Coming to the end of our wonderful safari, we flew to our last stop, the tent hotel in the Masai Mara. Roughing it is not how I would describe these gorgeous canvas covered hotel rooms along the Mara River. Once again, getting there was via a little air strip and as we arrived, the Masai had set up a “duty free shop” selling spears and other chotchkies. I kept my tent flaps wide open all during the first night, listening to the animals—including the hippos who were floating by in the river below.

The next day I spotted what looked like a young/baby crocodile. It was actually a massive monitor lizard, several feet long. It freaked me out and after explaining that my tent flaps were open all night and that kind of creature was roaming about, Eric said I shouldn’t have kept them open. I guess the sleeping outside thing didn’t apply to the Mara Safari club tent camp. Next night I was zipped up tight!

Distract the Rhinos!

Our game drive in the Masai Mara was one of the best of the trip. Yes, the bar was raised once again. Eric had the group drive up a mountain side toward a ranger station where we got to see two white Rhinos up close and in person.

We had to be quiet so as not to disturb the female. She couldn’t see us (they can’t see very well) but she could sense us and if she knew we were close, she might not like that. You probably haven’t been next to a rhino before so trust me, you want them to be happy and distracted or not see you at all. And that is exactly what the rangers did to the male rhino so we could get up close and touch him and take a photo. I won’t go into details but it was a happy ending for Mr. Rhino and we left our tips in the rhino tip box for the hard working ranger.

Back down on the plains, our driver Abdi, who I dubbed, Happy Abdi, was awesome. He knew where a number of animals hung out so he took us over the a pride of lions and their cubs. We were the first to arrive so got some excellent shots and great views of the little guys nursing and playing. The mamas got tired and would roar and show their teeth—frightening but it didn’t scare the cubs too much—they just moved on to the next set of nipples to try out auntie and her sister. I dubbed them the itteh bitteh African kitteh committee (a line taken from LOLcats). One of the mom’s sneezed which made us laugh—her response was to give us a “look” and then settle back down again. Glad she wasn’t up for some whooping.

Moving on, Abdi drove us over to where a Cheetah was hanging out under a tree. He was getting up from his day of napping and stretched and yawned (which looked frightening in the photo I snapped). This guy just walked around our jeep and got so close we could have touched finger to paw if I was feeling stupid enough—which I was not.

More giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, a Secretariat bird, and more dotted the landscape on our way back to the tent camp for the evening. We needed a good rest for the seriously early wake up call the next and final morning.

Up Up and Away

Before the sun was up—a looooong time before—we got in our jeeps and drove out to the bush where the balloons awaited us. It was freezing at that time and the wind was up so we had to wait before getting started. The process for getting into the basket was such…they tipped the basket on its side and one by one we climbed in and sat on our backs with legs up—like the astronauts do on lift off. The basket is divided into five parts—the middle for the captain, and two compartments on each side that hold 3-4 people each. I held onto my hat, closed my eyes, and pressed my ears shut while they inflated the balloon. A few peeks told me this was not something I wanted to witness—loud blowing fans, fire spewing out of the machine in the middle—yeah, just tell me when we’re up. And then poof! we were up!

What a ride! We flew low for the most part—an occasional lift into higher elevations had my dad gripping the sides with white knuckles. I was somewhat okay with the whole thing because the balloon drifted very slowly down—no hard crashes were in store and I felt pretty secure inside of it. Not that I wanted to go any higher though. Along the way, the fire blowing into the balloon scared the bajeesis out of the animals who all fled as we approached. Kind of cool to see them from above. We also saw a number of Masai bomas and people waving at us from below.

The touchdown was very smooth and our drivers met up with us to take us over to our champagne breakfast they had set up in the middle of the Masai Mara. Before we stopped, we saw a big buffalo carcass. The vultures were all hanging out and started to leave–one by one like planes taking off—as we approached. The hyenas also took off—with a leg of course—can’t leave good food behind! This was all just yards from where breakfast was being set up.

As we walked around the breakfast site, I noticed a tremendous amount of poo. Maybe this was a hot spot for taking their morning coffee breaks or something, but you could not walk two steps without hitting a pile of poo. It really amazed me as I did a 360 turn and saw miles and miles of grass lands stretched out before me. Was there really that much poo out there?

After a bumpy ride back we relaxed by the pool, watched the hippos swim and snort and then got back on the road, up the mountain for a beautiful evening of wine and treats by a big bonfire as we watched the sun set over the Masai Mara. A truly exhilarating site to see. Again, Tauck knows how to treat their guests and create exceptional experiences.

Off to Nairobi and the first leg of the trip home.

As we climbed aboard a plane with the smallest seats in the world for a quick (thankfully) trip back to Nairobi, we said goodbye to the animals, the Masai people, and our jeeps. We flew in over a sad steel-lined ghetto where about a million people live cramped in poverty. The traffic in Nairobi is similar to D.C. so I felt at home and was entertained by the vendors. See they have a great system going on over there. The police hold up traffic at the roundabouts (causing more congestion) to give the street vendors time to run up and down the line of cars. Once they’ve done a circuit, the cops let that line go and the process starts over again with a new set of potential customers. I didn’t see anything I was really interested in—the hello kitty dolls and Elvis Presley photos seemed less than authentically African so I passed. After a brief rest in the hotel we were off again to the airport where we arrived precisely at 7:59 when Eric said we would. Man he was good!

