Tanzania : The Serengeti

January 16, 2019  •  7 Comments

TANZANIA : THE SERENGETI: DAY ONE

By this time the little niggling cough I had in Arusha had turned into a full-blown flu. I was wearing a mask to try to avoid giving this nasty virus to anyone but no time to rest, it was time to head to Northern Tanzania. We packed the gear, then headed to the airport. We flew by small plane from Ngorogoro to Serian's Seregeti Mobile camp in Lamai, close to the Mara River on the northern side.

It turned out to be a very long way, with our small plane landing three times to re-fuel and pick-up/drop off passengers. The build-up in my sinuses increased with each landing, until I was stone deaf and had to ask my husband to shout in my ear any instructions given by the pilot.

Eventually we reached the absolute end of the line as the light began to fade. We spotted a swift-running river - could that be the Mara River, famous for wildebeest crossings? We knew that Lamai mobile camp was close to the Mara.

The plane landed and we were picked up by our guide, Benedict, and his spotter. As we wended our way towards the camp, we saw very striking open plains with the odd acacia tree. We were told that these plains are uniquely suited to grasses because there is a shallow depth of nutritious soil overlying carbonatite rock derived from magma. This rock was laid down by a gigantic eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the 'Mountain of God' in the Maasai language, and makes it very difficult for trees to get their roots down far enough. Occasional acacias which succeeded are scattered picturesquely here and there. 

I told Benedict that we had chosen this mobile camp because it had won an award for the best guiding the year before, and we cared more about seeing wildlife than creature comforts. No pressure, Benedict!

A mobile camp is a tented camp, it was basic compared to the luxury lodges but we were OK with that, or so I thought, of which, more anon!

 

A note about packing for a trip to Africa: You can see our two soft duffel bags next to my husband. They are much lighter because they have no wheels, which is very important when you consider that the limit for one person is 15 kilos. We bought an extra seat, which meant we could carry 20 kilos each by distributing the extra 15 kilos amongst three people. For the rest of our trip, the limit was 20 kilos, so this made sense. We took very little clothing, as the camps wash your things – the rule is, one outfit on your back, one in the wash, and one extra for a day of travelling when you can’t wash. The recommended colours of khaki or brown are a wise choice. Tsetse flies are attracted to blue and black, it is best to avoid those colours.

We wear gilets like the one you see my husband wearing. They have big pockets which will hold whatever we need, wallet, passport etc. in secure zipped inner pockets. At a pinch the gilets can accommodate a couple of camera bodies and lenses, plus an iPad and even a laptop when commercial airlines make a fuss about cabin bag weights. It is legal, and considering that we weigh far less than some of the people you see getting onto planes, it seems fair enough. A soft zip up bag bought in Africa completes the cabin baggage and holds necessary toiletries etc., and we have one camera backpack each.

We were greeted by Candice, an American woman who looked very much like a model with her thin frame and Nefertiti head. We had learned in Arusha that ladies have extremely short hair to cope with the heat and dirt and inadequate water for washing, but wore wigs. I learned from Candice that this can be a wig that is an elaborate plaited bun, and their short hair was plaited up, then the bun placed on top of the head. This is not Candice, but a girl who gave me permission to photograph her short hair in intricate braids.

We were shown our tent and the washing arrangements were explained. There was a copper sink and a bucket with a ladle that you could use to wash. We were asked if we wanted a shower, which we did, and how many buckets. We opted for one, as the men of the camp have to lug heated water and then tip it into a pipe which runs to the shower and we didn’t want to ask for too much.

However, it was a bit of a shock when the water started gushing forth before we had undressed! It turned out that the shower had a control which had been left in the open position. My husband got a very short shower and I got none! At least the toilet flushed, a great luxury.

We then had a very pleasant meal carefully prepared by the camp cooks, who are justly proud of their efforts and had taken great trouble to cater to our vegan daughter. Conversation around the communal table was lively, it was interesting to meet other guests.

That night by inadequate light we prepared our camera gear and laid out our clothes for the next day so we could hopefully find them before dawn next morning. I was trying to get my other half to take responsibility for charging his camera batteries at least!

TIP: One of the most useful things I have ever learned is to take a power board. There are a multitude of things to charge, from camera batteries to mobile phones and laptops, and often the number of plugs is inadequate. This one only has four plug holes, but you can take one with as many as you think you need. If you have a power board with multiple plugholes, you can charge many things at once and need only one conversion plug.

