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Sunday, February 14, 1999
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The late start was welcome after some of the intense days we had experienced up to this point. It was also cool, which helped improve what was otherwise not a good night's sleep. In fact, I seem to remember it almost rained again.

After a quiet breakfast, we bid farewell to Thomas, Juma and the other camp staff. We would have a different crew in the Serengeti. We packed our bags, and were soon underway. We also paid our tips to the camp staff, about $40 from each person in the group if I remember right.

It took a long time to drive around Ngorongoro Crater. At the point where the crater rim road joined Hwy B144, we stopped for one last good look into the crater, where there had been such excellent adventure! (12:12,11) It was a clear morning, and the view was exceptional.

Almost all of the development of the crater area was along this stretch of the main road that ran along the crater rim. We passed the main ascent and the main Descent roads, which is how most visitors get in and out of the crater. The park administrative and support offices were along this stretch of road. There were facilities for fueling and servicing safari vehicles, as well. We passed the Crater Lodge and Serena Lodge Hotels. Another Masai cultural boma was also located along this stretch of road. Finally, there were a number of nice public campsites, for the more self-sufficient traveler. I made note of these, as it is a possible springboard for future adventures......

We encountered an unusual vehicle on this road. It was a Guerba Tours safari truck. This vehicle was of particular interest, as I had seriously considered this travel option. This large, slow-moving vehicle (Built by Mercedes) was loaded with young people, most of whom seemed bored. A couple of them rode on the observation seats on top. These high-up seats are one of the few advantages of this type of vehicle. Inside, one could even see bookshelves with reference books on them. (Njau kept several reference books in our vehicle's glove compartment. His favorite was 'Peterson's Guide to African Birds', and he referred to it often.) On the outside of the vehicle was various earthworking tools, spare water and fuel cans, etc, etc. This vehicle was intended to be self-sufficient wherever it went. The biggest problem with a vehicle like this is that it cannot go on any side- or low clearance roads. Thus, your game viewing was limited to the main roads. We passed it, because it was moving so slowly.

We finally broke away from the crater rim, and continued Northwest towards Olduvai Gorge. As we drove there, Njau explained that the gorge's name was actually Oldupai Gorge, named after a species of wild sisal that grew in the area. Researchers kept misspelling the name, so the 'Olduvai' name eventually stuck for all but the locals.

As we slowly descended the Ngorongoro Massif, we went through some very rugged, hilly country country. I got a nice picture of another Masai cultural boma (Notice all the safari vehicles!) as we drove along. (12:10) A bit later, We spotted a herd of what I think is eland grazing on a hillside. (12:9)

We saw a large bird perched right on the edge of the road. Turned out to be a tawny eagle, enjoying a meal of snake. (12:8,7) It let us pull right alongside, and watch it eat.

The Oldavi Gorge Visitor's Center was 6 dusty miles North off of Hwy B144. It consisted of two buildings. One had kind of a meeting hall and gift shop. The other had a lot of exhibits in it. Some of these dealt with bones and fossils of local wildlife. Most of the others had to do with the hominid remnant fossils found in the gorge. There were many examples of tools these early humans made. I had some doubt that these pieces of rock were really tools until I saw that they had discovered in many cases the parent rock from which the tool had been made! Were these pieces of stone effective? Richard leaky used to show groups just how effective they were by preparing the night's meal. He could butcher a small antelope in about 10 minutes with a stone blade made moments before!

The most impressive exhibit was a set of footprints made by a hominid about 3.5 million years ago. This ancestor had taken a walk in a fresh layer of volcanic ash. Several other animals had walked through it, too. Then, it gently rained, which caused the ash to undergo a chemical reaction and harden. Soon after that, there was another thick ashfall that buried the tracks, and preserved them. Much later, the gorge formed, revealing these ashfall layers as strata. After the first hominid fossils had been discovered, much research had been done in the area. This set of footprints was discovered almost by accident when looking for similar animal footprints in ash.

After the footprints were discovered, casts were taken of them, so researchers everywhere could have access to them. The originals were covered back up for preservation. However, we didn't do as good a job as nature. 10 years later, acacia tree roots growing in the disturbed soil were destroying the footprints, along with erosion. The footprints were re-exposed, stabilized, and new casts taken. They are now covered with a much more elaborate protective system to hopefully preserve them until Jesus comes!

