Safari! (and drama for your mama)

Lake Manyara National Park
Serengeti NP
Ngorongoro Crater
Tarangire NP
(October 26th – 30th 2010)

I got picked up on the morning of the 26th to the ‘Victoria Expedition’ office. A Korean girl, Alex, whom I had met the day before at the safari office, was the only one of the original group of 4 who showed up. I asked where the 2 Slovenians and 1 Dutch person were. I was told that they would meet up with us the next day. I immediately felt suspicious. I had asked to see their contracts the day before, when I was signing up, for proof that they indeed existed and were coming on the tour. The managing director (a guy named Barbarai) told me they had signed up via email and the internet so they didn’t have the same contracts I did. I saw some backpacks in the office and he said it was theirs. I didn’t put too much thought into it. It was just me and the Korean girl who left for the safari that day, along with the driver/guide (Abdul) and cook (Kefis). We stopped to get some bottled water along the way. (Barbarai had told me they would provide it but I thought this stop was for us to get EXTRA water if we wanted). A black guy jumped into our Land Cruiser at the stop and I thought he was another member of the safari staff. So I asked him if he was and he turned around with an annoyed look on his face and said he was on the tour too. His name was Richard and he was from London. I apologized and told him that Barbarai had said 2 Slovenians and 1 Dutch guy was joining us on the tour and I had assumed they were white folks. Anyway, after the cook bought some supplies, we left.

After driving for about 2 hours, our car had funny sounds and soon stopped running. Abdul popped the hood and looked under and I began to get worried. There were a lot of red flags and we were only 2 hours into our tour. Abdul somehow got the car to inch its way to a nearby town where he got the assistance of a few locals and got the car running again. I took pictures and documented the times and problems which occurred, in case I wanted to make a claim for a refund at the end of the tour.

(Black Tiger balancing on a ladder and juggling at the same time. Don’t try this at home.)

After a couple of hours of driving and waiting for Abdul to pay our park entry fees, we arrived at Panorama Camp, near Lake Manyara NP. We put our stuff inside our tents and headed out to do a game drive of LMNP. After seeing a bunch of different animals, we headed back and had dinner and watched some locals perform acrobatics. One of them, called ‘Black Tiger’ had amazing hand-eye coordination. In one act, he put a ¾ inch diameter stick in his mouth and balanced bottles end to end. That night, I had to battle some mosquitoes while trying to sleep in my tent. Those guys can find the smallest cracks in tents and sneak in.

(Sun-rise view from Panorama campsite. Looks like a scene from Lion King.)

(Masai doing a dance to welcome us.)

(Shoes made from used tires. Most Masai men wear them.)

(Our guide, Dowdi, showing us a Masai hut. All huts are built by women.)

(Masai kids in their elementary school.)

We woke up early the next day and were joined by an Italian guy named Carlo. All of us saddled in to make the 3 hour journey to the Serengeti, passing through the Ngorongoro area. We took a short detour (per Richard’s request) to a Masai village on the way and got to experience a little bit of Masai culture, hear them sing, see where and how they live, and check out their elementary school.

(Baby elephant. Check out the baby ‘teeth’ (tusks))

(A rare sighting of a lazy leopard. Sorry for the bad pic, it was far away and all I had was digital zoom.)

(Sasha christened these two lions ‘Bert’ and ‘Ernie’.)

At the entrance of Ngorongoro, Abdul paid for our park entry fees, we were joined by yet another person, an English doctor named Sasha. We did a game-drive, seeing all the usual African animals. I am no expert on animals but I can say we saw the usual zoo animals (and more) but in their natural habitats. The Serengeti is so vast that animals are spread out and we had to stay on approved roads. Abdul used his knowledge of the area to help navigate us to areas where certain animals tend to congregate. We also looked out for groups of other safari cars that have stopped in a particular spot, meaning there was something to see there.

(Candle-lit dinner.)

