Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Travel Year in Review: 2013

Brooklyn, NY
Atlantic City, NJ
Reading, PA
Port Chester, NY

Tanzania, Africa

Los Angeles, CA
San Francisco, CA
Chicago, IL

New York, NY

Los Angeles, CA

New York, NY
Washington, DC

Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, CA

New York, NY

Which came out to:
42,342 miles traveled (3,295 by car, 39,046 by air) across eight states, three countries, two coasts and three continents
72 museum exhibitions
5 Morrissey shows
7 other shows (plus a few we had tickets to and bailed on)

For a travelholic, 2013 proved to be a stellar year, with a bumper crop of trips I hardly expected last year at this time.  Not all of them got airtime on the blog, mainly because they were concert-related without much sightseeing or real enjoyment other than the shows themselves.  But it’s still worth looking back to see where I’ve been and savoring every moment, again.
Our first road trip of the year found us winging our way down to Brooklyn, NY for a Morrissey show at Brooklyn Academy of Music.  We were blessed with just perfect driving weather (indeed, we’d be just as blessed every weekend we drove out of state, which is a near miracle in New England winters!) and made it to Brooklyn to check in and head right out to Brooklyn Museum of Art, which was wonderful.  We’d seen some of its collection in other shows (notably, the Monet exhibition in Paris in 2010) but it’s always nice to revisit old friends.  Morrissey’s Brooklyn show was mentioned by him as one of his best ever, and I’m inclined to agree.  The atmosphere was intimate, he delivered a spectacular performance and it was of course helped by the fact that it was our first time right up against the stage, so it felt like we were the only ones there.

The next day we drove to Atlantic City for the next Morrissey show.  It was a fairly quick drive compared to driving down from Boston, and we were both struck by how ravaged the area still was from the hurricane in October.  After walking the boardwalk – hey, we can say we’ve seen it -- we stayed in Trump’s Taj Mahal, which was a ridiculously obscene cookie-cutter hotel (every floor looked like every other, all 40+ of them) and found that schlepping through casinos humming with slot machines like bumble bees was a necessary evil to get to the House of Blues, where Morrissey put on another great show.  We were eager to escape the casino madness the next day and drove directly home.
The very next weekend, we were back on the road, driving first to Reading, PA for Morrissey yet again.  We enjoyed the weather which was almost spring-like and sunny.  We hit “cow country” and were pretty astounded by a whole lot of flat nothingness the last hour into Reading.  We stayed at what was apparently the only hot spot in Reading (read: it served drinks after the show) as the rest of the town was zipped up tight on a Friday night.  Indeed we found out after the fact that the band themselves stayed there.  This show will go down in history not only for our front row seats, but also for my sister speaking to Morrissey on-stage during the show.  Truly, memories being made in Reading!
The next day we backtracked to Port Chester, NY.  This town right on the NY/CT border was a little more exciting than Reading.  It had plenty of restaurants for post-show rehydration and nutrition.  It also was gloriously warm (nearly 60) so we waited outside the venue in the general admission line with no coats required!  After a tremendous show here, we headed home knowing we had a few more shows in our future in San Fran, Chicago and LA.
Most of February was spent on safari.  I was having near heart failure only 48 hours before we left, when this part of the country was clobbered by a nasty winter blizzard.  Snow drifted so high I couldn’t get out my back door, but I was fortunately on one of the first outgoing international flights as scheduled. 
Safari changed my life.  Safari made me realize how lucky we are in a first world nation, how casually we consume water and throw out perfectly edible food.  Safari made me realize that clouds just hang over expanses, thunderstorms really do approach in a cell with sun on either side, and there is nothing more beautiful than a late night chorus of lions around camp.  Yes, I will do this again.  In fact, I am doing it again.
In a fit of insanity, five days after arriving home from safari at the beginning of March, I got back on a plane for a mere 36 hours in Los Angeles, for yes, another Morrissey show.  We’d hardly landed in the gorgeous warmth of southern California when we popped into the Getty to see its massive collection and Vermeer’s traveling work “The Milkmaid” and then headed to the show (culture shock of the massive Staples Center after the intimacy of our four previous shows) and then slept and turned around to head home!  If I didn’t succumb to massive jetlag then, I never would.  My poor body clock.  This was, however, the first time we rented a car and got a convertible (of course!) and how we loved riding around in the warm sun and just breathing in fresh air after being cooped up all winter.  This would get addicting, as you will see.

A week later, we were jetting across the country yet again, this time to San Francisco.  We had tickets to a Morrissey show which unfortunately was cancelled due to illness.  Somehow we managed to still have a pretty good long weekend there, crossing the Golden Gate bridge on the open upper deck of a bus, seeing the Dutch Masters at the DeYoung Museum and enjoying the sea lions on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Despite making the most of it, I think we both knew we were southern Cali girls.  We heard the concert was rescheduled here for the end of May and planned to return, but when we found out the concert wouldn’t happen, we gladly redirected to LA, again.
Two weeks (and a minor surgical procedure) later, we hopped our way to Chicago, where a concert was to have taken place but was cancelled as a result of the San Francisco illness.  We decided to go anyway, as we’d never seen Chicago and were desperate to get to the Art Institute.  Graham Elliott Bistro was our splurge restaurant of this trip, and it was worth the wait.  As wonderful as the museum and the food was, the memory burned into our minds was of how gosh-darn cold it was, and we are hearty New Englanders!  So while we loved the Bean and AIofC, I think it’ll be a much warmer day before we return.
I finally got the time to catch my breath for about six weeks as I stayed home for most of April.  There was a quick day trip to NYC to see Edvard Munch’s The Scream at MOMA.  We worked in a trip to Laduree for the world’s finest macarons, and headed home, stopping in Port Chester for some of the best vegetable tempura we’ve ever had.
In May we were off to LA for a proper (ie: week-long with time to settle in and get to know the place).  We made a point to book some great meals (Gordon Ramsay’s London hotel for his famous Beef Wellington, Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali’s Osteria Mozza, Gordon Ramsay’s Fat Cow for fabulous short rib!).   We were in WeHo for cinco de mayo, which wasn’t all that exciting…probably should have gone to a Mexican neighborhood instead!  But our museum going and sightseeing was exceptional this time, given all the time we had:  Space Shuttle Endeavor, dead celebrity sightings at two cemetaries, LACMA, Griffith Observatory, Norton Simon museum in Pasadena and a day spent riding the PCH from Redondo Beach up to Malibu.  That was the day we discovered Zuma Beach, which was our grounding spot in LA thereafter.  No where did we feel as home as there, I think probably because we grew up on the Atlantic and feel the ties to the water.  But Zuma is a beach like no other, and one we’d return to again on future trips.
July found us winging our way first to DC for a day to take in the 150th retrospective on Edvard Munch at the National Gallery and the JFK Assassination exhibits at Newseum.  Then it was back down to NYC for a few exhibitions (Hopper at the Whitney) and again with the pit stop at Laduree and Port Chester for our favorite Asian stop.

September turned to October and we were back out in LA for a longer holiday still.  This time we hit other museums we’d not seen (Hammer Museum, Huntington Library) and some we’d seen before (LACMA) while also working in day trips to San Diego and Santa Barbara.  Our best meals (ever, some would say) were at Spago, where we got to meet Wolfgang Puck himself, and were treated to the most wonderful food and service I’ve ever experienced.  The next day we were at Nobu, where we had the most amazing shrimp tempura.  I mean really, this was the stuff of dreams.  Of course there is a lot to be said for lunching on a porch right over the Pacific, watching dolphins and seals and sea birds living their lives in the sun…but the food was just spectacular.  We ended our stay at Rick Bayless’ Red O restaurant, sipping $50 margaritas (and worth every penny) and having some very high end, tasty Mexican food.  We of course stopped at Zuma Beach again to say goodbye, but not for long.  We hope.
November had one more trip to NYC in store, as we went to see Johnny Marr (former Smiths bandmate of Morrissey) play at historic Webster Hall and we caught up with Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring one more time as we saw the Dutch Master’s exhibition on loan at the Frick.  We topped the weekend off with a breakfast at the delectable Norma’s at Le Parker Meridien.  I didn’t think breakfast could be so decadent, but it can…and it was.

So after a year filled like that, I’m anxious to see how, or if, 2014 can measure up.  I thank my sister, who was with me on all but the safari, for the many laughs, lessons learned and life experiences we shared over the many miles.  I hope we continue along this line in 2014!

Friday, November 22, 2013

All This Waiting

Since I last wrote I haven't been up to too much, except a whole lot of waiting.  No, scratch that, I did wing my way out to sunny Southern California for a week and spent a weekend in museum and concert heaven in NYC.  But other than that, it's waiting.  And waiting.

As I've said before, the one thing about signing up for safari is that once you've chosen your tour operator, set the itinerary, paid the deposit and gotten your airfare, that's all there is to do until you go.  At least last year with my first safari, I could busy myself with buying all the safari gear.  Not now.  I'm old hat now.  I only need to buy toiletries and I can go.

That's not to say I'm not reading up or trying to stay abreast of things.  I found all of the conservancies I'm staying at on Facebook and follow their wildlife updates.  It is exciting to hear about recently born lion or cheetah cubs and know that they'll be toddlers by the time I get there.  Or hear that a pack of the very rare African dogs have made their way just outside one camp I'm staying at.  But still, that can't really keep me preoccupied like researching museums, restaurants and daytrips on a non-safari trip can.

So I remedied that.  About 3 weeks ago I was messing around on the internet one Sunday and decided to see how possible it would be to cash in some of my 90,000 United miles for a flight somewhere.  Anywhere.  Not thinking that it'd be possible to anywhere remotely palatable, I plopped Rome in and some random dates in May 2014 and lo and behold, I could do it, with miles to spare.  Hmmmm.  Maybe there's something to this.  So I played a bit more, slept on it and decided it's been 7 years since my last trip to Rome and 8 since my last trip to Florence, and I walked away with a round-trip ticket to Rome and Florence in May, for the grand sum of 60,000 miles and $85.  WOO-HOOO!  It's sort of nice to have that to look forward to a few months after safari.

