First breakdown, tribesmen look on in amusement
This morning, our man is late picking us up, which gives us half an hour of pain thinking we’ve wasted a whole stack of cash. But he does eventually arrive and we go for breakfast at the Hotel Meru, just below Victoria Expeditions, while waiting for the Safari jeep to come. I head out to buy a case of water bottles because we’re sure to need it in the heat – in the end they provide some anyway.
At 10ish our jeep comes and with it three American lads who’ll be our companions for the trip. The jeep is actually from Peacock Safaris so they’ve obviously joined forces to put this on. Scott, Elan and Tony are noisy but funny and have been on the road from Cairo for two and a half months. It sounds like a pretty impressive journey. We head off, fill up with fuel and then hit the road to Tarangire, our first day’s game drive.
The open road…
The surrounding scenery is very rural – dotted with often-brightly coloured (red) cloaked Masai people herding cattle or goats and plenty of “homesteads” full of mud and stick houses. Just before Tarangire National Park, we reach a campsite which is to be our base for the night. Here we get some lunch – bread and salad – in a comfortable roofed area with goat-skin seats.
We dump our luggage, leave the tents in the capable hands of Amoud, our ‘porter’, and drive off, unburdened, with Simba, our driver and guide. Negotiating the entrance gate is time consuming since there are park fees and paperwork to be paid and completed. There are no fences around these national parks but people are not allowed to be inside except in vehicles and with a registered guide. No houses or dwellings or farming is allowed inside the boundaries.
Mending a puncture, all part of the fun
Despite the lack of physical boundary and having not seen even a glimpse of any wild animals outside, amazingly as soon as we cross the perimeter the place is teeming with exotic creatures. A group of elephants just meander across the road in front of the car. I am absolutely enchanted by the experience and was not expecting anything like it. I feel as if I have been transported back to a previous age. Everything has a slightly unreal quality around the edges like a Jurassic Park movie. I thought we’d have to actively seek out the animals and observe from a great distance, but no, there are so many, so close to the roads and thankfully so unaffected by the vehicles. It is absolutely amazing and I think more people should experience the sheer delight of seeing the raw power and beauty of a place without many of the obvious signs of human occupation.
First elephant, just inside the park – amazing
We see zebra, mongeese(?), gazelle, elephant and monkeys quite quickly. The size of the park is just unbelievable. Once inside, it is beautiful, rolling green hills as far as the eye can see. Our safari covers Tarangire N.P on the first day. The second day takes in the Serengeti N.P and an overnight in campsite Simba-A inside the Serengeti. The third day is also spent inside the Serengeti and the third night in a campsite at the top (and overlooking) the Ngoro-Ngoro crater. The final day is spent actually in the crater and making the journey back home.
The distances involved and the practicalities of getting us and all our stuff around this gruelling circuit are not to be underestimated. Nor is the condition of the roads on which we make these journeys to be overestimated. The 120km from Tarangire to the Serengeti takes about 5 hours on a very (very) bumpy road at a speed of about 25 kmh. Some of the bumps are literally excrutiating. The hardened mud has rippled thanks to the vibrations of the passing vehicles so even semi-flat stretches are bumpy. The car is amazing in coping with the bumps at all, but at the same time is very uncomfortable when full of three Americans, us two, the driver, porter and all the camping equipment and rucksacks during the long drives. During the game drives themselves Amoud stays at the campsite with all the kit so things are markedly more comfortable. The roof lifts off the jeep so we can stand up and take photos.
On the first long drive (day 2) we get a puncture – hardly surprising when you check out the bald state of the tyres. I guess it is here where the difference between a $500 per day safari and a $85 per day safari like this one is really obvious: the quality and comfort of the vehicle. We often mock the elderly couples being carried around in air-conditioned Landrover Discoveries but they are surely a whole lot more comfortable. However, we’re perfectly well treated and its a big adventure to be stuck out in the middle (literally) of nowhere with a vehicle that isn’t going anyway fast. It’s a humbling experience. We’re observed at close quarters by two curious Masai boys. Amoud and Simba change the wheel in the middle of a dead straight white road. Now the spare has been used it is encouraging to note that good driving practice is acknowledged and we stop at the next village at a local “PANCTURE RAPEIR” stall neatly signposted from the main road. A very well-executed job of repairing the puncture using basic equipment tailored to the job is carried out in no time. Initiative, the simplicity of the vehicles used and home-made tools are what keeps Africa moving.
Cheetah, posing like a supermodel
On the game drive there are a few simply amazing moments which are caught on camera better than I can do them justice here: a female cheetah sunning herself like a supermodel on an outcrop of rock, a pride of lions sleeping off a big lunch, a female cheetah and her two cubs playing, a python consuming a whole Thomson gazella, a buffalo dead with Anthrax, hippos playing in and out of the water, huge herds of Wildebeast (or Wildbeast as Simba calls them). These are the things I will remember of Tanzania. At times it feels a little too like we’re exploiting the animals – we certainly drive up very close sometimes. They are always in charge though – we can’t leave our vehicles (its far too dangerous) except for a quick wee when there’s nothing nearby – and they are free to get up and wander off if they want. What’s exciting is that even sometimes with the jeep only a few feet away from the lions, cheetahs and big game, they don’t seem bothered at all. All of this is ideal for taking wonderful photos and getting a good feel for the way these animals tick.