After the game-drive, we went to the Seronera camping grounds. There were only 4 tents for 5 people so the 2 girls, Sasha and Alex, were paired up in the same tent. By this time, I had realized I left my headlamp back at Panorama Camp. The Seronera grounds had no electricity. Since I had given Sasha a bottle of my water (she was told she didn’t have to bring any. See, management didn’t just lie to me), she offered to lend me her headlamp for the night, as she had Alex’s torch to use. We ate dinner in a wooden shelter, lit by a solitary lamp. There were insects around us, crawling onto our dinner table. We had to make sure they didn’t get into our food. At the end, a giant spider crawled onto our table and that’s when we all decided to call it a night.

As we walked to our tents, we looked to the sky. I had never seen so many stars in my life. The sky was flooded with them. Having lived in places where there was at least some form of light pollution, I was now in a place that was completely dark. For me, this was a new experience. We all woke up early the next morning, had a light breakfast, then left to do another game-drive. Richard, the Black English guy, was constantly demanding to see certain things. (“Lions, Abdul, take us to see the lions!” in a demanding tone.) He had been doing this the day before as well and it was rubbing some people the wrong way. Although he looked very young, maybe in his early 30s, he was 43 years old but acted a bit like a spoiled kid. This was a constant theme throughout our safari, which had a dramatic conclusion, which I will explain soon.

(Who can find my backpack?)

(Elephant helping himself to the water tank.)

After our 5-hour game-drive, we went back to the Seronera to pack up and leave for the Ngorongoro camp on the crater’s rim. The Ngorongoro used to be a volcano a long time ago but all that’s left now is a crater that’s 20 km in diameter and filled with an amazing ecosystem that supports all the animals that live there. We arrived around dusk. We saw some locals Masai around the camp with their spears and shields. Apart from trying to sell some of their hand-made souvenirs to all the safari-goers at the camp, there was another purpose they were there. An elephant showed up near our camp and was walking around. It eventually made its way to a huge water-container sitting beside the kitchen area and dipped its trunk into the opening at the top and started drinking the water. Everyone started taking pictures. It was interesting how smart the elephant was. I’m sure it has visited the camp before and somehow figured out how to get water from the container. Anyway, everyone made sure not to get too close, less we agitate the fella and he (I established it was a ‘he’ because he had a male organ) goes berserk in our camp. Anyway, the camp had electricity and we could eat dinner under some lights.

(Sunrise at the top of the Ngorongoro Crater rim.)

Around 4:30 am the next morning, everyone woke up to 2 gunshots. I thought I was dreaming but I found out later, the game-ranger protecting the camp had fired 2 rounds in the air to scare off an elephant that was too close to the camp, apparently looking for food. Carlo and Richard said they had also heard zebras walking around outside their tents. It’s crazy how close we are to the animals. Camping in the USA meant having raccoons come at night but here, we had elephants and zebras wandering around.

(Hyena: “L-O-L”)

(Little Pumbas following Mama Pumba. Warthogs.)

(Want to know how close we got to some animals? This close.)

(And this close. They wouldn’t move. Just lay there, soaking up the attention.)

(Hippo filth pool.)

The game-drive of the Ngorongoro was spectacular. After watching the sunrise, we descended slowly down the only road leading into the crater. From up top at about 600 m, the bottom looked extremely flat and blank but once we reached the bottom, I was surprised at how textured the landscape was. There was dense forest (where we spotted a rare black rhino in the distance, 1 of about 27 remaining in the entire area), dry plains where a male lion sat on a flat rock while watching some zebras in the distance, milky alkaline lakes, a beautiful lake filled with hippos, and much more.

At one point, Richard had been in another demanding mood again. He questioned why Abdul, at a fork, took a left instead of a right, where he saw some animals in the distance. I was sick of him at this point so I said ‘I think Abdul knows what he’s doing’. The day earlier in the Serengeti, we saw some lions sleeping under a tree and after leaving them to check out other areas for another 20 minutes, Richard demanded to go back because he was sure the lions would be awake and doing stuff by. I said that I didn’t think they were because it had been only 20 minutes and even after 15 minutes of observing them earlier, they barely budged. We made some sounds to try to wake them up but they didn’t pay any attention to them. Anyway, no one else agreed to go back as we wanted to move on to another area of the park, and it was only Richard who wanted to. Abdul gave in and we drove all the way back, and guess what? The lions were still asleep. I was right and this must’ve made Richard mad.