I’ve learnt to re-set my camera settings at night to what I want the next morning. If you’ve been shooting moon shots and have your settings all wrong for fast-moving wildlife the next morning, it does not go well in the dark before dawn. By the time I get everything charging, the photos downloaded and resetting the cameras for both of us, my man is comfortably in bed reading. I still have to clean my face with the ladle of water, set out my clothes so I can find them the following morning in the dark, and get ready for bed.

That night I wore the mask so as not to infect hubby with my coughing. However, it did not go well for me. I coughed up such a storm that I vomited into the mask. It got on my hair as well. Ewwwwwwwww! I leapt to my feet and raced into the bathroom. Not having hot, running water suddenly became a problem. I did the best I could to wash my hair with dippers of water from the bucket. It being full winter, the water was icy cold! All night long hyenas giggled around our flimsy tent and I worried that they had smelled the vomit. It is astonishing they do not realise that a few bites from those strong jaws would breach the walls and we would be easy meat!

Next morning we had the much-appreciated luxury of coffee and an oatcake brought to us at 5.00 a.m. It was dark and freezing - we were there in July. I must say I prefer sleeping in cold conditions than sweltering in a hot tent! We were not allowed to leave the tent in the dark until a guide came with a flashlight to collect us and deal with any predators. We left our washing out ready to be taken away and washed while we were out, such a blessing.

I had not been sick for a year, but I must have picked this virus up just before we left Italy, and it was ruining my very significant birthday trip! I felt abominable but no use whinging. I wore the mask in the vehicle to try to ensure no-one else caught what was turning out to be a horrible flu. Dawn broke, an incredible sight.

The mask at least warmed the frigid air blowing into my face in the open vehicle, which would have made the coughing even worse. Benedict and his spotter were doing a fine job. I saw and photographed Topi for the first time.

We saw a Wattled Lapwing, a Lappet Faced Vulture, Gazelles, a Giraffe staring at us from the middle of an acacia tree, Eland and Wildebeest, also known as Gnu. These are my husband's photos, taken with the 5D Mk III and a 100-400 canon L series lens.

We caught up with a pair of cheetahs which were fiercely guarding their kill from hyenas that hung around baiting them and hoping to steal it from under the cheetahs’ noses. Male cheetahs travel in coalitions, often brothers. That makes it easier for them to defend their hard-earned meal.   

The hyenas hovered hopefully at a distance, waiting for their chance.

I was very happy with the performance in low light of my birthday present, the 1DX Mk II with my 200-400 f4 Canon lens with a 1.4 inbuilt extender allowing for a reach of 560mm, nicknamed Big Bertha. I've had BB for four years and it has always taken great images. I gave my other half my second camera, the 5D Mk III with the 100-400 lens lent to us by our daughter. He acts as my Sherpa and carries the heavy gear, so he deserves it.

However, it was frustrating not to be able to use it as my second camera with the 70-200 lens to photograph animals that were closer, like this leopardess who came right alongside the vehicle and stared up at me. This image was taken on safari in Botswana four years ago. My friend kept squeaking, 'She fancies redhead for lunch!' Meanwhile I struggled with Big Bertha, but could not achieve focus because the leopardess was just too close!

My husband took the following image of oxpeckers lined up on a zebra's back. (He prefers to be anonymous and use the Not Yet Decrepit logo but I always acknowledge when I use his photos.) After about 3 hours we had coffee and breakfast out in the field, the guides having ensured we were in a safe location to get out of the vehicle and stretch our legs/go behind a bush.

As we sat by the river bank enjoying a break, we saw crocodiles sunning on a rock. Benedict told us that they were awaiting the arrival of the wildebeest for the Mara crossing, and had not eaten for six whole months!

A butterfly visited us while we were stationary and sat on my husband's finger while he chatted with Benedict.

We continued on, seeing a contented and well-fed cheetah lying in the shade.

Like any cat after a meal, he fastidiously gave his face a good clean.

As is the normal routine on safari, when the sun gets high and the animals sensibly sleep away the heat of the day, we returned to camp for a carefully prepared lunch buffet shielded from flies. I should really download and edit photos, but by then we are usually exhausted and have to have a nap. I forgot to take this photo till the day we left, we had the two beds together as a double. It was awfully hot in the tent in the middle of the day – and this was winter! I cannot imagine how it would be in summer. Unbearable. A big plus at this camp was the comfort of the mattresses and pillows.

