On day thirty four of our travels, we started to make our way towards the much anticipated Tanzanian National Parks. We ate a traditional lunch at Bhaajia along the side of the main road in Arusha, bought some airtime and drove towards the Ngorongoro National Park.
We stopped along the way at lake Manyara National Park where we thought we would camp but the prices were too high. This part of the country with prices in dollars are discouraging to road travellers from the continent. A kind tour operator at the office overheard our conversation and suggested that we drive further to try out Haven nature camp-site. There were many viewpoints of Lake Manyara which we enjoyed along the way.
When we reached Haven Nature, light drizzle turned to heavy rain and the camp-site area rapidly changed to thick soggy mud making it impossible to camp. We had to stay in one of the lodges tented camps instead but enjoyed a restful sleep in our first tented camp.
The next day was spent sorting out administration fees and park permits in the small town of Karatu where we camped the night. We always seem to find ourselves in interesting places during interesting times. Tanzanian elections were under way and the streets were filled with young people from various political groups.
On the way to the camp site, as we took the turn a young man motioned a sign with his hand as if pointing a gun to the head while giving us an angry stare down. Naturally, this caused much stress and a night of restless sleep in the tent ensued. This is never good when you have a day of rough off road driving ahead.
At the gate of the Ngorongoro, we realised just what a tourist attraction this place was. The parking lot was buzzing with over confident tour operators clearly all on a mission and being dutifully followed by their tourists. We went to the toilets at the gate which felt like the bathrooms at a big concert. It rained most of the way but we barely noticed the rain amidst the incredibly magnificent views.
It was like we had entered an enchanted unearthly world. Thick lush green forests opened the way to a view to the crater. Without a word of exaggeration this was possibly the most beautiful sight we had ever witnessed. A vast and indescribable ‘hole’ in the earth with the most lush vegetation, hills and animals all compacted into one spot. A world within a world and we were looking in.
Many tourists came to the viewpoint and left and we still stood there taking our time since we had not purchased the expensive permit to drive into the crater. We were transiting to the Serengeti so we made the most of this view. A man rushed to the railing and excitedly looked out into the crater and then looked towards us asking: “have you spotted anything?” . We were confused about what we were meant to spot and only later realised that people seem to be in a constant mad panic racing against each other to spot wildlife. We wondered if he had ‘spotted’ the magnificent view in front.
A kind lady offered to take a picture of us with our camera. We stood in the rain like that for a while and in that time the view changed from a clear magnificent postcard panorama to a clouded contrast shot of a zoomed point. We eventually pushed ourselves out of this area to drive onward.
The road and terrain changed rapidly, sometimes winding green hills and sometimes flat yellow land as far as the eye can see. Every now and then in the distance you will spot a bright red dot, a Masai in traditional attire. We came across many red dots up close along the road until I plucked up the courage to stop and ask three of them if we could take their picture. One was not at all happy and made sure we knew this. The others acceded and I clicked quickly, eyes closed as I take all my pictures. Closed eyes and hoping for the best, hoping that the one guys anger would get captured. We paid all three as agreed and that seemed to be a consolation.
Animals are everywhere and in abundance which makes the “spotting” phenomenon even funnier because it is so unnecessary. There was no need to do the standard stop and wait in silence as one would in other parks. The animals came willingly very close to road. We stopped in the rain to reduce our tyre pressure as the road became treacherously corrugated.
I desperately needed to pee and was ready to do a bush style. I meticulously planned it in the car and then cautiously got off. The traffic was deceptively heavy as dozens of tour vehicles passed by. I stood there in the rain watching them, and they passed by smiling. These were ‘knowing’ smiles I thought and carried on standing there in the dirt road, rain pouring down istinja bottle in hand gazing longingly at what would be the only bush for the next hundred kilometres. Of all the reasons I had collected over the years to hate living in the proverbial man’s world, the practicality of this reason drenched me to the bone. I recalled the hundreds of times on the road I had seen drivers casually jump off and relieve themselves. I stood there looking at the smiles of the passers by, heard their giggles in my head and gave up, abruptly abandoning my master plan.
We stopped to photograph the Giraffes as well!
We continued to drive towards the Serengeti, the road being treacherous for two reasons. Tour operator drivers present the main hazard and are some of the worst drivers we have encountered flashing and hooting all other cars out the way. Even when out the way means you are now heading down a cliff. Speed limits are extremely necessary given the road conditions which can change dramatically within a few kilometres. Roads are narrow, uneven and rocky, sometimes winding up and down and sometimes climbing steeply, and most of the way you can add slippery corrugation and potholes to this. Speed limits are simply ignored despite and in spite of the regular sign posts along the way.
