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Monday, September 22, 2014

Tanzania: The Serengeti (Part I)


(This is the eighth installment in a series of posts about our self-drive safari to Tanzania.)

As a kid I pictured Africa as a giant island, with pyramids sticking out of the sand at the top, a city at the bottom tip and the Serengeti taking up the whole space in between. Every nature show about animals seemed to be filmed in the Serengeti and I thought it must be the only park in Africa. Terrified gazelle zig zagging across the plains with a cheetah in hot pursuit; a lion biting into the haunches of a zebra whose luck had just run out; termite mounds sticking up out of nowhere that never seemed to have termites, just a mongoose or a few birds resting on top: These were the pictures that were stuck in my head after years of viewing those National Geographic specials. And here we were driving beneath the archway, the crooked metal sign squeaking in the wind announcing the entrance to Serengeti National Park.

The entrance to Serengeti National Park. Not sure what the little pyramid signified.

The drive from Ngorongoro had started that morning at 6:00 am; we wanted to get out of the crater zone before the crazy safari traffic started to flow. Down the mountainside bumping our way into the Great Rift valley we passed the entrance to the Olduvai Gorge, famous for the discovery of early hominid remains that date back two million years. We were a bit disappointed we didn't have time to stop there.

We wound our way down through the mountains, passing Maasai villages, the children running out to the road with their hands outstretched as we drove by. The little ones waved and smiled, but the older ones yelled out for money and candy. It's an unfortunate reality that some visitors stop and hand out treats to the kids. I'm sure the tourists think they're doing them a favor, giving the kids something they might not get ordinarily, but the begging got increasingly insistent as we got closer to the iconic park. What started as cute soon became outright hostility when the little beggars realized they weren't getting a handout from us. We could see them in the rearview mirror, kicking the dust and smacking their walking sticks into the ground in frustration as we drove away.

The road into the Serengeti is long, long, long and straight. And did I mention corrugated? We saw several safari tour vehicles broken down on the side of the road, one with the entire front wheel assembly broken off. The roads here were probably the roughest of all the parks we toured.
We entered the park through the Naabi Hill gate, a rocky outcropping on the otherwise flat plain. This is where the Ngorongoro Conservation Area ends and the Serengeti park begins. We had to make sure to check out of the Ngorongoro area by 12:15pm, exactly 48 hours from the time we had checked in, as we had sincerely promised the official in Karatu two days before. We got there with an hour to spare, our mothers' graves safe for the time being.

Blossoms on a tree atop Naabi Hill.

The road stretches across the plains of the Serengeti, as seen from the top of Naabi Hills.
A Red-headed Rock Agama poses on granite, Naabi Hills

After some confusion involving the various office locations (a process we had come to expect), we finally got all six Log Books signed and entrance fees paid, stopping to hike to the top of Naabi Hill before we proceeded down the rutted road of the Serengeti.

We were doubly excited about this park; not only was it the famous place we had seen so often on TV, but we had a special campsite reserved for us for the next two nights. No public campground for us, no sir! We were going to our own little spot on the plains.

We made our way into the hub of the park, Seronara. It's the closest thing to a town the park has and the site of the visitor's center, a fuel station, coffee and gift shop, and a few lodges. We were looking for a place to buy some food and water, and maybe get some help pointing the way to our campsite.

We pulled into the dirt parking lot, nestling into a spot in the long line of safari tour vehicles. A large number of lodge tourists were milling around, signaling their posh accommodations with clean clothes and the faint scent of aftershave drifting in their wake. We, on the other hand, hadn't had anything more than a wipe with a damp washcloth for five days and it was beginning to show. We stopped in at the restroom and were so happy to find a regular western-style flush toilet with paper and a sink to wash our hands we didn't even notice the dust and bugs in the corners (unlike the fancy white jeans-wearing teenager that marched out and declared there was no way she was using THAT restroom! And the large gentleman that walked out of the men's room yelling "There's no paper in here! NO PAPER!")

Ah yes. We must be in the Luxury Safari Zone.

We looked around the visitor's center, which had some nice displays and a video that played every 30 minutes. The help desk was manned by a young guy playing with his cell phone. When we brought our map to him and asked where the Mareu special campsite was he had to run out front to the line of safari drivers lounging in the shade in plastic chairs, working his way down the row until he found a driver who had heard of it. "Yes, yes, Mareu. It's that way." one of the drivers gestured vaguely off towards the south.

