Our Own Bucket List
For the last several years, since the Freeman/Nicholson movie “The Bucket List” many of us have developed our own Bucket List. An African Safari to see the big five finally floated to the top of our collective list last year. Hours of Web research led us to Africa Dream Safaris and Dawn Anderson. Her personal knowledge gained from several Tanzanian safaris gave us a great head start on planning what turned out to be the perfect safari!
From the moment we reached Kilimanjaro we were in the capable hands of an ADS staff member. We breezed through the Tanzanian Visa process well ahead of 95% of the rest of our plane load of visitors. We even beat some of the locals to our land transportation, thanks to the pre-planning by ADS. Less than 90 minutes from wheels down we were being briefed at the Mt. Meru Hotel.
Early the next morning our ADS representative guided us through the Arusha Airport for our internal flight to Kogatende Airport in the north-west corner of Tanzania. By 11 AM we had met our driver/guide, Wilfred Fue. His welcome smile was soon exceeded only by his wealth of knowledge about the animals, plants and geology of Tanzania and their interactions. He had an amazing ability to spot the animals while keeping us on the two track dirt roads, no easy feat. Even with six pairs of eyes, he out spotted us.
Not 5 minutes and 100 yards from the airport, we saw our first hippo. The ohs and ahs from the six of us came naturally. Like submarines they surfaced and submerged silently but gracefully. Moving on we came across our first herd of wildebeest massing to cross the Mara River. A small number, several hundred, did cross before a crocodile interfered with the crossing. Not until we saw a 20 foot crocodile in the flesh did we fully understand what carnivorous creatures they were.
We saw a young elephant who’s trunk was foreshortened. Apparently, poachers/hunters set out snares for small game, but occasionally an elephant trunk is snared. The animal had the strength to break free of the snare, but the line was set and eventually cut off circulation to the trunk below the snare point. With time the lower trunk rotted and eventually was lost. But, of the two elephants we saw with this problem, each had adapted and were feeding without a problem.
All too soon twilight approached and we reached Lamala River Tented Camp. Although this movable camp was our most primitive (our tents had wooden floors, two queen sized beds and an in- suite bathroom), it was also our favorite. Richard, the camp manager, briefed us on safety measures, camp life and schedule, however, his most important message covered the “talking shower.” Camp staff heated water, carried it to our tents, poured it into a container, hoisted it up on a pulley system and then made sure we were ready for our shower. “Was the water warm enough?” “Did we have enough water?” And finally, “Were we done with our shower?” All six of us had camped in the past, but never had we experienced a more interesting shower.
In the morning, Kay said goodbye to her talking shower! We were amazed at the quality and variety of meals we were served, especially after touring the kitchen, which was extremely primitive. Even five lions visiting the lean-to kitchen did not prevent the chefs from preparing a wonderful breakfast for us! No weight loss on this trip!
Day three let us experience two massive crossings! We did not attempt to count the wildebeest, but there must have been well over a hundred thousand jostling for a spot in the crossing. We spent well over an hour watching this amazing sight. In between crossing spurts we watched zebras grazing, giraffes feeding peacefully, got a fleeting look at a leopard, saw an African Fish Eagle, a Hamerkop, an Agama Lizard and the splendid Suberb Starling.
Day four, we game drove to Buffalo Springs Camp, after watching one more massive crossing. As we talked to other trekkers, they were amazed we had witnessed three crossings; they felt happy seeing one. Way to go Wilfred! One of the things we really appreciated at each camp was our arrival welcome. A hot wash cloth to refresh our faces and a cold fruit drink to re-hydrate always made our arrival special.
We learned that vultures feed on carcasses by the easiest means of entry. We witnessed the chief bird with his head well inside the wildebeest, digging for entrails. His partner is working on an eye socket. Eye sockets also provide an easy entry point.
Intermingled in all the wildebeest herds are nearly as many zebras. They travel well together and feed on the same grass. We now understand why these herds are called “nature’s lawn mowers.” They cut an enormous swath through the grass lands as they make their annual migration.
