Friday, July 26, 2013

Tanzania - Safari!

The journey from Iceland to the start of our safari in Tanzania was routed to be one of longest of our journey. We were leaving Reykjavik and flying through Munich, up to Frankfurt, down to Ethiopia, down to Johannesburg, up to Tanzania and over to Kilimanjaro where our safari guide was meeting us. All things considered the trip was pretty uneventful. We had no flight delays which could have really messed up all of our connections and no major travel issues. We spent one night in Johannesburg and the next morning took an early flight to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The best part of the trip by far wasn't when a freakishly kind woman offered us her aisle seat for our middle so Hannah and I could sit together, nor was it the layover in Munich with German beer, but it was the fact that we few on a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner! Yes, it had extra legroom, more overhead storage, and the windows had an automatic tint button rather than a window shade. We were loving it, or at least I was....Hannah couldn't give two shits.

Arriving Kili (as the locals call Kilimanjaro) was the beginning of our African culture shock. The airports to this point had varied from very well stocked with restaurants and shopping (Reykjavik, Munich, Frankfurt, Johannesburg) to smoky, dilapidated, and unorganized (Ethiopia, Dar Es Salaam). Kili was not much more than a runway and a building with baggage claim. It wasn't clear to us yet, or we hadn't actually perceived of how we were going to spend the next 10 days with one other person. We were going from a twosome, spending 8 days driving around Iceland to a threesome, in a jeep, driving around Tanzania with one other companion....we realized quickly that this could make or break our experience. Killerai was our new traveling buddy, our guide, our driver, and the one who would keep us safe and educate us over this adventure.
We experienced our first culture shock as Killerai drove through the town of Kilimanjaro to Arusha where we'd spend the night. The town of Arusha is large by Tanzanian standards. To us, it was like being in a village...but our perception would change rapidly in the upcoming days. This town was a big city compared to what we would be exposed to. There was cattle being herded down the streets, thatched roofs comprised most establishments. There were fires burning on the sides of the streets to dispose of garbage and excess leaves.
Our home for the next 9 days.

Herd on the move in Kilimanjaro.

We had booked our safari through Mark Thornton Safaris. Mark is an American expat who has lived and run his company in Tanzania and Cape Town for 20 years. He personally creates and tailors each safari for his clients based on their personal preferences and what they want to get out of the experience. In my weeks of emails and investigation of different companies his stood out as having a unique personal touch and Mark was able to read over email what we would enjoy and benefit most from. Rather than flying into one or two regions and staying in a luxury lodge for 3 days, doing day "game drives" and returning to the same lodge as most companies do, our safari was a journey. Setting off each morning to a new destination, game driving the entire day. Through the course of our safari we stayed in 6 different camps, traveled 800 miles over dirt and gravel roads (we saw a paved road once in 8 days), and saw several different regions of Tanzania.

Killerai turned out to be a great guide as well as companion. It was amazing how someone who had only really learned English at 18 (he was now 31) could speak perfectly and also be able to understand humor and be able to joke, kid, and tease back with you. Killerai had studied wildlife management in University so we were in great hands when it came to teaching us about every plant, bird, and animal we came across. His father was also a Maasai, which is the dominant tribe in the area. This armed him with an endless amount of knowledge of the Maasai tribal customs. We saw these tribespeople and even spent time in village markets and interacting with them throughout the trip.
That night we were put up in a luxury lodge style hotel in Arusha, about 45 minutes from Kili. Our first experience with Tanzanian hospitality was interesting as we found them to be incredibly attentive....actually over attentive. It was common to be introduced to our room with a full tour of every single nook and cranny, including beds, mosquito nets, how to work the safe, how to turn on each light, how to apply bug spray, how to flush the toilet, turn on the water, turn off the water, the list goes on and on. Each instruction was also followed with a "you're welcome", which we tried to answer each time with a "thank you", but this became tiresome. We started to assume it mean something more like "you are welcome to use the toilet", or "you are welcome to use this light switch", or "you are welcome to lie here in the bed".

