Saturday, January 28, 2012

And now, the six o'clock Gnus....

I was excited about today - I was going into the Ngorongoro Crater, aka The Cradle of Life. This is the place where they found fossil evidence of the earliest ancestors of modern Homo Sapiens, where permanent populations of all manner of endangered wildlife live thanks to the reliable water/food supplies found here. It is the crater left by a collapsed extinct volcano, and is about 19km across and almost circular, giving an approximate floor area of about 400km sq. There is a lake or two in the bottom, and rivers, woodland and grass plains. At this time of year, not long after the rainy season, it is as lush and green as the Lake Manyara Nat Park was, though not quite as lush as Tarangire Nat Park would prove to be tomorrow.

Our first stop was at a look-out point on the crater rim, affording a spectacular view across the whole crater. From 600m up, it was hard to make out any wildlfe per se, although on the lake in the distance there was a definite pink sheen suggesting lots of flamingoes, if nothing else. We followed the rim around to the track that led down to the crater floor, from where the standard operating procedure is to just follow the tracks wherever you please and try and spot wildlife. The various tour groups kept in touch with CB radio, so if one vehicle found something special, it was not long before every other vehicle homed in on their location.

As soon as we got to the floor we were in amongst the zebra and wildebeest, and they kept us company petty much wherever we went all day. There were thousnds of them, totally used to vehicles passing by, and they had right of way when crossing roads too (well, they are zebras crossing, what did you expect?). Once again, the camera was firing off, and once again, as with the elephants at Lake Manyara, I reached saturation point for shots of zebras from the side pretty quickly. One skill they perhaps ought to teach the guides is how to park for best photo ops. Jackson was of the school of thought that a good picture would be taken parked right alongside the animal, so even when I asked him to stop so I had an interesting perspective, he'd eventually pull over as close as possible to the beast, and my angle would be lost. In the end, I tried to limit my self to interesting backgrounds or spot a group fighting/dust bathing/acting up in some way to keep the shots vaguely original. There were lots of buffalo too, and a surprising number of fairly active (they were always wandering about, anyway) hyenas, as well as many storks and cranes. We saw Marabou storks (not to be confused with Malibu storks, that live in expensive coastal houses and drink coconut flavoured liquers), crowned cranes, white and Abdim's storks, as well as various buzzards and eagles, most of which were not easy to identify accurately. The lake, as I'd guessed, was fairly densly populated with flamingoes, but sadly, as I was not part of a TV documentary crew, I was not able to get as close to them as I'd have liked. They made a good back drop though.

We followed the radio messages to a group of 3 female lions, who were more interested in finding some shade under the various safari vehicles than behaving like lions. It was cool, however, being close enough to have been able to open the door and pet one of them, if I'd had a deathwish. The lion's highlighted the commercial nature of the safari business to me. Within minutes of us arriving (maybe 5th on the scene), there were 16 vehicles surrounding the cats, and more heading our way. The lions were very tolerant of us, using, as I've said, the cars for shade, although the occupants of the car they sat under couldn't see the cats, so the driver would carefully move a bit away, forcing the cats to move to find a different car, and so on. They got fed up in the end and went off to some trees to shelter in peace, and the plethora of vehicles dispersed to torment the next unfortunate star of the park. While this harassment of the animals was inevitable and bothered me to some extent, I guess it is inevitable. I was chatting to another visitor to the park who hated it, felt it was making the Crater into little more than a zoo, and would inevitably lead to even greater commercialisation. I agree to some extent, but also feel that maybe the attention given to the crater draws attention away from other areas, leaving them freer of tourists and maybe having this wealth of wildlife pretty much on tap ensures the continued existence of the park and safety of the animals - it is a hell of a golden goose, after all. We both agreed that some kind of more effective regulation of the vehicle numbers would be an improvement - maybe limiting the number in the park at a time, or how long they are allowed to stay, perhaps, but this would be where the golden goose has shot itself in the foot - I suspect the powers that be see little more than dollar signs where the tourists are seeing wildlife. The other issue with Ngorongoro is that, because of the crater, it has a very enclosed feel - probably because it is very enclosed (all 400km sq of it) - while places like the Serengeti and Tarangire are far larger and have no obvious boundaries, so the vehicles stay further away from each other, and there is less of a zoo-like feel to them.