Two lions peacefully stayed near their kill and let us take pictures for several minutes while other vehicles came and went. At about 50 feet our first reaction was apprehension at being so close to these wild creatures, but as they remained peaceful we soon relaxed. It was not very hot, but both animals had a very high respiratory rate, about three times a human rate.
Day five; by now we are beginning to get jaded, the sight of another wildebeest herd does not create the frenzy of picture taking it did a couple days ago. A tribe of velvet monkeys let us pass. They are not spooked by our Land Cruiser, but Wilfred always kills the engine when we stop.
A sight we will never forget is a male lion eating his wildebeest kill. We were close enough to hear the bones crunch and the tearing sound of the flesh. How Wilfred spotted him is still amazing, we would never have seen him.
Back in camp we headed out on our foot game drive. We watched our guide start a fire using elephant dung to our amazement. We also used the Sandpaper leaf to smooth our fingernails as the Maasai do.
Day six was spent game driving south to Mbuzi Mawe Tented Lodge. As we skirted the side of a hill we came across a huge herd of zebras, in the thousands. This was the largest herd of just zebras that we saw on the entire trip. We checked them all to be sure each had a distinct pattern – just like no two snowflakes are the same. One was so soundly asleep in the road Wilfred almost had to use the horn to rouse him. From this high vantage point the landscape for miles was dotted with animals grazing. Amazing!
The Retina Hippo Pool was crowded with these large, docile looking animals. However, as Wilfred informed us, they are vicious if you invade their space. Although they are vegetarians, they will kill any other animal traversing their space. In fact, we understand they kill more people than any other beast of the jungle. Our cameras captured the sight, the sound but not the smell; as one of us said, “Don’t light a match!” with all the methane gas these vegetarians produce.
Tonight we were treated to a Maasai group singing and dancing to our delight. At breakfast the next morning, we had a large baboon look into the dining tent to see what was to eat. Fortunately, he was on the outside of the screen window looking in and soon moved on with the help of the staff.
Day seven; we were in search of cheetahs and leopards. A pair of cheetahs cooperated and posed for pictures within 15 feet of our vehicle. No long range pictures for them. We learned from Wilfred that leopards can carry twice their weight up a tree. The leopard we saw had a gazelle in the tree above his perch. While not twice his weight, it was definitely above him in the tree. He too cooperated in posing face on, or was he checking us out for his next meal? During our bush lunch break at Moru Kopjes we managed to get one more group photo near Gong Rock.
Days eight and nine were spent at Ngorongoro Crater. On our 6 AM game drive, Wilfred had to wake up the park attendant to let us in, but we were the first vehicle into the crater. We did see a couple of black rhinos, albeit from a very long way away. More lions, flamingos, wildebeest, cape buffalos, storks, gazelles, impalas, warthogs and a very pretty Grey-crowned Crane greeted us. We also had time to relax and read a book in the afternoon on our patio overlooking the crater. And let us not forget the dining room ambiance. In the evening we delighted at the Maasai entertainment.
On day ten heading to Tarangire NP we made a brief visit to the Fame Medical Center; soon to open as a hospital in Karatu. The Gustafson’s gave up their medical practice in California to work tirelessly over the past 6 years to open this medical facility, providing desperately needed health care to Tanzanians. They are gems!
For the first time since reaching Kogatende Airport, we were on a paved road heading to Tarangire NP and Swala Tented Camp – our most impressive tented camp. Our goal was to find the elusive tree climbing lions. Once more Wilfred came through for us. At one time we could see five lions in the tree; we watched a young one scamper up the tree without any difficulty. Apparently, as Wilfred informed us, this is a learned behavior only seen in this NP and we got to see it!
Day eleven, our last full game drive day included a stop by a large termite mound. Day twelve; homeward bound. What an amazing experience we had! ADS, as the kids would say, “You rock!” Thanks for a wonderful experience.
David and June Watson, Butch and Kay Raby, Robert and Mary Bicknell
Trip Dates: August 31st to September 12th 2012