By Fred Gielow
Sunday, December 18, 2005 and Monday, December 19. 2005.
We depart at 6:45 a.m. Sunday the 18th, drive to the airport, fly to Detroit, fly to Amsterdam, fly to the Mt. Kilimanjaro Airport (Tanzania) then on to the Dar es Salaam Airport, where we're met and driven to the Holiday Inn Dar es Salaam, arriving 11:30 at night (local time) Monday. All without even a change of underwear. And certainly without much sleep. JJ says he had no sleep either day; I snuck in a couple of naps.
We can't even get in the front door of the Holiday Inn without going through a security check, including scanning of our bags and walking through a metal detector. We're told this is only necessary when important dignitaries are staying at the hotel.
Since swearing-in ceremonies for Tanzania's new president, Mr. Jakaya Kikweye, will be held on Wednesday (the 21st), dignitaries are all over the place. Thirteen country presidents are going to be in attendance, so security is unusually tight.
At check-in, we're momentarily concerned, because no room is available with two beds. A brother is a brother, but I want my own bed! Although the hotel is nearly booked full, we are given separate rooms (mine: 129, JJ's: 442), and shortly after midnight we're sound (and I do mean sound) asleep.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
I awake at 6 a.m. and quickly find I'm got going to get back to sleep. I wait until 8:00 before I call Jim. He answers with a sleepy voice. My call woke him up.
We have a pleasant and tasty breakfast at the hotel's Kivulini restaurant, then walk around a little.
Since the only route to and from the airport is scheduled to be closed for a portion of the day for the convenience of visiting dignitaries, our departure time from the Holiday Inn is moved up an hour from noon to 11 o'clock.
We get to the terminal building at 11:30, too early to be admitted inside. Shortly after 12:00 we enter and go through security: belt off, shoes off, all metal objects put in a small wooden tray. There's another brief wait until we're allowed to check in, then we're directed upstairs to the waiting room, where we must go through security all over again: belt off, shoes off, all metal objects in a small wooden tray.
On the other side of the glass partition there's a group of perhaps 75 Muslims kneeling and bowing in prayer. A man in colorful robes leads everyone -- men, dressed in white in the front; women dressed in red and white in the rear. I wonder how many of them wish for my annihilation. I wonder how many of them have considered or will consider becoming human bombs to destroy the infidels.
The flight takes us to Kigoma and we arrive about 5:00 p.m. We're met by a Kigoma Hilltop Hotel representatives and are driven to the grounds, which contain a number of cottage-like units overlooking Lake Tanganyika.
The setting is beautiful, but the cottages are not. They're small, a little dirty, it seems to me, and they appear old, although I'm told they're not. I guess my expectations were a little too high. The accommodations were described as "First Class," but that may be a little kind.
We have dinner at 7:00 and are the only people in the dining room. Apparently a large number of guests checked out the night before and bookings are few just before Christmas. The meal is good, but I eat too much.
Mosquito netting is draped around the beds, so we decide to enclose ourselves with it, just to be on the safe side. Then we notice there are some gigantic holes in the netting, big enough to fly a 747 through!
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
With but a single hand towel and bath towel and no shampoo in the bathroom, we are a little creative with our morning showers. I use a wash rag I had brought with me and damp dry with it, then finish with the small hand towel. Jim uses a bottle of Vive Shampoo he had brought with him and took advantage of the bath towel.
Breakfast is a little skimpy, though there are, buffet-style: eggs, French toast, beans, hot-dog-like sausages, micron-thin pancakes, and fruits. By "skimpy" I mean not much of each item. I think there is only one other guest in the dining room besides ourselves.
About 9:00 we board a mini-bus for a short ride to the hotel dock and get aboard a boat for a two-hour ride (photo) on Lake Tanganyika to our tented camp (just five tents total!) in Gombe Stream National Park. It's comfortably cool, unlike yesterday which was uncomfortably warm, and the ride is a delight.
Several interesting fishing villages are scattered along the shoreline and we see occasional boat taxis filled to nearly overflowing with passengers. In the photo above, two boats return from an all-night fishing excursion for sardines.
Upon arrival at the Gombe Tented Camp (Search), we're shown our tent, then have lunch, and then get back in our boat for a half hour or so ride to the entrance to the park. There's a little paperwork to do (like reading a form that says no one there is responsible if we die from a fall, a chimp attack, or total exhaustion) and then we start off on our chimp trek.
Our camp guide's name is Badi, the park guide's name is Felix, and a third fellow (whose name I don't remember) seems to be there for no other reason but to carry our jackets for us and lug along several bottles of drinking water.
At first the going is easy. We walk through the community that grew up around the Jane Goodall research project, then along the rocky beach, then plunge into the rain forest. At that point the hike turns into a climb and all JJ and I can think of is our utterly exhausting climbing experience at the Impenetrable Forest in Uganda in 2003 (report). The climb there was about 2000 feet. Here it's only 1500 feet, but Jungle Jim and I are two years older now and those two years have lessened our climbing abilities by more than 500 feet!
Badi is very encouraging and gives us a pep talk. We can do it, he insists. We keep climbing.
Felix has the radio and is in touch with trackers who have found some chimps. It's not much farther, he says, comfortingly. "Just up ahead" we'll be on the top of the mountain.
Just up ahead? Bologna!
We climb and climb and huff and puff and still there are no chimps.
