31st March to 1 April: Karatu Hotel
On the last night at Panorama Safari Camp, we were treated to a night of entertainment by local entertainers. The band had all the gear…….one of the drum kits was a metal ashtray on a stand with drumsticks picked out of the bush. The Xylophone was home made. It consisted of keys crudely chopped from bush wood, placed on top of a rectangular soundbox, made of hide. The piece de resistance was, of course, the traditional African drums. They were superb, had great voices and played a medley of song and dance. They then performed the most daring acrobatics as a finale! In a world full of consumerism and entitlement, it’s lovely to see the improvisation, resourcefulness, craft and talent of these people that have so little and can conjure something up out of nothing. It does make you think!
Up next is the drive to Karatu, where we intend to pick up our temporary permit for the NCA. As we’re driving, I notice that the aux battery is not charging. It’s pretty essential bit of kit as it’s needed to run the fridge and freezer. We arrive at NCA office, where I set about finding a solution to the problem – enter Thomas, one of the staff. Thomas just happens to be an electro-mechanic as well and helps me work out that we have a duff battery. I need a deep cycle battery and there are none to be had in Karatu. So…….on the blower to Elisha in Arusha. He sources one within the hour and sends it on a bus to Karatu; what service! We decide to postpone everything for a day and stop the night in Karatu as it’s simply too late to reach camp in Ngorongoro. And anyway, it’s pissing down, monsoon stuff, so not a bad call.
There is a small group of Germans at the hotel who are extremely interested in our trip and the purpose of all the extras on the Landy…… “Vot iz zis?” I take the time to explain. When it comes to the fridge, I had to refrain from saying “Ja, Zat iz ze fridge, it keeps ze frankfurters and sauerkraut fresh!”
Right; when in Rome, and with little option, we decide to go African and eat at a local bar. The sight of Muzungus eating al fresco with their fingers at street cafe draws a small giggling crowd, oh well, just offer them a chip or two! The food was, um eh, different……..deformed chicken (or something akin) and chips. Hope the bowels are OK and the Rennies are handy.
1st to 3rd April: NCA / Ndutu Camp #7 – In search of the Great Migration
April & May is the rainy season in Serengeti / Ngorongoro. To quote the guide book…….. “It rains every day, most days, all day”. That’s the bad news, the good news? Well, there are very few tourists and we have so much more freedom of movement i.e. they have allowed us to follow the herds and stay wherever we wish. That’s simply impossible in high season, most places are booked well in advance. Nevertheless, it’s a dull miserable day as we ascend to the top of the Ngorongoro Crater. If this one-time mountain had not blown its top off a millennium ago, it would have dwarfed Kilimanjaro. We reach the summit but it’s very cloudy and visibility poor. There’s an English family on a safari holiday and they’re really disappointed they can’t see into the crater. Then miraculously, there’s a break in the weather, the clouds disperse long enough for Ngorongoro to open the kimono and show us it’s treasures. The mother of the family is moved to tears at the vast sight below of herds of elephant and buffalo, the lakes and the verdant green plains of the crater. It really is an incredible vista. Dry your eyes love, you’re on holiday!
Let’s make tracks for Ndutu! Ndutu is one of my favourite places on this continent. It straddles both the Serengeti and the NCA. We prefer to stay in the NCA as we are allowed the freedom to drive off road if we get a sighting – not so in Serengeti. It’s made up of vast open plains, dotted with the odd acacia and a beautiful alkaline, flamingo haven of a lake, Lake Ndutu. The best time of year to visit here is January to March. That’s because the wildebeest migration makes its way here to give birth to their calves. They love the short sweet grasses of Ndutu, (after the short rains of Nov / Dec) which are perfect for their young and we’re hoping to catch them before they head off elsewhere.
The road down from the crater is filled with hills, streams and valleys and all very lush. There are Eland, Wildebeest and Zebra grazing in amongst the Masai cattle herds. There are few nice places to stop, high up, along the way, with stunning views over the plains. Unfortunately, whenever we stop we are “greeted” by Masai, eager to have their picture taken. It’s not until Emma is about to frame them as part of an authentic setting that I call out “they’ll want money!!”. Just in time! They were demanding $10 each! Yeah right! It’s a shame, as whenever we reached a picturesque spot; we came across children dressed up for the tourists, all demanding money. When you stop, the bigger boys come out, and some were quite aggressive. It’s just a handful, most of them are not interested in this kind of thing and just wave and shout pleasantries as we pass.
When you descend to the floor, the road is bumpy and rutted………all the way to Ndutu, it’s just another long, arduous journey. We eventually reach the turn off for Ndutu. As soon as we take the turn-off, there is a den of Golden Jackal, we spot 3 shy pups on the crescent that scurry away. We wait for 20mins for them to pop back out but they’ve obviously got more important things to do than a fashion shoot today! Shortly afterwards, there is a pack of hyena, at least 7 of them. They’ve just taken down a gazelle and as we approach, one carries off the large remains in his mouth (see Pics).
