Saturday, 31 December 2011

... Tanzania: Ending 2011 Itchy Feet Style!

At approximately 20km wide, Ngorongoro crater is the World's largest intact volcanic caldera and one of Tanzania's most visited destinations primarily due to the fact it is one of Africa's best-known wildlife-viewing areas. Despite the steepness of the walls, there is an ever-present abundance of wildlife due to the permanent existence of Lake Magadi, the soda lake at the base of the crater.

The popularity means that everyone and their dog wants to visit and so the earlier a start one can get the better. This for me meant a 5am wake up and on the road by 7am to be on the floor of the crater preferably before everyone else. Thankfully the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) has restricted the number of vehicles around any particular animal to five although because we went down so early it was not an issue for most of our time during our morning visit there.

The crater is believed to support a population of about 25000 large mammals alone. They are not, however, confined by the crater walls and can leave freely but of course due to the conditions most choose to stay. Grazing animals dominate the landscape then there are hippos, giant-tusked elephants, waterbucks, reedbucks, bushbucks, baboons and monkeys. All these animals in turn support the large predators and the scavengers.

But Ngorongoro crater is also where most people come with the hope to see one of Tanzania's last remaining black rhinos. There are said to only be 25 remaining in the crater (not sure of the numbers elsewhere) and they are critically endangered. In fact the Western black rhino was declared extinct only last month. The species as a whole has been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal poaching for their horn, and to a lesser extent by loss of habitat. Although the rhino is referred to as black, it is actually more of a grey/brown/white colour in appearance.

We were so busy scanning the horizon for the rhino that this perhaps explains why it took a moment or two for what was right in front of our eyes to register. She didn't care that we were there either... she was too busy eyeing up a gazelle in the distance. I had died and gone to heaven as we pulled up right next to a cheetah!!! Even more devastatingly beautiful close up and yet the power oozed from her. Was I about to be dazzled by such an amazing sight of nature at its best and worst? All I could do was wait. I could have waited until next Christmas, I didn't care. Just watching her as she plotted a potential attack was thrilling to watch. It was as though we weren't there or that she was using the 4x4 as camouflage. My camera was going nuts especially when she stood and began walking slowly forwards. But she appeared to grow bored with putting on a show and decided that she was no longer hungry, she knew she had done enough to enchant us. And with that she lay down in a patch of flowers and went to sleep. The gazelle oblivious walked off into the horizon.

I think Lady Luck worked her magic big time today and then some! The sighting of the first black rhino came relatively quickly, thanks of course to Fil and his binocular eyes. Then a family of 3, a single rhino followed by a huge rhino which looked really black with massive horns basking in the sun. Even though they were all at some distance there was no mistaking what they were. They look like they mean business even from a far and those horns look sharp & dangerous. I was very happy with my photos: the new telephoto had been a fantastic investment.

Finally the Big 5 was complete. With a few more lion sightings, a serval and a warthog standoff against two hyenas to protect his family, it was sadly time to leave the wildlife behind and head back to Arusha to ring in the New Year with my travel companions. On our way back we stopped off at an orphanage to drop off some goodies. It wasn't a pretty sight but the kids were loved by the staff and seemed happy. Most had lost their parents to HIV and/or AIDS. Things like that certainly make you stop and think. I gave out the packet of biscuits that had been in my lunchbox. Not much but the looks on the kid's faces couldn't help but make you smile.

As the clock ticks down to midnight, what a fantastic end to a wonderful series of adventures and an absolutely fantastic way to end 2011.

Happy New Year! May 2012 provide you with much wanderlust for your itchy feet.....

Friday, 30 December 2011

... Tanzania: Faster Than A Speeding Bullet?

Before leaving the Serengeti today there was one last morning game drive before heading to the 8300 sq km Ngorongoro Conservation Area, infamous for game viewing.

Hopefully I've managed to give you all the impression that each game drive has just got better and better. Today was no exception with a vast array of animals providing your camera with plenty of action. Even if you already had 16 shots of the same species you still could not resist a few more when you came across it again. However, the primary reason for such a stellar game drive was the viewing of not one but two Acinonyx jubatus raineyii... More commonly known as the cheetah. They were both lounging together on top of what looked like a flattened and disused termite mound surveying the savanna. Out of all the big cats the cheetah is my favourite. It can achieve the fastest land speed of any living animal: between 112 and 120 km per hr in short bursts covering distances up to 500 m and has the ability to accelerate from 0 to over 100 km per hr in three seconds. I was absolutely thrilled. If I was taken aback by the beauty of the leopards then these truly did take your breath away. I was awe struck and even though they were not quite as close as I perhaps would have liked it was still amazing to see these creatures in their natural habitat.