I'm with Felix and we're a little ahead of Jim and the others, and all of a sudden, there they are: two good-sized chimpanzees resting at the edge of a clearing, one grooming the other. I reach for my camera, turn it on, and take a look through the viewfinder. There's nothing there but a heavily fogged-over view. Oh, no! Is there something wrong with my camera?
No. It seems all the heat I generated from climbing the mountain had misted my glasses. My camera is just fine. As JJ arrives on the scene the pair saunters off into the bush. Jim has a five-second glimpse of them.
But wait, maybe we can catch up with them, so we start off, this time down the mountain. And in a matter of minutes we come across a dozen chimps sitting high up in some trees eating leaves. They're directly above our heads, up maybe forty feet. Some swing through the branches, others pick leaves and consume them, still others seem content to just stay put. They occasionally drop twigs and branches in our faces. A female comes along and raises quite a racket. Felix says she's flirting, but the guys don't appear to be interested.
We watch all the action and of course take pictures for maybe a half hour and then one by one the chimps slide down the trunk of a tree maybe fifteen feet from where we're standing, then meander into the underbrush. It was an exciting encounter!
The trek back down the mountain is not as hard as going up, but not as easy is it ought to be. We're back at the Jane Goodall community by five o'clock or so, and back at the camp maybe six. Showers are then essential.
We return to the beach where a roaring fire has been set for us. I walk around and take a few more photos. The sun is setting over the lake and some of the colors are beautiful.
We are offered a choice of drinks and a snack: popcorn! Then comes dinner: tomato soup, fish, potatoes, carrots, spinach, and mixed fruit for dessert. Very good! I wish, however, the radio in the kitchen was turned off while we are dining. One of the reasons to go on safari it to escape such distractions.
Then it's bedtime! The twist this time: there are indeed two beds, placed right next to each other, but there's only a single huge sheet and blanket to serve both sleepers. We can deal with it.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Our first wake-up call sounds like a loud electric razor, but it's just some crickets or other insects. Our "real" wake-up call comes at 7:15. We have breakfast and soon are on a small boat headed for the Gombe park. The "big" boat has gone to Kigoma to pick up the next batch of tourists to stay at the camp.
Badi tells us we'll walk to the Kakombe Waterfall, and it's guaranteed to be an easy walk, so we start off.
It's an easier hike, but there's still some climbing involved. After fifteen minutes or so we encounter baboons, lots of baboons! They're all over the place. Some little ones are chasing each other in a field. Several pairs are grooming each other. Others are just sitting on the ground observing the scene. There are two to three dozen baboons and we keep our cameras busy. After a while, one by one, they scamper off into the forest. A couple of them run right past me, not more than four or five feet away. It's a delight.
The walk to the waterfall does involve some climbing, as I said, but not much, and the hike is well worth it. The setting is beautiful. Water cascades down maybe fifty feet then flows in an irregular pattern down the valley. I take lots of still pictures.
After returning to where we had started, we walk a little further north to see Jane Goodall's house. It's made with heavy cement bricks, but looks very uninviting. It's now rather old and the tin corrugated roof has rusted through. The windows have metal grills over them so baboons can't get in, but otherwise there are no screens, glass, or shutters. It's depressing! We are told Ms. Goodall returned to Gombe several months ago and stayed in that building.
The ride back to the camp is uneventful and lunch is delicious. Newcomers to the camp are a mother, father, three daughters, and a son, a German family. We are no longer the only ones eating in the dining room.
We have the afternoon free and we both take naps. Then I look around for more photo opportunities. I'm hoping for a good baboon encounter, but it doesn't materialize, so I take a couple of pictures on the beach. While there, I see one of the camp crew carry a load of clothes close to the shore and spread them out on the rocks to dry. They're our clothes we requested to be washed during the day. No clothes line necessary; just old sol.
We appreciate the leisure of a lazy afternoon. I contemplate swimming -- the water is clear and warm; perfect -- but then decide not to do so. Although Jim brought his bathing suit with him, he says he's just too tuckered to take the plunge. (Photo: JJ relaxes on the beach.)
Again there are refreshments around a fire on the beach before dinner. And again the food is delicious: fish, potatoes, tomato/avocado salad, cabbage, carrots and beans, with a pineapple sort-of-pie-like treat for dessert. All that was missing to make the day perfect was a perfect sunset. The sun went down in clouds.
Back in our tent Jungle Jim sits on a corner of the mosquito netting and pulls one of the four netting supports down. He quickly summons help. One of the camp crew pounds the post back where it belongs.
After two days of hiking, we're tired and we fall asleep quickly.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Today's a travel day. Wakeup call at 6:00, breakfast 7:00, and back aboard the "big" boat at 8:00. The German family gets off at the park and we continue to the Kigoma Hilltop Hotel, where we're picked up and driven to the airport. Awaiting us is our charter flight pilot and, after paying the airport tax ($10), we're off.
It's a three-hour flight to the Mwamza Airport. We refuel the plane and ourselves. Box lunches had been given to us at the Hilltop Hotel: each with a chicken leg, hard-boiled egg, two cheese -- I think -- sandwiches, and a bottle of bitter lemon soda. Unfortunately, the soda is quite warm, and besides, we don't have a bottle opener, so we pass up the liquid refreshment.
