“Daddy, wake up! I heard something!” Ava said while rustling me awake at one in the morning.
“I don’t hear anything.” I said sleepy eyed.
“Just outside our tent. Listen!”
Sure enough, I heard some footfalls that sounded faintly like ‘clopping’. Moon shadowed shapes danced across the fabric of our tent and I heard plants being pulled up from the ground around us like a group of gardeners hard at work.
“They’re most likely just some animals grazing. Nothing to be worried about. Probably not a lion or there would be roaring.”
“Probably not a lion!? I’m just a 9 year old little girl who has never heard a lion in her life. Can you check it out for me? I’m scared!”
As she needed to go pee (and I too which became a nightly occurrence when I hit 40) I slowly unzipped the tent and stuck my head out. In the moonlight all around our tent was a herd of a dozen Zebras that had snuck in and took advantage of the cool evening grasses in our camp. They let us pass without any confrontation to the bathroom and back again reminding us that anything can (and will) happen on safari.
Traveling from Zanzibar to Arusha
We gave ourselves two days to get from Zanzibar to Arusha which is the port city for safaris departing into northern Tanzania. As we’re on a budget, we originally thought we would do overland travel from Dar after the Zanzibar ferry to save money. There are a number of bus companies that offer transport between Dar Es Salaam and Arusha and most of them advertised trip times of 8 to 9 hours. However, most of the customer reviews who took the trip said it was really more like 12 to 13 hours and a bone rattling one at that, and advised against it. A one way ‘Precision Air’ flight for all three of us was $320 from Zanzibar town up to Arusha which was only $100 more than the ferry and busses put together. Add snacks, and taxis to the bus station from the seaport and the cost was essentially the same. A two night stopover in Arusha was more than ample to stock up on provisions before our foray into the bush.
We got picked up early from our hotel where we met our guide ‘China’ and the other guests for our trip. The first was a French couple named Lea and Jeremy who worked in IT, two Argentinian doctors named Berta and Victor, and lone Slovenian who joined us only for the first day. Having Berta and Victor was great for us to dust off our Spanish and after a few days the words and phrases poured out without having to think about translating phrases from English in my head. Lea and Jeremy were kind enough to throw a few licks of French at Ava. Ava’s French teacher, Mademoiselle Luu would be proud.
We drove west to Ngorongoro crater national park which is an ancient volcanic caldera and is one of Africa’s seven natural wonders. Its floor covers over 3,000 square miles and the wildlife that lives in the crater don’t migrate so it resembles a mini biome akin to ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’. We drove down from the edge into the bottom and were greeted by a herd of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles. Soon after spying them, we were surprised by the elegant ‘secretary bird’ and a group of warthogs. A herd of elephants greeted us and everywhere we looked were new species to be discovered.
We drove around finding creatures we only saw in zoos. A group of ostriches darted across the plain (males in black feathers the females in grey) and by late afternoon we found our first lion. It was a female panting heavily in the sun. China told us that lions are more active at night or dusk and spend their daytime hours in the shade trying to keep cool. Ava found a ‘lilac crested roller’ perched in the acacia bush.
“Do you know why it makes its nest there?” I asked Ava?
“I don’t know.” She replied.
“The acacia bush has sharp thorns, so building a nest there is protection from predators. The roller eats insects so they have a symbiotic relationship.“
“So they live together and benefit from each other?”
After a night of zebras invading our camp in our Ngorongoro rim camp site, we set off on a long drive to Serengeti national park. On the way, we passed by Olduvai gorge where the Leakeys fossil findings of the mid 20th century turned human evolutionary theory to fact. The first time I learned about Olduvai was in a freshman year anthropology class back at college in Iowa, and the site in northern Tanzania seemed so far away, it might as well have been another planet. Now, it was in front of us.
Serengeti National Park
At 15,000 square kilometers, Serengeti National Park is the third largest in Tanzania and is reputed to be the best place to see ‘big cats’. China said it was his favorite of all the parks. The vastness is what makes the Serengeti unique and soon after entering through the southern gate of Naabi we found a female cheetah and her two cubs in town on the prowl across the plain. We went to our campsite and set up camp so we could enjoy an evening safari. We saw random animals like dik-diks, jackals and black faced monkeys. We came across a small lion pride resting under a tree and a troop of baboons mixing with a herd of impalas.
“There is only one male with this group of impala.” China said.
“The males will compete through a duel and the winner will be the only male that will be with this group of females. He will mate with as many as possible until he is challenged again. Females will mate with the strongest and best looking impala.”
