Ever since my trip to Peru in 2003, I've wanted to go on safari, specifically to the Ngorongoro Crater which had been highly recommended by two of my fellow travellers. Having decided 2006 was the year I would go, I spent many hours poring over the various trips available through Explore before finally deciding on their "East African Explorer", taking in the best of Kenya and Tanzania. Having booked it, I had second, third and even fourth thoughts about spending two weeks in a tent (and I don't mean one of those luxury safari tents, I mean a two-man dome tent!), but it turned out to be an inspired choice for my East African adventure :-)
The links on the left will take you to photos of the trip which went something like this ...
Day 1: Flew to Nairobi and transferred to the Comfort Hotel for our first night ... "comfort" wasn't quite the word I'd have associated with the hotel, but I was assured it would seem the height of luxury on our return!
Day 2: Climbed aboard the truck that would be our home from home for the next two weeks and headed north-west to Lake Naivasha, stopping on the way at a viewing point over the Great Rift Valley. Camping on the shores of the lake, we had a short lesson in tent-pitching then headed off to Crescent Island for a walk in a private reserve stocked with animals originally brought in for the filming of "Out of Africa". With our guide, Moses, we walked with giraffe, wildebeest, Thompson's and Grant's gazelle, dikdik, impala, zebra ... and apparently python, although we only saw its track!
Day 3: We broke camp before breakfast at 6am and drove the short distance to Hell's Gate National Park, where we had a brief game drive through the park and a walk through the gorge that was once the water exit from Lake Naivasha. Fortunately water levels are somewhat lower these days! Back on the truck, we embarked on the long drive to the Loita Hills, and began to understand just how bumpy Kenyan roads could be! Tonight was our first bush camp, with trench latrines and three Masai sentries ... their spears leaning against a tree as we ate our supper lending a certain authenticity to the experience!
Day 4: Our walk in the Loita Hills with the Masai - Moses, Robert and Joseph - was one of the highlights of the trip, not something that is included on the more luxurious itineraries. When we paused for breath, Moses talked about Masai life, explaining their traditions and how these were evolving in a fast-changing world. After lunch, we walked to the nearby village, visiting the primary school of which the community is justly proud. The children sang and danced for us, and we danced (or tried to) with them, before we visited the newly completed classroom, built partly thanks to donations from previous Explore groups. The children excitedly posed for photographs before we headed back to camp, stopping on the way at Joseph's house to learn more of the everyday lives of the Masai. Back at camp, the Masai entertained us with traditional singing and dancing, while the women displayed their crafts at a small market.
Day 5: Back along the bumpy, bumpy road towards Narok before turning left to head to the Masai Mara National Park. Taking the main track through the park, we enjoyed our first sight of elephant (albeit hiding in a bush) on route to our camp for the next two nights ... delighted to discover we had pre-erected tents that we could even stand up in! Returning to the park for our first full game drive, we saw lions, elephant and much more. Lying in bed that night, listening to the lions roar on the other side of the river, will live long in my memory.
Day 6: A whole day of game-driving, returning to camp for an early lunch then taking refuge from the heat of the day at the Fig Tree lodge - complete with swimming pool! After lunch came one of my personal highlights, three cheetah lying in the shade of a tree a few metres from our truck ... my first sight of these most beautiful of cats brought tears to my eyes, much to the amusement of the rest of the gang.
Day 7: Another early start, breaking camp and driving back out through the park and on towards the border with Tanzania ... and we thought the road to Loita was bad! Happened across a large group of elephant by the side of the road, before crossing into Tanzania where the roads suddenly developed tarmac, white lines and crash barriers ... miraculous! Our camp that night was at Speke Bay on the shores of Lake Victoria and there was much excitement at the prospect of upgrading to luxury, pre-erected tents. Unfortunately they were fully booked, but one bungalow remained available which Annie (my delightful tent-mate) and I decided was cheap at the price! The luxury of a bed, with fresh sheets, a hot shower and flushing toilet ... amazing how easily pleased you are after a few nights of bush camping!
Day 8: Awaking early, I sat on the verandah watching the birds and the fishermen at work on Lake Victoria. After a late breakfast (our only lie-in of the tour) we were transported by canoe (actually fair-sized boats) paddled by locals to the nearby fishing village where our guide, Jackson, showed us round accompanied by the village children who took our hands and giggled a lot! The oarsmen sang as they paddled us back - a very special morning. After an early lunch, we climbed aboard the truck again and headed into the Serengeti National Park and down the western corridor to our bush camp at Seronera. A trip to the local lodge for a sundowner was a pleasant end to the day.
Day 9: A full day's game-driving, with a couple of hours at the lodge when we sheltered from torrential rain rather than the heat of the sun. In the morning we saw our first leopard - or part of it anyway, perched as it was in the branches of a tree with its back to us. In the afternoon, more cheetah ... two males near one of the giant Kopjes (rocky outcrops, pronounced "copies") which are a feature of the Serengeti.
