Friday 14 July
We packed our sandwich bags at breakfast, ready for picnic lunch.
The cycling was tough. The high altitude, heat and an ‘undulating’ road made me breathless, Pat and Adriana too. We were passing the Ventolin inhaler round like a joint. At the rest stop, I cycled past the group without seeing them, (focused on the rocky road) and then fell off when I hit a hill of sand. I was rescued by a disbelieving Justaz, What were you doing? and cycled back down following his tracks to cheers from everyone. Most managed the 40 km alright but we three were happy to get in the bus. At lunchtime, camping chairs were pulled from the innards of the bus and set up in the shade of a couple of trees, what luxury! Bikes were loaded and the rest of the day was up and up, winding roads, dry riverbeds, jolting and shuddering till I expected rivets to start popping out with the strain.
We clapped and cheered our driver, Karimi, when we reached the top of the escarpment. Camping was optional at our next stop, in the guest house garden or we could stay in the guesthouse. It had enough rooms to accommodate all of us for $10 each person. A small language
hiccup made organising difficult: a ‘double’ room contained two single beds and a ‘single’ contained one double bed. We found it hilarious but the joke was lost in translation.
There was another option once we had settled in, to visit the supermarket and bank or visit the local market across the road. Pat and I were the only ones to go to the market. We loved it. On sale were Masai blankets, mobile phones, torches and batteries, shoes in an enormous pile, fruit piled on dusty tarps on the ground, small green-skinned oranges, mangoes, tomatoes, onions. Most stalls had exactly the same. When I spied avocados, I bought 7 and gave them to Juma so he could make his popular avocado salad. One lady had enormous cabbages and a red heap of sweet potatoes. A long white sausage-like bag lay on the ground. It was made of several grain sacks sewn together and contained potatoes. It must have weighed 100 kg. There were second-hand clothes piled on tables, baby clothes, hessian sacks of grain for chickens, tools, all hand tools. We wandered round feeling quite at home, a) because we like markets b) because it was very similar to the markets in PNG where we used to shop every week. Interesting also was the clientele. The Masai were in town and buying. The stall holders were from a different tribe. A group of four young men caught our attention. They stood tall and disdainful, languidly strolling and showing off their finery. They must have been princes. They were festooned with silver jewellery and beaded bracelets, necklaces and anklets. Their long hair was intricately braided with jewellery. All had a headband with a metal strip decorated with an ornament which bounced gently over their brows as they moved their heads. They wore short tunics with a belt and bush knife but no wrap like most others. I wanted a photo but they wanted to be paid so we had to say no. Trucks and buses crammed with bodies, bags and livestock, honked horns to announce imminent departure. More piled on. Pat spotted a brick kiln, a 2sqm cube of blackened bricks with three small holes at the bottom for fires. Unsteady columns of bricks were stacked at the side. A man came over and shooed us away, we did not argue. A goat was dragged away on a rope, bleating and bucking, two scruffy chickens lay hobbled in the dust awaiting their fate. That hour was one of the highlights for us.
Saturday 15 July
To the Serengeti National Park
This was a long day in the bus with no riding, 130 km on stony roads, We stopped for a picnic lunch under two acacias. They are well adapted to the hot, dry conditions.
Their tiny wrinkly leaves, on spindly branches, sturdy needle thorns and flat canopy tops give a surprising amount of shade. We clustered gratefully underneath to eat, on folding chairs that Juma and Amos unearthed from the truck. Such comforts were much appreciated. At the entrance to the park we had time to visit real toilets, the shop, buy coffee and ice cream, and stocked up on biscuits and snacks for our camping adventure. I bought postcards and had them stamped with the official Serengeti stamp. There were giant skulls decorating a dessicated garden, hippo and cape buffalo were easy to recognise. We saw a monkey catch a lizard and walk a
tightrope of spikes on a rooftop to a tree where it could safely eat. Other lizards decorated the ground and walls, their slender bodies vivid blue and red, with long tails, posing for photos. Also on the ground were furry squirrel-faced creatures like small wombats, but more agile. They scampered fast around the gardens chasing over walls, up trees quite unafraid. To one side was a great slab of granite jutting diagonally from the ground. It had to be Simba’s rock from The Lion King.