Final Thoughts

Go. Save your pennies and go. Africa is so amazing and you’ll never experience anything like it anywhere else. The people were lovely, wore beautiful clothes, and even though most were dirt poor, seemed content with their lives. The animals were extraordinary—seeing them in their environment up close was so different than any zoo experience. The vast and endless sky—that included the Southern Cross which I got to see for the first time—was breathtaking. Over and over again I just found myself saying “Thank You God for your beautiful earth, for letting me experience this, and for all Your blessings!”

Tauck Tours and our guide, Eric, were exceptional as usual. Our fellow travelers were fun and added much delight to our trip. The hotels were top of the line and the service was beyond expectations.

Throughout our trip we had some laughs about the toilets. Many were heard to say as they were coming out of a facility, “Well now I can finish writing my book about toilets.” In some places where you would think an old outhouse would be a treat if you could get it, you’d find a clean, full toilet with flushing water and paper. And then you could drive an hour later and stop somewhere more civilized and find a closet with just a hole in the ground. Yup, I tried that just to say I did. I worked my muscles good on that one! In any case, the toilet situation was as diverse as the animal species and you never knew what you were going to get.

The trip over and back was long. I don’t love flying and am extremely uncomfortable in planes (big butt and long legs with arthritis make sitting on them very painful). But even with that and the root canal pain I had the first several days, it was completely worth it. I’ve been culling through the couple thousand photos I took, trying to pull just a few out to share—it’s so hard when you’ve had the experience of your life.

Well, happy anniversary mom and dad. We lived our dream trip and can continue to dream about it for a long time to come!

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The wonderful African Safari continues with a nice stay at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club. During the few days we were there we went out to Nanyuki, the town nearby and did a game drive.

Ol Pejeta and the Chimp Orphans

We started off the first morning on the look-out for the final animal on the Big 5 list, the Rhino. We spotted some elephants and the normal characters—gazelles, baboons, wildebeest and more. Then we were treated to a beautiful site—the reticulated giraffe. This giraffe has different markings than the ones we had been seeing and they looked as though they were wearing socks.

A little while later, as we drove through the Ol Pejeta Conservancy we made a stop at the Chimpanzee sanctuary. Guides took us around the area to view a few of the chimps who gave us a bit of a show. One had a bad attitude and threw sticks at us—but seeing how these guys were rescued from a life of slavery and abuse, I think some patience and forgiveness was in order.

On we went searching for the Rhino who had so far been hiding way off the beaten path, when suddenly we saw several of them hanging out with some Grevy Zebras. These were called “white” rhinos and not because of their color. The name “white” was yet another mistake stemming from those German accents. They were calling the rhinos “wide” because of the shape of their mouths.

The grevy zebras were also a new site for us. These zebra’s had slightly different stripes—narrower—and their stomachs were white. This area was the only place we saw this kind of zebra.

Our final stop was at the big equator sign. We got our photo op and straddled the line, so now I can say I stood on the equator and at one point was standing on both the northern and southern hemispheres. It may have been cooler than it sounds—call me a geek, I don’t care,—it was cool.

Spinners and Weavers

The next day we drove through Nanyuki (what a fun name) to the spinners and weavers guild. More than 140 women who are widowed or come from a bad domestic situation have found employment through the Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers. Their children have a place to go while they are working and there is a girl’s school there as well. This organization has grown quite a bit over the years. We got a tour of the areas where they were spinning and weaving wool into beautiful rugs, shawls, and place mats. They grow the plants that are used for the dyes, they have sheep on site that provide the wool, and every step of the process is controlled through the guild. Our group donated some cash (in addition to the stuff I bought that was made there) so they could buy a new computer and step up their online sales.

The Children’s Rescue Center

Our final stop of the day was a heartbreaking treat. We visited a children’s rescue center. It’s not an orphanage per say but some of the children were in fact orphans. The adults that work there take care of the kids who they have rescued from abandonment, abuse, and other sad situations. They work with the families to rehabilitate the parents and kids so that the children can be returned to the families. I was astounded to hear that—who can possibly be rehabilitated after abandoning their children on the side of a road to fend for themselves? This is one of those things that culturally is hard to understand. What I do know is that the children were absolutely sweet and full of smiles.

Our tour director, Eric, had the kids hold up letters that spelled out Happy Anniversary Greg and Carol. It was so sweet I cried. After that he gave them noise makers and scoops of ice cream. The fun continued with a game of soccer (Eric brought along a new soccer ball as well). Once again we had fun taking pictures with the kids and then got big hugs before we had to leave.

Africa was a showcase of God’s artwork—through the animals, the grand scale of land, sky, mountains, and desert and also in the people. These people are really poor and many work what we would consider boring, unskilled jobs. But I saw a lot of contented and happy people—especially the kids. Now maybe some of that was the special occasion of having tourists come by with treats, but all in all I would say for sure I am blessed and am finding it hard to hear anyone in our country (with the exception of the truly poor and homeless) complain about not having enough material things or money. I’m not saying that we can’t want things or have things, but I just have a different perspective of needs vs. wants.

