It’s Stephen’s birthday tomorrow and yet again I’ve forgotten to send a card that will get there in time. My son Dominic announced some years ago that he was not buying cards again, they were a waste of money and he’d rather spend it on a decent present. An admirable stand to take. He’s right of course, but the gifts become anonymous over time and we keep cards to remind us of the people who love us. so I’ll buy one and put a first class stamp on to make me feel better though I don’t think it will arrive on the day. Thinking of him reminded me of the trip we did to our old home in Redditch. I had questions: how old was that house? Who lived there? Stephen researches as part of his work. We spent a fun afternoon at the computer as he gave me a crash course on sources of information. There is a site called ‘Old Maps’, who knew? The house was the only one named on the oldest available map, in 1883, so it was older than that and significant enough to be recorded. Other records gave us the names of two previous owners, one of whom was an active member of the community. The other was a soldier who died in the first world war. We used Google maps to find other houses we had lived in, in Yorkshire and Norfolk. I’ll visit them next trip. Places in my autobiography become more real when they exist outside my memory. Now, that birthday card. Being on an island means the mail travels to England on the plane. There is one at lunchtime.
A Spring welcome to England. The flowering cherry is scattering pink confetti blossom with the slightest breeze and the azalea is wearing a ballgown of the deepest pink. The sunlight is dazzling, almost Australian bright, in a cloudless blue sky. We visited Redditch where Stephen and I spent our teens. Dad was a forester but the new job turned out to be mostly desk-based and planting along the streets of newly built housing estates. Park House, our home for those formative years, has disappeared. We had a huge garden, .8 of an acre, and there was a public car park at the road frontage, plenty of room for development. It was demolished six years after we left and a new housing estate built. It was a strange experience to adjust our eyes to the present when the past was still so clearing our minds. The centre of town was similarly unrecognisable but we found our way to the high school before we left. Lunch was at The Bell, around the corner from Stephen’s house in Harborne. It is a black and white timbered building about 450 years old, with a narrow passage through the middle and two tiny rooms either side. Even people of our modest height have to duck through the doorways. The pub is situated next to the twelfth century Norman church, as was the custom. Stephen and Judith were married there.
The next day we were back at the airport, to fly to the Isle of Man. It is an hour’s flight, at a low altitude so the window seats offer a view of farmland, sea and the island’s coastline. Our hire car is a Nissan micra. a sensible size for the narrow roads here. We drove to Dalby where our holiday cottage is, dropped off bags and drove to Peel to see Mum. She was in the corridor talking to another lady and I think for a moment she was taken by surprise. Her memory has worsened since last year.
Monday 17 July
Our earliest start yet, 5 am, tents down, bags packed to leave around 6 am. It was too early for me to eat. I shoved bananas and a packet of biscuits in my daypack for later. The drive would take a minimum of five hours to reach the Ngorongoro Crater. We saw a few animals on the way but yesterday was the best. The desert changed as we rode from red to sandy to grey and sparse grass to acacias to stony wasteland. In parts, there were dry water courses to cross, evidence that the rains did come.
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. We all piled out, with cameras to record the event. A couple of Masai materialised to check what was going on, one jeep drove off road, through our group, around the blockage and sped off showering us all with dust. There was much discussion as to the best way out of the situation. No blame or fist waving as might have been expected, no exchange of insurance companies. Large rocks were placed in front of the wheels on the road, presumably to lever them upright when they moved. Our bus teetered so far over I thought it was going to tip completely on its side. Karimi pulled over to safety and we congratulated him as we re-boarded.
At the top of the crater we boarded two safari jeeps and set off downwards through the jungle-covered sides to the plain at the bottom. It was the Great Valley from the dinosaur series of DVDs. There was a river, fresh water lake, alkaline lake, dry grassy plains, lush grassy plains and bushy vegetation for those animals who wanted it round the edges. We ate lunch by the hippo pool, along with quite a few other tourists. We were warned to eat in the jeeps because the local pest birds, red kites, would snatch food out of your hand. We watched them circling in the air spotting unwary sandwich eaters they could swoop. This hippo pool was quite different, clean water and fewer hippos so they could move around. They come out at night to graze when it is cool. Here is where we saw herds of wildebeest, zebra, a solitary lion. There are also cows mingled in with the wildebeest. They follow the lead cow’s bell when it is time to go. It is a peaceful place.
