Ngorogoro: In Search of Rhinos

 We left our lodge at 6 AM, driving along a cloud laden rim of the Ngorogoro crater.
We had heard about and read about this legendary place all of our lives. To finally see it in person was pretty overwhelming.
The bumpy track descended quite steeply into the Ngorogoro Crater.
Suddenly a large herd of wildebeest came spilling over the rim and down the slope. Like a dusty river, they stream down toward the white valley floor. Not all of them made it.
We soon came across several hyenas who had caught one of the wildebeests and were tearing it apart, even before it was fully dead. Faces dripping with blood, they enjoyed their early breakfast. The sight is nearly enough to make you a vegetarian…

We continued down.
The name Ngorogoro comes from the Maasai word for ‘clanging bells’, the sound made by the bells on their cattle. The Maasai here still have the right to roam and graze their cattle in certain areas of the crater.
The crater floor teems with wildlife: enormous herds of gazelles, wildebeest, zebra and buffalo. We spotted first a few lone male lions and then a pride of some 14 lions lazing on the rocks.
We saw cranes, storks and birds of all sizes and colors.
Warthog families graze the plain and hippos wallow in the shallow waters. Elephants crossed the fields in search of grass and water. The place seems like a regular Noah’s Arc, but with many more than just two of each kind.
But the most amazing sight of all, in this specific place, came before too long. Only 45 black rhino’s live in the crater and we spotted 4 of them! We were so very lucky to see these enormous beasts lumber along. They came pretty close. Our guide said that he often is on trips where they are not spotted at all, or at a great distance. But we were so lucky that two of the rhinos came closer and we were able to take good photos of this rare, endangered animal, of which there only are an estimated 5,000 left in the world. When will people ever learn?
In the afternoon we hiked, accompanied by a ranger with a large AK 47 rifle, along the edge of the crater, some 2,400 meters above sea level. The crater’s edge winds along for 74 KM and is about 600 meters higher than the crater floor. Even from this height we could spot herds of buffalo and elephants. As we walked, more and more Maasai materialized out of the woods. Women were cutting and gathering wood to bring home in bundles on their heads. Men and boys herded goats and cows. They all grinned and waved at us, sometimes staring more at us then I wanted to stare at them. Tall and skinny, with many beaded necklaces, they are beautiful, ebony people.
The walls of the crater are covered in lush, tropical forest. Some animals come and go as they please while others remain in the safety of this reserve. It has been amazing and a special privilege to visit this sanctuary. It felt like a peek inside the garden of Eden…
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Serengeti: The Circle of Life

On Tuesday morning we left after breakfast after making a donation to the Lodge’s African Roots Foundation. With very little money they make a huge difference in the lives of the Maasai by supplying them with water containers and a filter. Where the Maasai used to rely on tick brown water from a nearby pond, from which all cattle also drink, they now scoop that water into the filters and out comes crystal clear drinking water. This simple tool has drastically reduced illness among the Maasai. ARF also runs other projects, always aimed at improving the lives of people while protecting the natural environment. This is a great cause for individuals and schools to support.

Check out: http://africanrootsfoundation.org

I knew that the Serengeti was a long way from home. We flew and drove for many days to visit this lifelong dream of ours. But no one told me it would involve hundreds of kilometers on the worst bumpy, dusty, rocky tracks… Bone jarring, teeth rattling miles of washboard tracks…. Everything in our car is covered in a layer of dust. The good pavement ends abruptly at the entrance gate to Ngorogoro Crater. The view of the crater is spectacular, with not much human influence in sight.

After that the track continues across hills and plains, up onto ever higher escarpments until we are at 2,400 meters. Once you reach Serengeti all you see if flat endless grasslands. Serengeti means ‘endless plain’ in Swahili, a very appropriate name. We were anxious to take a photo of us at an entrance gate of this world famous park. All we saw was a crooked little wooden sign. No fancy visitors centre, no impressive entrance to one of the most well known national parks in the world.

