Sunday, June 29, 2014

East African Safari

This is how it all began...

Our safari holiday began when we (Vishanj and Vixabs) flew into Nairobi, and after spending a night there (with dinner at the Carnivore restaurant), flew on further to Tanzania, where we transferred into a 4x4 and with Amini, our Tanzanian driver-guide, arrived at Ngorongoro that evening after a puncture, whose repair was ably assisted and videoed by the Vix-Vin duo.

The ethereal efficiency of the Ngorongoro Crater

The next day, we set out on our first game drive - this was in the Ngorongoro Crater and in no time, we had spotted (at close range) hundreds of zebra, wildebeest, wild buffalo, baboons, and elephants.

Our first "close encounter" was with two elephants, which came directly towards our car. For one breathtaking heartstopping moment, we thought one of them was going to come at us, because it looked directly and deeply into our eyes! But our driver-guide's confidence was rock steady as we waited breathlessly for these elephants to cross the road, which they did unperturbed. As we drove around further (our 4x4 was the type where the roof can be raised and we could all stand inside the jeep and take pictures or observe the game from above the roof), we spotted cheetah and rhino too. Some time later, we witnessed an amazing fight between a pack of hyenas and 3 lionesses. The lionesses were busy eating a prey they had killed overnight when the hyena and vulture arrived and there was little that the lionesses could do to defend their food. They tried, but finally had to beat a retreat and look elsewhere. Later that afternoon, we managed to see 3 cheetahs at really close range (2 metres) while they basked in the sun. This was awesome stuff - animals in their natural surrounds, and at such close range.

Amini was a useful fount of knowledge, answering all our questions - stupid or otherwise - with patience. But equally awesome was Ngorongoro Crater itself. It was created as a result of a volcanic eruption 1.5 million years ago. So what, you may ask. So this: The entire crater is still intact with its caldera... that is to say that surrounding the entire crater floor is a 600 foot high wall of earth that forms the crater rim.. All the lodges are on the rim and look down into the crater floor. All the game is in the crater floor. It takes as much as half an hour to simply drive down from the rim to the floor. As a result of this, a majority of the animals that live in the crater never ever get out of it - the few that do (such as elephants who can scale the 600 ft wall) return back to the crater once their work outside is done. In other words, the crater is a self-supporting hotbed of life. And if this wasn't awesome enough, listen to this... the crater diameter is 18 km! We drove over 120 km in the 8 hours we were in the crater that day.
The Majesty of the Serengeti

The next day, we set out for Serengeti and got there 3 hours (and one more puncture) later - it was a dusty road and we passed through breathtaking barrenness (if there is such a term). We also crossed the Olduvai Gorge along the way - at this site, fossilised footprints of our ancestors have been found - they date back to a few million years ago.

The first thing that hit us about Serengeti is its vast plain. And I do mean VAST. Flat undulating land as far as the eye can see in any direction you choose. And grazing on these plains were thousands of antelope and gazelle of all kinds. But Serengeti is itself a huge place - 14,000 sq km, and not all of it is a plain. Our lodge was in the northern part of the Serengeti Park and it was evening by the time we got there. Along the way, we saw at close range lions, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, and even a leopard sleeping on a tree. We were very kicked that evening: we were told that we were extremely luck to see the so called "Big Five" in the first two days of our tour!

We stayed at the Migration Camp, which had been recently renovated and all the accommodation was in independent rooms each of which was a tent. Our hosts were Anita and Peter, a South African couple with years of lodging experience and their hospitality surpassed any other place we stayed at during the safari. The Camp was close to a river, and every night, a hippo they had fondly named "Horatio" would come up from the river and sleep right next to our tent and make these bizarre noises like clearing throat! Safari Lodges in East Africa are located far from each other - and the stay package always includes meals. The lodges are always ready to provide picnic lunches to visitors so that they can spend the entire day on a game drive without having to return to the lodge for meals. Most lodges are so remote that they don't have any TV or telephone. Most communication is through Satellite Phone or Mobile Radio. We did not have newspapers as well, so it truly was Utopian. What we really loved was the way everyone totally understood us when we said some of us are vegetarian, without us having to burst into a litany of "No meat, no seafood, no sheep, no geese, etc.". Perhaps that's because of the significant population of Indians (mainly Gujaratis) there who have popularised the concept of veggie food so much, that most lodges offer a complete alternative Indian veggie set meal every day!

There is a reason the Lion is the King of the Animal Kingdom (and Simba is the appointed heir)

The following day, we set out on a full day's game drive in Serengeti - and focussed on a pride of lions that we spotted around mid morning after a disappointing start to the day. First we noticed only 2 lionesses and 2 cubs sitting under a tree. Over the next 4 hours that we spent observing them (from about 20 metres away), more of them joined... and we even spotted the lion - a big lazy guy - who was sleeping under another tree nearby. The pride was difficult to spot because of the tall grass that was growing and camouflaged them very well. Eventually there were 12 animals in that pride! Absolutely amazing and the cubs were playing with their moms and aunts all the while - cuddling, hugging, kissing etc - reminded us of Simba in the Lion King (incidentally, Simba is Swahili for lion). We went really close (like 2 metres) to this pride and it was SOOOOO good. Unfortunately for us, however, they were not hungry, and it was unlikely that they would kill that day. So we said bye-bye to them and went further.