We’re following the GPS with Tracks For Africa. As we get closer to Ndutu, the roads are becoming very wet and muddy. We have booked Campsite #7………..where the hell is it?! We stop at the Rangers post, close to the lake, and meet some very helpful Rangers that point us in the right direction. As we cross the wide dry river bed (that leads to the lake), I spot a pride of lion. Time for a detour! There are two males, out in the open on a small grassy mound. With it being a dull day there’s no need of shade and they are most obliging as we encounter them. There is a Marsh at Ndutu and I was told of the “Marsh Pride”, I suspect this is a male coalition from this pride. Apart from the marsh, Ndutu lake is surrounded by plains all around, normally a great place to spot cheetah.
We make it to Campsite #7. OK, if you want it wild and are prepared to forsake the luxuries this is the place to be. It’s a lovely setting, facing the riverbed, in amongst huge acacias that are home to lovebirds (see the pics). There are no facilities at all; this is wild bush camping for the intrepid self-sufficient traveller. So it’s squat or rot! Sorry a bit graphic I know, but hey WTF this is my Blog! The campsite is entirely ours. It’s what’s called a “special campsite”, exclusive (well, depends on how you define exclusivity?!) without a soul in sight.
We set up camp and go for a late afternoon game drive. The two males are still there. It rains, and it rains. The males are joined by 3 lionesses. They are all just lying out there in the open riverbed, facing each other, decidedly miffed with getting soaking wet. We also see zebras, a few wildebeest (no sign of the big herds), buffalo, plenty of vultures and lots of mud!
The rain continues through the night. The lions are calling and quite close, probably no more than 200 metres. The hyenas are providing some competition too, not the quietest of nights.
Following morning, we plan to get to Matiti. That’s the name the Masai give to a pair of hills that look like……….yep, you guessed it – a pair of girl’s boobs. We’ve been here before in 2007. It’s a wonderful place for the herds and cheetah, vast open plains that were filled with the migration.
Not a great start. We follow the coordinates that should lead us to the road to Matiti. They don’t! We end up at Masek Lodge and are totally lost. We enter the lodge and ask a local guide for directions. He has 3 wrinkly Scandinavian women tourists with him. the one comes up and exclaims with horror “You are alone?!” in the most exaggerated tone. “Yes, Ma’am, Livingstone’s the name!” Anyway, we get back on track and find the route to Matiti. Well, kind of. The Landy is doing pirouettes in the mud, slipping and sliding and I end up facing in the other direction on a number occasions. Not fun and quite nerve-wracking; especially when it’s impossible to negotiate your way out of the tyre tracks. We meet some folk who are researchers, the guy is really helpful, he tells me it’s impossible to get out there. The roads are drenched and there are patches of black cotton soil that will bog us down completely. There are also no other vehicles around so we could be stuck without any means of getting rescued. OK, here’s the white flag Africa! Valour being the better part of bravery, we turn around, lick our wounds and return to drier climes. See, you can just never truly time these things like the migration – it’s all weather / rain dependant.
We make the most of it and tour around the lake and marshes, where there is plenty of general game. That afternoon, out of nowhere, we hear the grunts and belches of the wildebeest. They are arriving; line after line, row upon row as they descend on Ndutu. The same plains that were empty yesterday are now dotted with hundreds of thousands of wildebeest. And they have calves for Africa. We see the first lost calf. I’ve been there before and can’t imagine the terror and desperation the poor things go through. They always make for the vehicle; I drive up to 50kmph in order to get away so it doesn’t get further lost. But you know the poor thing is toast; the predators will pick it off anytime soon. Can someone please start a mothering school for wildebeest?; they haven’t a feckin’ clue!
We just spend time watching the huge swathes of animals arrive in unison, zebras too. Pick any superlative – this is the most incredible spectacle of the animal kingdom on planet earth. And it’s such a privilege to witness it.
Our disappointment of not getting to Matiti is soon forgotten when I spot a cheetah on the plains, close to the herds. We drive up and find she has four tiny cubs (see pics). We’re able to stay with them for well over an hour. Mummy is on the hunt but all the cubs want to do is play. They are hilarious. At one stage, one of the cubs gets lost. Emma spotted where it went but neither Mum nor the other cubs have a clue. As Mum is desperately looking around for the lost cub, we drive toward the bush where it’s hiding and flush it out. Mum sees it and there’s quite a fuss of a reunion (see pics).
The weather clears. It’s a lovely afternoon and we manage to find a big chunk of the marsh pride – 3 lioness and five older cubs. There’s a “tower” or “journey” of giraffe in the riverbed and plenty of red hartebeest and gazelles (Thomson & Grants). Afterwards, it’s a drive to the lake to see the flamingoes and by now the migration completely surrounds the lake.
That night we are serenaded to sleep with the sound of zebras and wildebeest all around us.
It’s 3rd April and time to leave the NCA. We get up crack of dawn, pack up camp and set sail for the Serengeti. Just as we are leaving the riverbed area, we find the Marsh Pride, all swollen bellies from what must have been a feast the previous night (see pics). There are still vultures and jackals looking for tidbits. It’s one male lion and three lioness in lovely light as they stroll right past the car to perch at the top of the lake.