Seeing the clear skies from our balcony this morning, I really wish I’d got up in the night to take some pictures of the stars. I shall just have to photograph the sunrise instead.
Our room has an amazing view over the Ngorongoro Crater from its balcony. The hotel is rustic to the extreme, having been built from rough local stone with the rooms all set on the ridge, facing the crater.
There’s an even more spectacular view from the bar!
This morning we leave Malisa and the car behind and set out to explore the area on foot with a ranger called Yohana, in order to get a deeper understanding of the bush and up close and personal with nature.
The first wildlife we see is a Cape Robin-Chat, right outside the front door of the lodge.
We amble at a slow pace, along the Ngorongoro Crater Rim and upwards into the hillside as Yohana teaches us the language of the bush.
These signs always amuse me – do the wild animals read them and refuse to venture past that point (in the other direction) too?
This is not so much a safari in that we are not really seeking out wild animals; we are here to learn what native peoples have known for millennia – how wild plants are used as medicine and food. I am hoping to find something for the back ache I have been suffering with since we left home.
Although this fruit belongs to the tomato family, you won’t find it in any salads. Known as Sodom’s Apple as it is said to be the first plant to grow again after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the small, yellow fruit is used as a medicine for stomach ache, diarrhoea and to treat external wounds.
Plant with unripe fruit
The flower of the Sodom Apple
This plant, which is in the same family as the common marijuana plant, is used to produce pesticide, as insects do not like the smell of it. Neither does Lyn by the looks of it.
Leaves are soaked in water, which is then used to spray the fields to keep insects from eating the crop.
Enkang oo-nkiri Maasai Ceremony
We encounter a Maasai who is in the bush for the Engkang oo-nkiri, or meat-eating ceremony – one the many stages of initiation into warriorhood for the young men of the tribe. A dozen or so men take a bull into the bush and slaughter it, staying there to eat the meat for two weeks. This is said to help them remain strong.
The fact that this invasive species is poisonous has not stopped the Mexicans from making drugs from it apparently.
Like we do in the West, the locals make soup “and wot not” (Yohana’s favourite expression) from this.
Being full of sugar sap, nectar eating birds love this plant, whose name I don't catch.
Natural Insect Repellent
Yohana warns us that it is “not very good”.
Old Man’s Beard
The presence of this lichen on trees is an indication of the air quality – it will only grow where the air is pure and clean!
We have been climbing gently but steadily upwards from the lodge, and here at 2400 metres above sea level I can certainly feel the altitude.
“I can see your house from here!” - Ngorongoro Serena Lodge
Yohana tells us elephants came by here in the night, eating the tops of the plants.
Here we learn to read the jungle as a ‘daily newspaper’, by identifying trails, inspecting bushes and trees, studying spoor marks and animal tracks to deduce what animals have passed by recently, which way they were going, how long ago, how fast they were going, what they have eaten and so on. In fact there seems to be a story to be told in virtually every track and dropping that we come across. A bit like opening up Facebook first thing in the morning.
There’s a great view over the crater from up here.
It’s well know for being beneficial for clearing a blocked nose.
Chris puts it to the test.
Juvenile Common Fiscal Shrike
This is where we part company with the guys – Lyn and I head for the road where Malisa is waiting with the car; David and Chris continue their walk with a hike to the top of the hill.
While we wait for the boys to do their daily workout, we chat to a group of school children on the road. One by one, as they pass, they shout out “Shikamo” – the greeting reserved for respected elders. That’ll be me then, I guess. In reply, I shout back: “Marahaba” (the traditional reply), much to their surprise and delight.
The kids explain to Malisa that their bus has broken down, so they have to walk the 40 minutes to their school.
The guys come back bearing gifts.
Mushroom – you can't get much fresher than this. And very good it is too.
Khat – the drug of choice from Somalia to Yemen and beyond (and is also available – although illegal – in our home town of Bristol). It does nothing for me – it’s a bit like chewing grass.
