“I know you’re into adventure travel,” said my friend Carol. “How about a walking tour and photo shoot through the swamp in the Everglades?”
“Sure,” I replied, not considering any danger. Carol’s right, I’ve jumped into my fair share of crazy escapades, so why not a swamp walk? Besides, if former President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter could do this, why not me?
Photo Safari with Discover Corps Experience in Tanzania
No one complained about breakfast at 5:30 am, the Discover Corps group were headed to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for the day (It’s usually referred to as the Ngorongoro crater.) Ngorongoro is the world’s largest unflooded, intact volcanic caldera with the highest concentration of animals anywhere. We would arrive at sunrise and slowly drive around portions of the rim, then head down into the one-hundred square mile central plain.
We stopped at the Visitor Center, taking advantage of the few bathrooms available, and studied a model of the region to get the correct perspective. The morning weather was chilly, damp and misty; the coldest I’d experienced in Africa. Made sense; we were at an elevation of 7,500 feet at sun-up. I was happy I had my Gore-Tex jacket.
Alan, the charismatic guide from yesterday, was driving again and had his eye out for lions, known to hang around the rim in the morning. I glimpsed a few Maasai herding along the path but saw no other animals. As a matter of fact, the fog was so dense, those of us in the van didn’t see much of anything. Then, Alan slowed and stopped. “Shh,” he said. Hiding in the tall grass not far off the road was a lion. I would never have seen it, but Alan’s trained eye found the big cat.
We stared in disbelief. “Oh my gosh, I’m a few feet away from a lion,” I mumbled, “My first lion in the wild!!!” The cat crept out of the grass and onto the road. Everyone in the van was trying to get photos through the windows as we had not yet popped open the car’s top. Soon, a second lion appeared through the haze, and then another. I had goose-bumps of excitement: three lions were now strolling down the road as if they hadn’t a care in the world – and I was watching. I was beyond thrilled to see them. While thankful I captured a few photos, one quickly gets demanding. I didn’t want my only lion photos to be on a dirt road. Now, I wanted lions on the prowl.
Alan drove on, and the crater soon opened up, a 12- mile wide amphitheater of fields, hills and lakes that’s home to thousands of African species. First along the way were Cape buffalo. We hadn’t seen these in Tarangire National Park, and I marveled at their expressive faces and horns. (Made me think of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, too – remember them in Water Buffalo Lodge hats?)
Zebra came next, crossing the road in single file right in front of us; such remarkable creatures whose stripes almost look like surreal artwork. We paused across from a mama nursing her foal. How sweet.
Hyenas were on the chase; now this was exciting. Not sure exactly what this guy was after, but this photo is one of my favorite action shots.
A small lake with some hippos appeared around the bend. (Hooray, I can check hippos off my list.) But wait, there were some lions stretched out watching the hippos, however, the hippos didn’t seem to like the lions being so close. They hobbled their big bellies out of the water using their short, squatty legs and with a show of force, the lions receded. (We drove to a better vantage point to continue watching.) The trio of lions didn’t take the threat for long. They tousled their heads and slowly sauntered back and again lay on the banks near the pond, as if to say you hippos can’t bother us. We waited, but nothing more happened, so we moved on. (That seems to be how these photo safaris go.)
“Look, ” someone in the van called: ostriches ahead; big and awkward birds.
“Watch carefully,” said Alan, ” These are going to mate. You’ll see one attracting the other, then ruffling feathers and soon they will get up and go their separate ways.” Sure enough, that is precisely what happened.
We spied wildebeest, many more zebra, some interesting birds and a couple varieties of gazelles. Then we noticed many vans parked along a section of the road. We joined them. In the far, far distance was a lone black rhino. (Again, I would never have noticed it on my own.) These rhinos are an endangered species, so it’s reassuring to know at least this one was safe from poachers. We couldn’t get close enough for a good photo, so I had to be content just knowing it was there.
We meandered along the route, stopping whenever something interesting caught our eye. We didn’t see elephants, but the guide said some of the elderly bulls might be down by the big lake at the bottom of the crater. He explained that they have trouble eating because they’ve lost teeth, so they get nutrients from the lake. We did spot a few elephants in the distance as we passed by, but nothing like the herds we saw in Tarangire National Park.
By lunchtime, we arrived at the picnic grounds (and bathrooms!) but were told we must eat inside the vans. Big birds were hovering above, waiting to swoop down and snatch some food.
We noticed a ginormous elephant coming toward the car park. We got out and took some photos. He came closer and closer…and closer. Finally, all the guides called their passengers back into the vans. The majestic elephant marched on, in front of the line-up of vehicles, never bothering with any of us, and then started walking up the hill.
We were going to head back that way, so we followed and got some fantastic shots with the incredible natural landscape as background. This photo was the highlight of my day.
It was time to start our trek out of the park, but still stopping from time to time. We were delighted by some baboons and a large lion with a golden mane who was asleep under a tree. Of course, the song the Lion Sleeps Tonight rang in our heads! This King of the Crater seemed without any worries or cares. Hakuna Matata!
