Friday, 30 September 2011

Zanzibar - the African Safari [end]

From the previous post: "...Next day morning, Abombe would be dropping us off at the airport from where we would be flying to laid back Zanzibar. The final days of this magnificent journey were upon us..."

Be it an exhilarating journey or a deep thought train, reaching the end is always a bitter-sweet moment. So was this.

The day began as usual with the breakfast, pack up, double-check everything is in the right place, get into the land cruiser and leave for the airport. Having said bye to Joachim, our cook, last night when we arrived at the Oasis resort, now it was time to say bye to Abombe, our kind, faithful, knowledgeable and helpful driver/guide. Having gotten into the small 'Kilimanjaro' airport, we boarded the now familiar ATR aircraft from Precision Air.

Last view of Arusha
We took off on time and were soon winging our way across the sea to the island of Zanzibar and its charms.


In Muscat, we had met many an Omani whose family had been Zanzibari at some point of time. There is a huge historical narrative that could be written up about it (maybe I will, in another post). I think it would suffice to say that the linkage between Oman and Zanzibar is quite strong. So my appetite for the place, its culture and cuisine had already been whetted even before ever stepping on the land.

As we finally winged over the sea and began the descent it felt great to see fishing trawlers and aquamarine blue water lashing upon the white sand beaches. Landed and collected our baggage from the handlers directly, as there was no luggage conveyor belt. Interestingly, here we had to get our passports out and again stamped with a 'visa' on arrival but there was no additional fees to pay.

We got out of the airport and waited near the exit for a bit. Our driver had not turned up. It seems there had been some mix up about the time we were to arrive and therefore the hotel had not sent the chap. After getting the communication sorted out, the guy was with us in 15 minutes. Not a very big place, really.

Reached the hotel. It was an old building, converted into a hotel. No lifts. We had to climb four levels of stairs and then some, to reach our room. It was a large airy place, with lots of sitting area on the roof as well as in the courtyard. First view was lovely. During low tide, sand bars form near the beach. Some enterprising people would set up temporary luncheon tables and food, which could be had for a fee. Sadly, we didn't have the time to be able to do this, but it certainly looked good from where I was viewing it.

Lunch in the middle of the sea!
Having freshened up, we headed out for a walk to the nearby beach, some of Tanzania's refreshing chilled brews and a wholesome lunch.

Hunger sated, it was time for some walking around and exploring the area, which is called 'stone town'. It is the older part of Zanzibar. It felt good walking around a place, that looked so ancient yet well maintained. It was by the seafront and known as Forodhani in the local parlance. The Arab influence was evident in the architecture and people.

Foradani, Stone Town, Zanzibar
There were quite a few museums around as well, which attested the historical importance Zanzibar had, in the past when slavery used to be a roaringly profitable business and African natives were captured and transported from the very same loading docks to the then new age countries of Europe and America.

The styling of the buildings, columns, stair cases and stained glasses were all very interesting to observe and capture.

One of my companions, was by this time feeling quite the 'non-city' person, having been on the safari for a week. So she went off to get some 'beautification' done and become 'presentable'. I guess, it was important for her.

Meantime, two of us decided to meander around the place. We came to a nice park, where we sat down and were conversing about various subjects. When, a man with rastafarian hair locks and dress, came and sat down right next to us. Asking us, where we were from and as I suspected, it turned out to be a sales pitch for some service. I informed him, we were really not interested. He kept insisting. Had to make it distinctly clear, we were not buying whatever he was selling. He actually had the nerve to get offended. Wow. Talk about aggressive sales.

Eventually, we caught up with the now 'glamorous' version of our companion and headed out to for some local cuisine. Had to walk around a bit, before we finally managed to locate a restaurant that had only local Zanzibari food. It was an interesting fare, though bit bland. We tried about 6 different types of food and ended it with a local dessert, as well. I discovered that what is termed 'cassava' in Zanzibar is 'tapioca' in Kerala. Muhogo wa nazi literally translates to 'coconut cassava'. Ugali - maize flour cooked to a dough like consistency eaten usually with beef and sauces or vegetable stew, was another local dish, favoured at Forodhani. Vitumbua - rice cup cakes, reminded me of the Khushboo idly found in Chennai, India. Hot and soft Crepes were also interesting.

Post dinner, we headed out to the 'night market' that would be set up near the park we had been in the afternoon. So through twisting alleyways we made our way to the market. The walk distinctly reminded me of the paths I had walked through, on my way to school, in the older part of Ahmedabad in my childhood. Interestingly, there were quite a few Indian shop keepers there as well. And the place was redolent of the six spices that Zanzibar was now renowned for.

By the time we made it to the night market, one of the visiting trio had become too exhausted to continue and retired for the night. The remaining two, then explored the various food fare on display, for the night market was exactly that. A temporarily set up area where hawkers would come on their push carts, display various kinds of sea food, and it would be cooked right in front of you. Some of the food reminded me of a 'tapas' style of cooking.

