Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tanzania Odyssey Part II – Ngorongoro Crater

We bid goodbye to Oliver’s and Tarangire in the morning as our Asilia driver drove us to the Manyara airstrip to be greeted by our new guide/driver from & Beyond. From the airstrip it was a 45-min drive to the Ngorongoro Nature Reserve.

I first heard about the crater from a good friend who worked for a South African bank. Based in London, he makes frequent business trips to Johannesburg and every time he goes he always plans a mini-safari to tag on to the end of the trip. Many years ago he told us about this crater that was on his next must-see list. That conversation stuck with me so when I researched for this trip I made it a point to include it in our itinerary.

Unlike Tarangire, Ngorongoro is a conservation area, not a National Park, because the indigenous Maasai people still live and herd inside and around the crater. There is no lodging inside the crater, but the lodge we are headed to, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, sits on the rim of the crater, with a sweeping view of the crater floor.  

After a quick lunch at the luxuriously decorated dining room dedicated to our camp of nine lodges, we set off on an afternoon game drive. Our guide explained to us that because of the unique nature of the crater, the animal population inside is a little different from the surrounding areas. There are many zebras, wildebeests, Thomson gazelles and warthogs, but noticeably missing is the giraffe population. The reason for this is there are very few tall trees for the giraffes to feed on.  Another difference I noticed in the animal behavior is the animals in the crater are so used to safari vehicles that they don’t run away when a car approaches them, therefore I was able to take some really close-up shots of zebras and wildebeests.

There is one road into the crater and one way out, and it is a bumpy 40-minute ride before we reached the crater floor.  A flock of Grey Crowned cranes took flight right in front of our car and it was the perfect welcome into the crater.

It is the dry season so the lake inside the crater shrunk considerably in size and although there are flamingos in the crater we were only able to see a smear of pink on the horizon.

On this drive we also saw two male lions and a female lion napping in broad daylight. Because there are no trees save for a small forested area in the crater, lions and hyenas alike sleep in the open, which took a little getting used to. You’d think they’d try to find somewhere less exposed or at least a shaded area, but I guess when you’re at the top of the food chain, you really couldn’t care less.

After the lion sighting it was time to turn around. The gate at the top closes at 6:30pm so everyone has to be out by then. Back at the lodge our butler had run a hot bath for us and a special table strewn with rose petals awaited us at dinner.

The next morning we set off early at 6:30am, after a wakeup call of coffee and biscuits. The sky was still dark and there was a light mist hanging over everything, but early birds get to see the animals so I convinced hubby that we simply MUST have an early start!

We ran into the same lone male elephant on our way into the crater that we saw the day before. Due to the rich minerals in the soil of the crater, elephants in N.C. have much longer tusks. We left the elephant to forage in peace and took a look inside the little forest in the crater, but aside from some sleepy tree hyraxes and some monkeys, nothing much was going on so we quickly came out in hopes of seeing some bigger games. 

Pretty soon we saw a pair of lions guarding their kill of a baby zebra and a brave little jackal attempting to steal some of it. Our guide with the eagle eyes then spotted a black rhino so far away that even in the binocular we could only make out the outline of its horns. Black rhinos were poached to almost extinction and we were considered lucky to even get a glimpse of one through the binocular.  

On the way to the lake where we were to have a picnic breakfast, we saw some hippos frolicking near the water in the distance. It’s fun to see such huge animals behave like little kids. There were also quite a number of hippos in the lake, but they refused to emerge from the water despite my coaxing from the distance. I had to be content with photos of what looked like a bunch of river stones with a lone bird standing on top.

The lake was very green and pretty, so different from the barren look of the rest of the crater. While we were eating, we attracted a Black Kite hawk, who tried a few times to dive and steal food from us. When it was hovering in the air surveying our spread of food, it really did look like a kite.

After breakfast we saw more action. There was a pair of ostriches mating; a herd of baboons eating grass seeds and grooming each other right next to the main road; a hyena sleeping within 1 meter of the road; a female cheetah contemplating whether or not to hunt in front of an audience of least 15 safari vehicles and two lurking hyenas; two little Pumbas who almost walked straight into a pair of sleeping lions; and the biggest herd of lions in the crater hanging around surveying the scenery.

