We’re in Africa

From Ngorongoro we drove to Olduvai Gorge, then north to our camp in Alamana.  It would be a long day of driving starting at 8:30.

Driving west down the Ngorogoro highlands, giraffes browsed in the acacia woodland. Do you see six giraffes?  We played see and count the animals with our guide, and he always won.  The first person would say “I see a giraffe at 2:00!” “I see two!” Our guide would say “I see six”, and we’d eventually see the six.

six giraffes
six giraffes
Don't you think this is my better side?
Don’t you think this is my better side?

Almost every tree or shrub we saw was an acacia, all with thorns.  Giraffes browse on acacia buds and leaves despite the thorns.

Driving across the savannah, we saw some diagonal lines in the distance.

giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains
giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains

At first, I couldn’t tell whether these were animals.  Watching them longer, they moved, confirming they’re animals. The neck and legs are long and thin — giraffes.  The necks lean the same direction, so they’re walking or running together.  Traveling in a single file, they’re migrating.  Giraffes migrating across the Serengeti plains — we’re in Africa.

The plains are brown and dry.  Although we visited between the short rains and the long rains of the wet season, rainfall has been scant, so there’s no grass here for grazing wildebeests and zebras.

At Olduvai Gorge, streams cut through several geologic layers, exposing old formations.

Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge

From Wikipedia, “Olduvai Gorge is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world and has been instrumental in furthering the understanding of early human evolution. This site was occupied by homo habilis approximately 1.9 million years ago, paranthropus boisei 1.8 million years ago, and homo erectus 1.2 million years ago. Homo sapiens are dated to have occupied the site 17,000 years ago.”

We listened to a talk, visited a small museum, and walked through the gorge to the excavation site.

After lunch, we drove north cross country across the short-grass plains, until the acacia woodland, where we turned to head for camp. Cross country means no roads. We drove off-road for three hours across the Serengeti, navigating by bearing and mountain landmarks. We saw no fences, no rivers, no walls, no roads. Africa is a vast land.

On a game drive, the three cars drive parallel and radio the others when they spot something interesting.

In the acacia woodland, another car spotted a cheetah and radioed us. As our car pulled up, the cheetah ran. Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal, accelerating to 60 mph in 3 seconds. I had time for only one picture before it disappeared into the brush.  (400 mm, 1/1600 sec, f/9) We searched for the cheetah, but it had vanished.

running cheetah
running cheetah

Here’s a higher resolution image cropped from the photo.

fleeting cheetah
fleeting cheetah close-up

We also saw a tawny eagle and Coke’s hartebeest.

tawny eagle
tawny eagle
Coke's Hartebeest
Coke’s Hartebeest

We pulled into camp at Alamana just before 6:00 pm — a long day on the Serengeti. But we would be at camp in Maasai lands for four nights before moving on.

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Half a black rhino

Another blogger, originalribenababy, commented that we were “Very very very lucky to see a rhino in Tanzania! Wow.” She’s traveled to Tanzania and just posted her Uganda gorilla tracking experience.  She’s right.  Finding a black rhino is difficult — there are only six in Ngorongoro Crater.  The Crater is large, and vehicles must stay on the roads.  Her comment brought to mind our search for the black rhino.

Shortly after breakfast in Ngorongoro Crater, our guide pulled to the side of the road, stood up to see out the roof hatch, and stared intently through his binoculars.

“There’s a black rhino!” he finally declared.

“Where?”

“See the zebra to the right of the trees?  Line up with the zebra; then look beyond the zebra.”

At first I couldn’t find the zebra, much less the rhino beyond it. With much help, I finally saw a dark object in the distance beyond the zebra.

“How do you know that’s a black rhino?”

“From the horn sticking up!”

We peered through our binoculars, looking for the horn. Some times we could see a horn, and other times not. I snapped some pictures. Our guide radioed the other two cars, and they came and looked. The nine people in the cars couldn’t spot the black rhino. To be fair, the zebra landmark had probably moved on.