Replicas of the fossils discovered were on display, showing how man and animals were pieced together from bone remnants. Animal bones were often found with human bones, or with tools, so we have a pretty good idea of what animals early man liked to eat. (It also supports the theory that we are on the carnivorous side of being omnivores, and should be eating a lot more animal food and less carbohydrates!)

Outside of the museum building was a Masai man selling various Masai items. I thought long and hard about buying A Masai cattle herding stick. In the end, I didn't.

A brief lecture was given about the history of the site. After finishing our exploration of the site, we had lunch in one of the pavilions that overlooked the gorge. We shared our lunch with many interesting birds, who would come quite close to us. Most of these birds will have to remain classified as LBT's (Little Brown Things), but a couple were able to be clearly identified. (Njau knew them all, but I didn't take notes!) Here's a lesser masked weaver (12:6, yellow bird) with a LBT, a lesser masked weaver with a bunch of assorted LBT's (12:5, note the subtle colors on many of these birds.), a nice red-and-yellow barbet (12:4), and some more assorted LBT's. (12:3)

The pavilion we were in offered a breathtaking view of Olduvai Gorge, especially the parts that were under the most intense excavation. (12:2,1) It was a bit reminiscent of the American West, especially some parts near where Larry and Teri were from.

Larry and Teri were in their element here; archaeology was their business. They deeply admired the work of the Leakys. I took Teri's picture standing against the backdrop of the gorge. She wanted proof she had been there! In return, she photographed me with the gorge in the background. (13:36) You can see here how much the wind and dust had frazzled my 'mane'!

The Guerba Tours safari truck eventually showed up. (It took about 2 hours to catch up to us.) These particular tours are 'full participation camping'. So, out came containers of vegetables, tableware, cutting boards, etc. There were even specially assigned tubs for washing vegetables and hands! A table, and even a couple of kitchen-style wastebaskets appeared. The young people that made up the passengers of the safari truck then proceeded to make lunch assembly-line style. It looks to me like a lot of time is spent doing this sort of thing on these trips, and less time is spent observing and learning. Still, this must be a wonderful experience for these young people, as world travel is normally quite expensive for college-age folk. Here, in exchange for some hard work, and less-than-desirable conditions, they can embark on a safari so large in scope that few well-heeled folk could even afford a luxury version of it! (Truck safaris are very economical, and tend to be quite a bit longer than average. Some go on for months and cross the continent.)

We took a bathroom break before proceeding down into the gorge for a lookaround. In the men's restroom, I discovered a uniquely African toilet. It consisted of a hole in the concrete floor, in the middle of a shallow depression. On either side of the hole was a concrete brick, about 6 inches long, three inches wide, and two inches high. Urinating was not a problem. On the other hand, defecating was. The idea was to rest one's hindquarters on the bricks, which allowed everything to drop into the hole. It looked incredibly uncomfortable. I suddenly decided that I didn't need to go so bad! This was the first of many of these that I saw in and around the Serengeti. (I have recently discovered some well-traveled person has written a book about the proper 'use' of these kinds of 'facilities', found throughout the world!)

We went down into the gorge, which, surprisingly, didn't require the presence of a ranger or a guide. There, we found a plaque commemorating the discovery of Australopithecus boisei by Mary Leaky in 1959. (13:35) It was surrounded by pieces of bone that people had found, both fossil and recent. Here again, I photographed Teri standing with the marker for her. We spent some time exploring this interesting site. I got a picture of Teri examining a rock for fossils, (13:34) and Teri just examining the landscape. (13:33)

While I was looking around, I actually found a piece of fossilized bone. I saw it just laying on the ground, as many of the really spectacular discoveries had been made. No way to tell what it was from, but the haversian canals were clearly visible. This is where having a park ranger along would have been nice; they may have wanted to see this. In any case, after everyone had looked at it, I put it back where I found it. I will always wonder if someone else will 'discover' this bone fragment, and that it will be part of the next major hominid discovery!

For an area that was so volcanic, there was a lot of sedimentary rock. (13:32) It is these rocks, though, that made the spectacular fossil discoveries possible. (13:31 The pavilion where we had lunch is clearly visible; it is the one on the right.) There were spots where the underlying black basalt was clearly visible. (13:30,29) This rock ultimately underlies much of East Africa. The seasonal riverbed was also visible.