After this, we drifted toward the old fort in the same Foradani area, where we witnessed a uniquely local style of musical performance known as Taarab. Then it was back to hotel, climb up four floors and some deep slumber.

Inner courtyard
Next day morning, waking up the salty sea breeze twinged with the smell of fish, it felt quite different to the past week. It was pack up time. Went down for a standard continental breakfast, deposited the bags and took off again for a walk around the place, before we headed to the pier where we were taking the ferry to Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of Tanzania and our exit point back to Muscat.

When we reached the ferry site, it was crowded with passengers. After a week of the open vistasendless plains and gorges, it felt a bit stifling. Finally, made it on board the ferry.

As we started the two and a half hour journey to Dar-es-Salaam, while viewing Forodhani from the sea, there was a twinge of regret at not having spend enough time here and a hope to return back to this place and discover more of what it had to offer. I felt this way once before, on the Andaman and Nicobar islands in India (a post will be up soon).

After docking at Dar-es-Salaam, we found our way out, with the unmistakable sounds of a city ringing in the ears. Apart from slight nausea that one of my companions felt on riding the waves, nothing untoward had happened. We were met by the brother of one of our colleagues, who was kind enough to show us a bit of the city and take us to a restaurant.

As I was walking to the restaurant, I looked up and saw a beautiful set of murals depicting the wildlife of Tanzania, on the under hang of the roof.

I must state, that while the lunch was good, the location and the view were simply outstanding. It was an outdoor restaurant by a cove, and the shimmering water out there was crystal clear and tantalizingly close by, so much so that I wished I had the time to put on swimming trunks and jump in.

After having seen and partaken in such beauty, it was that time when the airport looms in front of you and the realisation stings as it settles in, it was time to head back. While a part me looks forward to being back to the known and familiar, the soul still yearns for experiencing more such beauty that only Earth has.

If reading is living, writing is re-living. I have thoroughly enjoyed bringing to life and immortalising these memories. I hope you too have enjoyed every bit of it. And shared the joy with your friends too. As they say in Swahili, asante sana and kwaheri for now.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Cauldron of life - the African Safari (continued)

From the previous post: "Also to unfold in front of my eyes, was a spectacle that was so rare which even Abombe had never seen in his 12 year career as a wildlife guide."

The cauldron of life

The sound of a thousand hooves drumming on the floor of a crater, is sweet music to most predators. To me, it signified life within the cauldron. An entire life lived in 260 square kilometres area. As a human, I feel privileged to have experienced life beyond just the immediate circle.

Today's agenda was simply to scour the Ngorongoro crater to sight as much wildlife as possible for half a day and then it was an late afternoon drive back to Arusha. So, it was an early morning wake up. Misty and chilly breeze. Almost everybody I saw out there were looking like Arctic explorers - with their stuffed jackets, woollen caps and footwear. And here I was walking around in joggers, jeans and a linen shirt. I think, unobtrusively everyone was looking at me, as being slightly off hinged in the brain. All I could think was, what a nice brandy it had been the previous night, the warmth still continues!

Finally, Abombe, the girls and I were off in our trusty box on wheels. A few hundred metres on the dirt track and a site that even today leaves me in a trance. An open veld with rolling hills interspersed with acacia clumps. A picture, such that mere words cannot do justice. Further enhanced by a family of giraffes who were out for breakfast.

Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
Immensely tall, but gentle and fragile, these beautiful beasts were a sight to watch whether grazing on the top leaves of a thorny acacia or running. Incredibly they have a heart, measuring an amazing 2 feet long and weighing 10 kilos. Their blood pressure is approximately double of any other large mammal.

Entering the crater was through a steep rutted road, giving very good views of the space. Finally made it to the floor level, and the drive started. First among the spotted creatures was one of the world's heaviest birds - the Kori Bustard.

Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
When I saw the bird, I was reminded of one of my marketing campaigns which started with the headline - "Bustard is not a bad word...".

And after all this while of looking out for some sign of the Wildebeest herds, which had mostly migrated in search of greener pastures, got to see a smallish herd. Antelopes, they may be, but strange looking beasts with rather well developed muzzles. Also known as Gnu. More than half a million of these beasts go in a circulatory migration path across the Serengeti in search of nutrient rich grass. Watch any channel dedicated to wildlife and chances are you are likely to see the migration at some point of time.

Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)
One popular term that is used often in the safari circuits in Africa is - the big 5. We had seen all the big guys except the double horned rhinoceros. Abombe informed us that there are some in the Ngorongoro crater and we were hoping to catch a sight. Sadly that did not happen.

However, what did happen was something that even our elderly guide had not seen in his 12 years of guide service. That it was a rare sight was further knocked in, when I described the event to Achmed, our tour operator, whom we met later in the night at Arusha.


