Big Game Drive! Ndutu/Serengeti, Tanzania

Big Game Drive!!

Melissa and I decided while planning this trip that we could not come all the way to Tanzania and not see wildlife. Thus today was entirely and exclusively about wildlife, and Daudi did not disappoint. He was the best driver and spotter of animals. Again, I will include more details in the animal post to follow, but I cannot go without detailing the events of the day.

Our camp is called Nauri Kisaruni, and we started the drive from there. Immediately we saw wildebeests, an aardvark digging hole, wattled starling, zebras, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles, a huge group of elands (Africa’s biggest antelope), kori bustards (largest bird that flies, it is ground nesting), ostrich couples (males have black feathers and females are gray; I was amused to think the Fantasia scene is a bunch of male ballerina ostriches…), crowned plover, nlack-crested snake eagle. There was a big luxury camp with large wooden cabins built around a kopje on a hill with a platform built to the top of the granite hill. Giraffe (Tanzania’s national animal), white-backed vultures, marabou storks, and more zebra, wildebeest, and Thompson’s gazelles. There are something like 2 million wildebeest, 700-800,000 zebra, 500,000 gazelle (mostly Thompson’s), and 200,000 impala in the Serengeti herd, which are all migrating to Ndutu currently. I do not have tallies for the rest of the animals. The wildebeest are literally in every direction to all horizons. Including giraffe and elephants, these grazer/browsers can all cohabitate because they eat from different levels of the vegetation. A symbiotic relationship at its best.

Then we entered Ndutu, Masai for “high animal concentration,” where the soil notably changes to reveal a higher phosphorus level, hence why most of the herding animals migrate to breed here.

We stopped to watch female dung beetles roll eggs into fresh dung and then male beetles come to roll the poop ball away and bury it in a hole. Quite prodigious creatures. Lappet-faced vultures, more wildebeest, an acacia tree (often called a devil tree on the plains because there are literally no trees in the plains except for these random lone acacia trees creating shaded caves underneath), grey heron, Egyptian geese, and common snipe. Then we rolled up on a freshly dead wildebeest swarmed by white-backed (or African) vultures, Ruppell’s griffon vultures, and marabou stork; all scavenger birds. Eventually other animals or birds will come take their turn, but the white-backed vultures were dominating the feeding. It is slow-going for them though because their beaks are not strong enough to rip hide, so they can only get in through the anus. It was quite a sight! If a lappet-faced vulture showed up, it would dominate over the rest, and would be able to rip open more parts of the animal. It was so interesting watching this scavenger feeding hierarchy and the displays of aggression even among the white-backed vultures. We saw a hyena covered in mud to cool off from the day’s heat, Grant’s gazelle, a newborn baby wildebeest (maybe 1 day old), white stork (or European stork), baby zebra (less than a month old), giraffes, superb starlings, and a dik-dik trio (they mate for life so any trios mean the third is an offspring). Then we saw a Lilac-breasted Roller. It is Daudi’s favorite bird, and I can see why. It is beautiful! And as it flies it will spin sometimes, hence the name “roller.”

We saw a long-crested snake eagle, impalas, and then, African elephants! African elephants (the savanna ones) are my all time favorite animal. I literally have a family of them tattooed on my arm. This was one of the single most important experiences for me. I have always been in love with these majestic beasts. While I spent a year traveling across South America after university, I had the opportunity to meet one and interact with it, and see others in their pen. This statement rang true for me then:

Long ago and far away, Edie Banister was told that a human soul infallibly knew its own value when it was reflected in the eye of an elephant.
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

They are so beautiful, their eyes so expressive, their significance undeniable. But I wanted to see free ones. I wanted to see my value in the eyes of a beast master to itself. Not ones poked and prodded for the entertainment of tourists like me. I do realize the irony as we invaded their space here as well, but these amazing beauties were free, dignified, and know they are the true masters of their world. It was a matriarchy of seven. The lead female, her next-in-line, two helper females, a three year old, a one and a half year old, and a less than one year old. I seriously teared up while watching them. Upon our invasion they instantly rallied around the matriarch, protecting the three young calves inside their circle, watching us with knowing eyes. Once deciding we weren’t a major threat, the older three shuffled along the calves while the matriarch came quite close as if to say, “I will crush you, so keep your distance.” Everything about these animals mesmerizes me. Females are typically between 6600-7700 lbs, while males range from 11,000-13,200 lbs. As the largest land animal, they have no predators (Except humans, particularly poachers, for whom I maintain quite strong and dark feelings toward. No creature deserves the brutality that poachers inflict.). They are incredibly intelligent, have very long memories, and mourn. They are wiser than we humans know, you can see it in their eyes. Shortly after leaving them, we came across the male elephant, covering himself in mud to stay cool. He was massive. And we could see him communicating to the matriarch through infrasound using his feet. I won’t forget this incredible experience.

We headed toward Ndutu Lake, moving into the woodland, spotting impala and helmeted guineafowl. Then we came across two female lions (both less then 6 years old based on their pink noses), resting in the shade of two trees. As nocturnal cats, they seemed completely unaffected by our presence to their napping. Then giraffes, impalas, black smith plovers, tawny eagle, batau eagle, northern red bishops, steenbok, agama lizard, and red-necked spurfowl. Then we stopped for lunch while overlooking a swampy marsh. Already an incredible day, Daudi wanted us to see more. We found another lioness, watching over some wildebeest below, then headed back to the grassland. We found a hyena which lead us to another hyena hiding in the brush, which scared out an African hare, then wattled starling, red-eyed dove, and another acacia species (apparently there are a bunch of acacia species).