While at the crater, we marveled at how it must be the best life to be a lion in the crater: walking buffets of zebras, wildebeests and gazelles and no natural enemy to speak of, not even humans who will hunt them. What more can a lion ask for? A month or so after we came back, I caught a program on National Geographic which followed the exact herd of lion we saw, 23 in all at the time of filming. As it turned out, life of a lion is tough, even in the crater. For such a large herd, they need to make a substantial kill almost daily to feed everyone, which is tough even with the abundant preys. Another even bigger problem is that due to extensive inbreeding (few outside male lions enter the crater, and due to the large size of the crater males, seldom win a fight to take control of a pride) there were many genetic diseases that were passed down from generation to generation. In the film, the best hunter of the pride, a young lioness and her cubs all succumb to a mysterious disease.  In the end, too weak to defend herself, the lioness was killed by a pack of hyenas. The film was made a few years before our visit to the crater, so it’s good to know that the pride survived, but it’s sad to be reminded just how ruthless Mother Nature can also be.

After the fruitful early morning game drive, we decided to skip the afternoon game drive and take it easy.  We ended up exploring the Crater Lodge on foot. After dark we had to ring for escorts to walk us everywhere, but it’s safe to be unaccompanied during daylight hours. On that day there were three zebras that came into the lodge to graze and investigate. They were so at ease that I thought they were the lodge’s pet zebras, but the staff told us all kinds of animals visit the lodge, sometimes elephants, sometimes lions. Sure enough, that night after dinner, we were told by our butler the zebras had attracted a couple of lions to the lodge. We could see their green eyes flashing in the bushes.

The lodge is divided into three parts: North lodge, South lodge and tree lodge. Each lodge has its own dining room and lounge, which serves about nine individual huts. Each hut has a butler, who is in charge of everything from wakeup calls, room service, serving dinner and anything else you can think of. The “huts” are very spacious inside with clawed foot bathtub, his and hers showers and a little room for the toilet. I cannot tell you how excited I was to have piping hot water and strong water pressure, so I could finally wash and rinse my hair out thoroughly. Everything about these huts made me feel like I had stepped into a fairy tale, and if the doors and windows were round, I would’ve believed I was a hobbit.

Anyway, that’s off topic. I can’t remember whether we were in north or south camp, but we decided to walk to tree camp. On the way there, our path was blocked by one of the zebras. It seemed completely unafraid of us that I was able to get close enough to almost touch it.

The tree lodge was very different from the other two lodges, where there were crystal chandeliers everywhere. The lounge of the tree lodge had a giant tree growing in the middle, so it was truly a tree house, albeit a gigantic one. There’s even a giant swing seat/sofa in the middle of the tree house. It was thoroughly enchanting.

The two nights we spent at the crater lodge were truly magical. I was constantly amazed at every turn, from the huge vase of roses in the bathroom to the sweet fresh raspberries at our picnic breakfast by the lake (we were in the middle of nowhere and there are roses and raspberries?), to the thermos full of ice our guide pulled out of nowhere when hubby wondered out loud it’d be nice to have ice in his drinks. All the staff were very friendly and eager to help, although I did feel that our butler was not the best trained staff there was. His intentions were all good but often times he missed the mark. In a charming place like the crater lodge it was easily forgiven and forgotten, but if the lodge wants to establish itself as a top-notch resort, more staff training is needed.

The next morning we left N.C. in another misty and rainy day, but we were happy to learn that no zebras became lion food that night. Fully rested with freshly washed hair we were ready to rough it out in the Serengeti.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tanzania Odyssey Part I – Tarangire National Park: elephant paradise

It seems that I’ve waited forever to go on a safari trip but the timing was just never right, and I also couldn’t decide which African country to go to.  This year, while planning hubby’s mandatory 2-week leave I stumbled upon a company called Tanzania Odyssey based in London that specializes in safari trips in Tanzania and Kenya.  After corresponding back and forth with Ted from T.O. for a while I decided to use them to plan our trip.  More emails and phone calls later, our itinerary was set, six months before the trip date.  I thought I was being organized, but it turned out most of the people plan for their trips more than a year in advance!

Exactly twenty-five hours after taking off from Changi airport, we arrived in ArushaCoffee Lodge, in a coffee plantation, where we would spend the night before driving to Tarangire National Park. As we were led to our suite by the porters I felt stinging sensations on my legs which turned from itchy to painful.  After we entered our room I rolled up my pant leg to find a huge red ant crawling up.  I hadto quickly dash into the bathroom, take off my pants and kill off the dozen or so ants that werecrawling all over me.  Welcome to Africa!
The next morning we woke up to a rain soaked chilly morning. Everything was so green and the coffee plants were drenched in rain drops. I wish we could spend more time here, but there are animals to be seen, so we set off after a yummy breakfast to Tarangire National Park.
The park is famous for its vast elephant populations and sure enough, we had our first elephant sightings within five minutes of entering the park.

