Tanzania part one: the safari

On the tail end of my Ethiopia trip in August, I met my two decades-long friend, Randy, to begin a Tanzanian safari-Zanzibar adventure. We met up in the Addis airport. She was coming from DC, and we flew together to Kilimanjaro Airport, where we were picked up by our safari company. It was too cloudy to see Mount Kilimanjaro on the hour-long drive to Arusha, which was disappointing for reasons best left not explicitly stated for fear of being Toto-shamed.

We had a night to rest before our safari guide drove us to our first park, Tarangire, the next morning.

We saw vistas filled with elephants and we learned that male elephants do their own thing semi-solitarily nearby while female and baby elephants munch grass all day.

Outside the park, of course, there are poachers, but inside the park there are none, and elephants there are effectively predator-free. Not a bad way to live.

We spent a few hours checking out the elephants and other creatures and then we headed a few hours west, towards Serengeti Park.

On the way, we stopped at an overlook down into Ngorongoro Crater, which we would later visit.

The next morning we headed straight to Serengeti and the very first thing we spotted was this pride of lions.

They reminded me of Christina’s World.

At first I was nervous being so close to lions when we had open windows and an open roof, but our safari guide assured us that only one person had ever been attacked by a lion in any of the parks. He said that lions don’t know what humans are so they don’t see us as food; instead they see us as a potential threat. I believed him but could still feel my heart beating out of my chest whenever the lions would turn towards us and lazily look us over.*

At one point we saw this male lion sleeping on a rock. We sat there for twenty minutes waiting for him to wake up, but male lions sleep like twenty hours per day… so our guide starting loudly gunning the engine and getting closer and closer to the rock formation, until we were touching it.

I was looking through binoculars at that point, and when the lion opened his eye, my heart did flip flops and I was like, “Erm, could we please back away from this rock?”

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Then the lion lifted his head and what had been sort of humorous was now slightly terrifying. Had he wanted to, the lion could have crawled right into our car.

The thing is, of course, that he didn’t want to. He just went right back to bed. But our safari guide enjoyed making me a little crazy, and I enjoyed letting him, because I know I’m way too wimpy for my own good.

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Here are some antelope or maybe ibyx or maybe impala or maybe gazelle. I think we saw all of them, on many occasions. We saw so many different animals that I started to get blasé about it, which is terrible and strange, especially for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were in some sort of Jurassic Park and all the animals had been shipped in and placed just so for our viewing pleasure. At one point I caught myself thinking, “This is just like at the zoo.” I suppose I am so woefully removed from nature that when I saw nature up close I thought it was a performance. (It didn’t help that every time any cool animal showed up anywhere, so did like seventeen safari cars, alerted via radio.) It was a surreal and overwhelming feeling.

Moving on…

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We saw hippos, of which Randy was a big fan. I myself preferred zebras and almost picked them as my safari spirit animal, but later images will illustrate why I ended up going with the elephant.

Another male lion sleeping. Our car got within maybe ten feet of him.

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We saw a cheetah in deep grass, very far away. It kept lowering its head out of view and popping it up again with some new gruesome surprise. First it was the legs of something it had just killed, and then it was its own blood-soaked face.

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That night we stayed at a really luxurious lodge inside the park.

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There is no fence between the grounds and the wilderness and so we should not have been surprised when a monkey ran up and stole our snack that evening.

The sunset was amazing.

Those little specks in the distance are buffalo and wildebeest. (By the way, we had hoped to catch the great wildebeest migration – it’s hard to peg exactly when it will be each year but late June through August is the approximate window. Apparently we missed it by a couple of days and they were already crossing the border into Kenya by the time we arrived.)

The next morning I got up at the crack of dawn to see the sunrise and it wasn’t so much the colors itself that were so spectacular as the knowledge that I was watching the sun rise over the Serengeti. And the fact that apparently a bunch of female lions had been prowling around the area just ten minutes before I got there.

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We were lucky to spot a leopard, no pun intended, first thing upon setting out on our morning game drive.

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This leopard was on the hunt, and I really wanted to see a hunt, but after a half hour it really wasn’t doing so well so we moved on.

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We came across this huge hawk or maybe it was an eagle that had actually succeeded in catching something and was busy ripping it apart before feasting on it. The prey was some sort of cute rodent thingy that we identified but I have forgotten the name of. I really thought I wanted to see a hunt… but when I looked through binoculars and saw the bird rip out the entire esophagus of this thing in one fell swoop, I got really nauseous and realized I’m way too much of a Victorian lady to enjoy a safari kill.

