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Tanzania: Safari!

Intro

And now, we are in Tanzania. Despite a rather disconcerting power failure at Entebbe airport before our departure, our flight here to Arusha was blissfully uneventful and highlighted by a snack service of a cold, boxed hot dog, which instantly makes this flight superior to Air Canada with regards to amenities and service.

Our flight lands at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the continent, but we can't see any of it due to the cloud cover and rain that has been following us around all trips. Damn you, Toto!

Day 1: Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater
Ngorongoro Crater
(full photo gallery below)

We are picked up in the morning by our guide, Tadei, and our cook, "Mr. Charles". For our safari, we went for the semi-luxury camping option, which seems to be the exact same as the regular camping option except that you are provided with sleeping bags, which the company forgot.

No matter. We start our drive to our first stop, the Ngorongoro Crater, about 200km to the northwest. On the way, it quickly becomes clear that Tadei has a distinct and overt distaste for all white people, ourselves included. While I can't blame him, it makes any conversation with him fairly unpleasant and so we try to keep talking with him to a minimum. He is undeterred. He continues to tell stories about the ignorance of all white people are and follows these stories with a series of obtuse and confusing white guys burns. At Ngorongoro, for example:

"White peoples call this a crater. But obviously it's a caldera! Why do white peoples always say it's a crater when it's a caldera??"

His race-based monologues are both obscure and unfunny, making it like watching a 24-hour Martin Lawrence routine.

We arrive at the crater (err, caldera) and are treated to one of the most spectacular backdrops I've ever seen - a massive lake, expansive grasslands and lush, green groves containing slowly roaming elephants fill the gigantic crater.

We drive down inside the crater and within 5 minutes see four lions feasting on one very dead African buffalo. Our three-hour drive features: Thousands of zebra and gnu, numerous elephants, a black rhino, sleeping lions, tens of thousands of flamingos, hippos, hyenas, gazelles, wild ostrich, warthogs, eland, hartebeest and sand fox, to say nothing of the multitude of birds.

We return to the crater rim for dinner where we join about 60 other campers at our site, all ecstatic about the day's viewing. A horrendous rainstorm traps everyone in the concrete dining hall, which only makes people have more fun and get more boisterous, trying to drown out the cannonfire of raindrops on our tin roof.

Day 2: Serengeti

Lions and their kill
Lions and their kill
(full photo gallery below)

We awake to the view of a smoke billowing from a volcano that has just erupted. Thankfully, it is a few dozen kilometres away. Even more thankfully, it's not in the direction we're traveling today.

On our three-hour drive to the Serengeti, we are treated to seeing the amazing Maasai people striding purposefully across vast, desolate landscape while dressed in brilliant, bright colours, cutting an amazing silhouette in such a barren expanse.

Tadei's anti-honky rhetoric has toned down slightly from yesterday, which makes today's Serengeti game drive that much better. Besides viewing many of the same culprits as yesterday, today's wildlife sightings include: our first giraffe sightings (amazing), impala, jackals, topi, zebra, hyena, lions and literally one million wildebeest. Black flecks on a massive yellow-white background, like reverse constellations, spanning as far as the eye can see. We also have elephants pass so close to us, I actually believe one will try and reach his trunk into our vehicle.

After the game drive we head to our "semi-luxury" campsite. It turns out to be a completely isolated site, near nothing, in the middle of the Serengeti.

"This site is very private, very quiet," Tadei smiles. "There are many elephants and lions around here."

We tell them to stop unpacking the truck for a moment. After a very quick discussion, we ask to be taken to a less quiet, less alone public campsite with fewer lions. When we arrive, other tour guides and cooks congratulate us on not opting to stay at a site where a lion so recently ripped a tent to shreds.

A favourite maxim: "There difference between bravery and stupidity is timing." Three cheers for cowardice today.

Day 3: Serengeti

Rain on the Serengeti
Rain on the Serengeti
(full photo gallery below)

It seems my supposition of wisdom yesterday was baseless: supposedly lions wanderer close by the campsite here last night, too. We also notice that lots of tents have packed up and left this morning after that news was announced.

The highlight of today's game drive is seeing three cheetahs hunting gazelle. We pull up alongside about 30 other Toyota Land Cruisers all wanting to see the same view. I haven't seen this many SUVs in a row since Vegas, I figure.

The action unfolds with the three cheetahs lurking through the tall grass slowly, slowly until they spring out into a frenzied attack, chasing gazelle through the grass at impossible speeds. Really incredible stuff.

Later in the day we also see a Serval cat hunting and chasing a rabbit. Both chases are frenzied but end up with no kills - lots of action but no death is my desired outcome for both, though unfortunately this does nothing to quench Stephanie's insatiable bloodlust.

Other new animals today include mongoose and dik-dik. Despite some valiant effort, it seems unlikely that we'll see a leopard on this trip; not that surprising as they are the rarest of the big animals, we're told. Somewhat ironically, it turns out that leopards are the animals least likely to be spotted.

Day 4: Serengeti/Lake Manyara

Feeling Safe
Feeling Safe
(full photo gallery below)

Today is a transit day, moving from one national park to another. Still, on the way we are treated to about a dozen lions and a herd of eight giraffe, loping gently through the grasslands.

They are so peaceful to watch and have the most incredibly beautiful markings to them when see up close. We also watch the giraffes' unusual canter for a while, first both left feet, then both right. We drive along contentedly for the rest of the 3-hour journey.

At lunch, a giant hawk swoops in out of nowhere and takes Stephanie's roast chicken drumstick out of her hand just as she's about to eat it, making my day and making Steph hungry.

On the way out of the Serengeti we pass a tour company called "Mauly Safaris", which seems a rather auspicious name for a company that offers lion tracking.

Day 5: Lake Manyara

Hungry hungry hippo
Hungry hungry hippo
(full photo gallery below)

It's the last day of our safari and we're hoping to soak up some good game-viewing before we leave.

I don't know what this park will be like for game - it is approximate 300 sq. km as opposed to the Serengeti's 15,000 sq. km or so, and so I figure it may be a slight letdown after the amazing previous four days. But little Lake Manyara sure doesn't disappoint - we see 50 elephants (maybe more), a couple of dozen giraffes and a few lions, all in three hours of driving.

At one point an elephant walks directly beside our truck and turns to face us, staring intently at us from not more than 15 feet away; we are clearly blocking his path. While his proximity is awe-striking, something in his eyes says, "I'm not sure why I can't get where I want, but I'm willing to knock over this piddly little truck to get there." Being so close to him and feeling how powerful he is, is both overwhelming and nervewracking.

Our five-day safari comes to an end on this spectacular high point and we smile giddily on the way out, an incredible safari - one I've been dreaming about for years - completed, and having more than lived up to my very high expectations.

Unfortunately, we hadn't even left the campsite before things started to go very, very wrong...

Safari Photo Gallery