After our Ngorongoro Crater game-drive, we made our way back to camp. Alex, Sasha and I were sitting at a table, having some coffee when Richard walked in and said to no one in particular that he couldn’t find a charger for his Tanzania cell-phone. So I asked ‘The phone didn’t come with a charger of its own?’ and he snapped ‘No one was talking to you!’ before walking off. Alex, Sasha and me exchanged surprised looks but I shrugged it off. Richard would always disappear to God knows where and would always show up last for meals.

After packing up the tents and gear, we got into the car and I looked around for my remaining 2 bottles of water I had left on the front seat. Richard then pulled a new bottle out of nowhere and told Alex she could have it. Realizing Richard had a problem with me that day, I thought maybe he took my water to spite me. So I asked if that was his and he shouted at me ‘Shut your fucking mouth when no one is talking to you!’ Everyone went silent. I asked him what his problem was and I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation went because I was caught up in the heat of the moment. All I remember is that I eventually told him to go fuck himself and that we exchanged a few vulgar name-calling and Carlo told me not to pursue the argument even farther. (In hindsight, I wish I had been calm and not resorted to name-calling, even if he started it. I wasn’t ready to tolerate his attitude but I definitely could’ve handled the situation better. It was very childish but emotions got the better of me. I am quite disappointed with myself.) But again, I was caught by surprise and by the moment and we had apparently been rubbing each other the wrong way the past few days. Richard knew today was the last time we would see each other so he picked today to erupt.

After arriving at Panorama camp where Alex, Carlo and I would stay for 1 more night and Richard and Sasha would leave that day, I was in the bathroom when Richard walked in. With no one around, I decided this was a good time to discuss the problem. I asked him what issues he had with me (with the intention of listening to his side of things and if necessary, apologize) and he was adamant that he didn’t want to discuss it. He mentioned the time when I said ‘I think Abdul knows what he’s doing’ and the water-bottle incident. He changed what I said and when I denied that I had said that, he was insistent. Then he says ‘You’re lucky I didn’t give you a kick in the face’ before walking off. I told him I wanted to resolve this man to man and for a 43 year old man, he was being a child. Anyway, at the end of the day, I had the support of everyone in our group. Alex kept telling me days before how she disliked Richard for being ‘arrogant and spoiled’ and Carlo said ‘That’s not how a 43 year old man should act’. Abdul told me he had been doing safaris for many years and he will never forget Richard. Anyway, I actually find this entire situation to be quite funny. Richard has plenty of other antisocial moments but there is no point mentioning them.

(Paolo’s humble home where he, his wife, and little girl Janet live.)

(Paolo and little Janet. The extension of his home that he’s building with his hands is in the background.)

(Paolo’s family’s kitchen.)

(Typical mud hut in Manyara Village.)

(Where locals get their meats.)

We had about 3 hours to spare that afternoon so the manager of the camp, a Masai named Paulo, took us on a walking tour of Manyara town. We got to visit his little humble home nearby, on a small plot of land he worked very hard to buy and is now building, with his own hands, an extension of his home. His home was an extremely small space, the size of a room. A bed was crammed in together with a small table and chairs for eating, and a cabinet of various things. Paulo knew I lost my headlamp so it was to my relief he told me he had found it in my tent and kept hold of it, so I managed to get it back that day.

Paulo took us to the town and we got to try a local alcoholic ‘banana beer’ (really, it’s more like rum but they call all liquor here ‘beer’ and yes, it really is made of bananas). We ate sugar cane, freshly chopped and cut.


(Elephant spa treatment.)

(He looks happy.)

(Vervet monkey watching for stray food.)

(Mama and kiddo vervet.)

The next day, Alex, Carlo and I had only Lake Tarangire NP to do. The place had many elephants and tsetse flies. I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and was looking outside my window when I felt a painful bite on my forearm. It was a tsetse fly. They were quite large and had stinging bites, even through clothing. We had to battle those damn things the entire day. We left for Arusha that afternoon.