About an hour later we are flying over the Serengeti (links), then land at the Seronera landing strip and meet Clemence, who will be our guide and driver for the remainder of the trip. He's a lot of fun! (He works for Ranger Safaris.)
He mentions that we're scheduled for a balloon ride in a couple of days, but we tell him it was canceled several months ago. I guess there must have been a glitch in the paperwork somewhere. No problem. Clemence talks on his cell phone and in no time, the situation is corrected.
Instead of heading for our camp, we drive in the other direction and in a matter of minutes are stationed with perhaps a dozen other vehicles at the scene of a leopard sighting. We strain to see the critter, who is crouched down in the grass in hopes of making dinner of a nearby gazelle. The antelope are spooked and run off, but the leopard continues his quest, although the prospects for his meal dash off again. Mr. Leopard climes a tree and surveys the scattered missed opportunity.
Almost everywhere I look, I see the landscape is brown and dry. Everything seems to be dead. But off in the far distance, it's a rich, lush, green. I wonder why we never seem to get close to the really green vegetation, until I realize I'm looking through a strip of green sun filter at the top of the windshield. Oops!
We head back toward the airstrip and stop to see three lions (photo) resting twenty yards or so from the road. Two of them roll over and give us a passing, disinterested glance. We continue north for some two hours and arrive at the Serengeti Migration Camp.
Camp? Hardly. It's absolutely beautiful! It's lavish! It's incredible! Swimming pool, "tented" rooms some twenty by thirty feet (!), bathrooms with twin sinks, hardwood floors, viewing deck overlooking a stream with hippos, electricity 24/7, hot water . . . Need I go on?
We are warmly greeted by the camp manager and spouse. Both are delightful people, and we are made to feel quite welcome. The "camp" seems to accommodate 40 guests in 20 "tents." I suppose they're called "tents" because several sides are canvas, as is the ceiling, but there are wooden doors, a pair of glass-paned window-doors leading to a balcony (that surrounds the "tent"), and the other openings are covered with screening, including the ceiling above the toilet, shower, and wash basins.
Dinner -- correction: elegant dinner -- is served starting at 7:30. We arrive at 8:00. Ravioli for starters, then leak soup, then lamb with vegetables, and finally a rich, chocolate-pudding-like dessert. Every dish is a masterpiece. Yum!
After eating too much we return to our "tent" and I fire up my laptop computer. A few minutes later Jim comments, "I love that sound.
"What sound," I inquire.
"That sound," says he. 'It was just a second ago, the hippos!"
"That sound," say I with some chagrin, "was my stomach!"
It's time to turn in.
Saturday, December 24, 2005
'Tis the day before Christmas and all through the tent, Jim and I receive our wakeup call at 5:15.
We meet Clemence at the Land Cruiser at 6:00 and are on the road as the sun just begins to color the sky. Clemence told us last night an early morning drive is best for game viewing, so we're taking a packed breakfast.
For an hour or so at the end of the drive yesterday we saw few to no animals, so I wondered last night if we'd have little to nothing to see all the way back to the airport today.
I got my answer even before the wakeup call. All night there was a cacophony of loud animal sounds: hippo, lion, baboon, Jungle Jim (yes, JJ was producing some pretty frightening sounds himself) . . . and sure enough animals are in abundance: antelope, wart hogs, giraffe, cape buffalo, etc. We stop for breakfast at a rise that offers a grand view of hundreds of square miles of the Serengeti. It's breathtaking.
I have a breakfast cereal consisting of nuts, seeds, oats, and who knows what else, but it's good! I try what looks like a large sugared doughnut hole, but no, it's a hard-boiled egg wrapped in a ground meat coating and deep fried, I suppose. Tasty! I also have a couple of fritters and two cups of tea. It's an usual but enjoyable meal.
Back in the Land Cruiser we very quickly come across a pride of lions (photo). There are ten of them, and they're finishing up a buffalo kill. Some are satiated and are already resting comfortable under the shade of a nearby tree, but six or seven are still working on dinner (perhaps I should say breakfast).
A couple of scuffles break out and there are a few tugging contests with the carcass, but it's great fun to watch them. After they eat, they take a long drink from the adjacent stream. Several vehicles come from the opposite direction and their occupants see only the snoozing lions. We're watching the real action.
We must have watched for close to an hour, taking pictures, listening to Clemence explain lion behavior, and observing the scene. What a treat!
Our drive back to the camp is leisurely and we arrive at 12:30, just about lunchtime. Salads, soup, couscous, chicken, and a chocolate tart are on the menu. (I decline the tart; I'm eating too much!)
At 4:00 we're again at the Land Cruiser ready for our afternoon game drive. We see lots more animals and have several new lion sightings. Each time I see some lions, I think of my granddaughter, Brianna, who is fascinated with the cats.
Most sightings so far have been at some distance; this morning's encounter with lions at a kill was probably the closest. It was perhaps 25 yards. I'm sure we'll see more lions, hopefully at an even closer range.
On the way back to the camp, about a quarter mile from the gate, we find elephants (photo). Clemence says there are more than 100 of them and we find ourselves in their midst. Several are right next to the road. Two on the left are jostling. Every now and then some of the beasts cross the road, some in front of us, others in back. A half dozen or so on our right are breaking branches of trees and eating them. I'm taking video and stills like crazy. It's getting dark so Jim doesn't think his camera will register the images. We spend maybe fifteen minutes drinking in the sights and then head for the camp. It was a great experience.
