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November 5th 2007 by Tina
Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara Safari: Hippos Exposed!

Posted under Africa & Tanzania

Tanzania! We took the express shuttle from Nairobi to Arusha, arriving after dark with no place to sleep. We had searched meticulously online for budget accommodations but our queries were fruitless. The shuttle dropped us off at Hotel Mezza Luna, a mid-range hotel which happily accepted our U.S. dollars while raping us on the exchange rate. We were too tired to protest and the room was comfortable.

We woke early the next morning and had breakfast at the hotel. We were already packed and ready to start the day because we had several items on our agenda: find a cheaper place to stay in Arusha, check out some safari companies, and find an ATM. Just as we were inquiring at the reception desk about a taxi into town, a nicely dressed man from a local safari company walked into the lobby. He had given us his card the night before, as we departed from the shuttle bus. There had been so many taxi drivers and self-proclaimed safari guides bombarding us that we hadn’t given him a second look but here he was with his car, ready to take us into town. How could we refuse? So we hopped in and he drove us around to several ATMs until we found one that was in service and accepted MasterCard. In Africa, and particularly in Tanzania, only about thirty percent of the ATMs actually work. We think the rest are just for decoration, though it hasn’t been proven.

While Aaron dealt with the money, I talked to the agent, Andrew, about what we had in mind for a safari. Since we had so recently done the Kenyan safari and had been moving around quite a bit since then, we wanted a two day/one night safari with budget lodge accommodations. We had received an exorbitant quote the night before for this package from the tour company at the hotel. Andrew’s price was only a fraction lower but his package included a private car – just the guide and us…and we could depart that same afternoon. We hadn’t really considered that possibility but it was quite appealing, especially because of our visa situation. Let me back up a few steps…

We were sitting in the Riverside Shuttle booking office in Nairobi, purchasing our tickets to Arusha, when the agents informed us about a recent change in visa fees for Tanzania. As luck would have it, the Tanzanian visa fee increased in September of this year from $50 to $100…but only for U.S. citizens. Yes, everyone but us still only pays $50. Naturally, we were outraged; first, because that’s one damn expensive visa and, second, because of the principle of the matter. I mean, the dollar isn’t so high and mighty these days, in case anyone’s failed to notice. Why not stick it to the EU countries, or better yet the Brits! The Pound is beating everyone’s currency to a bloody pulp!

As we made obvious our shock and disdain, the three agents in the booking office were quick to unite in the opinion that we Americans deserve to be gouged. They suggested that the recent increase was a retaliatory measure against the cumbersome and expensive process for obtaining a U.S. visa. Well, we couldn’t really argue with that. We’ve heard the same story time and time again from people in Egypt and Jordan.

The next morning, we were on the shuttle bus and, after several hours, we reached the Tanzanian border. When we reached the front of the queue for visa payments, the agent behind the glass took one look at our U.S. passports and, with a grin that said he was relishing the moment, presented us with several pieces of official-looking documentation, which announced the visa price increase. He then produced a board with a list of visa prices and Aaron noticed that there was a transit visa available for only $30. We were told that the transit visa was good for fourteen days (the exact number of days we’d planned to stay in TZ) so we bought two transit visas and crossed into Tanzania, thinking we had beaten the system.

Now, back to Arusha. With our fourteen day window in mind, we booked the safari with Andrew and set out that same day, just after lunch, for Lake Manyara. We stopped briefly at our lodge, just outside the park, and it fell slightly short of our expectations. It was more of a basic guesthouse in the middle of a campsite but the room had a private bath and was fully enclosed with screened windows. I had asked for the cheapest lodge option – one step above the permanent camp – so I couldn’t really complain, though I’d envisioned something wholly different…a self-contained, air-conditioned, indoor lodge with a restaurant and maybe a canteen. Well, it would have to do. After getting moderately settled, we climbed back into the Land Rover and headed to Lake Manyara.