Quinine – this one might be useful for treating malaria.
It’s time to move on to the next item on today’s itinerary – but first we have to get there, and we never know what we might see on the way.
Malanja Depression with Mount Lemakarot in the distance
Emuratare - Circumcision ceremony
A couple of young Maasai lads have their faces painted to indicate that they have just undergone the circumcision ceremony. This is the most vital initiation of all rites of passages in the Maasai society and is performed shortly after puberty.
We stop to listen to the sound of the cowbells as Malisa explains that this is how the area got its name. Ngoro ngoro ngoro ngoro. A lot of goodwill and some poetic licence is required methinks.
Today is an educational sort of day for sure, as Malisa hands us this plant which some people do smoke.
Ahead a number of Maasai Warriors are walking along the road, and we are warned by Malisa not to take photos. The scene is surreal, like we are driving through a film set.
A Tower of Giraffes
At Endoldol we spot a few giraffe on the ridge, in the distance.
Then a few more.
Soon we have a whole forest of giraffe.
We count 53 animals – which beats Malisa’s previous record of 48 - but it's impossible to put an accurate number down as more and more keep coming from the back.
I have never seen anything like this incredible spectacle.
When a Maasai warrior appears in the distance, the whole scenario goes from being fantastical to becoming completely absurd as 50+ giraffe start running.
Giraffe are awkward runners, and with their long necks arching and bending as they go, they look like a wave. Totally, utterly unbelievable!
There is just one word that will do: WOW!
Elerai Maasai Boma
We are introduced to David, the son of the chief, who explains – in very good English – about the village and the dances we are about to see. The name Elerai refers to the yellow barked acacia trees that grow around here.
First of all, the men and women perform a ‘welcome dance’ for us.
The dance is accompanied by a single musical wind instrument (traditionally a kudu horn), an olaranyani (song leader) singing the melody and a chorus chanting harmonies, combined into a sort of screeching syncopation.
This is followed by a display of the Maasai men's famous ‘jumping’ dance, known as adumu. This dance is traditionally performed during the eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of a Maasai warrior.
Chris decides he would like to join in
So he studies the style and technique carefully.
His approach is a little strained initially.
But he soon gets the hang of it.
Elerai is what is known as a ‘cultural boma’. The Tanzanian government restricts visits to Maasai homesteads to just a small selection of villages in a bid to limit the damaging effect it has on their culture.
The beauty of visiting one of the official villages is that not only are we shown around the village, we can also freely take photos of the people who have ‘dressed up’ for the occasion. Taking photos of the Maasai walking along the road is considered very bad and is strongly discouraged, as mentioned in the RULES AND REGULATIONS at the entry gate.
Here at Elerai, however, I can snap away to my heart’s content. And I do.
The women have been hanging around while the men have been jumping, but now it is their turn to dance.
Over the years we have visited a few Maasai villages, as well as other East African ethnic groups, and never before have we been treated to a display of women jumping.
They may not jump quite as high as the men, but they make a brave attempt.
While David (the chief’s son, not my husband) takes Lyn and Chris around the village, Kaki, his brother, leads us into one of the other huts.
To us, the village doesn’t look all that big, but this collection of straw-and-mud huts is home to around 120 people.
The work of constructing the huts falls on the women, who build a frame from wooden sticks, make the walls and roof from acacia grass, they then cover the whole lot with cow dung. During the rainy season the houses have to be re-covered with new dung every night.
Standing around or walking very slowly, as we have been doing while watching the dancing, has a terrible effect on my troubled back, it is now hurting so much I am struggling to walk. I therefore decline the invitation to see what the hut looks like on the inside, instead I send David in with strict instructions to take photos using his video camera.
The heigh of luxury it ain't, but I guess they don't spend much time inside.
Eventually curiosity gets the better of me, and I carefully put my head around the corner to take a peek.
Although the older children go to school in a nearby small town, the younger ones attend the on-site kindergarten.