Up ahead we saw a swarm of vehicles, respectfully making only a half circle, around two male cheetahs chowing down on a fresh wildebeest kill! We missed it by less than 30 minutes, but the feast was still exciting. They had a young wildebeest and were still working on the thighs. Cheetahs are diurnal, but still at risk from lions and hyena attacking to kill the cheetahs and steal their meal. In a weird way our presence at their feast may have helped them keep a meal, as lions are less likely to come over with the crowd, but it would be impossible to calculate the true impact of our presence (I suspect more harmful than good). The brothers took turns feasting, both still panting from the attack. Truly incredible. Not far away we found a male lion resting up in a tree. He was massive with a big huge mane. Though not common, lions are cats and will climb trees for a vantage. This one became unsettled and took off, I caught his ungraceful leap from the tree with my camera! Males here tend to survive only until they are 10 or 11 years old, while females can survive until age 20-25. Males are responsible for protecting their pride from other males, so it is a tough and short life for male lions on the Serengeti.

At this point we had to leave. Unfortunately the rules prevent sunrise and sunset presence in Ndutu unless you stay at the expense park camps, and even then it is limited. We saw Lake Ndutu from a distance, revealing the pinks and greys of Greater and Lesser flamingos with their young (the grey colors). We went close to Lake Malek, but never had a vantage. On the way out we spotted two silver-backed jackals, augur buzzards, and more superb starlings. Then the sky threatened to open up and pour down rain, we could see the streaked sky all around us, so we raced back across the plains to prevent getting stuck since the second water is added to the Ndutu soil, it becomes a sticky and thick red clay. A clay we would find near impossible to escape.

One last stop before we returned, our kopje visible in the distance. We went to a cultural boma to learn about the Masai. There are two bomas in the park, sanctioned by the government. A boma is the traditional living quarters of Masai, now where they gather to learn about and share their culture. It consists of a circular barrier of branches, within which are built small mud huts maintaining a center area where where all livestock (cattle, goats, donkeys, etc.) are kept at night to protect them from predators. A real boma consists of a single family, that is a man and a hut for each of his wives. There is not enough space here to discuss their interesting practice of polygamy, so I will let you research that topic on your own.

They welcomed us grandly, pulling us into their song and dance. Our guide, Liza, one of the Masai chief’s sons, led us through the village. We saw inside a traditional hut, visited the school where children sang us songs, and bought items from their market. It was a neat experience, and we were happy to contribute to their community and help support the children’s education. More and more the Tanzanian government wants Masai children to attend primary school, so they all need an education before then, primarily to learn Swahili and English. Masai children are taught to be trilingual: the Masai language plus Swahili and English. I gather that almost all Tanzanian people have to learn Swahili and English as their second and third languages, since most people belong to a tribe and all tribes have their own languages. Imagine if the US worked harder at bringing languages to our children rather than a half-assed requirement in high school. Maybe one small step to broadening our nation’s small bubble of ignorance and intolerance. For what other country demands everyone speak English, and then comments harshly about the challenges of traveling abroad where English is not spoken. Anyway, I digress.

We continued back and found our camp had expanded. Already from the first night we had gained a toilet tent, chairs to sit on around a fire, a food tent where Kimambo presents our meals on camp tables, and a cook tent with a second fire and chairs and table. Now we also have a shower tent. Both Melissa and I reveled in our showers while in Qatar because we earnestly thought they would be our last until after this trip was over. Nope! We had showers at the hostel, showers at the first night’s camp, and now a shower at this camp. And honestly I enjoyed this shower most of all. It was one of those solar heated bags with an open/close pull-to-spray spigot. They are so divine. But also it is probably nice for Daudi and Kimambo to not have us go a whole week as dirt-streaked sweaty bodies. The heat here really catches you off guard after sitting in a sticky seat all day.

We have really settled into this life. I have long stopped asking to help, instead busying myself with the bird identification book or reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It is easier than seeing Daudi and Kimambo find new ways to tell us we are guests and that is just how things will be. They are really both so kind. I forgot to mention that every day at lunch we get a cold drink from the powered cooler. My favorite is Stoney Tangawizi, a carbonated ginger soft drink. I’ve had one every day. And each night at supper we rotate between red (my preference) and white (Melissa’s) wines from South Africa. We would seriously grow fat if we ate all the food they give us. Kimambo is a spectacular cook, but a stomach can only hold so much.

I settled into bed fat and happy after an unforgettable and incredible day. I could imagine guiding here is an amazing career. No two trips the same, all incredible and offering something new. What a life.



Walking with our ancestors: human evolution in Olduvai Gorge

Walking with our ancestors: human evolution in Olduvai Gorge, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Today was all about how human evolution and geology teamed up to record some of our earliest ancestors. We started with a huge delicious breaky then waited for Kimambo and Daudi to pack up camp, without our assistance. Once on the road we headed for the gate to Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We had already noticed how the plain we drove across was of a rich, red, volcanic soil. This nutrient rich soil coupled with moist micro-climate from the highlands have created a prime agricultural area and fertile forest compared to the Rift Valley floor.

Ngorongoro is a Masai word that has many meanings: first, it is the word for “bowl” because the crater looks like the Masai grinding stone bowl; second, it is another name for the tribes (Mbulu and Datogo) the Masai drove our to gain this area; and third, it is the sound that cowbells make (cows being very important features in Masai life for milk, blood, meat, and money). Originally the Serengeti was a huge area, but when the government made it a national park they wanted to remove the tribes living there. So they split it into three portions, Ngorongoro Conservation Area where Masai can live but not hunt, Serengeti National Park where no people or hunting is allowed, and Loliondo where Masai and other tribes live and hunt and where game hunting is permitted to tourists. Though the NCA and Loliondo do not have the notoriety of SNP, they are important migration grounds for animals. In fact, right now, most of the animals are migrating through Ndutu away from the Serengeti. Serengeti is also a Masai word (actually spelled Sirengeti) for “endless plain.”

Ngorongoro is a very large volcanic province of basaltic shield volcanoes. The crater is actually a huge, intact, and unfilled caldera. It formed 2 to 3 million years ago from the collapse of a large volcano that is predicted to have been of similar size to Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro. There are several freshwater springs that feed into the crater and collect at Lake Magadi, enabling lush vegetation growth. The volcano was basaltic with minor trachytic lavas.

