off the riverbank

We eventually began our slow exodus from the Serengeti by leaving Seronera and the Central Serengeti to make our way back to Naabi Hill and depart from the park. We took a side route, though, staying close to water in the hope that we might find more leopards, and, sure enough, were able to find two more of these powerful cats to bring our total to three for the weekend. Shortly after, while on the main road, we came upon a gathering of several vehicles, usually indicating there’s a cat in the area, with a number of very impolite tourists and drivers who just could not wait their turn to see what was lying under the tree. It was quite annoying and Vitalis was not at all in the mood to put up with it, and though it took several minutes to get a short view, we eventually did and found three cheetahs lying under a tree in the heat of the day. For the weekend, our final tally was 33 lions, four cheetah, three leopards and a black rhino. The group had seen the big five in a single weekend considering we had seen plenty of elephant and Cape buffalo along the way.

A leopard in the tree with its kill (above him on the branch)
Striped mongooses

The road back to Naabi Hill Gate was significantly dustier than it had been days before with the rain, with each passing vehicle producing dust clouds that seemed to be endless at time. No matter, though, as were still in the magical Serengeti and there were still sights to see. We stopped at the gate to eat our lunches and there were so many safari goers that there wasn’t a table to spare and we ate sitting on benches which served us quite well. Departing the entrance, we were back in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area now and on our way to visit Kitashu’s boma on the crater rim, just off the main rim road. I’ve visited Kitashu’s family on a number of occasions now and it is always very special to see all of his relatives and all the children there. Kitashu’s wife and children were living there until this year, but have now moved to Karatu as his son is attending the Tumaini School, one of the better private schools in town. He no longer has to commute to the crater, though still goes home on many weekends to tend to his livestock that are still at the boma.

Kitashu’s hut

Driving into the boma is always a treat as everyone is out to greet us and there are children galore. We always bring gifts for his mother and father that consist of staples such as rice, oil, sugar, soap, salt, tea and other things as well as “pipi,” or candy, for the children. For nearly all of our visits, Kitashu has always insisted on preparing a goat roast for us as this is sign of respect and an honor for them to cook for us. And I will have to say that there is nothing like Maasai goat cooked on a stake over an open fire. Despite the fact that there are no seasonings used, it is one of the tastiest meats you can imagine and is sliced fresh for us on the hillside overlooking the lovely hills of the Ngorongoro Highlands that surround his village on all sides. This is a true delicacy and I’ve always been glad that the residents can share these experiences as they are like no others.

In addition to our goat roast and handing out pipi to the children, there has also been the tradition of everyone dressing in shukas (the plaid cotton wraps worn by the Maasai men and women) and also having our female residents wearing the beaded collars and other jewelry worn by the Maasai women. Then everyone is taught how to dance with the women singing and chanting while they dance and the men performing their famous adumu, or jumping dance, that is their tradition throughout Tanzania and Kenya. The women’s dance is performed with far less athletic prowess and tends to involve more of the shoulders and upper body.

Our day was now complete and it always seems to be a race to get to the gate by 6:00 pm so we don’t have to spend the night on the crater rim. We actually were able to make it with at least 15 minutes to spare this time. Both Kitashu and Leeyan caught rides back to Karatu with us as they both had to be at work with us the following morning and we had plenty of room in the two vehicles. The last two Sundays we had chosen to eat out at Patamu after getting home from our game drives, but none of us were up to it tonight and we decided to scrounge at home for food. Besides we had eaten quite a bit of goat at the boma were in no danger of starvation. We would begin our last week at FAME tomorrow and I think everyone was beginning to realize that our wonderful month was coming to an end soon.

Saturday, September 25 – A full day of game viewing in the Serengeti and lots and lots of lions…

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Everyone had gotten a good sleep, though for some, hearing all the sounds of the wild animals so close to camp for the first time was probably a bit unnerving. As much as you might think that we would all make easy prey for a pride of lions given the only surface between us and the outside world is the canvas of a tent, easily shredded by their sharp and powerful claws, but that just doesn’t happen. The roars of a male lion at night or the frequent “whoops” of the hyenas chatting among themselves does little to keep the imagination from wandering too far from reality and in those moments of semi-consciousness, drifting off to sleep, one becomes easy prey to these machinations of the mind. Amazingly, though, everyone survived and the order of appearances at the mess tent was quite predictable – I had my cup of tea mostly down as the girl’s tent appeared, followed by Paul and Kelley, and, eventually, Akash and Phillip decided to grace us with their presence. No worries, though, as the sun hadn’t quite arisen yet and we had the who park to ourselves it seemed.