The Ostrich is one of the large birds in Africa. A flightless bird, which almost all of us have seen/heard of. Even terms like, hiding your head in the sand like an Ostrich is used to signify a negative trait among people refusing to accept reality. The truth is, stranger than fiction. Always. That day was no exception. Just as we turned a corner and reached a large patch of grass land, we arrived in time to watch a male Ostrich complete his mating ritual dance and mount the female. Abombe explained to us that the Ostrich, once done with this will need time to 'recover'.

Something, probably instinct, told me not to move from the spot. After having done with the lady, the guy featured in the picture, had started walking. I saw another lady of the same ilk, was hanging around at some distance. He smartly walked up to her, and started his mating ritual again. It is a sort of dance, where he raises his feathered wings and tail to form a larger plumage and then actually shakes his body and bobs his bald head in a dance. Incredibly, the second female Ostrich accepted his performance and allowed him to do the job! Two mating acts, one immediately after the other, is something that is rather rare to observe.

After all this excitement, we went off for lunch. Apart from all the other travellers for the day, who had stopped by the same designated picnic lunch spot, there were teams of kites out there, all trying to grab a bite - by hook or claw. Equally interesting was to observe the Helmeted Guinea fowl calmly walking by, pecking at whatever they could get on the ground.

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)
Having done the tour of the place, and missed seeing any rhinos, it was time to return to the camp. Had a bit of free time and then off back to Arusha.

At this point, I remembered something that Achmed had told us during the briefing. He mentioned about an old tusker who liked to stay close to the camp site of the Ngorongoro. In his words, "It is an accident waiting to happen". Essentially, the elephant was down to its last molars. Therefore it was looking for easy food to eat and an accessible water source. The large tank at the camp site, was his 'watering hole' and the green shoots of the plants and leaves nearby assuaged his hunger.

But what most visitors forget is that this is a wild creature. Not a tame domesticated animal. People try to go close, take pictures of him, especially with their camera flash on. This irritates the old man a lot. Irrespective of his age, all this behemoth needs to do is swing his trunk and from photographer to a flying corpse could be a grim reality. This was even more pronounced to me, when he turned suddenly and did a short snorting charge at one of the men, who had dared to go past him.

Taking a circuitous route, I went to the men's toilet. As I was doing what nature makes us do, right in front of me was a window. Guess what I saw through the window? Talk about feeling puny! This was, by far, the closest I have ever been to a wild pachyderm.

It was time to leave. All things and people packed back into the land cruiser. On the way down, stopped over at a bunch of shops that were specifically in the business of selling products for visitors to take away. Being the designated negotiator, managed to get a range of things for a relatively low cost. Then on, it was back to Arusha. One more night stay at the beautiful Oasis resort.

Next day morning, Abombe would be dropping us off at the airport from where we would be flying to laid back Zanzibar. The final days of this magnificent journey were upon us.

Continued in the next and final post in this series.


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Endless plains - the African Safari (continued)

From the previous post: "After sighting some more enthralling wildlife, we headed back for our lunch at the camp site. A relaxed lunch and then we were off again, to see what more the Serengeti would reveal to us."

Nature's creativity

The rest of the remaining day and the first half of the next day were spent scouring the vast Serengeti plains. I think, considering the short time, we managed to just about glimpse the creativity that Nature had achieved and showcased in this wonderful reserve.

In any travel, there are multiple moments which may have affected us very positively or negatively, so much so that we like to talk dime a dozen about it.

I have put down below selected pictures that I managed to get, which stood out to me as good compositions, or maybe it was just plumb luck. Either way, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
The Secretary bird with eagle like body on crane like legs, is also interestingly referred to as the Devil's horse by the locals. Being largely terrestrial, it prefers to walk rather than fly. Likely to be seen in air, mostly during the mating season. Favourite food: snakes, lizards, small mammals.

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
The Spotted Hyena, also known as laughing hyena are often mislabelled as cowardly scavengers. Hardly! These are matriarchal in nature and tend to hunt larger prey in teams using various strategies. While I had seen many of these guys earlier, only now was I able to get close enough to take the picture above. Later, I was lucky enough to observe a whole family near their den. One young chap decided to come really close and have a look at the gawking strange looking creatures in the box on wheels. Had to shoot him, for his predator's cuteness quotient.

Spotted Hyena cub
Moving a little bit further down the trail, we came across the Black-backed Jackal. They are also known as silver-backed or red jackal.

Black-backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas)

Further on, came across an acacia tree containing a nest. Zoomed closer and was delighted to see a chick. A magnificent Lappet-faced Vulture in the making.

Lappet-faced Vulture or Nubian Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos)
Still on the trail, we reached a sort of water hole where the pachyderms were arriving with entire families.

African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
The African elephant is, currently, the largest living terrestrial animal. Even females have small 'tusks'. Ranging from 20-24 feet in length and between 11-13 feet in height, they weight around 6,000-9,000 kilos. Highly intelligent, very social with their own kind, they are herbivorous. Similar to their Asian cousins, are a pleasure to watch from a distance. Though normally, they avoid humans, get too close and chances are, you are in danger of being attacked. However with 7 billion humans on this earth, conflict with elephants is increasingly the norm. And both species, lose their loved ones.

