January 5 and 6, 2000

     At last, the start of our long awaited Africa trip.  Mom and I met Patty and Rob at Dulles Airport, and we met up with Greg Schmidt and John Western.  We then flew overnight to London.  We had upgraded our tickets to Business class with frequent flier miles, which was much nicer, I could become very used to that!  After transferring from Heathrow to Gatwick Airport, and grabbing a few hours sleep, we met the rest of Greg's group, Mary and Liza Fauber, for dinner.  We then caught the overnight British Air flight to Nairobi.  We were lucky, the plane was fairly empty, so we could stretch out and catch some sleep. 

     Greg and John managed to lose their cash and traveler's cheques somewhere between home and Nairobi.  We teased Greg that the last time he had gone to Africa with us he had only brought $140 with him and had to borrow money the whole time, this time he had even less!  (Greg, Mom, and I had been to Africa before, in 1994.  Patty and Rob and the others had not visited there before.)

  January 7: Day 1 in Africa

     We arrived in Nairobi early in the morning, and were met by a representative of Hoopoe Safari Tours, who transferred us to Wilson Airport, where we caught a flight to Kilimanjaro Airport.  We had a brief glimpse of the top of Mount Kilimanjaro peeking out through the clouds; it is hidden most of the time.  We then flew on to the Seronera airstrip, in the Serengeti Game Reserve, in Tanzania.  On the way, we passed over varied terrain - large mountains, flat plains, gorges and valleys.  The plains looked very dry and barren from the air, it was much greener around the mountains.  We saw a perfectly conical shaped mountain formed from a volcano, the pilot told us it is called the ‘Mountain of God.’  

The Serengeti

     We were met at the airstrip by our driver/guides, Blassy and Freddie.  They had Landrovers with roofs that raised up so we could stand up and see out well, but still provided shade.  I spent most of the time on all of the drives standing up.   Mom, Patty, Rob and I rode with our guide Blassy Shirima, and Greg, John, Mary and Liza rode with Freddie.  We continued this arrangement throughout the trip.  Our guides were very friendly and informative.  We had our first game drive, for about two hours, on the way to the Ndutu Lodge.

Our guide, Blassy

     The Serengeti is a vast game reserve, the size of Connecticut.  The terrain is varied, with open plains, small mountains, wooded areas and rivers.  The animal life is extremely abundant, thanks to the conservation by the Masai people.  Many of the animals migrate, following the rains, especially huge herds of wildebeest and zebras.  The predators follow the migrating herds, so different areas have high concentrations of wildlife at different times of year. 

     Every time we went out for a game drive, we saw certain animals.  We saw thousands of the lovely little striped Thomson's Gazelles, and the similar but larger Grants Gazelles and many of the graceful Impalas, the males with their long twisted horns; herds of Wildebeests and many, many Zebras.  We often saw the comical looking Warthogs, usually in pairs, and many of the Topis, antelope with a dark two-toned color and an upright build.   We also saw the Coke's Hartebeests, similar to the topi, but of a light chestnut color, and the furry Waterbucks.   Blassy told us that the hartebeest is the fastest of all the antelope.  We saw a pond with Hippopotamuses in the water.  We saw Ostriches in the distance, a pair of Egyptian Geese, and large flocks of Guinea Fowl.  All these we saw on that first game drive, and virtually every time we went out into the Serengeti during our stay.

     We also saw a Kori Bustard.  These are cool looking large birds that strut along on the plain, they were Rob's favorite birds.  During courtship, the males puff their necks up to about three times their normal size and do a ridiculous courtship display.  Kori bustards are supposedly quite tasty and often are hunted for food.  We also saw a Secretary Bird, with its long legs and quill-like tail feathers.  Patty loved the way it walked, sticking each leg out behind as if it was doing an arabesque with each step. We saw several of the tiny Dik-Dik, petite antelope about the size of a fox.  These were all animals and birds that we saw often.

     The cats were the high points of the drive.  We saw a pair of Cheetahs, they are my favorite of the cats.  We then passed two young male Lions, sleeping right by the road.  It is amazing how close you can get to many of the animals.  They are used to seeing the vehicles, and are unconcerned, especially the lions.  As they lie by the roadside, they appear almost tame, but Blassy assured us that if we were to get out of the Landrover, they would kill us!

(Click for larger view.)

     As we got closer to the lodge, we went through an area with more trees.  It was quite dry and brown from the drought.   We noticed a distinctive odor of trees and dust and musky animal scent that made up the smells of Africa.  Throughout the trip we noticed the smells of the different areas, changing depending on the rain, the animals, the time of day, and the vegetation, but always pleasant. 

     We arrived in the evening at Ndutu Lodge, where we would spend the next three nights.  The lodge was small, and very nice.  The rooms were in separate cabins, two rooms per cabin, built of stone, with roofs of palm fronds.  The atmosphere was very friendly and relaxed.  There was a bar and dining room, open to the outside, and the food was quite good for Tanzania, much better than we had when we came five years ago.  We sampled the local beer at the bar, Kilimanjaro, Safari and Tusker. 