Day 10: A more relaxed start this morning, not required to break camp until after our morning game drive, for which we headed in the other direction from the previous day to see a hippo pool where some 60 hippos were wallowing together in one of the few remaining pools large enough to accommodate them. Standing on the banks of the pool, so close to these bizarre creatures was magical, although we backed up the bank a little when a crocodile surfaced a few feet away! On the way back, I saw my second leopard, but it was moving fast and disappeared into the grass before the truck could stop and reverse up. After packing up the camp, we headed off to visit the information centre, a very imaginatively laid out walkway round a kopje with information on the flora, fauna and geology of the region, the annual migration and the work involved in maintaining the park. It was an educational day, with a stop later at the Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world where the Leakeys carried out pioneering work in the 1950s. We continued on across the vast and desolate plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with mirage lakes shimmering in the distance. As we climbed away from the plains to the rim of the crater at a height of 2,400m, the temperature dropped and we prepared for our only cold night of the tour at the Simba campsite, sharing our resting place with many other campers and the odd bushpig!
Day 11: We loaded the truck early, but were collected by three 4WD jeeps for our day in the Ngorongoro Crater. After so much anticipation of this particular location, I was somewhat disappointed - the crater itself is spectacular, descending 600m to the floor, but we'd been so spoilt with game in the Mara that there was little to surpass it here. The hoped for rhino sighting didn't materialise, or not convincingly anyway ... we were however assured that the fluzzy blob lost in the heat haze on the horizon was indeed a rhino! It was however lovely picnicing on the bank of the pool with an island of hippo supporting several cattle egret, and the zebra and wildebeest were so habituated to vehicles that we were able to get much closer than we had before. The climb up the other side of the crater was one of the bumpiest rides yet, but the view from the top was superb and it was a short hop from there to Keratu where we rejoined the truck at the Kudu lodge and campsite. Here for two nights, we made the most of the showers, bar and laundry facilities ... particularly the bar, with its comfy chairs and iced drinks!
Day 12: Slight hitch this morning when the hitherto indestructible truck broke down! Joaquim, our highly skilled driver and, it seems, equally skilled mechanic, eventually got it going again and we set off down another bumpy road towards Lake Eyasi to visit some local tribes. Pausing to collect our guide, the truck ground to a halt once more so we set off on foot to visit the Datoka tribe - pasturalists like the Masai. We were welcomed by the women of the boma, all wives of the old man who waved from his hut. We sat together in the hut asking questions about each other's lives ... the Datoka women were most curious about how we managed to live without cattle and were sad for those of us not lucky enough to be married ... particularly the men, for without cows they had no prospect of ever being married! There was much laughter and I will long remember these charming people. As we prepared to leave, the truck bounced into view and we set off to visit the Hadzabi, traditional hunter gatherers who live a nomadic life and very much a hand to mouth existence. Those who accept tourism (as some do not) benefit from the additional income it brings, dramatically reducing the infant mortality rate, but their traditional way of life is also being eroded by the contact. It's a precarious balance.
Day 13: Another long day's drive, broken into shorter stages by several stops - Lake Manyara viewpoint, a craft market along the way, and a longer break at Arusha where we enjoyed real coffee at the patisserie and a peaceful hour in the beautiful gardens of the Arusha Hotel where their head gardener proudly took us on a guided tour. A roadside picnic before crossing the border back into Kenya, and we eventually entered the Amboseli National Park, driving across the vast dry lake bed sighting very little until we reached the permanent water fed by snowmelt from Kilimanjaro, hiding in the clouds. Our final bush camp, and I can't say I was sorry to see it, and the end of the trip was fast approaching.
Day 14: Loading up for the last time, we set off for a short stop on Observation Hill. Set at the southern edge of the vast Amboseli reserve, with Kilimanjaro rising above it and emerging from its early morning cloud cover just for us, it was a most beautiful place to sit awhile and reflect on the past two weeks. Driving out of the park we saw some of the large family groups of elephant for which Amboseli is famed, before heading on to Nairobi. A short stop at a curio shop for refreshments lengthened as we waited for a replacement truck, Joaquim not being confident the ailing beast would survive the Nairobi traffic. Stopping for lunch at the roadside, we took the opportunity for group photos and presented Joaquim and Shabani (our miraculous cook) with their tip and a huge thank you for their essential contribution to our enjoyment of the trip. The last leg of our journey was hot, smelly (diesel fumes) and way too long but we eventually arrived back at the Comfort Hotel from whence we started. A final meal at The Trattatoria where we were slightly bemused by a large menu and a table and chairs, but nonetheless managed to restrain ourselves from washing our dishes!
Day 15: Today's entry should have been short and sweet, but an easy journey home was not our fate. Accompanied by our wonderful tour leader, Kim, also heading home after a 20 week stint, we discovered we'd been bumped from our 7.30am flight. We were eventually taken to the InterContinental Hotel, where we were given rooms and free meals before being taken back to the airport in the evening, not to mention $300 compensation, so it could have been worse!