Tanzania and Kenya (Honeymoon Part 1)
We just returned from our two-week honeymoon to Tanzania, Kenya, and the Seychelles (June 21 – July 5). It was the trip of a lifetime. The 1,800 pictures I took don’t, and the selection of them you’ll see below, are not enough to convey the beauty of Africa.
I’ll split the post up into two parts: the first for Africa and the second for our island getaway to the Seychelles post-safari.
Our door into Africa was Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro airport, not far from Africa’s tallest mountain. We arrived at night, and the area around the airport was so sparsely populated that the sound of crickets filled the air–I don’t think you usually hear crickets at JFK. After clearing customs, we stepped out into the dusty parking lot and saw our guide, one of a dozen men peering at us with placards below their faces. As we walked to the jeep, our host, Ephraim asked me if I’d ever been to Africa before. I told him I had, to Morocco and Egypt, but never to sub-Saharan Africa. He smiled and said yes, but “this is the real Africa.”
Our hotel, the Legendary Lodge, was an hour’s drive away on a small highway lit here and there by the occasional streetlight. Through the darkness I could make out the ramshackle stores lining both sides of the highway. We even spotted a small Jewish temple in a country that is 35% Muslim.
We arrived after 9pm so we didn’t have much time to explore the grounds of the lodge and the coffee plantation surrounding it but we did have the chance to look around the colonial-era main house before we checked into our room. We sat down to a three-course dinner on the veranda overlooking a lawn. We enjoyed a long sleep in a bed encased in white mosquito netting, our heads heavy with the weight of “relaxing pills.”
We woke early for our morning flight from Arusha to Lake Manyara airport. Because our safari hotels were in different areas of northwestern Tanzania, a huge area with few good roods, our primary mode of transportation during our trip was the Cessna. As I peered down at the ground and noticed the shadow of our aircraft mimicking our movement on the ground 4,000 feet below, I was reminded of the great aviation classic, West with the Night, set in colonial Kenya in the 1900s.
Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara
Our guide Salem picked us up at the airport and took us straight to Tarangire National Park for a morning and early afternoon game drive. This was our first foray into the “bush.” The park was virtually empty of other vehicles; it seemed like we had the 1,110 square mile park (a little smaller than Rhode Island) to ourselves.
We saw just about every animal at Tarangire, including a herd of 15 elephants watching us cautiously as they snacked on leaves and trees in the hilly shrub land.
The highlight of the morning was the 80 or so zebras that cautiously drinking out of a small pond. They ignored our presence and were fearful that a crocodile was lurking in the water. Fortunately there was no danger and they went in the water cautiously. Occasionally one of them would get spooked by an imaginary crocodile and dart for land, causing a panicked chain reaction among other zebras until they regained their composure and went back in the water again.
One of the most interesting things I observed on our trip to the Tanzania was the clear separation of prey and predators on the food chain, a fact of life laid out so clearly for us on the savannah.
Looking at the human-like appearance and play of the baboons playing in a tree near our lunch spot, it was not hard to recall that two million years ago, in these very lands, modern humans got their start.
Later that afternoon, Salem took us to our second hotel, Chem Chem Safari Lodge. We were delighted by its rustic decor and how well integrated it was with the surrounding landscape. The main building overlooked a vast expanse of grassland and acacia trees extending as far as the eye could see towards Lake Manyara. During breakfast, we could see zebras, warthogs, wildebeests, a giraffe, and monkeys. The first morning I woke up, looked out the mesh window of our tent while still in bed, and saw a wildebeest walking by. A few minutes later I saw a couple of dik duks (looks like a small deer) walk gingerly by our room and dart off when I accidentally made noise getting my camera out.
Our room at Chem Chem was something out of a Conde Naste magazine spread. The room was a solid structure for the most part, but the front of it was more like a tent that opened up to the savannah. At night, all sorts of animal sounds could be heard, the most prominent being the baboon.