The children beautifully recite the alphabet and numbers in English for us.
The occasional grubby exterior fails to hide the beauty and innocence of these charming kids.
The Maasai – as well as most other ethnic tribes in this region – build their homes in a circular pattern, with a ‘fence’ made from thorny acacia bushes to keep any wild animals out.
At night, the domestic animals are herded into a coral for safety.
Exit through the shop.
A Maasai ‘market’ has been set up in the centre of the village where we are ‘encouraged’ to buy something from the stall belonging to the householder whose home we just visited.
This stuff always looks so good - and tempting - when you see it like this in its appropriate surroundings, but usually becomes horribly out of place if you take it back home.
We choose a ‘talking stick’ and a small calabash to go on our wall next to the necklace we bought in Kenya last year.
The talking stick is a communication tool used by the Maasai elders during their community gatherings as a symbol of authority and a right to speak. Everyone present must listen respectfully to the person holding the stick, and only that person is allowed to speak. When he has finished talking, the stick is passed on to someone else, ensuring everyone present has a chance to be heard.
Not sure how it would work in the Howard Household…
We are only partially successful in getting a mutually satisfactory price, and walk away with a feeling of having been ripped off.
Moving on to our next educational stop, with a few interesting (or not) sights along the way.
Tanzania has become a lot more commercialised in just the 20 months since we were here last – these camels are brought to the road side by the Maasai who charge tourists to have their photo taken with them.
This may be the green season, but the only rain we have seen so far is a mere five minutes just as we left Kilimanjaro Airport. Any vehicles, especially large trucks, throw up great amounts of dust from the tracks.
As we slow down for the junction, a group of teenagers shout and wave their arms. One young lad lifts his gown to reveal nothing underneath except a hard-on. I am left in a state of incredulity: “Did I really just see that?” You’ll be pleased to know that there is no photographic evidence.
Dark Chanting Goshawk
The vibration caused by the incredibly rough rutted track results in Lyn’s lens filter becoming unscrewed and me shouting: “Can you keep the noise down please!”
A stowaway flies in through the window, hoping to catch a ride. One of my ambitions for this trip is to see a dung beetle, but this one is sadly dung-less. I know, I know, there is no pleasing some people.
Oldupai Gorge – Where human life began
The thirty-mile long and 300 feet deep ravine is part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches through East Africa. The original paleoanthropologists who excavated this area over 50 years ago, wrongly named it Olduvai after mishearing the Maa word for the wild sisal plant which grows in the vicinity. The Tanzanian government renamed it (correctly) Oldupai Gorge in 2005.
It is thought that millions of years ago, the site was that of a large lake, the shores of which were covered with successive deposits of volcanic ash. Around 500,000 years ago seismic activity diverted a nearby stream which began to cut down into the sediments, revealing seven main layers in the walls of the gorge. Just one small pinnacle remains standing.
This is another place I hardly recognise from last time we came – which admittedly was nine years ago in 2007 – there is so much building work and a completely new Orientation Centre.
Scenic as the gorge may be, it is by no means on the same scale as the Grand Canyon, or even Cheddar Gorge; but then again it is not the gorge itself that is the star attraction here; it is all about the secrets this deep-sided the ravine concealed.
Cradle of Mankind Museum
Oldupai Gorge is considered to be one of the most important pre-historic sites in the world. In the 1930s Mary and Louis Leakey discovered fossils of early humanoid dating back some 5 million years (give or take a few hundred thousand years); which has been hugely instrumental in furthering our understanding of early human evolution.
Realistic replicas of some of their most important discoveries are on display in the modest museum, including the ‘Laetoli Footprints’ – perfectly preserved marks in the rock showing two upright bipedal hominids, out for a stroll more than 3.5 million years ago. If that doesn’t make you feel humble and small, nothing will.
Other exhibits include fossils, tools, artefacts and display boards with old photos from the Leakey’s time.
