Tuesday, 20 November 2012

FURTHER TRAVEL TALES: Serengeti sensation


In a near forgotten past and in a life before children, there was a young girl who wandered without bags under her eyes but with a bag on her back. Here she returns to notes she made while visiting the Serengeti


Arusha, Tanzania; the tourist capital of East Africa and a central anthill of tours and touts. Whether your destination is the Serengeti plains, the Ngora Gora crater or Mount. Kilimanjaro, Arusha is where your trip will begin and end. Oh and be warned, it is a safari circus.

It's been a fifteen-hour journey from Nairobi in a dilapidated bus, and the bombardment of excursion offers before I’ve even disembarked is an unpleasant welcome. Reluctantly I join the chaos.

It is incredible to imagine that such peace and beauty can be born out of so great a polluted hellhole. The noise level already annoys: the jamming of car horns fight the somewhat more melodic bus trumpets, the locals shout louder.

It is hot and dusty, the stench makes me retch. The men trying to sell me a tour are in my face as much as the stink and rather than being vibrant and enthusing, as I imagined the safari gateway to be, Arusha is simply suffocating. 

As I try to move away a tout follows me. It becomes clear his persistence is insistent. All it does is piss me off. I’m so hot it doesn’t help. I stop for a few drinks in a bid to lose him. I cannot believe that he waits for me the whole time outside the bar.

Three kilometres away, the Masai camp offers me some peace, and a few hours of calm later, I chat to other travellers coming back off their trips. I soon gain an idea of the better tour operators and am quick to sign up for a Serengeti safari that comes recommended. I check out the jeep that is going to be my seat for the next four days. 

I depart early next morning. The melting tarmac quickly disappears leaving an uncomfortable potholed corrugated track. The density of Arusha is left behind replaced by an enormity that is the Rift Valley. Rich desert hues compete with sapphire skies. 

Serengeti in Masai translates to 'endless plains.' After a nine-hour journey it is hard to believe that I haven’t yet already embarked on it and its vast serenity. That said, once I cross the threshold I know I’ve arrived. The scenery does change. The almost sudden appearance of thousands of zebra and wildebeests heralds an excitement like never before.

Quickly complacent, I grow eager to see more. Greed for ‘the big five’ is natural; I am after all in their territory now. Secretary birds, vultures, jackals, and even hyenas become a bore. Lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino are the jackpot. Personally, I struggle to see how it is not ‘the big eight,’ thus incorporating giraffe, hippopotamus and cheetah. I am incredibly lucky, and see all eight. I even watch a buffalo take on a lioness and win. For those who do not see every form of wildlife, the runner up prizes also astound. The light of a full yellow harvest moon replaces that of another idyllic sunset. Silhouetted acacia trees add to the perfection of both.  

Night arrives and the roar of lions can be heard. “This is tenting in the wild,” Harbat, our driver/guide informs me, seeing me flinch. His white teeth grin back at me over the curling flame of the campfire. “Yes, wonderful. But, where is the fence, where is the perimeter?” “There isn’t one.” The cook Eugene joins in delighted to break the news to me. “Just hope the fire doesn’t burn out.”

Adding to the thrill of it all, as I look towards the trees, a thousand eyes peer back at me. There the ever-patient scavengers sit. An undeniable wonder that the plains offer is to be close to nature. I'm very close. I go to sleep listening to the sound of lion closing in. The roars become louder and louder until it sounds like they are outside the tent. 

The next morning, I discover they were; fresh tracks prove it. Fortunately Harbat explains the lion are threatened by the size of the tent so will not attack the piece of canvas that separates us. All I could think was what a good job I hadn't got out for a country wee in the night.

At the end of the trip we are back where we began. It strikes me how important the juxtaposition of the claustrophobic Arusha city experience is; it places such emphasis on the silver grassed space and beauty that awaits.

To sum up then; the chaos is so worth it, and whether it is the plains or the wildlife that the landscape holds, there's no denying it; a Serengeti safari is sensational.

Masai Camp, Masai Road, Arusha, Tanzania, PO BOX 615
offer 3-5 day Serengeti safaris from US$170 per person per day.

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