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Safari Day 21: Journey to the high country. Serengeti to Ngorongoro via Olduvai gorge

View of vast Serengeti plains Photo,

From a dark wilderness abounds exotic sounds as the light of early morning unveils the stillness of this vast and wild land: a cool breeze, the flutter of a bird’s wings, the chirping of frogs, the braying of zebra, the skittering of monkeys in the trees. The land now awakens. An old buffalo we had passed several times now lay dead while a satiated lion sits near with tell-tale blood on her face. A reminder that nothing is allowed to grow old in this jungle. Lions, lions everywhere but few game to eat. A lion sits vigil on a tall termite mound scanning the vast, flat waves of the Serengeti, but nothing can be seen. We cross an arid, dusty plain with no signs of water and vegetation only inches tall, yet life is here. Ostrich and grants gazelle dart about in herds in contrast to the little sustenance present. It is hot and dry, with more dust than I have seen before. But here, here is where our species began-- the Olduvai Gorge. We emerged from the milieu of mammals to stand on two legs, form rocks into tools, start fire. Our birthplace visited yet a memorial to the rest of the animal kingdom as we emerged to take absolute control of the planet. We travel on, rising up, up the very volcano that buried evidence of our beginning. At the top we look down into a caldera of life. This is Ngorongoro. Our last game stop on this long safari.

We packed, ate a small breakfast in the room, and were on the road by about 9:30. We headed SE along the dusty road. A few gazelles were prancing about. A few zebra were among the acacias. A couple of cars pulled over looking at something. We pulled alongside. There was a freshly killed buffalo. This was the same one we had passed a couple of times over the last few days and the one Richard had said was old and retired. About 10m away was a satiated female lion with blood on her face. Another scene of predator-prey played out last night, answering my question about the ultimate disposition of old animals in the jungle. Sad, but a graphic representation of the circle of life. We continued out of the forested hillside and into the open savanna. Flat as a pancake. A couple of lions here and there. There a lone female lion sitting on a termite mound scanning for prey. But there was absolutely nothing for miles in any direction. We pressed on. We passed the Simba Kopje, named so for lions that sit on the rocky outcrops awaiting an easy kill during migration. We came to the park exit miles before the true exit, because this spot is the only shade within 100km. The park visitor center was located next to a kopje with a trail leading to a 180-degree vista of the flat, endless Serengeti.

It was hot as we pressed on. The road was bumpy but good enough to do about 80km/hour most of the time, although the dust was thicker here than anywhere in east Africa we have traveled. There was a surprising amount of cars on this seemingly very remote road between Serengeti and Ngorongoro, giving rise to endless clouds of dust. The vegetation was now only inches tall, but we saw herds of grants gazelle and ostrich. They get their water from the small vegetation they eat. After kilometers of eating dust, we entered the great rift valley again and eventually to the Olduvai Gorge area.

The Olduvai Gorge is about 50km long. The name comes from a plant the Maasai call Oldupai. This plant was used to make rope. We began seeing colorful Maasai in this region, such a contrast of color against the light-colored, stark wilderness. They wander the roadside hoping to have their photo taken for money. We turned left off the main track onto an even dustier road. After several miles we came to the Olduvai Gorge Museum dedicated to Dr. Louis and Mary Leakey, who, in 1959, found a skull, jaw fragments, and tools from our oldest ancestors (3.5 million years ago). The exhibit is tiny and consists mostly of photos and reproductions but was well written. Footprints were also discovered about 40km from here but were reburied to protect them. All of this was preserved thanks to volcanic ash from the ancient Ngorongoro volcano. A shady viewpoint looking over the 80m-deep gorge provided a panorama of layered strata and tufta. Our guide brought over an “official” guide, who, for $20, would guide us to the actual site of discovery (no one is allowed in the gorge without such a guide). While pricey, he spoke English very well and was extremely knowledgeable. We drove about a kilometer down a bumpy dirt road to the floor of the gorge. We turned left and drove into a weathered, excavated canyon arm and got out to look around. There was a concrete pedestal and plaque marking the site of the fossil discovery. Nearby was a small marker where another piece of skull from Zinjanthropis homohabilius was found. No other remains were found in the 40 years the Leakey’s excavated. They did find many more hand tools, as well as numerous animals bones from the Pliocene and Pleistocene eras. Several Maasai appeared mysteriously on our perimeter looking eerily like aliens. As I did a panorama with my video, my guide quietly mentioned that if I photograph them, they will ask for money.

We departed the area and continued several more kilometers before starting a steep ascent from the Rift valley. We passed several Maasai villages sporting wood slat fences instead of the thorn tree walls we have seen in Kenya. We plateaued at 6,300 feet seeing giraffe and ostrich in these highlands. There was a fertile depression with a Maasai village on the edge. We started to climb one last time to about 7,300 feet, then pulled into a clearing. Far below was the smooth volcanic caldera, 20 miles across. In the center was a great salt flat with a tiny lake. Various hues of brown and green, streams snaking through, green marshlands near one end, a think forest near another. I could make out some black dots on the floor of the caldera, perhaps wildebeest.

We drove a little farther to the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge. The lodge was impressive. Located on the heavily forested rim of the caldera, it has a river rock face, with all rooms facing into the caldera. Lots of rustic woods and cave paintings throughout. The decor almost looked American Western-style (cowboy). Each room had a private balcony. We ate lunch before going back to the room for awhile. We met up with Richard about 4pm. No drives at this time of the day. We talked with him for a long while on a variety of subjects. I am not sure he went to college, but I am sure he is an educated man. He was a former engineer in the Tanzanian Air Force for 15 years during the cold war. We talked a lot about some of the political problems and wars in Africa. The upshot of the conversation was that European colonization created artificial borders that did not necessarily relate to tribes. That Africa is a tribal place where friction between tribes, greased with Western weapons, can and does create war. The beneficiaries are Westerners that come in for the natural riches during conflict. We went back to the room. At about 8pm we had a light dinner, returned to the room, and worked on our journals.

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