While at the gate there was a bit of a wait while Daudi worked out a mixup with our reservation number. It was fine with Melissa and I though. There was a small museum area showing the region, geology, and common animals and birds. We enjoyed it. Then a troop of baboons came to play at the gate with all the parked vehicles, looking for mischief. The alpha male walked about a foot away from me as he climbed up our truck followed by a mother baboon with her baby clinging under her belly. Baboons are so desensitized to humans they will go into open windows looking for food, and if they find nothing, they will leave a giant deuce (i.e. poop) on the seat as punishment. As funny as that sounds, the troop spotted a vehicle with an open window and one baboon was able to run off with what looked like bananas. It was hilarious watching the men run off the baboon, already in possession of its prize. It climbed right up a tree and stared down at the ruffled humans below. Silly humans.

To our delight, that was not our only wildlife exposure today. We saw so many animals! First, there was a group of Cape buffalo, or African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), right on the side of the road munching through the tree-covered crater rim. I decided to make a special animal recap post for the end of this trip since there will be so many interesting animals, so keep an eye out. We then had a vista down into the crater and saw what Daudi said were maybe black rhinos or wildebeest, its impossible to say without super zoomed binoculars. Melissa and I almost paid the steep price to drive through the crater, but Daudi convinced us we were mostly just missing black rhinos and they are rarely anywhere near the road. There are a few other other animals we might have seen in there, but we trusted Daudi’s advice. Being only 20 members strong as the final genetic offerings of black rhinos, we completely understood their distant lifestyles and let them be. Continuing forward, we also saw giraffes, Grant’s gazelles, zebras, more olive baboons, Thompson’s gazelles, wildebeests, an agama lizard, two dik-dik antelopes, numerous dung beetles, and a hyena. A bigger part of the animals was my discovery that Daudi went to university for wilderness guiding and specialized in birds! We saw so many! Little Bee-eater, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Kettle Egrets, Speke’s Weaver, Helmeted Guineafowl, Pied Kingfisher, Common Ostrich, Kori Bustards, Augur Buzzards, Marabou Stork, Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Ring-necked Dove, Red-eyed Dove, Red-billed Oxpeckers, Red-necked Spurfowl, and Lappet-faced Vultures. Daudi also pointed out thorny Acacia trees, Baobab trees, Amarula trees, and these massive termite mounds that littered the landscape. And this was just while driving to Oldupai Museum.

Oldupai is Masai for a type of plant native to this area. The misspelled name Olduvai comes from a German explorer. It seems there are numerous misspelled names from Masai words across all this territory. We lunched in the sun by the ranger gate and then went to meet our origins.

The museum is actually pretty small, but it is packed with information. It is divided into rooms based on both the different archeological rock units the specimens were found in and the specimen ages, a somewhat nuanced distinction at first. Oldupai Gorge preserves about two million years of human history. In 1959, Dr. Mary Leakey discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus boisei, and subsequently Homo habilis and Australopithecus, to show that three distinct forms of human ancestors co-evolved in the Oldupai basin. Potassium-Argon radiometric dating revealed ages for Zinjanthropus, Homo habilis, and Oldowan stone artifacts of 1.75 million years (Leakey et al., 1961). These discoveries ignited paleoanthrological research in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This work culminated in a consensus that the unusual geology and climate of the East African Rift valley created an environmentally complex and variable setting which may have driven human speciation, encephalization, and migration out of Africa (Maslin et al., 2015). Thus, highlighting the relationship between hominin history with geology (paleosols, fluvial sedimentation, tuff layers) and Milankovitch-driven climatic precession cycles on lake basin and ground water levels (Ashley et al., 2014; Habermann et al., 2016). Oldupai Gorge would have greatly resembled the Lake Manyara basin, a modern analog, situated at the rift floor. This basin provides excellent paleoanthropological and paleoenvironmental preservation due to extensive marker tuff layers separating the depositional beds. Preservation is so perfect, individual blades of fossilized grass can be identified in the uppermost surface of Bed I (Bamford et al., 2008).

After finishing the exhibits, we gathered on a vista overlooking the exposed basin where the Leakey’s excavated most of the specimens. It was pretty humbling as a human to look across the landscape holding many of the known secrets for our species. And then we went down to the shifting sands. There are two anomalous sand dunes slowly shifting across the landscape. It made me think of how the Great Plains in central US had shifting sand dunes through much of the Holocene, but here on a microscopic scale. They are very weird. Apparently they form from excess ash accumulating around a rock or some structure, until a lot of material has built up. Since the sand is volcanically derived, it has a lot of iron, making it slightly magnetic, further promoting a cohesive dune body. If you throw the sand straight up, instead of blowing away, it will clump together and fall straight down. Then a unidirectional wind slowly migrates, or shifts, the dune over time. Currently about 10 meters per year. That same wind movement creates the distinct crescent shape of the dune. And there are hundreds of dead dung beetles floating around in the pile. It was a strange encounter. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to visit Laetoli Footprints. That would have been extra special. I suppose my title is misleading since we never actually walked along the footprints. We did see all the remains and footprints replicas. I still feel tickled since this is where they mostly come from, so replica or not, my feet touched the same earth. Most of the specimens collected from Oldupai are now housed in the Dar es Salaam Museum. I can understand. Security is low here and exposure to the masses is more obtainable in Dar es Salaam.

We also viewed an active dig site for a group from Spain who found rhino bones in an ash layer. They only started three days ago. Just think what they might find! Unknown archeological riches may be found in the different beds as current interests expand the efforts from the Leakey’s. We saw Leakey Camp too. Originally Melissa and I were trying to stay there, but we never heard back from our various inquiries. We did have a neat connection with the guide who took us to the shifting sands, he knows Jackson Njau, one of the Indiana University professors we contacted during our research. James Brophy (geologist) and Jackson Njau (archeologist) provided us with an extensive field guide they have created for a summer field course they bring to Tanzania each year.

