Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Safari in Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and hiking Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano

This is related to my last post, but check out this video I made in the Usambara Mountains where I was a little while back:

Here it is everyone, one of the jewels of Africa: Safari in Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater! Sit back, enjoy and if this post doesn't make you want to come see Africa I don't know what will.

As you read in my last post Weon and I joined up with two Germans, Nico and Markus for this safari and the schedule was a 5-day trip. We met with our driver/guide and cook from Bryson Adventures and Safari at about 6:30am in Moshi, packed up the Toyota Land Cruiser with pop-up safari top and headed out on the road.

As we moved west through Arusha and closer to the parks, the landscape began to dry out quickly and we entered what is Maasai territory, probably the best known African tribe.

The Maasai are nomadic, covering wide sections of east Africa with their grazing herds of cows, sheep and goats and you see them everywhere out here.

This is a classic Maasai village and in the background is Ol Doinyo Lengai, the volcano we would be hiking up shortly. Among the Maasai it is known as 'Mountain of God' and had major eruptions in 1966, 1993 and 2007.

The driving from Moshi to here took about 7 hours, and we camped at one of the fairly primitive camps in the area where we had a box lunch, tried to get some rest for the night ahead, had a pretty good dinner, then laid down for a few hours more until it was time to leave for the hike.

At just after 11pm we left camp and drove about 45 minutes to the start point of the hike up Ol Doinyo Lengai, all 2878 meters (or 9,442 feet)of it. A few other vehicles were there as well to begin the hike at the same time, and with our guide we set off.

Now I grew up hiking and climbing mountains, but this hike surprised me. Not that it was particularly difficult for me, but it is for the majority of people to be honest. I've done a lot of 'tourist walks/hikes/activities' in my travels, and this was by a wide margin the most strenuous.

Really none of us knew what to expect because it was never properly explained, but what we got was a 5 and a half hour, straight uphill scramble in total darkness through lose rock and sand. The fact our hired guide (from the village, not our driver/guide) didn't really speak English and didn't seem to grasp the idea of keeping our group together didn't help at all, but I was frequently finding myself shocked they will happily send up any old tourist up this climb and I know many don't make it. At numerous times I was getting hit with lose rock that was rolling down the hill knocked down by those above me, and by the time I reached the top I was bleeding (though only a little bit) in three or four places from where I had been hit in the ankles and shins from falling rocks. I don't mean to over dramatize it, but just to point out it's not the 'walk in the park' I expected.

Note in this picture also that I am still wearing my flip-flops! Like I said this was far harder than I expected (and I had shoes in my backpack should I need them) and they caused me to slip a few times but I had a blast with the extra challenge they presented in this situation, our driver/guide said he'd never heard of anyone doing it in flip-flops ever, I got some looks of surprise from other hikers and our guide kept telling me to put boots on. (I don't recommend flip flops for this by the way)

At just about 5:30am, we reached the rim of the volcano and were able to look down to where lava was actually flowing! This was my first time seeing flowing lava, and while it isn't a large amount and is also rather far off it was really exciting to see.

We continued along the rim of the volcano, still in total darkness (other than our headlamps) and were able to lay down and take a quick nap if interested. I declined, and stayed awake taking photos of this simply incredible landscape.

As the sun came up we were finally able to see just where we were and what we had climbed to the top of. Everywhere I looked I was beautiful things, and I knew this would be one of the highlights of the trip for me. The cliffs from the rim down to the bottom of the crater are huge, straight up and covered in interesting formations. That dark hole near to the middle of the photo is where the lava is and what the photo above shows. During the daylight however, it doesn't glow and it just looks like bubbling mud but makes pretty cool hissing and bubbling noises.

As I was walking around the top I felt a problem with my flip flops and quickly realized the right strap had broken for the third time (but in a different place this time). Now I've fixed it with superglue in the past with excellent results and had a serious debate on if I should mend them again or not. I decided it was time to let them retire with honor. Here, at the top of a volcano in Africa, after an epic hike (for flip flops) and after all they have been through, it was now their time to rest. These will end up on my wall some day, with a map of everywhere in the world I have traveled.

People generally don't understand my love of these flip flops, so let me explain it here. To me they are really the icon of my travels, of my LIFE right now. I bought my first pair of 'travel flip flops' the second day of my 6-month Asia trip, a white pair, in Manila in the Philippines. They took me through the Philippines, Cambodia, and Thailand. I retired them the day after I set foot in India and intended them to be sent home with a friend. Some how they got lost in India, never to be seen again. This purple pair, I bought with my friends Nick and Ellen back in Phonm Penn, Cambodia because I expected my pair from the Philippines to fall apart any moment. The Philippino pair soldiered on as I explained above, so they sat in my backpack through Cambodia and Thailand and came out for the start of my time in India. They went through India including a wedding, through Nepal including hiking in them for 4 days in the Himalayas, then home. Back in the USA they saw 6 months of action between Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Montana and Alaska (and a layover in Illinois). The only time I wasn't wearing these flip flops was when I was at work and had to wear my work boots, or when I was skiing. Once I left for Africa, they touched down in Germany (just for a layover) and finally in South Africa where we began this trip. Heading north, they passed through Mozambique, Malawi and here in Tanzania. All in all, these flip flops have been with me through 10 countries, 8 US states, 4 continents and have been on my feet essentially every day for the last 431 days (if I did my math correctly). So yes, I like those flip flops!