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Next we “happened upon” (i.e. sped up to a clump of 4WDs already watching) a bunch of lions with a little teeny cub who got separated from its mother between all the cars. The mother slithered by our safari car as she crossed the road and you could just feel her power to rip you to shreds emanating from her.

The kid couldn’t see the mom because of the car line-up and started meowing like a common house cat.

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I hate cats but lion cubs are adorable.

Finally it rejoined its mom and the group walked off into the brush.

I was proud of myself for spotting this lion in the middle of that thick grass.

Can you see it in there? Sort of chilling to think about all the lions and leopards and cheetahs in the grass right next to us that we never saw.

We saw tons of buffalo.

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We saw a cute parade of elephants walking down the road.

We saw beautiful zebras.

And that was the end of Day 2 in Serengeti.

The next day we left the park gates and headed for Ngorongoro, where we saw a male ostrich court and mate with a female ostrich.

The first time we saw an ostrich try to get it on was in Serengeti, where the male’s crazy wing display was unsuccessful with not one but two ladies who just sort of stood there and stared, unimpressed. This time there was one slightly more attentive female. We watched as the male strutted up to her, did the equivalent of the Wave with his wings, stood around for a few minutes, and then with absolutely no fanfare jumped on top of her, violently humped her maybe four times, started swooning his head around like he was going to faint, and then hopped right off her and trotted away. It was “wham, bam, thank you m’am” incarnate. The poor female needed several minutes just to peel herself up off the ground.

Thankfully we moved on… Here is a photo with like eight different animals in it. It was like animal soup out there.

At this point, we had seen four of the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant) and the only one left was the elusive black rhino. There are only like five of them in Ngorongoro, and the radio had been quiet all day – not one spotting. But then our guide saw a teeny tiny black speck in the distance, and he told us it was a sleeping rhino. Randy can vouch that I am not exaggerating when I say: I insisted we keep our eyes on that rhino for an hour, and I sent every brain wave I had through the binoculars deep into his cerebral cortex, willing him to wake up. And then, despite our guide having told us he’d be asleep all day, he did.

I next willed the rhino to walk the mile or so towards us, even though our guide had told us that rhinos can’t see well so they rely on their hearing, and that it was far too windy this day for the rhino to venture out on a walk. And yet, the rhino began to walk towards us, and he did not stop until he had crossed the road directly in front of us, as if tipping his little bicorn hat to me.

For someone detached from nature, I was quite the rhino whisperer that day.

Earlier we had seen a bunch of zebras gathered together and standing in a very distinct way to protect themselves from predators. Supposedly they can relax this way…

But they can’t avoid getting nabbed every now and then, as we witnessed on our way out of the park when we spotted these lions feasting on a zebra carcass that looked like it had been sawed in half. The lions were lolling around and literally playing with the meat as though they we re high off the kill. It was a little disturbing. And that cemented my desire to be an elephant and not a zebra.

Right outside the park we got the best surprise of all: a family of baboons that were behaving just like a family of humans.

Our last day we spent a few hours at Lake Manyara, famous for its pink flamingos.

That day, the flamingos were white, apparently because their pink color comes from something they eat and I guess they hadn’t eaten enough of it. There were also a ton of pelicans.

And we had our second sex spotting of the safari. We watched what had to be a virgin giraffe try about nine times to mate with a female, to no avail. He kept jumping at her without succeeding at anything close to a mount. I was almost embarrassed to watch such awkward fumbles. At one point I thought he had given up because he walked off, but our guide told us that the literal one second of contact he had made with the female on the last attempt had indeed been sex and she would now probably get pregnant. So in this case both the male and female got the short end of the stick. Again, no pun intended.

And with that, our safari was over. On the drive back to the airport, the clouds finally lifted and in the darkening gloom I saw a very shadowy but snow-capped Kilimanjaro.

Randy and I sang “Africa” just low enough so that our safari guide wouldn’t mock us. And then we were off to Zanzibar…

*(We chose to stay in lodges instead of tents because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep in a tent for fear of being eaten by a lion. But nowthat I know they stay really far away from humans, if I ever go on another safari maybe I will convince myself to give camping a try – but only if a bunch of generous people agree to ring my tent with theirs so they’ll get eaten first.)

[Half of these photos – the ones that look crisp and clear – are Randy’s, because unlike me, she brought a camera with her on safari. I stuck with my iPhone.]

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