After our gawking at the museum, we picked up our Masai camp host, Lucas, and he lead us to where we were allowed to camp. Right smack in front of a kopje! Part of camping in the NCA is that we must have a Masai host. This is a Masai rule, but also for our safety. The second we stepped into the NCA Melissa and I were made aware of a single important rule: we were not allowed to ever leave camp or go walking anywhere without being safely situated inside our vehicle. This is because the NCA is where people and wildlife still coexist. And as ignorant tourists, chances were high we would become the lunch of one of those animals if not kept under strict observance. I was literally chastised for walking too far away from the truck to pee even though the area was completely open. Lions, cheetahs, and hyenas like to hide in low scrub, buffalo and wildebeests like to stampede at a moment’s notice, and there are likely a myriad of other ways we could die. I was not prepared to such confinement. I think Melissa and I both recorded less than a mile’s movement for both of the days we were here. Lucas did walk us up to the top of the kopje for the sunset while they set up camp. I think they are trying to keep us busy to not hear pleas of us wanting to provide assistance. They are so patient with us.

And yes, I said we are camped at a kopje! Much of this region, I will broadly call it the Serengeti, is a flat plain of volcanic ash burying the pre-Cambrian rocks below. The Tanzanian craton is between 2.7 to 2.4 billion years old, and is surrounded by the Mozambique Metamorphic Belt. We are over the eastern side of these metamorphic rocks, about 600-550 million years in age (Proterozoic). This suite of rocks is known as a greenstone belt, and are among the oldest in the craton, likely representing the original continental crustal mass that makes up the modern African continent. This eastern portion is largely high-grade micaceous schists (i.e., meta-schist) that formed from ancient clay-rich sediments like mudstone and shale. These meta-schists are intruded by granite bodies that are thought to have melted from the meta-schists. The granite bodies are more resistant to weathering, thus resulting in isolated hills as ash fall sufficiently covered the low-lying meta-schists. These granite hills are what are known as kopjes. Hence we are camped under the protection of melted basement rock, or erosional granite inselbergs. Neat!



Hitting the road with Dorobo Safaris

Hitting the road with Dorobo Safaris

I am not quite on Tanzanian time. At 4AM my body woke with the energy of Santa Barbara’s coincident 5PM. But I felt rested all the same. We made sure our bags were ready and then came out to find breakfast waiting for us. Hard boiled eggs, bread, and hot tea brewed in milk. I was happy.

At 8AM we heard the knock of our trip crew arriving. Daudi is our guide and driver. He has been working with Dorobo for eight years. Our cook and camp staff is Kimambo. He has been with Dorobo for almost 20 years. Daudi speaks impeccable English and spent much of the day telling us about the landscape, plants, and people we came across. Kimambo speaks only a little English, but he is very friendly. He sat in the back seat with me and was very diligent to make sure I didn’t lose my seat cushion out the door every time I left the vehicle. I wish I knew Swahili to include him in my conversation sphere.

On our way out of Arusha, Daudi took Melissa and I to a money exchange. We couldn’t change at the airport because they ran out of money. It was a good thing really. The place Daudi took us to had a great exchange rate. And then we set off. Our road trip out involved a pit stop for red bananas (in my opinion superior to the sweet yellow bananas sold in the US), an official tanzanite dealer (where yes, I bought the tiniest cut stone because that stuff is super expensive), samosas, and cookies. By 2pm we were driving through Karatu to our camp on the edge of town.

From Arusha to Karatu, we drove across the western floor of the East African Rift and up and over the large fault escarpment of the western rift boundary. The rift floor is pretty flat and dry, with some extension-induced normal faults. From this vantage, we could see numerous volcanoes that are part of the larger volcanic province including, Mt Meru, Mt Kilimanjaro, and the Ngorongoro Volcanic Highlands. This long-lived activity has taken place from the Miocene to the present.

I fully remember this being the plan, because we wouldn’t have arrived early enough to Ngorongoro if we had kept driving. But all the same we were both a bit dismayed at the day already being over. Karatu has the nickname “Safari Junction,” as most transits into Ngorongoro first overnight here. We also discovered quickly that way more food was allotted for our trip than Melissa and I thought feasible to eat. We enjoyed a large lunch right when arriving. Though we still felt full from all the delicious Tanzanian snacks Daudi and Kimambo had fed us on the drive.

And then we were left to our own devices while they set up camp. This was also a learning moment. Melissa and I both had our own personal walk-in tents with mattressed-cots, blankets, pillow, and towel. Outside each tent was a personal wash water bucket. They even set our bags inside. This camp location even had showers and toilets. We simply were unprepared for this luxury setup, and perplexed when our attempts to aid in any process of cooking, camp setup, cleaning, camp tear down, etc., were almost always turned down. Melissa and I are women of action; neither able to watch others work (especially on our behalf) while idly sitting by. But we appreciated how gratuitously and happily Kimambo and Daudi accomplished any task set about them. We could not have felt more welcome or cared for than in their capable hands.

Once everything was in place, we were introduced to Israel, the camp host. He took Melissa and I on a walk/hike up and around the escarpment to see the farms and Masai family dwellings around Karatu. It was very hot out but we were excited to be out doing something. Upon our return it was already time for another meal. Kimambo’s efforts not unappreciated, we simply felt stuffed to the gills. Kimambo served us a massive and delicious supper and bottle of red wine. I was delighted with the day, however low key it was. Melissa and I don’t make great tourists, so I suspect some of our stops today normally take much longer for people looking to shop and visit every curio storefront.



Onward to Tanzania

Onward to Tanzania

We woke early to catch our morning flight, both feeling well rested and chipper. The ride back to the airport affording our only real view of the city in the daylight. Despite our bags already in queue, we still had to arrival early. To kill time we made laps about the airport so I could get in my three miles of walking. I will try to continue some semblance of my 30 day-30 minute or 3 mile run/walk challenge. We ended at a bakery for breakfast and leisurely awaited our boarding. Hamad International Airport is like a giant mall more than an airport. You could literally arrive with nothing and fully furnish a wardrobe, toiletries, suitcase, and all the Duty Free you can imagine. It was massive and seemingly insane. There were a multitude of dining options too, and I have no complaints about being lured by the smell of fresh bread baking in the food court.