Anxious to pack and make entries in my log, we head for dinner only minutes after the dining room opens. The camp manager, Anita, intercepts us and asks if we'd like to join her and some others for the Christmas Eve meal. Of course, we'd be honored and we accept.
It's a fancy affair. Before we begin, however, we pop some "poppers" (tubes with pulls tabs on each end and go off with a bang when pulled). Inside each is a not-so-funny "joke" (mine: Why does the ostrich sit in the middle of the road? Because he wants to put it all on the line) and a little gift. I receive a drinking glass "cozy," a little doily to keep bugs out of my drink.
The menu: salmon, celery and blue cheese soup, turkey with all the trimmings, vegetables, and for dessert, ice cream in a chocolate shell and a small piece of fruit cake. Wine and champagne are also served and when we're done, we're not done at all. A big tray of cheeses and crackers is placed on the table and we eat some more.
It's a real treat to be invited to the "captain's" table for such a nice meal. We excuse ourselves before the brandy is served, and when we get back to our tent, it's after 10:30 and we're both too tired to do anything but go to bed.
What do we find on each of our pillows? A Christmas gift! A fine leather wallet with a notepad inside. How thoughtful. I am mightily impressed!
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Our wake-up call is at 6:30, but Jim has already been up for half an hour (to shower, shave, etc.) when it comes. We exchange "Merry Christmas" greetings. I take a quick shower and we're at breakfast at 7:00. By 8:00 our bags are loaded on the Land Cruiser, as are we, and we're off.
As we start off, I ask Clemence about what the Tanzanian people think about terrorism. He says most understand terrorism must be stopped and they praise President Bush for the actions he has taken in this regard. Clemence says if we don't stop terrorism now, it will only get worse and will be many more times harder to combat. I think lots of Democrats could learn a great deal from Clemence.
There are more lion sightings, several of them as a matter of fact, but from afar. Maybe the highlight of our drive is a stop at a hippo pool (photo).
Clemence says there are more than 100 hippos lounging in the mud, but my guess is it's closer to 50, but I didn't count. We observe them from some rocks directly above where they're clustered together, and the photo and video opportunities couldn't be better.
Most of the water has evaporated since it's the dry season, so the poor animals are packed into the deepest portion of the pool like sardines in a tin. The deepest part of the pool isn't very deep at all. They use their tails to splash water on their backs to protect their sensitive skins. If there's no rain soon, some of the 4000-to-7000-pound beasts are likely to die. (Can you see the crocodile in the picture above? He's right at the water's edge in the upper center of the photo.)
We're on the road for maybe an hour and a half, when another vehicle pulls up and stops us. An occupant gives Clemence an envelope. It contains Jim's glasses which he accidentally left in the room this morning at Migration Camp. Some staff person found them, gave them to the manager, who was able to locate a vehicle going in our direction, and he asked the driver to deliver them to us. That's impressive service! Jungle Jim is overwhelmed. And very grateful. I'm amazed.
Late in the morning we come upon a vehicle stopped at the side of the road. The hood is up. Someone is poking around at some of the engine components. A fan belt is on the ground. A couple of our vehicle occupants express angst at being delayed for so long. They are naturally frustrated to come such a long way to see Tanzania and then be stuck with nothing much to look at. Clemence tells us the driver wants a push, so we wait several minutes to give him a shove, and are then back on track.
The Serengeti Sopa Lodge, our destination, is a little disappointing. But after Migration Camp, I think anything would be disappointing. The rooms are nice and large, but the carpet is old, the whole facility seems old, and the food (lunch) is nothing special. I'd say the food at Gombe was better. Certainly the food at Migration was better, much better. I think we were spoiled at Migration Camp!
One of the nice features, however, is a grand view looking out across the Serengeti. Each room has this view, as does the dining room and several observation spots. It looks like water has been put out, maybe a salt lick, too, and animals abound: zebra, buffalo, baboon, wildebeest, wart hog, and more.
After lunch JJ takes a nap. It's clear to me he is battling a cold, but I'm not sure he has admitted that to himself yet.
On our 4:30 drive we see more of the same, but we also see cheetah -- four of them, but at quite a distance, another leopard (but at an even greater distance), some baby hyenas (two jackals at their den), and two dik-diks. I get a photo of a colorful lizard. We also see tsetse flies, and we see they like to bite us. This is not nice.
Clouds obstruct the sun and the temperature drops. All of a sudden it's cool. We wish we had our sweaters or jackets with us.
Back at the lodge shortly before 7:00 we change clothes and then attend a lodge-sponsored get-together "around the bonfire". There are snacks and drinks, but we're a little late and miss the snacks.
The staff choir suddenly appears and serenades us with Christmas carols, but they're unlike any Christmas carols I've ever heard. They're sung in Swahili and could be soap commercials, for all I can tell.
We are served another Christmas dinner in the dining room: celery and apple soup, lasagne of lobster and red snapper with saffron pernod sauce, roast turkey with cranberry tartlet and candied ginger stuffing, and dessert: chocolate ganache with nutmeg carmalized pineapple. Sounds delicious, but it isn't. The soup, though, is actually quite good, but the lasagne isn't very tasty as far as I'm concerned, and the turkey is quite dry. The ganache is too rich for my taste. I'm running low on dollar bills, so I can't tip the waiter. We make a hurried departure from the dining room and decide to turn in early.
