It was finally here! My dream come true, we were going on a safari!!!! I couldn’t believe it was really happening. We flew from Johannesburg to Rwanda to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. When we arrived we got in line for our visa and realized we didn’t have any cash! Oops! Rob asked for an ATM and they let him go past the passport check to get cash, thankfully he didn’t make a run for it without me. When we got to the front of the line, we were denied because in Tanzania, they do not take their own currency for a visa, they only take NEW US dollars. Huh? So Rob was sent past passport check again in order to exchange the money. Finally we got our visa papers and continued to wait in line for the passport check, which was super long. All in, we waited about 2.5 hours after our departure to actually enter the country before I was allowed in and Rob made it past the desk for the 3rd time that day. Our ride was thankfully still waiting for us and drove us about an hour to our hotel. We ate some dinner and crashed out early because in the morning was Day 1 of our safari!
We woke up and had breakfast at our hotel and hurried out to the local grocery store to get some snacks before our journey. The “local” grocery store was actually one that was just built for people on safaris. Although Arusha is the 2nd biggest city in Tanzania, it is VERY run down, dirty and mostly tin shack style buildings, with the exception of this Shoppers Mart. It was PRISTINE and had nothing but tourists in it buying highly overpriced snacks. We got back to the hotel just in time to meet up with our group and get started. It was two other young couples (one from the Netherlands and one from US/Germany) around our age and everyone was immediately friendly! We were relived to find we had a cool group and our guide Abdul seemed pretty great too! After a few hours, we arrived in Tarangire National Park, the 6th largest National Park in Tanzania at 1,100 square miles. Within minutes of being in the park, we drove up to a small watering hole that seemed to have one of every animal that lived in the park! Giraffes, Elephants (in the distance), Warthogs, Impalas, Elands, Blue Ball Monkeys (called this for their neon blue testicles), Baboons, Zebras and an array of birds. It was unbelievable! I couldn’t believe how much we were seeing so early in the day! There were probably about 20 Zebras that came up for a drink and then something spooked one of them and like a mini stampede, they all ran out of the water splashing everywhere. We were on a roll! Our next animal encounter was with some Elephants that we found right off the road and we were the only car for about 25 minutes. It was so magical seeing these enormous (up to 13,000 lbs) animals right next to the car! It was a few moms and their babies. I could have easily spent the whole day there just watching them. Eventually we moved on stopping here and there for more amazing animals and then up ahead we saw a ton of cars stopped so of course we knew something exciting was there. Turns out it was 3 lionesses and 3 cubs! They were all sleeping peacefully under a tree while 15 cars full of people sat along the road snapping dozens of photos. To make it even more exciting, a large group of impalas decided it was time for a drink from the river and they waltzed right by these sleeping cats. We thought for sure that they would get up and get some dinner right there, but they just sat up to watch them and let them live another day. On the other side of the river was one lone lioness looking for a meal to bring back. She was definitely stalking but never got close enough to another animal to engage in a hunt. We were disappointed but we were able to see her so closely that it didn’t matter. We ended our day with some up close encounters with a few beautiful giraffes and then said goodbye to Tarangire National Park. We drove about 20 minutes to our lodge for the night where we had a fantastic meal prepared by our chef Mattias and then taught our group how to play the game Sequence that we had brought with us on the trip. Everyone was instantly obsessed. The girls reigned victorious for the evening and we all crashed out early after a long day of excitement.
We woke up disappointed to hear the pitter-patter of rain on our roof. What did that mean for our safari? We headed out for breakfast at 7:30am and we weren’t told that anything would change so the show must go on I guess. We headed just down the road into Lake Manyara NP. This was a MUCH smaller park filled with dense forest, a pretty stark contrast to our first day. This park is known for their flamingoes, leopards and tree-climbing lions. We were able to spot one of the three by the end of the day. We kicked off the day with some up close sightings of two baboon families, mom, dad and newborn baby. It was so sweet seeing them interact with each other… almost humanlike. Our next sighting was a looooong line of Buffalo. It seemed like a migration, although they were probably just cruising for food but there was probably close to 300 of these large beasts! Another cool experience and setting displaying the scale of both African wildlife and landscape. We continued in the rain and stopped near some marshy areas to look for hippos. One was spotted but we weren’t able to get a very good view of him, but the whole car was still so thrilled to even be in the presence of one! We stopped again for another large group of baboons, probably about 40 of them! There was lots of playing and running around with the young ones and loads of baboon sex, it was all incredibly entertaining. We began heading for the lake (Lake Manyara) and stopped along the way for a really cool hornbill eating a snake. He was hopping around with it dangling out of his beak trying to keep it away from all of the other birds.