An Upscale BBQ in the Bush

When Tauck Tours says we are having a BBQ for dinner, you should raise your expectations. But seriously, whatever they deliver will be much cooler than what you were thinking. Our last night at the Safari Club was topped off by a wonderful dinner under a tent on the Conservancy along a flowing creek. Bonfires and lanterns lit the way to our tables and free booze flowed. That last part is what probably lead to the singing and animal imitations that followed. We had a wonderful guitar player who played everything from the Beetles and Kenny Rogers to Neil Diamond and the Lion King. One fun family we were traveling with entertained the group with imitations of the various animals (ostrich, zebra, lion, and so forth) that we saw on our journey. Hilarious. And I’m not saying that because of all the wine—I have photos to remember it by. I only wish I had recorded the Hakuna Matata (no worries) song. What a great way to end our stay at Mt. Kenya.

Ice cream for all the kids at the rescue center in Nanyuki.

Ice cream for all the kids at the rescue center in Nanyuki.

George the chimp poses for the cameras at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

George the chimp poses for the cameras at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

A reticulated giraffe.

A reticulated giraffe.

Giraffe eating the acacia tree.

Giraffe eating the acacia tree.

The equator sign in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The equator sign in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The spinners and weavers guild in Nanyuki.

The spinners and weavers guild in Nanyuki.

The kids hold up a Happy Anniversary sign.

The kids hold up a Happy Anniversary sign.

Kids at the rescue center  love the noise makers.

Kids at the rescue center love the noise makers.

The kids on our tour join the kids at the center for a game of soccer.

The kids on our tour join the kids at the center for a game of soccer.

Dad hangs out with the kids and takes some photos with his camera.

Dad hangs out with the kids and takes some photos with his camera.

Watch George entertain our group.

Our next stop was for three wonderful nights at the famous Mt. Kenya Safari Club. Back in the 50’s, actor William Holden bought the club and invited his fancy, shmancy actor friends to join and hang out on the equator with him.

The Safari Club has a brick path down the center of the hotel in a courtyard to mark the equatorial line. When we arrived we were treated to a fun “crossing the line” ceremony where we danced down a carpet with two locals who were dressed in some pretty native costumes while some guy banged on a drum. I have my certificate and an embarrassing movie to keep for all times. After the ceremony, one of the staff members showed us a neat trick with water. First, in the northern hemisphere he poured water in a bowl and we watched how it moved in a clockwise direction down the bowl as it drained. We then walked about 50 yards over to the southern hemisphere and did the same thing—only the water went in a counterclockwise direction. So  I guess the old tale about the toilet water is true! It really was pretty amazing that this phenomenon could be seen in the space of just 50 yards.

After the demonstration we headed over to the animal orphanage on the premises. Mom and I and a few others from our group got to feed some of the animals that were very friendly and just walking around the area. It wasn’t like a zoo—these animals were being treated and cared for and then the plan is to release them back to the wild—at least some of them. Right off the bat, a little duiker (little antelope type animal) walked up to mom looking for some lovin’. Later I realized they were smart enough to know that the humans feed them, so they come looking for the corn pieces. Some funny looking monkeys that I dubbed skunk monkeys for their black bodies and white striped backs, but were in fact called Colobus monkeys, climbed up on my shoulder, then sat on my head and reached to the other hand to grab the food. It was fun—we had a few laughs at their antics.

We also got to see a 150 year old turtle, who evidently was just a teenager. He was massive—mom got to sit on him and take a little ride. I passed for the sake of the turtle. We were told he had a girlfriend who was nearby (and later heard evidence of their courtship). There were several Caracal (I thought they were Lynx) that did not seem to like our guide—they gave him a hiss and the stink eye when he got too close. But others were friendly—like the crowned cranes, the porcupine, the warthog and pig, and some patas monkeys who were in enclosures. The cheetahs ignored us—acting just like cats do and we got to pet an ostrich as well. One new animal for us that we got to feed was the Bongo (another antelope with chestnut coloring and interesting white stripes) who we were told was a very sought after animal years ago. Every zoo wanted one. They are hard to find and very secretive.

Even the plants here were interesting. One was called a bottle brush and it looks rough but was very soft and a vibrant red color. Roses and other varieties of flowers dotted the landscape throughout the grounds.

Finally we saw some little cats. They called them African wild cats but I swear it looked exactly like my tabby May and in fact I looked it up and they sometimes wander into towns and mate with house cats. Hmmm.

Back at the hotel we relaxed in the pool and gazed at Mt. Kenya off in the distance and then dodged some pretty sizable and scary looking marabou storks back to the beautiful rooms with fireplaces. The staff at this hotel must have been bored and in need of something to do because the service was so exceptional and there were so many of them I swear I felt like they were about to actually spoon feed me at one point.

The next day mom, dad and I walked the hotel’s mascot dogs, Tusker and Grammy, around the grounds (they belong to someone but guests can walk them). We took to them immediately seeing as how they were black labs—our kind of dogs. They had a lot of energy—it was hard to say who was walking who, but cute as buttons.