Our pilgrimage to the dig site complete, we left Olduvai Gorge. Soon, we were back on the main road. We had originally planned to visit a place called 'shifting sands' where sand dunes march across the flat land, but don't move in the way that the winds should move them. Scientists do not understand what forces are at work there. However, the road we had to take to get there would put us several hours behind schedule; we had much of the Serengeti to cross today!

The road began to take on a 'washboard' pattern that is frequently seen on roads in other places. (13:28) These ridges are a result of truck traffic and solar heating. They made the ride very rough at times. The line of trees visible in this picture is Olduvai Gorge. We actually cross the gorge several miles West on B144 from where you turn off for the Interpretive Center. This was also a sign you were very close to the border of Serengeti National Park.

Well, we finally made it! We reached the official border of Serengeti National Park! (13:27) The sign reads 'Welcome to Serengeti National Park' in both English and Swahili. (Karibu Hifadhi ya Serengeti) The really amazing thing is that this park is so large, you need to drive 12 miles past this point to get to the park gate!

Not very long after entering the park, we began to see herds of gazelles. These were of two varieties: Thomson's and Grant's. As mentioned earlier, Thomson's gazelles (or tommies) are smaller and have a bold black stripe on their sides. Grant's gazelles have a lighter black stripe on their side, as well as an area of white above the base of the tail. I photographed a single tommy along with an African black crow. (13:26) There is a bird in the background that looks like a grey heron. I also got a different shot of this bird, along with the same crow and some more gazelles. (13:25)

Most of the jackals we encountered were rather shy. However, we came across one who allowed us to get several nice photos of it. (13:24,23,22)

We finally arrived at Naabi Hill gate. Naabi Hill was actually a pair of hills very close together. The main park road (Still Hwy B144!) passed between these two hills, which formed a convenient place for a checkpoint. There were also trees and bushes growing on the hill, which helped make it a cooler place to work than the hot, flat plains. You could think of Naabi Hill as an extremely large kopje.

We had a long stay in the parking lot while Njau took care of the paperwork. He indicated that it would not take very long to do the paperwork, so I didn't try to wander far away. In the end, I should have wandered up to the gatehouse, as that is where the gift shop was. The paperwork took far longer than anticipated, and I would have had time to buy the official guidebooks I had put off purchasing. They also had some nice shirts that I only saw from the road. (Much of the gift shop was outside, in plain view of the road.)

Larry wandered up a path that took one to an observation point on top of one of the hills. I later started up this path, but met Larry coming down. He reported not seeing much.

I then started up the path to the gatehouse, but stopped when I was inundated by superb starlings! Again, I got a couple of nice photos of these beautiful, gregarious, and trusting birds! (13:21,20) After taking these pictures, I decided to go back to the vehicle.

On the way back, a movement in the grass caught my attention. It was along the path that led to the observation point. I stopped and observed for a while. I was eventually rewarded with a sighting of what is probably a common rat. I was even able to get a couple of pictures. (13:19,18) Animals here have much less fear of man!

We were soon back on the road. We would take the main road to a point North of the Simba Kopjes, and then head West to our hotel, the Serengeti Sopa Lodge.

We drove along, observing hundreds of gazelle along the way. I didn't take any pictures at this point, as I knew we would see thousands more before the next three days were over. Soon, we reached the Simba Kopjes.

Now, a word about kopjes. The area known as the Serengeti Plains was originally a very hilly area, made of hard volcanic rock, such as granite. At some point several million years ago, Mt. Olmoti (And probably Ngorongoro, which was once larger than Kilimanjaro) had a huge eruption, which filled in the whole area with ash. We're talking cubic miles of ash here! Now, only the tops of these large hills were tall enough to stick above the ash layer. The result was a vast plain with scattered groups of small hills. These hills weathered very slowly because of the hard rock, but weather they did. The result was kopjes. (13:17) Kopjes were important things to check out during game drives, as predators hide amongst them. As a result, the major groups of kopjes were well-imbued with roads. We drove on a few of these roads when we got to the Simba Kopjes. Still, we didn't stray too far off the main road this time. We still had a long way to drive. We saw nothing.