And finally, the very initial plans of a lengthy fall trip through the UK and Ireland, with a quick stop in Amsterdam is being bandied about by my sister and me.  Since it will be a Milestone Birthday for her next year, she wants to celebrate in style.  Amsterdam and the Hague will have completed massive renovations on the three major museums there (Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Mauritshuis) so we'd start there to hit those, and then hit London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin in the remainder of the trip.  Still initial phases but feeling very possible.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Celebrating twenty years of travel

Twenty years ago tonight, I was winging my way on an Aer Lingus jet to Dublin for my first ever trip out of the country.  With that trip came a new passion for exploring the world, learning more about myself and broadening my world view.  And there doesn't seem to be an end in sight to this little obsession of mine.

I traveled with a girlfriend from college and two pen pals I'd met through a U2 fanzine.  We met in Dublin for the last two shows of U2's European tour on their home turf.  The shows were, of course, amazing.  I survived general admission crowds in a European football stadium.  That's nothing to sniff at.  But I laugh now when I think of that first trip to Dublin.  We were only gone for 7 days, but I packed enough clothes, indeed, a complete clean, new outfit, for every day, and then some.  My suitcase was massive.  I'd not even take it now on a 2 week trip.  We were silly naïve ignorant tourists, who didn't know that just because your room wasn't ready at your hotel when you arrived off a red eye flight, that you didn't have to sit in the lobby and wait.  You can, and should, go out and see the sights until your room is ready.  But we didn't.  We sat, with all the other newly arrived U2 fans, and waited.  And wasted our first morning in Dublin.  Nearly 10 more trips to Ireland would follow, with three of those being on successive U2 tours.  And so it began...

Twenty-seven foreign trips, seventeen countries on four continents and three passports later, I'm still completely infected with the travel bug.  I'd like to think I've become a more savvy traveler:  someone who packs more efficiently and can squeeze every last usable minute out of a day.  Someone who knows enough to try the local food and not be too afraid to admit that I like it (Haggis?  LOVE IT!)  I still get jumpy at in-flight turbulence and will always hold my breath until my luggage drops down on to the carousel at my destination.  I'm still disappointed that I can't bring my three bottles of frozen spring water from home on the plane after 9/11, but I've adjusted.  Somehow.  But as my confidence as a world traveler has grown, so too have my experiences.

So what exactly has all this travel gotten me?  Let me count the ways, as they say.....I learned quickly the overwhelming surge of joy at a long-overdue "hello" and the utter sadness and regret of an airport good-bye.  I've seen wild horses running on a Dublin strand, poppies in bloom in the Tuscan countryside, and 21 lions staring back at me from under a shade tree in Africa.  I've learned there is nothing more melodic than a Irish accent and nothing more heart-melting than Irish eyes.  And there is nothing smoother than a fresh Bailey's over two ice cubes served up in Ireland.

I've been extremely fortunate to have seen the best art in the world:  rooms full of Rembrandts in St. Petersburg, Amsterdam and New York, Michelangelos in Florence, Picasso's Guernica, American Gothic, Whistler's Mother, Mona Lisa, hundreds upon hundreds of Monets in one weekend in Paris, Caravaggios in situ in Rome, a Degas to die for in Moscow, glorious Vermeers in Holland, London, Berlin, and nature's own display of art and beauty: tulip season in Amsterdam.

I've held a panda (twice!), fed a giraffe and petted a rhino.  I watched Lipizaner stallions rehearse in Vienna and have seen the Changing of the Guard in London twice.  Two elderly men generously made me their date for a rare stage performance by Liam Neeson, and we were front row!  I've seen Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Nicole Kidman and Brian Dennehy in Broadway shows.  I've seen U2 in 3 countries and five states.

I've tasted Haggis, Borscht, Jenever with gold dust, Serrano ham, Lechón, Cocido, Frikadel, Profertjes, Caviar, Pici, Sacher Torte, Croque Madame, Bangers and Mash, Berliners, Peking Duck and hot pot in their home countries and I loved them all.  I've eaten on the porch of a local Tuscan family, imbibing in the fresh pasta, crushed tomato, house wine and homemade lemon gelato all sourced right on their property.  There are days I'd kill for a good Irish fry or even just a Crunchie.  I adopted Dutch coffee with sweetened, condensed milk as my caffeine of choice.  It's been my duty, no, obligation, to sample as many gelato flavors as I can in Italy; I think the trip record is 30-something...

My feet have taken me up Paris' Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame towers, Florence's campanile, Rome's Vatican Dome, Edinburgh's Scott Monument and China's Great Wall and  I've plunged down a road on a bike at 30 miles an hour in the hills of Pisa.  I've walked in Red Square, Trafalgar Square, Times Square, Dam Square, Grafton Street, Plaza Mayor, Kufurstendam.  I've run up Edinburgh's Royal Mile while chasing the sound of bagpipes.

I've seen nature's miracles...wildebeest births in the Serengeti, amazing sunrises, sunsets and thunderstorms coloring up Tanzania's sky, the awe-inspiring burial ground Newgrange, Pike's Peak, Cliffs of Moher, The Burren, Giant's Causeway.  I've seen man-made miracles...the Rosetta Stone, Xi'an's Terracotta Warriors, the Endeavor Space Shuttle, the Great Wall.  I have also seen how man can go terribly wrong at the Anne Frank House, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and the US National Holocaust Museum.

Lucky I was to share trips to England, France and Italy with my Mom.  It was the sweetest pleasure to share with her Paris, the chateaux of the Loire, Mont St. Michel, London, Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, Florence and Rome.  Her knack for attracting stray dogs (Pompeii) and partying young Spanish men(Florence) can't be underestimated.  I then got to break my sister in in Europe with fabulous trips to the Netherlands and Cologne and Paris and Vienna before taking on our own United States of America in sisterly fashion.

I caught a vile intestinal parasite in Spain that took two weeks of antibiotics to cure and got scammed of $200 cash just to get on my plane home from Tanzania.  I've had a head cold from hell in Spain, a fever of 102 in Ireland (first trip, it was a doozie) and fought my way through China with a herniated disc in my neck that I didn't know I had.  I've had my credit card rejected in a leather shop in Florence, which, well, may not have been such a bad thing. So see, not all the trips were flawless but I've enjoyed the heck out of all of them.

What you read is more than just a laundry list, at least to me.  These are slide shows of memories and smiles and tears and joy and fears that I can and do play back in my head all the time.  I've been questioned more than a little about my travel habits and why I do what I do.  I say it often, but I truly work to feed this travel monster of mine, but completely without regret.  If this blog is even the slightest hint of what the next twenty years of travel holds for me, I'll consider myself incredibly blessed indeed.  Looking back to that flight 20 years ago tonight and how much I've grown and changed with every trip, I'm reminded that "a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Thinking of Kenya

It isn't often that I awake to see a future travel destination of mine as the lead top breaking news story on breakfast news tv.  This morning that was exactly the case, as it seems that Kenya's main airport was a fireball of some unknown origin.  The only news I can glean from it so far is that it is the international arrivals hall, which I will need, well, to arrive in Kenya.  Sure, my arrival is now 6+ months out, but it is a somber reminder of how and when travel plans can go awry.  I'm sure the officials there are scrambling to get some sort of temporary arrivals in place as this is peak safari season in parts of Kenya.  I don't envy those folks that at all...

In other news I just made my appointment for early January to get whatever vaccinations I'll need, which I think is just Yellow Fever, as I've had just about everything else for my trips to Russia, China and Tanzania.  This is also where I'll get my anti-malarial prescription too.  So that task is done.

It's a might bit depressing not to have oodles of things to do this time to get ready.  Sure, there are a few things to get for the camera that I didn't have before, and also a couple of different clothing items I want to take time to hunt for, but in terms of the getting ready to go part, I'm pretty much done already.  Bah.  Where's the fun in that?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Deed Is Done

Well, ummmm...since I last wrote I got up to something.  I started talking seriously with a couple of tour operators and camps in East Africa.  I had a budget in mind and a little more than a dream in my head of going back to Africa.  Soon.  Really soon.  As soon as I could.

And I made that happen.

I talked directly to camps in Kenya, which I decided to focus on for their big cats (namely, lions, leopards and cheetah).  Maasai Mara, an area in southern Kenya on the border of Tanzania, is world renown for its lions, in particular.  I narrowed down my search to two camps, and ultimately worked out a nice itinerary at a very good price with one.  I ran the idea past Kim, with whom I shared a tent in Tanzania, and she may be interested as well.  Whether she goes or not, I can't shake this itch, so I said I'd hold a tent for her, and book away I did.

This trip already differs from Tanzania in that I am booked directly into camps run by one company.  These camps are in conservancies, which are protected areas bordering national parks owned by the Maasai tribes and set aside for wildlife preservation.  As there are no fences or structural borders between the national parks and the conservancies, the wildlife roam oblivious to whether they are in a national park or a conservancy, but the visitors to the conservancy benefit from staying there because travelers not staying in the conservancy aren't allowed into the area and those staying in it can drive anywhere they want, including off-road (which is usually not permitted in national parks).

Flying into Nairobi, I'll spend one night there and the next morning fly out I chose three camps around the Mara area.  The first stop is the Ol Pejeta Conservancy which is known as a home to many black rhinos left in the world.  It's actually Africa's largest black rhino sanctuary.   This conservancy is located at the base of Mt. Kenya and actually tends to be quite cool even during the hot summers months when I'll be there.