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to Dr Yoshiharo Sekino, who set out on a remarkable journey following the routes of ancient civilisations.
Dr Sekino's bike
His route on the map within the exhibition
We have our picnic lunch overlooking the gorge, next to the group of American college students we saw on the flight from Nairobi as well in Tarangire National Park. They are incredibly noisy, but I am more concerned about the fact that this girl thinks it is perfectly acceptable to eat her lunch in public with her great big walking boot on the table!
History comes to life with a short presentation on how the various layers of rock strata have formed over the past 5 million or so years.
We can clearly see three of the five layers here:
1. Basalt from 2 million years ago
2. Volcanic ash from 1.75 million years ago
3. Iron oxide from 1.2 million years ago.
The top two layers (ash and mud – 800,000 and 150,000 years ago respectively) have eroded over the years.
Different types of humanoids inhabited the different time epochs. With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I have my own slant on evolution…
We are also given the low-down on the sisal plant – which the gorge is named after – and its many uses: rope and mats, painkillers from the roots and animals will chew on it for water.
After our educational break, we head down into the gorge itself, on some pretty basic tracks.
What I want to know is how we can be sure we are not actually driving on top of some hitherto undiscovered important archaeological remains.
The Mysterious Shifting Sands
Having come across articles about this phenomenon while researching our trip, I asked Malisa if we could make a detour to try and find these elusive dunes.
These fascinating crescent-shaped mounds are a remarkable occurrence known as barkan. Dunes are formed when ground dust blown by unidirectional wind collects around a stone and continues to accumulate until a small dune is formed. As more sand is added, the process continues and the dune moves, in this case around ten metres a year.
Shifting sands is not a new experience for us; but this one is different in that it is not only made up of very fine black sand, but it is also highly magnetised due to its high iron content.
Despite its very fine texture, when you throw a handful of the stuff in the air, it doesn’t blow away on the wind, it falls almost straight down. The whole thing is eerie and ethereal, like an alien world.
The volcanic sand that makes up the 9-metre high and 100-metre long dune originates from the Maasai’s most holy of places, Ol Doinyo Lengai - meaning ‘Mountain of God’ - which erupts with frequent intervals sending plumes of steam and ash over the surrounding countryside.
Erm... why Chris?
The sands have moved around 500 metres since people started to take notice of it – there are markers on the road to indicate its route – the first recorded resting place was over by those trees in the background some time in the 1950s.
Instead of taking the direct route west from Oldupai to Ndutu, Malisa heads off towards Lemuta, “to see what we can find”.
The first thing we see is four giraffes lying down – a most unusual sight. In this position giraffes are very vulnerable to predators because of the time and effort it takes them to get up.
Another dungless beetle flies in through the window and lands on Chris. “Throw him out” I shout, and with that Chris gets out of the car! Doh!
We make sure he is not on his back on the ground (the beetle, not Chris), before we drive off.
A large herd of gazelles start running as we approach. One little baby gets separated from the rest and instead of running across; he sprints along the track as fast as his little legs will carry him.
Malisa slows down so as not to cause him any more stress, and soon mum comes in from the left to collect him. Phew. Another disaster averted.
A few gazelles refuse to run – instead they stand and stare eerily at us as we pass. David waves out of the window, but they don’t wave back. Ignorant so-and-sos.
It was the end of the road for this wildebeest as he died of natural causes.
Something obviously didn’t make it here either – Malisa explains that it is an old cheetah kill which the vultures are now finishing off.
Seeing the Short Grass Plains at Lemuta, I can understand how Serengeti got its name – it means “Endless Plains” in the local Maa language. As far as the eye can see in every direction there is nothing but grass, dotted with a few animals. It is quite overwhelming, and none of my photographs do it justice.
The panorama below – joined together from nine different images, shows a 180° view, to give you some idea.