I discovered that my underwear had been carefully removed from the washing and left by the basin. This has not happened in any other camp before. I washed them myself and hung them wherever I could, to dry in the afternoon heat. When I asked about that in the evening Candice said, ‘But men do the washing!’ I replied, 'They wash my husband’s underwear but not mine. A bit sexist, isn’t it?’ She did not think so – but I bet if women were doing the washing, the men’s underwear wouldn’t be set to one side for them to wash themselves! I did not add that comment, as I don’t want to offend.

  We snatched a nap despite the heat, then rose and prepared ourselves to go out on an evening game drive. The sun was still a burning hot hole in the sky as we passed herds of grazing animals. They often eat different sorts of grasses, and are also complimentary in that they will warn the others if they spot a predator.

I was thrilled when our daughter suddenly called out, 'Bat Eared Fox!' "Where, where?' was my response as I searched with Big Bertha. It has the magnification of a telescope and sometimes it is very hard to locate something at a distance. Eventually I thought I had it, and fired off some shots. Despite the long grass obscuring most of it, I was delighted to find that I had achieved focus on the ears and even the eyes behind the grasses.

Though not my first ever sighting like that of the bat-eared fox, it is always a pleasure to see one of the most beautiful birds in Africa, a lilac-breasted roller, so-called because they roll in flight. 

I was determined to get a good shot of one flying. Last time I was in Africa I messed it up because my shutter speed was too slow. This time I cranked up the shutter speed, no problem with the ISO because it was still very bright, kept my focus on the bird, and waited. Unfortunately it flew away from me, so this is a bum shot, but nevertheless it shows their colours in flight.

There had been good rains and the grass was as high as an elephant’s eye! We were told that when the wildebeest arrive in their millions for the crossing of the Mara River, this all gets grazed down to a lawn.

It was a thrill to see this very young baby elephant with its family, but very frustrating from a photographic point of view because you could hardly see it for the long grass!

It began suckling from its mother on a small mound, so I managed a reasonable shot of this interesting behaviour.

 

It was getting on to the end of the day, and the blazing sun sank behind this acacia with the typical dramatic colours of an African sunset, some say due to dust in the air.

On the way home I spotted a pink moon. I called out to Benedict to stop, but by the time I grabbed the 5D with the wider angled lens from my man, it was already much lower in the sky. Our daughter in the back with two bodies and a wider angled lens probably got a better image than this one.

When we got back we figured out the shower better, and were ready to dash in the minute the men came with a bucket of water. It was lovely to feel clean! Then it was time for supper before we retired, exhausted. This was only our first day, but it had been very eventful. 

DAY TWO

By this time we had discovered by daylight how to zip up the heavy canvas door and hook up the window covers. That meant we were not kept awake so much by moonlight and hyenas cackling around the tent. I coughed a lot but we did get a bit more sleep and were ready for action before dawn as usual.

 

Off we went in the dark, bumping along rough tracks as the glory of dawn lit up the sky.

We had been driving across the grassland for a while when we came across a lion and two lionesses lying in the ruts of a track crossing ours.

This was most fortuitous because we were able to get clear photos of the lions. Otherwise the grass would have been way too high. The darkness of the track behind and the grass arching towards the lion made a lovely frame in the gorgeous soft golden early morning light.

I felt a sting and slapped at the place. A dull greyish green fly alighted on the dashboard.  It was a tsetse fly! Our guide was laid-back about it and said that he had been stung countless times and never got sleeping sickness. I can’t say I was greatly reassured. Luckily I had been wearing loose layers and a scarf but our daughter was less fortunate. When we stopped for coffee and breakfast, she showed us that she was covered in welts with large yellow circles  around them.

I had a big array of medicines from Malarone for malaria to prophylactic doses of antibiotics in case of bacterial infections or stomach bugs. I only had one type of cream for bites and allergic reactions but I gave it to her. The poor kid was super itchy but never complained. I reacted fiercely by flicking my scarf at any fly which got into the vehicle and swathing my face with my scarf and sunnies. Benedict said I looked like a member of Al Shebaab! 

We continued our morning game drive, passing gazelles which looked startled. Prey animals must remain alert at all times, relying on each other to give warnings if any predator is sighted.

We are always fascinated in the African bush. We don’t have to be seeing the big five, we take great pleasure in the smaller things, like a tree with perfect sparrow weaver’s nests,

 

or a ‘sounder of warthogs’ charging off into the grass, up tails all – I have almost never seen a warthog except with its tail up running away!

