Not all those who wander are lost - but I'll be disappointed if I don't get lost frequently!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Monkeys Are Evil

When you pass what is supposedly just another settlement along the road, but are told by your safari guide that the entire village is made up of one man, his ten wives and his hundred-or-so children, you know that this is not going to be an ordinary day. TIA.

I never quite knew how much salt to throw on a statement like the above example - a wee pinch or a whole bucket? The best guides give you an insight into a place that you wouldn't ordinarily get from reading your Lonely Planet - they throw in little stories, rumours and local legends that give the history of a place some life.  This, of course, means that the info probably hasn't come from a source that has been vetted for reliability and truthfulness. Exaggerating, embellishing the truth, or just plain making something up to make a story more memorable is part of the job for these guys. But how do you know whether you are getting a complete fairy story or a slightly warped version of the truth? In this case, it's hard to know. Polygamy is a traditional part of Maasai culture, and one man could have a lot of wives and kids if he could find the women to put up with him (and a little bit of stamina). It certainly does make an interesting story to tell, about the school the government had to build just to teach one man's children.

For us, it was the usual story - a very early morning, quickly packing three days worth of clothes and toiletries into a small pack, and jumping into a landcruiser safari vehicle to begin our journey. We were embarking on a three day, two night safari encompassing Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongorro Crater, and the Serengeti. As far as optional extras go, this one promises to be a doozie, with a price tag to match. At approximately $600, this was a significant outlay of travel funds, but no way in the world was I going to miss out on the Serengeti. This was my chance to follow in Simba and Mufasa's footsteps over the endless plains (FYI - Serengeti means endless plains in the Maasai language).

Even before we had made it to the first game park, we were spotting giraffes in the wildlife corridors - areas of natural vegetation that connect protected parks and reserves. Unfortunately, it seems that these areas are under threat. The one we were driving past was slowly being squeezed by encroaching development, and is in danger of being cut in half, stopping giraffes and other animals migrating along them. It seems this might be a common problem - human development in a country that is trying to catch up with the rest of the world versus wildlife conservation. A tricky issue.

The blue monkey scouts for prey. 
Keen and ready to get going with the game viewing, we arrived at the Lake Manyara NP entrance gate. I may or may not have mentioned before that monkeys are evil and are not to be trusted. If there is one piece of advice you remember for your own journeys throughout Africa, it is this: beware the monkey! They are crafty beasts and know that you keep all your food and toys (including mobile phones and sunglasses) inside safari vehicles and tents, and they will employ all their cunning to get at the fun stuff. While we waited at the park entrance for the guides to fill in the paperwork, we took the chance to stretch our legs. A blue monkey was hanging from the park sign, waiting for a chance to strike. We were prepared though, and shut all the doors and windows to thwart the monkey, but it still hopped onto the vehicle bonnet to check for loot through the front window. Calum, sensing an opportunity to taunt the monkey, hopped back into the landcruiser and got his banana out of his lunch bag, then proceeded to wave it at the monkey beyond the glass. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry - the monkey looked so sad as he tried to grab at the banana beyond the impenetrable glass.

We'd already seen some great things on previous safaris, but there was still plenty to see. Lions, elephants, leopards, hyenas and cheetahs were all still on my hit list. And they could all be found in the parks we were going to on this safari, and if we were lucky, we just might see them all (and many other animals to boot).

As we entered the park, it was lush, thick forest with the sun being filtered out by the canopy above us. Within minutes we started seeing cool things - an owl snoozing high up, guinea fowl running across the dirt track, vervet monkeys playing chasey through the thorny acacias, and hippos lounging on a muddy bank. Then there it was! Coming from behind some bushes into a clearing, our first elephant sighting! And wow, what and exciting experience. Soon we were coming upon elephants all over the place. They paid no attention to us, going about their business munching on tufts of grass or leaves at their pleasure. We even saw one rather excited bull elephant scratch his belly with his limb-sized penis. Not something I was expecting to see on safari!

Getting up close with an elephant, who pays no heed to conventional road rules. 
Throughout the day we saw mongooses (mongeese??), tiny dik-dik's (handbag sized antelope), buffalo, wildebeest, lots of birds including hornbills and colourful kingfishers, zebras, giraffes, impala, waterbuck - and that's just what I can remember! The game viewing was punctuated with lunch at a picnic site up on a high ridge, overlooking the beautiful lake that gave the national park it's name. After lunch we were left with a further two hours  of game driving before we needed to leave the park to head to our next destination. It was brilliant, driving around the park, head poking out the top of the landcruiser spotting the various birds and animals. As the afternoon wore on and the sun came out and heated up a bit, we all ended up taking the inevitable safari afternoon nap. Early mornings, peaceful game parks and the slow rocking movement of the landcruiser over the ruts in the track make for perfect conditions to lull you to sleep.

There were three landcruisers filled with the Oasis group, and our vehicle was slightly ahead of the other two. One caught up with us and said a leopard had been sighted further back - but only one of our cruiser groups had seen it. Apparently it was far off in the distance and barely discernible, but we were very jealous that we hadn't see the far off spots too! We'd also seen plenty of cat prints in the mud - lion prints, by the size of them. But although we came across the prints fairly regularly, we didn't see the cats who had made them.

Eventually it was time to leave the park and make our way up and over the mountain ridge towards camp and ever closer to the Serengeti. After stopping off for some scenic pics from the ridge back down onto the lake and then at what can only be described as a warehouse full of carved wooden souvenirs (think of something, and they had it there), we drove on to Kudo camp just out of Katura town. Our tents were already set up for us and dinner was being prepared by the advance team of safari crew. It felt nice to just pull up and be able to relax.

Looking down onto the beautiful Lake Manyara NP
This was also the spot for my phone interview with a prospective employer once I got to the UK. After a few emails and trying to find a micro-sim to fit my iphone (impossible out here, the best I could do was get someone to cut me down a normal sized one) I was finally able to make a phone call to England. Standing next to a pool, with a beer in one hand and my phone in the other, I made the call. Not your average job interview! For some unknown reason, we ended up trying to guess riddles all evening. Well, to be fair, we all spent the evening trying to figure out riddles that Ed was telling the rest of us, as he was the only one who seemed to remember any. Chillaxing by the pool, under the stars with a beer in hand - not a bad way to finish the first of three days on safari in Tanzania.

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