The second half of our week in Tanzania was even better than the first half! With the main body of the conference over, it was time to move from Lake Victoria to Arusha. Two big vehicles turned up outside the house to transport the UK team and the Africa team to the Arusha programme. This wasn't going to be a straight forward drive across country though - the vehicles were safari landrovers and the route was going to take us via the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.
Two hours later we pulled up at the western gate to the park and the roof came off the trucks. Standing up in our seats and looking out across this world famous destination as we drove through the barrier was so exciting. The word "Serengeti" has always had a magical sound to me, conjuring up ideas of huge empty grasslands peppered with all manner of wild animals. Davis, our guide told us that the translation for Serengeti is actually "endless plain", which seems very apt.
Quite quickly we came across our first African animal - the graceful and gawky giraffe! Long limbs munching away on spiky tree tops, a whole group of them moved slowly alongside us, crossing the road ahead of our trucks and ignoring our camera flashes. They may not be a member of the big 5 list, but no safari would be complete without a photo of this iconic animal. It seemed a shame to sit back down and drive off, but we had to get to our camp before it got too dark. When Davis told us this we were all happy to get moving - how would we spot all the wild beasts lurking around our campsite if we didn't get there until it was pitch black?
Despite our best intentions we got there late...well, we couldn't just drive past the three lioness crouched low in the grass, or pause to take a quick shot of a family of elephants. Then there was the Ngiri (warthog) that made us laugh for a while as it snorted its way off into the wilderness... before we knew it was dark and there was not a tent in sight. By the time we pulled up at the campsite it was dark, dark, dark. Thankfully SOK, the company we were travelling with, had already set up our tents and told us to just dump our stuff and head to the main shelter for a meal.
I don't know about most of you but camping in my mind is a fairly uncomfortable rollmat in a cramped tent with a basic bbq meal cooked on a gas stove / in the fire. Obviously SOK had read a different camping manual - our tents were really spacious and had campbeds with thick foam mattresses on them. Everyone was provided with a sleeping bag (if you go on safari then it's worth taking a sleep sheet bag if you have "issues" like me about the regularity of sleeping bag washes!). The tents had nets on windows and doors to keep out mozzies and other bugs. Anything bigger than that we should try to avoid by not actually leaving our tent unless we were in groups of two or three (gulp!).
Dinner was served in the mess tent - an amazing combo of popcorn to snack on, soup and bread as a starter, vegetables, meat and rice for main and then banana fritters for desert. There was wine, juice, tea, coffee - it was all very sumptuous! Evening entertainment was provided by the startling array of bugs that descended on our table. At one point Dave had a praying mantis perched on his neck, Alison's plate of popcorn started moving as an enormous beetle ploughed through it and Abby had to fend off a moth the size of a small bird that was intent on reaching the reflection of the lantern in her wine glass!
We all went to bed hoping that we wouldn't need the toilet in the middle of the night. Davis had told us about a pride of lions that live fairly near the campsite and one story about a lioness that had got trapped in the toilet block. Lying in the pitch black listening to the hyenas calling in the distance, there had never been a better time to fall asleep and stay that way until dawn. Needless to say though, few of us achieved this and we all appeared at dawn fairly bleary eyed! Don't let me put you off though - camping in the Serengeti is as amazing as it is scary and it's definitely worth the stories afterwards!
Day two was a game drive across the Serengeti, where we pulled up just metres from a group of ten lionesses. Lazing languidly in the sunshine, swatting away flies with enormous padded paws, these big cats looked perfectly placid. Having seen them hunting, we were not fooled by their demeanour and stayed safely in our truck. Well presumably safely - had they wanted too the open topped trucks wouldn't have posed that difficult an obstacle for them!
The highlight for me came just as we were heading back to the camp to collect our bags and grab some lunch. I have no idea how they did this, but a car up ahead had spotted a leopard sitting high up on a rocky escarpment. It was so well camoflaged that Baptista had to talk me through spotting it twice because I kept losing it! There it was though - one of the most elusive of the big cats right in front of us. Amazing!
After lunch we headed to a nearby research centre where Baptista had a friend that was heading up a veterinary programme. I'll expand on this in another blog as it's a fascinating story and they do some amazing work.
Driving toward the south exit of the park we came across one of the worlds most famous sights - the wildebeest migration. Thousands of dark shapes stretched across the landscape like a swarm of flies and as we got closer we could see these strange prehistoric looking creatures on their spindly legs making their slow procession. There were also lots of zebra which Davis told us was integral to the success of the migration. The wilderbeest have to follow the zebra or they have no idea where they are going! He also told us that the migration runs in three channels - one down the middle and one on both the east and west. One channel has the young men and juveniles, one has the pregnant females (the males cannot tolerate the smell of the females!) and the third channel is everyone else. The sheer numbers of these creatures was mind boggling and unlike other areas, the migration means that prides of lion also have to move their territory. Quite unique behaviour for the Serengeti apparently!
With the Serengeti behind us we travelled on to toward the crater rim where the numbers of animals and our level of luxury dramatically rose..... more about that tomorrow!