We drove out of Arusha in our reinforced Land Rover, stopping for a few provisions. As we left Arusha we were amazed at how the "city" people lived, most with electricity, but some without. There was cattle that seemed to be roaming freely in the streets and dogs, chickens, and other animals wandering around. There were fires burning on the sides of roads. At a service station where we got "juice", as Killerai called gas, there was a group of guys stripping the rubber off tires to re-use the wheel well and use the old tires to sell for scrap rubber to be used for sandals and probably many other things. As we left the Arusha city limits we were stopped by a police officer who made Killerai get out of the car. At this point Hannah and I realized the true feeling of vulnerability. We were in the Land Rover with all of our bags and valuables while local people wandered by and peered in the windows. The fear that at any point someone could jump in the car, steal our valuables, and potentially drive off with us in the car was completely irrational, but still floated through our heads. Killerai returned after paying a nominal fine for "a reflector being too small", an obvious shakedown and symbol of Tanzanian police corruption.
As we got further and further from Arusha the roads became more and more rural and the population became more sparse. We would see children with herds of goats or cattle walking towards Arusha to sell them in the local markets. Also in the distance were Maasai bomas where a family of one man, many wives, and their children lived.
That afternoon we had our first lunch in the bush where Killerai set up a great spread of sandwiches, fruit, veggies, and salads on the hood of the truck. This would become a common setting for lunch over the next 8 days. The company had packed an amazing hot pepper and olive oil sauce similar to chimichurri that Killerai called "the real mccoy". The real mccoy became a staple of every meal we had together.

Later that day as we moved further towards our first game driving destination was the outskirts of the Tarrangire National Park we came across some of the most special encounters we would have on our trip. When passing through a Maasai village we happened to be there at the right time to see a real village market in full swing. We were very leery of hopping out of the jeep and walking around but Killerai insisted it would be fine and a great thing to experience. He was right. It wasn't like a market set up to greet and expect the tourists to come through waving handfulls of cash and looking to buy handmade scarves that were actually made in China. This was a real market where local Maasai from villages as far as 20 miles away would walk with their cattle, handmade goods, spices, and foods to either sell or barter for other items they would need. Goat meat was being cooked over an open fire on sticks, including every part of the animal, bags of homemade gin (moonshine) were sold. One man was so drunk on that he continued to incoherrently talk to me in Swahili (the Swahili would have been incoherent to me whether or not he was drunk). A tent was set up with a gas powered generator and hundreds of cell phones were being charged for about $1/piece. No one has electricity in the villages yet everyone has cell phones so the only way to charge them is to bring them to the weekly market. The children in the market were the most fun. They would walk up to us, touch our skin, look at our clothes, and some would bow to us, expecting us to rub their heads. This show of affection among the others that we experienced were things that we will forever remember about this time.
One of the most special experiences in our entire week was when we crossed paths on a remote dirt trail with a group of young warriors headed to a wedding ceremony in a village in the area. They were dressed in their traditional dress and were "clean" as Killerai described them, which was actually the glisten of some type of animal fat rubbed on the skin, as showers and bathing aren't possible in the tribal areas due to the arid conditions. We pulled off the road to speak to these young men and Killerai asked them if they would dance for us. They proceeded to do their ritualistic dances for us and also draped Hannah and me in their linens for our pictures. The most interesting thing about this experience was that the warriors wanted us to take their pictures also, so they could see what they looked like. Then it donned on us, they had no mirrors, they had no electricity, and rarely saw themselves, front and back. They then hovered around Hannah while she scrolled through the pictures that she had taken. They also used the side view mirrors of our jeep to get a glimpse of their faces, decorated for the wedding.

Showing off the adornments on their back.
As happy as they were, they would never smile in pictures.
2 new tribe members.
Shortly after we the warriors went on their way we saw our first wildlife siting. It was very special to see giraffes eating a tree right off the dirt trail we were on but we had no idea how common this would be over the next 8 days.