Still further on, we had a bit of a rattle. As we drove on, we came across this magnificent male specimen, who did not quite like us invading his space. Rather than engage in a losing battle with the moody guy, Abombe actually reversed the vehicle some distance.

African buffalo or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
Though not related, the African buffalo is slightly smaller and lighter than the Asian wild water buffalo. Nonetheless can be a fearsome attacker should it feel in danger.

A bit later, came across this beauty. Probably one of the best known gazelles - Thomson's gazelle. Skittish. Nimble. Runs at the slightest of dangers.

Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii)
With the plethora of animals on display, by now it was rather difficult to stop the oohs and ahas. Until this moment. I was a bit taken aback looking at this strange looking animal - sort of looked like a cow bred wrong! It was none other than Coke's Hartebeest.

Coke's Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii)
While a bit ungainly in appearance, these are antelopes. Quite nimble too. Can reach up to 70 kilometres per hour speed.

Where the prey is, so would be the predators. Sadly, populations across wild species have been declining in Africa. But when you look into the eyes of a queen, you do realise that such beauty should not be allowed to perish.

She was part of a pride that was gambolling around with the young ones. Not yet fully mature, I fervently hope that soon, she would find her mate and produce more of her kind.


As the previous day came to a close, it was back to the camp, dinner, sleep and off again the next day for some more touring of the endless plains. However, half day later, by the time we got back to the camp, tragedy struck. No, not of the life threatening variety. But severe enough. Diarrhoea. A cramped stomach and loose bowels are not good partners in a trip. Luckily the medicine kit came handy. However, even medicine needs time to sort out the mess that is your stomach.

Though my companions were fine, I had to just grit my teeth and bear it on the journey back the same route, we had traversed earlier. Now, along with the external bone-rattling and teetch-chattering bumps, combined with the internal attempts of my stomach to have an urgent group meeting with my intestines, it was a ride though hell.

To make matters that much more exciting, as well as to ensure that some African soil could forever reside inside us, right in front was another land cruiser dishing out constant red dust. So much so that by the time, we reached the rim of the Ngorongoro crater, where the public campsite was located, all of us humans, vehicle, bags, gear - everything, looked pinkish red with the fine dust that had settled into every nook and cranny possible.  

The Ngorongoro

The crater is actually a large unbroken, unflooded, volcanic caldera, about 260 kilometres squared at its floor level. We were to camp on the rim and go down the next day.

Ngorongoro Crater
On reaching, usual process. Off load gear. Put up the tent. Freshen up. Two differences though. A stomach that had still not quietened. And cold water. Now you may think, after all that heat and dust, a cold shower would be great. Well, you may like to keep in mind that when you are standing approximately 15,000 feet above mean sea level, the temperature becomes a rather chilly 15 degrees and drops further as the sun retreats. As I had mentioned in an earlier post, my thought of how cold can Africa be? came to be a rather sticky thorn in my conscience.

By the time, we got into the meal area, thanks to the generosity of my companions, I was covered in a shawl that mildly retained the heat in me. Multiple cups of coffee did not make any difference. Then, inspiration! Abombe was going to a nearby town to pick up some necessities. I requested him to fetch us half a bottle of local brandy. That saved the night, literally! There were two of us, who consumed the brandy. It kept us warm enough to handle the ultra cold night. Next day morning, was gloriously misty and chilly. Best part, the stomach had decided to stop rebelling and behave.

Today, we were going to explore the Ngorongoro reservation which unlike the Serengeti, had a large set of herds and predators, about 25,000 animals, who never migrate and thus live their entire lives within the crater.

Also to unfold in front of my eyes, was a spectacle that was so rare that even Abombe had never seen in his 12 year career as a wildlife guide. Coming up, in the next post.


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Saturday, 24 September 2011

Open Vistas - The African Safari (continued)

From the previous post: "...You could see far enough into the horizon and make out the dust columns being raised by similar land cruisers far away. The intrigue of visiting the 'cradle of civilization' kept the mood high..."

The parched dry sand and pebbled rutted tracks that led to Oldupai Gorge, ensured that I felt like I was in a stone shaker. Not a part of the body left to shake, though the mind was busy shoring up images of grand open vistas that we were travelling through. Abombe, apologetically did say that unless he drove that fast, the going would be rougher. This was the moment when I wished that all those advertisements of vehicle and tyre manufactures, promising your off/on road driving experience to be like walking on feathers, were to be true!

Away from the heights of the Ngorongoro crater, the land was bone dry. By the time, we reached the Oldupai Gorge, even droplets of sweat would vanish in an instant.

Oldupai, formerly known as Olduvai (a local misspelling), was a steep sided ravine, part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches through eastern Africa. Though it was accidentally discovered in 1911 by Professor Kattwinkel, it was Professor Leaky and his wife, who made the most important discoveries a couple of decades later.

