In my last blog I described how Peace Corps Volunteers from Liberia, West Africa ended up exploring the big game parks of East Africa. My ex-wife, Jo Ann, and I joined another Peace Corps couple, John and Chris Ogden from New York, to rent a VW Beetle and go on a self-guided 2500 mile safari through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Our greatest wildlife adventure in East Africa was to be a toss-up between Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plains, both in Tanzania. Ngorongoro is an extinct volcanic crater ten miles across that offers one of the greatest wildlife concentrations in the world. We arrived in late afternoon and chose a nearby tent camp as home.
There was a beautiful old colonial hotel overlooking the crater, but its cost exceeded our budget by a factor of ten. We consoled ourselves by going there to drink beer on its verandah and watch the sun set over the crater. The hotel’s high-paying guests missed the experience we had that night of animals grunting, growling and grazing outside their bedrooms.
Mere mortals aren’t allowed to drive into the crater. For that we needed a bona fide Land Rover and licensed guide. We paid the price and descended the thousand feet to the floor of the crater.
Our first sight was a standoff between buzzards and hyenas over the remains of a dead zebra. Next we saw the King of Beasts, lying on his back with all four feet up in the air. Nice kitty. I felt a strange compulsion to rub its belly but resisted the urge. An ostrich performed a ballet for some reason, whirling in tight circles before dashing off on an important errand.
Ungainly hartebeests and wildebeests also appeared to have appointments and patiently joined up in organized lines for their journey. George, the Rhino, just stood and stared until I was precariously perched on top of the Land Rover snapping his picture. Then he charged. The driver took off and I almost didn’t. I never did learn why his name was George but I was ever so thankful I didn’t get close enough to ask.
After Ngorongoro, we dropped into one of the cradles of humanity, a rather dry and rocky Eden known as Olduvai Gorge. It was here that the Leakeys discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus, a 1.7 million year old precursor to humankind. We were lucky to engage a guide who had been with Mary Leakey when she found the skull seven years earlier in 1959. The guide took us to the discovery site and excitedly relived the experience. We were almost ready to grab shovels and begin hunting for our own ancient ancestors.
The Serengeti is flat; so flat you can leave the road and drive across it. That provided an opening for all sorts of mischief such as chasing giraffes, ostriches and gazelles. We spotted a cheetah perched in a tree and drove under her. She didn’t pounce. A momma warthog and four little pups, all with tails straight up in the air, provided a humorous diversion.
I discovered that tiny Dik-diks, members of the antelope clan, are truly small when I was able to sneak up within two feet of one that was sleeping. Again we had the same feeling that we had numerous times during our journey; we were in the world’s greatest zoo but we were the ones behind bars. The animals ran free.
After the Serengeti, the majority of our wildlife viewing was over. We drove around Lake Victoria, crossed the Equator going north, entered Uganda in its relatively peaceful days, visited Kampala and made a beeline for the Victoria Nile. Here we chugged up river amid memories of the African Queen. Hippos dutifully wallowed in the mud, crocodiles slid down the banks and Murchison Falls rumbled. At last, it was time to return to Nairobi and turn in our faithful VW. The 2500-mile safari was over.