As I put my shoes in (first time in shoes in over 4 months) I could feel the warmth of the volcano on my bare feet, which is a really cool sensation. From there we hiked on to the real summit of Ol Doinyo Lengai, a ridge just beyond the crater and I noticed this fantastic little moss covered steam vent coming from somewhere inside the earth.

And here is the view from the true summit, 2878 meters high and despite all the mountains I've been on top one of the most amazing views I've seen when I consider the crater, the barren landscape, the other mountains in the distance and the lush grasslands below.

I could have spent all day up there but we were paying big bucks for the safari portion of the trip so it was time to get moving back down. At about 7:45am we began descending and got a glimpse of just what we had scrambled up in the dark two hours before.

Yah, that. Maybe I'm just being nostalgic already, but that photo takes my breath away.

Looking up at that gap.

It really was that steep.

Back into the grasslands.

After a full three hours of descending we reached the car again, all of us sore and tired.

One last flip flop comment, I swear! I remember when I tore up the heels of them hiking in the HalelakalaVolcano in Hawaii, I remember when the tow first broke through on the dance floor in Malawi, I remember their first superglue repair after hiking up Table Mountain in Cape Town. This new pair, a pair of 'Locals', I bought with my friends Nick and Ellen when I visited them in Hawaii over the summer, time to see how long this pair lasts and what parts of the world they will see! (Ok, no more about my flip flops for a long time I promise)

We drove back to camp where we had a brunch (We got a muffin, banana and juice box for 'breakfast' on the hike. When we paid for this trip, we had been told we were getting three full meals a day and it was pretty obvious they try to cut costs on food at times...) and cleaned up before driving off towards the Serengeti.

It was another bumpy 4 hours of driving through small villages to the northern entrance to Serengeti National Park and we were ready to get this safari going!

The four of us with the roof popped up. This allows you to stand up inside the vehicle while you are moving and gives you a clear view of where you are driving.

Yes, the Serengeti is every bit as beautiful as it looks on TV.

On the drive from the gate to the public camp site where we spent the night we only saw a handful of wildlife including zebra, impala, giraffes, buffalo and this elephant. It was really just transportation, not a game drive and either way I was happy to be there.

That nights camp site: two shelters, a big water tank and a fairly new bathroom with flushing toilets.

Dinners were quite good and a few times we had more than we could eat. No complaints there!

Thorn bushes as the sun rose the next morning.

After breakfast and packing up camp, we began our first real game drive. This cute little fellow is a cliff springer. (or something like that...)

Note that this is already day three of our '5-day safari'. While as I said the climb was an obvious Africa highlight for me and I'm happy we did it this way, but if you want the most safari time just take note when booking a trip that transportation and other activities can take up a lot of the time. In order to get more safari time, you can organize a trip much closer to the parks themselves, say you don't want the other activities they often include and make it very clear the safari is what you are interested in and what you are paying for. Agree on a schedule ahead of time. Park permits work on a 24 hour basis from what I understand and make up a large portion of the trip cost as a whole, so if you want more actual safari time in the parks expect to pay accordingly.

A large group of zebras in the trees.

This was an uncommon sight, an hippo out of the water during the day. Their skin is sensitive to the sun which is why they spend most of the day in the water, coming out to eat at night. When one is alone and especially alone during the day it can indicate it is an aggressive one that was kicked out by the others. (or so I am told)

The group from which it may have been exiled from near by. Big animals make big poops, and these guys just sit in their own sewage all day. It is quite a smell.

A female lion relaxing on the warm rocks, which also provide a great viewpoint of the surrounding plains. There was a male laying near her, but he was mostly behind bushes.

Shortly after, we were heading down a small dirt road in the middle of the grasslands and saw something in the far distance laying on a termite hill. It was probably 150 meters away at least, but when it stood up we could see it was a cheetah t seemed to be heading our direction, so we shut off the car and waited. For some reason it got closer and closer and closer, eventually crossing the road just about 3 meters in front of us!

Just after that we got to see another of the 'big five', a leopard! This one was also sitting on a termite hill to gain a bit of a better view, and as a result was on full display for us to see. We were not the only ones, and at one point I counted twelve other safari 4x4s parked around us watching. And this is the low season. Wow. Some how the big cat didn't seem to mind the crowd and sat for another 10 minutes before walking of slowly into the grass.