On the way to the campsite at the Ngorongoro crater rim we detoured to the Olduvai (aka Oldupai) Gorge. It is a ravine approximately 50km long and one of Africa's best-known archaeological sites that provides an inside into truly ancient life believing to go as far back as to the days of our earliest ancestors. In 1959 Mary Leakey discovered a 1.8 million year old ape-like skull which famously has given rise to the very heated debate about human evolution. Then in 1972, 3.75 million year old human-like footprints were discovered about 45km south of the Gorge. These are the oldest known hominid prints found to date. The museum whilst small is extremely interesting and well worth the visit with lots of information and fossils/replicas on view including the prints (a cast). The guides are only too willing to sit you down and chat about the Gorge. At certain times you can go down into the Gorge with one of the guides although our schedule didn't allow for this.

The sun was just starting to set as we pulled into the campsite on the crater rim making for some stunning views into the crater. I was very excited for my final day tomorrow, half of which would start with an early morning descent into the crater. In the interim it was time to refuel, sit around the camp fire and talk the evening away with such questions as "If you could be any of the animals you have seen so far, which would you be?"

My answer was simple... The beautiful cheetah.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

... Tanzania: Pole Pole (Slowly Slowly)

At a "measly" 14769 sq km, the Serengeti is renowned for providing visitors with one of the greatest wildlife experiences on the planet as, pardon the corny pun, the "circle of life" plays itself out again and again and again. And not at all Disney-like. This is raw, this is powerful, this is primeval survival! You don't come here expecting to see lion cubs singing "Hakuna Matata" with a warthog & a meerkat.

The area where we would be spending two nights camping was in the Seronera area of the national park, which is in the southeast. The area is simply so vast that there is no way I could see it all in the time I had but I didn't mind, the area we were in was plenty big enough. It took us the rest of yesterday after the Maasai family visit driving to get to it too. A drive through the Ngorongoro conservation area, along the rim of the crater and down onto the plains afforded you with an introduction to the sheer vastness of this acacia-dotted savanna. Even en route I began to get a taste of what was going to be on offer. Imagine tens of thousands of hooved animals moving constantly in search of fresh grasslands. More than a million wildebeests inhabit the area and are famous for their annual migration. Not doing too shabby of a job in terms of numbers are about 200000 zebras. Many of these animals which we saw were heavily pregnant with calving/foaling season only a couple of months away. Interestingly, only about 60% of the 8000 wildebeest born daily survive beyond 4 months. Photographing large herds of giraffes, elephants, Thomson's & Grant's gazelles, elands, impalas with their harems & "bachelor groups", klipspringers, buffaloes, hippos and warthogs never grew tiresome during the game drives we went out on. Then there was the fascinating birdlife which included mean looking vultures, haughty secretary birds and birds that looked like they belonged in a tropical paradise. Fan-bloody-tastic!

Then of course there were the predators, of which I most wanted to see were the cats. Fil had an amazing eye, as though he had telescopic eyesight, and so you can imagine my delight when by the end of today I had been mere meters away from a pride of lazy sun basking lions, had two leopard sightings under my belt on two separate days, photographed a bunch of tree-sleeping lions. The Serengeti was providing me with the most amazing and wonderful canvass to such amazing & majestic wildlife. The leopards were devastatingly beautiful creatures and neither seemed to care that we were there staring at them as they lazed in their trees. Interestingly, many of the lions have collars with transmitters fitted so their movements can be studied. I was fortunate to see a lioness stalking a young impala only to be thwarted by a stretch of water. The impala likely doesn't realize how lucky it was. After 3 game drives I was well on the way to sighting the Big 5: the lion, African elephant, cape buffalo and leopard, with just the rhinoceros left to see. The members of the Big Five were chosen for the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved, rather than their size. I even had the Ugly 5 (yes this list exists) under my belt: the wildebeest, warthog, spotted hyena, Marabou stork and the vulture. Their title, I'm sure, needs no explanation! On top of that there were so many more animals sighted including Nile crocodiles, jackals, bat-eared foxes, mongoose and dik-diks to name but a few.

For a second night I get to sleep under the stars with things quite literally howling, laughing, snorting, roaring and going bump in the night. You learn that patience is a virtue - the wildlife is on its schedule not yours - and that "pole pole" applies here too not just on Kilimanjaro. You also learn to a). watch where you are stepping because buffalo poo is a right royal pain in the arse to clean off your shoes and b). bring everything into your tent because the hyenas will take off with it, often just one of your shoes making life rather awkward for you I'm sure.

I had found my paradise.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

... Tanzania: You've Got What Pierced?