Kelley, Akash, and Phillip on the lookout

I had stayed in this cluster of camps before and was familiar with the route we’d be taking, traveling far beyond Maasai Kopjes in mostly a southeast direction and our main object was to look for big cats, though had we spotted a caracal or serval, we would have taken those as well. The balloons had launched from near Seronera and were already afloat, though they were too distant for us to hear the intermittent blast of their burners as they would rise and fall to ride the thermals. I had taken a balloon ride with Leonard’s brother, Jones, who is a balloon pilot in the Central Serengeti, back in 2015 with Danielle Becker as we only paid the concession fee of $50, far less than the $500 or more normally charged for the experience. It was truly the experience of a lifetime, though, and, to be totally honest, would have been worth the $500 had I known before.

We wasted little time in spotting a number of vultures circling above and as we drove to the area, spotted several hyenas near a den that had little concern of our presence. As we drove by them in the direction of the vultures, though, we came across remnants of a hyena carcass that had likely been killed by the hyenas themselves and was eerily staring off into the distance with empty sockets as the eyes are a delicacy for the vultures. It had most likely not only been killed by other hyenas, but also eaten by them before the vultures had their turn at the table, a common occurrence among these scavengers.

Munching on a tasty snack

After traveling a short distance, we came upon our first pride of lions that consisted of a few females and three small cubs, all of the same age and very likely immediate siblings. They were resting, but were active enough for our purposes, although had they been hunting, that would have been extra special. Watching a pride of lions hunting is always an amazing experience, but you just have to be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. You also have to be very patient and willing to follow the lions for some time as they are obviously very methodical. Lions have a much worse kill rate than the cheetah and the leopard as their stamina is poor and they must be very close to their prey to deliver the final blow. I have watched many a lion hunt that ended in a failed attempt for one reason or another. Leopards are totally stealth when they hunt and cheetah are, as we all know, the fastest land animal and capable of amazing acceleration that I can attest too first hand.

“Mom! You’re messing up my mane”

We watched the lions as they all got up and eventually made their way to a nearby kopjes where they had a watering hole on top of the rocks that had obviously collected rain water from the day before. The male positioned himself up higher on the rocks while the two females and three cubs made their way to a depression in the rock that we were unable to see, but it was clear they were rehydrating. The sun was intense, but the temperature was quite cool even though we were approaching 10 AM and breakfast time. We continued for a bit until we found a very nice place to all have breakfast, under an acacia tree, where there were no animals nearby, at least that we were aware of. The camp had made us all very nice breakfast bags, but hadn’t included any vegetarian meals for Akash, a strict vegetarian, or Cat, a pescatarian. Cat could make do with what they supplied, but Akash did have to sort through to make sure he had enough to eat.

After breakfast, we were back on the trail of big cats and ran across many more lions, including a pair of brothers, who looked like Mufasa and Scar from Lion King, though it became very clear in the right wind, that the one who looked most like Scar was, in actuality, a relative of Fabio, as he must have just come from the hairdresser and wanted to show off his gorgeous coif. Regardless of whether we were in a Disney movie or at a fashion show, the brothers took very little notice of us and we eventually moved on in search of more sightings.

Another pride of lions popped up not long after, though it was unclear if they were related to these males or not, but there was a radio collared female with two juveniles sitting on a termite hill who we watched for a few moments, only to spot another five or six of their pride lying in the grass a short distance away who were originally well camouflaged. They all eventually got up and slowly made their way along with the collared female and two juveniles off towards one of the close kopjes, most like to rest in the shade of a tree or find a watering hole.

Fabio!

Somewhere in here, we found a nice place to eat lunch in a similar fashion to our breakfast and shortly thereafter found our first cheetah. He had a full tummy for sure and looked like he was originally just chilling under a tree digesting his lunch, as were we, but he wasn’t happy with our presence and eventually trotted off to find another tree to chill under.