The next day, as we were lounging in the pool, Emily and I spotted a lioness sitting in the grass about 75 yards away, with no fence or anything between us and the animal. It was a bit disconcerting to realize the only thing protecting us from attack was the lioness’ natural wariness and/or lack of interest in humans. Still, we informed the lodge staff about it and they sent an armed guard to watch over us just in case, as lion sightings so near the lodge are quite rare, they said.
On the topic of safety, at each lodge throughout our honeymoon, we were required to walk with an armed guard after dark. No walking back to dinner alone.
There was also an outdoor shower (enclosed from the open savannah of course) that I enjoyed using, especially under the stars. I could clearly see the Milky Way, along with many constellations that are not visible from our part of the Northern Hemisphere, like the Southern Cross. Unfortunately, the sky was obscured by clouds most nights during our honeymoon, but for two nights out of the 12, I had an perfect view into the heavens.
Not only was the food excellent at Chem Chem, but the lodge did a really good job of presenting it in unique situations in the outdoors, like the candlelit dinner at the base of a huge termite hill (inactive I think) or the breakfast next to a 1,000 year old baobab tree.
The staff also really went above and beyond with the champagne sunset set-up at the shore of Lake Manyara. The orange sunset, over a prominent ridgeline of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, was spectacular.
The next day the lodge arranged for us to visit an elementary school that it had funded with some of its profits. Emily and I had fun standing in front of the class and giving them a short English lesson. After pointing to various pictures and asking them the English words for them, we asked them to guess our ages. The first kid guessed Emily was 24 (must be those products Em!). I stumped the second class, which was focused more on math, with the equation 3 divided by 1/2. No one, including the teacher, seemed to know the answer (6). I knew the answer but had trouble getting them to understand why it was so. My vision of a mathematical breakthrough in the class, lighting up a dozen or so lightbulbs in the heads of a bunch of ten-year old Tanzanian, failed miserably.
Later that morning, our Masai guide, Zekoye, who had taken us on a “bush walk” throughout the land surrounding the lodge, accompanied us to a Masai village not far from the lodge. Emily and I were welcomed into the main hut, where the chief, a man of about 40 years old, spoke in Swahili about their way of life, while his two wives stood quietly behind him. He showed us around the village and made us feel welcome.
I have been to a lot of tourist traps in my travels but I didn’t get the feeling that this was one. Sure, it was contrived to an extent–why else would the whole village turn out to welcome us and do a dance for us? My feelings could be the result of cynicism, but in the interest of enjoying myself I tried to put those feelings aside and overall thought it was a good experience.
That night I went on a late afternoon game drive alone with Salem to the edge of Lake Burungi. We drove right up to a set of two dozen giraffes standing peacefully in the setting sun, almost oblivious to our vehicle.
Nearby, a group of ostriches trounced around the flat grassland as hundreds of pink flamingos stood in the shallow brackish water behind them. Shortly before the sun went down, we watched a herd of elephants grazing in the tall grass. They were flapping their ears to keep the mosquitoes away, creating a whooshing sound with each flap. They were also making all sorts of noises to communicate with each other. I took about a hundred pictures of them I was so excited.
To think that people would pay to have these beautiful and defenseless creatures killed for their tusks is disgusting. Salem told me that the penalty for poaching in Tanzania is a mere $5,000. Yes, that’s a lot of money for the average Tanzanian but not enough to deter the most motivated poachers, who sell their goods to idiotic Chinese consumers. I read in an Economist article that the President of Tanzania’s own political party is involved in the ivory trade. With that sort of high-level involvement from corrupt politicians, I don’t see how there is that much hope for these animals in the long run. Privatization of the land is probably the only way the trade will be stopped. But even that is not a perfect solution.
The next morning we were picked up by our original guide, Ephram, who drove us to the Ngorongro Conservation Area (NCA), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The highlight of the NCA is the Ngorongoro Crater, a 12 mile wide crater formed by the collapse of an enormous volcano millions of years ago. Today, the crater is home to thousands of animals in a sort of open air zoo surrounded by 2,000 foot crater walls.
