Elephants everywhere

We wake to the smell of honey, a delightful smell. Soon it’s annoying as the source pesters us at every turn. Bees are present at our breakfast, hanging out drinking our wash water and buzzing around our ears constantly. I retreat to the quiet of the tent and dine alone.

We climb into the safari vehicles for our last full day. Tarangire is home to elephants and they are everywhere. Their destruction is obvious too as we see trees stripped of their bark. The elephants do this to get at the water contained in the fibre of the tree.  Stephen seems annoyed with them as he tells us they need the shade of the tree that they tear down. It seems to be poor planning on the part of the elephant though we learn that they are making do with a small portion of the land they require. Stephen tells us that their habitat has been encroached by man. I think about bears and other wildlife back home and think of how this problem is widespread.  Humans everywhere always seem to always take more land then is needed.

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The baobab trees are plentiful here and I decide to photograph these trees today with a different animal in each photo. Stephen tells us of the legend of the tree. It is the tree of life. It seems as though the tree was conceited  about its beauty.  God was so angry at the tree that he ripped it from the earth and threw it back to the earth upside down.  The tree survived by being resilient  and learned to thrive in its harsh surroundings much like the African people.

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We watch a very young baby monkey and his Mom.  He is so unsteady on his legs as he take his first tentative steps.  The scene unfolds in real time and we are in awe as we witness this heartfelt moment.  We watch a baby elephant nurse, and a baboon looks right at us as we snap his photo.  It seems at every turn there is much to witness and record.

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We stop off at a Safari lodge.  It is a welcome reprieve as we step into another world of proper chairs and cold beverages.  This is where the other group will spend their final night of safari.  We sit down and I enjoy a ginger pop and check out the first photos of our newest grandson, Hudson.  John and I are teary as we look at the images.  It seems as though we have been gone for a very long time.

Stephen tells us its time to go.  I sink lower into my comfortable chair, willing him to go without me.  I’m quite happy here.  He tells us that he will bring us back here tonight and reluctantly I get up and join the others.’

We travel back to our campsite.  Our treat today is a hot lunch.  This is nice as we have all grown weary of the daily picnic boxed lunch.  The bees are absent as they are waiting until its cooler before they emerge. After lunch, we find a spot by the shade of the tree and read our books, chat and write about the adventure that  has passed and imagine the adventure that is yet to occur.

Later, we go back to the lodge and meet up with the remainder of our group.  Its nice to see them again, hugs all around.  We share our stories about our different accommodations, drink beer, wine and spirits.  It is such a nice treat.  Many in the other group are quite ill with colds and other infections.  It has been difficult with the continued fallout from Kilimanjaro.

Some of the group will be going to Zanzibar, others will be going home. This for many will be the last night in Africa and we all reminisce about our African experience.  I’m excited for the next part of the trip where finally I will share a bed with my husband, use proper sheets and have a proper bath or shower.  I’m giddy with excitement for comfort that just a few short weeks ago would not have warranted a thought.

We leave for our campsite and our final night camping.  The sun is setting and the scene is beautiful, the sky an orange glow. I quickly snap off a few photos and am pleased with the results.  The sky changes quickly and too soon the moment is over, the camera put away for another day.  We have taken nearly 6,000 photos on safari and countless other pictures that are imprinted in our minds.  It has been an amazing journey.

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Goodbye

At our campsite, the bees have taken over our shared shower.  I decide I will pass on the shower and wait for Zanzibar tomorrow.  Others’ in our group decide that they will persevere and are stung many times for their efforts.  We eat our final dinner together, sit by the campfire and chat about the expected tip that we will give tomorrow.  We come up with a plan and retreat to our tents for our final night.

I scarcely sleep this last night. The baboons are yelling as the lions are near.   This racket continues for the majority of the night.  John sleeps sound, his snoring adding to the cacophony of sound.The sound travels odd, but it does seem as though they are just outside the tent.  I am afraid to look out the tent window, so I say a prayer that I will not be eaten by a lion on my last night of the Safari. Morning arrives, I’m alive, my prayers answered.  Stephen tells us that the lions were outside our tent, lion footprints are noticeable. I’m glad that we will be leaving today.  I’m excited for Zanzibar.  The rest of our group seems to feel the same as we all pack up quickly today  We take a few final pictures of our group and then happily get into the vehicles for our final safari ride.

