Photos and commentary from Feldman family vacations.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Land before Time

Tanzania, Africa June 1 through June 14, 2006

On May 31, Mike and I left for Africa via Amsterdam. We decided to stay two days in that lovely city to recuperate from our Houston flight and be ready for the long flight to Arusha, Tanzania. The first day we slept and the second day we went to Rembrandt’s house which was featuring a special exhibition of his paintings and drawings. One of the most interesting things we learned is that art experts now believe that one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings, The Man with the Golden Helmet, was actually painted by one of his students. I also went once again to the Van Gogh museum. I visited it several years ago when we made a trip to the Netherlands. I never tire of looking at this famous artist’s works. We ate Italian food two nights in a row. Great food.

The weather was surprisingly cool in Africa, especially in the mornings and evenings. The landscape and vistas were just breathtaking throughout the two- week trip. We began to learn some of the Swahili words as soon as we arrived at the airport and talked to our guides: Jambo is hello and Asante is thank you.

Our first stop was at Kigongoni Lodge on the outskirts of Arusha. Here we were greeted with hot moist towels and fresh juice a tradition that we experienced at all of the places we stayed. Our spacious room had a mosquito netted bed, a brick fireplace, cement floors, stucco walls and a nice bathroom. As with all the facilities there were always a small army of guys to hoist your bags on their shoulders to carry them to your room. In the case of the lodge, there were steep stairs leading to our freestanding cottage so we were particularly grateful for the help. The net income of this lodge, by the way, went to the support of school that served handicapped children. At this facility and all of the places we stayed except for the Serena Lodge the light was provided by solar power!

We began meeting many of our wonderful companions who would be traveling on this trip with us -- fourteen in all, ranging in age from 19 to early 60’s. They came from all over the United States including Florida, Okalahoma, Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia and last but not least Hawaii! Dennis was the funniest, Joann the most interesting and Mary the sweetest. One of our first stops after the lodge was the Arusha Cultural Heritage Center. You will see from the pictures the funny figures they had of animals. There were native dances and lots of shopping. We were able to leave our goods with them while we went on safari and retrieve the items when we returned for our flight home. Mike and I purchased a wonderful antique African mask that now hangs in our kitchen. It will be a constant reminder of the trip of a lifetime.

We also met our three fabulous and interesting guides: John, Leonard and Ojukwu. These three men helped make this trip a terrific experience. Each one came from a different tribe. Ojukwu was a Masai and had many stories to tell us about their traditions and customs. John was the senior man, with more than seventeen years experience with Thomson Safaris. Leonard, the soccer star, who had played with Tanzania’s team and was now married to Miss Arusha, a beauty queen. Leonard is also an entrepreneur who is developing a business in Tanzanite stones. Many of us, including Mike and I, purchased Tanzanites (a purplish blue stone) from Leonard at a fraction of the stateside cost.

John went to dinner with us every night and sat at our tables. John was a family man with 6 children. When I asked what his favorite animal was he named the Kirk’s dik-dik (a small, delicate antelope) because it mates for life. I think this tells you all you need to know about John. He always gave us our “marching orders” for the next day’s activities which were sometimes met with groans especially when he announced that we would have to rise at 6:00 am.

Our next stop was the Kikoti Tented Camp nestled at the edge of the Tarangire National Park. The camp was actually not tented but freestanding cabins on high stilts. On the way to the camp we began to have our first taste of the landscape and the wildlife -- elephants and giraffes seemed to appear from nowhere as we stood on our seats of the Land Rover vehicles and looked out the pop-up roofs. The park is vast and very natural looking. We saw many wonderful trees including the Candelabra. Hunting and poaching are illegal in this park, as they were every area we visited. We also saw our first Impala which is an animal that looks like a small deer and runs like a gazelle. We also saw many incredibly tall termite mounds – termites are good because they eat dead trees. This fact and many more that were revealed to us over the course of the next few weeks awakened our minds to the symbiotic relationship between plants, animals, insects and the whole plethora of nature. There is now much effort in Africa to preserve these areas and conserve the wildlife with which this beautiful has been endowed.

Speaking of nature, there was one incredible moment in the park that I will never forget. We came across a large herd of elephants and suddenly someone in our three cars spied the ears of a lion in the distance. We all watched her very closely. She hovered in the grass some distance from the elephants but as fast as elephants can move, they could have been on her quickly. There were several mothers with their babies so you know they would be protective. Everyone in the vehicles was very quiet as we observed the lion trying to make herself invisible in the high grass. She finally worked her way "upwind" from the elephants and then out of sight.