We arrived late afternoon at our accommodation. We camped in the grounds of a very swish hotel, Kudu Lodge. Rooms here were for wealthy tourists, $186 a night. A couple of the group did opt for a room and offered us use of the luxurious showers. The itinerary allowed for a 15km ride before dark. Everyone was tired but rallied with some encouragement. I was tripping over on the gravel paths and not sure what my knee was doing so I declined. Pat did 5km, Adriana too, then joined me in the truck. It was a downhill tarmac winding road, looked like fun. The uphill was of course the reverse. Most enjoyed the ride, but would have done without it after the long day. Karimi parked the bus and jumped on his bike to ride it when the others had come back.
Tuesday 11 July
On the main road towards Kenya, we rode on tarmac, mostly downhill and fast, we were flying! Unfortunately, my knee disagreed and when I got off en route, gave me intense pain. I did get on again but the next time was final. I could not move. I was riding with Adriana and Arman, who went on ahead to get help. Amos was on his way back already. A taxi was organised to take us to the guest house, only about another 2 km away. Bikes went in the boot, one wheel of each draped over the side, no problem.
Our route took us past goat and cow herders keeping their animals off the road. Some had donkeys and we saw others carrying enormous loads – grass or sugar cane, water buckets slung each side, bundles of sticks. Jen and I met two Masai boys, who posed for a photo.
Our guest house is usually a training college for girls. They come for education, to learn job skills and avoid being forced into early marriage. The building is circular with bedrooms around the outside opening onto a central dining room/classroom. Our room is quite cool with twin beds and clean sheets and towels. Again, hot water for showers was heated in large pots on the stove and carried in buckets to the bathrooms. We were delighted to see actual bathrooms. Dinner was delicious, Juma knows exactly how to feed hungry cyclists. Arman went with Justaz to a Dr of sorts and obtained antibiotics and Pat decided to do the same. His cold is affecting his breathing. We waited in the village while the young man jumped on his scooter and zoomed off to the nearest pharmacy in Arusha to buy them. Local price was 2000 shillings, about $1.00. Justaz was emphatic that we pay local price or tourists will be exploited in the future. I went too and Justaz organised a gel like Voltaren for my knee.
My diary notes that Justaz is a great leader, except for making plans and sticking to them, and time and distances. We are adjusting to African time. Organising a lively group is a difficult job.
polé polé means slowly, slowly. polé means sorry
Thursday 20 July
It was a lovely morning for the last ride of the trip, cool, sunny and not too many hills. Adriana and I were in the bus and Pat rode 20 of 40 km before joining us. We all stopped at a café on the outskirts of a town/village for picnic lunch and ordered coffee, or tea, as I got the last teaspoon of coffee in the jar. I bought copper bracelets from a street vendor. From there we were all in the bus for the three hour drive to our hotel in Arusha. Before the crew disappeared, we had a big thank you to say and gathered on the balcony where we had all met. I was given the job of thanking them and had to refer to my diary to include all that we had seen and done. It felt like much more than 12 days. We had taken up a collection which was presented in a picnic lunch bag, decorated brilliantly by Rashma with memorable pictures, hippos, leopard, Juma’s cooking pot, the bus and Justaz on a bike. He kept the bag.
We had thought of going into town but rested instead, showered and got reacquainted with the rest of our baggage. There was a big night ahead. Cocktails at 6pm followed by dinner at the restaurant across from the bar. We squeezed into two taxis. It was an odd experience eating western food. And not washing up or flapping the plates dry.
Towards the end of the evening, an announcement was made by the maître d’h. A special occasion. The entire staff came out and sang Hakuna Matata to Pat for his birthday. It was organised by Justaz, I had no idea and had to quickly grab the camera as a birthday cake appeared with not just sparklers, but a firework on top shooting silver stars to the ceiling. It was a perfect surprise. Goodbyes were hasty as we realised that Pat and I were leaving early, before breakfast, the next day. What a fabulous end to the trip of a lifetime.