But here we were, finally, in the Serengeti! I did have goosebumps to finally see this place with my own eyes. Without the first half hour we saw four lions. And then the impala. Herds of them. More and more animals until, on the second day, we caught up to the migrating wildebeest and zebras. Thousands of them, sometimes grazing and drinking and running in different directions, yet always streaming toward the same unseen destination. Their ancient pattern follows calving, moving with the seasons to food and water. Thousands of dusty bodies moving in a river of animals across the plains.

Elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, cheetahs… the plains are teeming with wildlife. The baboons are fun to watch as whole troops walk by. The young ones climb trees and pester the old ones. The tiny little ones ride cowboy style on their mothers’ backs or cling to their front. They stop, eat seeds, swing from bush to bush and walk along.

We have watched many prides of lions. Often a dominant male with several lionesses and young ones. We watch them stalk buffalo and wildebeest, hoping to separate one to hunt. My favorite pride was reclining on rocks that looked exactly like Pride Rock in the Lion King.

I woke at 4 AM to the grumbles of a lion and the call of hyena. At 5:15 we woke up and headed out to watch the savannah come to live with the first rays of sun. I asked, in camp, if they’ve had any animals nearby. “Yeah, last week a cheetah killed a wildebeest by tent #5,” was the response.

  • The numbers in Serengeti: 14,500 square KM
  • 300,000 zebras
  • Over 2 million wildebeest!
  • Swahili:

Jambo – hello

Asanti – thank you

asanti sana – thank you very much

karibu – welcome, you’re welcome

For two days we managed these early morning game drives, getting up at 5:30 to leave at 6 AM. We watch lions on the prowl, closing in on buffalo and wildebeest but not managing to make a kill. We watch a croc grab a wildebeest and try to drown him. But, after a long while, the wildebeest wins and escapes back to the herd, leaving one cranky, hungry crocodile to look for a new breakfast.Another wildebeest was not so lucky and got stuck in the thick mud, dying a slow death but supplying food for many animals who were patiently waiting.We watch days-old zebras and wildebeest gallop alongside their mama’s and an old, lonely lion wander the plains. This is ‘The Lion King Live’ and a bit surreal.Many animas gathered at waterholes, ever weary for predators hiding in the tall grass. The lions, perhaps, seem to have the best camouflage of all – looking like heaps of hay in the waiving yellow grass. All animals are vastly different, yet they all blend in perfectly in the same environment: the sand colored cheetahs with their spots of shade are hard to see. The pattern on the giraffes is just like that of shadows cast by the branches of the acacia trees they browse. We are lucky to see three caravels, very rare cats with pointed, tufted ears.In the cool, morning hours no flies bother us. But by noon, especially near trees, I become an all-you-can-eat buffet for tetse flies. We drink gallons of water all day and night. But if you have to pee during a game drive, you have a problem. There are not many spots where you can safely get out of the car… a lion or leopard can literally be behind any little hill.

We stopped by the Maasai Kopjes, a rocky place almost exactly in the center of Serengeti. To me, it looks identical to Pride Rock in The Lion King. I can just picture Simba on top of the tallest, straight rock looking out over the plains. We’ve seen sly, old Mufasa stalking. We’ve also met Poomba and Timone in person! The circle of life continues here: the Serenget shall never die.

 We enjoy learning from one of the young men in Kati Kati Camp (meaning ‘centre of Serengeti’). He is Maasai and told us in detail how he and 14 other young men from his village, set off into the bush for their coming of age initiation. Each brings a cow. They burn a stick into a spear and that is all they own. They may face lions, or elephants or any other dangers. And they live solely on blood, milk and meat. No water…! No alcohol, no women. These young men dress in black blankets, for this special period, and have faces painted black with white stripes. We see them, occasionally, on the side of the road as they wander the countryside. They have strict rules of conduct and serve almost as wildlife wardens when they see any poaching or illegal hunting.  This young man, who was a waiter at the camp, told us he wants to be an animal doctor. He has vast knowledge of traditional medicine and wants to learn more about modern medicine for animals. He has a meeting at the college in Arusha soon to see if they will let him continue his studies. “But I may have to sell another cow to have enough money,” he says wistfully.