Female lion, comes close
To be brutally honest about the whole place – the animals are only really being saved from gradual marginalisation by the power of tourism itself. If we didn’t come (with many others) to see them and pay the sizable park fees of $40 per person per day, the parks would never be kept special and free of human interference. What is clear is that the parks are very worthwhile and well maintained. Entry is strictly controlled and there is not a spot of litter anywhere. Tanzania knows its national assets.
The Serengeti is definitely my favourite place of all because of its wide open spaces full of savannah and low scrub trees and grass – lots of herds of “ungulates” and plenty of hungry predators to see too. The Ngoro-Ngoro crater is an incredible natural geographical feature formed when a huge volcano collapsed (forming a so-called caldera). The crater is 16km in diameter and its floor lies 600m below the surrounding land. Down in the crater is a great variety of wildlife including flamingoes and rhinos. The animals tend to stay in the crater so this is a natural area for the development of new species and an example of evolution induced by geographical boundaries.
We see some beautiful lionesses – three on a hill, slightly surrounded by jeeps although they don’t seem to care. One lies in the shade of our jeep such that Elan gets a full facial picture from about 3 feet away by leaning over the roof. He says he could see the lioness mentally calculating the distance to his face and whether she would or wouldn’t strike. It is easy to forget that these apparently cuddly friends are actually rather vicious and steely-cold wild animals who would have every justification for biting your arm off if you so much as stepped from the jeep. I think we respect that though, deep down.
We have plenty of laughs in the van between some intense, quiet periods of observation. We joke about the animals and their characteristics which amuse us. The camping is great fun and the food unbelievable given what Amoud has to start with and what he has to prepare it with. The first night we enjoy soup and bread followed by a beef stew, vegetables and rice with fruit to finish. Second lunch we have chicken spicy stew. Later that night we have spaghettit bolognaise. The final night is pasta and beef stew. The food is always really tasty – how he keeps the meat clean and fresh is beyond me but probably dangerous to ask. Breakfast is a feast of toast, tea, fried eggs and pineapple, papaya and oranges. Delicious.
Like shooting fish in a barrel?
We use their tents because it is easier than using our own. They are comfortable dome tents which we help Amoud to put up. On the third night it is really very wet when we get to put them up which is a shame and everyone is a bit miserable camping in the wet and cold. It soon dries up though and hot food is the saviour of the day. By the end of the game drive on the final day we are all filthy – no showers – but very tired and happy. Ready to return to civilisation and get clean. The journey back is very uncomfortable. Halfway through the shock absorber fails and so someone in a village takes it off for us. This doesn’t help the comfort fact a whole lot and comically as we eventually reach glorious flat tarmac nearer to Arusha, Simba puts his seatbelt on. Scott reckons this is because Simba is so used to the bumps he finds the flatness disconcerting.
Some cheeky Masai at a break try to swap a tacky T-shirt for Elan’s boots which provokes some hilarious haggling and protesting from him. Elan has the advantage of being a black American and all the locals find him intensely interesting. Also on the way back, Amoud tries to buy an Ostrich egg from a Masai village. It is a useful lesson in how bargaining should be done. There is clearly no love lost between the Masai, who generally live very traditional nomadic lives and are allowed to carry spears around, and the “town-dwellers” who have much more developed tastes and customs. Amoud offers 1000 Tshillings (£1) and the huge egg is proferred in a neat basket. The Masai then double their price and Amoud tuts in absolute disgust. “Masai!”. We drive off.
Most amazing portrait
At one point when a cow is wandering in the road, Simba stops the car and shouts angrily to the Masai boy herding it. “Direct your cows, don’t let them direct you!”. When we finally get back to Arusha there is the old perennial issue of what to tip. Some books recommend 10% of the trip cost but that seems way too high and I think the alternative suggested value of 20% of the guides’ wages is better – except we don’t know what they get paid. Whatever, they should be happy with what we give them – $50 split $15 to Amoud and $35 to Simba. The Americans give proportionately more and in total it’s a lot of money. I wonder if it really incentivises the right thing. However, at the end of the day we had a thoroughly enjoyable time, were well looked after and they both knew a lot about the parks and animals, so they deserve their tips. I would heartily recommend a safari to anyone and everyone – seeing the animals in their own natural landscape and environment and knowing they’re free is wonderful. The more you pay, the higher the standard of your comfort during the trip – but everyone gets pretty much the same view of the animals.
I wouldn’t mind doing one of the more luxury “tented” camps because you can wake up to the most amazing view of a valley in the Serengeti with elephants and baboons a stone’s throw away every morning. It would be magical to spend a fortnight or so actually immersed in the park and watching the animals more closely. One thing we couldn’t do easily was direct the driver to visit areas we wanted or to ask him to stop for an hour to just observe the animals. It was very much left to Simba to guide us. On longer safaris presumeably you have more power to choose what you see.