Rock Hyrax hang out on the Visitor's Center patio, Seronara.
We stopped in at the gift shop and found it full of some pretty cool carved animals and handcrafts but no food, with the exception of chocolate bars and cokes. (It should be noted here that chocolate bars and cokes would have been an acceptable meal for me at this point, but Mark insisted on something more substantial. Alas, we didn't make a purchase.) We still had quite a bit left in the food box that Shaw provided for us, plus a few things we had purchased in Arusha so we felt we'd be ok until we got to our next stop. The only thing worrying us was water; we had four liters left but it would only last a few days.

After getting diesel, we left Seronara to find our campsite. Within the first kilometer we saw a safari vehicle pulled over to the side of the road, the guests all pointing their cameras up towards a tree. We had enough experience at this point to know that meant something interesting was going on so we pulled in behind them. Sure enough, in a tree right next to the road, a huge leopard was lounging in the branches. Excellent!

A leopard seems comfortable in his tree top lair. Look closely in the branches to the left above his head: there is a gazelle carcass hanging there ready for his dinner.
A giraffe crosses in front of us.
We passed several giraffe, a few elephant and of course a ton of the ever present zebra and baboon. There were scrubby acacia trees and dry grasses lining the dusty road and we kept our eyes peeled for more leopards in the trees. It was early afternoon and large dark clouds were gathering off in the distance. If we were home we would have sworn it was an afternoon thunderstorm building up, but we weren't exactly sure what to expect here. After an hour or so of tooth jarring washboard road we found our campsite. Hallelujah, we found it on our own!


We drove down the road, which was really just a set of tire tracks that led out onto the savannah. We came through a stand of trees and in a dry creek bed to our left there they were: two cheetah, lounging in the sun, not a care in the world. I was so excited I was bouncing up and down, pounding Mark on the arm whispering "Cheetah! Cheetah! Cheetah!" We had to be quiet, since our windows were rolled down and we didn't want to scare them.
Cheetah laze in a dry creek bed.
Cheetah seem so fragile; they are much more delicate looking than the chuffy lions we had seen the day before.


They didn't seem too bothered by us and we sat watching them for a good fifteen minutes until they decided to move along. Wow! What luck!

We drove to what seemed like the end of the road and found a clear spot in the grass. It's hard to figure out exactly where these special campsites are—we had heard they move them periodically to keep the area from getting too trampled. We chose the most likely spot and as Mark climbed up on top of the car to pop open the tent, the first raindrops started coming down.

A thunderstorm gathers over camp.
It was nice to feel water on our skin; five days of dusty roads had filled every crevice of both our car and ourselves with a pile of red dirt. Reach up to scratch an ear and your semi-filthy fingernail would come back completely packed with dirt. The crevice in the bend of our arms? A red-tinted line of filth. A little rain was a refreshing change.

Mark was standing on top of the car, arms outstretched and head bent back enjoying the drops as they plunked down on his face. A huge flash of lightning struck just behind him, followed closely by a crack of thunder. "How awesome! I love thunderstorms!" He turned to watch the huge black cloud building up overhead.

"Uh, Mark? You might want to get down. You're standing on top of a hunk of metal and you're the tallest thing around."

Like in a cartoon, by the time I finished that sentence he was on the ground standing next to me. "Didn't think of that..."

We watched for a few minutes as a couple more bolts of lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around us. We didn't bother to get out of the rain since it was still very warm and it felt so good to have the sweat and dust washing off. The storm ended as quickly as it had begun as we finished setting up camp.

Our campsite on the plains: Mareu for two.
If it's not a universal rule, it should be: by day 5 of a camping trip it's time for a bath. We filled our hand pump shower, stripped down and took turns standing in the wash basin, washing at least a half pound of dust and grit out of our hair and off our feet. Dirt was not the only thing we washed off that day; a build up of five stressful days filled with rough roads, unfamiliar customs, language barriers and vehicle worries were all eased with the simple application of a little soap. It's amazing what good hygiene can do for your mood.

Suddenly it felt like we could handle anything. Sure, we were out in the middle of nowhere with two cheetah just down the road, surrounded by a herd of grazing cape buffalo, warthogs and who knows what else that had the potential to hurt us. But dammit, we were clean and we had hot dogs ready to cook up for dinner with a can of corn.

Life doesn't get much better than that.
The sun sets and all is well, Serengeti National Park.