A one-way road back to the rim speeds up traffic in the park exiting the park. This new road is an engineering marvel, and I wished we could have lingered, or stopped during our ascent, but there are no pull-outs for scenic lookouts. We did stop when we reached the top.
The visit to the Ngorongoro Crater ranks as one of the best days of my life. As a photographer, I was challenged, yet pleased with some of my shots- at least what I could see in my camera. The African conservation area and wildlife passionately spoke to me, telling the ongoing struggle of life, the beauty of a newborn, the grace of an elder. I felt in awe of these creatures, and thankful that there is a place where animals have rights. If only the hours could rewind and repeat like the movie Ground Hog Day.
Day 12: Discover Corps Experience Tanzania
I awoke as excited as a Mexican jumping bean, bouncing about with excess energy. The day had finally arrived for my African photo safari, and what better place than Tanzania. The Discover Corps group boarded the bus and set out for Arusha, situated at the foot of Mt. Meru. There, we would meet our safari guides and transfer to two Safari vehicles: khaki colored Land Cruisers with eight seats. Allen, our driver and guide, sat upfront and six of us sat in the back. The vans included a mini-fridge and power supply for charging electronics, plus a pop-up roof that would allow us to stand on the seats (without shoes) and take unobstructed photos.
We drove on for two more hours, passing Maasai lands, stretches of sun-parched fields where young herders with cattle or goats tended their flock. We zoomed by three Maasai men dressed in black. Their faces were painted black and looked rather scary. ( I was thrilled to capture a photo.)
Allen, who is Maasai (but now lives in the city), explained these men were participating in a ritual following their circumcision and initiation into manhood. The new warriors dress this way for several months as they heal. He said the face paint is to ward off the evil eye.
Maasai men are classed by age into three categories: boys, warriors and elders. Boys transition from herders to warrior and then to elder status, holding varying responsibilities for cattle, protecting, and advising the community.
Eventually, we reached Tarangire National Park, a wildlife sanctuary known for excellent large game sightings especially in the dry season- which was now- early September.
We stretched our legs, milled around the visitor center and ate box lunches, before setting off in the vans again. No sooner had we departed from the parking lot than we spied giraffes, zebras and gazelles in the distance. We focused on our cameras with a concentration equal to an operating neurosurgeon, but our guide told us we would soon see many more animals closer to the road.
Alan was right, we didn’t travel far until coming upon a pond with warthogs, wildebeest and antelope. The warthogs were bathing in the mud making us think of Pumbaa from the movie, The Lion King. We sang a few bars from Pumbaa and Timon’s song, then went on to a pretty sad rendition of The Lion Sleeps Tonight!
Next we noticed graceful zebras with sharply defined black and white patterns on their faces: beautiful.
Onward we drove and in retrospect, the next location is one of my fondest memories. Here we found a watering hole edged by a large herd of female elephants and many little ones. (You guessed it, we starting humming Baby Elephant Walk.) They seemed happy quenching their thirst, splashing in the pond and frolicking in the mud. One baby must have done something wrong because the females reprimanded with loud trumpets and chased him out of the water. Our guide explained that all the females in the group protect and teach the calves. They endearingly help each other raise the babies. (I wished I could have stayed and watched these elephants for much longer.)
Later, we captured photos of bull elephants (males), who travel in smaller groups and whose girth size was much larger.
Different areas of the park brought us extraordinary views. We saw the distant curves in the river, we peered down from overlooks and observed a variety of animals at lakes including one that was completely dry. Tarangire is renowned for having some of the biggest and oldest baobab trees in the world, some thought to be 1,000 years old. These behemoths make stunning silhouettes across the landscape: I adored them. Baobabs store large volumes of water in their trunks – which is why elephants chew the bark during dry seasons.
We also stopped to watch some bird species: a Bee-Eater, a lilac brested roller, a red-billed hornbill, and the gorgeous Superb Starling, perfectly named for its electric blue feathers. We also saw Pigmy Falcons and yellow-throated spurfowl, much like quail.
As we were driving back toward the park gates, we came upon a herd of elephants marching very near the road. We all fell silent, listening in awe to their footsteps swishing the withered grass. I couldn’t believe we were able to be so close to these mammoth giants – on average from 6-13,000 pounds, the largest mammals on earth. I will never forget that surprising moment.
As daylight began to dwindle, we left and rode high up into the mountains and checked into a small hotel at Karatu. That evening we heard a lecture from Raymond, head of the tour company, about the next day’s exciting outing to Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I sank into my bed overwhelmed by this day’s gift: a rare opportunity to see and photograph wild African animals in their natural habitat. So far I’d counted off elephants, giraffes, and zebras from my personal Big Five list. I hoped to complete the listing by seeing a lion and a rhino in the Crater. Stay tuned to see if I do.
Enjoy this short video and the elephant march.
For anyone interested in safari’s in Tanzania, I highly recommend Allen, our Maasai guide who works for the Maasai Warriors Tour Company, found at warriortrails.com.