Going back in time

Imagine. It was a lake, that was still alive, but barely. It had been raining volcanic ash ever since the earth had started quaking. Two strange creatures of almost similar height, walking on two legs, followed by another similar creature but of smaller build. They stood watching the lake and the sun. Then, walked away without a final glance.

4 million years later, at a place called Laetoli, about 45 kilometres south of Oldupai, Louis and Mary Leaky had dug through 7 layers of alluvial deposits and reached the stage when the volcanic ash had fallen and very importantly, had set forever with the imprint of those human like footsteps. Those three creatures were not humans, but hominids from where we all have evolved. About 2 millions years back, humans had already developed and had started using rudimentary tools. Until this discovery, Asia had been considered the birthplace of humans.

This is the story of Oldupai Gorge. For the first time ever, it had been discovered and through various forms of carbon and non-carbon based dating, confirmed as the first ever evidence of creatures walking on just two feet instead of using all four limbs. This has been and is still termed as the 'cradle of civilisation'.

Oldupai Gorge
As I stood overlooking the gorge, I was going through the recesses of my mind, sort of running a film so to speak, trying to imagine how life must have been and the sharp contrast with what we have become and where we have reached. Today, we don't think twice about colonising Mars. We are only bothered about when.

There is a small but neat building on the rim of the gorge, where you could see the various discoveries that had been made so far at the site. Worth going through, if you the patient sort.

Having had our fill of the past, we started the drive again to the world famous Serengeti plains. Just before we left, I took a stroll around the place and managed to see the common Mwanza Flat-headed Rock Agama - a kind of lizard. After having been accustomed to the brown variety in our homes, for me at least this creature was anything but common.

Mwanza Flat-headed Rock Agama (Agama mwanzae)
As we drove, we watched a Masai dressed in his traditional shukan - a sort of blanket, walking with long footsteps across a distance that most of us city-dwellers may find extremely difficult to match. Finally, we were out of the mountainous territory and in a land with expanses so open, it left me bleary eyed. You could actually see the curvature of the earth. Barely a rock or a shrub here and there to block the view. We had reached the great vast plains.

The Serengeti

After the usual break while buying entry tickets and completing the formalities, we set off. We needed to set up our tents just before nightfall, so having a bit of time Abombe decided to give us a bit of a tour - enough to whet our appetites for the next day and a half during which we would be touring the Serengeti reserve.

The Serengeti. 14,763 square kilometres. Known to the Masai people as the 'endless plain', is world famous because it is regarded as the best wildlife reserve in Africa due to its density of of predators and prey. Also well known is the annual migration of half a million Wildebeest and about 250,000 Zebras.

With this background, I was panting in anticipation to see the wildlife. And Abombe did not disappoint. After about half an hour of driving, he turned off the main path, into a designated track and another 10 minutes later, we stopped near the only set of rocks in that area. My eyes were skipping wildly for there was an entire pride of lionesses and a majestic lion sitting on top.

Suddenly, instinctual reaction. I turn to the right. And I see this magnificent animal walk out of a hidden enclave.

Walking past us at a distance of less than 2 feet, he showed utter disdain at the quavering humans inside the box on wheels. I felt as if my heart was beating so rapidly that he could hear the drumming. While walking by, not a sound. Not a pebble overturned. Not a dry crackle from the grass. Absolute predator. Skilled, dangerous and powerful.

Abombe regaled us, with a very insightful story of another traveller and his stupidity with these lions, which I shall not recount here. But should you be interested to know, email me and I shall be happy to give you a private account.

Having talked so much about Abombe, I felt it would be only natural to put up a picture of this man who has worked hard as a driver/guide for the last 12 odd years.

Abombe, our driver/guide extraordinaire

The public camp site

Finally, we reached the main public campsite of the Serengeti. Found a good spot. Set up the tents, freshened up. Another thing which I realised here, and was to further experience rather drastically, is that I was a bit off the mark in thinking, how cold could Africa get? By nightfall, when we were ready to have dinner the wind was blowing steadily and temperatures dropped fast. It felt good to be served with, yet another good meal by Joachim, our cook. Sated, it was off to the tent. One moment, I had slipped into the bedroll. The next minute, I was out!

Woke up a bit early, as Abombe had warned us that the earlier we could go the better chances we had of seeing wildlife. As the sun warmed up, by mid-day most of the animals would be sheltering in whatever shade they could find.

As I am having breakfast, so were the birds. Only unlike the normal birds that one might be used to seeing, here were a pair of Red-billed Hornbills. A smaller variety found in the savannah and shrub-lands, in a specific belt across Africa, they largely subsist on insects, fruits and seeds.

Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus)
Their mating and child-rearing behaviour is similar to other Hornbills. They mate for life. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, they find a sufficient sized hole in a tree for her to incubate the forthcoming chicks. The male, will wall up the hole with plaster of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. A very small aperture is left for the female to poke her beak out. The male faithfully will forage for food and return to feed his mate and children until the chicks have hatched and are of sufficient size. Amazing, isn't it?

