Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tanzania - Serengeti and Ngorongoro

Dedicated to Magnus and Rachel, Ili and Erin - who shared my 4WD through these adventures.
And also to Steven, for keeping us way out in front, spotting everything first, and leaving the others eating our dust.

We left the dusty snake park of Arusha to the chicken-eating Gaboon vipers, and began the five hour drive out to the infinite plains of the Serengeti National Park.

The drive led us past the jungle-edged crater of Ngorongoro, a captivating view into a vast circular natural history theme park. It is a breathtaking vista, dotted with incredibly tiny wildebeest, buffalo, and elephants - although the zebra herds were invisible from this distance.

Our 4WD held a great selection of people, and we enthusiastically composed spontaneous songs for sightings of various animal species. The open road, dead straight, unlined and dusty, took us through scattered herds of Thompson's and Grant's gazelles, all lingering by the roadside for ease of tourists and possibly for their own safety as the cars scare away predators. (Except that on our way out we passed three lions by the roadside, so clearly that theory was bunkum). Magnus our keen feline finder located hunting servals, lazy lions, and cheetahs sillohuetted amongst rocky islands or "Kopjes". Vivid pink and purple Agama lizards scuttled through these rock eruptions like plastic dinosaur toys.

Over the rest of day we saw timeless single-file queues of thousands of wildebeest, proceeding south from the Masaai Mara in Kenya on their epic Migration. I had not actually planned this trip around this momentous natural event, but felt incredibly lucky to be able to witness it. You've probably seen them on TV before - it is seriously magic to see them raising dust around you, bleating like donkeys (zebra) or whinneying (wildebeest), and fighting for space at waterholes diminished by heat and the aggressive defences of hippopotamus pods.

We camped overnight amidst wild creatures which moved through our tents under darkness. Clomping hooves, whooshing sounds, odd grunts and rustling sounds permeated the still and cold air.

The next day was equally spectacular. Sunrise while standing up in the 4WD thundering along the incredibly broad open spaces of the Serengeti. Hyenas with cubs fascinated by our tyres, two male lions chewing at half a wildebeest killed hours earlier. We competed with maybe 40 other vehicles to snatch the tiniest glimpse of a very well-hidden leopard - a tacky, paparazzi experience. It was improved by the sighting of a second leopard later in a much more accessible pose. Incredibly, we passed by this leopard again to find it had acquired a live baby wildebeest, which it taunted for twenty minutes before suffocating. It's seriously unusual to see a leopard kill, as they are elusive creatures at the best of times. Our driver had not seen one for nearly six weeks previously - and he drives almost every day.

The Ngorongoro Crater was a truly "Land Before Time" landscape, but perhaps not as entrancing as the overwhelming Serengeti. We descended into the flat caldera and found large herds of various game animals, crowded waterholes flooded with birdlife, and a pride of lions devouring a fresh buffalo kill. The herd of that creature returned as we watched, and developed the courage to chase away the remaining lions. This was a dramatic moment even though the odds were seriously weighed towards the massive buffalo. Later, two male cheetahs climbed beneath our 4WD to rest in our shade - another superb moment, arm's length away from such elegant creatures.

There are more stories of these days to recount, but there are still other travels to describe, and I intend to place them online this evening.


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