During the course of the day we also encoutered a couple of black rhino, a bunch of elephants, some hippos and a cheetah, just about discernable in the photos, but not being very active. We spent a good 6 hours driving in circles, and it was, all things considered, pretty amazing. I'd grown up watching Sir David on the BBC wildlife docos, and to actually be visiting the kinds of places in which he filmed was a childhood dream come true.

Tarangire National Park, the next day, was a bit of a let down after the crater. There was so much tall grass and so many dense bushes that spottng anything smaller than an elephant was near impossible - and there were no shortages of elephants! I was definitely suffering from Dumbo Fatigue by midday. The park is also famous for its giant Baobob trees, which were truly huge, and often pretty shabby thanks to the roughing up they get from elepahnts in the dry season. There was precious little of anything else for most of the day, apart from a small pride of lions, including a big, maned male, which was nice to see. Try as we might, though, we couldn't find a leopard, no matter how closely we scrutinised the branches of the trees we passed. There were no zebra or wildebeest, very few impalas, and only a couple of bush bucks, and that was about it. There were many, many birds of all sizes, flashing through the trees and across the road like so many feathered jewels, but I had by now pretty much given up trying to identify any of them. They were gone so fast, and if you found a possible page in the book that might include the one you think you just saw, there would be half a dozen others on the page that it could also have been! Very frustrating for me, I have to say.

I have to say that the safari experience was, overall, an excellent one, and I am so glad to have done it. What concerns me about it, and about the Kili treks too, however, is how much income these attractions generate, and how little seems to make it to where it is needed. For example, each safari vehicle pays US$200 to get into the park, plus an extra US$50 per tourist. Using very conservative numbers, this could easily equate, for Ngorongoro alone, to around US$14,000 per day, US$98,000 a week, US$392,000 a month, US$4,000,000 a year. There are many parks, the trails up Kili generate far more (perhaps US$24,000,000 a year for the Machame track alone (which I did), and there are about 5 routes up the mountain). This is a vast amount of money, but most of it seems to get lost in the beaurocracy and red tape that is put in place by the goverment. It is a shame that, while TZ has so much potential for generating income to help improve the infrastructure or education or medical care, corruption seems to get in the way of any of this actually happening. It is the same with the wealth of mining industries that TZ has as well. I guess it's not just TZ that has this problem - and maybe TZ is better off than a lot of African countries, as there is no war here - it is a problem that afflicts many South American countries too. It seems to be the nature of governments in a lot of developing countries to feather their own nests while they are in power, at the expense of the needs of the population. I have no idea what the solution is, but I am glad I am more aware of the problem now, at least. Wow, that bordered on the deep and meaningful for a minute there.

The last couple of days I've been tentatively making myself familiar with Arusha. It's my first time in a bustling town by myelf, so I'm sorry to say I'm slightly nervous about wandering about amongst the locals, especially in a town that is a tourist trap for starters. I can't help feeling that, however hard I try to look like I know what I'm doing and where I'm going, I may as well be stepping out with a large sandwich board sign with the message: "Fresh tourist, ripe for the picking!" I girded my lions this morning and went for a wander in the busy central market and the old colonial part of town too. I think the heat created enough of a disguise that my nervous sweating could be atributed to the ambient temerature, but I'm not sure. To my credit, a couple of times local folk struck up a converstaion with me as I walked (this is quite common and genuinely friendly), and I didn't scream and run off, I actually chatted back. Must be getting into the swing of it at last. Still not totally comfortable though. I think it is the language barrier mostly - it would be nice to be able to do more than just greet people in Swahili. If I come back here, I think I'll have more time to learn it.

Last night I met up with a friend of Kara's who works up here, and got taken to a couple of bars used mostly by ex-pats. I may have scored an invite to a birthday thing tonight as well, so that will be good. It's nice to be getting out and being a bit more sociable at last. Tomorrow I'm going to a Maasai village, so will get a taste of "real culture", or at least what passes for that for the tourists. Incidentally, I've already dropped the kids clothes I brought along into a tiny orphanage we passed on the way back from the safari. I gave them to a woman who had 6 orphans along with her own 4 or 5 kids, and not much else. I figured a tiny place like that might find the clothes more useful than a bigger place. Thanks to the Ruckus whanau who contributed the clothes :-)

And, on that note, I'll sign off for a bit. It's been a mammoth effort to catch everything up, and if you've kept up with the reading, it's been a mammoth effort from you too, so go get yourself a well earned drink. More next week, I dare say.

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