So long, Tanzania... we hope to see you again

The next day, we bade farewell to Amini, and flew from the airstrip in Serengeti to Arusha. From there, we drove to Namanga - on the border between Tanzania and Kenya, and crossed over to Kenya by road. Another vehicle was waiting for us over there with Ismail, our guide and driver for the Kenyan part of our holiday. It was late in the evening by the time we reached our destination - the Ol Tukai Lodge in the Amboseli National Park. Along the way, we saw a big cheetah that had just killed a big antelope (however, when we stopped to observe him, he went away: we were told they are pretty private and don’t like to be seen by humans). We also saw a lot of weaver bird nests hanging from trees. And we saw a glorious rainbow - so big and so bright that there was even a secondary rainbow to be seen. In the course of this ride, we realised that a 4X4 is the best vehicle for a safari. Most vehicles we saw had been modified - better shock absorbers, sun roof etc, - and they carried with them 2 spare tyres, a spade, a heavy duty jack, and the all important mobile radio which drivers use to communicate with each other and exchange notes of animal sightings.

Amboseli... show us your charms

Amboseli is at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Its summit remains snowclad throughout the year, even though it is located only 200 km south of the equator. The constant melting of the snow causes a lot of swamps in Amboseli, and results in a somewhat different vegetation from what we had seen thus far. While the game we saw in the drives around Ol Tukai the following day were similar, there were more hippo, buffalo and birds to be seen. And while we saw lots of game this day too, a "kill" eluded us, and the team was getting really desperate to view one.

And on to Masai Mara we go...

Early the next day, we flew to Nairobi (in another tiny plane) and joined hands with Ismail to drive on further to the Masai Mara national park. We got there towards the evening, after an en route game drive that was rather disappointing because even though we saw a million zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and antelope, we didn't see any cats let alone cats on the prowl or kill (how bloodthirsty were we getting? Actually not, we just wanted to observe the "circle of life").

Masai Mara is part of the same geographical landscape as the Serengeti, but much smaller. There is no fence that demarcates the border between Kenya and Tanzania in the Serengeti and the Mara. Animals cross over at will, and twice a year, do the breathtaking migration when billions of zebra and wildebeest cross the river to the other side in search of water. However, human beings are not allowed to cross over the same way - they need to go through a regulated border crossing. So from the Serengeti, we had to travel all the way back east in Tanzania, cross the border at Namanga into Kenya, and then drive back all the way west to the Mara (after Amboseli)! if only humans were as efficient as animals!!!

The Hunt for a HUNT!

On the last day of our safari, we set out from our lodge with the intent of going far away to a location where we'd been told we could see big game. When we were less than half way there, however, we spotted three cheetahs in the middle of a huge field. They looked the hungry type and after observing animals for the past 5 days and considering ourselves as experts in animal behaviour by now, we decided to wait and observe them. The wait lasted over 5 hours but was not in vain.

Through this wait, we ate lunch, took a loo break, even went over to the side to observe a pride of 5 lions, and took another diversion to see a mating lion pair do their adult thing. But we were never too far from the cheetahs, and always kept them in our sight through our binoculars, zoom lenses and video cameras. As luck would have it, the cheetahs killed a small antelope exactly when we took a desperate loo break (we had to go to a nearby lodge for that) and they were busy eating the hapless animal by the time we returned. But it was a really small prey, so we figured that these bandits may be hungry for more. So we continued to stalk them. The cheetahs planned their next move (they bring their heads together on the ground - somewhat like a huddle in football to do that) and decided to do the bold thing - attack a herd of giraffe that was grazing nearby. Now this is rare - cheetahs are relatively small in size and don't usually go after giraffe. But this herd had a baby giraffe too, and the cheetahs must have been hungry, so they advanced slowly towards the giraffes (crossing the dirt road right in front of our jeep). As they neared the giraffe (who had seen the cheetahs and were making defensive moves) however, a pair of hyena came limping along. And cheetahs are scared of hyena. So, our trio of rogues retraced their steps and came and sat in the middle of the field once again, wondering what to do next. At one time, we thought they had begun chasing an animal, and Ismail suddenly announced "I'm going after them... hold on to the jeep!" It turned out to be a false alarm - all it resulted in was a lost hat... Anjani's headgear flew away due to the sudden acceleration.

But eventually, and within half an hour of the false alarm, the cheetahs did kill - and this time, we (and one other vehicle) were there to see them do that. And no sooner did they kill that they ate. And we were there to see them do that too (barely 3 metres away). And no sooner did they eat that they wanted to relax. And we saw them do that too... because they sauntered up to the other vehicle and went to sleep in its shade! Clearly, they don’t let paltry things like humans come between them, their food and their relaxation!

We felt drained - it had been a long wait in the sun, and it was the last game drive of our safari. But we felt fulfilled... and satisfied. What was most interesting about the latter part of the safari was not in seeing animals per se, but observing the interaction between various classes of animals. Like the kind of tension that was created in the entire area when the cheetahs were on the prowl. Funnily, the other animals don’t run away and keep running. They keep themselves at a safe distance, but close enough to see their predator. Perhaps they feel more comfortable in knowing about the enemy rather than having the enemy spring up from nowhere to pounce on them. It is a difficult thing to see, but is the law of nature: it looks like all the animals accept it and abide by it.

The following day, we drove back to Nairobi via Lake Naivasha and caught our flight for Dubai later that night.

Sadly, all good things have to come to an end. And so did our holiday. But we had an absolutely lovely two weeks that we will remember for a long long time.

Our pictures are organized in 4 albums… one each for Carnivores, Herbivores, Birds & Trees, and pictures from the road. Enjoy!

Check out more travelogs on our Wanderlust Page.

Vixabs Vacations Unlimited

June 2014

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