I arrived in Zanzibar several days ago after a two-week safari in Kenya and Tanzania. I will hang out here for another few days and then will travel to Uganda (former home of my favorite dictator–Idi Amin) and then to Rwanda to track mountain gorillas.
Our safari was a great experience. Since many of you have been on safari and the rest of you have a pretty good idea of what it is all about, I will try to just give the particulars and highlights of our trip.
The wide open scenery and abundance of animal life are certainly something to experience. With the exception of the elusive leopard, we saw every animal imaginable–often at a proximity that was not to be believed. Ansa, my parents and I flew into Nairobi, Kenya and spent a couple of days at Amboseli National Park before heading across the border to Tanzania where we spent the lion’s share of our time.
Tanzania is a large country–about twice the size of France–with many parks to visit, so in planning this trip I had to choose our spots carefully. I chose the northern part, due to the timing of the migration which every year during the dry season sees the zebras and wildebeests head north through the Ngorongoro Crater and across the Serengeti up into Kenya in search of greener pastures. The number of animals involved is mind-boggling. I heard figures that put the number of wildebeests and zebras at 1.2 million and 500,000, respectively. With that much prey available, there is certain to be an abundance of predators in the form of lions, cheetahs, leopards, and other carnivores. In addition to Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti, we visited the following national parks: Tarangire, Olduvai Gorge, and Lake Manyara. By far Serengeti National Park was our favorite. Serengeti is the Masai word meaning “endless plain”. The park is so large that we only rarely saw other jeeps and therefore had the feeling that we were all alone with the wildlife and fabulous scenery there. It was there that we saw rhinos, elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, hippopotamuses (hippopotami?), buffaloes, zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, impalas, elands, waterbucks, jackals, hyenas, monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, eagles, hawks, vultures, ostriches and countless varieties of other birds, and lions. Nearly all of these animals were seen in the other parks as well, but it was the abundance that we viewed in the Serengeti that really set it apart.
With the possible exception of watching two lions mating while a seemingly endless single-file line of zebras crossed warily in front of them not 30 yards away, the highlight of all the game drives was watching the animals stalk their prey. We always watched intently and hoped for a kill. Now, this may sound cold-blooded to you, but it is, of course, nature in action. Our first taste of blood did not involve lions, leopards or cheetahs, but was nonetheless quite exciting. We watched two secretary birds (long-legged, beautiful plumage, extremely graceful gliders) chase a hare at a distance from us of about thirty yards. The hare was fairly agile and for a short while looked like he might out-juke the two birds, but when he broke into the open, away from the longer grass in which he had been frustrating his hunters, we knew he was done for. Upon catching the hare, one of the secretary birds made a fist with its talons and punched the hare into submission. As one of the secretary birds (presumably the male) began to eat the hare he was challenged first by an eagle who was chased away by the two secretary birds and then finally by a jackal that I saw through my binoculars coming from a long distance. The jackal was successful in stealing the hare from the secretary birds but then had to dodge repeated swoops by the eagle. Such is the way in the wild if an animal is fortunate enough to make a kill, it then faces a very real possibility of losing it to one of the many scavengers that are present as the animal tries to get the kill back to its clan or eat it itself. We witnessed this several times. On one occasion a lone female lion was run off from her freshly killed zebra by a pack of hyenas that numbered well over a dozen. We found the hyenas to be particularly unsavory. In addition to stealing food from our beloved lions (but only when they overwhelmingly outnumber the lion), they like to wallow in mud to cool themselves, leaving only their bloodshot eyes uncovered. This has the effect of making a vile looking creature appear almost demonic. Our guide explained to us that hyenas serve one purpose for which they should be appreciated: It is the hyena who eats the bones of dead animals ensuring that the wilds do not look like massive boneyards.
Another highlight of our animal watching was a lion kill of a wildebeest. We were fortunate to see both the chase and the kill where the lion put a choke hold on the wildebeest’s neck and suffocated it. Afterward, we watched as the female lion dragged the wildebeest for a considerable distance back to the pride which came rushing out of the woods to meet her. In another lion hunt we had a nice elevated vantage point from which to see a large pride of lions hunt a herd of zebra. The lions were loosely gathered below us on a savannah across a dry creek bed. From where we were positioned we could count seven lions but were pretty sure that there were more. As we watched, two lions head in the direction of the zebras, splitting to approach from the far left and right in a classic pincer maneuver. A small grouping of four vultures waited in a tree above. We, the vultures and no doubt the Lions had great hopes for this hunt. Suddenly, a pack of baboons in a nearby tree began to bark in a warning. Their cover blown, the Lions made a break for the zebras, splitting them into two groups. Although they started from a far distance from us, one of the zebra groups thundered past within twenty yards of where we watched in our jeep. Having lost the element of surprise, the lions briefly chased, but really had no chance of catching, the zebras. We were sorely disappointed and shared the lions’ anger at the baboons. As I mentioned, in these encounters we always hoped for a kill. If people thought us blood-thirsty we always defended ourselves by saying “We’re not blood-thirsty, we’re just rooting for the cats.” There were other hunts, but I think you get the idea.
