Friday, November 20, 2009

Serengeti

After a good night in the bar courtesy of Ma & BJ, we split into groups again and headed off to the Serengeti in 4WD's. Our group remained pretty much the same, although the 'newly engaged couple' swapped with the 'about to be married couple'. Our driver this time was named Livingstone and was much more informative and talkative then our driver in the Masai. As we drove through some villages he would give us a bit of information on them as well as the other game parks or national parks we passed. There were many souvenir shops lining the road and Claire was looking forward to being able to do a spot of shopping. At one stop we were encouraged to buy Masai blankets as the temperatures in the crater get to zero. We had sleeping bags that we thought would handle it, so we held off.

Our day of driving started at about 8am and finished after sunset. In order to reach the Serengeti we travelled around the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater. There were a couple of good vantage points where we could glimpse the lake in the centre. As it was dry season it was only a fraction of the size it can be.
On the edge of the crater. That small patch of white over Steve's shoulder is the lake
One of the highlights of the day occurred at Simba Camp on the edge of the crater. We had dropped in to use the toilets (apparently they are the best in the area, well the only ones in the area) and found 2 bull elephants at the camp. This camp is huge and the toilet block is at the opposite end to where the elephants were so no one was concerned. After 15min or so we noticed that the elephants were heading our way, so we got back into the 4WD's. A group of French travellers chose to abandon their nice picnic lunch and head into the toilet block for safety. The elephants took particular interest in the mattresses that had also been left out. We thought the tents might have been in danger but Livingstone explained that elephants have poor eyesight and see a tent as a big rock, so won't go near them. After playing with the mattresses for a while the elephants had a bit of a tussle and then headed for the food. Our 4WD blocked them off and eventually both elephants wandered off into the bushes. It was at this point that Livingstone told us we would be camping right here the next night!!

video
After that excitement we continued towards the Serengeti, finding one of the other 4WD's stopped on the side of the road after the brakes had over-heated on the way down from the top of the Crater. Our driver seemed to be in charge so he got out and had a bit of a tinker, pronounced the other 4WD OK and off we went again.
Some kids came over to investigate
The next stop was at the gate to the Serengeti where the drivers paid for our admission to the national park. The staff at the park definitely used African time, as it took over an hour. Apparently they only took credit cards, and they had lost their phone connection, so we were at a standstill. It was then that we discovered that the other 4WD had a faulty alternator and did the first of the many battery changes to get underway.

We were all expecting to see animals straight away, as we had done in the Mara but it was a good hour of very boring driving over a flat and brown landscape before we saw anything other then Gazelle (of which there were 100's). Eventually a few trees started to appear and in the hour before sunset we saw Cheetah, Hippo, Lions and Giraffe. When the sun started to set we were all mesmerised at the colours. Unfortunately we couldn't stop for long as we were hadn't got to camp and it was nearly dark.
Hyena
Feeding time.
Jackal
Cheetah
Hippo's
Our campsite at the Serengeti was our first experience in an unfenced camp with no guards to protect us from any animals. When we arrived there was about 5min of light left and our tents went up in record time. Quite a few of the group were a little nervous and made sure their tents were surrounded by others. Being the brave ones, we ended up on the outside of the group between the water tank and the toilet block and the Serengeti behind us. The only part of this camp that is fenced is the kitchen.
We slept quite peacefully but discovered the next day that there had been Buffalo grazing only a few meters from our tent. Claire also found one grazing next to the toilet block at 5am. Lucky it was still dark or she wouldn't have made it. It was on the way back that the head torch picked up the eyes. The drivers also told us that there had been a couple of Lions prowling around.

The only issue we encountered when the campsite ran out of water. Thus no showers, and no flushing toilets.


The main game drive here started at sunrise which was almost as good as the sunset the previous night. There were definitely more animals out and about. Apart from the 100's of Gazelle that we noticed yesterday, there seemed to be quite a few Lions about. The main highlights were:
1. A female Lion eating a kill, 2 females grooming each other, a male Lion coming within a couple of metres of our car and then attempting a Gazelle kill.
2. The speck in the tree that turned out to be a Leopard. Eventually it climbed down and followed a Gazelle before giving up and going back up a tree. Steve's lens was only just capable of seeing it.
3. A herd of 10 elephants that walked in front of our car to a small waterhole where they started to spray themselves with water and mud. The babies were so tiny that they were almost completely submerged at times.
We also saw Zebra, Warthogs, Buffalo and of course the Gazelle. Another interesting feature was the blue and black squares of cloth that were hanging in the trees. We founds out these are impregnated with some sort of poison for the Tsetsi fly. Back in the camp site for lunch, we saw that most of our tents had been dragged to one side so that the water truck could deliver to the toilet block. We quickly packed up and jumped back in the 4WD ready for the trip to Ngorongoro Crater.
Serengeti Camp.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tanzania (the first border crossing)