A searing sight

Driving in the early morning with the top up, fresh cold breeze in the face, mild sunlight by itself was a treasure. We saw a variety of animals, some of whom, I shall come back to in a bit. Was lucky enough to watch a African leopard (classified as vulnerable), caching his early morning kill, up on the bole of an acacia tree. However, the chap was not in the mood to say good morning to us, and the moment he heard us going over he decided to leave. Abombe informed us, that the leopard will return in a couple of hours to eat his meal. Woebegone was my face, at having missed this rare opportunity.

That is, until I came across this fellow, who had finished his breakfast and was enjoying the mild warmth. So unperturbed was he, didn't even bother to flick his tail or even mildly snarl. For an animal that can reach from 0 to 100 kilometres per hour in just 3 seconds, with a top speed of 120 km, all he did was sniff the air for scenting anything unfamiliar or familiar and then posed elegantly for me, almost as if he was saying, 'enjoy'. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the Cheetah.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
If you click on the picture, it will open up in a larger size on your screen. Have a look at his left jaw, which is slightly reddish from his consumed breakfast and more importantly, look at his eyes. Let me know what you think.

Having had our fill of watching the cheetah and taking umpteen number of pictures, we drove off at a leisurely pace to experience more of the savannah. On the way, we managed to see a female cheetah with two cubs, but she was maintaining her distance from us and a pride of lions, whom we spotted earlier feasting. Interestingly, lions can be quite the scavengers, often snatching the prey away from cheetahs and hyenas.

About another 30 minutes or so, came the stage that most men like Abombe and I, get a bit worried about. Maybe it was due to the cold climate, my female companions had to take a toilet break. The reason we worry is simple. This is a wild reserve. You can barely make out a predator a few feet away in the grass and shrubs. Getting out of the vehicle is, to put it mildly, fraught with danger. However, with no other choice we had to risk it. One after the other, the ladies blithely got out, did their job behind the vehicle, while Abombe and I were keeping our eyes peeled on either side and the mirrors to try and spot any incoming danger. With the women back inside the car, I think, Abombe and I were more relieved!

After sighting some more enthralling wildlife, we headed back for our lunch at the camp site. A relaxed lunch and then we were off again, to see what more the Serengeti would reveal to us.

Further on the trail, in the next post.


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Friday, 23 September 2011

The enchanting African Safari (Tarangire)

From the previous post: "...Dozing off to sleep was easy, given how tired I was. Plus, the thought that tomorrow will be more magnificent creatures to be spotted was exciting..."

It is a new day in Africa

Irrespective of the onset of summer, waking up in mildly breezy and cool morning was made all the more exhilarating when the thought streaked through my mind, 'hey, I am actually in Africa!' and nothing could be more poignant at that time, than hearing the beautiful songs being rendered by the bards of nature - birds.

Get ready, have breakfast, pack up everything including the picnic lunch. It was all a blur, as the heart and mind were already inside the forest. Off we trudged into the trusty land cruiser with the reliable Abombe ready to show us more magical beings.

Today we were going to further explore Tarangire for a bit, before driving off to the world famous Serengeti with a stop over at the cradle of civilization. Talk about intrigue! One more thing that I do need to mention here, is that the land cruiser had a top that could be easily raised, so not only did we get more protection from the sun, we would also be in a position of height, enabling us to see more of the place. So happily, back in our vehicle, we started traversing the African wilderness.

Started with a high cuteness quotient this time. At least for a carnivore. Just saw the little fellow peeking out from a hollow log. Introducing the Common Dwarf Mongoose.

Common Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula)
Moving on, it sort of felt like the world was a bit different in that you look almost anywhere and you are likely to see all sorts of animals, birds, trees, undulating landscapes - the sheer variety is staggering. It would take a huge journal to describe every bit of the experience, so am limiting myself to some of the ones that I found interesting enough to squarely embed in the recesses of my brain.

Also spotted quite a few White Headed Buffalo Weavers. It is a specie that is native to East Africa. The buffalo part of its name is derived from its habit of following the bovine footsteps of the African Buffalo and feeding on disturbed insects like beetles and butterflies.

White Headed Buffalo Weaver (Dimenellia dinemelli)
As we drove onward, suddenly started hearing shouts. Go away. Go away. I was flummoxed. I mean, what could be the reason? Couldn't see or feel any danger. Then realisation struck. Right now, we, in the rumbling box were the danger to the folks in the forest and who else but the nattily dressed caped crusader, the aptly named Crested White bellied Go-away bird, was making all the noise.

Crested White bellied Go-away bird ( Corythaixoides leucogaster)
While I understand and accept, that an angry elephant is probably the most dangerous (to humans) animal out there in the wild anywhere, the sight of a full grown lion near you makes you still shiver. Maybe it was our ancestral anthropoid remnant genes. Have you ever thought, why most humans start shouting and screaming at the sight of perceived danger or that grouping and attempting to fight off or kill the intruder is the most common counter mechanism to date? Just look at any current set of monkeys and you get the answer. We are not that different, after all, on many counts from the simians.

