If you fancy going to Tanzania you really should know your wildlife so this piece contains a game. Time to play – spot the deliberate mistake ….
I’m in a place I have yearned to visit all my life. The Ngorongoro crater, a world heritage site in Tanzania. It is the worlds largest crater, formed by a volcano that collapsed and fell in on itself two maybe three millions years ago, leaving walls 610 metres high.
The floor of the crater covers 100 square miles, a self contained world of wildlife uninhabited by humans. My children describe it as a vast bowl full of wildlife cereal shapes. It is a unique place. I have been fascinated by it since I read about it as a child myself, I can barely believe I am here.
I can’t stop taking photos, I want to remember every view. Even as we break for lunch, I look through the viewfinder of my camera. I focus, focus and find …..a clear picture of a giraffe standing majestically in the middle of the crater itself.
There it is, did you spot it? There is the deliberate mistake. For all the wildlife that is in the crater, the one thing there isn’t, is giraffe – probably because the sides of the crater are simply too steep for them to descend to this magical world.
My son decided to change all that, his beloved, toy giraffe Benny who has travelled the world with us and sleeps in his bed every night, is now officially (well, as far as we know) the only giraffe to have set foot in the Ngorongoro crater. And I have photographic proof.
You see, this matters to me, when you have a professional wildlife photographer for a husband, it is quite difficult to get a safari photo worth talking about, but with the help of Benny, I have finally made my mark.
Charlie (my husband) has been in Africa, filming vultures on the Serengeti, for a special programme, part of the ‘Natural World’ series on BBC2. Finally we have come to join him for our own African adventures.
We meet in Arusha at the Twiga lodge (named after the Swahili for giraffe). This is the base for Shaw safaris, run by Paul and Erika who escaped the rat race in England to create sanctuary and a great place to set off on your own self drive safari, in one of their landrovers. For us, it is the perfect place to start and we admire the lush landscaped garden with a gin and tonic to die for after a long flight.
We fly to the Serengeti early next morning. We plan to sleep under canvas, sharing the African plains with the wildlife, during the famous migration season. Before we arrive at the camp however, we are in for a treat. We have heard so much about vultures from Charlie, and now we get a show of our own. We happen across a recently deceased zebra, just as the vultures are arriving. From nowhere, a hyena runs in, scattering the large birds, it turns out that is great news for the vultures. The hyena is the only one on the plains with jaws and teeth tough enough to get through the zebra hide. The hyena is the butcher breaking through to the meat, now the vultures can really feast. Charlie talks us through the action, different species eat different parts of the body. They swagger and squawk, they bow and scrape. We begin to see beyond the disgusting nature of their feeding and become fascinated by the power games between the different species, the characters that reveal themselves; some plucky, some cowardly.
Charlie points out that different species of vulture have different beaks to match what they are designed to eat.
We fall into a rhythm. Rising before dawn is worth it for long, full safari days. We bounce out in the landrover and get lucky; we see leopard cubs, a lion kill, those vast herds of zebra and wildebeest on their long migration.
One evening as the sun begins to set and we find ourselves thinking longingly of our hot bucket shower and supper, we find a mother cheetah hunting. She prowls for a bit and then makes her decision. At zig-zag lightening speed she chases and catches a gazelle, a drama that has my three children transfixed. She then proudly settles next to the body while her three, fluffy offspring gorge themselves.
Next morning, we find hyenas playing, fighting and mating in the river, and at sunset we quietly drive past giraffe after giraffe grazing the trees; so many that we lose count.
Back at camp, Puce, Jo and the team are only too happy to play football with our three riotous boys, while we take those long awaited hot bucket showers under the stars in preparation for a beautiful dinner. Deep sleep is only interrupted by the casual munching of water buffalo, outside our tent, and the odd distant lion roar.
Our next stop is the crater, my stomach is full of butterflies, as our small plane flies over Olduvai gorge. Beneath me, the earliest fossils of hominids were found (three million years old) I’m looking at cradle of mankind. Suddenly we fly over a ridge and the enormous crater reveals itself to me for the first time.