The lodge experience would have been nice, but it would have been so much like typical accommodations.  We were fortunate to spend time with our Guides, cooks and helpers and in this manner had a richer experience.  I wish that I had been in better spirits, wish that I did not feel so ill from Kilimanjaro.  Each day when we photographed the animals, I forgot all my aches, pains and sadness and was in the moment. If I could have had a proper shower nightly, and a cozy bed to share with my husband, it would have been perfect.  I do know that millions of people  would have gladly traded places with me and I was grateful for the experience.

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Ngoronngoro crater

Today we explore Ngorongoro Crater. Before it erupted, it was the highest mountain in Africa and towered over its neighbour, Kilimanjaro. It is the world’s largest caldera. A caldera is a cauldron-like volcanic feature which is generally formed by the collapse of land after an eruption. It is impressive in size, though very dusty and made dustier by the volume of Safari vehicles searching for the elusive Rhinoceros.

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We bounce along the bottom of the caldera, kicking up dust as we travel and eating the dust of the vehicles in front. I am excited to see the Rhino, though not wanting to bother them as this is one of the few places they are not in as much danger.  Poachers are a constant threat. We are in no danger of getting too close as Stephen points out the elusive Rhino a great distance away. John and I take pictures, but the haze coupled with the distance make for a less than impressive photo. We have now seen the big five.

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Ngorongoro crater, with its fertile plains is home to many animals. We see pink flamingos, and many brightly coloured birds at the alkaline soda lake. We see hyenas and thanks to Disney we instantly recoil. It’s difficult to see them as anything other than a salivating mass, intent on disrupting the circle of life. We see hippos lazing by the water and Zebras grazing on the grass.  Later, we see an entire troop of Baboons march out of the woods in front of our vehicle. The variety makes up for the lack of volume.

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We book a Ranger to lead us on a walk tomorrow around the crater rim. We will be 600meters from the base at an altitude of 2400meters. It will be good to stretch our legs. We sign up for anything that will offer a break from the vehicle.

We arrive at our camp earlier than usual today and it’s nice to arrive in the light of day and relax before dinner. Water is in short supply and our bush shower has a pail of water that should last for three showers. John has taught us the Navy way and accompanying lingo and we have become experts at Pusser showers. This is accomplished by a short burst of water, soap, followed by a final burst of water. It’s effective and I think how much water we waste at home on a daily basis, with our Hollywood showers.

We take much for granted at home. We have few comforts here and yet are comfortable. We are unplugged from the rest of the world and take the time to listen to the stories of each others’ lives, to engage in conversation that is happening in real time and not in a virtual world. We awake to the light of day and fall asleep to the darkness of night. We are in tune with our surroundings.

A lodge experience would have been nice, though the gift of the camping experience outweighs. We spend our evenings getting to know our Guides, Stephen and Hussein and our Chef, Abraham. We are learning the scarcity of resources, shortage of money and opportunity in Africa and with each truth are thankful of all we have at home, knowing it is luck and chance that we were born where we were. The lodge would have supplied us with our typical comforts. The Guides would have delivered us nightly and picked us up daily. We would have known their names, but the relationship would have had no substance. We would have been comfortable in our beds and unaware we were missing anything. Instead, our experience was rich and layered.

As I lay on my cot listening to John’s steady breathing, I wonder if this experience will change me. Will I accept the gift of being grateful when I return home? Will I spend more time having real conversations with friends and family? Will I be a better steward of resources? Impossible to know, I decide, though the seed is planted. I roll over and think that true change is always uncomfortable. I bunch the sleeping bag under my sore hip and find comfort on this night. Satisfied I fall fast asleep.

Thankful

The night is magical as the stars peak through the canopy of trees above. We sit around the campfire and wait to be called for dinner. I think of our family and the Thanksgiving dinner that will be enjoyed half a world away. There will be too much food and too many choices, thanks difficult due to the sheer abundance of things to be thankful and yet little appreciation. We seem always searching to find thanks in our world of plenty. Tonight our thanks is crystal in its clarity. We have little of our typical comforts and abundance and yet in a small campground in Africa I look to the heavens and give thanks for life, for sight, for love. I am at peace.