Our final flight was about 6.5 hours. Again it was a relatively empty plane. Melissa and I shared a row this time. She likes aisle seats, so is a perfect match to my window seat ways. Another meal and unlimited drinks, with snacks as we desired. It was awesome to skirt the Arabian Peninsula around the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, across the Gulf of Aden, and over the coastal interior. The massive Arabian Desert below looked like a snow-scape blending into the clouds. The occasional road impossibly straight or burning of a flare stack in the shapeless landscape the only visible evidence of life. It was a grand view for geology. The sweeping desert interior flanked by escarpments along the coasts. A broad mountain-studded plateau revealing black lava beds of long extinct volcanoes, and the many narrow valleys, called wadis, piercing down along its sides. A long narrow coastal plain, betraying its sedimentary deposition in ancient seas. It was beautiful.

Flying into JRO we could see the rising figure of Mount Meru, Kilimanjaro being on the opposite side of the plane. Meru is a dormant stratovolcano, and Tanzania’s second highest peak at about 4,500 m (15,000 ft). I had momentarily considered a Mt Meru trek in addition to Kilimanjaro, but maybe another trip.

We landed and deplaned into a sticky afternoon heat. After clearing customs our driver was waiting for us with a sign holding our names. I have traveled quite a bit in my life, but never have I been the recipient of a welcoming party. It was nice. He drove us the 50 km into Arusha, where we are staying the night at Penda Safari House. Our friendly host, Kip, or Kipepiarey, yet another friendly face in an already great adventure. He showed us to our room, with two matching poster beds, and left us be before supper. I repacked my bag and nestled down for a quick nap. At 7 PM, Melissa and I wandered out and found Kip and his niece setting a table on the porch for us. It was an amazing feast of wali wa nazi (coconut rice), roti (unleavened flatbread), beef Biryani (tender morsels of steak cubes cooked in a thick spicy gravy), sukuma wiki (collard greens style of amaranth greens, or mchicha), vegetable samosas, cubed pineapple, and apple juice. Despite having not done much today, I was ready for a food coma after that. We tried to help clean up and then retired back to our room.

I am reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver right now and read for a while. Melissa and I were nestled down like two dolls in our white meshed beds.


Luxury flying with Qatar Airways

Luxury flying with Qatar Airways

Our journey is broken into three days. First we travel from UCSB to LAX, and from LAX to Doha, Qatar via a 19 hour flight on Qatar Airways.
My first impression was clouded by having a seat completely soaked by a miscellaneous fluid, a fluid that quickly absorbed itself into my pants. But then we realized that we were going to have whole rows completely to ourselves. I moved to the window, tucked myself in among my supply of pillows and blankets, and was ready for the long haul. Then a flight attendant brought a freshette towel, headphones, and mini toiletry pouch (with an impossibly adorable tiny toothbrush and toothpaste) to aid our journey’s comfort. I discovered quickly we had access to a wide range of interesting movies and television shows for in-flight entertainment. We were served a reasonly delicious supper not long after reaching altitude, a mere 42,000 feet. Much of the flight was a movie marathon between regular offerings of water or juice by the flight attendants. They all seemed so calm and happy to make us comfortable. There was a snack time in there for those awake during the night, for which I was of course binging into my fourth film by then. And toward morning, we received an assorted meal somewhere between breakfast and lunch. My favorite part was that every meal included dessert and ended with a round of tea with milk.

Qatar Airways is advertised as a luxury airline, and Hamad International Airport aims to become the highest rated airport. Our second day ended with a package deal to stay overnight in Doha. We had a 15 hour layover, with no option for an earlier flight, so took the Qatar Airways bargain to get out of the airport a bit. They arranged the entrance Visa, hotel with shuttle, supper voucher, and luggage transfer for an arguably small price of $125.

We stayed at the Oryx Rotana Doha hotel. It is a super modern hotel with several restaurants, including hookah bar and live jazz. We ate at The Cellar for a two course meal with unlimited wine. Unfortunately customs took a long time and then we walked out right as a shuttle left, requiring an additional wait for the next one. Resulting in us having no real amount of time to actually go out and see much of Doha. By the time we ate and showered, I was well past my bedtime. Melissa stepped out a minute for a phone call home and by the time she returned, I had peacefully closed my eyes while propped up in front of the television, wearing a cozy bathrobe. Melissa said I looked like a model for a spa advertisement. At some point I finished crawling the rest of the way into bed. It was an amazing night’s sleep.


The Departure

The Departure

Today sort of snuck up on me. Since returning from winter break I felt like I had spent every waking moment in the lab. Barely sleeping, barely going home to change clothes. Then across a few short days my mass spectrometer analyses were finished and a new week began. That was this week, and it brought its own sense of hurry as I scurried to organize and pack for a long departure. And just like that, Melissa and I are sitting on a plane, shooting through the sky toward Tanzania.

Our final Big Island adventures.

Our final Big Island adventures.

We all woke early, during a brief spurt of sunshine and packed up camp. Then the rain started. We were planning the crater chain hike, but motivation was low. When we arrived, our interest dropped to zero upon discovering the trail required backcountry permit. We decided to wander aimlessly around the park instead, stopping at many of the less advertised stops.

I found it curios how the trails are setup on this island. I do not fully understand the draw to certain areas. Numerous trails led you to exposed lava rock, with no water, that would be radiating heat when sunny and completely lifeless without sun, and no grand vistas. Strange trails. Not that I am against hiking for hiking’s sake. But these trails are well established routes. I suppose my spoiled mainland life leaves me looking down on building trails where space is available instead of building trails where interesting nature happens. It would be incredibly challenging to live in a place where a year of weekend adventures could completely exhaust all hiking avenues. As a visitor it is fantastic, but as a resident, I would find these islands to eventually feel too small. I have always been a wanderer though.