Leaving Kenya for Tanzania was also the first time we were to be in the truck. Our truck could carry 24 passengers with the seats configured into 2 tables of 4 and standard bus seating for the rest. Our luggage was placed into quite deep lockers that made up the entire inside back wall of the truck. Also in with us were 2 eskys and a large deep freezer. Most of our sleeping mats were placed on a shelf above the lockers and the racks above our heads. We were separate from the cab (and tour leader/driver) and had a buzzer to press if we wanted to contact them. There was a small window between that we could then talk to them through.
A few photos taken from the truck as we drove through Kenya. Street stalls usually selling fruit and vegetables
We had been warned that the road to the border was pretty much smoothish tarmac but once we crossed into Tanzania it would rapidly become dirt and gravel and would be a little bumpy! Firstly the border crossing. In one word it was mayhem. You have to be stamped out of Kenya in one building and then walk about 30m to the Tanzania side and be stamped in. There didn't seem to be any system or organised queue. Eventually we convinced one of the officiers to take all the passports and money for our group. Once we handed over our $100US we then had to sit on the kerb and wait. When we finally got them back they were in a shopping bag and contained a bonus passport. Luckily we were able to find the lady and give it back and be on our way. Our tour leaders, Fiona and Blessed, were not exaggerating the condition of the road. Immediately after the fence the tarmac disappeared and we were thrown about in our seats for the next couple of hours.
Lunch on the side of the dirt road.
We finally arrived at Snakepark which was located just outside of Arusha. It was the first time to put up our tents and we managed it in under 5min. After all the dust of the Masai most people were keen to give their clothes a bit of a wash. We strung some line up and put the clothes on and then headed to the bar. The bar here is run by a South African couple and most of the profits go to helping the hospital and school in the Masai villiage that is next door. Their biggest contribution comes by making snake anti-venom particularly for the Black Mamba. Everyone in the truck had no hesitation in choosing to buy drinks at the bar knowing the good work that this couple do. The only downside was returning to our tents to discover all the handwashing lying in the dirt!

Lesson one to any future overlanders reading this - take pegs!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Masai Mara

Our first instructions for the tour was to pack a small bag for 2 nights in the Mara National Park. The rest of our luggage would be stored in our truck (named Limpopo, after a river) and we would travel into the Mara in minivans. Our van consisted of 4 couples and we dubbed it the 'Love Bus' as we had 2 couples on honeymoons, 1 newly engaged and ourselves who were soon to reach our 1yr anniversary. It took a few hours to drive from Nairobi out to the camp site and was a good opportunity to start to get to know the others in our van. It turned out that most of the people were from England which is a bit different from the other tours we have done around Europe.

The roads that we travelled on varied from OK to really bad. It was a sign of future roads to come with large rocks and lots of sand making up the start of roadworks. It was very noticeable when we left the wealthier areas in Nairobi. The houses became much simpler and were often little more than corrugated iron sheets and uneven planks of wood nailed together. The people were dressed in their finest clothes and setting off for the walk to their jobs. We don't know how their clothes managed to stay clean with all the dust that was around.

We had a brief photo stop at the Rift Valley on our way, just to try and appreciate just how vast the landscape is. Along the side of this windy road there were people cooking corn in 'ovens' dug into the side of the hill. They would then try and sell it to the cars driving up. 6 hrs after we left Nairobi we finally arrived at camp with the last 2hrs being the worst of the roads so far.

As our introduction to life on the campsite, this was really nice. It was a permanent tented camp site, so each tent had 2 single beds and a toilet and shower at the back. Luxury. However, we should mention that this camp didn't have any fences and there were a few monkeys hanging around when we got there. We had also seen some rather large deposits from elephants nearby. Some of the local Masai were used as guards to patrol the perimeter and keep us safe overnight. We had one issue being that the zip on the doors of our toliet & shower didn't close so the guards probably got to see more than they expected.
Another aspect of the luxury was that there was even electricity provided uptil 9pm. This meant that it was a race to get the few charging points for those that needed them. Luckily for us we had thought ahead and brought extra camera batteries.