Had a good time overall, there’s so much more I want to write about the safari experience. It was quite amazing to be so close to the animals. Lions sleeping on the roads in front of safari cars, a leopard lying lazily on a tree branch, a baby elephant trying to eat and showing its baby tusks, a group of lionesses running at a herd of antelope but not getting anywhere near because they all ran off, vervet monkeys watching us and ready to swoop for scraps as we ate our lunches, wildebeest and zebras migrating together in straight lines, hippos fighting each other, those countless stars above the Serengeti that made me feel so small…

More Safari Pictures

Arusha, Tanzania

Arusha, Tanzania
October 23rd-25th 2010
October 30th 2010 (night)

Arusha is the city where most people launch their northern circuit safaris from. After taking a 10-hour bus from Dar, I stayed a few nights because the Tanzanian Tourist Board doesn’t open until Monday. The TTB has a blacklist of safari companies which have cheated people in the past and I wanted to take a look at that list first before signing up for any safaris. There are around 300 registered safari companies in Arusha so shopping for a tour company requires a little legwork. That Monday, I was approached by a couple of touts on the street whose jobs are to lead foreigners like myself to companies who probably pay them a commission if we sign up for a safari.

I decided to go with one of them to visit a few companies. Most companies are spread out location-wise so there was a bit of walking involved. I only visited 3-4 before getting fed up as they all offer roughly the same packages at almost similar prices-per-day but it all comes down to who is most reliable. I went on the internet to read reviews and found unfavorable reviews for each of them. Nobody was cheated out of their money, it’s just that some companies will offer better prices than their competitors but end up cutting corners here and there, leading to unsatisfied clients. Anyway, I guess no safaris are perfect, especially budget safaris.

I went with a company called ‘Victoria Expeditions’. I was told that there were going to be 4 others joining my group (2 Slovenians, 1 Dutch, and 1 Korean). The bigger the group, the better rates offered, supposedly. My tour was scheduled to leave the next day, which was what I wanted. After paying for my safari, I relaxed the rest of the day.

Not much in the town itself. It’s cool and drizzly in the mornings. The place I was staying at had a TV where I could catch a few weekend soccer games and international news. BTW, I used to think Al-Jazeera was an Arab-based network that mostly covered news in the Arab world but I’ve come to learn that it’s international and their English news is excellent, on par with BBC.

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
October 18th – 20th 2010

Our fast-ferry took 1.5 hours to reach Stone Town, Zanzibar. Felt a little sea-sick the whole time. Upon getting to Zanzibar, it was getting dark so I allowed a local to take me to one of the inns I wanted to stay at but ended up staying at a place right across from it because it was a lot cheaper.

(Kids hanging out after school.)

(Cinnamon is actually bark!)

(Cacao beans, what chocolate it made from. It’s the seed behind the white stuff that’s cacao.)

I spent my time checking out the local fish and produce markets, watching a few beach soccer games, wandering around the streets filled with souvenir shops and eateries, visiting a few tourist attractions, and taking a spice tour (Zanzibar is well-known for their spice trade). The spice tour was particularly fun. We got to see what trees or bushes spices came from. (I did not know cinnamon came from the bark of a tree and I didn’t realize vanilla pods look a lot like long beans before they are dried and used for cooking. Workers have to manually pollinate vanilla plants as insects can’t.) We got to see, smell, and some instances, taste the spices right off their origins. We visited small villages, a remote secret beach, and eat some simple local food that was cooked using the spices we saw on our tour.

(Seafood line up. Pick what you want, they throw it on grill.)

(Making sugar cane juice.)

(Making Zanzibar pizza.)

(Pronounced ‘aroyo’.)

My favorite dinner spot was the Forodhani Gardens. In the evening, plenty of grilled seafood stands open for business and as soon as they see any tourists, they get them to check out their seafood line up. There was, among other things, barracuda and octopus, which I tried. A little expensive and the octopus was a little tough to chew but it was a good experience. There were sugar cane stalls as well, which they serve with ginger and lemon, which was an interesting twist to a classic refreshment. I also tried Zanzibar pizza, which was like meat inside ‘roti canai’, a popular Malaysian food. The ‘aroyo’ (I don’t know how it’s spelled) was an interesting local favorite. It’s a thick, gritty soup that comes with fish balls (balls made of fish paste, not the balls of fish. Do fish even have balls?). While enjoying the food, I got to know a few of the locals sitting around me and they were a fun bunch.