A short drive later, we arrive at the Elvin village that is the Ngorongoro lodge. Thatched round dwellings are connected by rustic wooden walkways. Inside, beamed ceilings vault over quirky interiors, luxurious fabrics drape around wide beds, cookies are magically decorated with our names, and most tempting for me, floor to ceiling windows make the most of panoramic views over that long awaited crater.
Just like Elrond itself, The Ngorongoro lodge is all about thoughtful luxury.
My husband is delighted to discover the same floor to ceiling view in the loo, not only that but some-one has placed a pile of classic National Geographic magazines next to it – I won’t see him for a while. My children are delighted to
accept an invitation to try Masai spear throwing on the lawn (what boy wouldn’t?). I am delighted to simply soak in the huge, roll top bath and gaze at the view.
African swallows fly past the open windows and birdsong flavours each peaceful moment, before there is an excited bashing at the door, ‘Mum, Mum come and see, there’s an elephant in the garden!’.
The following morning, after our chilly dawn descent into the crater, we push up the roof of the landrover and paradise is revealed. The crater floor is home to lions and baboons, hippos and zebra. We drive through woodland, where the shady smell of damp green is refreshing, and we discover baby elephants. We stop to watch them learning to forage with disobedient trunks. They attempt to copy their mothers who move delicately through the bush with a grace that belies their size, but they are still clumsy. I discover that peace is a small herd of elephants moving through the trees.
On the other side of the road the local baboon troop pluck up the courage to walk by the car. A streaming community on the move; single males, young females, mothers with babies riding on their backs. My boys point out sore bottomed individuals.
Baboons walk like a dog on all fours when they need to get somewhere but on two feet like a primate when they are dawdling. Big males swagger by, smaller, less confident juveniles, stand up, taking their time, looking at us with suspicion through swivelling eyes, before finally plucking up the courage to run by on silent feet and giving us the giggles.
Back at the lodge, curls of smoke escape into the pink sky from the chimney of each house – a sign that the wood burning stoves inside have been lit against the chilly evening. Inside our room is a bigger treat, the bathroom is scattered with rose petals, the bath is full of hot bubbly water, beside it a cool bottle of champagne. Dinner waits.
Our final stop on our Tanzanian adventure is completely different; after a days travelling, we find ourselves wading through the turquoise sea to Mnemba island lodge just off Zanzibar. In just a couple of hours we transform from safari goers to beach bums. Long lenses are replaced by long cocktails, stout boots by barefoot. However, our passion for wildlife watching remains and Mnemba proves great for snorkelling whether you are six or forty something.
We are not the only fans of this island, turtles have been coming to these beautiful white beaches for thousands of years. After a romantic dinner on the beach we are summoned with whispers – tonight is a special one. Sitting quietly on the white, moonlit sand, we watch a female dig a deep nest and lay her eggs, it is hard work and she often stops to rest. The staff here are trained to check and tag the females without disturbing them, and they monitor and protect each nest, even keeping an eye over the babies when they hatch and make their way to the water.
When her work is done the mother disappears into the black ocean as if she was never there. Leaving the fate of her babies to chance – and to us.
The next day as we are eating lunch I spot a dorsal fin rise and fall in the water, Mnemba is often home to dolphins. At one yell, my whole family leave the table at breakneck speed with just the clatter of cutlery remaining. We grab snorkelling equipment and head out in a boat, throwing ourselves into the sea to join the dolphins in their blue world. There are so many; even mothers with babies, but they are busy, they have their own agenda and are clearly on their way somewhere. They slow, rolling over to check us out and swim close to the children as if to say’ hi,’ then they are off again. It is just a few shared moments, but like so many of the adventures on this trip, the stuff that wildlife dreams are made of.
And as for Benny the giraffe, well she didn’t get to see the dolphins but every time I go into the children’s room I’m sure I catch her with a smug grin on her face, she is dreaming of Tanzania – there aren’t many toy giraffes who can lay claim to being the first giraffe in the crater, I often wonder where she is thinking of going next.
We stayed at
Twiga Lodge, Arusha
(Shaw safaris, Paul and Erika Sweet)
&Beyond Serengeti Under Canvas
&Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge
&Beyond Mnemba Island Lodge
Red Savannah (our destination specialist was Albee Yeend Ayeend@redsavannah.com)