     We talked with our guides and asked them what we were likely to see in the Serengeti.  We were a little concerned, because Blassy suggested it was possible that we might not see any giraffes or elephants during our trip.  We felt that it would be very disappointing if this were the case.

     The highlight of dinner was the appearance of a Genet Cat.  He was about twice the size of an ordinary house cat, very long-bodied and sleek, spotted, and with a striped tail about twice the length of his body.  He was extremely beautiful.  He came and sat above us while we ate dinner.  He ran along the rafters, then stopped and peered down at us, then he came down and slipped out the door after awhile.  The bartender told us that the genet cats lived in the area originally, and they stayed around after the lodge was built.  The people at the lodge put out food for them every evening, and the nocturnal cats come and eat on a platform above the dining area. 

     We went to bed early, for a much-needed night of sleep.


January 8: Day 2

     We had put in for a wake-up call at 5:45 a.m. so we could have an early start for the game drive, but I was awake before five.  I went out at 5:15 to look around, and encountered my first wildlife of the morning, several really neat Bats!  They would hang upside-down from the peak of the roof, suddenly flit to the light for a bug, then back to their inverted perch.  They were fairly large, with about a 12-inch wingspan. 

     We were a little later starting out on the game drive than planned, because Greg and John thought they had managed to lose their passports!  Fortunately, after a bit of panic, they found the backpack containing the passports was in their room after all, and we set out at 6:30 am through the Ngorangoro Conservation Area.

     We enjoyed the quiet early morning stillness, and in the dim lighting the countryside took on an eerily beautiful atmosphere, with a special musky smell that was quite different from the late afternoon  before.  The overall effect was somehow almost mysterious, as if something special was silently lurking just around the corner, making this Patty’s favorite time of day.  The area near the lodge was wooded, mostly with Acacia trees, with their impressive armor of thorns.  At first we didn't see too many animals, but as the light grew, we started to see more and more.  We saw the regulars; Thomson's gazelles, Grants gazelles, wildebeests, zebras, warthogs, topis, hartebeests, guinea fowl, waterbucks and dik-diks.  We identified many birds; Red-necked Spurfowl, Superb Starlings, Lappet-faced (or Nubian) Vultures.  We saw a Long-crested Eagle, a Tawny Eagle, and the huge Martial Eagle, so large it can hunt gazelles.  Blassy explained that the martial eagle can only open its talons when its wings are closed, so it cannot just swoop down and pick up its prey.  The eagle dives down the first time and hits the victim hard enough to disable it, then swoops down again and lights briefly to open its talons and clutch the prize.  I have never seen so many birds of prey in one area before!   We passed a lake with two types of flamingos, the very pink Lesser Flamingos and the whiter Greater Flamingos.  


     We got a quick glimpse of an African Wildcat running along the road, similar to a housecat in looks, but larger. We saw several Hyenas from a distance.  Then we came across a group of five lions, two males and three females.  They were lounging next to the road, we annoyed them slightly by watching from a distance of about 10 feet! 

     We had been a little worried by the fact that Blassy had indicated we might not see giraffes or elephants, so we were excited to see both that morning!  We popped around a corner and saw a wonderful Giraffe eating from an Acacia tree.  He let us get quite close, we watched him for a good while.  He was extremely elegant.  Giraffes have the most beautiful faces, with ‘Bette Davis’ eyes.

     We saw elephant dung, so we were hopeful of finding the source!  Then we went a little farther and came upon a huge bull Elephant, walking right down the road toward us.  We had a brief power struggle for the right of way, the elephant won!  He raised his trunk and flapped his ears and stalked toward us, as if to say “I own this road, and you will get off now!”  Blassy pulled the Landrover about two car lengths off the road fast!  Once we had ascertained who was boss (the elephant), he was content to let us sit and watch him dismantle and devour a tree.  In fact, he seemed to enjoy our attention, putting on quite a show of posturing and nimble trunk movements.  At one point, he sucked up some dirt in his trunk, and sprayed it over himself, in a great cloud of dust!

      A bull elephant can weigh up to seven tons.  One of the coolest things about elephants is how quietly they move, despite their great bulk.  Another amazing thing is how quickly they can disappear unseen into the underbrush.  One minute he is there, and then you will look around a minute later, and he will be nowhere to be seen.  We saw many areas of broken and ravaged trees where elephants had been, we called them ‘elephant kills.’  You could always tell the areas where elephants had been recently, they are not very good at conserving their resources!

     We saw many more giraffes throughout the morning, including a young one running, and about five more elephants.  We soon realized that Blassy had been pulling our leg when he suggested we might not see any!  As we watched, at one point we could see an elephant, zebras, giraffes, a hyena and an eagle, all from one spot.