An impressive wildebeest imatation
A motley crew

So now we were in search of a leopard, as this would complete the Big Five for the entire group. The big five are the traditional animals that were hunted as big game and the most dangerous to go after as each one would present a challenge in that they could easily charge the hunter killing him. The traditional Big Five consists of the leopard, lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, and the rhino (both the white and the black rhinos). If you are searching the Big Five in southern Africa, you’re in luck as the larger white rhino is far more numerous easy to find compared to the critically endangered black rhino of East Africa. Being able to spot the Big Five in a single weekend is therefore rather challenging in Tanzania.

An oribi

Leopards like to live near the water which is vitally important for them in their hunting strategy which is to sneak up on its prey and pounce rather than chase them. The most common place to find them during the daylight hours is in the trees along the many streams and rivers of the Central Serengeti, though I have also seen them on the ground on a number of occasions and once on the rocks of a large Kopjes. When the leopard walks through the grass, it does so with its tail held high in the air and it is often easy to spot and follow that way.

They are massively strong and agile in a manner much different than the lion and probably closer to the tiger. They will drag their prey into their tree after killing it, keeping it from the hyenas and the lions, the latter of which will rarely climb a tree to challenge a leopard for its prey. Driving through leopard areas during the calving of the wildebeest, you will often see old carcasses in the trees that were left by the leopard after devouring the majority of the meat.

Akash and Cat loving the Serengeti

Driving through a typical area to spot a leopard with the sun getting low and our time running out for the day, we came upon several vehicles looking into the trees and, sure enough, there was a large, male leopard in the bottom branches of the tree, lounging in the late afternoon sun. Our group had seen their big five in less than 24 hours! We watched the leopard from several angles for some time as it moved around in the tree from time to time, but did not come out of the tree. Had we stayed and watched it for some time, we may have been able to see it begin a hunt, but leopard kills are very rare and I’ve never seen one. Having completed our “hunt” for the leopard, though, while there was still daylight, we decided to get back to the camp with time to walk around a bit.

Akash’s award winning photo

It’s great to maximize your time game viewing, but it’s also nice to relax a bit at camp where they will typically have a fire going for the evening to watch sunset and eventually the stars. Here it’s called “bush TV” and it’s far more interesting than watching anything that may be on the television and certainly a respite from watching cable news. Lydia, our camp manager, walked us over to view a huge female crocodile that had a nest and had laid eggs just on the other side of the stream from the back of our tents. She was easily ten feet long and huge, but was busy protecting her nest and had no interest in us. Besides, she was a tad bit closer to the girl’s tent than mine. In reality, though, she was probably only fifty feet from the back of the tents. Tomorrow morning, since we weren’t going out at sunrise, we’d walk to see the hippos.

Today was also Kelley’s birthday and the camp, of which we were the only guests, by the way, had a birthday celebration for her with a small cake that they baked and they came out singing the Swahili birthday song with everyone dancing and banging pots or clapping. The other exciting news is that Jones, Leonard’s brother, had secured two seats for us on the morning balloon flight, and since Paul and Kelley are getting married in March, I decided to have them use the two seats as their wedding present. They would have to get up at 4:30 AM to get to the balloon launch area as it goes up before sunrise, but I knew it would be well worth it for them.

Friday, September 24 – A late start for the Serengeti, Oldupai Gorge, rain at Naabi Hill Gate, and a rare sighting…

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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.

The view from the overlook at Oldupai Gorge

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.

Looking west from the Oldupai overlook at the sedimentary layers

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.

Looking south

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.

The Oldupai overlook and Professor Masaki

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.

Professor Masaki

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.”

Cat enjoying the sights

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.

The “Zinj” site where Mary Leakey found Zinjanthropus

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.

The gang

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.

Shifting Sands

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.

Shifting Sands

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.

Thursday, September 23 – A second day at Rift Valley Children’s Village and a tour of the village…

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Phillip and Cat ready to present

As it was Thursday, it was another day of education and Dr. Ken had asked us for a presentation on psychosis, something we see quite often here and end up being the primary doctors treating it as there are no psychiatrists to be found anywhere in the area, a sad fact for most of Africa. I have had patients brought to us who were acutely psychotic and potentially dangerous and have had to give them intramuscular injections of a combination of haloperidol, a very strong antipsychotic tranquilizer that can stop an elephant with enough of it, and lorazepam, a milder, but very effective anxiolytic (antianxiety) medication.

