The Serengeti is big and far far away

Prior to going to the Serengeti we stayed in a beautiful lodge call the Endoro on the outer edge of the Ngorogoro crater in a cloudforest that we did not expect to see.  Tanzania has surprised us in so many ways, but the varied ecosystems has to be the biggest.  I expected grasslands and aridity, but I did not expect the lush tropical forests that line the edges of mountains. Nor was I expecting the quantity of farms and fresh produce that dot the area. We were a bit underprepared for the cold morning chill up in these humid jungles; but it didn’t last long as we continued to drive.  I also did not expect the sheer size and massiveness of the rift valley’s escarpment or the Ngorogoro crater. It’s huge.  Mind bogglingly huge; and in reality there are 9 craters in the complex but the big one is BIG!

We drove right past it in the mist at the top of the crater rim.  Couldn’t see a thing but clouds.  As we rolled down the back side of the crater, we reached the edge of the misty forest and were nearly immediately driving through dry scrubland.  Down down down on a rough dirt road for hours we came out into the Serengeti.  Along the way we passed the area around the Ngorogoro crater which is still inside the protected zone, where the Maasai people live in their traditional way.

Before coming we had planned to not visit a Maasai village for concerns of inauthenticity and selling of culture, plus we don’t like pressure and obligation to buy stuff, but our driver assured us it was not expected and it was not rude to decline to purchase things at the village.  So, we went.  There are many of these villages dotted along the road and the safari drivers just pull up to one and a representative comes to great the vehicle.  Our guide was called AllayTutu; he was the son of the chief (probably they all are).  There are 9 families in this village.  our $50 donation (an expected fee) would stay within this village to pay for clothes and to send the little kids to public schools when they were in primary.  Sounded good and felt fairly legit.  OK.  We were in.  The men and women gathered and did a song and dance at the entrance to the village.  It was interested and they encouraged us to join in.  Avi was surprisingly nervous; he rarely passes up the chance for music, but perhaps it was just as he was grumpy we were even stopping.  His vote was ‘no’ on stopping.

The village is made up of a circle of round huts sturdily built from local wood and mud plaster – made me think of cob.  It is surrounded by a fencing of thorny scrub and at the center is a community space circling a large shady tree.  There were many crafts on display for sale around this central circle, and we were at one point led to see them but when we politely said we weren’t buying today there was no hard feeling and the tour moved on.  We began in the central circle where the men did a jumping contest, Bryan gave a good attempt but barely jumped higher than most of the Maasai men’s head.  Zoe also had a go and was quite energetic in her attempt.  Avi was grumpy and dug in the dirt like the other Maasai kids did. Mr. Tutu led us around and taught us about the herding, the nomadism, the marriage rituals, and house building.  He took us into his home which was quite dark inside.  We watched his morning fire fizzle out while he told us about their diet of all meat or milk or blood, and we found a lot of familiarity with our host family in Mongolia last year.  Finally, we walked out of the village circle to a small rectangular building, the pre school, where kids were lined up on stools in front of a large chalkboard and learning their numbers, English letters, and Swahili.  We didn’t interrupt for long; most kids were 6 and under.  The older ones head to town for primary school, or the boys alternate between that and herding the goats and cows out to pasture all day.

As we drove away we did see lots of young boys out with their herds.  Some wore the traditional maasai wrap, but in black with painted faces.  Danny told us these boys were either preparing for their circumcision or just got it and were having a bit of a wander in the bush. At 13.  It’s coming of age. poor guys.

In the end, visiting the Maasai village was worthwhile, and while I’ve read that it’s fairly staged I’m OK with that. It only felt that way a tiny bit; the dancing and songs were obvious performaces, but it also seemed as though no one in the town was going about daily life.  Perhaps that was time of day or perhaps they are just waiting for the next set of tourist.  Regardless, we have fun visiting lots of living history type museums all over the world and this could be added to that list.  I would recommend visiting a Maasai village to another family, but going with museum mentality and not truly expecting this to be the current full-time lifestyle of the people you meet.  I have read other accounts where tourist were highly pressured to buy stuff; I believe your safari driver has the responsibility to choose a village where this is not the case.  Ours did.

We FINALLY reached the gate into the Serengeti national park around noon, and stopped for some pictures of the grass that stretched to the horizon…and for a quick pee in the scrub.  From there it was another half hour until we were at the checkpoint gate to stop and get our entrance permits.  This was located at one of the rocky outcrops that dot the Serengeti, so we spent the time eating our lunch and walking to the top of the hill while Danny got our permits squared away.  There were a lot of safari cars waiting for entrance, so it took an hour or so.  But, we finally rolled in and across the vast plain.

Danny popped the roof up as we turned off the main dirt road onto a rougher one through a burnt section of grassland.  He explained that the park officials do prescribed burns to help the grass regenerate and to keep control of wildfires.  These areas have sprouting green shoots that the gazelle loved!   We slowly started seeing more and more wildlife…gazelle, impala, warthogs, and even a jackal! Then we spotted a few safari cars parked in a circle and made a beeline for them.

There, in the center of a ring of four safari’s was a cheetah!  It was resting up on top of a dirt mound with a dead gazelle at the bottom.  The gazelle had a nice huge chunk out of its behind!  The cheetah seemed calm, but got a bit twitchy as some cars started up and left.  We got pictures and videos and ooooed and awed at how it behaved like our cats at home.  At one point it sauntered off the mound and plopped in the grass, then got twitchy and rejoined its kill.  We were amazed and excited.  I did not expect to actually see elusive cheetahs on this trip, so it was quite a treat!

Up next, though, was a lion.  A young mail munching on some remnants of another animal.  It’s was tucked into a little trench trying to block the view of the safari cars that kept rolling up to disturb it’s meal (us included). Its muzzle was all bloody and great.

After those exciting moments we were up on the chair tops the rest of the day!  At times we blew along the road, wind and dust in our hair and faces, speedily at length with no animals.  Other times, we went slowly to spot all the creatures nearby in the grass or on the horizon.  Eventually, we came upon a fairly central riverbed that snaked along and made a green belt with a few trees.  This is where most animals were congregated later in the day: elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, lots and lots.  The lighting was beautiful as the sun was low in the sky and it all seemed to peaceful.

Another jaunt along speedy dirt roads lined with animals found us at our home for the next two nights: Ikoma Camp.  It was not actually tented like we expected, but instead tidy little wooden cabins set in the grassland.  There were some impala or gazelle wandering around in front of our cabin after dinner, but it was quite dark to see them.  The sunset from our little front porch had been gorgeous, and dinner in the open air gazebo was wonderful.  The waitress kept wondering why Avi didn’t eat….and we told her we kind of wonder at that as well.  Then I realized he’s been served giant adult portions, so taking just a few bites of everything is a good amount for him.

Tomorrow is a full day out looking for animals!  Hoping for the tree leopards; they are the most elusive of all.

Zoe’s Animal list for Day #2 (Serengeti):

  1. ostrich
  2. zebra
  3. giraffe
  4. camel
  5. grants gazelle
  6. eland
  7. thomsons gazelle
  8. jackal
  9. warthog
  10. starling
  11. agama
  12. heron
  13. nutcatcher
  14. kori
  15. hartbeast
  16. secretary bird
  17. blue crane
  18. cheetah
  19. guinea fowl
  20. lion eating
  21. Egyptian goose
  22. elephant
  23. bustard
  24. baboon
  25. hippo
  26. water buffalo
  27. hyena
  28. zebra
  29. wildebeest
  30. crocodile
  31. topi
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