Our guide asked “Did I show you a black rhino?”  There was pressure on him to show us a black rhino.

“Well, we might have seen a horn sticking up, but the other guides didn’t see it.  We’ll give you half a black rhino.”

Were we too hard on our guide, or too easy, on that day in Ngorongoro?

Here’s a photo of the black rhino, taken with a 400 mm lens on a Canon 40D, handheld on a warm, summer day. With the camera configuration, the lens has an effective length of 640 mm. A long telephoto lens, and this is all you get.

rhino in the distance?
black rhino?

See the black blob to the left of the two zebras?  With a horn sticking up on the right?  This is about what I saw through the camera viewfinder. Could we tell the folks at home “Oh yeah, we saw a black rhino.”  wink, wink.

The original photo has more resolution than the ‘black rhino?’ image.  ‘black rhino (cropped)’ is cropped from the original photo, showing the resolution of the original photo. Two zebras are easy to identify.  Is that a rhino next to them?

black rhino crop
black rhino (cropped)

But I didn’t review this photo at full resolution that day in the Crater.  The count remained at a half a black rhino.  The pressure was still on our guide to show us a black rhino.

In the late afternoon, as we were racing for the exit road to avoid a huge fine for overstaying our visit to the Crater, we saw a black rhino ambling along. Here’s the photo, again at 400 mm.

black rhino
standing black rhino

Looks like a rhino. The image below shows the higher resolution of the original photo. Now the rhino is more clear. Rhinos are kind of cute, in their own way!

standing black rhino (crop)
standing black rhino (crop)

We told our guide we’d count one black rhino. He smiled broadly. The pressure was off, until the next day on safari in Africa.

Ngorongoro Crater

We spent an entire day in Ngorongoro Crater, rising early to be at the entrance gate before dawn, and staying until 6:00 pm. Here’s an Abdim’s stork on a candelabra tree, colored by the predawn light.

Abdim's stork on candelabra tree
Abdim’s stork on candelabra tree

Here’s the crater from the crater rim. The crater is large and flat, surrounded by steep rim walls. We would drive around the crater.

Ngorongoro Crater from entry gate
Ngorongoro Crater from entry gate

For some people, Ngorongoro Crater was the highlight of their safari.  We saw more kinds of animals that day, than we would see on any other day. Seeing an animal for the first time on safari is special, and the introduction gets you ready to see more.

Two previous posts cover a lion family and grey-crowned crane.

Zebras and more lions.  Zebras are smart and darling. The small brownish zebra is a baby. The brown fades away with age. Lion pictures include a lioness hunting in vain.

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A wildebeest mother and baby.

baby wildebeest nursing

Cape buffalo are part of the big five.

cape buffalo
cape buffalo

Africa has ostriches.  Females are brown.  When an ostrich drinks, it raises its head to drain the water down its throat.  See the drops of water dribbling from its mouth as it raises its head.  Ostriches have powerful kicks.

ostrich drinking
ostrich drinking

The critically endangered black rhino.  Indeed, we didn’t see black rhinos after leaving Ngorongoro Crater.

black rhino
critically endangered black rhino

This spotted hyena drank and then marked territory in the water, so that other animals knew it had been there. Other animals don’t associate closely with hyenas.

spotted hyena drinking
spotted hyena drinking

A family at risk

In Ngorongoro Crater we found some lions lying in tall grass. The first lion is emaciated. See how the rear haunches are hollow and sunken.

emaciated lion
emaciated lion

The second lion is a female in good condition.

lioness
lioness

A third lion was on the other side of the tall grass.  This lion is also in bad shape — see the ribs showing.

emaciated lion with ribs showing
emaciated lion with ribs showing

In the afternoon we returned and saw a male lion by the same tall grass. From viewing the original image, the dark spots on his leg and side are sores and flies.

male lion by tall grass
male lion by tall grass

Our guide thinks that the female lion is the mother of the two other lions. We were surprised by the poor condition of the lions, especially since the crater floor has a high density of animals for the lions to hunt. Our guide was so concerned about the lions that he asked park rangers to look at them.