Phillip and Cat giving their lecture on psychosis
Emily ready to start the morning

To be honest, I’m not sure if the incidence of schizophrenia is actually higher here than at home, but I’ve seen so many patients over the years as well as those who follow on a regular basis, that it would not surprise me in the least if it were higher here. Possible causes would probably be similar to that of epilepsy – childhood infections and injuries. Throughout the country, the patients are treated by the district mental health officers who may be clinical officers or nurses.

Robert photographing some of the children

The district mental health officer in Karatu is a nurse, or least was several years ago when we encountered them regarding a clearly psychotic patient who had been brought into one of our mobile clinics by her husband. She was not doing well at all and we had suggested a course of medication to the husband who promptly called the health officer to let them know. He was told that we were not to be trusted and that we were trying to poison her. Interactions like this with government health workers or district or regional medical officers have been extremely rare and, for the most part, have always been very positive. But, as you can see, things can go differently on occasion. With our patient at mobile clinic, all we could really do was simply explain that we supported a different approach to the situation than the mental health officer as we certainly didn’t want to destroy their therapeutic relationship given that we’re here only every six months.

Paul catching up on emails while Kelley is reading her book

Cat and Phillip partnered on the talk today and both contributed explaining that not everything psychotic is schizophrenia and going through the definitions of all the disorders in which you can see psychosis as well as how to treat them. They did provide a very nice chart that included all the different diagnoses with distinguishing features and primary treatments for each. In the end, the main medication we have here to treat any patient with psychosis is olanzapine and so the majority of treatments pointed in this direction.

After the lecture on psychosis and morning report, we rounded everyone up for the drive again to Rift Valley Children’s Village. We were anticipating the same numbers today, but sometimes you can be surprised as patients may come out of the woodwork, or coffee fields as the case may be, to be seen for their medical care which is always fine with us given that’s the reason we’re here. We did have a little more time in the morning as things were slower, but somehow ended up with extra afternoon patients requiring them to split into four rooms, taking Africanus’s office as the fourth. Philip had been working in there to keep up with the patient database, but that worked out as he simply sat in working on his computer without disturbing anyone.

Attracting a crowd
Paul giving a piggyback ride

I had forgotten to mention yesterday that one of the highlights of our visit to RVCV is always the lunch that we’re served. Normally, there are always a number of volunteers here at RVCV, but now with the pandemic, there are no volunteers and everything is pretty much being done by the full-time staff with the help of some of the older “children” from the village. In the pre-pandemic era, lunch was always served for all of the volunteers, which included us on our visits, having been home cooked by the mamas who have been doing this forever. In addition to our lunch, they are constantly baking bread and cookies as well, but the lunches are always delicious and fresh and like nothing else you can get in Tanzania.

Kelley entertaining some children
Leeyan working with Denise on a patient
Cat taking a history with Phillip catching up on work in the background
India helping to translate for us with a patient

Yesterday, we had vegetarian chili over rice with salad and fruit and today we had the most scrumptious fresh buns with chicken salad , fresh salad and fruit. Though I do love the lunches at FAME – rice, beans and mchicha five days a week, pilau and coleslaw on Thursday and Ugali, meat and mchicha on Tuesdays – the lunches at RVCV are on another level. Speaking of the lunches at FAME, for some odd reason, they didn’t serve ugali during our entire time there this month which was the first time ever and I’m really not entirely sure why. Cat, Denise and Emily were all looking forward to it, but it never showed up.

Akash completing his notes
Annie checking reflexes like the good neurologist that she is
It was a cold day so Kelley borrowed Paul’s jacket

We did have a chance to spend more time with the children today as you can see from the photos. It’s always a pleasure to be there and an incredibly refreshing experience. It has always been one of the highlights of the residents visit to Tanzania. We were all excited today as we would be leaving for the Serengeti in the morning. We had booked two nights at a tented camp in the Central Serengeti which is just such a magical place that it shouldn’t be missed. In March of 2020, the group had missed this trip, in addition to the money we had paid, because of having to scramble out of the country with the oncoming pandemic. It was a tragic loss and I hope someday that they’ll make it back here, but know that probably won’t be. Because of the size of the group, we had booked an extra vehicle besides Turtle, along with two drivers. We also planned to visit Oldupai Gorge on our way. We decided to make sandwiches once again rather than buying box lunches. I gave Turtle to Vitalis, our driver, in the evening after returning home so he could give it a good cleaning and we’d be off in the morning at 8 am, or so we thought.