     We stopped for an excellent boxed breakfast, at a spot where we could watch three giraffes.  Later on, we came upon a vulture feeding frenzy.  We saw White-backed Vultures, Ruppell's Vultures and Hooded Vultures, feeding on a zebra carcass.  There were dozens of them, and they were truly disgusting, burying their heads in the carcass, squabbling and fighting over it, hopping around on the ground with their awkward lurching gait.  There was also a Hyena running along with a large chunk of meat in his mouth, and several Black-backed Jackals trying to get in on the action.

     We saw a Bat-eared Fox, very cute with his huge ears on a small petite body.  We also saw a Hoopoe bird (the only one we saw the whole trip), a little like a woodpecker in shape, very attractive, and the beautiful colorful Lilac-breasted Rollerbird (we saw many of these).  Being a turtle fan, Rob got quite excited when we came across a Leopard Turtle, a large land turtle that is Africa’s version of our box turtle.  Though clients are generally not allowed to get out of the Landrover, Blassy kept watch for dangerous predators and allowed Rob to get out and pick up the turtle.

     It had been very dry in the area, and things were not as green as they usually are that time of year due to the drought.  On the way back to the lodge, we had to outrun our own dust, wherever the Landrovers went, a huge cloud of dust rose up, and if we stopped when the wind was blowing from behind us, it would envelop us.  We returned to Ndutu for lunch.

      We decided to immortalize our trip in Limerick form.  Here are some of our efforts.


There once was a beest called the Harte,
Whose horns grew quite far aparta,
To some he's a feast,
La piece de resiste,
But to lions, he's just a la carte.

 We roamed the wild plains of Ndutu
With a driver named Blassy from Hoopoe.
He said "Do not fear,
Elephants are quite near,
I can tell by that freshly laid poo-poo!" 

           We went out again at 4:00 p.m.  We drove around Lake Ndutu, a large dry soda lake.  It was barren flats encrusted in white alkaline.  We kept looking for water, but there was none.  It was the first time I have seen a lake with no water!  When there are heavy rains, it fills up.  We did not find much wildlife around the lake, but saw many animal tracks.  It was a great drive for birds.  We saw a Giant Eagle Owl sitting in a tree.  We found Black-shouldered Kite and Crowned Plover.

      We then went through an area with many large Acacia trees, they looked perfect for hiding a leopard, but we didn't find one.  We drove along the shore of Lake Masek.  It is quite a lovely large lake (with water).  We saw many new birds there, Black-winged Stilts, Blacksmith Plovers, and some beautiful little ducks called Capped Teal.  Blassy took a short-cut down an extremely steep rocky slope, straight towards the lake.  It felt like we were going over a cliff.  I think he was testing our nerve!  On the way back, we saw several brilliant green Fisher's Lovebirds, some of the most beautiful birds we'd seen.

     Blassy said we were required to be back to the lodge by 6:00 p.m., and he timed it perfectly, we arrived back at 5:59.  At the lodge we saw a Grey Heron flying, and two hyenas went skulking past.

          During our evenings in Ndutu we sat at the bar and had a beer with Blassy and Freddie before dinner.  They told us about the animals, told us stories, and told us about life in Africa.  We told them about America.  Each night at dinner, the genet cats would come.  They would have their food, and then lie on the rafters with their long tails hanging down while we ate.  Later they would silently disappear. 

     I asked Blassy to teach me some Swahili words. I made a list of some that might make good names for horses. 

Ruka - to fly
Kuruka - flying
Upepo - wind
Malaika - angel (Blassy's favorite)
Falme - king
Radi - storm
Haraka - fast
Amani - peace
Bahati - luck
Bahati Njema - good luck
Kipaji - talent
Rafiki - friend
Nyota - star
Mabawa - wings
Njema Safari - good journey

      During the night, just before I went to sleep, I heard something trying to get into my room.  I heard rattling and scratching at the back door.  At first I thought it was Patty knocking, so I opened the door, only to find complete darkness, so I quickly slammed it shut again!  Then after a while, something fairly large started banging at the door.  I was afraid to open the door again, so I climbed up on the toilet and tried to shine my flashlight out the back window.  Blassy and Freddie told me the next day that it was probably a hyena!  I didn’t find out until Patty edited this journal that she had been scratching and sniffing at my back door, trying to make me think an animal was out there.  Patty and Rob had somehow managed to stifle their hysterical laughter when I opened the door, then slammed it shut, and later was shining my light out the window.  The walls were very thin and you could hear everything that was said next door.  Blassy and Freddie helped out the next morning with their talk of hyenas, and suggested to Patty that she continue the hoax and do it again in a few days, once we reached the Serengeti Camp.  As it turned out, bogus animal sounds outside my tent in the Serengeti would have been quite anticlimactic, even if Patty had been stupid and brave enough to set foot outside her tent after dark!