We stopped at Mauna Ulu. I purchased a trail guide and regaled the group with its super neat back-history. Namely, the pamphlet detailed the timing, quantity, close call of life, changes to landscape, and lava tree formation of Mauna Ulu’s eruption between 1969-1974. It produced over 350 million cubic meters of lava! The flows covered approximately 44 square kilometers, and in some places the lava pooled almost 8 meters deep. Like the flickering of a flame, lava is even more tantalizing. I read once that in cultures where fire is used regularly as a tool, people generally stop revering fire once they have mastered how to create, maintain, and extinguish a flame, about the age of seven. But I don’t know if I completely agree, because I know how to do those things, and yet I find fire to be mesmerizing. And lava even more so. Maybe I need to gain a higher level of understanding about large fires to satiate that curiosity.

We also stopped at Devastation Trail. This path leads through a still recovering dense rain forest to the 1959 eruption site of Kilauea Iki crater in 1959. A fissure eruption that produced towering lava fountains, reaching almost 500 meters into the sky. Remnants remain today of Pele’s hair and Pele’s tears formed from the spurting lava. Today it was a cold and soggy cloud enclosed tunnel of trees.

Having exhausted the remaining places to visit, we headed for the visitor center and our final exit. The power was back and I wandered through the gift shop, collecting mementos. What a worthy place to visit. We even saw three nene while driving this morning. No photos, but every time I saw this Hawaiian native goose, I kept singing “now watch me whip, whip, now watch me nene.”

We drove back to Hilo, the rain continuing the rest of the day, clouds blanketing our views. We took one last jaunt through town, eating lunch at the boochery. I had a delectable roasted veggie sandwich on sourdough, with sweet potato salad, and beet booch mixed with super ginger tonic booch. Yum!

It seemed like every shop and store were closed from the weather. Everyone taking the day to curl up with a hot drink and book. Really it was just a Sunday, and Hilo seems to close down that day. Luckily the coffee shop was open, so we went for a second round of ice cream. I also bought a breakfast cookie! So excited! The ingredients are like my own dense cookie pucks. We waited out the rain a little while with a crossword. We pretty much killed it with four brains at work.

My sister and I dropped Libby and Jack off for their flight. They were able to catch an earlier flight. It was fantastic seeing them! We tried to give them all our leftover food and snacks to take home. I hope to visit again soon to continue exploring the other islands. Erika and I continued our drive. We thought we could gain some ground to shorten the remaining distance tomorrow. Our hope was to explore Kona a bit more.

We took several side trips. A highlight was the Ka’u coffee plantation. I learned that macadamia nuts were once named “donkey balls” by earlier voyageurs when they visited the islands. They let us explore the coffee drying area. They also claim to be the oldest plantation on Hawai’i island. I found it difficult to fact check that information. I am not much of a coffee drinker. Honestly it makes me feel anxious and sweaty. But they had samples out of all the different bean types and roasting options. It was pretty neat to actually try a variety and compare the flavors. I even felt motivated to buy my favorite flavor as a gift. Hopefully my untrained taste buds serve me well! The best part was samples of macadamia nut brittle! Delicious! This was a neat side trip.

The best side excursion was to Papakolea Beach, or the Green Sand Beach. It turned out to be a much longer distance than we had realized, both for the drive and the hike out. It was actually pretty eerie as we drove out. First we drove through a couple small communities, then the drive continues on this small paved road toward nothing, and you drive on that road for quite awhile with nothing around except pastureland. At the very end of South Point Road we turned into a sketchy parking area with just as many broken down and abandoned vehicles as seemingly not broken down vehicles. There were foundations of all these buildings that didn’t exist. Everything looked abandoned. Just a lone corner of the island at the end of an empty road, everything dusty and broken down. The perfect setting for every horror movie you have ever seen. There were just enough signs of life that we kept going, not really knowing where we were going or how far it was to get there. We parked and started walking. It turned out to only be about 3 miles out on a rugged path heavily abused by off-road vehicles. The erosion of the volcanic ash created a super fine powder that completely caked our legs. And we could see a storm coming in as we began the hike out. At first we stayed on the path closest to the coast and watched raging ocean waves crash against the jagged basalt. It was a peak at the raw coastlines we had not seen on the islands yet. There was an overwhelming abundance of sea debris: propeller blades, metal trap cages, fish netting, bottles, drift wood, everything. It was filthy. It is what the beaches would actually look like if the tourist areas weren’t maintained, collecting all the waste dumped into the ocean. This was more visceral and disgusting than any exhibit I have ever seen to bring awareness to ocean littering. I will leave this article if you want to read more about the problem of plastics in our oceans. Anyway, this is clearly a local hangout. So many beefed-up off-road vehicles were driving around and parked by the ocean, one of the few signs that this place isn’t really abandoned. We could see the olivine content increasing in the small sand pockets as we neared the beach, but I was not prepared for how amazing this was going to be. A whole beach composed almost entirely of olivine grains eroding out of the partially collapsed volcanic tuff ring. This is one of four beaches in the world with sand made almost entirely of olivine! Olivine is one of the first minerals to form as magma cools, and is common in Hawaiian volcanoes. The beach is mostly olivine because this ferrous iron (hence green) mineral is denser than the volcanic ash, which is washed out to sea. The surrounding rock is relatively stable, so the layers are preserving previous eruptions and lava flows. We climbed down these layers to the beach below. It was magnificent! I know my sister enjoyed it, how could she not, but I sorted of lost my mind at first geeking out over how spectacular this was. I remember pacing around the beach, checking the sand for the highest olivine abundance, and scurrying across the rocks to look at where the grains were eroding out from. I was geeking hard for geology. I am constantly reminded how I study the neatest science. After collecting myself, we hurried back to beat the encroaching storm and quickly fading light. We were rewarded with a beautiful sunset over of the pasture. We had to wash off in the ocean before getting back into the vehicle. We were both covered in thick, orange layers of volcanic ash. I cannot imagine driving over that slick powdery surface in the trailer vehicles that were giving people rides.