The lions of Tarangire

Coming back to the lion, it was the first sighting in Africa and I was sincerely thankful for the vehicular protection, and the keen eyes of our guide. Take a look at the picture below. So well camouflaged and silent is this giant cat, it would have been difficult to spot until you are a few feet away. Not knowing the mood of this fellow, it may be a good idea to maintain your distance, if perchance you are not in your protective cage on wheels.

Lion (Panthera leo)
The real close brush with the Lions of Tanzania was to happen later. Meantime, as we are watching, in trot a bunch of zebras. While there is silence, mostly, except for the shutter clicks, a collective slightly audible sigh went up from the human females around in different safari vehicles, which had clustered by now. Why? Simple, the lion decided to stalk and attack his food on hooves. On this occasion, being neither smart nor a long distance runner, the lion made a rather short and foolish attempt to get some fresh food. Result: Cat-0, Zebras-1. For now. Factually, more than 70% of hunts do not succeed for the big cats.

It would be important to note, this chap was not alone. His female partner and the main hunter was also around. And smartly, she had not bothered to waste any energy going after the zebras.

Finally, having watched the lion's antics and unsurprisingly aware that nothing worthy would be happening, the lady decided to slink off to a nearby tree. Amazingly, Tanzania is one of the few places in the world, where lions climb on trees. It essentially gives them a high vantage view, which is essential to determine where the next meal is.

The male having given up on his predatory behaviour, decided to follow the lady and rest beneath the tree on which she was keeping vigil.

Moving a bit further on, we saw a small herd of elephants cavorting with their young ones by the depleted Tarangire river.

Now the time had come to move on. Having gotten out of the Tarangire park, we were back on the tarmac, smoothly proceeding to the Serengeti. Abombe, our guide/driver, explained to us that we would be passing by well known UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ngorongoro located in the crater highlands of Tanzania, about 180 kilometres from Arusha.

As we ascended the heights, markedly the greenery started showing up. The plan was to drive by the top of the Ngorongoro crater, bypassing it on the way to Oldupai Gorge. And from there on to the Seregenti plains.

The picnic lunch spot that Abombe had brought us to, was indeed beautiful. He was also caring enough to warn us, to consume our food under the branches of a nearby tree, rather than in the open - where it was extremely pleasant to sit as the temperature had markedly gone down at least 10 degrees Celsius lower, if not more.

Why the warning? The answer was soon visible and audible. We were not the only people who had decided to stop there and have our lunch. Other travellers had arrived. One lady decided to sit on the grass, lean against the bole of a tree, enjoy the beautiful weather and have her lunch, only to shriek out in consternation as a lithe, silent figure swooped, clutched her sandwich and made off. All this, in one smooth motion, as we were watching, beside a smiling Abombe. The culprit was none other than the Tanzanian Yellow-billed Kite. While the kites are general sky borne thermal gliding predators elsewhere, at this particular picnic site, they had specialised in stealing sandwiches out of travellers' lunch boxes!

Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus aegyptius)
Done with the cold but tasty lunch, it was time to leave the picnic spot and drive on to the Serengeti, via the Oldupai Gorge. A point rather sorely remembered here, was the tarmac road ended a few kilometres away. Thus began some of the roughest, bone-jarring, teeth-chattering, dusty stretches across Tanzania. Slowing down was not an option, as the shaking would only get worse. The only prayer was not to get trapped behind another similar vehicle on the designated dirt road, as all the dust raised by the wheels ahead would only smother us.

As we drove through, the vistas were simply breath taking. Mostly empty mountain ranges, interspersed with a rare Masai village and their cattle. You could see far enough into the horizon and make out the dust columns being raised by similar land cruisers far away. The intrigue of visiting the 'cradle of civilization' kept the mood high.

The adventure continues in the next post...


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Thursday, 22 September 2011

The African Safari (Tarangire)

From the previous post: "...From thrilling vistas, to open expanses of land never seen before teeming with wild and free life, it was majestic Africa that was to open up in front of my eyes..." 

The adventure truly begins

Waking up to a calm and cool morning, it was time to get ready, have a leisurely breakfast. The land cruiser was loaded up, with all the equipments, food and luggage and off we left for our true blue African private safari. This meant that we would be sleeping in tents at public camp sites and have access only to common, basic facilities like cold water showers and toilets. In terms of private, what we would have as we discovered during the trip, was a cook who would whip up a good meal specifically for us and a guide/driver who would be dedicated to showcasing the best of wild Africa to us.

As Achmed, our tour operator, had explained previously, the journey initially would be quite comfortable as the roads were made of tarmac and rather well maintained. Further on, we would be down to dirt tracks and all its associated ups and downs.