Monday 10 July
We tucked into a big breakfast to prepare for our first ride. The bus took us to the outskirts of the town on a new tarmac dual highway. Our ride through Arusha National Park began after that, on the dirt road, rocky and gravelly, a challenging start. We were thrilled to see giraffe with babies, a herd of zebra, a monkey and an antelope dashing across in front of Jen and Leigh. Leigh fell off soon after. There were two more falls that day, Adriana hurt her hands and knees and Hilary tumbled down the gravelly bank of the road tangled in her bike and scraped herself all over. We all took extra care now.
At Tengeru we visited a local coffee plantation where we saw the whole process from coffee beans to drinking. We took part in de-husking the raw beans, pounding in a tall wooden bowl with 2 club-ended sticks. The beans were roasted over a methane gas ring in a ceramic pot until they smelled delicious. Back into the deep wooden container again, this time to grind the beans. Two people pound in turn and sing a song to keep the rhythm. Finally, some of the coffee was put into the ceramic pot of water and heated to make our drink. The whole plantation was built for sustainability. Methane from the cows was stored in a type of septic system and piped to cooking rings. Cows and goats ate chopped down banana plants. Papyrus grasses were being used to weave basket style sofas and chairs for sale. We were lucky to be there for lunch. Huge bowls were laid out, fragrant lentils, meat, soya beans, potatoes and greens, with a kind of nan bread.
It was almost dark when we arrived at Mkuru Training camp, down an extra rocky pathway off the road. Our head torches were the first things to be unpacked. We slept deeply that night, upgraded from dorm to permanent tents because Justaz was so pleased with us. The caretakers even heated gallons of water for hot showers. Juma produced another satisfying meal, we were very hungry.
Tuesday 18 July
Ngorongoro Crater to Panorama Lodge
Only a 25km ride today. The night had been cool and refreshing for sleeping. A small group of us were not riding and sat in the posh hotel having coffee and taking turns in the shower before squeezing into a taxi for the short trip. Panorama lodge is well named. Perched on the edge of the escarpment, it has a view of the whole crater. I took six photos from left to right.
The igloos are delightful, thick adobe, cool and comfortable. The roof inside looks like an upturned clay coil pot with a window and vent in the top.
Our afternoon game drive was in safari jeeps. We drove through tangled jungle to the lake, passing baboons, ancient trees with buttressed roots, fat-trunked baobabs, giraffes and zebra appearing at intervals through the bushes.
The absolute highlight of the entire trip was our encounter with elephants. We stopped beside a huge elephant munching on vegetation a couple of metres into the bush. The tusks were a metre long, a perfect curve. Its ears were fanning like palm leaves to keep cool. Then out of the bush behind our jeep stepped another elephant. It walked purposefully towards us on the track, closer and closer. There was no noise of giant footsteps. I had stopped yelping by this time and was holding my breath, eyes popping, every muscle tensed. About 3m from the jeep it swerved off to follow the first one. I was shaking all over. Tears welled as emotion overflowed. Less than a minute later they had vanished into the undergrowth.
There was another later, with a calf, crossing a sandy riverbed near a lioness relaxing in the warm sand. Mounds of dung all along the sand suggested this was a favourite elephant spot.
I said, ‘If it’s getting late, don’t worry about seeing the pelicans, we have them at home.’ Not like this. There were thousands of pelicans, noisily washing at the edge of the water, stinking of fish. I felt small. Our drive lasted for four hours. It passed so quickly. Late returning once more, I said to Justaz who was in our jeep, ‘You see now why we were late before? This is African time.’ One of his own favourite phrases.
There were a few other tourists in the dining room but our group was the largest and liveliest. After dinner, there was a show. Two musicians with a wooden xylophone and a tall tomtom drum struck up Hakuna Matata, and a group of acrobats bounced in singing and tumbling. They entertained us with limbo, juggling, building human pyramids and fire stick dancing while the music played on. We were clapping, cheering and thoroughly enjoying it all. We could not understand how one family kept their backs to the show and ate dinner. The irresistible rhythm was reminiscent of Mexican music, they use the same instruments. I think it likely that the African slaves who were brought to the Americas took their music with them.