Our first night we stayed in one of Mark Thornton's own "wilderness camps" outside the Tarrangire Wildlife Conservation Area. Mark hand picks camping spots that are miles and miles away from where you would ever see another human, unless there happens to be a Maasai wandering through with a herd of cattle. A crew of 2 or 3 goes ahead of your safari vehicle and sets up the camp and awaits your arrival. By the time we arrived at the camp our tent had been set up, the shower had been hung in an enclosed tent, the toilet hole had been dug, and dinner was on the fire. These camps are very intimate and because it was set up for only Hannah and I it felt like our own camping trip. Several times throughout the night in these tents we'd here rumblings outside and be shocked to see buffalo or even elephants walking right through our camp.
Fireside jam session.
Breakfast served hot first thing in the morning by the Mark Thornton crew.
The mornings following our stays at the Mark Thornton wilderness camps we did an after breakfast game walk. One morning we ascended an amazing mountain right in the vicinity of our camp. We were led by Killerai and a Massai warrior who was with us for his knowledge of the terrain and the surroundings. It was amazing to watch this warrior lead our path. He walked up the steepest ravines with little effort while wearing sandals made of used tire rubber. He also was able to spot animals so far away that we could barely make them out even after he showed them to us. Armed with only a spear, he was adept at fending off any animal attack. The Maasai only wear bright colors of red and blue in order to make the animals aware of their presence, rather than the khaki colors that safariers wear to camouflage. The Massai don't know their ages exactly but Killerai assumed he was close to 60 years old.
Other nights we stayed in luxury tented lodges which were set up in the middle of the Serengeti or Tarrangire National Parks for safari tourism. They were much more luxurious than we would have ever expected. Our tents had full bathrooms, beds with plush linens and blankets, and solar powered lighting. Taking a shower in our tent was always an experience. The shower started by a camp staff member carrying over enough hot water from the wood fired stove heating it up. About halfway through our showers we would stop the water to avoid wasting it as we soaped up. We then heard the voice of god asking us if we needed more water. Apparently the staff waited outside our shower while we used it and was available to cart over more water if needed. The first time this happened was a total shock and Hannah just about ran out of the tent naked and screaming. The subsequent times it was reduced to an uncomfortable fact of life that we were never able to have a relaxing shower because we were being monitored and our shadows were being observed.
We spent our days driving from destination to destination, observing wildlife all day every day. No matter where we were, in a park or on a dirt road in the middle of a journey, we had the chance of running into any number of animals. We saw countless giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, antelopes, gazelles, elephants, warthogs, lions, buffalo, the list goes on and on.

One of the best moments was when Hannah saw her first elephant, her favorite animal. Up to this point she had only seen elephants on paper as they are her favorite (also only) animal to draw. She always named her drawings of elephants Fred, so naturally this is what we called our first elephant.
She wasn't so excited to see this elephant!
The King of the jungle!
Baboons! They jumped into our jeep and stole our cookies! This one was trying to steal something else.
Throughout the trip we traveled about 800 miles by jeep, just Hannah, Killerai, and I. Somehow Killerai managed to navigate dirt trail after dirt trail and always got us to our next destination. It was always Hannah in the back seat, where she liked to make sure we all had enough water and cookies, and where she made sure all of our phones and cameras were keeping charged. It was Jon in the passenger seat trying to stay awake on the long rides...Hannah caught me dozing off several times a day. We'd stop every few hours to "check the tires", as Killerai liked to say...and every ride we'd have our eyes peeled for the next animal siting.

We never saw the elusive rhino, not for lack of trying. We spent hours on several consecutive days with our eyes and hearts set intently looking for the rare, endangered animal. After our long safari when we were back in Dar Es Salaam for a one night layover before heading to Capetown I awoke at 4am startled. I shook Hannah and told her to keep quiet, there was a rhino in our room. She made it as clear as she could that we were in a hotel room and there was no rhino in the room with us. I am happy to be lucky enough to see one but also sad for Hannah that she missed it.

After 8 amazing days of driving, dust, dirt, hot days, cold nights, animals, and good company, it was time to say goodbye to Killerai and head off to our next destination. We drove to the airstrip early that morning and did one final game drive on the way, seeing a leopard eating a gazelle to end our trip on a high note. The plane pulled into the landing strip in Serengeti National Park at about 12pm, after waiting for 3 hours and wondering if it was ever going to show up. As we left the park and headed for Arusha and our connection to Kili we made 2 more stops to pick up other passengers. Our pilot told us he had 8 landings and take offs that day. We were sad to say goodbye to our new friend Killerai, but we were ready for our next adventure in Capetown!

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