After three nights, I'll fly on one of those tiny planes again to the Mara.  I'll spend two nights in one camp and three nights in another camp in conservancies bordering the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Ol Kinyei and Naboisho Conservancies from one camp and Olare Motorogi Conservancy from another.  While I will take game rides into the national reserve itself twice, I'll take advantage of the secluded conservancies for off-road game drives most of the time.

The other difference between this experience and that I had in Tanzania is that these camps have their own drivers and spotters (wildlife spotters that is) so I won't be with the same guide the entire time like we were with Said.  Nevertheless. these drivers and spotters are Maasai tribesman who have lived and worked in this area, so all reviews I've read said they are quite talented at finding the game.

Prices for this are all inclusive, even the alcoholic drinks this time, so in theory other than tips, I shouldn't have to bring any more money.  I also eliminated any shopping and cultural stops, just get me to the bush with the animals.

I grappled with the airfare dilemma, as I wasn't thrilled with KLM and Precision Air's unceremoniously changing my flight coming home from TZ, but in the end, while I at least had other options (through London or Paris) I decided transiting through Amsterdam again was my best choice at that time of year.  I hope I'm right.  Airfare to Kenya is about $800 less than it was to TZ.  The visa fee is half what it was in TZ.  So see, already I'm saving money!

So 8 months to wait now.  I'll be sleeping in tents listening to the lions again.  And oh, the Kenyan coffee!!!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Travel Void

For the first time in 10 months, I find myself in the Travel Void; that is, I have absolutely nothing on the agenda or even anything in the pipeline for a trip in coming days, weeks, months.  It's an odd feeling.  There's nothing to research, nothing to look forward to, nothing to dream of packing up and taking off for.  Yet after the last few months, there is something grounding about being home again and not leaving the suitcase open and at the ready on the floor of my bedroom.

The insanity of my most recent travel schedule started with trips to follow Morrissey to Brooklyn, Atlantic City, Reading, PA and Port Chester, NY.  Some of those places weren't necessarily tourist destinations, indeed we managed to only play tourist in Brooklyn, but still they were parts of the country we'd not seen before. 

About 3 weeks after Port Chester, I was off on safari to Tanzania for two weeks.  A mere 5 days after returning from Africa, I was off to Los Angeles for one weekend, followed by San Francisco for the next long weekend, ostensibly to follow Morrissey again, but his health allowed him to only show up for the first of those weekends.  With concert tickets fully refunded for other shows we'd booked, we still had airfare to Chicago and San Francisco for Morrissey's shows in March and late April, so we decided to carry on in Chicago for another long weekend, and change the San Francisco trip to Los Angeles for 5 days.  Somewhere in there we did a road trip to NYC for some serious museum going.

Now just recovering from jetlag from LA last weekend, I'm settling back into life without anticipation.  For the moment it feels good.  I'm recovering from a cold that I was stupid enough to fly with.  All my "travel stuff" is safely stowed back in the closet and I'm done going through photos and tallying the damage in my checkbook.  For now, I'm reveling in sleeping in my own bed tonight.  And tomorrow night.  And all of this week.  It's good to be home. I logged about 34,000 air miles in the first 5 months of this year.  Good glory, that's a record for me.

That's not to say I'm not getting itchy.  I'm ready to go back to Africa and kicking ideas for that around in my head.  Any trip to get me there is tempting, so seeing good deals on Facebook is really starting to wear me down.  As in, going in the fall.  I'd prefer to "do it right" and go back for two weeks next year but the lure is becoming hard to deny.  I also am feeling the urge to go back to Amsterdam, which might make the most sense for a quickish (non-budget busting) trip this fall and save up for safari in 2014.  I have enough miles on United for a free ticket anywhere in Europe, and going back to someplace I know well would make a longish weekend very doable.  But I also am somewhat curious about Oslo after the Munch exhibition we saw in NYC.  And then there's the possibility that Morrissey may tour again this fall.  If he does, I'd at the very least like to see the Northeast and mid Atlantic shows.  Not sure if I'd commit to airfare for him again.  Spoiled for choice, I suppose.  I'm going to sit tight until June and see how things progress.

For now, I'll relish the homebody life.  For now.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Now I know -- Safari Tips and Tricks that worked for me

Now that I've been on safari and survived, I figured I would compile the things that worked (and warn against what didn't) and share them with the world.  Not that I know everything, by a long-shot, but when I do go on safari again, there are a lot of lessons learned that I'd take advantage of.

Pack lighter.  I thought I'd gone pretty light, but I realize now that I didn't really need the fleece, or the spare pair of yoga pants.  Or snacks for an army.  Or 12 rolls of travel-sized toilet paper.

Bring a few different camera batteries, a charger and a memory cards.  You know, just in case.  I always wanted two back-up batteries for each camera.  I took a slew of photos a day (3700 shots over 12 days) and never wanted to miss one because I was low on power.  Same with the memory cards.  I also split photos up into logical segments by card.  Tarangire on one, Manyara and Ngorongoro on another, Serengeti on another.  I also found a battery charger would charge my camera battery faster than leaving it in the camera (and freed me up to use my camera while the battery was charging).

Take the best camera you can afford. The best thing I did was buy a new camera about 8 months before the trip, and learned how to use it well. You won't regret it, I promise.

Don't bother with "insect repellant" clothing.  Seriously, the one day that I wore the insect repellant pants, my legs got eaten alive in Manyara.  You STILL need insect repellant spray or lotion.  Believe me.  Paying extra for these pants was not worth it.

Go with sports bras.  No matter how well-endowed you are, or not, sports bras provided better....coverage, shall we say, on the very bumpy roads of Tanzania.  The one day I wore a regular bra, I was pulling the straps up all day, as they kept coming loose and falling down.  I wore sports bras the rest of the time.

Shower before dinner.  We learned quickly that we'd be sweaty and dirty from just about the moment we set out in the morning.  By riding in an open topped, open windowed vehicle on dirt roads all day in the beating sun, you just don't have any other options but to be dirty.  If we showered right before dinner (when the game drives of the day were done), we would be cleanest longest, clean for sleep, and ready to spring into action first thing in the very early mornings with minimal prep time.

Reconcile yourself to not looking gorgeous.  You're on safari in the bush.  With the top up and windows down, the wind's going to be blowing as long as you're moving.  To think your hair can keep up is silly.  To think that make-up is not going to get covered up with sweat and dust is sillier.  Just don't bother.  The animals don't notice anyway, and they don't know how dolled up you usually are at home!

Take binoculars enough for everyone.  Sure the vehicle will have a pair or two, but I found that on the important sightings where we'd wait for a while for some action, it was difficult to want to (or have to) share.  Everyone should really have their own pair, I think.

Don't bother with guidebooks.  I would say that if you're only going on safari and not doing any independent city travel, you don't need a guidebook at all.  Your guide will more than cover whatever you're seeing in the parks and conservation areas....however.....

Take a wildlife guide.  I took Wildlife of East Africa  and loved it.  It is just big enough to contain great color photos and succinct descriptions.  It is well-organized and thorough (there was nothing we saw that wasn't in the book).  Our guide had a book too, but this was a nice supplement.

Keep a wildlife log.  I took a very small notebook and a pen out with me on each game ride.  I started a new page for each day and wrote where we were, the date and then listed every wildlife sighting in order.  This made it easy to figure out "what that is" when I was looking at my photos when I got home.

Take TP, hand santizer, baby wipes.  I'm normally a hypochondriac traveler, always afraid of catching something, but more so in Tanzania, all of this stuff came in really handy.  Travel-sized rolls of toilet paper (which come in handy plastic cases) were helpful not only when we'd stop to go in the bush, but also in the few permanent facilities we came across that weren't stocked up.  The hand santizer is a no-brainer, before and after bush toilet breaks, before eating, etc.  The baby wipes were surprisingly useful, especially to freshen up a bit during mid-day siestas when it was too early to shower but we were already feeling grimey.

Bring a travel mug.  If you love coffee, you will absolutely adore Tanzanian coffee.  Every morning we left early for a game ride, I wished I'd had a travel mug to take it out on the road with me.  This is one thing I MUST do next time!

Take a day bag.  This may or may not be your carry-on on the plane, but this was the bag that went out with me every day.  Its contents:  cameras, batteries, memory cards, wallet, hand sanitizer, TP, wildlife guide and notebook log, binoculars, bug spray, sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, light rain jacket, anti-diarrheal, allergy and other medications, snacks, lip balm (SPF 30), kleenex, iPod.

Music.  On some of the longer drives, I'd put my iPod on and listen to a soundtrack I'd prepared at home.  Now when I listen to that same playlist, I get carried back to that drive and that scenery in my mind.

I hope this helps others getting ready to go. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Life Post-Safari

My day bag still lies on the floor of the second bedroom, binoculars, camera and the unused pack of baby wipes still in it.  I notice it every time I pass through, it's just there open, ready to be topped off again and taken back out on a game drive.  I doubt I'll use that bag again for anything but a safari.  First, it's filthy dirty, and second, it's really not appropriate to lug anywhere but into a Land Rover for a day's worth of sitting, waiting and watching for wildlife.

And so life is post-safari.  I've been home nearly 8 weeks now and not a day, not an hour, goes by when I don't think back on it.  I've finished my photo album, gotten prints made and hung, and even put away most of my travel gear.  Except the day bag.  That sits there on that bedroom floor as a reminder of what was, and what will be again.

You see, safari has gotten under my skin like nothing else.  Never, ever, in a million years would I have thought that I could stop my Type A personality and get it to slow down to the point where sitting for over 2 hours to watch hundreds of elephants frolic and drink around a watering hole was so utterly enjoyable.  Or quite eagerly sit for over an hour waiting to see if a leopard would awaken, a family of cheetahs would hunt or if two sweet little lion cubs would come out of hiding after a pod of elephants passed by.  And what I wouldn't give to wake up in the middle of the night to hear a stampede of zebras run through the camp or a pride of lions roar across our camp to each other, just to remind themselves, and us, that they are there.

