Sunday, December 09, 2012

Safari Njema

Safari” is a Swahili word that everyone knows, though most folks likely don’t know it means “trip” in Swahili. The verb form meaning “to travel” is “safiri.” So to say “We have traveled and we had a great trip,” one would say "Tumesafiri, na sisi tumekuwa na safari njema.

A few weeks ago we were fortunate enough to receive a visit from Katie’s mother and step-father, Diana and Jim. If that in itself wasn’t good enough, we were also blessed to have the chance to go on a 6-day safari into the Serengeti, the Ngorogoro Crater, and Lake Manyara National Park. Katie’s mother had been to the Serengeti and the Crater once before, but for Katie, Jim, and myself, this was our first trip into these parks. It should be noted that a safari, with all the fancy lodges and amenities that come with it, is still a rough bit of a slog. It’s hot, there’s a never-ending stream of dust, and riding around on a rough gravel road is exhausting. After 6-hours in a safari vehicle, you are pretty beat up and worn down. But it is so worth every bit of it.

The trip was great for several reasons, but on a practical level, it was nice to simply get out of Mwanza. Now, I try to not be whiny or too negative on this blog, but I will state that I don’t LOVE the city of Mwanza where we live. There are definitely benefits to living in a city- restaurants, well-stocked markets, and stores that sell pretty much anything you really need (for example, there are at least 3 computer dealers in town for any of our gadget needs). There are days when I DO like Mwanza, days when people are friendly, my Swahili actually comes out properly, I hit downtown with a to-do list that actually gets done, no one yells “Mzungu!” and a cool breeze off the lake carries pleasant music in the air from someone’s radio. On those days, Mwanza feels like home and it has some charms. But on other days, the city can be the epitome of urban development done wrong- or as I like to say, an example of “development when there is no development.” Tons of people, pushing, yelling, running every which way, people begging, dead-eyed intimidating stares sizing you up as you pass by, ragged-looking kids sleeping on the street, trash everywhere, smoky dirty air, 1000 radios playing music merging with street sounds into a cacophony of noise- there are a lot of days when this is the vibe of our town. Most days I can handle it and see the former description, some days I can’t see anything but the chaos.

So why am I saying this? Because one of the main benefits of the safari is reminding ourselves that Tanzania is primarily NOT chaos and is actually a land of undeniable beauty. Mwanza is “real” Tanzania, too, but it is good to get out of the urban busyness and into nature a bit more. The soul needs nature, and the disconnect from nature can take its toll. That purposeful opportunity to “enjoy” nature is one thing we don’t really have here in Mwanza, which is ironic, because I feel like life is so much closer to nature here than in the States: there are cows and chickens everywhere, we have bugs in our walls, floods and leaks are an unavoidable fact of life during the rainy season, we buy all our food fresh from farmers, there’s farmland and crops planted on every free patch of soil, the air smells of dirt and earth. We live in a very elemental environment- but we can’t “get away” and enjoy nature, per se. There are no easily accessible parks or preserves. No nature trails or greenways along the river, no picnic areas. So to be out in unspoiled national parks for a few days, where there are no radios, no trash, no busyness- it was good for our souls. It was hard to come back, but once I readjusted and hit “reset”, I’ve found Mwanza to be more palatable.

Another thing that was an unexpected boost from the trip was our ability to use Swahili. Most people on these trips are tourists that maybe pick up a few Swahili words from a brochure. The staff at the lodges spoke a simplified version to people as greetings. While we are certainly no experts, we knew more Swahili than most everyone else on the trip. So when we spoke it back to Tanzanians, their faces lit up in shock. It was funny because they seemed so programmed to speak simply that at times they didn’t seem to know how to respond to us in “real” Swahili. It was actually very empowering, and even though I wasn’t saying anything more in depth than “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” it made me see just how much better life will be here when I really get a handle on the language. It inspired me to double-down on learning the language (easier said than done, unfortunately).

Now, back to the safari itself: no words can describe it! It was beautiful and seeing the animals is quite thrilling. The landscape itself is beautiful, so I enjoyed driving around even when we weren’t finding any animals. But boy, did we see animals. In the first 24 hours we saw “The Big Five” (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, and leopard). Over the course of the 6 days, we literally saw 160-170+ elephants, around 60 lions, hundreds of zebras, and thousands of wildebeests. (We actually saw a lion take down a wildebeest!) Giraffes, baboons, flamingos, monkeys, warthogs, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, and birds of all shapes and colors- the diversity and beauty of Creation was mind boggling. Additionally, we visited Olduvai Gorge**, where I was lucky enough to hold a rock that had been carved into a hand-axe around 1.5 million years ago by our primitive forefathers. We also visited the Shifting Sands, which didn’t seem to be much at first but is actually quite a bizarre natural phenomenon.

The Serengeti is massive and sprawling, so by far you have the greatest chances of seeing animal there by virtue of its size alone, though you may drive through areas where you don’t see anything at all. On our last day, we drove for well over an hour in one area that had virtually nothing in it- but when we DID see something, there were elephants, a pride of lions, and hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, so in the end the dry spells are evened out.

The Ngorogoro Crater is deceptively big from the vantage point of the rim. When we first arrived, I looked at it and thought “Huh, we’re gonna spend 6 hours in that?” because it just didn’t look that big to me from the rim, which once again proves I’m an idiot because the thing is MASSIVE and has a nice variety of landscapes and ecosystems within it. We filled 6 hours with no problem. We had a day off in the middle of our week to rest at a lodge on the rim and basically played cards for hours on the balcony at our lodge looking down into the crater. Fantastic view. In fact, the entire area around the Crater – the Ngorogoro Conservation Area- is beautiful.

Lake Manyara is also big, but not even a fraction of the Serengeti. However, its terrain seemed to be more diverse that the crater, so I think I liked it second to the Serengeti just due to the variety of the landscape (I like woods and trees). I would like to point out that when I rank these three parks, it the difference between an A+ and an A-. They’re all magnificent.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Truly a fantastic trip and a blessing to have had the chance to experience it- a chance that many Tanzanians themselves will never have. So close yet so far away.

To see a larger selection of our pictures, click here to go to Katie’s Flickr page.***

* I always wondered why these particular animals were the "Big Five." I get the lion,elephant and rhino, but the leopard and the buffalo? Not the giraffe and the hippo? Those dudes are big. Well, thanks to the power of google, we can all learn the answer now.

**The correct spelling is actually OlduPAI which is a Masai word that has been mistranslated and made famous around the world.

***We took about 500 pictures. And Jim took another 1000. We’ll spare you and only present to you the best and/or one that shows a particular animal.


Jordan said...

Great to 'reid' this post and get a glimpse into your amazing trip and also a little more feel for Mwanza. Went through a lot of the pics on Katie's flickr site - very nice! The variety of strange birds, cranes, vultures, etc were especially fun to see. Also the dead antelope up in the tree was pretty awesome. I also liked seeing the species of Dweebs - very rare indeed.

brent said...

OK, Ellie and I cycled through the slide-show for this trip twice during her dinner. She really liked it: She got a refresher on Katie & Chris; she passed the test on all the usual animals (elephant, flamingo, lion, etc); learned some new ones (hornbill, wildebeest, hyena). Only one cause for concern: after the second cycle through, at the very last photo (of your driver): she shouts out "Grandma!"