Sunday 9 July 2017
We are a group of twelve. All are younger than us, Ged, 57 and Lei, 56 are relieved. There is a mix of accents as people exchange names and origins. Canada, U.S., Scotland, London, Venezuela/Germany/Au, Australia, N.Z. Most are single, in their thirties and look fit. Our leader, Justaz, appraises the group as he walks in and is pleased we are all talking already. This is a good sign. He chases up our meals, orders more and we eat with our fingers from communal plates (bonding rapidly) while listening to the briefing. Our team is introduced: Karimi, our driver and owner of the mountain bikes, Juma, our cook and Amos, who works for everyone. We are told breakfast is at 7.00 and to have bags on the bus by 8.00.
‘Asante sana’ means ‘Thank you very much’ and ‘Karibu’ means ‘You’re welcome’.
Sunday 16 July
Around the campfire last night, we discovered Jen and Hilary had booked a private jeep safari for the morning. They were happy for us to join them and share the cost. It meant another early start but we were getting used to that. Gerard had the earliest start because he had booked a balloon trip, starting at 4.30 am. He had a sleepless night worried that he wouldn’t wake up in time. We saw his balloon later.
Our first sighting was of an impala in the golden morning sun. The black twisted horns rise in a curve from the brow and its coat is the same tan and cream as the red earth and dry grass. We saw lots of impala and never tired of their graceful beauty. A vivid patch of green announced a waterhole. The grass and vegetation contrasted sharply with the surrounding area. A pair of pretty, brown geese lived there, and along the stream were tall storks, looking like old lawyers in black gowns stooping over the water, looking for a meal. The stream meandered on and beside it strolled a lioness, quite purposefully. She saw a gazelle, which prepared to run, but the lioness decided not to chase and they both returned to their own business.
The jeep stopped whenever we wanted to watch an encounter. There was no sense of urgency, no set route. Drivers radioed each other about sightings and there were many connecting tracks to see the ‘Big Five’ animals especially. Next was a male lion, sitting regally in the shade of a bush. While we watched, he rolled over and fell asleep. Baboons crossed the road in front of the jeep, mothers with infants clinging to their backs, males stalking arrogantly, in charge of the troupe.
To our left was a group of ostriches, two males and three females. They were flapping their enormous wings at each other in a mating ritual. On our return journey, hours later, a couple were walking together and the others had gone.
Quite often we saw zebra and warthogs grazing together, or zebra and giraffes. A flock of guinea fowl fluttered nervously at our approach but did not screech. They are used to raise the alarm on farms.
A young giraffe was grazing by the track and the jeep slowed to a stop. He stared at us, perhaps we had interrupted a meal, ambled to the centre of the track and turned to stare once more, posing for photos, before stretching out to nibble the tasty tree on the other side. It is impossible to not take photos.
The highlight of our day was the Hippo pool. As we pulled into the car park, we couldn’t see any hippos but this was one place we could disembark. Other people were looking over a fence and bushes. As we joined them, I gasped. There must have been a hundred hippos wallowing in the scummy, muddy water. They were tightly packed, barely moving but for their little stumpy tails twitching, splashing mud over each other. Then a large bull clambered onto a small female and proceeded to mate with her. I was quite fascinated. How on earth did he cling on? His bulk nearly drowned her, she shoved her nose up for air briefly. Another male decided to try his luck. He was soon chased off, the bull raised his head and thumped down into the water, sending a muddy tidal wave over nearby bodies. Oblivious to this drama, several crocodiles lay on a sandy bank soaking up the sun.
The bird life in Tanzania can be strikingly colourful in contrast with the camouflage of animals. One about the size of a small crow, was iridescent peacock blue, another looked like a satiny, emerald green ibis.
On our way back, under a large acacia were two mother elephants and their calves. Perfect. I felt as if I had eaten a banquet.
There was a fuss when we arrived back at camp. Where had we been? We were late. It looked as though our driver was in trouble so I made sure his boss and our leader knew that it was not his fault. Apparently, another driver had misinformed Justaz that our jeep was stuck for an hour and he was worried. And so, to lunch.
The rest of the group had seen pretty much the same from the bus as we had, but not the ‘hippo porn’ which caused lots of laughter.
The afternoon was relaxing and washing clothes. Some went out for another game drive but we had such a great experience already we stayed back.
Saturday 15 July
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.