October is the end of the dry season in Tanzania and the park is mostly yellow in color, but there are some water holes where the animals congregate during the day.  In the wet season, the park is much greener but animals are dispersed throughout the park, which makes sighting a little more challenging.

I think what struck me the most is seeing how different species of animals all live together: zebras and giraffes and wildebeest leisurely grazing in the same area, with a few warthogs darting in and out. It was a picture of harmony.

On the way to Oliver’s Camp, our home for the next three nights, we found our way across the river blocked by a herd of bathing elephants.  They took their time splashing and drinking, then one by one walked up right next to our car and into the open plain. As our car rounded a corner and the golden plains spread out in front of us I saw hundreds, if not thousands of little black dots in the horizon.  Are they wildebeests? I looked into the binocular and the black dots materialize into elephant shapes. The awe I felt at the moment of seeing so many wild elephants congregated in one area is indescribable.  In certain areas of Africa elephants are heavily poached for their ivory, but here in Tarangire it is truly elephant paradise.

Our guide told us that elephants are very destructive eaters.  They consume more than 100kg of food per day and will strip a tree bare in minutes. Tarangire can support such a large number of elephants because it has an abundance of food supply, among which are Acacia trees which have long spiny thorns all over, that only the elephants can eat.  Elephants don’t digest their food well so other animals such as monkeys will pick through elephant dung and find edible things in it.  There are also large termite populations that break down elephant dung so that the park is not buried knee deep in stinky elephant feces. Isn’t Mother Nature wonderful in how nothing is wasted and every species has its role in maintaining the balance and harmony of an ecosystem?

Over the next two days we saw a variety of wild animals including tree-climbing pythons (another Tanagire specialty); zebras taking mud baths; giraffes walking in their leisure, graceful way; a leopard killing a mongoose; vulchers preying on a waterbuck abandoned by a leopard; and many many more. My favorite area in the park is a swamp/marshland where a lot of animals go to drink during the day. I could sit there for hours just staring into the vast openness and have nothing on my mind except watching the animals frolicking in the mud, and wishing I could do this everyday.

Now a review on Oliver’s Camp. The camp is run by an Australian couple Ken and Michelle who are wildlife photographers who have travelled extensively around Africa for years. Their knowledge of wildlife and Africa in general is amazing and I learned a lot by talking to them at meals and around the camp fire. As a type-B and scatter-brain, despite all the lists I made for this trip, I brought the wrong camera cable and was at risk of not being able to download photos to my iPad in order to re-use memory cards. Just as I was counting how many GB I have and how many photos I was allowed to take each day, dumb luck struck! It turns out Ken and Michelle use Nikon cameras and had extra cables to spare. Not only did Ken let me borrow one, he gave it to me so I wouldn’t have to worry about memory space for the rest of the trip.  How nice!

The “tents” at Oliver’s camp are permanent structures, so even though they are essentially canvas tents, there’s a thatched roof on top, with running water and flush toilet inside. The shower, on the other hand, is completely out in the open, which is a little nerve wrecking to say the least, considering there are wild animals around. On the first night, we were a little weary about the mesh layer that runs the entire front of the tent, which stays open at night. What if a lion finds us tempting and wants to get in? Surely the mesh won’t stand a chance against the iron claws? We were reassured however that the wild animals respect the tents for some reason and as long as we stayed inside we’d be safe. During our three-night stay, we had an elephant eating from a tree less than 10 meters away from our tent, a hyena that came right up to the tent until he saw me through the bathroom window, and woke up to many strange footprints outside in the morning, but somehow, we both had sound dreamless sleeps every night.

At Oliver’s, guests have the option of going on a walking safari in addition to the game drives, which I highly recommend. The experience of being right there with the animals, as opposed to hiding in a steel clad safari vehicle puts a whole new perspective on things.  Unfortunately for us, the afternoon we went on the walking tour was the only day it rained, except for the first morning, on our entire trip, so our walk was cut short and we were completely soaked. We did manage to observe a herd of elephant up close, some zebras, and a pair of jackals before the sky opened up and dumped on us, so it was not a complete loss.

Goodbye elephants! Next stop: Ngorongor Crater.