Around lunchtime we stopped at a boardwalk that had views of flamingos and a few more hippos a little closer. They were still pretty far, but you could actually see their heads, which was an improvement from the first which could have been (but wasn’t) a rock. The flamingoes were more of a white color with bright pink feathers underneath their wings. They were really interesting and different from what you typically would see. On our way out we also saw an Agama lizard that was BRIGHT purple and blue. It was the prettiest lizard I have ever seen in my life. We headed back to the same lodge as the night prior for another delicious dinner and some more sequence. Before bed, we watched the tail end of a cultural dance with the couple from Germany and spent some time getting to know our new friends J. Just before we said our goodnights, our guide came over to show us this amazing video of a pack of lions trying to eat a baby rhino earlier that day in another park. With the scarcity of rhinos in the world, all of the guides worked together to chase off the lions until the rangers were able to come in and help scare them away. It was pretty amazing to watch and so nice to see how they protected the endangered animals. He told us that they would do the same if a lion were to be chasing after a leopard because they would kill for territory only and not for food. I couldn’t believe we were able to see so much in just two days! 5 more to go!
Day 3 was the big day… We were going to the crème de la crème, the big kahuna, the cream of the crop… the Serengeti! We drove for probably about an hour in dust so bad that we couldn’t even see the road in front of us, it is a wonder that Abdul was able to drive. I felt like my lungs were turning into bags of dust. We arrived and had lunch, then walked up to a viewpoint that gave you a sneak preview of what was ahead. The rocks at the top of the view were also covered in more kaleidoscope Agama lizards! These things were just so cool! I think as we drove into the park, we were all singing songs from The Lion King to ourselves. The landscape was stunning. The trees scattered along the plains that seemed to just go on forever, it was more beautiful than I pictured. Our first stop was to watch a Cheetah mommy taking a rest with her 4 babies. They were stunning. Their pattern was even more striking than I thought it would be and each fuzzy little head required self-control from bolting out for a pet. We stayed there and watched for as long as we could before we had to move along so other cars could get a peak. As we continued our “hunt” for animals, Rob became obsessed with the sausage tree (a giant tree with long strings hanging from the branches and huge “sausages” at the end). Our guide loved this and pointed them out to Rob all the time. He was a pretty funny dude. At one point, the guy from the Netherlands said STOP! I think I see a lion… we stopped, no it was a rock. Later, he did the same and swore what he was looking at was an animal and we all assumed it was probably a rock and then our guide turned around and said “no John, that is shit.” We definitely made sure that he didn’t live that down for the rest of the trip. Our next big animal encounter was 3 young lions up close on what looked like a mini pride rock. They started off sleeping but then a warthog and her baby started to walk towards them (or a Pumba as everyone in Africa calls them, we also found out that Pumba translates to stupid J). One of the young lionesses perked up and began inching closer to the edge of the rock, definitely in preparation for a hunt. We were all sitting at the edge of our seat waiting to see this scene unfold. The wind was perfect and the Pumbas appeared oblivious! The lion crept right to the end of the rocks and one of the jeeps starts its engine and scoots forward. This instantly spooked the Pumbas and they darted off in the opposite direction and the lions plopped back into their slumber. We continued on seeing endless amounts of Antelope along the way – gazelles, elands, hartebeests, impalas along with loads of Zebras, Wildebeests, Pumbas, and Buffalo. Remember yesterday when we were beside ourselves with excitement over the distant hippos? Well today we came upon a swamp pond FULL of hippos. There had to be about 30 hippos all smashed together in the water. There were a lot of classic hippo yawns but also a lot of water splashing around which we found out was them poo’ing and splashing it around on each other. No wonder these guys aren’t super friendly, they spend their day getting crap thrown in their faces. We began heading to our campsite just before sunset and saw a hyena right on the side of the road. I didn’t think we would see any since they are typically nocturnal but we saw many more by the end of the trip. We set up camp in the park, ate our dinner and began another night of Sequence playing. This time we taught our guide Abdul how to play and although he helped the boys not suck quite so bad, the girls still kicked butt by the nights end.