The Kikoti Camp was our first realization that we were in the wild. We were not allowed to walk along the path to go for dinner without a guide. There was also a whistle in our room which we assumed was to alert someone that we had a problem. There was a guard with a rifle and some with bows and arrows. These natives’ trained ears know the sound of animals coming from a long way away. The guides are not allowed to kill the animals but merely to scare them away. At this facility and the tented camps, if we wanted a hot shower we had to tell one of the staff and they brought the hot water in a bucket and hoisted it up to our shower. Not like our showers at home --- one learned to soap up quickly before the water ran out! Food was good as in all of the places except for the instant coffee. Remember folks, no electricity!

While at this camp we met their "pet" ostriches who apparently came onto their property periodically. We also took a long walk after dinner again with guides on a trail. We were advised if an animal appeared not to run, to remain quiet. Glad we never had to experience that -- not sure I could have remained still if a lion had crossed our path! Our guide took little pieces of bushes, trees etc. cut them open and explained how the natives used them for medicinal purposes. In the evening, after dinner, we were treated for the first time to native dancing by members of the Masai tribe -- these fellows can jump at least four feet in the air.

As we left, all of the staff from the camp came out to bid us farewell. Such great smiling faces each one of them had! They were always polite and helpful. On our way to the next place we saw the Great Rift Valley Escarpment Wall that is nestled in the shadow of the Mto Wa Mbu village. We observed village life -- many people carrying things on their heads, wearing colorful clothing. The children will run up to the cars, smile and wave. We were told not to give them anything because they did not want to encourage begging and then children would stay out of school if they felt they could get money or trinkets from tourists.

Our next stop was Gibbs Farm which sat on top of the sprawling countryside and a coffee farm. The farm owners had sold the coffee crop but maintain a large working farm. Each one of us had a small cottage with a very nice bathroom. Lighting was minimal. The dining room was terrific however and so was the patio that overlooked the huge expanse of the countryside. I took a little tour with a guide of the fresh fruit and vegetable garden which was enormous. Our guide was very knowledgeable about all of the different types of lettuce and vegetables. One interesting fact that he shared with us is that two men sit in the little hut near the garden at night and beat on pans if they hear elephants nearby so they don’t trod through the garden!! This was another reminder that we were constantly in the company of wild animals.

The next day, we took a long hike up the side of the mountain with our entire group. We were all provided with walking sticks which came in handy. A scout went ahead of us to look for animals that might be on the path. There were signs that elephants and water buffaloes had been in the area. When we reached the top we came across an "elephant cave." The red soil had been carved out. The elephants apparently come here to scrape out nutrients from the soil. Mike and a few other brave souls climbed to the top of this and waved to us "chickens" below. We then traversed to another area where we stopped. We were at the edge of a very high cliff and below was this magnificent valley…made me dizzy to look over the edge.

On day six and seven, we were privileged to visit the Ngorongoro Crater and Conservation area. This crater is ten miles wide and its floor is 2,000 feet below. It is home to more than 30,000 animals: elephants; zebras; wildebeests; hyena; gazelle; flamingos; hippos; lions; leopards; cheetahs; and lots of birds. Our first look at it made us all gasp as we stared at it from up high. It was simply breathtaking. We stayed for two days at the beautiful Serena Lodge which was a real treat. Our rooms were equipped with modern conveniences like hair dryers and email. Each room had a balcony overlooking the magnificent crater. The large dining room provided an enormous amount of food served buffet style. The second night we were there was the birthday a young man who accompanied his mother on the trip. Mike whispered to the waiter that it was the man's birthday. Low and behold, all the waiters, cooks, chefs, etc came to our table -- about thirty people in all -- and sang this beautiful song, Jambo, Jambo. It brought tears to our eyes. They presented the young man with a cake. (We have since ordered a CD with the music on it)

Going into the crater was quite the experience. The roads, like most of those in these kinds of areas, are terrible -- dirt roads with big ruts but our drivers were very skillful in navigating them. The great herds of animals were quite a sight, especially the zebras who we all called zebbies. It was on this day that we saw our first two animals mating -- two hyenas. Frankly, hyenas are ugly, scrappy little animals that make weird noises. We also saw hippos in the water and lions that looked like they could use a meal. We had to race out of the crater because they close at six p.m. promptly. We barely made it and Raymond our guide had to do some fast-talking to the guards at the gate. It was a full day!!