Couple the incredible animal experiences with the gorgeous landscape and the warm, sunny days and it really is nirvana.  I quickly learned to overlook the "being dirty" dusty and and sweaty feeling, the endless mosquito and tse tse fly bites and the less-than-ideal showering conditions as a trade off for what was otherwise nirvana.  I missed it all before I left it, and I miss it more as it starts to feel like a dream rather than an actual trip of a lifetime.

All this said, I've already started to lay groundwork for the "next" safari, most likely in 2014.  While I would love to revisit Tanzania and ride along with the same guide again, I remember what my guide in Russia told me: "Never try to repeat perfection, you will only be disappointed."  So I've started to investigate other countries in Africa, like Botswana, South Africa and Kenya.  I'd really like to try a volunteer vacation of some sort, and have found a lion research group that looks for volunteers like me.  It's something to fuel my passion and keep me motivated while I'm busy doing other things.

So the day bag will sit there, as is, waiting for me to go again.  Tanzania was indeed my first safari, but it most definitely won't be my last.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Safari Day Eleven

The overnight was quiet as we settled in for our first long sleep in a few days.  Long meaning past 6 a.m. I was out cold by about 9:30 pm and didn't hear much in the way of animal noises overnight, so either there weren't so many or I slept through it.  We packed up and paid up for our bar tab and we were off with Said.  He managed to squeeze in one more game ride before we got on our flight back to Arusha.

It seemed as though Said was visiting some spots of recent famous sightings as we drove along.  He pointed out where he'd seen the pride we saw take down a buffalo a while back.  No such luck today.  The ride was pretty quiet for about an hour and a half as he quizzed us on types of birds and the difference between impala, Grant's gazelle and Thompson's gazelle.  I'll get it someday.  I think I have impala figured out.  It was a gorgeous morning, warm and sunny with that blue sky with puffy clouds.  Finally with only about a half hour left before we had to be at the airstrip, Said spotted a leopard in a tree.  All left and right paws dangling on either side of a thick branch, this guy was down for the count.  And out cold he was.  His head was pointed the other way, so I was hoping he'd at least pop up for a stretch while I had my camera ready and before we had to go.  No time for being patient and waiting him out today!  This leopard was larger than the one we have seen the last two days so that leads Said to think it is a male.  Finally he lifted his head and I got the shot I wanted.  Handsome cat!

We got to the airstrip, which is literally a long mowed patch of grass.  There were a bunch of 8-seater prop planes lying around and we were led to one.  I've never been on a plane that wasn't a jet so this would be an experience.  There was no security, no checking of tickets, no one even asked my name, they just took my luggage, shoved it into the nose of the plane and let us all stand next to the plane in the grass until everyone showed up.  Finally we hugged Said good-bye and climbed aboard.  Our pilot was a surly old man who barked a lot and smoked one last cig before climbing in.  I sat right over his left shoulder and could watch his view and the instruments.  I wasn't sure if that should make me feel better or not.  Finally we were airborne, and cruising over the Ngorongoro Crater, which was massive.  It made me feel so small when I realize we were one of those tiny dots cruising the roads around there just last week.

The pilot turned once and handed me a box of Cadbury eclair candies.  That's the in-flight service, I suppose.  He also would make motions like swerving or bumpy when we'd hit turbulence.  I didn't enjoy making it through those fun white clouds that looked so pretty from the ground, but finally we made it and were on the ground in Arusha. 

David from our tour operator picked us up and we're spending the afternoon at the Arumeru Lodge again, killing time until our late day flight.  There are worse ways to spend the day...officially heading home now.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Safari Day Ten

Day Ten – Balloons, Leopard and Hippos, Oh My

This morning we were up even before the lions could really get started with their overnight roaring. That would be 4:15, which is an ungodly hour for anyone, but today we had a sunrise hot air balloon ride followed by a champagne English style breakfast. We were picked up first in the pitch blackness. On the way we stumbled into an impromptu game ride when we came upon a gorgeous leopard just meandering its way along the road. The driver of the van stopped so we could admire it until it turned into the bush. Just then, another vehicle came from the other direction at a very high speed. It either didn’t see the leopard, didn’t see our driver flash his headlights to slow down, or both, but it went right at the leopard. Thankfully the leopard made it into the bush, barely, but not without my letting loose a string of expletives that I think may have embarrassed my fellow travelers. It was another one of those moments where I thought to myself that maybe we shouldn’t be here.

Finally after picking up two other groups of tourists, we got to the field where the balloon inflation. By this point it was still totally dark but the balloons weren’t even close to inflated that we swore we weren’t going to make sunrise liftoff. It was pretty damn close, but we did just miss it. We were up just after the sun went over the horizon. But let me tell you, that balloon ride was pretty amazing. The basket was on its side and we all loaded in horizontally. Once the air got hot enough in the balloon, it pulled the basket upright and then off the ground. The guys working the ground untethered the basket from the jeep it was tied to and up we went, smooth as silk. We gained altitude and literally floated over the Serengeti. The air was clear and smooth and it was completely silent except for the occasional blast of hot air to keep the balloon rising. The pilot could rotate the balloon so we all got a good look at everything around us. From up there, we saw a bunch of giraffe, some elephants, a lion on a giraffe kill, impala and hippos. They were small from high up but it was kind of neat to see them from that angle. The landing was picture perfect, two small bumps and we were down after about an hour of drifting. This was one of the most impressive ways to see vastness of the Serengeti, though, and well worth the price and painful wake up call.

We were met with a champagne toast, which is tradition after hot air balloon flights since they were founded in France. Then we were shuttled to a breakfast under an Acacia tree, which was a traditional English breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato and baked beans. More coffee and champagne flowed and we got to meet and chat with all of our fellow travelers.

Said picked us up around 10:00 and we went straight out on our game ride. He said our goal for the morning was to find that leopard again for a better look. True to his word, we had spotted the leopard within minutes. Well, it was hard to miss the poor thing because the leopard paparazzi had staked out the road alongside where she was sleeping in the tree. But as usual, Said’s experience and our patience paid off. While several other vans came and went, we waited. At one point the leopard yawned and shifted position and Said said “She wants to get up.” And we knew if we waited long enough, she would. Not 15 minutes later, she got up, stretched, and went head first down the tree. Said started the car and drove far down the road, further than any other vehicle. Next think I knew, the leopard was headed straight for us, walking through the thick grass. She passed us and he moved the car again, this time even with another tree, which of course she went right up. It was a great experience, certainly better than yesterday, but again, only made possible by Said’s expert guiding.

We came back to camp for lunch, which was spaghetti, onion bread, spicy ground beef and ginger ale for me. It was pretty good, even after the big breakfast we had late morning. I’m getting used to these multi-course meals three times a day, I don’t know how I’ll live without them.

On days when we have two game rides, we would either nap, read or play cards during the few hours between lunch and our afternoon game ride. Here the tents get incredibly warm during the day, even though we leave the place zipped open all day. So we usually lie here like sloths and complain about how hot it is, which makes going out again in the moving vehicle that much more enjoyable, as it’s so much cooler out there.

For our last game ride, Said said “my goal is to find you a hippo.” So off we went. And after an extraordinarily long ride, we finally saw a sign pointing to the hippo pool. As we’d passed a few of those with a handful of resident hippos during our balloon ride, we all just assumed it was one of those. But we were wrong. Like everything else Said has conjured up for us, this experience was beyond what we could have ever imagined. This pool was good sized, but what was unique about it was that there were over 100 hippos here. There were hippos of every size and age, all lolling about in the water, barking and howling at each other. Little babies followed their moms around, trying to nurse. Big males stretching their mouth open 180 degrees to yawn big dramatic, over-exaggerated yawns. It was all just so surreal, that this was all natural and not a zoo. I loved it, it was a pretty cool way to end the trip.

On the way back to camp we came upon a handful of zebra and giraffes munching away. There was a large, adult giraffe, a medium sized giraffe and two of the littlest giraffes we’d seen to date. We felt it a nice way to leave, seeing two of the gentlest of the safari beast so far.

Again we had another round of storms come through that we seem to have missed here by driving down to the hippo pool. Coming back after the hippo experience though, we again saw the best of sunsets around and also some fascinating heat lightning which lit up the clouds around it in an electric pink. I’ll miss seeing so much sky when I go home.

Dinner tonight was a nicely marinated lamb like we had at the last camp, rosemary potatos, a green bean and carrot casserole and a guacamole salad. Dessert was crème caramel. I had a Sprite and vodka to celebrate the end of the trip. I will really miss eating so well regularly!!!

Tomorrow’s a travel day but Said promised a game ride on the way to the airstrip. Who knows what else he has up his sleeve for us. As I write this, the lions are doing their best to serenade us to sleep for one more night. I’ll miss this too!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Safari Day Nine

Day Nine – The Serengeti Lions

This morning I was awoken around 3:45 by the sound of lions roaring way off in the distance. I was transfixed by this so managed to stay awake and listen to them approach from the front to around the side of our tent. By 4:15 they were as close as they would get and it sounded like they were pretty darn close. I thought that there were at least two roaring to each other, but when I talked to one of the guys who work here, he said it was a big pride. It’s funny how people who work here can tell the difference.

On the way to breakfast, I saw the very top edge of the sun peeking up over the horizon. It took all of two minutes before it was fully up, I couldn’t believe how quickly it happened, and I could just stand there and take it all in. Tomorrow, we’ll be seeing it from the hot air balloon.