In total we went on 2 half day safaris and a full day one. The first one was that afternoon. We had our first experience of what it meant to be a tourist in Africa as well. There was a group of Masai women at the gates of the reserve and the instant our van pulled up they were at the windows trying to sell us blankets, beads and carved animals. We learnt quite quickly after that to have the windows up. They also just run around the side of the gate in case you missed them the first time. At one point we thought the lady was going to crawl onto the roof and pass us stuff through the sun roof. 10 out 10 for effort!

On the game drives there seems to be no set rules for the drivers to follow, as they seemed to drive everywhere and anywhere. There are some dirt roads, but as soon as an animal is sighted it is straight onto the grass. The radio is also constant in the background as the drivers talk to each other. The roof of the van pops up so that when you do find the animals you can use the roof or the windows to take photos or video. We are still amazed at how capable our driver was at spotting animals. As our group had split into 3 vans, quite often all 3 would be together and then our driver would say, 'I think this way is better' and we wouldn't see the others for a few hours.
A slight delay in reaching the gate one morning. Flat tyre
We had sighted some Giraffe and Zebra before we even reached the park and were very excited about our first game drive experiences. Each time we entered the park there were some more Zebra and Gazelle quite close to the gate. As we drove further we saw herds of Elephants that were feeding, and families of Giraffe going for a walk. One of the highlights was getting VERY close to a few Lions. As it turns out they don't move much and like to sleep through most of the day.
A typical drive would involve bumping along the road scanning the horizon in the hope of seeing something. We often decided that far off trees looked like Elephants, when suddenly there would be excitement on the radio and we would pick up speed and turn up along with 10 other vans to see a lone Lion or Cheetah. Amazingly at times we were only 2 metres away from them. There seems to be an unwritten rule of only 5min with the animal before moving on and people get cranky if take longer.
The most memorable moments from this park include:
  • Driving through a heard of Buffalo. They definitely didn't seem at all concerned that we were there. As we slowly made our way through they would turn and look at us and usually move off the road. It was interesting to see the number of birds that were sitting on their heads and picking at the ears and noses.

  • Observing a group of about 10 Vultures fighting over the remains of what we think was a Buffalo carcass. It was only the insides that remained and the 3 way tussle for the intestines made for tense viewing. There was also a couple of Hyena on the fringes waiting for their turn. We then realised that sitting in a nearby bush was a male Lion guarding Buffalo carcass. Interestingly we revisted this spot a few times over the next 2 days and the Lion did not move, but the Buffalo hadn't been eaten. We were told that the Lion would probably wait about 3 days before eating.


  • Seeing the migration of Wildebeest and Zebra. There were 1000's of them and they all seem to travel in straight lines, follow-the-leader style. They travel together as both animals have complimentary skills. One has great eyesight, and the other has superior hearing so that they will detect predators first. The animals are in a constant migration pattern and move north from the Serengeti to the Mara and back again a few months later in search of fresh grasses. We were also able to see them cross the Mara River although at quite a distance. Not even Steve's super lens could manage a photo. The bush bathroom break was quite an interesting one with the Zebra moving past!

  • Rescuing a van of Chinese tourists who had followed us when we took a 'short cut' through a dry creek with quite steep banks. Their driver wasn't quite as adventurous (or capable) as ours and struggled to make it up the other side. All the guys on our truck tried to push him up the bank but to no avail. In the end our van had to tow him out, although the rope snapped twice in the process. It would have been really nice if any of the fancy looking 4WD Landcruisers that came past gave a hand. So even though we got through fine, it took 45min to get the other van out and we were an hour late for lunch.

  • Watching Monkeys steal bananas at the lunch spot and then discovering the Hippos at the riverside. Usually Hippos spend the day lazing in the water so it was lucky for us to see all of them on the riverbank. While watching them from the bridge we also saw a small crocodile in water.
We were also able to meet some of the Masai at their village. We were welcomed in dramatic fashion as they all started dancing and jumping right in our faces. They then took our hands and made us join in. Claire's new Masai friend gave her his blanket to wear and she didn't want to give it back. It was surprisingly soft. Later they performed the tradional 'Jumping Dance' which Steve joined into. Traditionally the highest jumper would be offered a wife as a prize. The locals didn't need to fear. We don't know how they do it but they certainly get very high. None of the tourists even came close.
Performed by a professional
Steve's turn, although to get the height Steve had to bend the knees.
The Masai village is fenced in thorn bushes to protect from the wild animals and the cattle are also protected in the same way. Each compound represents one family and the number of huts shows the number of wives of the chief. This village had 10 huts! Each hut is built by the wife from mud, grass and cow poo and maintained by the wife. The huts are quite small and very dark inside, but have separate areas for cooking, sleeping and keeping the baby animals. The central area of the village is also littered with cow poo as this is where the cattle aer kept overnight to protect them from the wildlife. While we were there we could see the cattle returning, usually with quite a young boy in charge of the herd. They have to travel many miles to find suitable grazing for them.
Close encounter with a few of the kids. The one in pink was fascinated by the earings.
We left the Mara looking forward to the rest of the trip. The drive back to Nairobi was interesting. Claire got to see first hand the true condition of the road as she sat in the front seat. It wasn't uncommon for the driver to change sides of the road if he thought that side was better.