Speaking several languages and a few words of Swahili now, has not helped with misunderstandings and confusions…At Kati Kati camp we were told that beer was four dollars and soft drinks were free. When we went to pay, after 3 days, we discovered that the ‘free’ was ‘three’…We asked for a wake up call at 5:50 but they came knocking at 5:15 because they misunderstood…During our visit to Oldevai Gorge we found out that the name really is Oldupai but a German scientist mispelled it many, many years ago. This world renowned valley where mankind’s oldest traces have been found by the Leakey’s, is a dusty, wind swept place. We expected an impressive museum, possibly built by Unesco. Instead we found one lonely Maasai guy manning a little gate. Once we entered the compound, there was a rinky dink old museum with old, faded photos on the wall. The story remains impressive: of how the Leakey’s and other archeaologists have unearthed, so to speak, the oldest footprints of humans found on earth: 3.5 million years ago a father, son and mother walked in this valley leaving tracks in volcanic ash.  It took me a while to figure out that the park ranger, who took us on a guided hike along the edge of the Ngorogoro crater, was not talking of cooking when he mentioned the Maasai kettles. Turned out he meant the Maasai’s cattle.He also kept talking of elephant pups. After a while I wondered if he really didn’t know that baby elephants are called ‘calves’, not pups. But then he poked in huge elephant droppings and I realized he was talking about the multiple poop of elephants… Interestingly, he explained that the partly digested, dry dung contains a lot of bark, plants and grasses that are medicinal. He said “we burn the pups (poops…) and put a blanket over our head to inhale the smoke to cure illnesses….” Suddenly, my grandmother’s bowl of menthol steam that I had to inhale as a kid did not seem so bad anymore…The many ‘bastards’ flying around Serengeti turned out to be buzzards… But the story that crowns it all was one I was told by a lovely lady who came home one day and her housekeeper, a proper Christian woman, told her in a loud voice that the fucking machine wasn’t working… “What?” she gasped. “Yes,” the housekeeper repeated very annoyed, “the fucking machine isn’t working.” It took a while until she finally showed her the machine in question that she understood it was the ‘vacuum machine’…Language barriers.. You gotta love’ em.

Africa Unplugged

Turns out there is no internet, no phone connection deep inside the savannah of Zambia… We did not even have TV and, several times, no electricity for a day. It was kind of nice but also meant no contact with the rest of the world. So here is, finally, a new update.

 We flew from Lusaka to Mfuwe. We knew we would get picked up and taken to the safari lodge called Lion Camp, located inside the boundaries of South Luanga National Park. But, really, we had no idea what to expect. 
Outside the tiny terminal, a safari vehicle was waiting for us. A large jeep, extended with 3 benches that are higher than the driver’s seat. It was the standard 38º C or more. Our bags were loaded and we climbed onboard for the wind blown trip down the dusty red road. It turned out to be a 2 1/2 hour drive from the airport to the lodge. After 15 minutes or so we drove through the village of Mfuwe (Muh-FOO-way): clusters of straw huts and crooked wooden stalls. The poorest of poor people sitting in the shade of a few straggly trees – some selling tomatoes. Barefooted children waving at us. We noticed campfires for cooking, some brick ovens for baking. A rusty dangling sign announced a ‘beauty parlor’ or the Good Tidings Fish Store’.
When we reach the entrance gate to South Luangwa National Park, we cross the long cement bridge over the Luangwa River. Almost immediately the drive from the airport turns into a game drive.
Elephants lumbered on the sandy banks of the almost dried up river; a huge group of hippos is almost submerged in the river to escape the midday sun so they don’t get sunburned.
To our amazement we spot a pride of eight lions sleeping under a tree. Giraffes stride through the bushes. Buffaloes with their large black judge’s wigs on their heads track to the river.
When we finally reach the lodge, it turns out to be a gorgeous large building that blends into the environment with a straw roof and mud coloured walls. One hostess greets us with wet towels, the other serves us a cold drink. What a welcome in this 4 star resort.

