Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tanzania: Where the Wild Things Were (Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater)

Curled up in our sleeping bags after watching the sun set behind some Acacia trees, we watched an almost full moon rise while listening to the plaintive laugh of distant hyenas. It was truly like stepping into a dream as we explored Lake Myanara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater.

Admittedly, it took us a moment to recalibrate our Disneyland-like expectations. We had envisioned that the minute we crossed into a game park, we’d be rubbing shoulders with curious giraffes, while leopards circled the car in a friendly fashion, and hippos lumbered out of the water to cross our path. But, um, it’s not quite like that. Instead, there is a lot of driving around on bumpy, dusty roads. But when you do come across animals, it’s a beautiful sight indeed.

Although at times it seemed that we only saw sleepy animals. Lions dozing in the sun, hyenas napping under a tree, hippos snoozing in the water. All gorgeous animals that were a pleasure to observe; but there’s something about going on safari that brings out our thirsty side. After a few hours of bumping around in a 4x4, we started to long for bloodshed. In the Ngorongoro Crater, we rose before the sun to drive into the crater at first light under the glow of a full moon. We wanted to see a Hollywood A-list safari kill with lions chasing down a buffalo, but instead we got the B-grade billing of hyenas and jackals eating a three-day-old wildebeest carcass. But cool nonetheless really. Plus, we loved watching the hyena’s lumpy loping run and hear their cries. And we got to see our own mini migration (since we missed the big one in the Masa Mara), as zebras and wildebeests crowded toward the water’s edge. At one point we sat in the sun for two hours as we watched a standoff between five lionesses and a herd of buffalo. At one point, the lionesses all sprang to their feet, crouched down, and slinked off in a strategic fashion approaching the edge of the herd. I don’t think anyone in our car breathed for a good ten minutes, while we eagerly awaited what might happen. But the wily buffalo caught wind of the attack and drove the lionesses back in force with a snarl and an aggressive nod of their heads (which remind us of English barrister’s wigs, to be honest). Crisis (and photo opportunities) averted.

Driving past Masai bomas, we watched the lanky warriors wrapped in their distinctive red blankets, carrying spears or clubs, and small boys herding cattle. The Masai are a fascinating group not only for their traditional culture and customs, but also for the societal niche they are trying to create for themselves. Traditionally nomadic herdsmen and warriors, they have lost most of their land due to population growth and

encroachment throughout the country. Once feared for their unparalleled combat skills, these days most warriors are more likely to earn their keep performing traditional dances for tourists or by demanding money for their photographed image. The women, meanwhile, craft beautiful jewelry and have a reputation for shrewd salesmanship. There are still some Masai who keep the traditional way of life. Particularly those living in land set aside by the government, such as the Ngorongoro Reserve. In these parts, young boys continue to go through a rite of passage to reach hood (where they must live by themselves for a month, surviving off the bush), and polygamy, child brides, and a semi-nomadic lifestyle are still the norm. We found ourselves discussing the plight of the Masai quite a bit. On the one hand, they are an elegant and fascinating people, and we couldn’t help but feel saddened by the demise of this rich culture. On the other hand, we can’t ask for people not to progress or change simply for our cultural tourism benefit, and often the ‘cultural preservation’ tourism feels cheesy and exploitive---sort of like a human zoo where you’re constantly asked to buy things. The other argument is the plight of their children. If they are allowed to keep their traditional ways, then this means that the children miss out on education and are relegated to a life of shepherding. But to force the children into schools means abandoning their nomadic ways and losing someone to tend their stock, per tradition. It’s an intriguing dilemma, and not an easy one to balance.

On the animal side of things, one of our favorite moments was getting a tad lost on a side route in the Serengeti and encountering a herd of over 50 elephants of all ages and sizes. There was no one else around, and when we turned off the engine all we could hear was the quiet whoosh of their feet in the grass and the wind by their ears. Absolutely magical. Until they got rather close. And Marco, our guide, got rather nervous. And the enormous bull elephant, sort of faux-charged our car, which he could have easily flipped over with a sneeze. So Eric bravely and gallantly rolled up the window (of our open topped safari vehicle!), and we extricated ourselves as gracefully as we could.

And while it wasn’t funny when the elephants got too close to us in the Serengeti, we found it incredibly comical when they ran after an Italian tourist in our Ngorongoro Crater campsite. We were in the public campground above the crater, when a couple of curious elephants wandered into our site. We loved watching them, as did all the other camera-toting campers. Including some idiot brazen enough to try and capture the perfect shot even after the elephant trumpeted at him. Since he ignored her warning, she saw fit to run after him, and he was soon sent scrambling, camera a-flappin’ and designer eyewear fogging up. How we wish we had caught that on video. Evidently he wanted the perfect shot. Although I think more snapshots were taken by the snickering campers who watched the whole transaction. In actuality the elephants were fairly habituated to the campers, as they frequently came to the campground for easy access to the water tank that they would dip their drunks into. Indeed, Eric saw zebras at the spigot earlier in the day. Not exactly Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and undoubtedly they were dipping their trunks into the same water that we were drinking, but memorable nonetheless.

Like others, we were eager to see the Big Five---the most dangerous and photogenic beasts of the wild---the elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo. The leopard and the rhino tend to be the most elusive, and thus the drivers work in tandem, radioing back and forth when they spot something ‘interesting.’ As a result, sometimes it can feel like you’re following cars, not animals. And when one of the most sought-after animals is spotted, virtually every tourist-laden 4x4 in the park is parked below it with binoculars at the ready. On our last day we saw the long-awaited leopard surveying the land from a rocky perch. She was a vision of feline majesty. And her prowess was only slightly marred by the line-up of 17 some-odd safari trucks with gawkers craning their necks. Including us, of course.

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