Breakfast was good, scrambled eggs, sausage, a pancake that tasted really cinnamony and toast. I woke with a fairly good case of intestinal distress, but like hell was I going to let that stop me, so I dosed up on Cipro and Lomotil and was on my way.

We left at 7:00 and I think we all had leopard on our minds. Said says the taller grass here is more conducive to leopards and lions, but as we saw yesterday, that means we hardly ever see them unless they stand up. If they’re laying down, we see nothing. The other thing that is quite different here is that because the migration is still in Ndutu, it feels as though there are almost no animals here at all.

This morning we drove for quite some time before seeing much of anything. The vistas are beautiful though and the weather here is gorgeous so it made it easy to just watch the world go by. I also downloaded an album of traditional African music that I listened to while we were riding. That way, when I listen to it at home, I’ll think back to everything I saw here.

So, early on, we saw an elephant, some solo jackals, a jackal family, two warthog. Then we came upon some Topi, which is the first we’ve seen here. They look like antelope with socks on. While scanning some rocks for either lions or leopards, we saw some hyrax, which looked like guinea pigs. Oddly enough, they are the most anatomical similar mammal to elephants. Said said they share the same type of incisors that are like tusks and have internal testicles like elephants. Odd that the smallest thing we’ve seen is so like the largest thing we’ve seen.

After a while, it got really slow in terms of seeing much of anything, but Said seemed to conjure up a female lion dozing in the grass. By her more or less bolting away from us, I think we clearly disturbed her, which is the first time I’ve felt that all this time. We took some photos and moved on fairly quickly.

Just past the lioness, we came upon six giraffe that we’d seen wandering further along the horizon. These passed right in front of and along our vehicle, so we got fairly close. They are very tranquil and relaxing to watch so we spent some time there.

Circling yet another rock formation for the same cats we had yet to see, I spotted a lizard that was half red, half green. Said said it was a male Agama lizard. That was about all the reptiles I’m willing to tolerate this safari, thank you very much.

After a bit more driving, we came upon a gathering of vehicles along the side of the road. From the midst of that, a female lion ran out and crossed the road right in front of us. We watched her wander off into the distance and then headed back towards lunch.

Fairly close to camp, one of us spotted a head go up under a tree just off the road to our left. When we followed up on it, it looked as if there was definitely one and maybe even two lions under that tree. On closer inspection, there were 21 (YES! TWENTY ONE!) lions lying there under the tree. There seemed to be two adult females and a whole slew of cubs. I think since it was a bit off road we weren’t supposed to be there, so we left pretty quickly and continued on, which was a HUGE disappointment, but my wish to see a pride had come true, however short-lived. We continued down the road and saw a pod of elephants crossing the road, and as interesting as that was, I just could not get into it after what we’d left behind. I think Said noticed that another vehicle had made its way to our pride, so he took us back. Soon there were 5 or 6 vehicles there and the pride got antsy and started to move to other cover further from us. But I got more photos and got to watch them and it was just an amazing dream come true. I never, ever thought I’d get to see so many at one time. It was blissful and then some. Finally the lions decided it was time to move on before they were completely encircled, so we left as well. I teared up as we pulled away, just completely overcome by something so fabulous. Despite a very slow morning overall, this was more than enough to justify going out early and being so very patient.

Back at camp it had warmed up some and lunch was ready for us. The cool gazpacho soup was tasty and so refreshing. There was a warm chicken salad in a creamy tomato sauce with carrots and onions and homemade French fries, which were wonderful. I had Sprite and ginger ale and returned to the tent to write up the blog and rest before we headed out at 4 p.m. for the evening game drive.

After our siesta, Said told us that the pride we saw was only part of the larger pride. The area we are staying in is called Turner Spring and the pride is local to this area, so it is called the Turner Spring Pride. He said we saw only 21 of the 35 known pride members. Even still, I’m impressed.

We had to go first to register for our hot air balloon ride so we got that out of the way and then were off to find the still elusive leopard. This was sort of a race against the clock because extremely threatening storm clouds were building on the horizon in two different directions. Said was skillfully driving us over the dirt and potholed roads before it even started raining. Finally he came upon an area where a few other vehicles had already pulled over. While we were taking photos of the ominous skies overhead, Said spotted a female leopard coming down out of a tree as the rain started to fall. I managed to snap a few photos as she disappeared into the tall grass. Just when we started to baton down the hatches and heavier rain fell, Said spotted a small cub, one of two he is aware of in this area, in another tree. I got a few better shots of him with my zoom lens. Unless we can get closer to these beauties tomorrow, those will have to do for now. But we have managed to spot all of the Big Five and the Big Three Spotted Cats of Tanzania, so big score for us.

The storm that passed through was very intense. The cloud deck fell so low and was so dark that it had an Armageddon feel to it. The rain fell hard and fast. The whole storm passed in maybe 15 or 20 minutes. But what is incredible about it is how intense it was and how you can easily see the entire cell of weather as it heads towards you. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We managed to see another elephant mini-migration with a few babies. And Said gave us another lesson on the differences between Thompson gazelle, Grant’s gazelle and impala. I think maybe in the next 24 hours we’ll get it right at least once!

On the road back to camp we stopped a few times to see the most incredible sunset with the dark storm clouds intermingling with the oranges and pinks of the sun going down. So I saw the sun coming up and going down today, and both were just as spectacular.

Dinner tonight was that wonderful pumpkin soup we had at the other camp, beef stew on rice, a type of cabbage slaw and really good homemade rolls. One of the other guests had a birthday so the staff made him a cake which we all had a slice of.

So another really good day in the books. Who knows what tomorrow will bring! It’s our last day on safari….

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Safari Day Eight

Day Eight – If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Lion Day

Last night right after lights out, one of the staff came to the tent to return cameras and batteries that we’d been charging in the main tent. Thank goodness he did, because he got me awake just in time to hear two lions roaring right behind our tent! It was spectacular, and try as I might, I couldn’t stay awake long enough to hear more. Yet another very restful sleep here in the great outdoors.

This morning we were up at 5:45 am to leave at 6:15. We skipped breakfast in lieu of a late morning brunch. We were actually on the road in the dark and went immediately to see if we could find the cheetah family right outside our camp. We weren’t successful, so we will never know how their stalking turned out for them last night. Said says that a mother cheetah with four cubs that size and age is very successful, because most cheetah litters don’t remain that size to adulthood. If they’ve made it to a year, they will most likely make it to independence. That made me feel good.

En route to the rest of our game drive, Said heard from another guide that two lions were feasting on a kill nearby. It turned out to be in the same area where we saw the two dozing lionesses last night, and indeed, it was them. They had hidden a wildebeest kill deep in a bush and were snacking on it. Said put the pieces of the puzzle together and reminded us of the circling vultures that we saw near them the evening before, and coupled with the fact that the cats themselves were uninterested in the parade of wildebeest and zebras that went by them, and add to that the utter stench of the kill which tells us it was not a fresh kill, he thinks that they’d killed the wildebeest last night and stashed it for a few days’ worth of meals. Interesting. We followed one lioness down to the bank along the riverbed where we took some photos and then left her to sleep.

I think Said had a mission to get us to see a wildebeest birth today. We rode around a whole bunch of wildebeests for a really long time, but the closest we got was to see one little guy just born on the ground, but we were in time to see his first very wobbly steps. That was a joy to see, honestly. That mom had him up and running within minutes of his birth, which is astounding, but it’s move or be eaten out here. Said later found us a placenta on the ground, which was interesting from a scientific point of view but not so much a photo opportunity. Yes, even I have limits on something like that.

With lesser luck seeing big game today, Kim and I resorted to bird watching, which is an Olympic sport here on safari. There are some hard core birders here, of which we are not two, but we give it a good shot. And sometimes we are right. I think Said is proud when we recognize a bird that he’d previously pointed out to us.

When I say “lesser luck” in terms of what we saw today, do not think we saw nothing. In terms of wildebeest and zebra count, we have to be close to a million by this point. They are everywhere, in astounding numbers. As much video or still photos I take, I don’t think any of them ever capture what we’re seeing here. At one point we stopped and there were wildebeest as far back along the horizon as I could see. It seemed to go on forever. It is a truly impressive sight. I also noticed today that some of the zebra and wildebeest would take an interest in us, stopping what they were doing to stare at us curiously. That provides for great photos, but also provides a laugh. I wonder what they think of us exactly.

We returned to the camp for brunch, which was fabulous as always. Meatballs (really like seasoned hamburgers), crepes, mixed vegetable salad that was like a salsa, pasta salad with hard boiled egg, zucchini salad, bread, fruit and a glass of wine. I could get used to eating like this. Kim and I asked to see the kitchen, and they gave us a tour before we left. It has a gas oven and two gas stove tops, two refrigerators and two prep counters. They only have room to serve about 20 people a night, so it’s a controlled environment, but I’m still amazed at how they manage to make such delicious food.

After brunch we packed the Land Cruiser and headed for the Serengeti. Said had expressed a bit of concern that with all the migratory animals near Ndutu (where we’d just been), that we might have a tough time in the Serengeti. Once we crossed over into the park, it was noticeable that the migration certainly was not here. Serengeti is derived from the Masaai words for “open space” and that is a vast understatement. Here more than anywhere we’ve been already, you can see for miles across vast flatness. This is the second biggest park in Tanzania and it shows. But it also appeared empty, so I was a bit hesitant about what we were going to see over the next three days. No sooner had I thought that than Said screeched to a halt and backed the vehicle up. Right next to the road in a bush was a female lion dozing in the tall grass. She obliged us with several photo opps before adjourning under a bush for the rest of her nap. Said pointed out that she had a large collar around her neck which researchers were using to track her. A bit further down the road we found a kill (wildebeest) in a bush that Said believed based on proximity was the work of this lioness.