“Just like humans.” Jeremy said.
It was then that we witnessed quite possibly the most awesome scene in nature that we’ve seen in our entire lives- a duo of female lions stalking and killing a zebra.
It started slow, with the two lions separating and keeping low. The herd of zebras was making its way across a field down to a small creek in which hippos were wallowing. The hippos grunted.
“The hippos grunt to warn other animals of danger.” China said. We learned that wildebeest also co-mingle with zebras as the zebras have a better sense of smell and can alert the group (gnu) of impending danger. Another symbiotic relationship that keeps everyone alive. Usually.
One of the females worked her way around the side to flank the unsuspecting zebra. In this display, it was amazing to see cats worth together communally, patiently waiting for the right opportunity to strike and having learned the tactics to do so. From where we were, their strategy was more than apparent. One would flush the zebra to the other. But which would move first?
The lions crept from 50 meters to 40 meters to 30 meters to their prize. The zebra suspected something was amiss as it kept a steady gaze onto the field. The lions were far enough away from one another that they were not in the same field of view, so when the ungulate was watching the area near one of the cats, the other advanced low and to the ground. It would shift its gaze in the other direction and other one would move up. All told, the whole hunt took about 30 minutes. “That zebra is gone.” China said matter of factly and without remorse.
Before he could finish his sentence, the attack happened in a plume of dust, and it was over quick. As the zebra darted away from one of the females, it inadvertently ran into the arms of the other. The zebra’s defense is speed and kicking and when the ambushing lion was within reach, it launched its full weight on the rear haunch of the zebra weighing it down with its massive weight and claws to hold it steady. The zebra was unable to run, essentially being buckled down to its knees and within seconds the other lion was upon it with its teeth around the jugular. By the time the dust settled, the zebras thrashing went still. The nearby dazzle of zebras neighed their agast horror.
Fifteen minutes later, one of the blood covered females made her way back to pride to announce the dinner bell and other guarded their kill from the hyenas who had already caught the scent and advanced on the perimeter.
“How did that make you feel to see that Ava?”
“But, know this: the food will keep the lions fed and their baby cubs too. If there are too many zebras, they’ll eat too much of the vegetation. The lions keep the population of other animals down.“
“Are lions endangered, or are zebras?“
“Lions are vulnerable and their population is decreasing. Zebras are very plentiful. We have to make sure to protect lion populations as they are also the top predator and there are not many top predators in any ecosystem.”
The night in Serengeti was a good nights sleep and I was awoken at 5:00 am from a lion whose growling announced that, yes, a lion was in our camp for real this time. Somewhere behind the bathrooms best I could tell. I decided to let Ava sleep in until it wandered off.
We stopped at at Maasai village on the long drive to Tarangire national park. We were met by ‘Olle’ who was the chief’s son and had three distinct cut marks under his eyes. The villagers greeted us with a welcome dance and invited us to participate in their courtship displays of singing, dancing and jumping. The village was laid out in a high, circular perimeter fence with 15 mud huts made of thatch and wood and reinforced with mud. The Maasai practice polygamy and Olle confessed that he had 2 wives but wanted 3 more. We visited his house and met his family and I wondered how his wife felt about the prospect of sharing her husband with other females. Was there a kinship or sisterhood within which they could bond? Would they be nothing more than competitors for his affections? I was curious if any Maasai from his village were drawn to city live and left looking for a better life but I decided against asking.
“Ava, would you like to stay here?” Olle asked as Ava picked up a goat. “You could play with the goats and cows all you like.”
“How about I trade you Ava for some of your goats?” I said jokingly.
“For her, I would give 50 cows and 20 goats.”
“Oh yes, a young girl with her skin would be worth a lot.”
Tarangire National Park
Tarangire is known for its baobab trees and watering holes so it has a distinctly different feel than Ngorongoro and Serengeti. There were three large watering holes in Tarangire and they brought in herds of zebras, gazelles, elephants and giraffes so there was always a lot of action. The baobab is one of the strangest looking trees of the world and they can grow to be thousands of years old. The tree below was around at the time of christ.
At every location we camped, Ava was by far the youngest person in the camp with the next oldest being college students. One night at dinner, we walked in past a group of well-to-do looking travelers with our 9 year old in tow and the conversation fell to a hush. We saw this disapproval on their faces as their eyes narrowed as if to say:
“What kind of parents bring a child to Africa? Shouldn’t she be in school where she can learn something?“