Today was an early start to the day as once breakfast was out of the way I was off to visit a Maasai family, one of the most colourful tribes found in Northern Tanzania and who have somehow managed to hold onto a centuries old lifestyle. They are pastoral nomads whose culture centres around their cattle for it is that which provides many of their needs. It is also a society that is patriarchal and highly decentralized and so it was very interesting to therefore go to a household where the head of the house was a widowed female as women usually play a markedly subservient role and have no inheritance rights. Whilst polygamy is widespread remarriage amongst widows is rare.

The family met us as we arrived and were dressed in traditional gear. They began a traditional song & dance before welcoming us into their home. Maasai music traditionally consists of rhythms provided by the group singing harmonies whilst a song leader, or olaranyani, sings the melody. The males then began the jumping dance and invited the males of our group to individually take part even dressing them in a traditional Shúkà, the sheets worn wrapped around the body . When it came to us females we were given one or two of the large beaded necklaces, I was given two (a smaller one sits on top of the larger one) and they packed quite the weight! We then stood in a line and had to kind of rock back & forth with a bit of a bounce to make these necklaces bounce. It was a lot harder than it looks but lots of fun!

The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common and was seen in virtually everyone in this family bar the really young ones. Various materials are used to both pierce and stretch the lobes, including thorns for piercing, twigs, bundles of twigs, stones, bits of elephant tusks etc. The women were wearing various forms of beaded ornaments in both the ears. That was when I decided to show off my piercings. They seemed absolutely fascinated by the various barbells & labrets filling my ear space. The nose stud got a little more of a response but then I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue..... I am now a legend amongst the Maasai, for freakier piercings than them. They had never seen anyone with a tongue piercing before and their reaction was priceless... A mixture of horror, amazement and admiration.

We were then invited into one of the circular Inkajijik (houses) that are constructed by able-bodied women. Inside is larger than it looks from the outside but it still seems pretty crowded as well as dark aside from anywhere the sunlight can get in. The structural framework was timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, which was then plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and human urine, and ash. The cow dung ensures that the roof is water-proof. I had a go at weaving a lattice but oddly enough turned down the opportunity to smear cow dung against the wall opting to watch instead. It was as gross as it sounds, trust me. Still at least we didn't have to watch the rite of passage from boyhood to the status of junior warrior via a painful circumcision ceremony, which is performed without anesthetic! A procedure the boy must endure in silence to show how strong & mighty he is.

Aside from coming away with a very nice beaded bracelet (for next to nothing) I came away with a real feel for this incredibly interesting lifestyle. It was a truly fascinating experience and all this before lunch & our drive to the Serengeti.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

... Tanzania: Wim-o-weh Wim-o-weh!

It was a moderately late breakfast, by my recent standards, with the members of my new group before hitting the road in two 7 seater 4x4 safari vehicles with a roof that opened up. I could just imagine myself driving around Vancouver in one of those... With a pith helmet of course!

My new group consisted of our group leader Filberth (Fil for short), drivers Jacob & Cornel and then 13 intrepid travelers from Sweden, Japan, the US, Quebec, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and not forgetting myself, all with dreams and desires of what their safari experience would bring.

The village of Mto wa Mbu has over 18,000 residents from 120 tribes, despite its name meaning "mosquito river". I don't know about you but that would kind of put me off wanting to live there as the many bites on the areas I apparently missed with Deet can attest. Still I was perfectly happy to take a two hour tour from the local market through several different farms, including rice paddies & banana plantations, local huts and artisan shops. We also stopped off at a local bar and tried both banana beer and banana wine. Both were very interesting to taste and not particularly banana-tasting. Several hand crafted items took my eye during my tour and at the end of the week I shall now be frantically trying to work out how on earth to pack several giraffe carved items including a beautiful ebony bowl & a giraffe mask into what is left of my luggage. It was all a really neat way to experience northern Tanzanian culture. Lunch consisted of several Tanzanian dishes whilst sat in the sun, refueling for the afternoon. I was particularly fond of a watercress dish.

Lake Manyara is a shallow alkaline lake spanning the Rift Valley escarpment and the area, which is largely underrated, is absolutely stunning. Depending on the season, about 2/3 of the 330 sq km area is covered by the lake which attracts tens of thousands of flamingos as well as other birdlife. Yet, despite its size, the vegetation is extremely diverse being home to giants fig trees, mahogany trees, acacia woodlands and grassy flood planes. Ernest Hemmingway described the area as "the loveliest I had seen in Africa".