The next day I chose not to go on safari because I was exhausted and in visual overload. One of the women who came by herself, Joann, also chose not to go that day. I had a wonderful time sitting out on the balcony talking to the young women who worked at the lodge -- learning about their struggles to get a higher education, about their hopes and dreams. I also had a long lunch with Joann, who as a volunteer takes care of wounded and sick “raptors” (birds of prey) in Monkey Island, Oklahoma. It was very interesting to learn about how delicate and complicated these birds' care is. I admired her compassion and devotion to these birds. Sadly I missed a big event -- those out on safari saw a black rhino, which is very big deal as black rhinos are endangered!

On days eight through eleven, we were in tented camps in the Serengeti National Park. On the way there we stopped at a Masai village where we saw how villagers lived, and what they did for food. We also visited their small schoolroom. The mud huts were interesting but I don’t think many of us could stand living with no electricity or running water. Tribe members and especially the children seem very happy, however. They danced and sang for us while wearing their brightly colored fabrics. The women made a loud high-pitched sound while the large beaded collars around their necks bounced as they sang. The men make a low-pitch sound while they dance and jump in the air sometimes as high as four feet.

The Serengeti National Park is the size of Connecticut. In other words…HUGE! The wildlife is plentiful but the grasses are not as high as in the other park. It was here that we saw the migration of the wildebeests, in which Mike was really interested. While migrating, wildebeests run very fast in one direction, usually single file but then sometimes seem to turnaround for no reason and run in the other direction. The male "beesties," as we called them, spent a lot to time herding females -- usually at least thirty at a time -- and fending off other males. We learned from our guide that when the babies are born they could start running with the herd in one day…amazing! We also learned that if the mother of the newborn dies the other mothers will not care for the baby, resulting in the baby's death.

Zebras are much smarter than the wildebeests but both species tend to herd together. The wildebeest eats the first layer of grass exposing it for the Zebra -- then the Zebra comes along and munches down on the grass exposing the next layer for the gazelles and impalas. Zebra families know each other's call and can distinguish family members by the sounds that they make.

We were at two tented camps which were the same but just in different areas. The individual permanent tents were large enough for a king-sized bed with two nightstands. The bathroom, located the back of the tent, was split into three small areas: sinks with mirrors (no running water, just glass pitchers with water and lovely glass bowls), a shower and a composting toilet. As in the other camps, hot water could be had simply by alerting an attendant. There was a porch area in front of the tent with two chairs and a table. We ate in the main tent, next to which was a wonderful outdoor fire with chairs that encircled it. By this fire, we were served our wine or other beverage before dinner. After dinner we could go back to the fire and have another drink, chat and then say good-night. The sunsets were magnificent as was the full moon. Once inside the tent though we were not allowed to go out at night. Some nights I awoke to the sounds of animals, particularly hyenas. There were two native men patrolling the camp sight. They were there to protect us and scare away animals if necessary. We felt perfectly safe.

Here are some highlights of our visit to the Serengeti. We saw what so many people see if they watch films made by National Geographic -- a pride of lions, mostly female and one young male, eating a zebra. Nature may be brutal but even the most gory scenes have a sort of primal beauty. It was amazing that we could get so close in our vehicle to this scene and the lions seemed totally undistracted as they pulled the hide and underlying contents from the zebra. The saddest thing to me was to observe a whole row of zebras standing across the street staring at the lions as they ate one of their own. Dennis said it was a zebra memorial service.

One of the other astonishing experiences was visiting the huge lake with more 300 hippos with their heads bobbing up and down. The male hippos make the loudest most outrageous sounds and they have the largest heads, far larger than what you see in the zoo. We learned that the hippos excrete this red liquid that keeps them from sun burning which is also why they stay in the water all day. They come out of the water at night to feed on the grasses. They are very protective as mothers to their offspring. They also kill more humans in Africa than any other animal … mostly people in canoes or small boats who are toppled into the water by a hippo.

I hope I have not bored anyone with all of these details. I would recommend to anyone who is thinking about going to Africa that you take a Thomson Safari. Their home office is in Watertown, Mass.

Marcia Forni Feldman


Anonymous Viswa said...

It was great experience,i like safari travel,safari in African countries are best places,joyful holidays...

10:47 PM


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