lake masek

Wildebeest Migration – Tanzania

On our last full safari day, we had a singular goal. We were going to spend some time observing the migration. By this time on the trip, the thought of spending hours in the Land Cruiser was becoming less shiny and new. We adored seeing the animals, but we were growing weary of bouncing along the dusty plains. If our trip had been longer, we might have spent the day relaxing around camp instead, but we had one full day left and we weren’t going to squander it because our tushies were tired. After breakfast, we loaded up and headed out.IMG_6824We had to drive for a while, away from the lakes and the hill area, back onto the plains. Eventually, on the horizon we began to make something out, a line of marching creatures. Ammy told us that the wildebeest often travel single file because otherwise they would trample all their grazing land. And, sure enough, all over the plains we witnessed narrow animal trails leading to open land filled with fresh grasses where individuals would separate and graze. We cruised closer to them, causing some of them to run as they crossed in front of us, not wanting to break with their herd or be left behind. Video here. 

Wildebeest and zebra travel together. The wildebeest are great at finding water but their eyesight is poor, which leaves them vulnerable to predators. Zebras have great eyesight for spotting danger, but aren’t so adept at finding the water they need every day or two for survival. So these two creatures work together. Too bad groups of humans can’t figure out how better to work together for mutual benefit.

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Wildebeest and zebra…like peanut butter and jelly

I am known in my family for making animal noises when I see that animal. I blame it on the Fisher-Price See ‘n Say toy I had as a child. Because of it, I moo with greater frequency than most people. I am also the annoying person who ends up mimicking someone’s accent quite unintentionally. So imagine my glee when I realized that wildebeest sound similar to cattle but with a slightly different accent. When we would park to observe the wildebeest eating and playing, I would have to make gnu sounds to see if they would gnu back. They usually would. Here’s one time when my gnuing got them going…enjoy the sounds of the wildebeest.

After a lot of driving around (chasing a migration is a lot of work), we landed back at the camp for lunch. We discussed how we wanted to spend our last afternoon on safari. Half of our party decided they wanted to relax and unwind, and who could blame them after 8 days in a Land Cruiser? Steve, the boys, and I decided, however, that we had serious fear of missing out, so Ammy graciously took the four of us out for one last game drive.

We had in mind a trip to Lake Ndutu to see the flamingos so we started to head there and first happened upon a giraffe trying to get a drink, its crazy long legs making the simple task an exercise in grace and flexibility.

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Curtsey to get a drink

Eventually we made our way to Lake Ndutu to see the flamingos we’d not been able to photograph the day before on our way in. Lake Ndutu is a saltwater lake filled with briny shrimp on which both greater and lesser flamingos dine. There were many flamingos that day, but most were not close enough to photograph. Even when you can capture them, they are not the most helpful of subjects, their heads dipping under the water to feed.

IMG_6862 2As we were wrapping up our drive and heading back to our camp, Ammy drove us closer to the shore of Lake Masek where we were staying. Some wildebeest had been attempting to cross the lake the previous day. Most made it. Some were not successful, and their carcasses washed up near the shore opposite where they began their crossing. Along the shoreline, it was The Lion King all over again as we got to witness the end of the circle of life. Scavengers were doing their job, dining on the wildebeests who hadn’t survived their crossing. There were vultures and hyenas and those crazy marabou storks I mentioned in my last post. Did you know there are carrion storks? I didn’t. As my sister-in-law pointed out, that kind of puts a different spin on the whole idea of having a stork deliver a baby. It seems that could end badly. Still, the storks provide a necessary service. In the US, we might see an area where animals are repeatedly dying and think, “Whoa! We need to fix this.” In Tanzania, they choose to allow nature to do what nature does naturally. It makes sense. I think about the massive overpopulation of deer in some of our northern states, an overpopulation that now results in an appalling number of deer versus automobile accidents. Deer overpopulation occurs when you eliminate their natural predators, natural predators humans eradicated because they also occasionally gnawed on livestock. We interrupted the natural order to solve one problem and inadvertently caused another. Mess with Mother Nature and inevitably she will mess with you.

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Marabou storks

Ahead of us on the road where we were watching the vultures, storks, and hyenas at the all-you-can-eat wildebeest buffet, one hyena laid down to rest in the afternoon shade. Something about the way she was positioned, head on her paws, eyes barely able to remain open, reminded me of our dog. I decided that people who don’t like hyenas are people who don’t get hyenas. They’re actually quite likable once you get to know them.

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Spot

We called it a wrap on our day and returned to camp disappointed that our safari was over but grateful for the opportunities we’d had. We got cleaned up and headed to the dining area for drinks and one last dinner with Ammy. We would miss him too. I wasn’t looking forward to saying goodbye to any of Tanzania, landscape, animals, or people.

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Africa family portrait

That night, as I curled up one last time under the mosquito netting we had grown accustomed to, we were once again serenaded by the hyenas. I had to wonder if one of them was the little lady we saw waiting on the road. In the morning we would pack up and head back to Arusha and then finally return to Kilimanjaro International Airport for our flight home. I didn’t want to leave, but the thought of perhaps at last catching a glimpse of Kilimanjaro gave me something positive on which to focus as I drifted off.

