Tanzania: Wanderings on the wild side: bush camping in Tanzania

Crossing the border between Kenya and Tanzania was a breeze. Unusually, we’d pre-booked a shuttle due to our fixed safari dates and, also unusually, we received only helpful directions from the locals loitering at the border. Navigating a few donkeys, we got our passports stamped and acquired a very unimpressive (hand-written) visa in return for $50 apiece. Our six day bush camping adventure was about to begin.

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Day 1 – Tarangire: land of the giants

To my eyes, rural Tanzania didn’t seem wildly different to Kenya. Occasional small towns or villages would pop up with brightly painted buildings. Cattle were herded. Babies were carried on backs. Clothes were spread out to dry on bushes. Kids roamed free. Fenced villages were set back from the road. The most apparent differences in clothing were the number of Muslims with covered heads and the greater range of vibrant colours than the dominant red of the Kenyan Maasai. Also everyone carried everything on their heads all of a sudden!

One of the most interesting things we saw on the way to Tarangire were the groups of teenage boys hanging around the roadsides, dressed in black with white paint on their faces and charcoal on their bodies. I intend to read around the subject a bit more because it sounds interesting but basically I think they’re an ‘age-set’ of 14-18 year olds who have been recently circumcised (during which they must not flinch or cry). They spend many months wandering their land until they heal, shooting birds, capturing cattle and generally learning how to be a man and warrior (moran). This is a relatively short phase in a long process full of ritual and tradition, culminating in them becoming elders.

After a few hours, we arrived at Tarangire. I refer to it as the land of giants as there are elephants everywhere you look and immense baobab trees fill the landscape. Dean is standing by an elephant skull.

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Damian was great at spotting animals and sometimes used the radio too. During the week he tirelessly drive for hours and hours, hundreds of kilometres.

A highlight, early on in the day, was a visit to a watering hole where we spent ages watching a group of elephants splashing about, having fun, whilst zebras and wildebeest sipped more reservedly at the edges!

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As elephants were the main attraction here, I’ll indulge a little and post far more pictures of them than necessary!

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After a mud bath:

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This was a pretty good lunch stop view. Though we had to guard our boxes diligently against covetous baboons and superb starlings!

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We also encountered tsetse flies for the first time: irritating beasts that give a painful bite and can cause sleeping sickness (resulting in a coma!).

Here are a few more pictures starting with a waterbuck then some birds: lilac-breasted roller, love birds, superb starling.

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Zebras having a good old scratch. I love how the little ones are ginger-brown and fluffy!

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That evening we stayed at a nice campsite called Haven Nature and met smiley Raju who was to travel with us as our cook for the next five days. He welcomed us with a bowl of popcorn and for the rest of the trip continually wowed us with impossibly fresh, delicious culinary masterpieces whipped up in temporary kitchens from just one box of ingredients. Every evening meal began with amazing soup and ended with fresh fruit. In between were pasta dishes, steak, salads, local curries, vegetable dishes… Breakfasts consisted of fruit, pancakes, eggs and toast and he provided us with a packed lunch most days too. Maybe he was a magician. It was certainly all much better than we expected!

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Day 2 – the Ngorongoro conservation area and Serengeti game drive 1

As we ascended through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the landscape altered, becoming lush and green and hilly. Terracotta dust covered the bottom metre or so of vegetation along the roadsides. Sprinklings of pink, yellow and white flowers emerged here and there. An unexpected giraffe appeared now and again or a Masaai village.

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After an hour’s lunch stop surrounded by red-headed agama lizards and, of course, superb starlings, we entered the Serengeti National Park. For several hours we bounced and juddered over much more barren terrain.

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Towering dust devils pirouetted across the horizon, connecting the black ground, burnt to kill tics, to the cotton-wool clouds. Mirages shimmered deceptively in the distance. At times our vehicle was the only tangible thing for as far as the eye could see in any direction. If the vastness was bewildering to us, we could only imagine how it must feel to lone Maasai walking from one invisible point to another.

Slowly animals began to appear again. A gathering of gazelles here, an ostrich there; animals adapted to living in such an inhospitable environment.

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The further we travelled, the less the grasslands had been burnt. As we were beginning to wonder whether this was all the Serengeti had to offer, a vibrant patch of tall grass came into view, fed by a small steam. Then walking just ahead of us we saw a pair of adolescent male lions, crossing over the road to reach the stream! All the lions we’d seen in Kenya had been snoozing drowsily under trees or had been far away so seeing these on the move and pretty close was amazing.

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That evening, in the setting sun, we spotted our first hyenas and lots of Thompson’s gazelles, yellow-throated sand grouse, a pair of silver-backed jackals and some more lions.

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At last we also encountered the elusive leopard, or more precisely, two young ones, sleeping in a kigelia tree. This meant we had now seen four of the ‘big 5’. They were hard to see; the second is in the middle of the branches in the shade.

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On we headed to our campsite as the sun set.

