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.