The massive buffalo stared us down, his angry eyes and horns picking up the light from the Masai escort’s flashlight. “Yi-yi-yi!” shouted the Masai, shaking his flashlight violently. The buffalo stood motionless. “Yi-yi-yi!” The buffalo lunged in our direction and stopped. Again, the Masai shouted and waved his flashlight, and this time the buffalo sauntered off into the night, and we were able to safely walk the short distance to our room at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge.
During our stay at four different safari lodges in Kenya and Tanzania, it was standard practice to provide a Masai tribesman, equipped with a flashlight and a spear, to escort guests to and from their rooms during darkness for their safety. In seven previous nights, we had not seen anything larger than a lizard, and the escort seemed like a quaint ritual we were happy to entertain. This time, however, the need for an escort had become clear…we were in the animal’s domain, and had to behave accordingly.
Our African adventure really began outside of Nairobi, at an amazing place called the Giraffe Manor.,,a storybook stone lodge where a handful of giraffe nonchalantly strode about the grounds. A short flight the next day delivered us to the Satao Elerai Lodge, in Kenya’s Amboseli Park, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. A sturdy-looking guide, Divan, loaded our bags into a Land Cruiser. As we got farther from the landing strip, large groups of Thompson’s Gazelles, wildebeest and zebra could be seen, as well as groups of hippos and elephants. We were able to get within a few yards of a small pride of lions, resting after a kill as unconcerned prey grazed nearby. They were magnificent, even in repose.
As darkness fell, we reached the lodge, a collection of wood and stucco huts fashioned imaginatively out of twisting branches and local stone. The accommodations were quite cozy, and we were served a delicious dinner next to our own portable fireplace. The next morning, we awoke to see Mt. Kilimanjaro gloriously lit by the rising sun, and took breakfast on a lovely view deck. The staff was refreshingly polite and friendly…greeting us with a cheery “Jambo” (hello) whenever we passed. These qualities would be consistent everywhere we went. Out into the bush, we saw new sights…beautiful Crown Cranes, a frolicking troop of baboons, an assortment of ostrich, and then a fantastic confluence of elephant herds around our vehicle. Three groups of perhaps 20 elephants of all sizes passed on either side of us on their way to a watering hole, almost close enough to touch. A truly amazing moment.
After lunch, we visited a Masai village. They welcomed us with a performance of singing and jumping. Wilson, our host, invited us into his house, a dark two-room mud hut with a few tiny openings, and only the simplest of furnishings…a few stones for cooking and two beds of cowhide stretched over a wood frame. We saw a demonstration of native medicinal herbs and firestarting. They all were pleased to hear that we planned to vote for Obama. Late in the afternoon, we passed a couple of lions peacefully sleeping on the road, and a huge mamba snake on the road. Soon we were back at the lodge for dinner and drinks around a roaring fire. https://www.glowphotoboothco.com
En route to Tanzania’s game preserves we stopped for a night at the Arusha Coffee Lodge, an elegant inn set in the middle of a coffee plantation. We enjoyed a superb dinner and restful night. The next morning, we were off to Grumeti River Camp. We hooked up with our new guide, Waziri, and checked into our room, a giant thatched A-frame covering a tent facing the river and its noisy resident hippo population.
Our afternoon game drive began at the river, where we saw a group of storks…pretty yellow-billed ones and surpassingly ugly Maribou, with their fleshy pink wattles that dangled halfway to the ground. A couple of Nile crocodiles lay about. We roamed about freely as herds of impala and wildebeest watched our progress. Suddenly, Waziri spotted a male lion in a thicket, and we pulled up for a closer look, being cautioned not to make any sudden movements. Two more lion were nearby, all sitting in a restful manner. We pulled closer to observe the peacefully resting cats.
Later, Waziri set up a small table for the traditional “sundowner” drink. Over cocktails, we toasted each other and marked the occasion with photos. We arrived back at the camp in darkness and prepared for dinner, which was served in a courtyard area framed by a fence of timbers ringed with hurricane lamps. It felt like “Survivor.” The five-course dinner was superb and a nearly full moon added to the atmosphere. Afterwards, we retired to our tent and fell asleep to a symphony of bird calls, monkey shrieks, hippo grunts and a couple of lion roars.
