To recap part one of our epic safari: We landed in Zanzibar, flew to Arusha, realized I had COVID, and continued on a socially-distanced safari.
Day 5: Ngorongoro Conservation Area: We woke up at Karatu Simba Lodge, in an area that was mostly agricultural, so no wild animals roaming around, which meant it was a good spot – and one of the only spots – to do a proper hike. We hiked on a trail to see the “Elephant Caves” and I don’t really recall seeing caves, and we certainly didn’t see elephants. But it was nice hiking on a nature trail down to a waterfall and back up again. Or, rather, if I was in a healthier state, it would have been nice. I was still feeling the effects of COVID, especially in my chest, so panting into a mask wasn’t ideal. But it was what it was.
Following the hike, we went on a game drive (this just means you’re trying to see animals) in the greater Ngorongoro Conservation area, which was when could really start to take in the scope of the zebra and wildebeest migration. It was pretty spectacular to see two (and sometimes three our four) different species making a journey side-by-side.
Each day we’d stop in a designated outdoor picnic area and eat a box lunch that our previous night’s lodge packed for us. Lunchtime at a picnic area was one of the only times we could get out of the safari vehicles as wild animals mostly don’t go near the picnic areas. They’ve never eaten a turkey sandwich or popcorn, so human food doesn’t hold much appeal. Except for the birds, who absolutely do want human food, like these enormous and rather frightening marabou storks (pictured below with our guide, Alladin).
Also, just a moment to say: The parks in Tanzania are so wonderfully maintained. Not a scrap of garbage and super clean bathroom facilities. I may have been the only person taking picture of toilets on a safari, but after living in Algeria for a while – where the public bathrooms leave everything to be desired, – I really appreciated not having every trip to the loo be a catastrophe.
We were pretty close to the Serengeti by nightfall and pulled into our lodge – the pop-up Tanzanian Bush Camp, located into the Ndutu marsh. Enjoyed a gin and tonic and listened to the sounds of the birds.
Day 6: Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti. This was the day we entered the famed Serengeti, and it was a super memorable day. Shortly after we left our lodge, while just outside the Serengeti, we came upon lions, like really close. Once in the Serengeti, all cars must stay on the roads. But in the Ngorongoro area, the guides can offroad, which means we could get right up close the animals, who shockingly, seemed to care about out presence not one bit.
After watching lions for a while, we drove on and almost immediately came upon a cheetah, just strolling about, looking for prey.
Shortly after that, we came upon a pair of lions, one male and one female. Alladin told us that these lions were “honeymooning,” or secluding themselves for five days, during which they’d mate about every 20 minuets! He said if we just waited this sleeping pair of lions out, we’d see some action. (And he pointed out that mating for lions “is not for fun”). We had to watch for about an hour, suggesting this pair were on the tail end of their honeymoon. But all of a sudden, the female lion woke up, stood up, and I could barely even get my camera ready in time, because the act lasted about 11 seconds!
We checked into Matawi Serengeti Camp, in a gorgeous location in the heart of the Serengeti. I’m pretty sure we had the camp to ourselves, and we suspected others had cancelled because of COVID. Adam got a workout in inside our tent while mongoose ran the perimeter. Then some beers and a really yummy dinner.
Day 7: Serengeti: The next morning, we took off on another magical day. By day seven of seeing animals, I almost started to feel that this was just our life – being driven around stunning landscapes that are teeming with life. The Lion King soundtrack was on constant repeat in my head. See a warthog, sing “When I was a young warthog!/When he was a young warthog!” See a pair of lions mating, sing “Can you feel the looove tonight?” Sing Hakuna Matata every time someone tells you “hakuna matata,” which is a lot. And for all the other moments: The Circle of Life, because Elton John couldn’t have nailed it any harder: From the wobbly just-born wildabeest, to the fighting bulls, to the zebra and antelope skulls littering the plains, the circle of life is on full display in this part of Africa.
At this point, we’d seen a ton of giraffes, elephants, zebra, wildabeest, and a good number of lions, a cheetah, and a leopard from a distance. But we hadn’t seen a single hippo, at least not up close. That would change when we stopped at a rest stop located next to a stinking pond filled with a bloat of hippos. It was very fun to watch this belching, enormous, snaggle-toothed, adorable creatures. And yes, it is apparently true what you’ve heard: That hippos are the most deadly of the animals, at least the most deadly to humans. Our guide confirmed that the only time he’s heard of a human dying on a safari in recent years was when a woman was walking to her room in her lodge at night and she came upon a hippo. Apparently she was in between the hippo and a river, which is a big no-no and and he chomped her in half. Hippos have such sensitive skin that they must be in the water all day long, or the sun will fry them. So they So having easy access to the water is a much. They wait until it’s dark to eat, and they only eat grass. It’s truly baffling how these vegetarians are as fat as they are.
We were a little tired of the box lunch deal every day – a sandwich, nuts, an apple, a cake – so we went back to our lodge for lunch and they made us hot and cheesy veggie pizzas. It was the first time in weeks I’d eaten cheese, and I never go weeks without eating cheese. It really hit the spot! After lunch and a nap, we went back out into the wild, saw some more beautiful things, including lions on a big rock, overlooking the plains for a meal.
Day 8: Serengeti. This final day in the Serengeti, we continued to enjoy driving around in nature, and peeping the hot air balloons that cost an arm and a leg to go up in. Seeing the animals from a different perspective did sound appealing but maybe not $600 a person appealing.
Soon it was time to leave the park to drive to our final lodging place: Lion’s Paw, a stunning lodge nestled in an Acacia forest overlooking the Nogorongoro Crater. On the long drive there, we stopped at an overlook into the crater, and it just looked like a faraway, lush basin. It was hard to tell this basin was chock-full of animals, but we’d get an up-close view of them the following day.
And the Lion’s Paw was our favorite place we stayed, in no small part because of the Messai welcome we received when we stopped out of the vehicle.
Day 9: Ngorongoro Crater, Return to Arusha: The following morning was a final full-day game drive in the spectacular Nogorongoro Crater, and then we’d drive back to Arusha. The only large animal we hadn’t yet seen was a rhino, and our guide told us Nogorongoro Crater was the place to see them. But, as was the case in the Serengeti, there were established roads in the crater on which we had to stay. So when we finally sighted the illusive rhino several football fields away, there was no way to get closer, so we had to just enjoy the sleek and hulking creature from afield.
But no matter, because we saw spectacular animals all day long – more hippos, warthogs, a jackal, which looks just like a fox, tons of zebras and elephants. It was awesome.
Being in the crater gave me the feeling on being on a big movie set. Or maybe the Hunger Games arena. All of these ecosystems inside one giant crater (really a caldera) hemmed in by mountains. After a full day of driving around in this spectacular setting, it was time to get on the highway and head back to Arusha. After many hours of driving on the highway, we took the exceedingly bumpy road back into the calm and cozy Researcher’s Rest. The epic safari — really a trip of a lifetime — was over. Sitting in a comfy chair where it all started, trying to just begin to process wall we had seen was the order of the evening. On that last night, we met an Italian photographer who was just starting his 60th trip to Tanzania. Not only was it a delight to finally talk to someone — really we met zero people on this socially-isolated trip — but to hear his lessons learned from a lifetime as a nature photographer was so special. He basically picks out an animal or pack of animals on his first day on safari and will spend a week trying to tail the same animal/animals. This is how gets spectacular photos, and many of those photos lined the walls of the Researcher’s Rest.
The following morning, we were on a plane to Zanzibar for what was supposed to be a four-night stay, but turned into a longer one because of some COVID testing confusion.
To seeing all the animals in the wild,