From this point on, there would be no wee stops and hands kept inside the windows. Keep cameras and binoculars ready and call out Suma, suma to stop the bus for a sighting. There was constant chatter as we drove and I was convinced any animals would run away at the noise but these are different. Because they have grown up for generations with trucks and safari jeeps as part of their environment they have become used to them. We stopped behind a jeep full of cameras pointing at a tree, about 20m away. Gerard had excellent binoculars. ‘It’s a leopard,’ he announced. Karimi and Justaz were visibly moved. ‘This is so rare,’ said Justaz and the chatter subsided as we jostled to see. The leopard was draped along a branch, one paw hanging down, apparently asleep. As cameras clicked and we stared in awe, Justaz spotted movement in the grass. ‘Look, there are hyenas. They can smell the leopard but they don’t know where it is. We watched as they circled several nearby trees, heads up, sniffing.
‘Surely they can’t hurt the leopard?’ someone said.
‘No, but they can annoy it, disturb it so it leaves the tree.’ If the leopard had made a kill and eaten its fill, the hyenas would scavenge the remains. The journey was punctuated by cries of ‘Giraffe!’ ‘Zebra!’ ‘Impala!’ ‘Pumba!’ (warthogs are forever pumbas after the Lion King).
The shout of ‘Lion!’ had us all rushing to one side of the bus, then, ‘Where?’ Only those with perfect eyesight could spot the King as he sheltered under a particularly bushy tree, in long green grass and shrub. Binoculars were passed round, cameras took photos and we left him to his peaceful afternoon. Soon after, ‘Elephant!’ and there were two mothers with calves strolling through the grass. The journey could have been tedious and uncomfortable but we were too interested in the wildlife to care. A small herd of cape buffalo were grazing not far from the road. We learned these are the most dangerous animals in the park. They will charge for no reason.
The bus halted though no one had asked. A gazelle lay dead in the roadside grass, probably killed by a jeep; they were always dashing across just in front of us. Vultures, five of them, were already landing to feast. At our stopping they hopped away, not far. As we watched to see what drama would unfold, someone saw hyenas trotting over. As with the leopard, they did not know where the dead gazelle lay, but they knew the vultures knew. One by one the vultures rose casually into the sky on enormous wings, each heading off in a different direction. The hyenas stopped, confused and began circling, trying to locate the kill. They seemed to work together, each taking a patch to search. Again, they gave up after a short while. We stopped for a pride of lionesses and cubs, trying to work out how many there were concealed by the grass. A troupe of baboons ambled across the road in front of the bus, mums with babies clinging tight to their backs. One mother curled her tail up and around her baby, who was sitting upright on her back.
When we finally reached the camp site, the sun was setting so the first action was to take photos. It was pretty special. Although listed as basic, our site had a toilet/shower block, a kitchen large enough to accommodate three cooks and paraphernalia and another building besides. There were two other groups the first night. Both were very quiet, unlike ours. They sat round a campfire barely talking. It was unanimously agreed that we were the best bunch of people to be with. Our tents were pitched in a semi-circle, with our fire outside at the edge. There were fleeting drops of rain as we sat, enough to make us find jackets. The dark clouds rumbled away. Our instructions for night-time were clear. If you need to go to the toilet block, go in twos with torches. Preferably, pee close to your tent. Any noises outside will most likely be impala or zebra grazing. Not quite like camping in the Australian bush. I woke up of course, needing to pee. There was comforting light from the embers of our fire. I imagined fires kept the animals away. Not long after I wriggled back into my tangled up sleeping bag, a horrible eerie howl came from outside. A hyena had scented me and come to investigate. I was scared it would know I was inside the tent and froze, holding my breath. Pat was awake too and we listened, not knowing what to expect. Nothing did happen and eventually we cuddled up and slept. In the morning, Justaz remarked that there were four hyenas round our tent last night. He said they are cowards, they would have run away if we’d shone the torch at them.
Sunday 16 July
Serengeti – Game Drives
Monday 17 July
To Ngorongoro Crater
The highlight of the day was a collision between a truck going the opposite way and our bus. The truck driver misjudged the available space or the size of his vehicle. Both drivers edged onto the scree at the sides and nearly made it. We were holding our collective breath when a nasty grating sound came from the roof at the rear. Because both vehicles were tilting towards the middle, their roofs had crunched.