Monday, December 26, 2005
I'm in the bathroom when my alarm clock goes off. It's 6:30. JJ and I shower, get dressed, and head for breakfast. At 8:00 I'm ready for today's safari drive, but Jim's cold has him a little bit spaced out. He decides to bypass the drive.
Clemence and I cover lots of territory -- more than 200 miles -- but there are no stunning encounters. We see more lions (three in the morning, twelve in the late afternoon), witness thousands of wildebeests streaming across the plains, find one lion chewing on the rear section of a baby zebra, observe two hyenas working on a newly killed baby zebra, and we have a flat tire. All in one day.
But the Serengeti is magnificent to see. The expanse is stunning. The number of animals is surprisingly large. The bumpy roads and constant clouds of dust that follow the vehicle remind me this is nature's great wilderness.
Clemence and I enjoy a packed lunch in the parked Land Cruiser. We watch almost transfixed as the endless stream of wildebeests gallops by. It's a peaceful and soothing scene.
By the time I get back to the lodge (about seven p.m.), Jim is feeling much better. A doctor visited him twice during the day and gave him medications: a lung decongestant, penicillin, and cough syrup. JJ was able to get some rest and seems to be getting his energy back. He says the staff people at the lodge were very friendly and helpful. He has nothing but praise for them.
We go to dinner and have the best meal yet at this lodge. It's a buffet: coconut soup, several salads, rice, two kinds of potatoes, beef, chicken, stew, casseroles, and more. Dessert is an apple tart-like thing and a heavenly piece of nut fudge with chocolate sauce. I ask the waiter to give my compliments to the chef.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
We depart the Serengeti Sopa Lodge about 8 a.m. and head east. We have several animal sightings, but nothing spectacular. We turn off the main road (gravel with lots of bumps) and follow a bumpier road to Oldupai Gorge (links) and the Richard Leakey Museum and Archaeological Site. Happily we spent but a brief time there, then continue on to the Ngorongoro Crater (links).
On the 100-square mile crater floor wildlife flourishes. My safari description says "Ngorongoro contains possibly the largest permanent concentration of wildlife in Africa, with an estimated average of 30,000 large mammals."
We see countless wildebeest, zebra, and antelope, and also a good sampling of wart hog, ostrich, and cape buffalo. We see a bunch of black-eared foxes, a very rare black rhino and we find two lions mating.
The crater gates close at 6 p.m., so all vehicles must be out before then. We get to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge by just about 6, but I'm feeling cold. The temperature is chilly, but I'm shaking from head to foot.
JJ and I head for our room (#15), where I put on long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, and jump into bed. It takes three layers of blankets and a heavy bedspread for me to begin to warm up. I ask Jim to have the dining room send some food to me and then I fall quickly to sleep.
A short time later "dinner" is served and I nibble at the pumpkin soup, lamb, and mashed potatoes. I consume the dessert tart and some tea, then fall asleep again. I wonder if I'm fighting altitude sickness, but that doesn't sound right because I didn't have trouble the last time I was here. Many years ago I visited Peru and came down with a terrible case of altitude sickness at Cusco and on the train to Machu Picchu, but those altitudes were several thousand feet higher, I think. Here at the lodge it's only 7800 feet above sea level.
I wonder if I'm coming down with a bad case of flu or some disease. Time will tell.
On almost every Africa trip I've taken I've had time-zone headaches, or stomach aches, or other physical woes. I was really proud of myself for remaining so well up to this point.
I wake up several times during the night, and find I'm not as cold as before. Slowly, I peal back the blankets until they're all off. The chill is gone.
I hear a knock on the window in the middle of the night -- just one knock -- so I ignore it. Then there's a loud bang on the window and I get up to see what's going on. I open the curtain that covers the windows and can just barely make out a huge silhouette. It's dark. After all, it's the middle of the night. It's a cape buffalo grazing on grass right at the edge of the window! His horns bumped the glass.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
I wake up after ten-plus hours of sleep and all signs of my chills are gone. I feel a little queasy, but otherwise I'm ready to go. Jim and I have breakfast, meet Clemence about 7:30, and start our game drive down into the crater. After a short time I find I've apparently traded chills for a round of stomach pains, but mercifully they're not severe nor long lasting. By noon all pains are gone.
On our drive we see several rhinos, some elephants, the mating lions again, and just before returning to the lodge we spot a serval. It's rare to see this creature -- a fairly small cat with cheetah-like markings that usually runs around at night -- so we're quite lucky. It's a thrill to be in the Ngorongoro Crater and see all the animals.
In the photo, wildebeests graze at the edge of the crater floor. The brown section shows where the grass had burned.
We return to the lodge shortly before the lunch period ends -- 2:30 -- and we get a good meal. Then I walk around and take a couple of pictures. The view of the crater floor from the rim of the crater is spectacular. I see rain falling on the western edge. Sun floods much of the remainder of the area. I'm too high up to see any animals, but the sight is nonetheless spectacular.
Clemence (photo) has a warm smile and is an excellent guide, driver, and buddy.
I go to the gift shop to buy some postcards, but learn the shopkeeper has no stamps. No need to worry; he lets me take the cards to the room, write on them, then bring them back. I pay for the cards and postage and when the stamps arrive, the shopkeeper will affix them and send the cards off. I thank him a couple of times. "It's my pleasure," he says.