The landscape of the crater floor is surprisingly varied. In the western part, there is a small forest, where we saw the fresh carcass of a zebra guarded by an sleeping lioness.
Another lion sat lazily in a tree about 100 feet from our vehicle. After reading about what happened to an American girl who was killed by a lion in her vehicle in South Africa the month before, I was a little nervous but nothing happened and I’m here to tell about it.
We saw dozens of hippos lounging in the water. We saw a rhino in the far distance, a first for us. The crater was so full of animals that we almost tired of seeing the more common animals like zebras, wildebeests, and ostriches.
To exit the crater, we drove up the other side from where we came in, following switchbacks all the way up the crater wall. On the rim of the crater was our hotel, the &Beyond Ngororongoro Crater Lodge. The view that this hotel offers cannot be beat; you could see all the way to the other side of the crater and even see animals moving in herds miles below if you have good eyesight or a pair of binos. The lobby and the room we stayed in were decorated in an interesting mix of Baroque and African. We had a fire going in our fireplace the whole time we were there, as the temperature on the crater rim is a good ten degrees cooler than the crater floor.
On June 26th, we headed to the Singita Grumeti Reserve in the Serengeti, flying over the Ngorogongro Crater and the famous Olduvai Gorge. We landed on a grassy strip of land and were met by our guide Kim. He drove us onto the private game reserve to the Singita Faru Faru lodge, where we spent the next three nights.
Faru Faru was superb. From the huge selection of great food, wine, and amazing game drives during which we saw lions, cheetahs, and leopards, the lodge exceeded our expectations. Kim impressed Emily and me with this extensive knowledge of all the fauna in the game reserve, including birds. I took pictures of 45 different types of birds and saw a few more that I couldn’t manage to catch on film. Kim told us that to get his job, he had to pass all sorts of tests on bird identification, animal tracking, navigation, and be able to speak fluent in English.
The first day we saw a lion sitting quietly in a tree, watching us. Later that morning we saw two more sitting near a tree lounging in the shade. We saw all sorts of prey animals that day, such as impalas, warthogs, and gazelles. We saw a leopard eating a warthog 1o feet up in a tree, the sound of the leopard’s teeth gnawing on bone was a bit unsettling.
We saw a big herd of elephants as the sun was setting; one was covered in liquid called “musk,” and actually began to charge at us. I was scared and told Kim to drive away, which he did for a little distance before stopping again at Emily’s request. She was really into the elephants but I was more concerned at that point of getting back to the lodge in one piece. Eventually we moved away from the thing. I was relieved.
Our room at Faru Faru overlooked the Grumeti River, which runs next to Faru Faru’s main lodge area. One side of our room contained a huge set of windows that you could open up completely and connect yourself with the outdoors. The river snaked below, and the gently sloping hills of the Western Corridor of the Serengeti spread out ahead. The highlight was taking outdoor showers as the baboons screeched in the trees nearby.
Besides game drives, there were other activities. One afternoon, Emily and I played archery outside of the grounds of the hotel. Kim, our guide, helped us set the game up and even insisted that he be the one to go into the high grass to search for errant arrows. I guess liability is a thing the hotel takes seriously, even though I believe we signed our lives away with a scratch of the pen upon check in at each of the African hotels we stayed in.
We went on a “bush walk” one afternoon with an armed South African guide, who we followed around as he pointed out all sorts of tracks, birds, and animals. He used an iPhone app to cause a Pearl Spotted owlet to fly into the fig tree above us for a good photo opp.
Kim must have been saving the best for last. On our morning game drive on the last day, he used his binoculars to spot a lion about a half mile away. We drove up to it, quickly realizing that we were in the path of a huge pride. We were astonished as 16 of them walked by. Brushing by the tall grass, their beige heads barely visible, they were the sharks of the savannah.