Our stop for breakfast by the river on this day was made tremendously interesting by a herd of hippopotamus which had all hauled out onto a little beach to soak up the winter sun. It is rare to see so many on land. Their skin pinkened as they warmed up, like the walruses in my blog on the Arctic.

Their antics kept us amused for ages. Hippos are very aggressive and quarrelsome, there were always fights breaking out. 

Then the baby hippo tried to come up the beach. The mothers like to keep them close and safe in the water, Benedict told us. However, this little guy really wanted to come out but another hippo came over and repeatedly monstered him so that the baby had to turn and make a dash back into the water.

In the end, the baby’s mother came hulking into the shallows and mean hippo thought better of terrorizing her baby!

By then it was time to go back for lunch and a siesta in the very hot tent. Luckily I always bring along a little electric fan which made a huge difference.  Afterwards we headed off for the evening drive and saw a lion off in the distance.

He came on and on until eventually he got so close that I struggled to get his whole face in the shot as he fixed me with his gaze from only a few metres away. It was one of those moments I wished I had my second camera with a wider angled lens, but it was with my husband in the middle seat. I always sit next to the driver to avoid too much bumping because I have two compressed discs in my neck, so I was right down at his level.

I seldom feel threatened by predators when I am in a vehicle, but he stared so intently right into my eyes that I began thinking, ‘Oh, well, he’ll get a mouthful of Big Bertha before he gets to me!’ He then decided to pass by - you can see the side of my windscreen in this shot, giving an idea of his proximity to the vehicle.

He was followed by a lioness. We waited, then drove after them slowly at a respectful distance. They entered a copse of dense brush and trees. The rest of the pride must have been hidden inside. It was too stony for us to get close. Benedict drove around to the other side, and we could hear little cubs squeaking away but because of the stones we couldn’t get close enough to see them.

We waited for ages, hoping they would come out and we could see the tiny cubs. Buffaloes came by and checked us out, but the lioness was staying put in the shade and protecting her babies.

Eventually dusk began to fall and we gave up, heading back to camp. I asked Benedict to stop several times so that I could take photos of the sunset.

 

Another day had come to a close. New people had come to the camp and we had an enjoyable time chatting over dinner.  We usually stay in a place for 4 nights so that we can get three full days of safari.

We retired early, as there was much to do.

 

Each night I download all the photos taken that day onto the laptop and the back-up drive. I keep the memory card as a third back-up, and change the card when we move to a new location. I carry plastic holders for each memory card and write what was on that card on a slip of paper which I include in the plastic holder. They then go into a separate card holder for used cards. It works for me as a portable organisational and back-up system so I have my photos in three locations.

We fell into bed, exhausted - safari is a very intensive experience - but so worth it for the animals but also the open grandeur of the Serengeti plain, which was awesome.

 

 

 

 


 


Comments

Not Yet Decrepit Traveller
Many thanks, Lowleen,
I am delighted that you have found this post interesting. It was a bit of a rocky road for me but all the problems were overcome and the photographic opportunities certainly made up for the lowlights! Your comment about my gender is very funny, we certainly aren’t the weaker sex when it comes to sucking up life’s troubles and getting on with it, that’s for sure.

Finally, after eight long months of rehab and a problem with scar tissue, I think my knee is coming to heel!
Warm wishes, Roz.
Not Yet Decrepit Traveller
My grateful thanks for your lovely comments, Patrick!
I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. Was your childhood spent in this area? I must admit there were a few trials and tribulations on this trip, but I’m glad I went, the photographic opportunities more than made up for the setbacks!
Warm wishes, Roz.
Patrick McMaster(non-registered)
Roz, such wonderful photos. Take me back to my childhood, and saves me the trouble of traveling..Thank you so much!!
Not Yet Decrepit Traveller
My grateful thanks, Georgina, for your very generous comment. It was a marvellous experience and I am delighted that you think the photos took you to the Serengeti. We didn’t go on a tour, we booked our trip privately through Encompass Africa which is a company we have used often, they are excellent and provide a custom made experience taking into account your wishes and finding the best ways to maximise your experience with seamless organisation.
Georgina(non-registered)
Roz,

Your adventure is incredible and was wonderful to read of your experiences. Your photographs are stunning - transported me to Serengeti. Might take details of the tour you were on for when I go.
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