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 NEW YORK ASIAN ESCORT.
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.
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.
Our room was spectacular…a fanciful and eclectic mix of materials and architectural styles combined to create a magical space. Two soaring palapa roofs rose above the expansive bedroom and bath areas, with a crystal chandelier suspended in each. Looming over our bed was a giant panel of crimson silk fabric framed by carved wood.
The afternoon game drive was brief. Departing around 3 with our guide Timothy, we descended quickly, soon sighting a couple of lions, and spending time at a hippo pool marked by lots of splashing. At a distance, Timothy spotted a rare black rhino, and we strained to see it through the binoculars. Back by dark, dinner was again wonderful, and soon we were dialing up the twin electric blankets in our bed.
The next morning, we dressed warmly for the game drive. Shortly after reaching the bottom, a cheetah appeared right next to our vehicle and stayed close by for several minutes and good photographs. Timothy had packed a breakfast, and we stopped at a picnic area near a hippo pool. As we munched on granola, bacon and fritatta and sipped warm coffee to offset the morning chill, we watched the hippos interact. A number of beautiful ibis, starlings and weaverbirds flitted about.
As the clouds receded, we drove about, encountering a herd of zebra which practically had to be pushed off the road. We parked to watch a group of lions…four females and two cubs…which walked directly towards us, practically touching the vehicle as they appeared to be stalking some wildebeest. One female stayed behind with the cubs as the other three began approaching the herd under cover of the tall grass. Steadily they advanced, one at a time, the cubs and their guardian behind. Suddenly the wildebeest became aware of the lions’ presence, and adopted defensive positions at a safe distance. Soon, the lions abandoned their quest as the wildebeest trotted away. Later, we noticed a herd jumping across a river at great speed. Soon we spotted four hyena, closing in on the herd and causing them to reverse direction. They kept the wildebeest scurrying back and forth, but eventually they too left in frustration. By mid-afternoon we were ready for lunch, and we ascended the steep road back to the lodge.
After lunch, we repaired to the room and lit a fire, sipping sherry and basking in the luxury of our surroundings. After another splendid dinner, we stopped by the bar to chat with our new friends from London. When we were ready to call it a night, we encountered the surly buffalo mentioned earlier. Once safely inside our room, we bedded down for our final night on safari, feeling wistful that it had come to an end, but looking forward to a few days in Zanzibar, the Spice Island.
The drive from the airport offered a fascinating study into Zanzibar life, as the road was teeming with pedestrians, bicycles and “dala-dala” buses, on which as many as 20 people jammed onto two long benches. Small shops sold everything from lumber to groceries, cell phones to plastic laundry tubs. Women, dressed in colorful fabrics that covered their heads were reflective of the Muslim culture, which comprises 95% of the population. Groups of schoolgirls, dressed in bright uniforms and white scarves, walked alongside carts derived from automobile parts and pulled by oxen or donkeys. Houses built of varying materials and in varying states of completion alternated with small plots of bananas or maize. Farther from town, the road was lined with rows of mango trees, forming a shady canopy. Soon we turned into the driveway of Beaches.
The resort was, in contrast to the intimate feel of the safari lodges, a sprawling collection of bungalows and villas, adjacent to miles of white, powdery beach. Here, instead of 6 AM wake-up calls and hours hanging onto a jouncing vehicle, we had little to do except lounge by the beach or the pool, sipping Kilimanjaro beer and South African chardonnay. The room was nice, although nothing like the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, and after checking out the beach, we were content to chill out for the rest of the afternoon.
Dinner was served in a large, covered, open-air setting with views of the pool and beach. Entertainment was provided by a local group who, after a set of instrumental jams, began performing rock covers, which were was an interesting cross-pollination of western and African styles. We left to the strains of Marley’s “One Love” which gradually faded as we walked back to our room.
The next day we took a trip to historic Stone Town with our guide, Mudi. He escorted us into chambers used to house slaves during the infamous Zanzibar slave trade, which had flourished until 1873. Seeing the conditions the slaves endured was very disturbing. We visited an old Anglican church serving the small Christian population, and soon found ourselves in the marketplace, a maze of narrow alleys into which were crammed booths offering all manner of food and merchandise. People flowed past each other with barely enough room to get by. One alley served as the fish market…mounds of octopus and fish of varying sizes were heaped upon stone tables…nearby were meat and poultry markets.
We stopped at a spice booth, offering bags of spices as well as assortments. Strolling past produce booths, Mudi showed us some of the local fruit, such as jackfruit and lichee. Roving merchants accosted us offering necklaces, Tanzanian soccer jerseys and CDs. We passed a booth with some beautiful scarves, one of which Ellen picked up for about $4, and poked around several curio shops. At one point our guide identified some amplified chanting as the work of a traditional witch doctor, which many locals still trust. Our walk continued through an old Arab fort with a grassy courtyard that had become an impromptu art market featuring touristy paintings.
We stopped at the Africa House hotel for a beer on its veranda overlooking the harbor. From there, we toured the local museum with exhibits covering periods of Portuguese, Arab and British colonial rule, as well as Swahili culture. Mudi also pointed out the building where Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, was born. A couple of historic government buildings marked the end of our tour, and we rode back to the resort, satisfied with our three-hour crash course in Zanzibar culture. Later, dinner was served at our table as a troupe of acrobats and jugglers performed an assortment of stunts, such as somersaulting through small hoops, and handstands on stacks of bricks.
We booked a massage for the following afternoon…two petite Asian women worked their magic fingers into our receptive muscles. A stint in the eucalyptus-scented steam room and a Jacuzzi completed our spa experience. Afterwards, we took a long walk on the beach. We stumbled onto a beachside souvenir shop, and met an artist in his studio, who was displaying pretty much the same ubiquitous paintings.
The theme for dinner was “Spice Night,” and music was provided by a small ensemble of older gentlemen. They performed hauntingly beautiful music that seemed to combine all the threads of Zanzibar culture. The next morning, we got up early for sunrise photos. It was beautifully quiet. We had breakfast and packed for the last time. All too soon, it was time to drive to the airport. Soon, we were on a flight to Nairobi, during which we could see the crater at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
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