Dinner is served and is special as we have all purchased wine and share with each other. Our meal is a simple stew, our mood festive.  The usual fare is extra tasty tonight. We each share what we are thankful for on this night. I’m thankful for John’s understanding, tolerance and love when I’m at my least loveable. We are both thankful for our family and our newest grandson. Collectively, we are thankful for the opportunity to travel, access to clean water and our new friends. We smile at each other under the glow of the camping lights and commit this night to memory.

After dinner we gather again at the campfire, our bellies full, wine in hand and chat. We learn more about each other. Stephen explains the education system in Tanzania. He has two sons, they wear uniforms to school and education is critical to achieving a better life. Our Canadian group talks of the places we would like to visit and what is next on our agendas. Stephen is strangely silent. I ask him if he travels and he tells us that this is not possible. It is not easy for a Tanzanian to travel freely. Many countries are concerned that they will not leave once they arrive. We are silent as we imagine what it would be like to not have this freedom, to have a passport that closed doors. Hussein joins us and we chat about religion. He tells us that his friends and family wonder how he can spend time with us as we are not Muslim. Stephen explains the difference between Muslims and Christians. He says that if a church of Christians are praying and a group of Muslims gather and state that the people in the church are stupid, the Christians would be tolerant. If the opposite were to occur, the Muslims would defend their religion using whatever means was required. Hussein smiled and agreed. It is an interesting glimpse into a different belief system. Its interesting that everyone’s beliefs are so intertwined into the fabric of their being. It is thought provoking to hear another way. We fall silent thinking about the words that have been spoken. On this night, we have solved the word’s problems as we are understanding of differences and not needing or wanting to force change.

We are soon off to bed. We will stay here two nights, and are excited about not needing to pack up tomorrow or drive around aimlessly at the end of the day while Stephen and Hussein shout into the radio at our camp staff, as our camp is not ready, yet again. They speak in Swahili but we have become experts at picking up non verbal cues and listening for the click of Stephen’s tongue and rapid head shake that symbolize his displeasure.

We sleep sound content with our full bellies, wine buzz and knowledge that the Maasai warrior will keep us safe from any predator.

Meeting the Maasai

We are on the move. The days are predictable and the program imposed. In many ways we are children, being told what will happen next and having little say in where we will go, or what we will eat.  I’m out of my comfort zone where I call the shots minute by minute.

We climb into our safari vehicle arrange our gear and prepare for another long day. I’m always bitter at the beginning of the day, my mood improving with each animal sighting and subsequent photo. We are on our way to Ngorongoro Crater and to get there will travel out of the Serengeti.

The animals are so plentiful and we stop for a time to watch the Wildebeests and Zebra decide whether they should cross the dry river bed to follow the rains.  Stephen knowingly advises that their survival depends on this decision. The Wildebeests look confused and I recognize this immediately having been lost in more than one subdivision, looking for a patient’s home.  The Wildebeests have an extra level of difficulty as they need to pass by crocodiles who are waiting to cull the herd, whereas my lack of direction will only make me late.   We ask if they should cross and Stephen tells us they are already on the correct side. The lead Wildebeest is in charge of making a decision for the herd and lacks GPS, he must go on instinct.  We are kindred spirits and I send good thoughts to the leader that they will stay where they be. It’s a harsh place where wrong decisions can mean the end of life.

SONY DSCWe meet up with the remainder of our group.  It’s great to see them, unfortunately, Illness and sunburn has plagued some of them. We chat about the animals we have seen and our respective accommodations. They are staying in lodges.   John has found fresh brewed coffee, wine and pringles. I’m in love all over again with him, such a treat. The place we have stopped is set up for tourists, complete with proper toilets and running water.  I linger and enjoy soap and savour the moment by allowing the warm water to run over my hands.   We enjoy our boxed lunches and sit at tables surrounded by an oasis.  Too soon we are off bouncing along in our respective safari vehicles.

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A short distance away, Stephen stops the vehicle,  reaches for the binoculars and tells us he spies a Cheetah. We are awestruck that he can see a speck on the horizon and know its a Cheetah.  When asked, he smiles and with an expanse of his arms he gestures at all we can see and tells us this is his office.

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We are asked if we want to stop at an authentic Maasai village. The consensus is yes though our decision is motivated chiefly by a chance to get out of the vehicle. The cost is $50.00 per Safari vehicle. The Maasai who appears at the window to collect our money sports an expensive watch. It seems there is nothing authentic here. We leave the vehicle and they dance for us just outside their village. The focus of the dance is jumping high. We are then split into groups of two each with our own guide and enter the village.