After the dog walk I of course headed to my happy place—the pool. While ordering some cocktails at the bar, the men working there seemed interested if I was going to swim again and hang out today. I thought that was a bit strange until later when I discovered (through the hostess in the restaurant) that “African men like big women.” Ohhhh, that explains it. Creepy, but okay. In any case, they can’t make a Pina Colada for ca-ca, so don’t bother ordering one. But they did serve it with a smile—what a great place to stay!

The equatorial line at the Mount Kenya Safari Club.

The equatorial line at the Mount Kenya Safari Club.

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bottle brush flower

bottle brush flower

Bongo

Bongo

crowned crane

crowned crane

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caracal--he's grumpy.

caracal–he’s grumpy.

mom rides a 150 year old turtle.

mom rides a 150 year old turtle.

the colobus monkey or my new hair style?

the colobus monkey or my new hair style?

mom and dad at the crossing the equator ceremony.

mom and dad at the crossing the equator ceremony.

water flows in one direction or another depending on what hemisphere you're in.

water flows in one direction or another depending on what hemisphere you’re in.

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marabou stork. Scary looking guys who hung around the hotel grounds.

marabou stork. Scary looking guys who hung around the hotel grounds.

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Our first lodgings in Kenya were located in Amboseli National Park which is known for its large elephant herds. We saw plenty of them, some were mucking about in a swamp which was new for me—didn’t know they did that, and others were crossing the great plains eating as they go. Elephants eat about 18 hours a day (or more). They don’t digest all of the food they eat—which is why their poop is very grassy, just in case you wanted to get a good look at it—so they have to eat a lot. Amboseli and the surrounding parks run into a challenge of not having enough foliage and trees to feed the number of elephants roaming about. That’s just one of the challenges they face with the elephants.

Our arrival at the hotel was delayed because we caught site of some wonderful animals on our game drive through the park. We saw a couple of wildebeest chirping at a hyena that just wanted to cool off in the pond. But they wanted him gone so they harassed the hyena into leaving their area. Pretty funny. We were also treated to a few lions who were ambling across the road. One posed very nicely for me as the sun was setting on our game drive.

Poaching and African Dinner Theatre

That evening we had a wonderful lecture from one of the park’s rangers. He informed us about the poaching problem in Africa—how criminals were killing elephants and taking their tusks. In China, ivory is a big seller, so these people smuggle the tusks out of the country but unfortunately leave devastation behind. The African ecological system depends upon the elephants. Some 30 thousand are killed each year in Africa—mostly so that some people in the Far East can use it as an aphrodisiac (so they think) or for jewelry. One thing we can do as individuals is to spread the word that this is an unacceptable practice and to stop the demand for ivory—don’t buy anything made from it.

Now while we were engrossed in the lecture and enjoying the evening breeze, all of the sudden some monkeys (there were a bunch of them hanging about) started to screech loudly and run up the trees near us. The next thing we see is a flash of something run across the field directly in front of us—just yards away from where we were sitting. As we all got up to look across the lawn to the watering hole just beyond, we could see a lion who then skulked away (too much noise from those humans). Sitting there stunned and a bit hurt was a zebra who after checking to see if Mr. Lion had actually left, got up and ran off to be hunted another day (or maybe later that night). Wow. Not every day are you having a happy hour cocktail and listening to a Kenyan ranger when a lion attack happens in front of you. Very cool.

The monkeys then came down and started harassing everyone again per usual. They were black faced monkeys with blue testicles and they would go into your room and steal things if you left the doors open long enough. We were told they get old after three minutes but one of my traveling companions and I agreed that it was taking us longer to get over them; they were in fact fun to watch.

The Masai

In the morning our group went to visit a local Masai village. Our tour director said if you took the stick away from a Masai he’d probably fall over. After seeing hundreds of them throughout our trip, and each and every one carrying a walking/herding stick, I believed him. On our way we saw their herds of donkeys roaming around the swamp nearby. Once out of the jeep and in front of the Boma (the fence they create around their huts), looking at Mount Kilimanjaro in the background, I stopped to pet a cute dog . One of the Masai, John, came over and introduced himself and his dog, Simba, and told us he was the chief. I was duly impressed. The Masai came out and danced and sang a song for us—all decked out in their beautiful wraps and jewelry, and then gathered us for a prayer. Daniel was our guide through the village (they all have western biblical names that are given to them when they start school).

Daniel explained their customs and way of life telling us that their huts are made of cow dung with twig-like roofs. Their doors are short and narrow (they made sure to point that out to me) and it was very dark inside. I found it comical that there was a small little padlock on the door of the hut—the same hut that had twigs in the window and cow poop for walls. Anyway, it was very small and consisted of two “beds” –one for dad and the boys and one for mom and the girls. They had a “kitchen” in the middle which was basically a few rocks where they lit fires. They light their fires with elephant dung—because all that grass in it makes for a good source of fire.

Each of the families had a hut (one hut per wife—the men are allowed more than one wife but must treat them equally, therefore no sharing of huts) with a little back yard. I spotted some girls giggling in the back of one hut and they shared their tiny little puppies with us. I was holding the puppy they named “Toby.”

We got a demonstration of how they bleed their cows by hitting it in the neck with a blunt arrow without killing it. They mix the blood and milk and that is part of their diet. We also were shown some of the herbs and medicines they use; of course they had their own version of Viagra seeing as how the men can take more than one wife.