Because there's a water shortage at the lodge, no laundry is accepted. As a result, I decide to wash one pair of underwear, hoping it will tide me over to the next lodge; hoping, too, the next lodge has plenty of water. Here at Ngorongoro, we're asked to use minimum water for teeth brushing and toilet flushing.
There are two periods when hot water is provided -- a couple of hours in the morning and a couple around dinner time. This morning the hot water flow was so weak, neither of us could take a shower. Now, late afternoon, the flow seems better, so I hop in the tub and have a go at it. There's enough warm water to shower and shampoo. I feel rejuvenated.
Dinner is served from 7:00 to 8:00 and we get to the dining room shortly after it opens. Dinner is very good. (I guess I don't have to include the menu of every single meal we eat!)
We pack for tomorrow's departure, then head to bed. JJ asks me to wake him if another buffalo knocks on our window. I open the curtains thinking there might be a remote chance of another visitor. I sit up in bed scanning the darkness outside, straining for the shape of an animal. After maybe a half hour, I get up, brush my teeth, and get back in bed. I look again for any sign of life on the other side of the glass. There's nothing. I close my eyes and wait for the sandman to take over.
Literally moments later there's a knock on the window. It's another buffalo! "Jim, he's here," I call out, and the two of us watch as the beast saunters slowly from right to left. I wondered if JJ really believed me about last night's sighting. He does now.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
When Jim's alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., we look out again and see four buffaloes clustered together down the hill near the tree line maybe fifty yards from our window. When we were escorted to our room last night, the guide said elephants were also in the camp, but we didn't see any.
We did see ants, though. There's a small ant hill growing right inside our room close to the window. We have to be careful where we step.
We're on the road about 8:00 headed for the Tarangire Sopa Lodge in the Tarangire National Park. We spot a smattering of animals along the way, but there's good news: the road is paved! We've ridden on rough, dirt-or-gravel roads ever since arriving in the Serengeti. It's a treat to have smooth sailing. The road is new, opened just this year!
The Tarangire Sopa Lodge is very impressive. Though similar to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge in many ways, and apparently built about the same time, it looks newer and fresher to me. There is only one problem: at the registration desk I'm told there's no reservation for us. The clerk scans the arrivals list several times; my name is not on it.
Clemence arrives on the scene at just the right moment, and shows our voucher. There are some hurried conversations -- in Swahili -- and a little scampering about. Jungle Jim and I are asked to sit down and be comfortable while the matter is resolved.
In ten minutes or so the verdict is in: through some oversight or mix-up, people at the Sopa Lodge office in Arusha had received the reservation when it was submitted several months ago, but had neglected to forward it to the lodge.
Nevertheless, a short time later a room is assigned to us (#48) and our bags are carried there. We go to the dining room and have a delicious lunch. One of the salads -- red cabbage -- is outstanding. It has a spicy dressing with a hint of cilantro (I think). The meal is served buffet style and I have three salads, ground beef, pan fried potatoes, and a pineapple upside-down cake with custard sauce. (Oh that's right, I'm not going to go over each menu.)
We have a couple of hours before our afternoon game drive, so I take some pictures, then get my laptop computer out to make some entries. I plug it in to recharge the battery, but it won't work. I can't get any power to the computer. I had the same problem at Ngorongoro, and had to use battery power for entries there. Now I'm low on power and I have to get it charged.
The adapter set I'm using is the same one I've used a number of times before, but as a last resort I decide to try a different plug. Presto! It works! Thank goodness!
Not much new to see on the 4:00 game drive, but we see five more lions; they're resting peacefully under a couple of trees maybe eighty to a hundred yards from our vehicle. The sun plunges into a large bank of clouds on its way to setting and Clemence heads back to the lodge. We must arrive there before sunset.
I catch some movement out of the corner of my eye and yell: "Stop! Snake! Look, there on the road!" Clemence puts on the brakes and we see a boomslang snake -- maybe four feet long, very poisonous -- slither across the road to our right, and into the grass. We watch as it makes its way to the base of a bush maybe ten feet from us. Off the road it's nearly impossible to see.
Clemence had told us earlier in the day about a client who said he'd pay $100 for each snake Clemence could find. Clemence found six of them! And the client paid! In Traveler's Checks! And the checks didn't bounce!
So, Clemence says to me: "Okay, now you owe me $100."
"Oh, no," I reply. "I found the snake. You owe me $100!"
After the game drive, on our way to our room, we take a detour by the pool to look for a hyrax. I saw some earlier in the day, but JJ missed them.
Much to our surprise, instead of hyrax, we come upon a waterbuck in the path. Another is ten yards away. As we circle the pool, we see something swoop down and just barely skim the water. It's a bat! He and/or his buddies make several "attacks," apparently to have a drink.
We can't find a hyrax.
Jim and I are in the dining room shortly after it opens, 7:30. It's a very good meal (no, I won't tell you what I ate) but with the drive I'm very thirsty. Temperatures were cool at Ngorongoro; they're hot here. I have an orange soda, a ginger ale, and a bitter lemon. And I'm still thirsty. Jim has an orange soda and two bitter lemons.
After dinner we sit in the lounge and contemplate the trip thus far. How wonderful to go new places, see new things, eat new food, and enjoy new experiences. How fortunate it is we're able to do that. We have many blessings!