I think you know the name of this one.

Here is another of the public campsites. When we arrived and set up our tents there were only two other tents, but a group of about 30 came while we were away and swelled the numbers. The site had plenty of room, but I again can only imagine what this place is like in the high season, it must be chaos.

Sunset on the Serengeti, postcard perfect.

Breakfasts were also pretty good. We had plenty of hot drinks, then combinations of toast, eggs, sausage, and pancakes.

A little rain on the dirt roads made for some puddle driving. Our driver said he'd been doing trips for 9 years and I know we didn't want to get stuck, but he was one of the most cautions 4x4 drivers I've ever seen. At times we had to convince him the truck would make it through about one inch of mud.

More lions! A young male with a group of 5 females (three not pictured obviously).

It was cool to see wild ostrich, this one was alone but they were usually in groups of 20-30.

A solitary elephant.

They were very hard to photograph with my little camera so I don't have much to show, but the bird life seemed every big as large, diverse and exotic as the mammals.

A large group of baboons.

Gettin' our safari on! Defiantly glad I bought a pair of decently strong binoculars.

From the top of this hill we had a fantastic view of the plains around us. Where the great migration would have been if we were there at the right time!

A group of mixed gazelles with Ngorongoro in the background. The crater inside that mountain is our next destination.

A jackal sitting in the hot sun. I guess I'd forgotten how dog-like these are, it looks like an adorable house pet!

Three wildebeest getting a head start on the migration I guess.

Next we drove up to the top of Ngorongoro and got our view inside. This is the largest enclosed crater in the world at roughly 10x20km across, and it hosts a fantastic number and species of animals.

But first it was to camp above the crater.

A filling dinner starting as always with a soup and then a delicious rice dish.

Nice stars and our big tents.

In the morning we woke, had breakfast and headed into the crater before sunrise to make the most of our time.

I know it's a lousy photo, but this is a large group of flamingos in the shallow lakes of the crater.

Here is one we were very lucky to see, a pair of rhinoceros.

It's not the migration, but in the crater we finally saw some of the big numbers this area is famous for. Quite a sight really.

On one of the small hills, our guide noticed a large group of hyenas. As we got closer (but still a long ways off since we had to stick to the roads, this white Land Rover was a research vehicle) we could see what happened. Four female lions had killed a buffalo or some other very large animal and had been overrun by 20-30 hyenas, who ate their fill while the lions looked on helplessly. I hope they got a few bites first.

We sat and watched the scene for some time and the hyenas would constantly be fighting over the food. It was not as aggressive as I would have thought, but one would rip off a piece and run away with it as the main group was standing thick around the kill and it would be chased by a small group on the edges, probably those not strong enough to have a 'front row seat at the table'. From there the group would get smaller and smaller until the piece was either swallowed whole or the remaining two would play a little tug-a-war.

These yellow weaver birds were all over and their agility hovering around the nests is impressive.

More wildebeests.

And finally, a close view of a mature male lion! As I've mentioned before lions have been my favorite animal since I was a very little kid, to get to see these guys in the wild has been a dream of mine for a long time. In the last two years I've been able to accomplish a lot of my dreams and it is a great feeling. I guess that's why I am out here doing what I am doing; and hopefully I can inspire other people to follow their dreams as well.

By 11am we were heading out of the crater, back to camp for 'brunch' (a real breakfast was skipped again....) and packed up to exit the park. Unlike this bus, our vehicle was perfect the whole time and that is certainly something to be happy about, haha.

More tribes people as we drove back towards Arusha, 3:30 drive.

I have to say, a lot of people still have this view the whole of Africa is still just mud huts, ancient tribes, dirt roads and peasant farmers. The truth is that in some big cities, Africa has all the conveniences of the modern world, but to be honest there are still a lot of tribes people and mud huts. Which is cool.

We reached Arusha and said our goodbyes to Nico and Markus. Thanks for helping make the trip so much fun guys, maybe we will meet again some day! (sorry for the bad photo Weon, it's the only one I have!)

Back in Moshi, we checked back into Kilimanjoro Backpackers, unpacked our bags, showered and headed out.

We ended up going with two Dutch girls from the hotel. At the Cool Bar, we met locals and a large group of Indians who live and work in Moshi. A good time was had, and a successful safari was celebrated with both Safari Beer and Kilimanjaro Beer, Tanzania’s finest!

Whew! Sorry for the length but I didn't want to skip too many animal photos, haha. My time in Tanzania is coming to a close shortly because of my flight from Dar es Salaam back to Cape Town, South Africa but it has been really fantastic. As I write this I am in Tanga back on the coast, but between the safari and today has been interesting as well: a rally race, a local baptism celebration, waterfalls, tunnels, wonderful views of Kili and a new Scottish travel companion!

Thanks for reading and until next time, travel safe everyone!