When the men are ready to marry, his parents get to decide who the lucky lady will be. And since everyone in the Boma is related, they go to another village to find her. The second wife is chosen by the first wife. Some poetic justice in that I suppose. It costs a man about 10-15 cows for a wife. In the Masai world, the more cows you have the richer you are. In the past, the Masai used to steal cattle from other people. Their shoes are rectangular so that when they were stealing cattle, the pursuers wouldn’t know what direction the footsteps were going. Clever little cattle rustlers!

There is a lot more to tell about this group of people. They are the one tribe in the Tanzania and Kenya regions that is still clinging to their traditions and heritage, but that is changing and some speculate that if you return to Africa in 20 years, you may not see a Masai village like this. But who knows, in the future they may still pull out two of their front teeth to identify themselves as Masai (an awful tradition in my opinion). We ended our stay with the Masai by walking through their “market.” They had all their trinkets laid out on blankets and we picked up what we were interested in (or handed by desperate husbands). At the end, my guide James and I went through negotiations. I put a lot of the stuff back, feeling bad after seeing the little babies and knowing they needed the money, but thinking I had enough stuff I didn’t need at all.

The Masai and Amboseli Park were a wonderful treat. Even the baboons who have taken over an abandoned hotel were fun to watch. Some were fighting, some staring at the workmen having lunch in the distance, and some were just hanging out eating and playing. Tauck Tours does a great job of giving their guests a well-rounded experience of the cultures they visit.

Masai woman collecting water at the well outside the Boma (and too close to the swamp).

Masai woman collecting water at the well outside the Boma (and too close to the swamp).

The market at the Masai village

The market at the Masai village

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Inside the Masai hut, our host sits on his bed.

Inside the Masai hut, our host sits on his bed.

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The Masai warriors outside the Boma.

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Our Masai guide James, who probably has a professional job in town and comes back to the village after work.

Simba the dog. Dogs are used by the Masai as guards to warn of carnivores.

Simba the dog. Dogs are used by the Masai as guards to warn of carnivores.

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These monkeys were all over the hotel grounds.

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Elephants returning to their evening resting place.

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These two male elephants are fighting for supremacy.

These two male elephants are fighting for supremacy.

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These baboons watch a fight unfold while the workman in the background have lunch. The workmen probably stay in bunk houses in the old hotel grounds.

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This hyena is alone and being told to "git" by the wildebeest.

This hyena is alone and being told to “git” by the wildebeest.

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This elephant is sitting in the muck of the swamp.

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This guy got really close and passed right in front of us–no care about the humans!

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lions roaming Amboseli Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background

lions roaming Amboseli Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background

Early to rise  on our next day of the African safari because the animals don’t have A/C and they do their moving, eating, playing, killing, etc. early in the morning and late into the night. Every day our tour director had fun stuff for us to read at our tables and every day as we took advantage of the yummy buffets in these magnificent hotels, we read animal fables, jokes, and histories of where we were going and what we were going to see.

Today was a long game drive, down into the Ngorongoro Crater. From what I’ve read, the Masai named it after the sound their cows’ bells make. (Seriously, this country needs some brand marketing expertise.) This vast dining table for many of Africa’s animals and birds is the largest un-flooded continuous caldera in the world. It spans 12 miles and hosts 30 thousand animals who come to feed and drink and hang out in the lush grassy plain that millions of years ago was the inside of an active volcano. The volcano imploded and I’m pretty sure left its ejected remnants back on that road we took getting up there. Looking around at how big this thing was, I was left in awe of how big that volcano must have been.

The drive down was fun and beautiful trees and flowers dotted the side of the “road.” As we went, we could see across to the other side of the rim, the sun starting to peek through the clouds. One of our first sightings was the warthog. Yes, the warthog—remember Pumbaa from Lion King? This thing looks like a little pig with huge tusks. Actually, it is a pig with big tusks. It’s a funny little thing that leans down on his front wrists when feeding and is so stupid that it will start running at the sound of a predator, then a minute later stop running because it forgot why it was running and consequently will get eaten. But, I will say they made me giggle because they are just so funny looking when the run and hey, how can you not be entertained by a warthog?

Along the road we also saw lots and lots of gazelles (in fact they were pretty much everywhere we went). I surmised they were in such abundance mainly due to the fact that they were dinner for many a predator. There were two kinds, Thompson and Grant gazelles. A difference being in a bit of color here or there. We also saw lots of varieties of the antelope family. One prevalent species was the Impala. You could tell it was an Impala by the “M” on its behind. There were two black stripes that ran down on either side of a black tail forming an “M.” I also told my dad he could look at their eyebrows—the females don’t have horns but do have a uni-brow. (I had to explain that one to him after a few dubious looks.)

The gazelles had lots of grazing buddies and had no problems hanging out with the Cape Breton buffaloes (big huge animals with heads and horns that looked like the kind of hats the Spanish matadors wear). Anyway, they looked like dumb cows to me. In addition, we saw a bunch of flamingos swimming in the big lake in the middle of the crater and a few other birds such as the Crowned crane, quite a beautiful bird, especially when in flight. Another pretty big bird we eyed was the Kori Bustard. The driver guides who were telling us what everything was called had thick accents, so my ongoing joke for the remainder of the trip was, “there’s another bastard at 2 o’clock.”