Friday, December 30, 2005
Jim's alarm clock, set for 6:10 a.m., isn't necessary, because porters are waking up people in rooms all around us and we wake up, too. At 8:00 we're on the road again and visit the five lions we saw yesterday. They haven't moved much, some no more than 25 yards, and they're still sleeping off yesterday's meal. We see the probably site of the kill. Now, only vultures remain, picking at the leftovers.
We have an exciting elephant encounter (photo). About fifteen pachyderms are on their way to the river for a drink, but the approach of our vehicle stops them and they cluster together under a big tree. Clemence waits, thinking they'll soon muster sufficient bravery to cross the road.
We wait ten minutes, maybe more, and from our left comes another herd of elephants, about 25 in number. They all squeeze together under the tree briefly, and then, as if believing their increased numbers give them sufficient strength, they march to and across the road maybe fifty yards in front of us.
Several of the larger elephants turn and face us, forming a "shield" for the others. They raise their trunks and flair their ears. Once all the elephants are safely across, several of them stop, swing around, and give us what I presume are threatening stares. We continue to take pictures and exclaim in delight over the encounter as they continue to the river.
Some of the baobab trees are enormous. Jim shows how huge this one is (photo: Jim is at the right). Elephants like to scrape off the bark and eat it.
Back at the lodge, lunch is delicious. The cilantro dressing is again available and I heavily douse my coleslaw and even my lasagna with it. Mmmm, good!
Our four o'clock drive is rather uneventful, although we see some more lions, albeit at a hundred yards or so. But the tsetse flies are back and they're a bother. I use my hat to swat at them. I don't kill a one, but Clemence dispatches several. Jim may have taken a couple down, too.
I thought we'd see at least one tree-climbing lion during our stay at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge. We've seen quite a few lions, but not one of them in a tree. Clemence says it's extremely rare sight. I think the literature ("Tarangire may be the best park in Africa for seeing lions in trees.") might be a little misleading.
Upon our return to the lodge, Clemence announces this is our last game drive. Tomorrow we head to Arusha then on to the airport to catch the KLM flight to Amsterdam, then on to Detroit, then back to Florida. Our grand adventure is coming to an abrupt conclusion. But all good things must come to an end.
Clemence is remarkable. He has to be an encyclopedia to know all the animal information he has told us. He has to have an eagle's eye to be so effective at spotting game. He has to have the instinct of a GPS device to find all the right roads and make all the correct turns. He has to be a master scheduler to make sure we're where we're supposed to be when we're supposed to be there. He has to have unending patience to answer our many questions -- some more than once. He has to have the multi-processing capabilities of a high-speed computer to simultaneously drive the vehicle, look for animals, listen for radio messages, and navigate around all the bumps and holes in the road. He has to be a master negotiator to deal with problems like our missed reservation at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge. And he has to have the sense of humor of a comedian to keep things light and fun and enjoyable.
And Clemence is all of this and more. He's a class act. It has been an absolute delight to spend eight days with him. His attitude is positive, his outlook is upbeat, and he seems to be a genuinely nice person. We're lucky Clemence has been our driver, guide, and social director.
After dinner -- another great meal, by the way -- we pause in the lodge to savor the excitement and satisfaction of our adventure. In the TV room I try out my billiard ball skills (woefully lacking), while JJ catches up with news on CNN (nothing earthshaking seems to be going on in the world). Then, reluctantly, we head for the room.
Saturday, December 31, 2005
I don't have a restful night. It has been quite warm here. We sleep with the overhead fan on all night and last night I slept without a T-shirt.
Jim's alarm makes some anemic beeping sounds at the appointed hour and we begin our last day in Tanzania. We're ready at the Land Cruiser at 8:00 and on our way shortly thereafter.
Although our game drives are over, there are still animals to see along the road. We're surprised to see five lions, but they're quite far away; I suppose more than 100 yards.
We stop at a souvenir shop on the way to Arusha. There's music playing over the loud speakers: "Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . " reminding us it's New Year's Eve. We spend maybe twenty minutes there, but nothing interests Jim or me. I tell Clemence the prices are too high, even after a round of bickering, and he decides to stop at another store for us. This one is in downtown Arusha.
The traffic is a mess. Cars, bikes, and people are everywhere and it seems like a city-wide traffic jam. Horns are blaring, radios are making loud noises, and people are shouting at one another. Clemence says there are no traffic lights anywhere in town, so driving becomes a big game of "chicken." At one point a car coming from the other direction screeches on its brakes and I brace for the crash. There isn't one, but it was very close.
We go to a small shop. It has just a couple of narrow aisles. There are some nice wood carvings -- in ebony! -- and the prices seem to me to be pretty reasonable. I make two purchases.
We're then taken to the Arusha Coffee House, where we're assigned a day room (#16). Clemence asks for the comment sheet I prepared last night and I give it to him. I was lavish in my praise for him, because he deserves it!
The sheet also solicited criticisms, and since I couldn't think of any as far as Clemence is concerned, I thought I'd include a comment regarding our stay at Gombe at the beginning of the trip. Clemence was not our guide at the time, but I thought the African Adventure people (who would ultimately receive the sheet, I'm told) might be interested, nevertheless.
Clemence reads what I had written and is not pleased. "I was not your guide in Gombe," he protests. Yes, of course. I explain I just want to mention my preference for no radio playing during the meals at Gombe. "But this sheet is about me," he says, "not Gombe."