I took about 100 photos of them before reminding myself that I should also get a look at them with my own eyes (and not through the camera). We kept a distance as we watched the pride’s next move. Kim spotted an eland (type of antelope) in the distance. One of the lions was already stalking it. The rest of the pride made its way up to the front. I watched with hesitation. I knew this was the real wild and that the food chain is a fact of life in the Serengeti, but I was nervous to watch the poor animal get ripped apart. The lions moved quickly, but not towards the eland. One lion in the rear of the pride darted towards something else, leaving the intrepid lioness that had been in front stalking the eland the last one to arrive at a newly killed warthog. We drove up to the kill site and watched the entire pride tear apart the unfortunate animal with such force and violence that I had to gulp a little in fear.
Emily and I saw a male lion carry the warthog’s bloody head in its jaws so it could eat in pace away from its ravenous relatives. Another hopped away with a femur, bloody skin flapping in the air. A dozen or so other lions fought over the rest of the creature, their muscled bodies heaving as they grunted and pulled apart tendons and cracked bones. The violence with which the lions fought over the remains was both exciting and terrifying. Afterwards, the lions licked the blood off each others faces and heads. Kim told us that they were probably still hungry, as one warthog is insufficient for a pride of 16 lions. Emily and I looked at each other and agreed that it was probably time to go.
Our last game drive at sunset later that day was a good conclusion to our Faru Faru safari. We watched a group of baboons hanging out in a tree as the sun set like an orange flare on the horizon, while we sipped beers and got some pictures of the beautiful scene. I’m so glad that we chose to do the Tanzanian safari route on our honeymoon. It changed our lives in a way, made us appreciate the beauty of nature even more.
It took us a total of three shorts flights to get us into Nairobi, Kenya for the last leg of our African journey. We visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a rescue and rehab operation for orphaned elephants near Nairobi National Park. The orphanage cares for about two dozen elephants (and one blind rhinoceros), many injured or left motherless by poachers. It was very sad to see some of the elephants in the state they were in, but comforting to know that they were being cared for and rehabilitated. One elephant in particular, named Simotua, broke our hearts.
This poor guy had been caught in a snare and speared in the head and left to die. His leg below the left knee had a chunk of flesh missing. The greenish tint to the huge wound was, to my relief, not gangrene but an antibiotic. He was visibly gaunt from having starved for a time as he lay in the trap, yet he still retained a sense of play–he was an infant after all–and we smiled as he stuck his trunk through the gate and let us touch him. The orphanage is full of stories such as the one that brought Simotua there; if you’d like to donate please visit their website.
We stayed in the outskirts of the city at the Giraffe Manor, a beautiful grey brick house in the style of an old English manor. The hotel is named for the dozen or so endangered Rothschild giraffes that live on the property as part of a conservation initiative. Not only can you get really close to the giraffes, you can actually feed them pellets of dry food right out of your hand.
The hotel staff were careful to remind us that giraffes are wild animals and are known to have killed lions in the wild with their powerful kicks. As the sun set, an enormous giraffe, attracted out of the woods by a hotel working shaking a metal bowl of dry food, slowly made its way up to us. It towered over us, cautiously lowering its head to our outstretched hands for something to eat. The feel of its wet tongue and teeth on our hands was sticky and cool at the same time. At first, I didn’t heed the warning of the hotel staff and failed to make a palm with my hand. I was reminded of my mistake by the giraffe’s hard chew on my fingers.
In the morning, a hotel person tried to attract a giraffe to come to our second-story window for feeding, but the giraffe was skittish and waited by the breakfast room.
That was fine for us, since the hotel is known for having the giraffes poke their heads into the windows during breakfast. Even if there were no giraffes on the property, the English manor-type house and old colonial feel would have been enough to draw me in.
The next morning we were en route to airport. As we got closer to the downtown Nairobi that the city seemed to be still on edge from the terror attacks of the past few years, including the Westgate mall attack that killed 67 people in 2013. Upon approaching the airport entrance in our van, we had to get out of the car while our driver remained inside, and walk through a checkpoint, where we were patted down by soldiers. I was happy to be leaving Kenya, having read too many news stories of impending terror attacks thwarted.
That concludes the Africa part of our honeymoon. In the next few days I’ll publish my account of our Seychelles trip.