Also grazing were wildebeests, who were everywhere in various stages of the migration. Wildebeests look like a combination of animals. Our guide today, Steve, told us the story of how they came about. Side note: I asked “Steve” where he got his name and he said it was short for Stephen which then made sense. The Germans had a stake in the area before they got kicked out after losing the war. Now back to the story at hand…When all His creating was done, God realized there were parts left over from all the animals he made. Not one to let something go to waste, He used some stripes from the zebra, a head from a warthog, a neck from a buffalo, the body (or legs at least) of an antelope, and some mane from a lion to create one last animal—the wildebeest. Millions of them migrate throughout Tanzania and Kenya each year and move where the food is.

The big predator in the crater was not the lion, (we did see a few in the far off distance) but the hyena. The hyena is a funny fellow who makes little nesting places (shallow burrows it looked like) and tries to scavenge food when possible. They do in fact attack prey in groups but can be shooed away by larger beasts if alone. We saw a few hanging out by a waterhole and being watched intently by the nearby herds.

Of course the treat for me in this place was seeing the zebras. I’m not quite sure their real purpose on this planet since they can’t be used like horses and donkeys (backs aren’t strong enough) and they don’t seem to be a major source of food for predators (although they are on the diet of crocodiles, big cats, etc. when they get caught off guard), and I’m not sure that they eat anything that needs to be eaten. They are pretty to look at though. And they are pretty smart. They stand in unique positions when grazing so that predators can’t quite tell how many of them are in a group. They like to confuse others with their stripes and stand head to tail to keep watch (and I think to help bat away flies with the tails). They are known to lead the wildebeests to the big rivers to cross, then back off and let them go first (to get eaten by the crocs). The young ones are brownish and each zebra’s stripes are unique (like snowflakes). Now that’s God’s artistic work—especially when you see herds of them all over the place. Beautiful creatures, yes.

The drive continues as we spot a group of jeeps in one area—always a sign of something cool to see. So we ride on over to where the hippos are all hanging out. This was my first close-up view of them in the water and I loved it! Ladies and gentlemen, here is an animal who hangs out most of the day just floating in water. It doesn’t intentionally hurt people or animals, it just keeps to itself, letting birds hang out on their backs, rolling around in the muck…ah the life. Now if you mess with one of them or get between them and where they want to be, then watch out, because they can turn into mean S.O.B.s in a hot second. There are more humans killed by hippos in Africa than by any other animal. I still like them. When I win the lottery and build my personal lazy river, I’m going to install hippo art along the river as a reminder of my new friends.

So now off to lunch. But where to have lunch in a place like a crater filled with wild animals? Eric the tour director teased us beforehand by “ordering” lame sandwiches for a quick and dirty lunch when in fact they actually put out quite a first-rate picnic for us in the bush. Table cloths and real silverware with tasty barbecued chicken and rice went well with our African beer and wine. We dined under some yellow acacia trees—called yellow fever trees. When early pioneers came to Africa, they camped out under these trees (which grow near swamps filled with mosquitoes) and contracted yellow fever. They blamed the trees at first (brilliant), so hence the name.

After lunch we drove through the other side of the crater seeing more herds moving about and some colorful birds. Up and up through the beautiful acacias onto a hellishly bumpy road, we circled back around the rim to paradise—our hotel at the top of Ngorongoro. We ended the night with a nice reception and dinner with our fellow Tauck traveling family. And to put a nice touch on the end of a day of adventure, the hotel put hot water bottles in our beds at turn down. After a minor freak out at what was lurking in my sheets, I sank into happiness and bliss. Next stop—the Serengeti!

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The beautiful zebra, each with its own unique pattern.

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“…I will survive, I got all my life to live, I got all my love to give, I’ll survive, I will survive, hey hey….”

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Rollin, rollin, rollin, keep that hippo rollin…weeeee!

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Kori Bustard (there’s goes another bastard) bird

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The female ostrich blends into the daylight scenery for camouflage when nesting. Males are dark for blending in when they guard the nest at night.

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A herd of wildebeest roaming the plains of the Ngorongoro Crater. Just some of the millions that migrate each year.

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“I’ve…almost…got..it. Man this things been stuck in my ear since the Mara.”

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“We see you hyena dudes. Keep walking, that’s it, just keep walking…”

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A Crater grazers committee meeting roll call: “Okay, um, wildebeests?” “Present.” “Gazelles?” “Here!” “Hippos?” “We’re over here!” “Flamingos?” “Yup, present.” “Zebras? Hey, where are the zebras and who’s watching the hyenas?”

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Hyena watches us from his resting place.

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Just out for a stroll–hyena

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Gazelles are not sure what to make of our jeep.

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Mr. Warthog.

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More zebra!

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The Cape Breton buffalo. Or what I like to call the cow matador.

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A view of the salt lake in the crater as we make our way down the rim.

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Another beautiful view of the crater rim and valley.

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Lunch in the bush, done Tauck Tours style.

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Masai tribe members dance and sing for us (and jump high to show their prowess).