Our earliest morning yet, we headed out for a sunrise game drive (still in the Serengeti). It felt so magical to look out as the sun peaked above the horizon and started to warm the plains with a soft glow. One of our first stop was to check out a cool falcon in a tree and just before we pulled away, Rob said “stop!” I see a lion. No-one could see anything but Rob then used our mega binoculars (thanks dad for letting us borrow them!) to confirm, not one, not two, not three, but like 6 Lions on a rock in the distance… we all took turns watching them through the binos and then another popped up a little closer and then our guide saw a few more. This pride had about 15 Lions in it. This was the biggest group yet! They were pretty far in the distance but it was still amazing to see such a large group. As we continued we got a few up close looks at one of Rob’s favorite… the Dik Dik (lots of jokes were made at this guys expense). He is the tiniest Antelope. We also got to see our first male lion. WOW. I thought it was magic seeing just any Lion, but a full grown male right in front of the car…it was everything The Lion King promised. He was majestic, he was HUGE, he was just beautiful to watch. When in the Serengeti you pay for 24 hour periods (as many as you want) but we only paid for one so we had to be out by exactly 2:30, the same time we pulled in the day before so from this point on we were in a slight rush. No more stopping for Zebras and Wildebeest, they are almost a dime a dozen in some spots – crazy to think that you almost get used to seeing some of these animals! Then we got a tip that a Leopard was up ahead! One of the few we hadn’t seen yet. We were pumped! We rushed over to the spot and the Leopard had left his tree and was no where to be found; but before we pulled away we spotted a few Hyenas and then a herd of Antelope started to run…turns out there was a Cheetah coming in for a snack! This is what we had been waiting for – a full blown hunt! Running, running running… the Cheetah just stayed at a slow walk and eventually left. WHAT? Another tease. Since the Hyenas are scavengers and there were three of them tailing the Cheetah, he knew as soon as he made the kill they would swoop in and take his dinner. Not worth the trouble. UGH. On we go! Oh wait! Another tip about a Leopard in a different spot! We arrive a few minutes later and are looking everywhere until Rob says “I SEE IT! I SEE IT!” He tries to direct everyone but we aren’t finding it. I took a picture and zoomed in on the camera and found it as well! Finally! Abdul says he doesn’t see it, Rob proudly shows him on the camera what he is looking at and gives him our binoculars and Abdul says…. Sorry, that’s just grass, no Leopard. We were SO sure but after further examination we see that just the mixture of trees, grass and rock it looked so much like spots hiding behind those blades of grass. Now after these two long stops we were truly in a hurry, we had 30 minutes to get out of the park and we were FAR. We sped through and made it out just in time and somehow managed to see every animal under the sun along the way (except the Rhino and Leopard). We arrived at our campsite and the cold came in and the rain started, thankfully there was a nice warm indoor area at this site that even had wifi! After two days of dust, it was definitely time for a nice hot shower, except it was ice cold and I had no towel so I had to sacrifice a tank top to dry off with. Not quite the life of luxury but pretty awesome to see Zebras about 10 feet away from your tent! We ate our last delicious meal by Mattias, played some games and crashed out.