On my last day, I found out the owner of my inn had a son who was attending flight school in Arlington so he was quite excited to find out I used to live in Dallas. What a small world.

Lots of great pics, check it out.

Zanzibar Pics

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania
October 15th – 17th 2010
October 21st – 22nd 2010

Took about 8 hours to get from Iringa to Dar. Was supposed to sit in a nice bus but it apparently had technical problems so we were re-assigned to an older, more beat-up version. Sat beside a Tanzanian girl whom I was surprised to find, spoke excellent English. Very few people in that region spoke decent English so I knew she must be one of the educated ones. This was a great opportunity to get to know a local and so, throughout the journey, we talked a lot about different things.

Her name was (to my best spelling ability) Widabayo (some German word meaning ‘victory’, I’ll call her W) and she was 18 years old. She went to an all-girls missionary school in Lushoto, in northern Tanzania. She was studying to become a doctor. She told me about life growing up in Iringa, where she was visiting her family during the school holidays. She didn’t have traditional public schooling (the education system isn’t great) but instead, her parents sent her to an international school where all the Indians and other foreign nationalities residing in that area sent their kids to have a better education and to learn, among many other subjects, English. Her ability to read/write English opened up a lot of doors for her in terms of furthering her education. The education system in Tanzania is quite similar to the one in Malaysia in terms of structure and the need to take a few big exams to move onto the next level or to determine whether they could pursue certain fields or not. They were both British colonies at a point in time so I wasn’t surprised to find some similar educational terminology being used (A-levels, O-levels, Form 1,2,3…). She had an interest in what life in the USA and Malaysia was like so I gave her an account of my story. I was particularly impressed she could explain the political situation in her country and give her views on the upcoming elections. I mean, she’s only 18. Anyway, I hope W succeeds and becomes a doctor. I told her maybe I would see her running for the Tanzanian presidency one day, at which she laughed off. But you never know…

After arriving in Dar, I took a daladala (aka mini sardine-van) to a location near the YWCA (Yes, Young WOMEN’S Christian Association, but they accept men). Stayed there a few nights. Accommodation was cheap and the rooms were relatively clean but small. My bed had little ants running all over it but screw it, little ants never killed anyone. The room had charm though. The wood-paneled wall was filled with writings, anecdotes, quotes, and jokes from various travelers who’ve stayed in that very same room. I even saw one that said ‘F.O.B.s 4 Life’.

I spent a lot of my time walking around looking for things to do to fill my boredom. (I have to stay here more days than I want to due to the fact I arrived late Friday evening and the Indian High Commission opens again on Monday). For a capital city, this place is severely lacking entertainment but then again, I’m speaking from a tourist’s perspective. The locals are perfectly fine with it. It’s especially terrible on Sundays when literally, everything is closed. I sat in my room reading or re-watching the World Series of Poker Main Event episodes for the umpteenth time (it never gets old). Luckily that evening, I found a Lebanese restaurant that was opened or I don’t know where I would’ve gotten dinner. I might’ve just bought from snacks from one of the stands on the street and called it a day.

The National Museum in Dar didn’t have the prestige or class of a ‘National’ museum. They spray-painted directions to point out where they museum entrance was. It’s basically a big house with several floors, very hot inside, filled with random artifacts or pictures here and there, with lots of computer print-outs (with scattered typos) of descriptions. In 1940, when the museum was first started, this might’ve been a nice place but it’s 2010 now and I don’t think they’ve upgraded the place ever. It was quite empty when I was there so either I came at non-peak hours or this isn’t a particularly popular tourist attraction and the locals just don’t care for it. Bottom line, it’s an issue of money.

After a few days of nothingness, Monday arrived and I rushed off to the Indian High Commission to submit my visa application. It would take 4 days so I decided to spend those days in Zanzibar. Left on the ferry that same afternoon.