The jungle terrain at the lake was unlike any we had seen in Kenya. The dense forest of tall trees with winding, entwining branches and lush, low shrubbery gave way to trickling streams throughout the park and provided an oasis of shade from the afternoon sun. We were greeted by several families of baboons, playing on and alongside the road. We were amazed to observe how human-like their mannerisms are. We often watched them sifting through one another’s hair in search of ticks. On that day, we saw two mothers with tiny babies. The mothers would sit, shielding the babies from our view as much as possible, but the babies would wiggle and tumble about until the mothers scooped them up again. The mothers would walk with the babies dangling beneath their bellies, swaying from side to side, and occasionally falling off. The babies were so tiny, their little heads the size of ping pong balls! The baboons are unafraid of humans in our obtrusive four-by-fours; they just go on about their business, returning our curious stares, and then scamper off without so much as a wave.

We then drove into a more open area with a view of the lake, which was quite far off into the distance, but we could see hippos in the water. We immediately observed that the Tanzanians adhere strictly to the road rules – they stay on the roads – whereas the Kenyans will bushwhack as necessary to get you within ten feet of the animals. We were disappointed by the distance – it was difficult to see the hippos, even with binoculars – and we were salivating at the prospect of seeing hippos from the eyes down since we missed them in the Masai Mara. We watched large herds of zebras and wildebeests crossing the lake but even that didn’t rile the hippos from their cool submersion.

The other attraction of Lake Manyara was the abundance of elephants. They were everywhere! We watched them slurping up water from the streams and splashing it over their enormous bodies. Many were happily drenched in muddy water, munching on the low grasses. At one point, an elephant walked behind our Rover, so close that we could have reached out and touched its rough, wrinkled skin…but we didn’t. Even from the relative safety of our vehicle, we are respectfully aware of a wild elephant’s power.

Our game drive at Lake Manyara came to an end as the sun was beginning to set and we arrived back at our camp ready to relax. The courtyard had a swimming pool around which several tents were set up. The camp was full of people and we ran into a couple whom we’d met at another hostel in another town (a common occurrence these days) so we visited with their group until dinnertime. We love meeting other travelers on the road. There are so many people on journeys similar to ours, going and going until the money runs out, traveling in different directions, all with fascinating travel stories and tips. We are invigorated and inspired by them. We meet many trekkers who are traveling solo and it makes us appreciate our luck in having each other to share in these incredible experiences. Sure, we get short with each other at times, usually when we push the itinerary too hard, but we are so single-minded in our focus, inspiration, and determination that we have forged a bond of co-dependence, as if it is just the two of us against this wild and crazy world. That is not to say that we couldn’t survive on our own. We are both intellectually independent souls but there is a natural magnetism between us that has taken this journey to manifest. I digress…

We had decided on an early morning game drive in the Ngorongoro Crater, when the animals would conceivably be the most active, and groggily met our guide at the car around 5:30am. The morning air was brisk and we made the ascent to the park entrance in the faintest illumination of dawn. We arrived at sunrise, which was perfect, and began our steep climb into the mountains that comprised the crater rim. The ascent was gorgeous, though much of the view was obscured by a thick morning fog. We passed some of the high-end lodges, nestled on the edge of the rim, overlooking the enormous crater floor. They looked amazing and we flashed forward to bringing our children back for the posh safari package when our bones are old and frail…and when we have the pleasure of frivolity.

From the crater rim, we looked out over a vast flat valley with a glassy lake in the center. The roads were rough inside the park and our descent into the crater was gradual. Soon after reaching the floor, we hit the hippo jackpot! We pulled right up to a hippo pool – about five feet from the rocky edge – and it was full of them! We even saw one of the massive, purplish-brown beasts on the opposite shore, slowly making its way into the water. Hippo exposed! This was a great stroke of luck since these lazy beasts spend entire days contentedly submerged in the water, coming out at night to graze on grasses. They are only disturbed by the occasional crocodiles, which prey on their young. Hippos move at a snail’s pace, which is probably why they can maintain such incredible mass on grass alone.