Today was our last day with the group and we would spend it in the Ngorogoro Crater. It is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. It formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself about 2-3 million years ago. It is about 2000 ft. deep and 100 square miles large. It is one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen and probably our best shot at seeing a Rhino on our trip, although sadly there is estimated to only be about 15-20 Rhinos left in this park. It was a rainy and foggy morning so we were very concerned about our visibility for the day but amazingly when we dropped down into the crater, the fog stayed up top almost like we were in a soup bowl that had a cover on it. The views were beautiful right from the start and the animal sightings came quickly. We got to see some Jackals up close and personal, they were in abundance here and man were they cute! They look like little foxes. We also saw some of the largest Pumbas of the trip! Apparently the nutrients in the soil help them to grow to max size. We got to see two Lions mating here, which was a pretty unique experience – apparently they mate for about 5 days and they will do it every 15-30 minutes each day. Sounds exhausting! We also came across some Lions feasting on a Zebra carcass in the distance – pretty amazing to watch life happen in the African wilderness. We saw more Lions than I ever thought I would see in my life. We even saw a pack of about 6 Lions resting while 3 Hyenas slowly crept past them to take a dip in a mud hole. I always assumed that a Lion would just eat whatever animal crossed it’s path but as they are not super fast (in comparison to other cats) they let a lot of animals go and rely more on stealth, strength and strategy than speed. We did not get lucky with the Rhino but the park was still an amazing place and it was time to head back to Arusha to drop our group at the starting hotels. Our friends from the group Lara and Tony (the couple from Germany) came for dinner with us and decided to extend an extra day of safari with just us 4 and our guide Abdul. We were really excited to have them come along!
Today was more of a local stop at Arusha National Park, typically this is the first stop for longer groups as it is the most tame as far as animal sightings go, but there was some rearranging when we arrived and this got pushed to the end instead. It is a much smaller park and is filled with a more jungle/forest feel. Right off the bat we saw the animal they are known for, the black and white Colobus Monkey. These things were so cool looking! They have a huge bushy white tail, almost like a fox tail! A pretty stark contrast to what you are used to seeing on a Monkey. It kind of looked like a fluffier climbing skunk! We also saw a few new kinds of Antelope, a Duker and a Dikas We drove up a pretty hairy road to an overlook of Mount Meru, the 2nd highest peak in Tanzania (second to Kilimanjaro) and stopped for a great lunch. Rob and Tony wandered down a path (which was apparently illegal to do) but upon their return reported sighting 10-15 skunk monkeys in a tree. Exciting to see the wildlife while outside the vehicle!
After lunch we headed up to a HUGE fig tree that you could drive the safari jeep through! It was so much fun to have a safari with new friends and be able to stop for any and everything since we were both excited to see every little thing. We also got to experience a few firsts with our guide, which was really cool. We saw an albino Baboon that he had never gotten to see before. He was crazy looking! We also got to see an African Bush Elephant, we had seen plenty of Elephants in other parks, but they are VERY difficult to find in Arusha NP as they are deep in the jungle and rarely come out but we were able to get up close and personal with a pretty big male that tried to show his dominance by stomping and huffing and flaring his ears at our car. I thought for sure he was going to charge us, but Abdul just asked for silence as he tried to scare us and after a minute or two he just turned and walked away. Before the day was over, we saw some Giraffes very very close and also some more of the Colobus Monkeys, this time jumping from tree to tree. No predators for the day but it was still amazing to see more new animals. We tied up our trip with our friends at a hostel down the street for with some stellar curry and some games, said our goodbyes and they continued to the islands. Rob and I still had one last day back at Tarangire National Park. It was just the two of us and we had a new guide, David. We really felt like we had seen just about everything in this park so we spent our day on the “hunt” for Lions and maybe a rare Leopard sighting. We saw a few Lions with cubs throughout our day as well as another rare animal that I hadn’t even thought of… a Lesser Kudu. They are typically hard to see and only come out in the evenings so that was pretty awesome. We also saw some newborn Warthogs (probably the only time anyone will ever say a Pumba is cute). Finally we saw an Elephant carcass that was SWARMING with Vultures and Storks. It was definitely a more quiet day being just us two and trying to see some animals that were a little harder to find but we were happy to have the extra day and shortly after leaving for the beach, talked about how we wish we could extend another week or two and just go back to the Serengeti for a longer stay. Honestly if it wasn’t so close to Thanksgiving, we might have actually done it!