We researching this at home. In this 2004 BBC article,

“In large carnivores like lions, one might expect food supply to be the main limiting factor. But in recent years, disease is a more likely restriction, according to Bernard Kissui and Craig Packer, of the University Minnesota, US.

There are probably enough prey animals like buffalo in the Ngorongoro Crater to support about 120 lions.

But at various times over the last 40 years lion numbers have dropped well below that – and in the last 10 years there have rarely been more than 60 in the crater.

Kissui and Packer believe that disease is the biggest culprit in this population dip.

In 1962, the crater lion population crashed from about 100 to 12, which coincided with an outbreak of blood-sucking stable flies.”

From Parker’s study of Ngorognoro lions, “large swarms of adult Stomoxys became common throughout the Crater floor and the lions appeared to be a preferred host. The emaciated lions developed devastating skin infections and were unable to hunt their normal prey. By June 1962, the population had dropped to 10-15 animals.”

Lions brought down and killed by blood-sucking flies. Wow! We did notice biting flies, biting the back of your hand while you’re holding still, ready to take a picture when the subject animal turns its head.

On the road to Ngorongoro

We traveled from Lake Manyara to Ngorongoro Crater in three Land Cruisers. Each person had a window seat and a roof hatch to pop your head up.

We stopped at the gate to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for paperwork, where a troop of baboons wandered by.  The baboon seems almost human.  The image is cropped from a photo taken with a 400 mm lens. The baby baboon looks safe and secure atop the mother.

baboon eyes
baboon eyes
baboon mother and baby
baboon mother and baby

We drove into the Conservation Area and stopped to watch elephants grazing at dusk. The elephants got closer and closer…

elephant at dusk
elephant at dusk
elephant next to our car
elephant next to our car
elephant with Bob and Toni
elephant with Bob and Toni

Our car moved forward, and the elephant walked behind our car. In the photo you can see our car and the car behind us.  The elephant passed between the cars. From the car and people, you can see how large the elephant and tusks are.

elephant behind our car
elephant behind our car

An exciting end to our first day on safari.

Serengeti safari

In late February we went on our first African safari.  A friend who has gone on several safaris suggested Tanzania since it has well-known places like the Serengeti plains, Ngorongoro crater, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Olduvai Gorge.

We chose a tour covering the northern Tanzania safari circuit:

  • Lake Manyara National Park. Home to tree-climbing lions and many kinds of birds.
  • Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area includes Ngorongoro Crater (the world’s largest caldera) and the Olduvai Gorge (the site where the early human remains were found.
  • Serengeti National Park.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the great migration, the largest herds of grazing animals in the world and the carnivores that prey on them.
Serengeti safari map
Serengeti safari map

Future posts will discuss our experience and show wildlife pictures.

Other tour members asked us how we chose the tour.  So, how do you choose a safari when you’ve never been on one?  Two years ago we selected a tour of Egypt and Jordan, and we used the same process to choose the safari.  Our approach is to gather highly qualified candidates and then make the selection based on value.

Two noted travel magazines, Travel + Leisure and National Geographic Traveler, rate safari operators.  We compared northern circuit safaris from highly rated safari operators and calculated the value, the cost per night of lodging.  Some tour operators play games with the number of days, counting travel days as part of the package — nights of lodging levels the playing field.  Of the highly rated companies, one had a value (cost per night of lodging) that was significantly better than the others.  We chose that company.

The selected safari also stays on Maasai lands next to the Serengeti National Park. Staying on Maasai lands offers bush walks, off-road travel, night game drives, open vehicles, and cultural interchanges with the Maasai. Last year, on a shady bench on the Dubrovnik harbor, we chatted with a couple who told us about their safari experience.  The woman said the most exciting thing on the safari was the bush walk — she always walked right behind the guy with the rifle! Sounds like great advice.