We continued our drive through the Serengeti and I became completely transfixed by the clouds here. Against a gorgeous blue sky, they just seem to hang and not move. But even the dark storm clouds are interesting, because you can see the entire storm cell move because there is nothing else to block your view of it. I’ve taken more sky photos here than I ever have anywhere.

Said took a side road up and around a large rock formation and immediately pointed out two young male lions and an older female asleep on the top of the rock. The males barely had any mane grown in yet, and they had the all-pink nose of youngsters. The female may have been a mom or an auntie, Said explained. As they remain a family unit, that could have been any older female in the pride with them today. Around the other side of the same rock formation was a younger male and female sunning themselves.

Further on, and not that long after the rock pride, we came across another vehicle stopped alongside the road. Their guide said there was a sleeping lion in the taller grass. Said used his binoculars and said this was another “honeymooning couple” like we’d seen back in Ngorongoro, and that they’d be mating at regular intervals if we could wait it out. He knows by now that we’ll wait for just about anything, and we were rewarded with a lightning fast mating ritual that we only got to see from behind. But still, we got to see magic happen, so we moved on.

But not even 15 seconds down the road we saw yet another vehicle stopped looking the same way into the same sort of grass. We stopped too and within 2 minutes, the female rolled on to her back, paws up in the air, which is the lions’ way of saying “I’m ready” and the male sat up, yawned, stood up and made motions to get the business of the moment done. This guy knew what he was doing, and we were treated to a fairly expert display, complete with growling, neck biting and a swat on the head. It was an excellent show. For a lover of big cats, I’m just in heaven over all this. We were not even 30 feet away from all this.

Finally we headed for camp as a lot of strong thunderstorms looked as if they were moving in. On the way, Said pointed out a serval cat in the road, which disappeared so quickly none of could get much more than a quick glance at it. It is not much larger than a house cat and spotted. It was one of three spotted cats in Tanzania, after the cheetah and the leopard. We also got to see an animal new to us, the Coke’s hartebeest. This is a large antelope with horns that sort of twist upward like they could almost form a heart.

The Serengeti Wilderness Camp is pretty much like the one we left in Ndutu, and run by the same people. We’re looking forward to whatever we hear tonight!

A bit about the weather here. Initially it was pretty hot when we landed and the first couple days out. Since then it seems to have settled into a pretty comfortable 80-85 and dry. The only time it gets terribly hot is when I’m in the direct sun. I will say I have gotten great color here, and even while wearing SPF 30! The mosquitoes and Tse Tse flies seem to have become a non-issue since we left Manyara, it is just pesky regular old flies that bother us here, and they are more a nuisance than anything.

Before dinner Kim and I stopped for a drink. They had no Bailey’s but they did have Amerula, which was very similar, so I had that. Dinner was a starter of potato and leek soup, and the main course was the meat and vegetable lasagna we had at the last camp with mixed salad and a carrot pound cake. The soups here are just amazing. I have no idea how they are so damn good.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Safari Day Seven

Day Seven – The Cats Are Back

What an absolutely incredible overnight experience. We all crashed early, by 9:30 or so, and slept the best sleep of the trip so far. However, that doesn’t mean I missed the overnight activities. At one point I woke to hear the distinctive sound of clumps of grass being pulled up right outside our tent. I think it was most likely wildebeest grazing there, because I heard the moo-like sound coming from behind our tent. At another point, I heard what sounded like a stampede right through the center of our campsite. Said confirmed this morning that some species was here running around during the night. At any point I awoke, I heard the calls of wildebeest, zebra or hyena. Now this is camping!

We were up at 5:15 and ready to hit the road by 6:30. No shower early, just a quick wet down of the hair, throw on some clothes, apply sunscreen and insect repellant and we were off. I’ve given up trying to look even remotely presentable here. Neither Said nor the animals care, and it sort of adds to the relaxation level not to worry about that too.

Breakfast this morning was pretty good. We all had scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and a pancake, with toast, OJ and coffee. It was a great way to start the day and would last us well.

On the ride out to where we would eventually find our main attractions of the day, we saw more wildebeest and zebras than we could ever even imagine. It is easier to enumerate the places where there weren’t any of them. As far as I could see in just about any direction, nothing but wildebeest and zebra. Said told us that his goal was to have us see a wildebeest give birth, and indeed we came so close three times early today. Each time we came upon a newly born wildebeest, still wet from emerging from its mother, placenta about to drop. The moms were licking the calves and nudging them along. Within minutes, they were running alongside their moms, some more wobbly than others, but in any event ready to try to evade the predators.

A couple hours passed and we continued to bump into some wildebeest births, some pretty cool birds (eagle, vultures) and a few hyena. Said all of a sudden turned toward a mini-swarm of other vehicles that were all looking at one thing in particular. When we got upon it, we found a lone jackal feasting on a fresh wildebeest kill. Just nearby were a dozen or so vultures waiting to step up. We all wanted Said’s opinion on what happened here, and he said there are two deaths here, either a natural death or a kill. He thought initially this was a natural death. It wasn’t until I happened to look behind us and see a few vehicles looking under a nearby tree that I saw a cheetah walking away. Said turned the vehicle around and we followed them.

The cheetah brothers were working in a coalition. Said recognized the pair from previous visits and knew they were brothers from the same mother. Cheetah males will only form hunting coalitions with their own siblings, and originally this pair had been part of three brothers. One brother has been killed by a lion in the past. We followed the cheetahs to the next tree where they laid down. Close-up view by either binoculars or my zoom lens revealed blood on the chin of one brother, so it was obvious that they had made the kill. Both males had very distended stomachs, which was further proof that they’d gorged on their kill before that jackal had gotten to it. So we’d missed the kill probably by less than an hour, but at least now we’d seen two more cats. The brothers settled down to sleep off their meal and we continued on after getting our fill from about 30 feet away.

Somehow Said knew where to find the next big event of the day and it was probably the highlight of my trip so far. We came upon a mother cheetah and three one-year old cubs. They were walking through the grass with a long, single-file line of migrating wildebeests just past it. It didn’t take long to realize the mother cheetah was sizing up the line of migratory beasts, looking for food for her family. Compared to the brothers we just saw, these cats were very thin and apparently hungry. It was interesting to see how they followed her until she was ready to hunt. Then it was as if she’d sent them to huddle down together out of the line of fire, and they did as she told. She watched the line of wildebeest for some time, passing up several calves which would have been easy kill if she’d tried. It seemed like she hadn’t deemed any one of them worth a try. All of a sudden though, one of the cubs got antsy and went for it, bursting out of his hiding spot with his brothers, then making the mistake of hesitating, which gave the wildebeests just time to realize what was going on. The cubs tried to pursue after the false start but came up empty and gave up the chase. It was fascinating to see, and makes me wonder if the mother was training them to hunt or if that one cub was just over-eager. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see the kill. It was all so exciting and some what disappointing that they weren’t successful, although I know from my reading that they are successful only about 20% of the time.

It seemed like a good idea now to head back to camp for lunch. On the way though, Said spotted two male lions asleep under a tree, and he pulled our vehicle right up next to them. We were no more than 15 feet from two sleeping lions! We waited long enough for one to raise its head, pose, stand and stretch only to lie down next to his brother again. Unlike cheetahs, male lions will only hang out with brothers from their pride, but they don’t have to be brothers from the same mother. Just past these two guys was a female who was soundly sleeping belly up under another tree.

We definitely had worked up an appetite with all this excitement, so we headed back to camp for a hot lunch, which was pizza, a green been, carrot and onion casserole and a mixed salad, with apple caramel for dessert. I washed it all down with a Tangawizi, of course. During lunch Said gave us the option of a bush walk or an evening game drive, and we chose the latter unanimously. So we took a break until 4 and headed out again to see what else Ndutu had in store for us. Kim and I played Uno and drank beer or Baileys and listened to the animals. I could get used to this life.

Promptly at 4:00 Said loaded us in the car and we took off. Right outside our camp, he came across 5 cheetahs, a mother and four 1-year old cubs. We found them walking and followed them to under a tree where they sprawled out. They didn’t seem to be doing much of anything but lying there, but sitting and watching five cheetahs is heavenly, and I have the pictures to prove it. Once we ascertained that the weren’t up to much just yet, we moved on.

Next we happened upon 6 giraffe, two of which were very short juveniles who were munching on the foliage near the sandy beach areas around the river. We watched them amble around a bit and moved on again.

Just past the giraffes, we came upon two female lions who were sleeping soundly under a tree. We sat and watched with our usual patience and were rewarded after close to 45 minutes when a line of a couple hundred zebra and wildebeest made their way from the beach up the hill in the line of sight of the lions. Even though Said thought that they looked as if they had eaten recently, they paid careful attention to everything that went by them. That got them up and awake enough to take some excellent photos. Then they flopped back down and took more of a cat nap. One of the lions snored loudly while the other was having kitty dreams of some sort, twitching and she dozed away. Once again though, our vehicle outlasted about 8 others who came and went while we sat there. We are the masters at the waiting game, and it always seems to pay off.

Said told us that lions noses start to turn black after they turn five years old. Before that they are mostly pink. As these two lions had noses just starting to turn black, he said they are probably just over five. Each also had four teats, which is standard for lions, regardless of how many cubs they have.

Letting sleeping lions lie, we moved on and rode around through more masses of wildebeest and zebras again. I think Said really has his heart set on showing us a birth. I’d love to see it, but I think so far we have just missed quite a few!

I took a few wonderful shots of the sky and the light here today. The clouds here seem to just hang in the sky and never move, which I think is due to there being such an expanse of sky over us and no frame of reference like buildings to track the movement. And I caught a wonderful moment just before sunset when huge rays of light broke through a cloud and streamed down to earth. It really was more poetic than I am doing it justice.

