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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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).