The second reason is the constant corrugation. This is not the mild lets jerk your head around till you fall asleep kind of corrugation. This is the “African massage” kind, where violent vibrations result in your ribs saying hello to your pelvis and every other type of vile introduction of body part to body part. The type of corrugation where you hear things rattle, break and snap and get that sneaky diesel smell burn in your nostrils, but know that you have to just keep going and motor on lest your stopping means you are unable to continue again.
The drive was made all the more worthwhile once we saw the glorious gates of the Serengeti in the late afternoon sun. Seeing the look on the faces of tour operator vehicle drivers when they noticed me getting off the drivers side of our car was priceless. The meek looking little girl kept up to them undeterred by their terror antics.
We got our Serengeti permits and enjoyed a conversation with the guards at the gate. We took a walk up to the Naabi Hill viewpoint which was our first view of the Serengeti.
If there was any space left, it filled our souls with awe, so much so that we (and by ‘we’ I really mean Farhaan) completely forgot about the hundreds of purple headed lizards that surrounded us up the path and at the lookout.
On the road towards the public camp-site , we observed how in just a few kilometres of crossing over from one area to the next, we were offered completely different sights. The Serengeti plains glowed in the late afternoon sun and animals hopped around us happily. There was a remarkable silence in the air that brought every picture we ever saw of that moment and gave it life. We passed many herds of buck, giraffe, antelope and many different birds and vultures until we reached our camp.
We set up camp amidst sounds of lions, baboons and hippo’s in the air. We dragged ourselves exhaustedly in the dark towards the kitchen common area which consisted of a large hall type protected cage or barracks. We did not want to think of the reason for such a set up.
As we tried to begin preparing our own supper, the chef of one of the larger tour groups insisted that we abandon our efforts, relax and allow him to treat us to supper. What a treat it was as we nibbled on a starter of popcorn, sipped on hot soup and bread and ended with a delicious main of vegetable curry and rice. We went to bed fully satiated, not being able to take in more but being given more anyway. We dozed off to sounds of lions and hyena and giggled at the improbability of getting ‘half bitten’ by a scorpion. I was convinced otherwise.
On Day 37, sans breakfast we set out towards the Namanga gate after taking route advice from one of the tour operators based at our camp. Farhaan’s instinct was on full steam and we took a road off the main road where we spotted a few hyena on the side of road.
It then led onto an unused service road which climbed up a hill that became progressively steeper and rockier making it rather tricky to navigate. At one point Farhaan got off the car to survey the road ahead and the car started to stagger backwards even with the car in gear and hand-brake engaged. I had to jump over and hit the breaks to stop it from rolling. We continued until we reached an opening to a viewpoint and stopped to take pictures of the beauty which the difficult drive was rewarded with.
On the drive back down the hill we found ourselves alone right in from of a herd of migrating wildebeest. We switched off the engine and hearts pounding we watched and listened in silence up close as they passed by in straight lines rhythmically beating their hooves and intermittently calling out to groups at the back. It was dreamlike and in a daze we continued towards the main road again.
Again, we were almost run over a few more times by wild tour guide drivers. Ironically a few minutes later we passed by a freshly turned over vehicle on the side of the road.
We spent the afternoon at the hippo pools watching hundreds of them bathing and congregating. We met a Czech and Slovak couple who were also over-landing (www.onoffroads.com).
We reached the exit to the Serengeti National Park shortly after spotting a dead zebra lying in one of the springs on the side of the road.
As we exited, we hoped to find a camp site near by as the tyre pressure was very low and could not be corrected in the heavy rains and mud we were driving. We turned off the main road after exiting the park to follow a camp-site on our GPS. We ended up getting horribly stuck in clay like mud. Farhaan was awesome in getting the max tracks under the tyres. Two locals helped us out. Many other passers by came and watched and so it was that we played our first game of stuck in the mud on this journey. “Silly mzungu’s” is what they probably thought.
We continued to the main road and stopped at the very first camp-site we spotted called Serengeti Stopover. It was dark and dreary looking with many hazy eyed drinkers at the pub. That night I washed dishes in the dark after having used the scariest toilet ever. I was startled by two heavily armed guards walking towards me which we later learned were hired policeman for our security. Brown sludgy water emerging from the taps in the toilet and now this, it just felt like too much. At three that morning, I got up startled and insisted we pack up the tent. Just as we clicked the last clip into place, it began pouring down. Now my instinct was in full gear we joked!