Finally, just outside camp again, we happened upon the same five cheetahs we saw earlier. This time they were watching a herd of wildebeest move into the area. We watched the lie together for a while and two of the cubs play fought with each other, just like our housecats do. I couldn’t tell for sure how serious the mother was about actually hunting tonight, but after a bit of a wait, one cub decided to make an approach on his own. He walked away from the group and I thought maybe no one had noticed, but finally when he took up position to observe the wildebeests, the others seemed to take notice and move in with him. Said called it a night as it was getting terribly dark and we wouldn’t be able to see much more anyway. Hopefully we can bump into the group tomorrow and see if they are noticeably fatter or not.

Back at camp we had dinner. How they manage to pull of such good meals is beyond me. Tonight we had cream of pumpkin soup, marinated lamb (which was fabulous), grilled potatoes, mixed vegetable, salad and a chocolate cake with white sauce. We split a bottle of chenin blanc and some water. It was a delicious meal and no one can say I’m not eating well in Africa.

Early to bed tonight again as we’re up at 5:45 for a 6:15 game ride!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Safari Day Six

Day Six – Minor meltdown and then a really good game drive

Having slept again without assistance, I woke happy that I’d slept but sort of wishing that I had another couple hours. I was up before the alarm went off at 7:15 but wished that was 9:15 instead.

Breakfast was great, and what has become my standard: omelet with tomato and cheese, a muffin, pancake and a sausage. The coffee continues to be stellar here, and this one in particular is grown on the lodge’s farm, as are all the vegetables (carrots, eggplant, tomato, leeks).

We left a little before 9:00 for a village tour with a guy who we saw singing here at dinner the other night. Paulo (yes, it does sound Italian) led us around his village, showing us some highlights. Whatever image you have of a village in Africa, is probably completely accurate when it comes to this: ramshackle two room buildings with dirt floors, laundry hung along a thin clothes line with chickens and goats running amok. Little kids running around with no shoes, the girls wearing traditional long printed skirts. It was very overwhelming initially, walking the red soil road, leaving a trail of red dust behind us an taking this in. Paulo greeted us and asked us about ourselves, always reaffirming that he remembered our names and where we were from.

He led us to the village brickyard, where we saw the entire process being done by teenage boys. They chop the dirt down for clay, add water, pour the wet clay into brick molds and turn upside down on to the ground for drying. The dried bricks then are stacked into a kiln which is covered with mud and let burn for 3 days, then cooled. The mud is chipped off the kiln and then the bricks are done. I was surprised how young the boys were doing what is extremely manual labor. But Paulo explained to us that the work is best done by the young, and men only. Women have their place, if not nurses or teachers, at home with the kids.

Paulo took us to his home, which was a single story with a living room and kitchen with a dirt floor and single layer of brick wall. He lives here with his wife and 6 kids and they sleep in another building nearby. Paulo let us ask a bunch of questions about his life and told us how he met his wife and that he prizes her for her good behaviors over her beauty. He says beautiful women can be crazy and you wouldn’t want to be stuck with that type of wife.

His wife brought in a casserole of traditional breakfast, with silverware and plates. We were to share in their breakfast, and I have to admit the hypochondriac in me really reared its head. I wanted neither to eat food I didn’t know the origin of nor wanted to eat off plates from a kitchen with no running water, let alone dish washer. However turning it down seemed rude. I ate a few bites and spent quite a while afterward regretting that. So far I haven’t gotten sick, and I would like to keep it that way.

Paulo, his wife, two of his daughters and his son played music and sang and danced for us. Then the daughters dressed us in traditional skirts and we sang and danced with them. It was a nice experience and let us see part of their lives we might not have otherwise.

My favorite part of the visit was when we went to their church where the Sunday service was in progress. Paulo’s son took us and he joined the singers at the front of the church, where some very spiritual singing and dancing was already going on. While my travel mates joined him up front, I stayed back taking video and photos of them and the congregants. Suddenly, the cutest little girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old caught my eye and smiled. I took her picture and then showed her the picture on the playback display on my camera. She responded with the biggest smile and then she blew me a kiss. This was all so spontaneous and genuine that my heart just melted. I took some pictures of some other little kids and showed them, and they all seemed generally surprised to see what they looked like, and fascinated by my camera.

I ended up hanging at the back of the church and dancing with my new little friend. She would mimic whatever movement I did and she smiled the whole time. I think that face is one I’ll always remember when I think back on this trip.

By now it was about noon time and we’d spent nearly 3 hours there, and we realized we still had to eat and drive to Ndutu before our game ride of the day, and Ndutu, according to our itinerary was 3 ½ hours away. This would be tight. I started to get frustrated because the time at the village went longer than it needed to and was cutting into what I felt was the purpose of our day. Said didn’t seem concerned, but to add insult to njury when we got back to the farm house for our hot lunch, they didn’t know anything about our meal. I asked Said to sort it out but felt that our ride in what was supposed to be in the best area for migration now was slipping away and I was a little more than cranky about it. We had a heart to heart with Said about this and he made magic happen and delivered not only on the hot meal but also one of the best game rides of the trip. Of course, we should have known he would.

The area around Ndutu is completely different from where we’ve been already. It is absolutely flat for miles with nothing taller than 6-8 inch little patches of scrub bush as far as the eye can see. With that come more wildebeest, zebra and Thompson gazelle than you will ever be able to count. Some in single numbers, some in larger herds, some in the trademark migratory single file lines. Many times it was so hard to pick what to look at where, because all around us there was something going on. The best part though is that vehicles can go off-road here, so we could drive right up to herds or something of interest. And the herds hardly even give us any notice. In fact often times they would not even attempt to move as Said drove right up to them.

We happened upon several giraffe at different parts of our ride, and managed to get close up a few times. Said also found a different type of jackal than the ones we saw the other day, bat eared foxes and a couple more hyena.

I think what we all found most fascinating though was a wildebeest that had just been born. We missed the delivery by mere minutes, because when Said pulled up to it, it was still shiny and wet, with an umbilical cord still attached. The mom also still showed signs on her rear quarters that she’d just given birth. Said explained that when wildebeest are born, they need to be up and walking within minutes to avoid predation. The mother will drop the placenta quickly and move away from it, giving her time to clean up and get the calf walking by the time any hyena or other predator gets done with the placenta. It’s all really incredible if you ask me.

Mother wildebeests will lick clean the calf to imprint and remember the scent of the baby. The baby will also learn to recognize its mother’s sound. Zebra babies recognize the particular stripe pattern of their mothers. Again, this is stuff I want to know! Said seems to know everything.

There is something that is inherently liberating watching these animals running freely and unconstrained for as far as the eye can see. We stopped and did just that more than a few times this week, and it is a gorgeous site, whether it’s just one playing on its own, or playmates or an entire line of migrating beasts. Just to see them where this is all that is natural and good is incredible.

I have decided that I’ll never be able to explain the scope of what we’re seeing here. The vistas are beyond enormous and impressive. The fact that every one of the millions of specks we see from here to the horizon is an animal that most people get to see maybe one or two of in a zoo, is a privilege. Today we were easily in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of animals here. It is awesome, and I mean that in the “full of awe” way.

We arrived at the wilderness camp just as the skies unzipped and let unleash a quick moving thunderstorm. First order of business was to get batteries recharged on the only charging station in camp. I’d gone through two today. The camp has about 10 large camps, with twin beds in them and enclosed shower/toilet facilities. As I’ve never even seen a tent before, this is an experience.

The toilets are flushed with a hand pump. The showers are filled from the outside and provide about 2 minutes of water. The beds are amazingly comfortable though, just as all of them have been so far. There are battery lights in the room, but no other power. But, we are IN the Ndutu conservation area. Tomorrow’s game drive starts at 6:30 am from right outside our camp. What that also means though is that as I sit here typing this at 9:30 at night, I have already heard hyena, wildebeest and I think a warthog very nearby. I hope to hear a lion, just to know they’re out there. But not terribly close!

Dinner tonight was impressive. It was served in the mess tent and was lasagna with salad and cream of vegetable soup, and crème caramel for dessert. It was wonderful.

Going to sleep early tonight, as we are up so early. Also need to conserve battery power on the laptop so it makes it to Friday when I can recharge again.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Safari Day Five

Day Five – Animals In flagrante delecte and other cool things

Last night I actually fell asleep without pharmaceutical assistance, which is a great thing. I slept fairly well and when the alarm went off at 5:15, I leapt out of bed. I knew that since today is our visit to the Ngorongoro Crater, this was my first really good chance to see some big cats. My hopes were high. Before we set out, I asked Said “Big cats today?” and he said “you can never predict…” So we went out at 6:30 with a hope and a prayer.

The crater itself is 269 square kilometers of space, which, let me tell you folks, is a pretty dam big space.. We drove along the rim of the crater for about a half hour before we started the descent down to the floor. Once on the floor, it was nothing but flatness with animals as far as the eye can see. I felt as if I’d turn in any one direction and would see specks on the horizon and would have to compute that those are herds of cape buffalo or herds of zebra, herds of wildebeest. At some point, you just have to stop counting. To say we saw hundreds of either is sufficient for me, but I will never be able to explain the scope of the animals that were just there. Or explain the scope of how big this crater was. It is completely, entirely inexplicable.

To start the day, we saw a whole lot of wildebeest, zebra, gazelles, some waterbuck, cape buffalo. Can you tell that I had my mind on other things? Our first significant stop was when Said spotted four black rhino. There are only 20 in the crater altogether, so to see four right in front of us was fabulous. So now we has spotted three of the big five on this trip (The Big Five are: lion, elephant, rhino, cape buffalo and leopard).