"Let me cross it out," I suggest.
"No," says Clemence.
"I'll sign where I've deleted the sentence," I say. But apparently the damage is done and cannot not be undone. I immediately see that what I thought was an innocent comment is what Clemence considers a stain on his stellar record. He turns around and walks back to his Land Cruiser and our magnificent eight days with him ends on a sour note.
I feel depressed. The last thing in the world I want to do is anything that would upset Clemence. He's too special, too nice a guy. But it seems I did just that.
Included in the charges of the trip was a tip for Clemence ($50 per day -- a standard amount, according to Clemence). I was so pleased with the way he treated us, however, I had decided to give him an additional tip, but he gets away before I have a chance to do so.
There's a long delay from the time we place our lunch orders (for beef-burgers) until they're delivered, and during the wait I keep thinking about the comment incident. Didn't all the high praise and superlatives matter? Perhaps Clemence didn't even read them, and focused exclusively on the criticism. Couldn't he include a note: "I was not Jim's and Fred's guide at Gombe?" Yes, of course, but I suppose Clemence considers the words a black mark on his record. Darn! I'd be willing to write the whole comment sheet over again and exclude the criticism, but there's no chance of that now. Darn!
When our beef-burgers arrive, we're surprised. In what appears to be extra-long hot-dog buns are a half-dozen or so pieces of beef! Not exactly the sandwich we expected, but it turns out to be quite tasty.
Unfortunately, Jim is not doing very well with his cold. In spite of the medications he received at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge and some twenty-plus pills, tablets, or caplets he takes every day (I think they're mostly herbs, vitamins, and supplements), the cold continues. It looks like it is now settling in his chest, but he also has stomach upset and headaches, too. He has been a real trooper to put up with the long drives, bumpy roads, and dusty conditions.
We have our belongings packed and are ready to leave the Arusha Coffee House at 5:30 p.m., the appointed hour. We expect a taxi driver or someone from Ranger Safaris to take us to the airport, but instead, it's . . . Clemence!
When I offer to write another comment sheet, he tells us he has already submitted the original form. We talk about the matter for maybe ten or fifteen minutes. He says everything is OK. Hakuna Matata!
At the airport we say our goodbyes and I get to give Clemence the extra tip after all! I fear he might be disappointed with it, however.
We sit in the waiting room for a couple of hours before the KLM flight arrives, then we get on board. It's only a 45-minute hop to Dar es Salaam, where some passengers get off and others get on.
At one point during the loading process, the plane's TV screens come to life and we hear a swing band launch into a rousing rendition of "Strike Up the Band." The pilot comes on the intercom. "Happy New Year, everybody," he says, "It's midnight."
The TV video, obviously made just for the occasion -- was subsequently played again . . . a couple of times.
Sunday, January 1, 2006
As expected, sleep on the plane is not peaceful nor sound, but it is sleep. Well, sort of. We have a couple-hour layover in Amsterdam before we connect with our flight of eight-plus hours to Detroit. We're delayed on takeoff, however, because of some passenger seat problem, and a faulty call button. Repairs consume more than an hour.
I hear the flight attendant talking to the guy sitting behind me. I hear words like "serious illness," "severe flu symptoms," "I've never seen someone as sick as you," and "we'll have a wheelchair ready in Detroit."
I'm thinking: guess what I'm going to be breathing for the next eight hours! It's likely to be either exhaust from Mr. Dread Disease seated behind me, or the exhales of Jungle (Fever) Jim sitting next to me. He's still coughing and sneezing and sputtering quite a bit.
When we land in Detroit we have less than an hour to catch our flight to Fort Lauderdale. That's usually plenty of time. But not when you have to go through customs, a process that for us consumes just about an hour. We check the gate number on the flight monitors -- it's A47 -- then we step lively.
When we arrive at the gate, the door to the ramp is closed, the flight check-in people are gone, but the plane is still parked at the end of the ramp. I figure that if I open the door, an alarm will probably go off, and maybe someone will come and maybe they'll let us get on the plane.
I open the door. A loud alarm sounds. No one comes. A dozen or more people sitting nearby are watching me with curiosity, but no official responds to the alarm. So I try it again. The loud signal sounds again. People are now eyeing me with suspicion, but no one of authority makes an appearance.
Meanwhile, JJ spots another bank of TV flight-status monitors and he hurries over to double-check the gate number. He calls to me. "It's A57," and we make a beeline for the new gate.
When we get there, it's past take-off time, but because the flight crew is late, loading of the plane hasn't even begun yet. We sit down, catch our breath, then casually walk aboard when our row is called.
Such incidents can be expected on an adventure such as ours. It's sort of like a test. Can we pack everything we need? Can we catch all your flights? Will our batteries hold up? Will we find somewhere to recharge them? Will there be episodes of jet lag, food poisoning, colds, etc., etc.? Will we leave something behind? Will we run out of money? They're all part of the "fun" of travel.
For me, these little inconveniences are a small price to pay for the excitement, joy, and satisfaction of spending time watching animals in Africa. There's a grand peacefulness there, a serene beauty (albeit a little rough and tough at times), a sublime escape from the noise, congestion, and frantic pace of city life.
This visit is just 15 days, but it confirms once again that Africa's allure remains potent. I must begin plans for my next trip.
(By the way, a week after the flight to Detroit, I'm showing no signs of any cold or illness.)