And then there were the animals. Oh my! It actually started on the way there with a giraffe that i fell in love with. It had the most comical facial expression and seemed to look right into my lens even though it was at quite a distance. Then we came across a couple of elephants who were very close but a little camera shy. This was all whilst driving down a main road, as though I had nipped out to go grocery shopping. They were simply there because they can be! I was already enchanted. What followed was a photographers dream. The roof was raised on the 4x4 and I basically stood on my seat for the entire game drive with camera in hand. Baboons (who are always good for entertainment), blue monkeys (they have a distinctive blue colour to a certain part of their anatomy *cough cough*), giraffes, buffalo, elephants, impala, a serval cat (such a pretty thing) and the warthog. Boy, warthogs certainly seem to have fallen out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down yet there is this cuteness in ugliness especially when they start running with their tails raised like antennas. Disney got it spot on in The Lion King.

As we headed back to camp just before the sun began to set I had seen stuff beyond my wildest dreams. I couldn't begin to imagine what tomorrow would bring let alone the next 4!

Monday, 26 December 2011

... Tanzania: My Wild Life

Today I was back on the road again for a couple of hours on a bus headed for Arusha on the other side of Kilimanjaro, closer to Mt. Meru. It is one of Tanzania's most developed & fastest-growing towns and is known more as the gateway to the Serengeti. A side note of interest is that it hosted the International Criminal Tribunal for the horrific Rwandan genocide.

I had apparently decided that 4 nights camping on the slopes of Kilimanjaro wasn't enough, I was now going to camp with the wildlife which would hopefully include sightings of the Big 5. Over five days I will be taking in the sights of the National Parks at Lake Manyara & the Serengeti, Ngorongoro crater, Olduvai Gorge, the village of Mto wa Mbu and visiting a Maasai family.

The batteries of my Canon EOS 60D are charged, my new 70-300mm lens ready to go... Time to get up close & personal with some African wildlife!

Sunday, 25 December 2011

... Tanzania: Merry Christmas!

After a great nights sleep in a comfy bed, surrounded by much needed mosquito netting, I awoke relatively early obviously still on my Kilimanjaro schedule. I felt great. No muscle soreness and no aching bones. Still, today was definitely going to be a R n' R day especially seeing as I technically should have still had half a day of hiking to go. I was going to milk the extra day of rest for all it was worth!

Once breakfast was out of the way, with members of the group arriving at various stages throughout the serving window, we moved to a large table and set up camp just chatting & chillaxin'. I think people held out on the beers until about 1030am.... Well it is Christmas Day!!! I opted for the traditional non-alcoholic drink of Stoney Tangawizi, a very refreshing ginger drink. Our guides came to say goodbye and I donated my backpack & rain cover to Juma, the assistant guide. I had followed him for many hours looking at his falling-to-bits pack and the tatty jacket he used as a cover: my gear was going to a fantastic home!

Just after midday 4 of us girls decided to go and do what girls do best.... Shop! We arranged a minivan to drive us into Moshi (and of course take us to the best places to buy stuff) as it was certainly far too hot to walk. Getting in & out of the van posed a few problems... So I do still have quads & hamstrings and they let me know they weren't too impressed with me.

Moshi sits at the foot of Kilimanjaro and is the centre of one of Tanzania's major coffee regions. Coffee is believed to have been brought to Tanzania around the turn of the 19th century, after being introduced by Jesuit missionaries and flourishing as an industry during the British colonial era. That to me sounded like a pretty good excuse to find a coffee shop for a much needed java.

Despite being Christmas Day the centre was full of activity and although the much talked about market was not running today plenty was open willing to take our Tanzanian schillings and American dollars. We hit small shops that had barely enough room for one person let alone 4 plus the owner. All the stores we hit were selling items that had been made by locals and the stores were basically providing them with a means to sell their goods... at a huge fraction of the cost. I couldn't resist a touristy Kilimanjaro t-shirt for $8 but managed to get a really cool but funky oil painting for a great price. Before heading back to the lodge we stopped at a coffee shop called The Union for java. It was incredibly delicious and made me wonder why I pay what I do back home for something nowhere near as good.

Christmas dinner came in the form of a turkey with its head still attached and wearing a crown made out of a tomato. Yes... A crown. I am not sure who informed the Tanzanians of the latter being a tradition but the whole event was incredibly thoughtful for those away from family. For us non-carnivores there were plenty of veggies and, whilst no brussel sprouts, I felt as stuffed as the turkey by the time I'd finished. The rest of the evening was spent under the stars with a great bunch of new friends sharing tales of our recent adventure. It was hard saying our goodbyes at the end of the evening.

So as I begin to think about packing for my next adventure, starting tomorrow, I wish you all a Merry Christmas from Tanzania!