Day 50: Leaving Nairobi
After leaving Dar es Salaam ten days ago, we headed for northern Tanzania and the Great Rift Valley — one of the most amazing places on Earth. Words can’t describe how spectacular the Serengeti is, so most of this blog will be photos — the only way to do it any justice. The temperature cooled significantly as we climbed into the highlands of the north, which was a welcome relief after Dar. The vegetation became increasingly lush and green. It’s shocking to believe weather can be this cool just 3 degrees south of the equator.
On our first day in the north. we came across beautiful Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at 5896m (almost 19,000 feet). Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story years ago called, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I’ve always wanted to see Kilimanjaro before the snow melted due to global warming. And while it’s true that a lot of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers have shrunk dramatically in the last twenty years, the mountain’s still got it! Kili is a trekker’s paradise; it’s an old extinct volcano that can be hiked up relatively easily in about 5 days. The only difficulty is altitude sickness because the air is so thin up there. I didn’t have time to climb Kili this time, but I hope to do so later in my trip.
We next headed to the Ngorongoro crater. The Ngorongoro crater is an old volcano that collapsed on itself (called a caldera) about 1 million years ago. In the process, it spewed billions of tons of ash into the air and leveled the surrounding region into an endless dusty plain, which the local Masai tribe call the “Serengeti.”
The Ngorongoro crater is 30km wide, and is home to roughly a quarter of a million animals! Everywhere you look, there is a herd of one thing or another!
We were incredibly fortunate to witness the birth of a baby zebra. The baby zebra started walking as soon as she came out, albeit very wobbly and barely able to stand up. Many animals in the bush have to start walking as soon as they are born, otherwise they are prey for larger animals. Look closely at the first picture of the mother zebra, you can still see her umbilical cord attached between her legs!
While having my lunch under a beautiful tree in the Ngorongoro, I suddenly felt something very sharp on my hands. I couldn’t figure out what it was because it happened so fast, so I ignored it. One second later, I went to have another bite of my sandwich, and I felt the pain again. I was being attacked by birds! These yellow-billed kite birds are huge and have very sharp claws. Freaked out, I yelled, “The Birds! The Birds!” and threw my sandwich in the air and ran! I looked back to see about 10 birds fight over my sandwich and destroy it in a split second, including the aluminum wrapping! It was scary, but they just wanted my lunch, not me. My friends told me I ran away like a girl, but I wasn’t exactly focusing on style points running away for my life! Sadly, I had no lunch that day…
The Serengeti is an endless flat, dusty plain that is home to millions of animals. Having visited most of the major game parks in southern and eastern Africa, I can say that the Serengeti is the most phenomenal and deserves its reputation. It’s home to the last great animal migration on Earth – the wildebeest and zebra migration from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya, and then back six months later. It’s a cycle of life that happens every year, starting in Feb/March in the Serengeti and peaking in the Masai Mara in July/Aug. We were lucky to see the beginning of the migration, with the zebras leading the way, since the wildebeests are clueless animals.
On our first day in the Serengeti, we saw almost 20 lions! It never gets too old to see big cats in the wild, and I never get tired photographing them. They are simply spectacular!
At sunset on our first night, we saw a herd of 25 elephants walk through our camp. They were very peaceful and we gave them enough space to roam around, but it was pretty special to see them right next to our camp.
Snuggled up in my sleeping bag that night, I could see the entire Milky Way and the Southern Cross through the roof of my tent – stunning! At 2am, I heard hyenas just outside my tent sniffing and screaming their characteristic “whoooooop!” A little later I heard a lion outside my tent lapping up some water. Simply amazing to be in the middle of it all! I huddled into a ball, hoping that they couldn’t smell me, but they’re not interested in humans! At 4am, we heard a lion roar nearby, and then the shriek of an animal falling prey. It’s the circle of life!