It was a dark drive back to the main road. We did not have a plan for where we would be able to camp. Somehow we were able to get in at a beach camp that must be mostly predominantly favored by locals. The night guard was surprised when we pulled out California ID’s after announcing our non-local status, which unfortunately resulted in a different camp cost, which we literally had to count out coins to come up with. Of course we didn’t have any more cash on the last night of our trip, haha! We set up the tent and snuck off for stealth showers at the outdoor beach area. It was scandalous but so worth it. There were feral cats, cockroaches, flat box bugs, ants, palm nuts falling all around us, and ten feet from pounding ocean. I think we both slept like babies. Our final night’s rest at the end of an incredible trip. Aloha Hawai’i, until next time.


Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Ka’u estate grown coffee. There were macadamia nut trees for miles!
Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Coffee bean workshop at Ka’u Coffee.
Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Black sand beach! Sand made of crumbled bits of basalt.
This coastline was starkly different than the more touristy areas. Big crashing waves on jagged basalt with heaps and heaps of sea debris littered all along the coast. Fish nets, propellers, buoys, plastic bottles, metal traps, and so much more. Protect the ocean from trash, it’s important to the longevity of Earth’s largest ecosystems.
Incredible southern coast.
Olivine sand beach!
Green sand! It’s completely full of olivine!
Sunset over the pasture land.
Our last beach campsite.
Captain Cook bay
Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Funny birds chilling on this truck and no where else in the parking lot.

For more photos you can follow me on Instagram @schemesinmotion

Lava viewing at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park!

Lava viewing at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park!

After two extremely rest-filled nights, we woke early ready to go! We had to wait a bit for the desk staff to arrive so we could collect Jack’s work gear from behind the desk and our food from the kitchen. We re-packed the vehicle and left Hilo for Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park! While leaving Hilo we literally followed signs that said “volcano.” It was a couple hours of driving, and we saw a crazy wreck on the way with a car wrapped around a power line. It looked awful.

Once at the park, we stopped at the Visitor Center to collect maps and information. The power was out so I couldn’t buy souvenirs, and then a huge crowd of people appeared suddenly. We dashed away and went to the lava tube. The power was out, so people weren’t stopping. It was the biggest lava tube I have ever seen. Though I have only seen a handful in my life. I know they can be quite large and extremely long. It was neat walking in total darkness. And it would have felt completely empty if the maintenance team wasn’t shouting at each other trying to run backup power lines.

We decided to drive to the campsite and set up our tents. It is a first-come first-served site, and we had no idea how busy it would be this time of year. To my surprise, it was an extensive camp area. There are clearly a few designated sites with numbered posts, and then there is a whole region extending past that has equally nice camping. We grabbed a great little platformed site near the toiler and parking area. We were optimistic about good weather, but the platform was clearly designed for optimal rain drainage.

Next we stopped at some volcanic vents spewing out hot sulfurous gas. It wasn’t that interesting besides realizing that we were technically within the outermost crater walls. They have a nice path paving the whole crater perimeter. They apparently have a race around the crater each year. We walked up from a lookout to the Jagger Museum. It had the best crater overlook. A NP ranger told us not to take the route we had been planning to the ocean lava flow. She said the best lava access was from opposite side. Our route would have risked SO2 and lava rock dangers. Oops! I guess this is why it is so important to double check all backcountry plans with the appropriate authorities!

Before heading off for the long drive around, we drove down to Holei Arch at the end of the Chain of Craters Road. It is incredible to think about how young the lava cliff is compared to the crater above. The whole coast is literally building each day as the lava flows out into the ocean.

After thoroughly wandering the park, we headed off for the lava viewing. We had to drive back to the NP entrance and out toward Hilo, then dropped back down to the ocean on the east side of the park. This is technically private land, but the park has been acquiring portions as the lava flow migrates across. We hiked 4 miles out on a lava rock field. Then Erika, Libby, and I hiked out to the flowing lava. So bloody amazing!! Pahoehoe in action! Real flowing lava! I had close up access to lava when I hiked up Volcan de Pacaya in Guatemala, but I didn’t think we would be able to go so close to the real deal in a U.S. National Park! So neat how the cooling surface crackles as more molten lava flows below. It felt like we were ants walking across a giant brownie pan. I can understand their plight better than before. We were so small and insignificant compared to the crumbling surface of the lava field. After having our fill of close-up lava time, we headed back to Jack, waiting at the ocean lava flow viewing area. It was also amazing, but I wish we were much closer. The scale of 100 cubic km of flowing lava does not seem as mind boggling from a mile away. But that is truly a huge amount of lava. I know my description was brief, but this is something you have to experience to understand. It was of the neatest things I have ever done. I would happily return to spend more time wandering the lava field.

Late, dark, and tired, I drove us all the way back into HVNP. We stopped at the crater to see the glowing interior. We could see molten glow of lava below crater rim. Since the sky was still cloudy and rainy, the clouds really emphasized the red lava.

By then it was super late. I was cold and very tired of driving. We finished the haul back to camp, which felt like the longest four miles I have ever driven, and I went straight to bed. Surprisingly numerous tents had popped up while we were out exploring today. We were luckily there was still parking space available.


lave tube cave
Sister for scale.
Day shot of the crater seeping gases.
Modeling pahoehoe.
night views of the glowing crater
Feeling the heat!
Now watch me whip, whip, now watch me nene…
active lava!
Fresh ropey pahoehoe!
Holei Arch
Team sisters crater shot!
lava tube cave

Hilo is my new favorite place!

Hilo is my new favorite place!


After all the activity this week, we slept in this morning. I think this was my first night of continuous and solid sleep. I feel great! And clearly I really needed some rest. Plus it is nice to have a slow morning every once in a while.

Once we ate breakfast, Jack, my sister, and I went to Richards Beach to snorkel and look for sea turtles. Unfortunately we had no luck in actually seeing any sea turtles, but it was still great! We saw heaps of different fish and reefs with actual coral growth. For being in a protected bay that is avidly scoured by snorkelers, surfers, fisher people, etc., the reefs were in surprisingly good shape. After an hour of no luck, and the thermocline coming in, we rinsed off and continued our exploration of Hilo. Which turned out to be great timing because it began to rain off and on the rest of the day. Glad we caught the sunny window for ocean time this morning!

