I had the chance to make it to a pair of Tanzanian national parks on a safari. This was a last minute tour through the previous company, Spoonbill, that was already one day into things when I joined. The pricing model, dollars-per day, meant bonus affordability.
The process was questionable but I booked it anyways. All that remained was covering 250 km to catch the rest of the group — but only after my laundry could dry a little more on the line. Packing wet clothes up is dreadful. The first leg was Moshie, the town at the base of Kilimanjaro, back to Arusha. I was shepherded onto a bus in the early afternoon and had no worries about getting lost: familiar territory and Tanzania does not have a Harlem or Harleem. If it did I would be doomed to wind up there by accident given my track record (NYC and Holland.)
At Arusha the pickup failed to materialize. They just promised me this an hour before, so that was odd. I ended up roaming aorund until I got my bearings and sweated it in to the office.
The next leg was another minibus. I was sure I heard “car” during the negotiations, but these things happen. This bus left from the chaotic main station. The manager, who was supposed to do the pickup, skipped town. His secretary was the only one there so she had to track down one of the dozens of small white Nissans. This took about 10 minutes, involved an army of dodgy touts and seemed really uncertain. The whole process really didn’t inspire much confidence. I wedged in the back but only had two people on my row. This was lucky becuase in the row ahead they fit four large men, all dressed in black, into three small seats. They were trying to sit shoulder-to-shoulder but ended up overlapping diagonally. Loading the Nissan, with the shouting and hawking outside and negotiations in Swahili, took about 30 minutes. It was getting close to dusk. It was also 30 minutes to reflect on how I might not be in a great situation. It required blind faith both in the driver, who didn’t speak English, and the company’s ability to get the details sorted. Plus, there was much less room for error as I was off to the rural area. While I had a rough idea of where I was going (“a campsite!”) but there was lack of anything concrete like an address or something on paper.
Then the minibus roared off. Blind faith generally results in more adventures which is the upside. Within a half an hour it was pitch black outside and we were heading west into an awfully quiet part of the country.
There was not much except rough roads and some small places on the side of the highway in the two hour trip. Risks expressed as a product of probability and consequence are interesting, and I was mentally getting to higher totals as we went on. It was late, very remote and I had all my gear – including the giant backpack. Nothing insurmountable, but not desirable. The consequences would be an unpleasant night of trying to hitch a ride back to the city or finding a place to sleep without getting robbed — maybe in a house or something as there were no real motels on the strip that I could see. The probability of a debacle seemed higher than most debacle-probabilities that I’m used to.
Eventually the minibus pulled into some sort of compound. This was me, apparently. Credit to Spoonbill, I had a room booked in what was mostly a campsite. Here I had imagined sleeping in all my clothes in an overcrowded tent with no sleeping bag. I was suddenly living the good life and was surprisingly relieved. The only small issue was that there was no sign of my group and nobody really knew what was up – not that I blame the staff for not knowing what my personal itinerary should be. I hung out for a bit and decided to get up at 6am and then hang out by the gate to make sure that if/when a ride came I’d notice it. A few hours and many Kilimanjaro brand teas later, a surely teenager in a neon yellow Brazil football jersey and jeans saunters up. He was the Safari driver. By most accounts people are supposed to wear neutral colours so as to not startle the animals but this guy was more into showing his loyalty to Ronaldinho
The first day was the Lake Manyara National Park. Our sullen driver was not happy to be there. The Land Rover had a pop top which we stood up in while cursing around. Deceptively fun. I told our driver a few times to stop tailgating other trucks. It’s a big park and there is no point eating dust. He would get agitated and yell “I gotta pass him!” then race past on a shoulder. These things are sort of a tip-driven business but maybe he had yet to figure it out.
While racing on the shoulder to pass it was lucky that he didn’t catch a baboon’s tail as they liked to hang out en mass on the side of the road. Yet, there would be some karma at play if you drive like an idiot and accidentally run over a tail. The baboon would likely give it back worse. Especially the 100+ pound males with the 2″ teeth. Especially when the passengers in the Land Rover deliver you to the baboon. I’m not sure if Safari Justice is in the guide book but that could be the entry. Anway, all baboons were safe which was good so no harm done.