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We duck inside a home and as our eyes adjust to the darkness, gradually the space comes into focus. It’s small and smoky as fires are lit inside with little ventilation. It is the job of the female to build the home, while men are valued for their herding and hunting skills. The children are filthy and all seem to be suffering from illness. Later Stephen tells us many of them suffer from AIDS. We are ushered around a circle of items that they want us to buy. As we walk it is clear that the lives of the women and children will not change with the buying of a trinket and though there is not much I can do for them, I choose to not buy to fund another watch. The man walking us around is not happy with this decision and the tour for us is at an end.  He begins to usher us out when I remind him we have not seen the school as promised.  He brightens and ushers us into a dismal building, says something to the teachers and students and we are treated to stares by all. We go to leave and are asked for a donation to support the school. We decline and are given the bum’s rush out the back entrance.  We hear from the others in our vehicle that  if a trinket was bought, the children in the school would perform.  We all agree this is a tourist trap.

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A very short distance away we see authentic villages, children waving with happy smiles and families proud and hard at work. It costs us nothing extra.  We travel through this area and see children tending goats, some as young as 4 or 5 years.  They seem happy, though I can’t help but think that their childhood is compromised.

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We stop at our home for the night, tucked into the woods with a canopy of trees overhead.  Its beautiful.  A Maasai warrior will stay the night with us.  Stephen tells  us that they are paid as we are camping on their land.  The Maasai is friendly and helps with the chores needed to make dinner and camp. I know that I will enjoy a deep sleep comfortable in the protection of the Maasai warrior

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Lions

We finish our lunch and are on the move.  We travel a short distance, and Stephen points out the Cape Buffalo that was watching us eat. I did not realize how dangerous Buffalo are, a member of the big five. Stephen tells us that the big 5 are the 5 animals that are most challenging to kill. There have been instances of injured Cape Buffalo attacking the hunter when maimed. They are very interesting to photograph with their hairless human like face and perpetual bad hair day.

Cape Buffalo

We are told we will see at least four of the big five but depending on our luck we may or may not see the elusive rhino. It’s sad that the poachers take their horn and leave their carcass to rot. The horn is apparently an aphrodisiac and fetches a high price. Money is always in short supply in this country and I’m not sure who my anger should be directed, the consumer or the poacher. It’s complex I decide and unsolvable by me at present. I’m mad at everyone

We continue bouncing along. Hussein, the driver of the other Safari vehicle spends much time on the radio and stops to chat with everyone that passes. He gains valuable intel in this manner.

There is electricity in the air and we are off speeding over the terrain. A leopard has been spotted. We arrive to a glut of safari vehicles on both sides of a gully. I position my camera, ready. The leopard bursts through the brush and despite having the camera set to burst I repeatedly miss the shot. It’s exciting and I force myself to control my breathing to steady. John fares better as his approach is one of studied anticipation and he waits for the shot and is rewarded. We stare at the beautiful spots and strong body on our small camera screen while the scene unfolds in real time. We set the camera aside for now and watch. We are in the moment. The leopard seems agitated with our attention, I voice my concerns, Stephen agrees and we move along in search of other subjects.

Leopard

Zebra, Wildebeests, and Buffalo barely warrant a second glance, their numbers so plentiful on the Serengeti. It’s difficult to believe that only yesterday we were excited to see one, now we look beyond them for rarer sightings.

Serengeti

We see groups of Giraffes coming from all directions congregating in a gully. They float across the land and we compare their spots. We never learn why they meet here. We never tire of watching.

Giraffes

There is more excitement and we are told Lions have been found. As we bounce along, I imagine they will be far away and hope we can get a few good photos. We arrive and I can scarcely believe my eyes, they are only a few feet away. This is a small pride. There are a few females, babies and a single male. He is young with his barely there mane. I had secretly hoped for a larger mane but we have to start somewhere.

Later, we see larger prides, males with full manes, males with scars, lions with full bellies next to a zebra carcass and lions in the process of making little lions. They are secure on the top of the food chain, our presence only warrants a slight glance, a lazy roll over and then they fall back to sleep.

Sleeping lions

It’s late now, our day in the vehicle reaches it’s 12 hour mark as we make our way to our home for the night. We eat our dinner and go quiet as we listen to the sounds of the female lions calling their babies a short distance away.