We continued on, seeing a scattered few lions in the distance, all sleeping of course (lazy bastards!) as well as numerous zebras and wildebeests. We pulled into a picnic site to have our lunch. It was a scenic spot surrounding a small lake, in which seven or eight hippos soaked. There was a large group of safari-goers just finishing their lunch under a big tree near the water’s edge so we decided to take over their spot. Just as before, the camp chef had prepared sack lunches for us but this time we were toting our own food, which I had secured in Arusha before we left: peanut butter, red plum jam, two submarine-style rolls, two apples and a bag of Doritos. We sat down in the shade of the tree and examined the contents of our camp-prepared lunch: single chicken wing wrapped in plastic, boiled egg, mysterious-looking pastry, half of a vegetable/mayonnaise sandwich on white sliced bread, banana and juice box. We put it all back into its paper sack save for the juice boxes. Aaron did optimistically take one bite of his pastry but subsequently tossed it to the birds, which pounced on it in a huge flock and fought furiously over it until it was nothing but crumbs in the dirt. Meanwhile, I began sawing through the sub rolls with my plastic spoon/fork/knife-in-one camping utensil. The little birds became quite aggressive, especially after their pastry appetizer, and at one point while I was cutting the bread, one of them charged in and tried to pry it from my hands. The tiny bird was no match for my grip but I still let out a startled squeal. I continued working at my task, generously slathering one half of the roll with peanut butter. I set that half carefully back inside the bag and began spreading the other half with jam. The bread was sufficiently coated and, as I held it in one hand while going for one final, indulgent dip, a giant hawk swooped in from behind my left shoulder and snatched the bread in the strong, precise grip of its claws. I didn’t even realize what had happened until I saw the jam-covered loaf sailing away in a flurry of flapping brown wings. Aaron and I looked at each other in shocked disbelief and just started laughing hysterically. Two day safari in Tanzania…$700. Lunch stolen by giant hawk…priceless!

The next couple of hours were uneventful but just as we were mentally winding down for the conclusion of our safari, our guide spotted a cheetah in the distance! Through the binoculars, we could see that it was sitting erect and alert so we patiently watched it for about fifteen or twenty minutes when, suddenly, it stood up and started walking our way! We stared in wild-eyed amazement as the lanky, spotted cat – the world’s fastest animal – walked with stunning elegance right past our truck, growling and frothing at the mouth, ready to hunt. It was the only time that we had seen one of the big cats in motion and it was unquestionably the most spectacular, thrilling sight in all of our safari adventures.

After that climax, we slowly made our way out of the crater, stopping briefly to admire a foursome of African buffalo, which engaged us in a stare down until we drove off, defeated. We completed our second safari without seeing a live kill – which was probably for the best – though we did see one crafty-looking spotted hyena carrying off a leg of some unfortunate beast, the hoof dangling from the hyena’s salivating jowls. All in all, we were ecstatic about our safari adventure and rode back to Arusha on the beautifully sealed, Tanzanian tarmac roads.


2 Responses to “Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara Safari: Hippos Exposed!”

  1. Peggy Snyder on 05 Nov 2007 at 10:05 am #

    Wow! sounds like my favorite cousins are having a BLAST! Seeing all those animals and going on safari’s must be amazing! Im completely jealous. : ] Miss you guys so much here! And I thought you guys would be happy to know that Im almost positive that I’ll be attending U of A after high school! Have fun you two..and I’ll be reading along with all of your adventures!

    -Peggy S.

  2. Hill on 05 Nov 2007 at 12:06 pm #

    You’re 64 days in!
    What a journey!
    Wanted to let you know (like I promised)… I also am on a new journey– Isaiah Victor was born at 8:02 a.m. on Thurs., October 25th (my grandfather’s birthday, by the way). Only 6 hours of labor 🙂 Let me know what email address I should use to send you photos. I only have your (old) work address.
    Take a picture of some monkeys for me!