Africa Part One, Photo Safari
Safari means travel in Swahili. Safari in Africa is exciting, for the smell of the air beyond the visual feast, for a foot treading soil which has seen continuous human habitation for two million years.
There are smells of passers by, of cars and buses, diesel and modernity. There are also the smells of the antiquity of life, the smells of game, of grasses and dust, of cooking oil and roasting meat.
Our guide Nico met us at Kilimanjaro Airport in his white Toyota Land Cruiser which was to be our transportation for the next five days and one thousand miles. We packed lightly, expedition style as I call it and our bags sat on the seats around us. Driving in Tanzania is done on the left side of the road and while the primary roads in town are paved most roads are dirt and rock. In the mountains and wildlife preserves they become rutted tracks on which we and our luggage happily bounced along while we excitedly stuck our cameras out the window or stood on the seats, hanging out the open top of the truck hoping to capture the vivid blankets worn by the Masai or elegant stances of wild game.
Lake Manyara National Park was the first stop on our photo safari and sits adjacent to the Great Rift Valley. A sign at the Visitor Center informed us John Wayne had filmed Hatari near here. The first sighting of an elephant had us scrambling for our cameras but we were assured by Nico there would be many more opportunities for better photographs and there were. Soon we fell into the rhythm of driving, spotting, observing, photographing, driving.
There were several other safari trucks full of tour groups in the Park creating a friendly competition amongst the drivers to get into the best position for their clients to experience the wildlife. While driving along the track a few hours after entering the Park, we came upon four or five trucks pulled to the side and partially clogging the road.
Nico spoke to another driver and told us there was a Leopard behind a tall bush laying under a tree. The bush was huge and the tree was a good 25 yards away but we had to see that Leopard! Nico found a good spot for us but it was hard to see through the foliage and past all the other people straining this way and that to get a glimpse. Fortunately I’m tall and I have a big lens on my Nikon so I climbed onto the roof of the Land Cruiser, stood up and managed to capture a photo. My first photo of a big cat in the wild and it was a Leopard! We spent a couple more hours at Lake Manyara before heading off to our safari lodge for the night.
Safari lodges, even ones with lovely buildings, are many tens or hundreds of kilometers from the nearest city and infrastructure outside urban areas is next to nonexistent. It’s simple food, simple bedding, and candles on the bedside table because the generators are shut off at 9PM local time. You can hear the sounds of the jungle and the savannah moving outside and leaving the lodge in the dark isn’t advised.
The next day we loaded up the Land Cruiser and began the long climb to Ngorogoro Crater, an extinct volcanic feature of the geological forces at work in the region. The road wound up across the stratified layers lining the wall of the Rift Valley and I found them reminiscent of Death Valley back in California. It was comforting to see so familiar a landscape halfway around the world but this was on a far grander scale.
As the landscape became increasingly arid, the people clearly lived closer to the land and there was a certain rawness to the environment. We saw a number of ox drawn carts on the road and began to see wild game near the roadway. In rural Africa there are no utilities but seemingly everybody was talking into a cell phone.
There was a small museum at the gate to Ngorongoro Crater with a corner exhibit dedicated to early hominids. A track of footprints had been discovered in the area several decades ago, preserved in hardened mud. They are the footprints of our bipedal ancestors and at 3.5 millions years they are the oldest hominid footprints in the world. Looking at photos and dioramas of hominids in museums and on television intellectually I get that these are our early ancestors. Knowing this didn’t prepare me for the moment I placed my foot into a cast of one of the hominid footprints and my foot fit nearly perfectly into place. I felt a connection across the ages that startled me.
Ngorongoro Crater’s rim is lush in the way you imagine a jungle in Africa should be. Winding our way around the rim we dropped down the other side to Olduvai Gorge (Oldupai in Masai) and Serengeti. We were traveling in the landscape of my dreams. I had read about Olduvai Gorge while studying anthropology in college while learning about the incredible discoveries of Mary and Louis Leakey.
I never imagined I’d be standing there. Christy and I mingled with the other travelers eating box lunches while a guide spoke for several minutes about the history of the Gorge. We walked through the small exhibit in the little museum and had a chance to look closely at several of the actual fossils excavated by the Leakey’s. Fossils which had changed human history and our perceptions of ourselves.
We arrived at Serengeti late in the day. Views stretched out to the horizon and immediately we knew this was a special place. Within minutes we saw lion cubs and their mother, herds of gazelle and beautiful rock formations. Based on watching documentary television and what has been written in the press I expected it to be difficult to spot animals perhaps seeing one here and another there. I hardly anticipated the vast herds of zebra, wildebeest and antelope we witnessed. In California it’s not unusual to see cattle, deer or turkeys walking along the side of the road, imagine instead elephants, hyenas and giraffes!
While we were traveling north toward the Kenyan border we noticed a number of zebra heading toward a rock outcropping. When we rounded the rocks we saw a crowd of zebra romping joyfully in a large pool of water. A little further down the road there were several more zebra rolling around in the red dirt of the road giving them a dusty ochre coat. Who would have guessed zebra were so playful.
Nico’s knowledge of animals was remarkable. He had an ability to spot subtle differences in foliage indicating game we had missed. I enjoyed taking photographs and showing them to Nico on the screen of my camera, it was a real treat to hear him laugh and say “you got a good one.”
“The Serengeti plains are endless and they are empty, but they are as warm with life as the waters of a tropic sea…There is nothing as far as you can see, or walk, or ride, except grass and rocks and a few trees and the animals that live there,” Beryl Markham.
In Serengeti the veneer of civilization becomes so thin you are stripped of any pretense that there is much separation between you and the land and the animals. You are thankful for the car you travel in and the bottle of water that keeps you hydrated and alive. A fine layer of grit clings to everything inside your vehicle and you have to take care to cover your head and eyes and arms from the sun.
I didn’t want to leave Serengeti. As we traveled along hardly a mile went by that we didn’t see a skeleton or a partial skeleton or bits of bone. The farther we traveled the less I felt like taking pictures and the more I appreciated my life and my mortality. I stood sticking out of the open roof of our vehicle, cradling my camera in my arms like a child and soaking up as many of these rich sensations as I could absorb. We had only tomorrow at Ngorongoro Crater before we began our long expedition to spend a night on the summit of Kilimanjaro.