Our second day of the Tanzania and Kenya safari started with a drive through Arusha where they have been holding the tribunals for the Rwanda genocide that happened back in 1994. There were a lot of interesting scenes through the town and dad and I had to look at a map after being told as we were going around a round-a-bout, that we were now at the halfway point between Cairo, Egypt and Cape Town, South Africa. It was a constant astonishment to us how large Africa is. I’m still not convinced that the continental U.S. can fit into Africa four times. The maps are skewed for sure.

Well, I mentioned the “road” to Lake Manyara in my last post so I’ll start this post with our arrival in the Lake Manyara area which was pretty much due west of Arusha and not very far in miles but high on the sore bottom scale. Again—working the “core” was very healthy on this trip (holding on to the sides of the jeep to steady yourself).

Before we got to the park we drove through a very interesting town. The town was created by the first President of Tanzania as a unification project. The Tanzania population is made up of 120 different tribes. The President wanted to bring the tribes together so he pulled in representatives from all 120 tribes to live in the town of Mto Wa Mbu. Had he a better PR team, they would have picked a better name to bring in the tourists. Mto Wa Mbu translates into Mosquito River. (Hey, I want to go there!) But I will say their bananas tasted pretty good and  they do have a web site! Eric, our tour director gave us a special sweet, orange looking banana that was quite good. Okay, so on to the National Park and our first game drive.

As the jeep trekked slowly through the forest-lined dusty road, we kept our eyes peeled on the trees. A very unique tree grows only this area, called the Baobab, which to me looked like the tree of life in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was cool looking. They also had a cool looking “sausage” tree. Aptly named and you can see why in the photo below.

Anywho, the tops of the jeep were off so we could stand up and look out over the roof for a great 360 degree view. Monkeys were the first on the list to be spotted. A few Blue monkeys swinging in the tree led to a spotting of a troop of baboons hanging out on a creek bed. They seemed a little shy and ambled away slowly. We later saw a couple more of the Blue monkeys running across the plain (I’m chuckling at the memory of the bouncing little guy).

Other sightings included some kind of cool stork (I failed to write down the name at the time) and her young one sitting atop a tree, some more monkeys and then a large field filled with baboons—big and tiny—eating, grooming, and playing. They sit on their behinds and pick out seeds (or something yummy) from the grassy areas and leaves on small bushes. The little babies were hanging on to their mamas either by sitting on their backs as the mom’s walked on all fours or by clinging to their bellies underneath. Some of the little ones were only about a month old. The teenagers were swinging and laughing in the clump of trees before a bunch of them decided they didn’t want to be entertainment for us anymore and moseyed on across the road and off to another hangout. That was a fun highlight of the animal viewing during this drive. Seriously, how can you not have fun watching baboons and monkeys running around?

We continued on to the hippo pool and I saw my first hippopotamus. Lots of them actually—baking in the hot sun on the banks near a pool of water. Usually they are in the water but were taking a sun break. They have very sensitive skin and it will dry up if they cook too long. More on them later—they became a fun show to watch and I felt a kindred spirit to these animals who love to just float in the water all day long.

So, as we moved around the park we had wonderful views of the Great Rift Valley escarpment. The Great Rift Valley stretches for long miles along Africa’s east coast. Its undulating hills and well, valley, were caused by the tectonic plates crashing against each other. Many, many thousands of years later its home to lots of wildlife including the awesome Zebras and Giraffe we spotted a little ways from the hippos. More on them later as well. Our first day of game driving was exciting but we were going to see lots more than that and much closer as well.

On up the mountain we ate a lovely lunch and made our way up through the Ngorongoro Conservation Park. Halfway to our hotel I was startled when all of the sudden a very large Cape Breton buffalo appeared just a foot from my window. One shriek later and he and his buddies fled into the tropical forest that surrounded the road.

Our hotel sat on the rim of the crater overlooking the plains at a very high elevation—it was actually chilly there—and had magnificent views. The animals roamed around the hotel and a few calls in the night served as a reminder that the animals are very active at night. Upon our arrival at the hotel we were greeted by some Masai warriors and women who sang and danced for us. I’ll talk more about the Masai later, but suffice it to say the bar had been raised again for sure.

Stay tuned for a trip around a very cool crater filled with cool animals, birds, flowers , and trees.

P.S. The headline of this post was inspired by our tour director, Eric, who started off each day of our group meetings/outings with a quote or story related to Africa. My favorite was the children’s book, Giraffe’s Can’t Dance, which I brought home for my favorite 4-year old neighbor!

The Great Rift Valley escarpment.

The Great Rift Valley escarpment. Beautiful scenery, endless sky.

baby baboon and mama

Baby baboon catching a ride on mama’s back.

baboon in tree

The teenagers of the baboon troop were swinging in the trees and having a great time.

baboon hanging out

Yo, I pledge allegience to the troop. And I’ll pick some nuts in a minute.

stork in lake manyara park

A stork by any name that I can’t remember sits atop a tree in Lake Manyara Park in Tanzania

sausage tree

A sausage tree. What else would you call something with branches hanging like this?

Baobab tree in Lake Manyara Park, Tanzania

Baobab tree in Lake Manyara Park, Tanzania

zebra rolling in dirt

Zebra looks like he’s playing but he’s really trying to kill the bugs that are biting him.

blue monkey at lake manyara

Run Blue Monkey, run!