 

 

Onward From The Serengeti To Lake Masek

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On the road again

All good things must come to an end, and so it was with our time on the Serengeti. As our trip began to wind down, the reality of leaving Tanzania in a few days time began to weigh heavy on my heart. An African safari, like a trip to the Galapagos, is one of those things people call a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sad truth of it is, though, that I had left the Galapagos wanting to return, and the same thing was feeling true of Africa. Still, we had two days of exploration left, so I tried to shut it out of my brain and live in the moment.

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I can’t decide if it’s their tiny ears, they dark eyes, or the face markings that get me

On our way out of the park, we stopped to watch our cheetah friends one last time. The momma in me stood in solidarity with this momma and recognized the hard work she had done to raise these four cubs. Cheetahs have a tough go of it on the Serengeti. While they are fast, they are not as formidable as other big cats and often lose their prey to other predators and scavengers. So, I took a minute to be proud of this momma for all she had done to help ensure the survival of her family. I took a video of them so I would always have them, and on we went, passing some reedbucks who posed for us on a termite mound as they kept watch for predators.

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In the national parks in Tanzania, tourist vehicles pay for an allotted time in the park. We had two days in the Serengeti. We had to be out of the park at a specific time or we would be charged for another day. Day passes for tourists are not cheap, so guides have to plan carefully to keep you on schedule for your departure. Ammy was working to get us out of the Serengeti on time that morning but, as we passed a rocky outcropping, we spied on top of a rock a momma lion and her cub. It was our Lion King moment. I imagine Ammy, silently defeated, was doing the math in his head, trying to determine how long we could sit and watch these lions. But, come on. Lion King.

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Little Simba on top of Pride Rock…am I right?

As soon as Ammy was able to pull us away from this scene, he began hauling it out of the Serengeti. I’m talking like 45 miles an hour on dirt roads for an hour. The top was still open, as were some windows in the heat of the late morning sun. After a while, it occurred to me that the breeze I was enjoying in my hair might not be such a bright idea. I tried to cover my head with a scarf, reminiscent of the women in movies in the 1960s riding in convertibles. Still, later it would take me 20 minutes of painful and painstaking work to comb the knots from my hair. For the record, Ammy did get us out of the park in time…with six minutes to spare.

We were headed towards two lakes in the northern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek, the latter of which would be our home for two nights. This is where the wildebeest migration is at this time of the year, and we were hoping to witness some of it. As we grew closer to the Ngorongoro region, we began seeing more wildlife, cape buffalo and elephants, along with wildebeest and zebra.

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Take a picture. It’ll last longer.

I never stopped being amazed by the elephants. African elephants are massive. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how big they are until you are right there with them. This photo offers a little perspective. This big guy was crossing behind the Land Cruiser. Imagine if he had been next to it.

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We humans are tiny

We finally wound our way back into the conservation area. While we were confined to roads as much as possible in the Serengeti, Ammy was free to go off road here to get us into the wild and closer to the animals. This was our first opportunity to approach the migration and witness it first hand. It’s hard to get a scope of the migration on the ground. It’s even more difficult to capture it with a lens or even a video. Still, we tried.

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Driven by purpose…a need for water

The numbers of wildebeest and zebra are unimaginable. You’d think you’d seen the last of them and then you’d round a bend and there would be a line of hundreds upon thousands more. This was our first taste of the great migration and our first understanding that we would not be able to grasp its immensity, no matter how hard we tried.

Our travels off road through the savannah eventually took a toll on our ride, and we ended up with a flat tire in the bush. The day before we’d stopped multiple times to assist another safari vehicle by providing spare tires. This day it was our turn to be stricken with a punctured tire. Ammy worked quickly to get us back up and at ’em, though. I enjoyed that bit of time on the ground in the bush a lot more than Ammy did. Joe and I found a huge snail shell while out looking for rocks to keep the Land Cruiser from rolling off the jack. Never miss out on the opportunity to enjoy unexpected downtime. You never know what you might find.

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Hazards of off road travel

We were back in hillier territory now where the foliage was more abundant. We began to see impala and dik dik and giraffe again. It was a welcome change from the endless plain. We drove past Lake Ndutu and saw flamingos and other shore birds before climbing up a hill and landing at our next lodging, Lake Masek Tented Camp. This was the final stop on our grand tour, the largest of the camps where we would stay. It was also the most modern of our lodgings, with rooms equipped with telephones (you still have to call for your nightly escort to and from your tent) and bathtubs. We joked that, after where we had been, this was on the level of the Disneyworld Animal Kingdom Lodge. It had every luxury a westerner would want in a resort room. We were back in the land of hairdryers. To me it felt a little bit like someone was trying to break us back into our cushy lives back home. And I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.

On our way to dinner, I caught this marabou stork perched upon a dead tree near our tent. These guys are something else. Can’t wait to tell you about them tomorrow.

IMG_6803 2Once it was dark and we were settled back in our tents, I thought someone turned on an ambient creature-noise machine. We were up on a hill with the lake below us, and the sounds coming from the surrounding bush were magnified. I spent about fifteen minutes standing in my pajamas on the screened-in deck trying to capture the yips and cackles of hyenas on my phone, but the darn hyenas became shyenas each time I pressed the record button and they stopped their vocalizations. They were mocking me. You’ll have to trust me, though. I’d travel to Tanzania again just to hear them sing me to sleep.