There are oceans and then there are oceans. Looking out over the Serengeti is like looking out over a calm green sea with nothing but the horizon to catch your eye.
After a night back in Nairobi at a campsite, we were off in "Pangani", our purpose built overland vehicle, for the Tanzanian border. The crossing went smoothly, and we all paid our usual $50 USD tax (disguised as a visa of course) to enter the country. As we drove southward we caught our first glimpses of beautiful Mt. Meru (Kilimanjaro's sister) in the distance. Eventually, we arrived in Arusha, our base for our Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater safaris to come.
Arusha is a particularly important place at the moment as it is the site of the ongoing Rwandan Genocide trials. Anyone can go and observe the trials, so long as you submit your passport at the gate. We had wanted to go, but unfortunately, the schedule we were on and the preparations for the safari made it difficult to get from the campsite back into town for an afternoon. Luckily though, we met a French Canadian guy at the campsite we were staying at, and it turned out that he was just visiting his father in Tanzania for a couple of weeks. His dad turned out to be the lead defence lawyer at the trials. A French Canadian himself. Can you imagine that job? I'm not sure what the context and the structure of the trials are, but they have been going on for years and are scheduled to go until at least 2008, but what kind of defence would you present in this case? I'm sure it's purely mechanical.
I found it interesting though that Canadians were involved at this point as well. Everyone will remember the debacle associated with General Romeo D'Allaire's efforts in Rwanda, and the Genocide is now documented in a somewhat Hollywood style fashion in a movie called "Hotel Rwanda", bits and pieces of which I have seen. In any case, we were not far away, and it was too bad that we couldn't go for a few hours, just to see what it was like.
After visiting the small snake park near our campsite where they had baby crocodiles and turtles and things, we were off for three days to the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro. Even thought the parks are not that geographically far apart, the Serengeti and the Masai Mara are quite different. Back in the Masai, we actually stood right on a border marker between the two parks, and indeed, the two countries. The Serengeti is endlessly flat, with grass of varying height depending on the time of year. This is in contrast with the Masai which is more undulating. Every year, over 1.5 million animals (mainly zebra and wildebeest) follow a migratory route that leads them up into the Masai and back down again into the Serengeti following the rains and the associated food. We were told that over 40,000 animals die every year in the migration as a result of killing by predators such as lion, cheetah, and leopard. An amazing movement of animals, and one of the last remaining such migrations on the planet.
As we drove out into the plains, at first the animals seemed much farther apart, which is true, because there is simply more space. But that is not to say that there were not some very large herds. Here, we also began to see thousands upon thousands of zebra and wildebeest, often together. These two animals have a sort of pact, one having a good sense of smell, and the other having keen eyesight. Working together, they increase their respective chances of survival under attack. All of the other beasts were strongly represented as well including giraffe, elephant, lion, cheetah, and all the small guys as well including hyena, warthog, ostrich, and even jackal. There was even a little rat like thing at the visitor's centre in the park whose closest genetic relative is an elephant if you can believe it. And it's only the size of your forearm. Weird!
When we arrived at our Serengeti bush camp, we were really out in the sticks (or the grasses as the case may be). A re-assuring sign on a tree near the fenced off cooking area where all the guides slept read something like "Don't stray from the camp, as you may be eaten by an animal". Great. Even if they say the animals think the tents look like rocks, it's still a little nerve wracking - especially because most of the animals are so large. Anyway, the night passed uneventfully (except for the symphony of nocturnal noises from the various beasts) and we were up the next day and off for more game drives and then to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.
The next night was much colder as we camped at about 2400 m on the edge of the crater. The view down into the crater is spectacular - especially at sunrise as the mist coats the bottom of the frying pan, and slowly melts away. The crater itself is sort of like a miniature lost world. There is a lake at the bottom, there is plenty of rain, and the food sources are plentiful for all the species present. The entire place operates like a self-contained ecosystem. There are no giraffe or large female elephant in the crater because it is too difficult for them to descend. Almost every other species you can think of is represented though.
Driving around the bottom of the crater you are constantly amazed at the density of the animals. They are just everywhere! And we were even able to see the now very rare black rhinoceros, of which there are very few left in the world. It is a surreal experience to be cruising around in what is the bottom of a giant saucepan, and I felt like I was in an episode of that show called "The Land That Time Forgot" that used to be on in the 70's. I remember the opening of the show where everyone went over this big waterfall in a raft, and then all of a sudden they became stuck in the time of the dinosaurs, and the whole story was about their survival. That's how it felt. Maybe some of you remember that show...
After the crater, we sure felt satisfied with all the wildlife we had seen. We could not have imagined that it would be so intense, and so easy to approach them. The drive back to Arusha was uneventful, and after spending a night there again, we were off again toward Dar es Salaam, our jumping off point for the tropical island of Zanzibar. On the way, we were treated to completely unobstructed views of Mt. Kilimanjaro (5895 m), which according to the locals is pretty rare. Normally, the mountain is covered in at least a little puff of white cloud. We were very fortunate. However, I could see from comparing with photos I have seen in the past how "Kili" is losing it's hat - the ice is definitely receding and the experts predict that the top of the mountain will be dry in less than 25 years. Natural phenomenon or human cause? Who knows, but climbers will certainly have a different experience in the future. One of the fellows on our tour (Canadian guy) did the climb a week before, and he said although it was not a difficult trek, the altitude issues were quite severe because they did it in 6 days. 8 or 9 would be much more advisable for acclimatization reasons, so I think they pushed it a bit. Still, it is one of the most accessible peaks in the world. But having been to the foot of Everest, and also over Thorung La in Nepal, neither Kristine nor I felt an urgent need to make it to the top of Kili. Sometimes, you can get just as much out of something by just admiring the beauty from afar.
At least that is what married men have to say...