We had a rather normal drive. Visible to us were large swathes of dry land with thorny bushes, a few Masai thatched hut villages and their herds. The scale of the land is only understood, though, when you are on the road. It takes ages to reach any destination. Not that you are being driven slowly. And we were only covering a limited portion of the northern safari circuit of Tanzania.

Finally we reached a public camp site, 118 kilometres south west of Arusha. As, Abombe, our guide pointed out, the smart thing to do, is to plan the journey such that, you manage to reach a public camp site before it gets filled up with other travellers like us. It gives us the advantage of scouting and pitching the tent in a better spot, within the place. As everything is on a 'first-come-first-served' rule, even the kitchen spot availability is a matter of concern. If our cook is not able to set up his paraphernalia then our food is likely to be of the very limited variety.

Now, another thing that I had realised during my pre-trip research, was that in Africa you have to be aware of the season in which you go. Whether it is summer/winter or dry/wet. In Tanzania, summer is usually December-March and winter is March-May with rains. So we were travelling at a time, where the onset of summer was imminent. In summer, the sun sucks the moisture out of the landscape, baking it dry and leaving withered grass as brittle as straw as well as trees minus most of their foliage.

The Tarangire National Park about 2,850 square kilometres (1,096 square miles), part of the Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem, is the sixth largest park in Tanzania named after the Tarangire river. In summer, the river reduces in size to a mere shadow of its wet season self, but attracts nomadic herds of wild life in search of life sustaining moisture. Outside of the Serengeti, this location contains one of the largest concentrations of wildlife herds, bringing in predators following them. The lions of Tarangire are also famous for being among the few tree climbing ones in its species. This promised us with some rich sights and being a nature/wildlife enthusiast, I was very keenly looking forward to it.

Having unloaded our luggage, set up the camp and after consuming an early lunch, we set off to have a look at what we could find in Tarangire.

It was a lovely start, indeed. The two main seasons were beautifully showcased in a stained glass artwork set up at the Tarangire park entrance.

Baobab (Adansonia) also known as monkey-bread tree
The first proper visual of the Baobab tree. Local lore was that as God was irritated with the tree, it was planted on Earth - upside down! The baobab, being of the deciduous type, especially in summer, minus the leaves does look upside down with the roots in the sky. Reputedly living for thousands of years, one of the key facts is that the tree stores thousands of litres of water inside the massive trunk to survive during summer and elephants especially love to bore holes into the trunk and suck the moisture to survive.

Tickets procured, we started driving into the park range.

Tarangire park range view 
The first thing, spotted was one of the most colourful birds in Africa. The Lilac breasted roller. Usually found alone and sometimes in pairs, this bird loves to sit on a high vantage position especially tree tops or poles, so it can search out ground based insects, lizards, scorpions, snails and rodents to hunt.

Lilac Breasted Roller (Coracias caudata)
Following this, I spotted a welcoming committee of Zebras, Wildebeests and Elephants. I would be seeing many more of these beautiful and sometimes strange animals over the next few days (more pictures and descriptions coming up later).

Young African female Elephant
It was a rather strange experience in being able to see these amazing creature so up close. My experience with nature has been such that usually, all creatures maintain a 'flight or fight' distance from humans and their natural predators. For most animals and birds, it is flight that they choose when an human intruder gets close. Here, they had gotten used to big black boxes on wheels, smelling of diesel and trundling along without harming them. As a result getting really close was possible and that's one of the charms of being here.

Next sighted was one of the varieties of Kingfishers that exist on this continent. The tree based Grey-headed Kingfisher which, unlike most Kingfishers, is not aquatic.

Grey-headed Kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala)
Driving a bit further on, I spotted one of the most striking antelopes, I had ever seen till date. The Roan antelope. Such a handsome fellow. Fearless. And in his prime.

Waterbuck  (Kobus ellipsiprymnus)
By this time, adrenaline had kicked in. Full steam. Absolute salivation. When such magnificent creatures were there to view, enjoy, capture on camera and with the comfort of being driven by, what more can an nature enthusiast ask?

A bit further down and there was this dappled, long legged fellow giving me the look. What could I do? I shot him, too.

It had been a good day so far. It was getting late and as with all parks, after sun-down ideally no humans should be anywhere inside. That being the case, we headed back to the camp. A shower, change of clothes and we were ready for our first safari dinner. Our cook had come up with a selection of assorted dishes that was simply put - tasty and filling. An avocado starter, main course of rice and chicken, followed by a mildly sweet dessert and coffee, left us feeling satiated and ready to hit the sleeping bags in our tents.

Dozing off to sleep was easy, given how tired I was. Plus, the thought that tomorrow will be more magnificent creatures to be spotted was exciting.

The adventure continues in the next post.

The Chances We Take. Or Not.

Book under review: Ahmed Faiyaz,  Another Chance Grey Oak Publishers, 2010 ISBN: 978-93-81626-02-3 Rs. 195 We all know...