Partners in crime 😀

Wednesday, September 22 – A visit to Rift Valley Children’s Village…

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The view of our patients waiting before we get started

With the long and dusty drives to Mang’ola now behind us, it was time for our shorter and more sedate drives to Rift Valley Children’s Village near the village of Oldeani and in the middle of a very rich agricultural region growing coffee and large fields of other crops. With the shorter drive, we were able to leave much later, giving us time to attend morning report, or for others to escape to the Lilac for coffee and breakfast. I have been visiting RVCV since my very first visit to FAME to work with the clinic. Early on, FAME had been providing semi-monthly medical clinics to RVCV to care not only for the children who live there, but also for the local villagers and area that surrounded them. Over the last years, though, our neurology clinic every six months is all that remains of the mobile clinics to RVCV. All toll, I have visited there on dozens of occasions considering this is my 24th visit to FAME and we attend there on at least two days every visit.

Prosper, Anne, Denise, Emily, Phillip and Cat getting instructions from Africanus
The group getting a tour of the administration rooms from Africanus. Note that Cat is standing the closest to the coffee table in the foreground so she can get there the quickest

Rift Valley Children’s Village is an incredibly unique institution that first opened in 2004 when India Howell and her associate, Peter Mmassey, decided to adopt 17 orphaned children and create a home for them. From that humble beginning, the village has now grown to a home for over 100 children who have all been adopted by India and Peter, spending their lives in the comfort of their family rather than having the fear of adoption hanging over them. Along the way, India and Peter have not only raised those children who have called RVCV their home and family, but have also created mechanisms to better the community concerning health, education and economy. The Tanzanian Children’s Fund now also oversees a dispensary at the village with a clinical officer (Africanus, who first came to FAME and worked with our neuro group several years ago, before working with FAME formally and then moving to RVCV), funding for the local schools to assist with hiring extra teachers at both the primary and secondary levels, and an economic project, the Rift Valley Women’s Group, training women from the local village to manufacture and market local crafts and enabling them to support their families.

Denise, Phillip and Revo in one of the examination rooms
A peeping Tom…

I have known and worked with several of the older “children” that have grown up at RVCV and they have all be totally remarkable. A number of them have gone on to the university to study medical fields. Selina, who had worked with our neurology team for several years as a translator eventually found work as a nurse at FAME and when we arrive this visit, she had just had a baby. I am reminded on every visit to RVCV just what an amazing place it is and how incredibly well-adjusted the children are which is no surprise given the amount of love they receive from the family they now have. There are multiple houses for the children, each one for a particular age group and sex and each with its own house mother who cooks and cares for the children that she supervises. There is a pre-school within the village and the primary school is adjacent to the village while the secondary school is a further distance away. The test scores of the children of these schools far exceeds the national average meaning that far more children advance to secondary school and university when it is time.

Kelley teaching Paul her card game in between staffing patients
Paul staffing with Cat, Emily and Leeyan

When we arrive at the village, there are always patients sitting outside on benches waiting for us and all have been checked in by Africanus with their charts split into pediatric and adult cases. Our patient list includes not only Mama India’s children from the Village, but also local children and adults from the surrounding area who have come to see us for their neurological problems. Many of the patients we have seen before, some for years, and they have returned religiously to receive their medications, many of who have epilepsy and have been well-controlled. In between our visits, Africanus has been managing their care with occasional emails to me about specific patients and perhaps medication adjustments. The patients from the Oldeani ward who receive their care from the dispensary all get their medications for free so compliance is less of an issue here.

Akash examining a child with Anne’s helps

Rift Valley Children’s Village and the Tanzanian Children’s Fund are the main reason that FAME is where it is in Karatu, only 45 minutes away when the roads are good, as India suggested the location to Frank and Susan with one of the main reasons so that FAME could provide the medical care to her children and the surrounding community. From their beginnings, FAME and RVCV have remained inexorably linked and continue to be for the health of their communities.