At lunch we turned around and raced all the way back to the starting gate. It took about 30 minutes. There were five of us in the seven seater and it was comfortable but we were now off to pick up two more. The driven got even more agitated because I called out his fly by night company (SandLand Tours) for the poor decision. The lunch was packed and had lots of the predictable Tanzanian things like bananas and fruit juices and hard boiled eggs — all stuff I tend to give away. I tried to pawn it off on the driver to get his blood sugar up but that was a no go. Nobody was overly impressed but we worked out sharing spots quite well — and compared to public transit this was amazing. Plus, the extra passengers were young women so the driver perked up. A lot.
The highlights of course is seeing some animals.
Even when driving back to the campsite we kept the pop top up. There was really no safe option for seating on the highway as the Land Rover had no seatbelts. All there was to do was enjoy the view and hope there was no collisions. The driver had a seatbelt though — and I don’t think that’s right. People’s perception of risk strongly influences their driving pattern so seatbelts should be an all-or-nothing affair.
That night we went stayed at a different camp on a ridge overlooking the valley. The location made it a great place to check out the sunrise. The accommodation was tents… with beds inside. I’d never seen that before.
That day it was off to the Ngorongoro Crater. The groups rearranged with more people coming and going. The theme was confusion but things worked out. We also had a different driver who was excellent. The crater is part of the Serengeti plain and is a permanently inhabited and watered crater formed form a Kilimanjaro-sized volcano collapsing on itself. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to a lot of animals, including the “big five.” This term persists and was coined by hunters identifying the most difficult/dangerous animals to hunt on foot: the cape buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, lion and leopard.
Our driver emphasized keeping the windows shut while parked in the parking lot because of the baboons. We all walked around outside but I could see why windows ought not be left open.
Now, the previous three beasts all met up. It was pick on the lions day.
The four lions had been relaxing in the shade when some hippos jumped into the creek. This didn’t get much attention until one of them came in close and splashed water on the cats. They all scattered and one took an annoyed swat in the general vicinity but none of the lions wanted to get too close.
Then more trouble came in the form of a huge male cape buffalo that came strutting up to the just across the creek from the lions. Everyone in the Land Rover started braying about the imminent kill. “The lions! They are going to kill him! Right in front of us! Get him lions, get him!” The groups’ shrill and unlikely consensus called for blood. Except for the fact the buffalo was enormous, had his heard nearby and that the lions didn’t look hungry. Plus, if I was a lion I’d probably think a zebra looked tastier than the biggest and most confident buffalo of the herd.
The huge buffalo then snorted and rolled his head in the muck. H stamped his feet. He stared. The other lions wanted nothing to do with him. The lead cat glared at him… for a little while. Good think I speak animal and can translate the stills from the grainy video I shot.
While our guide did the exit paperwork the baboons were back at it again. Someone on a different tour left a window open in their Land Rover. A lunch was stolen. It was too bad they left the plastic wrap on. Someone opened the door and stood well clear (it was a big baboon after all) and the culprit raced away with his loot.
I was not that surprised about the baboon B&E. I remember what seems like the majority of the Far Side comics — they are burned into my subconscious because I didn’t understand the majority as a kid in the early 90’s. Larson also prophesied this scenario:
At about 3:30 pm we took off back home to Arusha. It was about a four hour trip as the Crater is even further west.
Then, 15 minutes out of the park the Land Rover went around a hairpin turn and there was another lion — about 5′ from the truck. This was not expected — it was a a big male lion who was rumbling up the middle of the road. His back was clawed up so it looked like he’d lost a fight with another lion and was back for another round. The Ngorongoro lions have it very good with so much to eat to it’s a tightly defended territory. New males usually get driven off and this guy’s first attempt looked like it was no exception. If they don’t get driven off they will kill all the cubs of the other males and start from scratch.
That is only one explanation. Perhaps he got a text that Biff the Buffalo had been picking on his prospective wives and he was on a mission to make things right.