The next day, we stumbled upon an amazing lion hunt. We ran into a pride of 9 lions – 8 females and 1 male – stalking a herd of zebras, inching ever so slowly closer in a pincer movement. There were three lead female lions (the females do the hunting) – we nicknamed them Esther, Mary and Suzy. There was a herd of about 200 zebras around, and they could smell the lions nearby, and they would run fast past each lion trap, kicking their back legs up in the air to frighten the lions. We watched for almost an hour, as the 3 lions closed in on a zebra that had gone astray from the herd, surrounding it in a large circle. The zebra ran around, kicked up its legs, and Mary jumped prematurely out of the grass, revealing her position. The zebra saw a hole in the lion circle and ran right through it and escaped. The three lionesses stood up, frustrated that they had missed their opportunity to kill and wasted an entire hour! They walked sullenly back to the rest of their pride, ashamed that they had gone home empty handed that night! We didn’t see the zebra get killed, but watching the hunt itself was riveting!
Later that day, we got to see something incredibly rare – a leopard kill a reedbuck in broad daylight! Leopards hunt at night, so seeing it hunt in the day was just pure luck. We had heard that a leopard had been spotted in a certain region of the park, so we drove over and waited near a tree that the leopard likes to call home. Suddenly, we saw the leopard, low to the ground, on the prowl through the tall grass on the hunt for a reedbuck (a small antelope). We lost sight of the leopard through the grass, but a split second later we saw a reedbuck get thrown into the air with the leopard pouncing on it mid-air, wrestling it to the ground, and slashing the reedbuck’s jugular vein. It all lasted one second, and if you blinked, you would’ve missed it! We just happened to be looking in the right direction at the exact right time.
Having killed its lunch, the leopard dragged the reedbuck to a tree, had a bite, and then hid the rest of the dead animal in a hole in the ground for later consumption. It then went for a walk right passed our truck! Maybe it was bloated and needed to walk off its lunch! The leopard is the most unpredictable and shy big cat, so for it to walk down a dirt road, in plain view of a dozen safari jeeps is remarkable. The safari jeep drivers were incredibly aggressive with each other, each inching his jeep closer to the leopard as it walked down the road, jostling for position with the other jeeps, and trying to get the best viewing position for his customers. It is the jungle after all, and only the strongest survive, including safari guides! The leopard walked down the road for a good 5-10 minutes and we followed it until it went up another tree for a nap!
At the end of our last day in the Serengeti, we finally saw a family of cheetahs – a male, female and two cubs. Cheetahs are the fastest animals in the world, capable of running up to 70 miles per hour for up to 300 meters while hunting prey. They are part of the cat family, but they resemble greyhound dogs. Cheetahs are also incredibly elusive, and a highly endangered species, with only 15,000 left in the wild. On our two-month road trip driving up from southern Africa and going to numerous game parks in every country, we hadn’t seen a single cheetah. So to see them on our last day at the park, at sunset, was awesome. We were on the dirt road observing them when they decided to cross the road. Instead of walking across, they jumped over the entire road in one fell swoop! They were so fast I didn’t even have time to get a picture, but I’m grateful we finally got to see them.
On our final morning in the Serengeti, a few friends and I decided to do a sunrise balloon safari. I’ve been on hot air balloons before, and the views from up high are simply spectacular, so I couldn’t resist seeing the Serengeti from a new angle up in the sky. I love hot air ballooning, and am now tempted to get my pilots license when I return to California. Ballooning is such an incredible way to see the ground. Words can’t describe the gorgeous sunrise over the Serengeti, so I’ll just let the images below capture your imagination. Too bad I can’t share with you my post-landing champagne breakfast!
After leaving Cape Town almost two months ago, and driving 9300km through southern and eastern Africa, I’ve made it to Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi has a bad reputation as a dangerous city (nicknamed by many, “Nairobbery”), but I found it to be a very nice, clean, green, lush, well-kept, professional, and friendly city. At 5200 feet, the weather here is quite cool – even though Nairobi is on the Equator. After months of heat in the rainy season in Africa, I’m happy to have a few cool days of weather in Nairobi, lounging by the pool and relaxing.
I’m halfway up the continent from Cape Town to Cairo, and it’s been an incredibly interesting and educational trip so far. We’ve left our old truck Claudia behind in Nairobi, and changed her for a newer more reliable one nicknamed “Daphne.” We also have a couple new drivers, but for sure I’ll miss my two previous drivers (and chef!), and some of my friends who have finished their trip in Nairobi.
I’m off towards Ethiopia tomorrow for the next five weeks!