Njau talked to another guide, who indicated that some cheetah had been spotted up ahead. We were told to check out an area around a stone quarry that was just North of the Simba Kopjes. This quarry was used to provide materials for road maintenance in the park. We checked out this quarry, and found nothing. A lengthy chat with another driver revealed that the cheetah were on the main road just North of the turnoff to Serengeti Sopa Lodge.

We didn't go more than a quarter of a mile up this road when we found a knot of safari vehicles. There were three cheetah on a fresh kill there, a mother and two large cubs! We couldn't tell exactly what they had caught other than it was a gazelle. All this was perhaps 30 feet off the road!

As we began our extended observation, the mother was watching what was going on while the cubs ate. (13:16-13) Cheetahs are very efficient hunters, but lose a lot of kills to other predators. (It takes up to 20 minutes for a cheetah to catch it's breath after running down it's dinner!) As a result, cheetahs eat very quickly. You could tell by their body movements that they were swallowing their food as fast as they could tear it free. (A bite every 10-15 seconds.) Lions eat much slower, unless they are competing for part of a small kill.

Eventually, the mother started to eat, as the cubs were starting to get filled up . (13:12-10) From that point on, the mother and cubs were taking turns eating, or sitting up and looking around. The arrival of a group of professional photographers distracted the cheetahs a bit, as they drove off the road to get a better shot. (They must have had a permit to drive off-road, as they had signs in the window which said: 'Do not follow off road'.) I took a lot of pictures of the cheetahs in hope of getting 1 or 2 'classic' photos. I think I achieved this goal with room to spare! (13:9,8,7,6,5,4, 3,2,1; 14:36,35)

When we had done all the cheetah-observing we wanted to do, we returned to the turnoff to Serengeti Sopa Lodge, and proceeded West. This road skirts across the Southern edge of the central Seronera region of the park. As were now fairly close to where we would eventually end up, we took our time and did some serious game viewing. And, we were not disappointed!

The first thing we discovered was a pride of sleeping lions. (14:34) they were sleeping around the base of a clump of tall grass. A number of other safari vehicles were there observing them. As they weren't doing much, we didn't stay long. (I had forgotten about this sighting until I went through these pictures. It was not even plotted on a map I have which indicates where we saw cats in the Serengeti.) Praise the Lord!

As we got closer and closer to our lodge, we came down a hill to where a small river crossed the road. Alongside the road, just a few feet off the edge, a lioness was resting in the shade of a tree. She let us get quite close, perhaps 30 feet. (14:33,32,31) She was a nice specimen, in fine condition. She sat there and watched us, panting lightly in the heat. Suddenly, she got up, and headed down a small ravine. (14:30)

On the hill above the ravine, there were some zebra grazing. They were aware of the lion's presence, but weren't being over cautious. Moments later, they broke out into a full run. The lioness reappeared, closely following one of the zebra. (14:29) She broke off the chase quickly (14:28) without ever attempting to jump the zebra. This one was just a bit too fast for the circumstances! Well, it's not the end of the world for the lioness, as only one in 4 or 5 hunts ends with a meal! Nevertheless, we got to witness a lion hunt, something that is not observed every day. (Again, I will always wonder if the Lord didn't have this lioness wait to start her hunt until I had arrived to observe it. Praise the Lord!)

This was the last bit of action for this day. Soon, our hotel, the Serengeti Sopa Lodge came into sight. (14:27) As we drove up the hill to the hotel, we could see that considerable engineering effort had gone into making this work in the middle of nowhere. Electrical conduits seen along the road indicated an offsite, but nearby electrical generating facility.

When we got to the hotel entrance, we were treated like royalty. The doors of the land rover were opened for us, and the step folded down. (Which I didn't like, as it got in the way of my long legs when stepping out!) Just inside the door, we were handed glasses of fruit juice and hot towels.

The lobby was dark; no lights were on, but the presence of electronic equipment indicated that there was power available. I seem to remember one couple returning a VCR and a couple of tapes. (I think one of them was 'The Lion King', if I recall correctly.) After filling out the usual paperwork (Every place we went asked for our passport number, place of issue, and our occupation!), we were quickly given room keys, which were attached to a piece of wood. A porter carried my bag the long distance to my room. It was the second-to- last room on the South end on the lower level.