This large bird - standing at 125 cm - gets its name from the crest of long quill-like feathers which gives it the appearance of an old-style secretary with quill pens tucked behind their ear. Although it has the ability to fly (I have never seen one in flight), the secretary birds is largely terrestrial, hunting its prey on foot
Lappet Faced Vulture
A lappet Faced Vulture surveys the plains, looking for food.
Vultures and Jackal
Another old cheetah kill attracts a number of vultures (White Backed, Woolly Necked, and Rueppell’s Griffon) as well as a Golden Jackal.
Squabbles are almost constant, with everyone looking for an opportunity to grab a piece of meat for themselves.
The jackal is definitely at the top of the pecking order, while the vultures fight amongst themselves.
A couple of Lappet Faced Vultures arrive to join in the party
More fighting, and even the jackal joins in with a growl.
It looks like the jackal has his fill as he licks his chops and walks off.
Then, and only then, do the vultures get a look-in.
They tuck into what's left of the once cute little Thomson's Gazelle.
Having access to the meat doesn't stop them feuding, however.
We continue across the short grass plains, looking for cheetah at every kopje. No luck. Not one.
We do, however, spot a cackle of female hyenas. They lie down in puddles and streams to cool down while digesting their food. Unhappy at being woken up from her afternoon nap, this one takes flight when she sees us.
Female hyenas have a false penis (which you can just about make out in the photo below) and are the pack leaders.
For a while they circle a Tommy family (Thomson’s Gazelle), but eventually decide it’s too much like hard work and call it a day.
Yellow Throated Sandgrouse
Another tall bird at almost one metre in height.
As a result of hunting (eland meat is highly prized), these animals have become very skittish, so it is good to get some photos that are not ‘bum shots’ for a change.
Each time I go on a safari, I have a wish list of animals I would like to see. This year the dung beetle is one of my top requests for Malisa to try and locate. As always, he comes up trumps, and much excitement ensues when he stops the car to introduce us our new little friend.
Aren’t dung beetles just the coolest, most fascinating little animals? OK, maybe you think I am very sad for getting excited about a small shit-eating insect, but just hear me out first before you poo-poo my statement.
These tiny bugs (about twice the size of my thumbnail) prefer excrement from herbivores rather than carnivores, as the former is largely undigested vegetable matter. OK, so now we have a vegetarian poo-eating insect. Although, the veggie poo is not so easy for them to locate as it gives off less of an odour than the meat waste. So, it has now become a vegetarian poo-eating insect with a sensitive nose.
Most dung beetles are fussy eaters, so they won’t just eat any old shit; it has to be waste from a particular animal. They also like their poo to be fresh – don’t we all – the fresher the better. I think I am beginning to understand this; these are finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eaters. A new patty can be descended on by up to 4000 dung beetles within 15 minutes of being dropped, and as many as 15,000 have been observed on one pile of dung at the same time. A real sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eater it seems.
All I wanted was one single beetle carefully rolling away his prized poo!
You could say he is on a roll... actually, they move surprisingly fast!
Dung beetles can eat their own weight in less than 24 hours, and are probably the most industrious resident on the savannah, clearing up the mess left behind by other animals. The original recyclers! We can now add another string to his bow, making him a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eating eco-warrior.
So how does a dung beetle know which way he should be rolling his poo? He navigates using the Milky Way of course. Now this is starting to get serious: he is a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian, poo-eating environmentally friendly astronomer.
This image is all mine, although the pictures of the sky and the beetle were not taken at the same time.
Although not all dung beetles roll their dung away, those that do, do so to feed their young. There is nothing like passing poo to your babies eh? Those beetles that don’t move the poo, make their home in the pile of dung. You could say they are happy as a pig in shit – or it that beetle?
As well as food and housing, that pile of manure is also great for cooling off your feet (or rather for the beetle’s feet) – a bit like us trying to get off the hot sand on a sunny beach. Dung is considerably cooler than the parched African soil, mainly due to its moisture contents. So, how is that little insect doing now? He can now be described as a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eating, hot footing environmentally friendly astronomer.