Dar, Tanzania Pics

Mbeya + Iringa, Tanzania

Mbeya, Tanzania
October 13th 2010

Woke up early to catch a shared taxi to the border, which took about 1 hour. After taking care of business with Malawian customs, I walked across the Songwe Bridge into Tanzanian territory. There were plenty of ‘money-changers’ hassling me to change money. The guy who ran the hostel in Nkhata Bay told me to change my Malawi Kwachas to Tanzanian Shillings the moment I crossed the border (if you do it in the main cities in Tanzania, they give you a 1:4 rate, whereas the black market will give you a 1:7.5 rate, even if the official rate is supposed to be 1:10!) so I tried negotiating with these guys. They gave me a far better rate than I was told I was going to get so I got pretty excited and tried to change all my MKs to TSs. At one point, they handed me TSs and I handed over my MKs but the guy immediately changed his mind, saying I was changing far too much at once. I decided these guys were crooks so I walked back to the Malawian side, tried to change money with the bank there, but they had a hefty commission fee, so I crossed the border again and after taking care of business with Tanzanian customs ($100 visa?! IN-frigging-SANE!), I found the black-market changers right on the side of the road. I had counted 4060 MKs earlier but now I only had 3560 MKs…those sneaky asshole money-changers on the bridge must’ve stolen 500 when I wasn’t looking! Luckily that was only worth about $3.50 so I wasn’t mad about it, but they pulled a fast one on me. Ok, enough about money-changing.

After doing the 2 km walk to the nearest bus stop, I caught a sardine-bus to Mbeya just as it was about to leave. The journey to Mbeya took about 4 hours. I had planned to stay the night in Mbeya as it was the biggest city south-west of Tanzania. After my 1-day ordeal in ‘Karonga Prison’, I was happy to find a nice inn right across the bus station that was clean and even had satellite TV (my God, what a treat). Hung around the city center that afternoon to eat and use the internet before spending my night watching all kinds of wonderful TV programs (they had BBC, CNN, ESPN, Discovery, and National Geographic!). Why I only stayed 1 night in Mbeya is beyond me but I wanted to continue my methodical march to Dar Es Salaam so I left the next day to Iringa.

Iringa, Tanzania
October 14th 2010

Caught an 8:30 am sardine-bus to Iringa. What was supposed to be a 5-hour journey turned into an 8-hour one, due to all those multiple drop/pick-up stops we made. My butt muscles were sore from all the stationery sitting. But we eventually made it to Iringa, a city in the highlands. I arrived at the bus station and was eager to get to the inn I planned on staying at. It had been a long journey. I spoke to a taxi driver and he was so bad with explaining how to get there that I agreed to let him take me to the motel with his taxi (it was relatively cheap) but after I got into his taxi, he took a right turn out, then another right turn and 5 seconds later, we stopped in front of the motel. I was confounded. It would’ve taken me 1 minute to walk there and this taxi-driver got me to pay him 2000 TS ($1+). Well-played sir, well-played. I think he felt bad about it so he tried his best to tell me where to find ‘Hasty Tasty Too’, a popular local joint which I was looking forward to eating at.

After checking in, I made my way to ‘Hasty Tasty Too’, armed with furious hunger. I arrived and guess what? The place was closed! I was extremely disappointed. Apparently it was a public holiday of some sort, according to a guy who works next door at a wood-carving shop. I ended up eating at a joint next to the inn and filled up on rice and some meat. Then I went over to the supermarket across the street to pick up some Snickers for my dessert. I opened the Snickers bar in my room and found a weird looking piece of chocolate staring back at me. The texture looked faded and rough, not the nice smooth creamy texture that I was accustomed to. I checked the expiration date, and turns out, this bar of chocolate had been expired since March 2010. I marched back to the supermarket, and the guy offered to exchange it for another bar of chocolate (Cadbury Whole Nut). At least he was nice enough to do that as I expected him to tell me to go away as I had already opened the wrapper and taken a bite of the chocolate (Yes, I took a bite because I had to find out if it was just the outside that was all messed up. Nope, the insides were really old too. And I ate it.) The Cadbury Whole Nut was just as bad in terms of taste. I can tell because I’ve had a few bars the past few weeks. Where is this Iringa guy getting his chocolate anyway?! Whatever, sucked it up and ate the whole thing.

Mbeya Pics

Iringa Pics