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It was a public site within the national park meaning the shower block wasn’t ever so clean, had only cold water and was not guarded at night. Raju had set up our tent and cooked us a tasty meal whilst we’d been out. As we ate in the basic ‘dining room’ next to the ‘kitchen’, just as the mobile bar was doing its trade, an elephant arrived! We could easily see it through the grates that served as windows and Damian closed the grated door. It rifled through the bins, took a wander about and then left. We were glad to be safe from trampling in a building of sorts and couldn’t help but imagine how we’d have felt if we’d have been in a much more squashable tent.

That night we slept well once we’d convinced ourselves it was unlikely that we’d be eaten or trampled in the night, only waking occasionally at the nearby maniacal laughs of hyenas.

Day 3 – Serengeti game drive 2: the day of the lions

A full day’s game drive awaited us and the day began at 5:45am.

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Due to the coldness of the morning, we were reluctant to stand up in the car but, to my surprise, I still spotted my first lion!

This excitement, though, was quickly superceded by one of my favourite moments of the whole trip. In the early morning light we came upon 10 lions – females and cubs – relaxing by a stream! We stayed with them for about 45 minutes, watching them watch visitors to a nearby waterhole; seeing them climb small trees; and observing their play fights.

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One adult decided to stalk a gazelle at which point all playful antics ceased and every eye set upon the poor unsuspecting victim, bodies tensed. The lions were unsuccessful when the gazelles noticed them and scarpered but it gave Dean and I a taste for the theatre of the Serengeti.

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The dramatics continued shortly after as we saw a group of vultures scare off two young cheetahs from their kill! They didn’t seem too bothered though: perhaps they’d had their fill.

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Here are hyenas doing the same to a pair of lions:

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Later in the day we twice visited the same pride of lions who, presumably with full bellies, selected a large tree right next to the road to sleep under, their numbers having increased to 18! It was such a privilege to observe them at such close range and to see their actions and interactions.

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Note the bloody chops on this next one!

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At lunch time we pulled into a picnic area. There was quite the aroma about the place which, we discovered, was down to an enormous group of hippos (about 250 we estimated). The revolting beasts just lie there in the shallow muddy water all day every day in their own excrement, breaking wind and splashing water over their backs with their tails! Gross!

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This was another spot we saw them at a distance but out of the water. The game was to try and catch a yawn!

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Throughout the rest of the day we saw all sorts. Secretary birds and mongooses.

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Another equally lazy leopard (here they sensibly pronounce it like we say leotard!). Although we didn’t see any active leopards, we did see the gruesome remains of one of their wildebeest meals: they drag their food up a tree to eat it away from any hyenas waiting below.

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A long line of majestic elephants and a very cute baby.

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Giraffes being cleaned of tics by red-billed ox pickers.

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And, having seen all the animals a lot of times now, I decided to try and get a few more action shots. Easier said than done but here are a few runners!

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That night our fears became more real. We were in the tent at elephant o’clock! Not only that but some departures that day had resulted in our tent being in an open space by itself. It was dark but, hearts beating fast, we gingerly peeked out and saw the giant creature at the bins. We had been advised to stay in our tent if in doubt so we just hoped it wouldn’t come our way. Unwisely some of the cooks decided to try and scare it off. This just angered it though and we don’t really know what happened next but it resulted in the elephant breaking a tree some time later and ultimately departing! It was a bit harder to get to sleep that night!

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Day 4: Serengeti game drive 3

A sunrise start:

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Having seen everything we wanted to see, we’d begun to be a bit more specific about our wishlist! Top of Dean’s was a cheetah with cubs. By about 6:45am, we’d seen some! We tracked them through binoculars for quite a while. Unbeknownst to them, two lions were in the vicinity but we don’t think they caught up with the playful cubs.

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The pride of lions we’d spent time with yesterday had moved a little and were lying, almost camouflaged, in the distant grass. An adult female crossed our path and headed over to them to tell them of a catch. Immediately the cubs leapt up and bounded towards us, veering around us to their left and then disappearing down a grassy bank in an excited cloud of dust! The adults followed at a much more sedate pace.

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I spotted this cheetah in the grass really close to the road when we drove out into a much quieter area.

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We also saw elephants that had somehow climbed up this kopje!

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A few other sightings: a bloodied hyena, guinea fowl and nursing zebras.

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An amazing brunch was waiting for us before our onward journey.

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That night we camped at our next destination, Simba campsite near the Ngorongoro crater. As we were trying to get to sleep, we became aware of the tearing sounds of grass being uprooted intermingled with a clear chomping noise and the sound of tails swishing into the walls of the tent! Zebras! We were quite happy to coexist with these visitors for the half an hour or so until they were all scared off at high speed by something. I didn’t like to think that it was the animals of the campsite’s namesake!

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Day 5: Ngorongoro crater

After a very, very cold, restless night’s sleep, we had our earliest start at 5:15am in the huge Ngorongoro crater. We’d been a bit spoilt by the Serengeti so we found it a little underwhelming beyond the novelty of it being a crater.

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However we did spot the final ‘big 5’ animal – a pair of black rhinos – albeit at quite a distance!

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Here are the other things we saw beginning with the under-appreciated wildebeest, a golden jackal and some gold crowned cranes:

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Finally some baby elephants because they’re the best!

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Whilst our game viewing may have been over, the adventure was not. Tune in next time to read about our visit to the Datoga tribe and our hunting trip with the Bushmen!

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