On the way to the room, I spotted a beautifully colored lizard. It had an iridescent red head which faded to a deep purple on the tail. I never knew a reptile could be so colorful!

Once in my room, the first order of business was a shower. I really needed one at this point from all the dust I collected on the road into the park.

The second order of business was sitting out on the porch and observing the landscape. This was one of the few places where you could do it on your own. I had a stunning view of the Serengeti plains from the porch! (14:26,25,24,23,22, looking first Northeast, then East, then Southeast. The hills are the distant Ngorongoro massif. The spot where you cannot see any distant hills is looking straight down the plains. All the hills you see except to the Southeast are outside the park, which is at least 30 miles distant.) I spent nearly an hour intently examining the land I could see with binoculars for animal activity. Although I found animals, I didn't see any interesting activity.

The third order of business was examining my room. It was laid out just like any other fine hotel room. (14:21) Unlike other places we had been in Tanzania, there is always electricity available here. Still, candles were provided in case there was a power outage. Mosquito netting hung over the bed. While at dinner, the maids would rig it around the bed for you.

Incidentally, one thing I did notice here were a few mosquitos. I didn't encounter many anywhere else on the trip.

There was a small foyer in my room. In it was a refrigerator and a supply of bottled water. There were instructions not to turn on the refrigerator unless you needed it. Power generation was one of the major expenses here!

Despite having seen a VCR earlier, there was no TV in the room. I wouldn't have used it if there was one, anyway.

The most unusual thing in the room was in the bathroom. There was a toilet-like thing on the floor, with hot and cold water spigots. I sat and pondered for a long while what this might be. It is a foot bath! Probably for people whose feet are tired from a walking safari. I have never seen one anywhere else.

Next. I went out and tried to find the multicolored lizard. It turned out there were several of them, and they were very shy. With a lot of patience, and a little luck, I finally got a good photo! These lizards are called red-headed agama lizards. (14:20)

Next, I sat down and updated my journal. Most of the time, I just took quick notes to remind me what to expand upon when I got around to writing this account. However, upon arriving for the first time in the Serengeti, I entered a narrative. Here it is, word-for-word:

Finally in the Serengeti!

Couldn't ask for a more exciting day! After a long, dusty (and interesting) drive, we finally enter what is perhaps the world's best wildlife sanctuary. It is also probably the best lion country on earth. As I write this, the last vestiges of sunlight is disappearing from the sky. The outlines of the hills and mountains to the East is just barely visible. To the Southeast, the plains extend so far you can't see their end. (Serengeti is Swahili for 'endless plain'.) Different animal sounds can be heard, but no lions yet. The stars are starting to speckle a sky that soon will be coal black. This is a special time in a special place. A place that will always be special to me. For down below, the land is ruled by an animal that is a symbol of of God's strength, authority, power, judgment and beauty. It has been given to me to learn about, understand, appreciate and preserve this remarkable animal. Of course, you know this animal as the lion, the king of beasts. I am sure that my God-- The Lion of the tribe of Judah-- Will see to it that I will have many memorable audiences with the 'King of Beasts' over the next three days! Glory to God! The adventure is just beginning!

God definitely didn't let me down!

There was still more than an hour to dinnertime. So, I relaxed and took a nap. While I laid there I noticed one deficiency in the room. You could hear every single movement of the guests in the room above! There were also a couple of mosquitos in the room that drove me nuts for a while. These disappeared for the most part when the room was later sprayed.

The magnitude of engineering that went into this facility was apparent as I walked to the dining room after dark. There was a building behind the main body of the lodge that was lit with rather cold-looking fluorescent lights. This was kind of like a central services building, and contained laundry facilities, and possibly things like water and sewage treatment equipment. Out here, everything had to be self-contained!

As I made my way into the dining room, I saw that the rather large gift shop ws now open. I took a real quick look around and went to the dining room.

Again this evening, I was on my own. Joe and Joyce were getting room service, and Larry and Teri wanted to be alone together. So, I was the only one at dinner. I was seated at our group's table, number 17. This was marked as such by a wood lion with the number 17 inlaid in it's side. It was actually a pretty piece. I also somehow had the honor of being served by the chief waiter! He was a most congenial person.