Where to start? People are asking me what the top highlight of my African adventure was and I’m wimping out on the answer because it’s impossible to pinpoint one thing. A safari is a journey after all, and as our tour director said throughout the trip, “It’s time to raise the bar!” And the bar was raised from one spot to another. It’s hard to describe in words or photos the essence of Africa, the feeling you have as you are in the midst of the massive vast wilderness. Looking out over the horizon of the Serengeti plains or the Masai Mara filled me with awe—and the only thing I could do was to take a deep breath and say, “Thank you God.”

There were several times on the trip when I just broke down and cried. Some moments were in remembrance of my brother who passed away last year. My parents and I were celebrating “life” along with their 50th anniversary on this trip, so Greg and his children came to our thoughts often. Other moments were from sheer bliss at God’s creation—the beauty of this world. And some others were for the people there—many living in poverty and yet still smiling and enjoying pleasures we take for granted.

So, the journey begins here in this first post. I won’t tell you about the long trek getting there and back because I would encourage everyone to save up and take this adventure. Ours began in Arusha, Tanzania where our first lesson in “African time” began at immigration. I was familiar with the concept of this via missionary friends who have told me how things go much slower and are often inconsistent in the African cultures. But, no worries, we made it and slept peacefully before getting up in the morning to explore the local market in the nearby town.

The Market

We walked as a group with our hotel guides, Lucas and Lucas, down a very bumpy rode and were told not to photograph people without their permission (it’s the law in Tanzania). If you put your camera up to someone, you’ve begun a transaction. So I snuck some shots of people in the distance riding a taxi (a.k.a., the back of a motorbike) or carrying loads to market. Everyone in Africa pretty much walks or catches rides in over-packed vans or on bikes.

The market was packed with people selling vegetables, beans, bananas, etc. We didn’t see too many buyers though. We heard lots of calls from vendors, “Karibou, take my picture, Jambo” meaning, welcome, give me money, and hello. In other parts of town we saw displays of old shoes, american type t-shirts, the material women use to put around their waists or heads (we bought one and will be using it for a table cloth—go figure), lots of people in line for cell phones, and an assortment of other random items.  Shopping done, we walked on home to the Mountain Village Serena Hotel where mom and I had a date with a local doctor.

The Doctor Visit

I’m guessing you are thinking what I was thinking at first, but let’s not go there. The doctor that came to the hotel was very experienced and highly qualified. We discussed his background at length and heard interesting stories of the type of work he was doing in Tanzania including AIDS prevention and treatment, and work with radiation patients (due to the new nuclear energy projects). So mom was getting treated for a huge cut on her leg and the root canal I had the day before I left was killing me. Unfortunately there wasn’t a good translation for Vicodin and the pain meds he gave me were useless, but he did help my mom with her leg and we experienced what a doctor’s visit is like for tourists staying in Tanzania. Not at all like the impersonal machine-driven appointments we have at home. No, this was a social visit. Lots of talking and sitting and chatting. Just no Vicodin. Dang. But my co-travelers had lots of Advil they shared so I was able to get through the week until the pain faded.

Off We Go

The next day we headed out on the worst road I’ve ever experienced in my life. Three hours of bumpity bumpity in dust had me wondering if my kidneys had relocated to where my knees used to be. The funny thing was, and I’ve never gotten an answer on this, they actually had man-made speed bumps put in place all over this road. The ENTIRE ROAD was a speed bump! I ended up losing weight on this trip and I know it was because I was working my core relentlessly. The driver guides were impressive and our first guide who was not aptly named, Comfort, got us safely to Lake Manyara where our next post begins…

Tips and FAQs for Tauck and other Travelers

I’m going to be listing some tips and ideas for those of you who are about to take this adventure. Stay tuned and I’ll post the lists on this blog (such as what to take and wear, the weather, etc.). One thing I can tell you for sure is to book your trip through Tauck Tours. It may be a bit on the pricey side but believe me you’ll be so happy you did it. Nothing beats the service, the unique experiences, and the fun of being part of the Tauck family on their safaris! (And no, I’m not getting paid to say that.) Oh, and make sure you book your trip with Eric Croft—the best tour director we’ve ever had!

Fuel for the fire gets carried on bikes. Just like everything else.

Fuel for the fire gets carried on bikes. Just like everything else.

Tanzania road full of bumps

The, ahem, road from Arusha to Lake Manyara. Speed bumps dotted the natural bumpy and dusty road.

Tanzania road sign

The road signs in Tanzania were very sophisticated…stick, rocks, and pen. A diversion meant go around the crappy road onto a crappier side road.

A commuter bus.

The fun bus. Locals take the vans, trucks, bikes, etc. Too poor for personal vehicles.

Tanzania market place

The men haul the big goods and the woman sell them in the stalls.

Tanzania road side walkers

Almost everyone walks, even with big bundles. Lots of people up and down the sides of the roads.

Salon in Tanzania

A salon–one of many. Lots of entrepreneurs because unemployment is rampant.

Market stall in Tanzania

I paid $1.25 to take this photo of a woman selling veggies at the local market. The market is open every day. No fridge to store stuff.

Mountain Village Lodge, Arusha

Our room at the Serena Mountain Village Lodge near Arusha. Lovely gardens surrounded the rooms and walkways.