On the next day’s game drive, we were greeted immediatelyby a solitary hippo wandering about the landing strip, far from the river. With few clouds, the light was great as we encountered a large herd of giraffe. Driving further, we encountered a den of hyenas, perhaps as many as a dozen, with several cubs that occasionally popped their heads up. One hyena held a wildebeest’s leg in its mouth, refusing to let go. Then Waziri spotted a concentration of buzzards, so we took off in that direction to investigate. A huge gathering of perhaps 40 buzzards of several species were attacking a wildebeest carcass, with much squawking and jostling for position.
Soon afterward, I spotted a lone buffalo in a thicket. Next to her was a newborn calf, glistening in the morning light and struggling to stand. The umbilical cord still trailed from the mother, who whirled to defend her calf, nostrils flaring. Soon she realized they were in no danger, and as soon as the baby could walk, they rejoined the herd. We saw a troop of baboons…clinging to one was a very tiny baby, with pink translucent ears which let the sunlight through. A pair of beautiful Bateleur eagles with bright orange beaks surveyed the scene from a nearby perch.
We drove back to camp for lunch and a midday break, enjoying a calamari salad as the hippos entertained us. Not long into our afternoon drive, Waziri picked up a report of a lion sighting. We discovered a male in a thicket, who started walking slowly towards a clearing, the most active lion we had seen. Another lion emerged and walked slowly towards our vehicle, stopping to rest about 20 feet away. We watched breathlessly as a whole pride emerged, one by one, and came to rest in front of us, unconcerned by our presence. Ten lions in all gathered, and we remained there for quite a while. Our return to camp crossed the river at a point where we could see four of the mighty Nile crocodile.
The following morning we were to depart for Klein’s Camp, which enjoys a beautiful ridgetop setting. The circular, white stucco room was nicely furnished in a Colonial style. We enjoyed a late lunch in their open air dining hall, and met the rest of our afternoon party… Jeff and Amy, a honeymooning couple from Manhattan…in the clubby, comfortable bar with its sweeping views.
On the afternoon game drive, we employed a Masai tracker, Labo, who sat in a chair mounted on the front of the vehicle. We encountered the familiar giraffe, elephant, impala and baboons, until a radio report of a lion sighting led us to a male and female lion enjoying a siesta under a tree. Suddenly, the male mounted the female, shuddered once and dismounted as the female let out a cry. The whole thing took perhaps five seconds. We found out that lions will mate for a period of five to seven days, every 20 minutes or so, and that it is painful for the female. Apparently foreplay is not part of the lion’s mating ritual.
Sometime later, Labo spotted a group of cheetah lying in the long grass. They did little other than raise their heads on occasion, but we were thrilled to see these seldom-spotted creatures, and spent a while observing and photographing them. Soon it was time for the “sundowner” and we stopped to toast our adventures. This night we were scheduled for a night drive, in which the tracker shone a spotlight into the bush, looking for pairs of eyes. We failed to see many animals…the experience of bouncing along in the moonlit bush the only entertainment to be had.
The following morning, we scoured the river areas for trees for leopards. Herds of hartebeests, zebra, gazelle and impala caught our interest from time to time, but we were captivated by a cheetah that suddenly appeared just a few feet from our vehicle, apparently stalking something. As sundowner time approached, we parked on a flat granite outcropping, and set up the bar.
As we finished our drinks, another vehicle picked us up for a surprise honoring our 30th anniversary, and we took off into the long grass. 45 minutes later, we saw a group of lights as we approached a clearing ringed by hurricane lamps. Two giant bonfires burned in the center, and a smiling group of Klein’s staff stood next to a candlelit table for two. We were served a bountiful feast of soup, salad, lamb curry and champagne. Chocolate mousse ended the meal on a sweet note, and as it was served, a group of Masai performers entered the clearing, stepping and harmonizing with skill and enthusiasm. Our chef couldn’t resist joining in. The magic of the evening enveloped us in a warm glow, carrying us through the rest of the extraordinary night.
The next day, we flew to the Ngorongoro Crater. We met our driver and were whisked from the bustling town of Karatu up the long grade to the rim of the crater, 7000 feet above sea level. Arriving at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge was like entering Middle Earth…rows of salmon-colored thatched huts with medieval-looking chimneys cascaded down a gentle slope towards the crater, as zebra grazed nonchalantly on a grassy common area.