The last point I want to make is about their strength (I’m am not going to mention about his horn) – imagine yourself pushing a giant ball (just try not to think about what it is made from) which is over a thousand times your body weight, which is equal to an average gym-goer pushing 80 tons!
Now our little friend has become a sociable, finicky sensitive-nosed vegetarian poo-eating, hot footing, athletic, environmentally friendly astronomer. He sure is my hero!
And you thought he was just another beetle!
You think I am talking a lot of crap? Check it out for yourself.
Dung Beetles guided by Milky Way
This is what our ‘home’ for the eleven days in Tanzania looks like. Based on a Toyota Landcruiser, it has been especially converted for safari use, with plenty of room in the back (six seats plus luggage compartment), an elevating roof means we can stand up for a better view to take photos, and it is easy to move around on a flat floor. There are charging points for camera batteries, and a beanbag for photography, plus we can attach a clamp with a tripod head to the rails too. All mods cons (including a fridge full of cold drinks), and comfortable seats - it has everything we need for long days on the African savannah.
This pregnant hyena is very close to giving birth, and all she wants to do is sleep. Instead she has to pose for these horrid tourists. It’s a hard life isn’t it?
A congress of Jackals
Five or six Golden Jackals turn up.
A couple of Ostriches
And some Zebra
Spotting another vehicle makes us realise that the last time we saw one was actually four hours ago. I like this low season safari lark.
Because the rains arrived later than normal this year, the wildebeest seem confused and appear to have split up. You can see from the map below where they normally are during May, and where we spot large herds of them today.
The wildebeest are accompanied by Grant’s Gazelle.
And a Tawny Eagle
Not far from our lodge, and with the light fading fast, we come across a pride of nine lions spread out over a swampy area between Lakes Ndutu and Masek.
The females and young males lie in the late sun, stroll around or play fight.
By reason of a strict pecking order, these guys are waiting their turn to have dinner – once the two alpha males have had their fill.
And for those of you who are wondering exactly how close we are to the lions – THIS is how close!
When one of the boys has had enough and gets up and walks away, the others look at the kill expectantly.
But it seems his brother is still not finished.
Has he had enough?
It seems that way…
Has he heck!
The youngsters resign themselves to having to wait a little longer for supper.
One of the braver ones decides he is going to risk it.
Seeing the look on this guy’s face as he struggles to bit off a slice of the fresh rib, I am instantly grateful for steak knives.
And after all that, all he ends up with is a mouthful of bones. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Maybe, just maybe… he is trying to bite off more than he can chew…?
He looks forlorn: “There’s got to be an easier way than this.”
“I’ll try a different approach”
“Or maybe I’ll just lick the plate”
Malisa points out that meanwhile, behind us, a glorious sunset is painting the sky orange over the lake, signalling the end of another extraordinary day and time for us to say goodbye to our lions and head to camp.
As with our previous visit, it is dark by the time we arrive at Ndutu Lodge. Despite several other safari vehicles arriving at the same time, the check in is impressively swift and efficient. After a quick shower and change, we meet up dinner.
Good food, Savanna Cider, Genets in the Rafters, coffee in the lounge and Dik Diks on the lawn – a perfect end to a perfect day!
Chicken and rice
Small Spotted Genet
Cat-like in appearance, the genets are wild but encouraged to hang around the rafters of the lodge by staff who occasionally slip them tidbits of food in exchange for keeping the rodent population down. They are also obviously very popular with the guests.
Apparently the roof of the dining room / bar area was originally supported by huge wooden beams which the genets used a climbing frame. When the rafters were removed during the refurbishment, one of the beams was retained purely for the pleasure of the genets
Normally extremely shy, these tiny antelopes have become accustomed to people and feed happily in the grounds of the lodge.
Yet again Calabash Adventures and their wonderful guide Malisa have given us a day in the bush to remember.