Radiating out from the main lodge, are raised wooden walkways that lead to a small number of cottages. They are raised to separate us from the lions… Our chalet is the far one, the honeymoon suite. Never will I forget the moment that we opened the door. We looked across the kingsize bed, covered in a white mosquito net, and out of the two large screened walls. A wooden porch surrounded our room but the view was of the river bank: absolutely teeming with animals: a large herd of zebras, snorting hippos, a few giraffes and, to top it off, a small herd of elephants lumbered by – right outside our windows. It truly was a jaw dropping view. 

We had ten minutes to wash hands, put on more sunscreen, have a cup of tea and we were off again. This time on our first official safari drive. Our guide was Hendrix, a very nice and knowledgable wildlife guide. To our amazement our safari drives have been almost always for just the two of us. I had imagined, before we came here, that we would be with a car load of other tourists. But it is just the two of us and sometimes one other person.

On the game drive, we see a large male lion devouring a piece of meat under a tree.
Coming around a bend, there suddenly is a hyena showing its teeth at us. A large herd of elephants has little ones and is lazily browsing on leaves.
The next morning we drive down the river bank, onto the white sand and find ourselves in the middle of a pride of 18 lions. Two little cubs are playing in the sun. Father Lion looks identical to the lion king, surveying his pride and his kingdom.
Zebras abound. Hippos crowd the river so that it looks like you can walk across their backs to the other side. I have never seen such huge crocodiles, one staring up at me from below the river bank.
We stop for a coffee/tea break on the morning drive, and for sundowners during the afternoon/evening drives. The first night we stop at the river bank, during a brilliant red sunset where tables with beer and champagne and chicken wings await us. For once, it is kind of nice to be spoiled in a 4 star hotel. In fact, the amount of wildlife we see in the first two days makes me realize that, if you are on a budget, it might be more economical to spend 2 days in a top notch resort with the best possible guide, then to spend 5 days in a cheaper place. We saw everything we could have wished for in those first two days.
Dining is at 8 PM by candlelight.
Zebras
We spend the next few days in a cheaper lodge but still with elephants roaming outside our door and hippos snorting into the fading evening light.

During the next few days we see a leopard: the first one has just killed an impala and hauled it into a tree. Then we spot one with two cubs. The fields are dotted with bush bucks, impala, waterbucks, kudu’s and more. I love the wart hogs who run with their tails straight up like a little flag pole. In the spot light at night we see mongoose, porcupine and curvets.

The array of animals is rounded out by endangered wild dogs, a hyena in the day time, lots of zebra and giraffes, birds of all shapes and sizes. It is survival of the fittest: on the first day we saw how wildlife officers tried to save 8 buffaloes who were stuck in the mud – it didn’t work because two days later we see their carcasses covered in vultures. Even a pride of satisfied lions had their fill of buffalo meat.
Of course I (Kees) was very interested to find out what it takes to become a wildlife guide/park ranger in Zambia. On the second day I find an operations manual for wild life guides, the same type I used to write for the park rangers in Kananaskis Provincial Park many years ago. It surprised me the amount of detail they had to learn about wildlife, laws, resource management, history, constellations, and much much more. There is no school for park ganger/guide, but they start as a scout, assisting the certified guides and over the years through self study they have to memorize the entire manual of 165 pages. Then they have to sit for an oral and written exam and a practical exam in the field. That will provide them with the Guide I certificate and after a few years, of more study they can obtain the Guide II certificate which will allow them to conduct walking safaris.

The guide also has to be a car mechanic.. When we were surrounded by lions I wondered if the truck would start again. It did. But once it did not… Just before, we had stopped next to a leopard and would not have been able to get out. When the truck died, there were no animals and the two of us pushed it downhill to start!