The lodge had a selection of appetizers, entrees, deserts, etc. to choose from. You would go through the menu and pick one of each. The food was very good, and the portions reasonable. The soft drinks were actually cold! This was the first really cold pop I had had since we left Mountain Village. It sure was good.

Just after dinner, as I left the dining room, a band arrived, and started playing traditional African music. Guess I left too soon. Luckily, this was readily audible in the gift shop, where I went next.

I spent a long time looking around the gift shop. Although most items were marked with a price, a few were not, such as the Masai cloths they had. I considered some of their books, but they were all titles I could get here in the US for much less. I looked over their knick-knacks, and stone carvings. I pored through their collection of T-shirts. In the end, I purchased a T-shirt, a Masai cloth ($20), a soapstone lion (Which had a cutout in the bottom that the Malachite lion I had bought a few days back fit into very neatly!), and a lapel pin that had a lion on it and said 'Serengeti'. I used my credit card to pay for these items. For some reason, the clerk had a lot of trouble writing up this transaction.

I returned to my room after making my purchases and examined my new 'treasures'. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the room had been sprayed and that the mosquito netting had been set up for me. I then carefully cleaned my camera and binoculars. Here I had plenty of light by which to examine things, so I did an unusually complete job. The optical equipment was sure taking a beating, but to this point had performed flawlessly.

I then went out on the porch and looked at the stars. First of all, Leo was clearly visible, over the Serengeti Plains! I could also easily make out the adjacent zodiacal constellation, Cancer, which is normally completely invisible to me. All the star pairs in the feet of Ursa Major were clearly visible, as well as the three stars of Leo minor. I use these particular stars as a test of 'seeing' back home. If you can see all three of them, is is very dark. We get maybe 1 or 2 winter nights where it is this dark! The sky ws so dark here I could see many clusters and features I could never see in the US. I spent 45 minutes or more studying the various star clusters and nebulae that were visible to me. Even features easily seen in the city, such as the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades looked much better here. What I could see of the Milky Way here was stunning. The equatorial dust lane of our galaxy was clearly visible. Too bad I couldn't see the other half of the sky!

I decided that Leo over the Serengeti was too good of a thing to pass up trying to photograph. I got my camera and the wide lens. I also got out the mini tripod I had brought. As it turns out, this is the only time I used it.

After a lot of frustrating trying, I thought I had the sickle of Leo (Representing the lion's head and mane) framed in the camera viewfinder and in focus. I didn't have a remote shutter release, so I practiced holding the camera stock still for 30 seconds before attempting a shot. I also learned how to put the camera in a mode where the film wouldn't advance after shooting a picture.

The first exposure (With 400 speed film in the camera) was 30 seconds to get the star image. The second exposure was a flash shot, to catch the grassland below the balcony. I know now that I had enough film to have tried several different shot combinations, as the one I tried didn't turn out at all.

I crawled into bed. These rooms didn't have air conditioning. Instead, they had a permanently open vent to the outside. Another permanently open window in the bathroom let air flow freely through the room. It had become somewhat windy, so the wind whistled through my room. It also brought along with it various animal sounds, but no lions. Though the wind sounds were a bit annoying at times, I enjoyed every minute of them!

Not long after I retired, I heard what sounded like sobbing coming from the room next door. I thought that Joyce might have been in trouble, so I prayed for Joe and Joyce for quite a while. As it turns out, they were in the opposite wing of the lodge, and had a good night. I was glad to find this out, as they were going for a Serengeti balloon ride the next day. (They were the only ones in our group going. In the morning, Njau and I would drive to Seronera to pick them up, game viewing on the way, and on the way back. Larry and Teri wanted to sleep in. After lunch, we would drive to our camp near lake Ndutu in the far Southern part of the park. We would game-view as we made our way there.)

The conclusion I reached while staying at Serengeti Sopa Lodge is that a lodge safari isn't a bad thing, if you have a good vehicle and a good guide. It's certainly easier to set up, and is cheaper than the kind of tented camping we were doing. Rough camping would be my preferred way of doing things, but setting something like that up the first time around is quite difficult.

Anyway, after the upstairs and next door neighbors quieted down, I had a good night's sleep.

Next: A long day of game drives!

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