One of the things that struck me each time I watched a hunt was the impeccable balance that exists in nature. For every skill that the predator possesses it faces a competing survival skill or factor in its prey. The lion, for example, has stealth, agility, cunning, and strength. But he might be up against a zebra which has excellent eyesight, can run faster and longer, and works together with its herd to foil predators. Further zebras congregate with other animals with complementary characteristics. The wildebeest, for example, is a constant companion of the zebra and has an excellent sense of smell. As a result of these balancing skills, more often than not, the hunter is unsuccessful. In the case of lions, they are successful less than one of every three times they hunt; for cheetahs, it is less than one in four. When successful, as I’ve mentioned, the successful hunter then faces the very real possibility of losing its kill to another animal. This all serves to maintain a balance in nature and ensures the survival of the fittest.
After two weeks of being carted around, we had all had our fill. What at first had been wondrous had now become somewhat commonplace. Herds of elephants and giraffes, even when at a range of ten yards or less, no longer held the same fascination as when the trip began. To the extent anything could hold our attention it was the prospect of witnessing another kill or seeing the elusive leopard (whom we never did see, although we spied his handiwork in the form of a dead impala carcass hanging over the branch of a tree where leopards stow their kills out of reach of lions and hyenas). Don’t get me wrong–it was still great fun and it had been a fantastic trip, but it was time to move on. I was ready to move on and while Ansa and my parents reluctantly headed back to the states, I caught a plane to Zanzibar.
Ah Zanzibar–the lure of the “spice islands” is legendary. For over 2000 years, Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch, and English have fought to control this important trading post. Zanzibar is a small island located in the Indian Ocean a few degrees below the equator just off the coast of Tanzania. Despite its diminutive size, Zanzibar has a very colorful history. During its heyday, Zanzibar grew rich on trade in slaves and spices. The slave trade is now gone, of course, but Zanzibar remains a huge source of the world’s exotic spices. I went on a tour of a few spice plantations and saw clove, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla, saffron, lemongrass, turmeric, coriander, tamarind, pepper and several other exotic spices that I can’t recall offhand. Zanzibar is also the world’s number two grower of coconuts and a big exporter of bananas.
The focal point of Zanzibar is Stone Town. It is a chaotic, labyrinthine cluster of winding streets lined with white-washed coral rag houses. One of the most striking aspects of Stone Town is its architecture which consists of a melange of Arabic, Indian, European and African influences. Another attractive feature present on nearly every building is the traditional massive carved wood doors. The door, which was often the first part of a house to be built, served as a symbol of the wealth and status of a household. The most beautiful of these doors are often decorated with intricate floral carvings and passages from the Koran. Frequently the doors have large brass spikes, which I learned is a tradition from India, where the spikes were designed to protect the doors from being battered by elephants.
Another element adding to the exotica of the place is the Muslim influence. Zanzibar is a traditional Moslem society. All native women are veiled and five times a day one can hear the call of the muezzin, calling practitioners to prayer.
My next activity and current obsession is a gorilla tracking trip. I will fly to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where I will catch a ride headed west to Rwanda to track mountain gorillas. I was fortunate to secure a permit at Parc Nacional des Volcans which is where Dian Fossey did her work habituating mountain gorillas. Dian Fossey wrote the book Gorillas in the Mist that was later made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver. Furthering her legend, she was killed by poachers against whom she had taken a very vocal, confrontational stand. As I said, I was fortunate to get a permit as only 6 or 12 permits are given per day at each of the 3 parks where viewing is possible. Furthering this difficulty and providing me with cause for pause is that one of these parks is closed due to guerrilla activity all along the border with the Congo (read: borders of Uganda and Rwanda) which is right smack dab where these parks are located, including the park I am scheduled to visit. I am trying to decide what to do, but am pretty focused on going. The US State Dept and British Consulate strongly advise against visiting any of the three areas, but the local governments contend the situation is under control and not an issue. I have exchanged emails and spoken directly with several people who have recently gone there and they expressed no concerns, though I am not sure they are any smarter than I am. Visions of the 1999 killings of 8 tourists in one of these parks go through my head as does the Rwandan genocide that took place not that long ago. But, hey–Hakuna Matata–yup, that’s real Swahili. (You remember the Lion King, don’t you?)
After the gorilla tracking, I have planned a rafting trip that begins at the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria and travels down the Nile through what are promised to be class 5 rapids. It is then back to Kampala for a short while and then overland to Nairobi from where I will fly home.