Back just outside Nairobi at 'Karen camp' we discovered how life would really be for the next few weeks. Our tents were already put up so all we had to do was sort out a shower and find some clean clothes. Being a participatory tour this was our first night of helping with the cooking and cleaning. Steve was on the cooking team and helped to create Coca Cola Chicken which is a specialty of our Zimbabwean driver and quite tasty. Claire was lucky as she was on Truck cleaning - nothing to do as we hadn't been in the truck yet.
Kenya was definitely memorable and we were looking forward to Tanzania and more game drives.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nairobi
Our final day in London started very early with a trip out to Heathrow from Greenwich. Things didn't start well when our train was delayed, and then our Oystercard wouldn't work. When we finally arrived at the airport we quickly learnt why we were unable to do the online check-in the previous day. As it turned out the flight was overbooked and we were possibly going to be delayed until the following day. As compensation we would be offered €600 each plus a night in a hotel to fly the next day. By the time check-in closed we had started to look forward to another day to relax at BA's expense and thought about how to spend the bonus money. After an hour or so, the check-in assistant then told us there were some spare seats for us, and that they were in Business Class. Woo hoo!!! A quick run through security and duty free. We made the flight and settled us and our purchases into our fully reclining seats to prepare for the five star food menu and select our meal options while having a calming glass of champagne.
Then we arrived in Nairobi. Organised chaos is the only way to descibe it. Considering we were off the plane first, we managed to be at the end of the customs and immigration line. After buying our visa we found our prebooked transport and made it to the hotel only to be told they were out of rooms. We were then transferred into a another hotel within the same chain and finally we got to bed around midnight, some three hours after landing. The US$90 per night seems very expensive for what you get.
The most confronting thing that we noticed so far is the amount of security around. There were security guards on the front door of the hotel and armed security on each floor near the lift exit. He escorted you to and from your room. I don't know that safe was quite the feeling we had.

We had one day to explore the city before our tour started and we began with the National Museum. After seeing all the security we were a little on edge but decided to be brave and walk there anyway as it was only 500m around the corner. The brand new Lonely Planet that we had bought was a bit behind on the prices so if you are using one, expect to pay a bit more for entry and food then what it states. The museum was a bit expensive for what it was. There wasn't much history of Kenya but more of a display of wildlife, particularly birds. There were also life size representations of The Big 5. One in particular was Ahmet, the only elephant in Kenya to receive government protection due to the size and symmetry of his tusks. The best exhibit was a photographic one of Kenyan people. The photographer had built his own camera and used a single sheet of photographic paper to capture the image instantly. The emotion seen in the expressions of the people was quite incredible.

The entrance to the photography exhibition
After lunch we braved the street again and headed into town to see the National Archive. After the morning walk Claire had noticed that none of the women wore much jewelry so the wedding rings were removed. There were alot more people about in the afternoon and it took us an hour to weave our way around the sidewalk stalls selling mobile phones as well as the takeaway chicken places. Nearly every shop/stall has very loud music blaring out of it and makes for an interesting atmosphere. The Archive was really good. Each of the Kenyan tribes has a section and it is filled with weaponry, pottery, artwork, carvings and explanations of their lives. If you only had time to choose one I would return to the Archive. The staff were also very helpful and you could have paid for a tour guide as well.

Back at the original (booked out) hotel we were kept entertained for the rest of the afternoon by the numerous wedding parties that came past. It appears that the hotel gardens are quite sort after for photos. A wedding party here also consists of at least 15 people, including 5 bridesmaids, 5 groomsmen, 5 children all in quite extravagant matching outfits.
That night we met our tour guides and fellow passengers for the next 43 days on our Acacia Africa - 'Nairobi to Cape Town' tour. It was at the meeting that we discovered that we would be changing vehicles and getting new tour guides/group for the last 20 days. The group was a good mix with ages ranging from 21 to 40 and singles, friends, and couples.