Continuing along, we managed to see a hippo pool where we watched five hippos float around and interact. This was an improvement upon the hippos we saw yesterday in that they were so much closer, and we could hear them honk and blow off air underwater. It was pretty cool. Sadly, we moved further along and saw a hyena snacking on a baby rhino kill, which was sad but fascinating at the same time. Hyena are scavengers, so whether the hyena killed this itself or found it as leftovers is a question we won’t find an answer to.

Finally, finally, finally, after about 3 hours out in the crater, Said spotted two lions dozing about 75 yards from the road, and through the binoculars, it appeared to be a male and a female. There were a whole lot of other jeeps around, but we managed to out-wait them. Said said they were probably “honeymooning” as they were alone and not part of a larger pride. This meant that they were in the process of mating, which can happen repeatedly every 10-15 minutes or hours over the course of a week or so. After a few false starts when either the male or the female would get up to stretch of change position, our patience paid off and the pair mated. It was over in a flash, but we all felt like we’d seen something really unique, and it was just us in the jeep and the loving pair. Once it was over, they laid down again to snooze and despite us waiting a bit longer, they did not go for it again.

Just past that, we came upon two more black rhino, so now we’ve seen five of the 20 in the crater, which is sort of spectacular if you think of it.

We lunched near another hippo pool where there were several hippos floating about right outside our jeep. Lunch today was a box lunch that we put together before we left the lodge this morning. I had a tomato and cheese sandwich, a piece of spinach quiche and a piece of spice bread.

Right after lunch, Said with his eagle eye again spotted a pride of lions. This time it seems we happened upon a pride. My count was one male, four adult females and 3 older cubs (not tiny but still young enough to have their baby spots and stripes). We watched them for quite a while as various combinations of them would move, roll, stretch, but for the most part it was one big pile of lion. I was in heaven, no complaints here.

Just down the road, Said spotted a solo adult male lion sleeping alone. He said due to the proximity to the pride we just left, it was probably part of that pride just choosing to be on his own for a bit.

After 7 hours in the crater, we started to climb back up to the rim and head out. Along the way we encountered jackal, a warthog family with 4 piglets, a lot of really colorful birds. But all of a sudden we came upon a zebra pair who were just about to start mating. Of course we stopped to watch, and they performed spectacularly for us, although both looked at us awkwardly when they were done and I almost felt bad about it. Except it was really a privilege to be there.

All these encounters managed to be just us and the animals. Other than lunch and once at the hippo pool, we were always alone, no other vehicles distracting us or the animals. In many cases, like wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, gazelles, hyena, buffalo, we can pull up right next to them and they don’t even flinch. I resist the urge to reach out and touch them almost every time. Already this has surpassed my expectations. I cannot believe I still have a week left here. How much better can it get?

I go off the grid after today.  No internet until Friday....let the withdrawal begin!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Safari Day Four

Day Four – A Masaai is turning down my bed

After a good night’s sleep during which I think I heard zebras outside our cabin, we had the same breakfast this morning. Said wanted to be on the road by 8, which was later than a game ride day but still a bit early. I was having trouble getting to sleep without Ambien, so took one late and woke up groggy. I also think the adrenalin rush from the first few days has worn off and I’ve settled into a routine here and am actually starting to feel tired rather than just raw excited. Not that that is a bad thing, just that the travel and experience may have caught up with me. But hot damn, I’m still in Africa.

Our first stop this morning was a Masaai village. This particular village had 10-15 circular huts for the 85 family members living there. The Masaai leader came out and introduced himself and asked the four of us to line up. Next thing I knew, there were about 12 men and women from the tribe parading out in front of us, singing a welcome song just for us. It was mostly rhythmic chanting and African instruments. It was actually really impressive that they came out for us. Then, as if this isn’t enough entertainment, they invited us into the camp and put traditional neck pieces on us and made us stand and dance with them! As a white girl with no rhythm this was an embarrassment but I figured I had to do it. The women mostly danced while the men did that really high jumping that you always see them do.

They are fabulously dressed, with that really bright jewel toned fabric robes. Some of the women had dresses on but all of them had wonderfully beaded jewelry or copper bracelets.

Once we were thoroughly embarrassed by the dancing, one of the tribe leaders took us on a tour of the village. We went into one of the huts, which we maybe the size of two to three phone booths at home and completely pitch dark inside, but remarkably cooler than the hot sunlight of mid-morning. There were two narrow beds made of what felt like thick branches and small fire with two pots was smoldering on the floor. I was unsure exactly how a family of four or more would have been in there eating and sleeping together. The hut itself is an Acacia frame with plaster walls made of dung and straw and dung roof. Oddly enough the women are responsible for building the huts and keeping them up in terms of filling holes, patching ceilings. As a migrant people, they move often and when they do, they just leave these huts for whomever may pass by.

The guy who was taking us around was 23 years old. He let us ask him anything, so I asked him if he was married and how that worked. He said they don’t marry until 25 and at that time his father will go out and strike a deal for a woman for him.

After the hut tour, we were taken to the school, which was about the same size as the huts only made only of Acacia branches. There were about 10 little kids, mostly toddlers, inside. They were all pretty dirty with runny noses and were wearing rundown clothes but they were so happy. The smiles I see here on the kids are heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. The teacher got them to sing us a welcome song and then one little guy took the pointer to a chalkboard and led the class through reciting numbers one through 10, ten through twenty, the alphabet and vowels all in English. It is sort of funny that they sing the same alphabet song that we do.

After the school, there is a market of sorts run by the women of the village. It has a lot of bead and wood and copper works on display. We both picked out a few items we were buying not really because we wanted them but because we wanted to support them and the school that the older kids go to. The leader took us aside to offer us the “best price”, which came out to an exorbitant $250 for the mere 5 handmade items we’d found. We both laughed, having been to countries that bargain as a matter of course, but we felt that even with bargaining, starting this high was ridiculous. In the end we talked him down to about $150, but that was still a bit uncomfortably high. We just chalk it up to supporting the locals.

As we left, the tribe leader tried to “sell” us four of the almost eligible males in the tribe for just a dollar. We laughed and headed back to the jeep.

I enjoyed the visit but as time passes and I think about it, I’m more and more struck by the disparity between my life and theirs. Probably I will need to think on this more, because once the “cool” factor of being there wears off, I think I may find it more depressing than I do right now. While I learned a lot and learned to appreciate their lifestyle, I think it was also really a reality slap.

Our next stop was Lake Manyara National Park, which is known for its lush forests and vegetation. It was such an extreme contrast from the flat openness of Tarangire, and also attracted a different type of wildlife. Here we saw so many more baboons and monkeys, probably because of the more forested landscape. Manyara is also known for its tree climbing lions and leopards, but as we arrived around noontime, which is the known siesta for most cats, we didn’t see one at all.

The trip through Manyara was not a total bust, as we saw three hippos out in the hippo pool (rare to hit that right, Said said). We also got to see maybe a dozen elephants so close today that I could have reached out and touched them from my seat in the Land Rover. I am getting utterly spoiled by how close some of the animals are getting. It is so difficult to resist. I think we had to have sat and watched at least 150 different baboons on three or four different stops. They are fun to watch as they sit and pull up vegetation and chomp it down, or chase each other through trees, or pick bugs off each other. The interactions are just so human-like, it is amazing. There were also a fair number of vervet monkeys, which are the same as we saw at the entrance to Tarangire, but just in larger numbers. It is an awesome experience to sit in the middle of the path as these monkeys are climbing, playing, chasing and eating all around us, yet they hardly give us a second glance.

Today we also spotted about 6 more giraffes, but not very close up, and quite a few warthogs. Random impala, wildebeest and zebras too, but I think Said is skipping those as they are more of a highlight of where we are going next than they are at Manyara. I won’t say Manyara was a bust, but after the absolutely breathtaking two days we had at Tarangire, it was a bit of a letdown.

Lunch today was a box lunch we prepared this morning after breakfast. Mine was a chicken sandwich with lettuce, onion and carrot on a delicious homemade brown bread. Throw in a cookie, a donut and a pineapple juice and that is a great picnic lunch.

We spent from noon to about 5:00 in the park and then retreated for our next accommodation, which turns out to be the very lush Ngorongoro Farmhouse. We are again sharing a building (not a tent) with Connie and Marcia, with the separate units but shared porch. The grounds are immaculate and the room is really nice and modern. After we arrived we had cocktails on the deck outside the dining room and then headed in for a buffet dinner. The salad buffet was to die for, with a wonderful creamy potato salad, buffalo mozzarella, pasta salad, antipasto and regular salad. I could have eaten only this, but I did indulge in beef stroganoff on rice, a “bananas and vegetables” casserole and lemon tart and a brownie for dessert. I had a pina colada before dinner and sauvignon blanc with dinner, so I’m living and eating well. And they are obviously serving us foods we’re used to, which makes me wonder if that is to keep us from getting ill. All the food is fresh, the vegetables and fruits are wonderful and they reassure us that everything is washed with mineral water, to prevent us from getting any water-borne illness.

A Masaai escorted us to our room with all of our bags. He unlocked the door, gently unloaded all the luggage and then proceeded to turn down our beds and adjust the mosquito nets. Then he pulled the windows shut and let down the curtains. I was flabbergasted; a Masaai was turning down my bed for me!

Today was hot. I’m guessing it runs in the high 80s to low 90s every day but not humid like it can get at home. I sweat but not excessively so. The park today was cooler due to a lot of shade from the trees. Up here in the farmhouse, which seems to be quite elevated, it is much, much cooler, but a very vicious rainstorm passed through after dinner and really made it quite comfortable in our room here, so that we don’t need a fan and can keep cool with the windows open.

One mistake I made was to think that because I wore long pants today, I didn’t need insect repellant on my legs. Somehow the mosquitos made it into both pant legs, and I have upwards of 30 bites on my legs. Note to self, always use repellant. I.’m swimming in hydrocortisone now to get it under control for tomorrow.

Off to bed…