I once read a sentence about this fascinating destination which I never forgot, and which kept coming to my mind during our entire stay: this is the place where you can feel the earth’s pulse, for this is where its heart beats. This thought occurs to me every time I think about Tanzania. As we move away from inhabited areas into the wilderness, we feel as if we are going back to the origin of times. Endless fields, covered with low vegetation, threes, rivers, lakes and animals, a huge number of animals, in complete freedom. It is an incredible sight, as if time didn’t pass here.
This journey to such a mythical place was a long awaited and dreamed one. We were fortunate to go in 2003. Time goes by really fast, this was more than 10 years ago!!! Despite this, I have decided to share our memories of this place where time seems meaningless, and where I’m sure nothing has changed much in a decade.
We started our itinerary at Lake Manyara, a small National Park (small when compared to others of course, because around here distances are always huge), ideal for a first contact with African wildlife. The first animals we saw were widely and enthusiastically photographed (mostly monkeys and elephants, which we saw in such quantities after that they soon became banal…). This park is known for its birdlife, and the sight of hippopotamus in the lake was impressive, as is everything here. We stayed in very comfortable tents – with showers (and hot water), toilets… it felt like deluxe savannah 🙂
During our entire journey we had a local guide, from the Kikuyo tribe (one of the biggest in Tanzania and Kenya where tribes continue to have great importance). He was, as everybody we met here, extremely polite, reserved, respectful, proud of his roots and traditions, and above all, he had great dignity. These qualities made quite an impression on us, they show once again that it isn’t wealth that defines a man, something we must never forget. We were lucky to get Carmen and Elsa as trip companions, two Spanish friends (from Galicia) who we immediately liked and who quickly became our friends. We cherish this friendship, which kept growing over time and has now extended to many other friends in Galicia. Travelling is really an opportunity to meet extraordinary people!
After this we spent several days in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania’s biggest one, extension of Masai Mara (on Kenya’s side of the border), where we really felt small. The park, classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, spreads to apparent infinity, and everything around is breathtaking… as soon as we arrived our guide calmly stopped the jeep and asked us to look to our left. At first we saw nothing, but after a few moments to adjust our vision we saw a big lion lying in the grass only 6 feet (2 meters) away, hanging there, observing us… what an emotion! Our vision is definitely not trained for the wild, we would have missed it! We felt that we would last very little here on our own… next we passed by a group of hyenas feasting on an animal’s carcass, what a brutal spectacle, and we finally arrived our comfortable lodge, typically African, on a top of a hill and with an infinite view… wonderful! Impossible not to remember the legendary movie Out of Africa, seen over and over again.
Being on a safari means wandering around for hours (in the 4WD jeep, of course), constantly marvelling at everything we see: giraffes (very elegant), buffalos (a bit scary), hippos (huge), elephants (impressive), zebras (lovely), gnus (not many at this time, they had migrated north in search for water and food), cheetahs (so fast and so gracious), crocodiles (really scary), lions (always resting) and lionesses (dedicated workers, they do everything – they hunt, they take care of the cubs…) …all of them amazing!
The way the driver spots (or senses, we never knew for sure) the animals in the distance is stunning – he goes driving along and suddenly fixes a point and stops, and there it is, one of these natural wonders (which we can take minutes to see, even with binoculars…). After the first days it became a little bit easier for us to see what sometimes was really close to us. There was even a time (it was a unique one, I have to admit, probably beginner’s luck) where I saw a lioness with her cubs before the guide did! Maybe if we stayed longer we could survive on our own… very unlikely though… 🙂 As I said, we stayed in the jeep during all the safari. The guide wouldn’t let us move away not even a bit (and we never tried) because of all the dangers around us: according to him the biggest risk wasn’t the big animals around, it the ones we couldn’t see – snakes, scorpions… and many others which we wouldn’t even be aware of. We took his word for it!
We were lucky to see a lioness approaching a group of zebras to hunt, and it is almost impossible to describe the emotion of witnessing such a spectacle right in front of us. We were all quiet for minutes, watching her come near in complete silence, just stopping from time to time to evaluate her preys, and, when finally in their range, launching herself at high speed over them. The zebras ran in all directions and in zigzags, reaction which prevented them to become the lioness’s dinner (at least that day). We were quite relieved, we have to admit… although we know that this is the cycle of life, we really felt sorry for the zebras.
We then travelled to Ngorongoro crater – the biggest volcanic inactive caldera in the world, with around 20 km wide and 260 km2 of area, also classified as World Heritage by UNESCO. Most wild species live here, it is a privileged wildlife viewing area. The big animals can’t climb the crater walls (600m / 2000ft tall), so they live inside the crater and make it easy to spot most species. Crater access is controlled, but Maasai – semi-nomadic tribes, known for their warrior traditions – have the right to graze their cattle within it, so we can frequently see them here.
Many of these tribes welcome foreign visitors as a way to share their culture and traditions, and also as a source of income. We had the chance to visit a Maasai village, where we were given a warm welcome, and this was an unforgettable experience: the tribe leader was astonished with our mobiles (because he had never seen a digital camera at the time), the women sang and danced for us (and with us, we were invited to participate), the children at school were proud to show everything they had learned (in English…). This was truly a mind-blowing experience!
The lodges are situated on the top of the crater’s walls, with a superb view over the caldera. Wildlife is so abundant here that we could not go around unaccompanied (from the main dining room to the guest rooms for example, which implied walking 100m / 300ft outside), a lodge staff member would always come with us, in case we might encounter animals on our way… the rooms had huge windows over the rim, views at dawn were incredible – on morning we woke up and there was a buffalo grazing by our window!
This was the place to challenge our guide to achieve any safari’s highest objective, seeing the big five: lion, buffalo, hippopotamus, rhino and leopard! He took the challenge and dedicated his search to rhinos and leopards, the ones we hadn’t seen yet. They are the most difficult to spot… the leopards because they usually hang on trees by themselves during the day and hunt at night, the rhinos because they are in very low numbers – they’re an endangered species due to illegal hunting, which continues to threat all these animals despite the efforts to put an end to it. We got to see both and it was awesome, although we kept our distance… our guide decided to move away when the rhino started coming in our way, slowly but with a very determined attitude…
These are fascinating places and unique experiences, very difficult to describe because it is impossible to depict the colours, the sounds, the feelings they produce… This was a remarkable journey, and it is now our son’s dream to visit the heart of Africa… maybe we’ll have the chance to go back with him one day, who knows? Meanwhile I hope I was able to take you there, even if only for a few moments.