Dr. Anne with her patient
Kelley multitasking

The drive to “Rifty” is an incredibly lovely one that courses through expansive cultivated fields and homes of the farmers, often on the hillside, that are mud huts with thatched roofs adorning a small solar panel to charge their phones. Our road drops down into the ravines on several occasions, a steep decline on rocks and ruts as well as the large angled gutters to divert the rain water and keep it from completely destroying our path. It is the dry season now so there are no worries about travel, but in the wet season, this road becomes a slick and muddy mess that is always a challenge.

Prosper, Kitashu and Joel in the pharmacy
Kelley staffing with Phillip, Denise and Revo while Paul is staffing with Anne and Akash in the background

My first driving in Tanzania was on this road when I was traveling in a small truck with other FAME workers who had just learned to drive. Two of them were unable to make a sharp first gear turn at the bottom of a ravine and then keep the car moving steeply uphill without stalling it. Eventually, I offered to get it up the hill and they all gladly accepted so I drove the rest of the way to the village. When we were ready to head home, I again offered to drive if they wanted me to and, much to my delight, they accepted my offer. I have been driving here ever since and do consider it a badge of honor as it is not common and I am always complimented on my driving by the Tanzanians. Those who know me well will understand this.

Kitashu and Joel sorting through our box of medications
Akash, Paul and Anne discussing a patient

I believe I heard a huge sigh of relief from everyone in my car (the FAME staff rode in a RVCV Land Rover that had come to pick them up) as we pulled into the children’s village for our visit as despite how gorgeous the drive is, it is still tremendously bumpy. We piled out of the vehicles and everyone was introduced to Africanus and the RVCV staff who would be assisting us for the day. It is incredibly orderly here unlike most of our other mobile clinics as Africanus has already triaged all of the patients and pulled charts on those who had seen us in the past. Having past history on patients is essential, especially in those who have been on medications in the past and it’s necessary to know which ones may have worked and which ones hadn’t. Unfortunately, we do not have the FAME EMR here to retrieve records which was a significant problem with one of our patients today as you will see.

Paul, Denise, Kelley, Revo and Phillip discussing a patient

We saw many epilepsy patients today and the vast majority were well controlled on their medications. We can’t check labs here, but for those patients needing labs, they can get them at FAME as part of this visit and RVCV supplies all of the transportation to and from FAME for any patients needing to go there. There are typically cars going to Karatu several times a day to pick up supplies and transport patients. One of the patients that came in today to see us was a 12-year-old boy with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy who we had followed in the past. He was severely quadriparetic now and had to be carried by his mother to get into his wheelchair at this point. He was still swallowing and breathing fine, but who knew how long that would last. His mother and he were incredibly stoic and clearly knew the score since he had two older siblings who had died of the disease previously. We had tried using steroids on him in the past, but to little avail and they were no longer appropriate given the extent of his disease and his deficits. This condition is no more treatable in the US than it is here, but somehow there just seems to be a stronger sense of helplessness here, perhaps borne out of the general lack of medical care here or perhaps due to the difficulty of obtaining aggressive rehabilitation. We would continue following the young man and attempt to make his life easier, though his fate is obviously sealed and he does not have much time left.

Kelley and Paul discussing a patient with Cat and two RVCV staff

The interesting patient we saw today was a bit more of mystery for us, or at least she was until we were finally able to access her FAME records later after we returned home. She was brought in by her daughter who had helped to supply the necessary background information, but apparently this was not at all accurate and made little sense to what she looked like clinically. She had a hemiparesis also involving her facie that had been progressing since it began months ago. The patient had apparently been seen initially at FAME, received a CAT scan and was then transferred to another facility. Then the daughter said she was told that it was a bleed that was outside of the brain, but inside the skull which certainly sounded like a subdural hematoma that may have been expanding. There was still something that was not right about the history or her examination and it was eventually decided that she would come to FAME to see us after the weekend to see us after we had a chance to fully review her records and hopefully look at the CT scan she had had and get a repeat one if that was felt necessary.

Two of the children we encountered at the village

We finished up our work at the Village having seen a good number of patients and made our way back to FAME. I always drive an alternate route on the way home that takes us through difficult fields and bypasses some of the bigger bumps. It does travel down and then up some very steep hillsides though that are taken quite slowly (first gear all the way uphill), but the views are again spectacular and he weather was truly gorgeous. As we’d be back to the village again tomorrow we were able to leave our box of medications there in the pharmacy and we a list of the additional medications needed to restock that would be obtained from FAME. It was an early evening at home to relax.

Prosper taking photos