An option to a game drive, is to take a walking safari. Walking appeals to us. But does a walking safari mean that you can run into lions? In a way, it does. But the guide takes us to an area where he feels it is unlikely to run into anything too big or dangerous. It is not a long, arduous hike but an interesting stroll through the African bush. The guide reads the ground like the pages of an open book. “Look,” he points, “ a hyena walked here. He was not in a rush because only the two middle claws show.” [It takes me a while to understand that ‘craw mecks’ means ‘claw marks’… ]
He points out where baboons dined on the fiber of elephant droppings. We see gorgeous round clay pots, broken open. They are the large balls that a dung beetle rolls through the mud. He shows us intricately woven weaver bird weaves nests that always hang on the west side of a tree. There’s even a bird called taylor bird which stitches leaves together with real stitches. We follow trails made by elephants and hippos, see a large flock of bright green love birds that look like the leaves of a tree flying off…
One afternoon, we have lunch at Track & Trail River Camp. They’ve set a little table for us and when I look up I spot an elephant. Then three more. They come within meters. From the safety of the kitchen door we watch as they stroll passed, right next to the bar.
We visit Chipembele Wildlife Centre, an impressive visitors’ centre set up and run by a British couple. They were both police officers in England, obsessed by Africa. Seventeen years ago they moved here, built a house in the bush and now educate African children on the importance of wildlife. On the side, he catches poachers. 
He tells us about one poacher who has just been released from prison. Through some local contacts, we manage to make a date with the guy and spend an afternoon chatting with him. What motivates a poacher? Money.
The (ex)poacher has nine children and no job. 70% unemployment in Zambia means no work, no income. So how does a father provide for his family? How does he put food on the table?
The easiest way is by poaching. Edwin told us he built his own guns and would spend the night in the bush, hunting impala, buffalo, kudo and more. He ate the meat but mostly sold it.
He got caught. At some point he got offered a job but screwed up and went back to poaching. He ended up in jail. Jail in Zambia is not for the faint of heart. “1,500 mean in one cell,” he says. People right next to him died of suffocation. One meal a day of a kind of uncooked porridge. It was a wonder that he survived the year. But now he swears he will never poach again. Only time will tell. We hope he will find a job. His skills as tracker are probably unparalleled. And he now seems to agree: wildlife needs to be protected. Wildlife brings tourists and tourists bring money.
We also understand the problems caused by free roaming wildlife. Herds of elephants trample and eat the crops of corn. They brake into grain storage units. Governments try to help villagers by building stronger storage units. They supply villagers with ‘chili bombs’ and help them to plant chili hedges to discourage elephants.
In Mfuwe, the village nearest the National Park, people have lots of trouble with elephants. “They come through our village at night and eat all of the mangos,” our driver tells us, “but in the next village can sleep outside without fear of being trampled.”
I think about this as I fall asleep to the music of cicadas and the loud ‘snoring’ of hippos just outside our chalet along the river. That night we have the very first rain fall of the new rainy season – the first rain in 7 or 8 months. It will soon transform the region into a lush green forest with wide rivers and newborn animals.

Into Africa

We took a taxi to a beautiful lodge along the Zambezi River to watch the sunset. We sat in lazy chairs on a wooden patio, right at the water’s edge.