The rest of the day we spent exploring downtown Hilo. Super cute place! The buildings are all old, 1950’s era construction. We walked a big loop up and down the streets. Our first stop was in the Discovery Center. It was catered toward children, but I still learned about the various islands and atolls that make up the Hawaiian islands. I definitely want to do a live-aboard to dive at some of the northern territories. They also had an exhibit on beach debris that was quite disconcerting.

Very quickly my sister and I discovered that several stores carry these mumu jumpers things. Erika brought me a mumu from Guinea, and I have been in love with it, so we thought maybe these new things could be the next level of extreme comfort. Instead we learned that these things definitely should never have been created. Or I need to be 6 feet tall with a skeletal body. Anyway, hard pass. It was funny trying on the various styles and laughing at how ridiculous I looked.

We then stopped for ice cream. Chocolate hazelnut and ginger double scoop. So good! I think I mentioned that Jack and Libby love ice cream more than I do somehow, so it was an easy sell for 11am in the morning. We then found this bakery with fresh amazing deliciousness. I bought cinnamon roll for tomorrow’s breaky and a fresh veggie pizza to eat right then as lunch. I wanted to eat literally everything in the shop. It smelled so amazing! The guys working were also super nice. They too wanted me to buy everything. Haha!

Our next jaunt was into Good Earth Sandals, working the minimalist leather sandal with leather straps. It was a neat new business. Minimalist sandals are definitely the rage these days. And a really cool guy working who does all the leather work. He told us about a trip he went on into Waimanu Valley for ten days, eating foraged tree fruits. And when he came out and wound up in Hilo, he met a man named Kevin wearing these awesome sandals. He only wanted material but instead ended up with a job setting up this store with Kevin. Nice store. Great design. And they clearly want to expand. I will admit these are much nicer than the leather Luna sandals. I wear Lunas everyday. But their leather versions sucks. These sandals looked great and still have the quality functionality of minimalist shoes. Erika bought a pair. She finally undermined her Lunas while we hiked Waimanu Valley, so seems like an ideal coincidence.

Hilo was treating us well, and our next stop was at a chocolate shop. They grow their own cacao, pineapple, other fruits, and buy honey and macadamia nuts locally, and make excellent chocolate products! Not surprisingly, they were also amicable to our wandering in. I chatted with the main guy about climbing prospects in Hawaii and Erika asked after their orchard practices. And of course, we bought some goodies!

Next up, we checked out the Mehana Brewing Company. It was pretty awesome. We were the only ones there for a bit and the woman working was providing generous portions on our flight series. After working our way through the offerings, we bought our favorites for the road. Next up was the Big Island Booch Kombucha at the Conscious Culture Cafe. We basically loitered there the rest of the afternoon, sampling through all their offerings, until it was time to collect Libby from the airport. After a relatively quiet day, we headed back to Arnott’s and played some cards before heading to bed. What a delightful day!


Richardson Ocean Park
Good Earth Sandals
Richardson Ocean Park
Richardson Ocean Park
My awesome sister getting some new shoes at Good Earth Sandals
Erika and Jack appreciating the view up at Mauna Kea from the beach
Big Island Booch Kombucha
Papa’a Palaoa Bakery

Double summit: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Double summit: Mauna Loa, largest mountain on Earth, and Mauna Kea, highest point on Hawai’i.

Hiking up yesterday took longer than we thought, so we did not reach the summit proper until this morning. Mauna Loa, largest mountain in world. Bigger than Everest! The volcano begins at the ocean bottom and rises to 13,679 feet (7,079 ft prominence). We traversed 5 miles around crater rim to reach the summit proper. Definitely worth the effort! By far one of the neatest accomplishments I have pursued. I was on top of the world, and felt like I was transported to Mars. What a crazy crazy terrain.

After reveling in the moment, we left the summit and hiked back down to vehicle parked at the observatory. We hiked 6.2 miles up 2,291 feet of gain to the summit cabin and 11.6 miles today (which still had 762 feet of gain, despite climbing down). Fortunately, I learned from the mistakes of Waimanu Valley and brought my phone battery to map our route!

On the return route we had better views of the more recent lava flows and a view over the Mauna Loa Observatory. Once back to the vehicle we drove back down the winding lava road, crossed the highway, then drove straight up the side of Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is the highest peak on Hawai’i (and the Big Island, obviously). We drove almost to that highest point. Mauna Kea is the location of 13 (soon to be 14) giant telescopes. So there is a paved road all the way to the top, except for an odd four miles right after the visitor center, which seems quite odd.

The true summit is 13,803 feet. Due to cultural and historical significances, we did not finish hiking to the summit. Others may violate that request, but I feel morally ok in claiming the Hawaii high point by standing just off from the true summit. Almost instantly after reaching the top we were enveloped in clouds. And while up there we drove to Keck Observatory but didn’t go in. So many telescopes!

It was barely after lunch and we had completed both volcano summits. Afterward we drove to Hilo and checked in at Arnott’s Lodge (seriously a hiker haven if I have ever experienced one!). There is camping in the plush lawn, enforced quiet hours at night, a large sitting area with tables and copious electrical outlets, and access to kitchen, laundry, showers with soap, coffee, and toilets. It was awesome!

Anyways, we showered and repacked the car. Then drove to bus stop to pick up Jack. The three of us went to store and then hung out at Arnott’s eating chips with guacamole and two soups mixed together and eaten like a dip. We drank beer, chatted, and went to bed.

Check out my Instagram for more photos and videos @schemesinmotion

Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Mauna Loa Summit Cabin


USGS marker
Trekking on a’a
Mauna Loa crater.
Mauna Kea summit proper. You can see the sign requesting people to respectfully go no further.
Me with the true summit as the clouds rolled in.
So many telescopes!
Copyright of Elizabeth Erickson.
Looking out from Keck Telescope