Hippos frolick in the water, blowing air and splashing at each other. And, to our delight, we spot zebras! A whole herd. One even has a baby.
And then… giraffes! Real, wild giraffes. First there’s only one. Its thick long legs look exactly like the tree trunks surrounding it. You can only spot him when he moves. Then three more giraffes appear. They lazily munch on leaves, stretch higher for more green and then spread their long legs wide to reach down to the grass.
As the sun slowly sets, and the zebras graze behind us, while the hippos snort in the Zambezi, Kees and I grin at each other: we are finally in Africa!
A few days later we have flown back to Lusaka and, just outside the city, we see more zebras and giraffes. But we also spot our first hartebeest, impalas, vervet monkeys and warthog! What a thrill to see these African animals in the wild!
Baskets and Boreholes
 Early in the morning the book bus drives us an hour out of town, off the main road and onto a bumpy dirt road. The road winds through a tiny village of straw huts. Women squat by fires, babies tied to their back. Spindly children run and play with a string and a piece of metal tied to it. At one hut I see men butchering a pig. Chickens scratch the red dust.
The road gets narrower. More huts. Each time I think we’ve reached the village where the school is, we keep going further into the bush, across dusty land.
Finally we reach a brightly painted school house with flagpole. We’ve come to read stories and do crafts with the 1st and 2nd graders. The students here have desks thanks to a grant from a NGO. The walls have been painted with multiplication tables and slogans. One poster listed combinations of letters to sound out: ‘has, had, have’ The teacher has written under it “Practise these sounds oftenly.”
I read my Emma book and every mouth drops open when my Emma chicken puppet moves her head. They giggle and touch carefully. We make paper chickens and do more songs, read books and make crafts. For some, it is the first time they use scissors. One girl tries, mouth open, for ages to cut a little strip of paper. Another boy cuts flawlessly along the black lines, ever so careful not to miss a bit.
Then a lady comes from the village to give us a tour. Her name is Janice. She is a grandmother, a volunteer teacher at the preschool and a guide for any visitor to her village. “We are grateful to your clan,” she says, explaining that all western visitors are the clan who have made this school possible. “Our children learn, and have a future now,” she says.
We walk for a long time into the bush along a narrow, dusty trail, until we reach the first straw hut. No stone or cement buildings anywhere. No cars. Just straw huts in the bush and people walking barefooted everywhere. A few children are not in school. Their parents haven’t paid what it takes to get a uniform and shoes, about 3 dollars.
Women sweep, carry babies and water, they make fires for cooking and haul water. The village is lucky. A Japanese NGO built a water pump, solar powered, that brings water to the surface and stores it in giant tanks. They come to fill a container and carry it back on their heads. I can barely lift one of the containers with my hand, let alone carry it on my head. We meet a young girl with two little siblings. She carries a 40 L container on her head and a 15 L jug in her hand. The maybe 5 year old carries a large container too and even the toddler, maybe 2 or 3, has a jug on his head. We offer some help and carry the containers part of the way. They are on the way to their grandfather’s house, they explain, to bring him water. But the toddler doesn’t want help. He wants to do it all by himself.
Janice shows us inside the yards of some huts. A woman hangs laundry, scrubs in a tub. Another makes a fire to cook maize. Chickens have wire and branch houses and laying nests. We visit the pub, where Kees bravely tastes the local brown beer, a foul looking muddy drink. The homes are either straw or mud huts. The mud huts have a frame of branches with chicken wire stretched between. The wire is filled up with rocks and then plastered with mud. The houses have the odd wooden bench but mostly people sit and sleep on the mud floor.
I have seldom, if ever, seen such poverty.
One house has a bathroom: outside in the yard are three ‘walls’ of tall grass sheafs and a piece of metal as a door. Inside a wooden bench where you can place a bowl to wash yourself.
We chat with the village head man who lounges in an old lawn chair and makes wicker baskets for a living. His daughter looks after him, cleaning and cooking and caring for house and livestock. She shows us a game: indentations in the dirt with beans that need to be picked up and moved. I show her how we play hop-scotch and marbles. We laugh and laugh.
There is one tiny village store, where a young mother sells tomatoes, okra and eggs. This store makes me think of the ones I see on KIVA where we make loans to people who struggle, just like this. See: http://www.kiva.org
Cattle take a break from grazing in the shade of some trees. Everything is dry and dusty, yet a lot of trees are suddenly sprouting new, green leaves. “These trees sense that the rains are coming,” we are told. “When you see these new leaves, you know that it will rain in a few weeks.” Just like the cicadas who start chirping 4 weeks before the rain…

We hope it really waits a few more weeks. I cannot imagine living here when the rains come. Everything will be mud. Roads and houses flood, and all roads will turn into thick sticky red mud.

But the rain also brings food. Open areas in the bush have been burned in preparation for the planting of corn. They will plant corn soon. It will provide flour, the basic staple for the coming year. But elephants are a huge threat. They will be attracted by the fresh green plants and don;t know that they destroy the people’s annual crop when they trample and munch the corn stalks. How do you solve such a problem? The elephants are protected and can’t be shot. But how do the people protect their life line? It is a baffling problem that many villages here face.