Journal 6

Meeting the Cats

Fig Tree Camp

November 2005

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Up and up we went, ascending the escarpment of the Rift Valley. At the top we were greeted by the view of Lake Manyara stretched out below, streaked with a pink slick of flamingos. Past the last town of Karutu we drove, to the entrance of the Ngorongoro Conservancy area. After paying a hefty entrance fee (155 USD) the road carried on in an upward direction, past lush green trees. At an altitude of 2000m we stopped on the top of the rim of the collapsed volcano and with awe looked down into crater, the view did not disappoint.

After another hour of bumpy roads, eventually we reached the descent road that would take us down into the crater. The first animals we spotted were a herd of cattle being guarded over by a tall, blanket clad Masai. This is not a national park and so Masai are allowed to live in the conservancy and lead their traditional lives as long as they don't damage the environment. These were the last domestic animals we saw for the rest of the day.

There were animals everywhere, in only a few minutes of reaching the crater floor I spotted zebra, warthogs, wildebeest, and Thomson gazelle, none of which seemed that concerned about our car. We watched very fluffy baboons playing by a stream, a baby obviously annoying its mother. Then we left the forested area and drove through grassland area. There were about 4 cars parked on the road ahead so we figured that they were watching something and sure enough walking sleekly past was a beautiful cheetah. It was quite far away and for a second it sat down and completely disappeared. No wonder it is so hard to spot one, we could easily have driven past hundreds of cheetahs and never have seen them!

Masai Cheetah Baboon Family Warthog

We were told that just next to a river, lying under a tree we should be able to find some lions. Worried that they would leave we headed off to find them. We need not have worried, as we found them completely relaxed, looking like they had absolutely no intention of so much as lifting their heads, apart from actually doing something energetic like taking a stroll. Eventually after ten minutes or so one rolled over, at much expense of energy…. Ah it's a hard life! We drove off to let others admire them but came back an hour later to check on them. They hadn't moved an inch! It was time to start the ascent back up to the campsite located on the edge of the crater rim. At the entrance an elephant stood guard, attracted each evening by the camps water.

The next day we headed to Olduvai Gorge, it is here where the famous scientists Louis and Mary Leakey worked. The gorge enabled them to obtain a huge amount of fossil evidence from 2 million years ago up to about 15 thousand years ago. The fossils that were discovered significantly contributed (and still are) to our knowledge of the evolution throughout this time of both humans and other animals.

Olduvai Gorge Fossils found in Odluvai Gorge Fixing Mel
Olduvai Gorge Fossils at Olduvai Gorge The people who helped fix Mel

We then got stuck at the gorge for a couple hours because the car was not starting properly. The engine appeared not to be getting fuel, so we thought it might be another blockage. After blowing air through the system and changing the filters it still didn't work. Then Andy found a wire belonging to the fuel injector that had come loose…bingo!! And off we went. Fifteen minutes down the road we heard a strange banging noise, our exhaust had come apart! This shows how bad the roads were around Ngorongoro! For what we paid they could at least grade the roads. But we got out OK and managed to get the exhaust welded back on nicely.

We decided not to go to the Serengeti as the migratory herds of wildebeest were still in the Masai Mara in Kenya, and the parks in Tanzania are not cheap. So we headed towards Kenya. At the border we needed some Kenyan Ikies, and as always there are many locals trying to sell you money so Andy started the negotiations. After a lot of the usual discussions a deal was agreed. The man gave us the Kenyan Ikies and we gave him the dollars. "But you must give us 10 dollars more…" "But that wasn't the deal, OK forget it" and Andy snatched our 150 dollars back. We drove off, but five km down the road realisation and dread hit Andy… "Cheryl, check the notes we got from the money men". Looking at them properly they were obviously fake, we had been scammed good and proper! But we drove back to the police station at the border. The huge policeman was furious "Just give me ten minutes and I will get your money back!!". OK it wasn't ten minutes but sure enough about an hour and a half later we got our money back in shillings and at a better exchange rate than we had originally agreed!! Wow we were impressed, and thanking the police gratefully drove off to try to get to Nairobi before it got dark. Nairobi was hectic and a little scary but we managed to navigate it in the last light of dusk and find the campsite.

The next day we headed off to the Masai Mara. This is a really beautiful part of the Serengeti ecosystem. Stretches of grassy plains dotted (Mara means "spotted") with acacias and other small trees. The highlight of our first day was watching three lions; two males and a female. Typically for lions they mainly did absolutely nothing. But just as the sun was getting low in the sky and all the other cars had disappeared there was some action!! The female lion stirred and yawned and moved a couple metres, and collapsed on the floor. The male who was sleeping right next to her followed, smelling her scent and then baring his teeth while inhaling her perfume. Then he mounted her and did what comes naturally. After not very long she turned and growled at him viciously and chased him off. WHAT A SIGHT!!!! We managed to get it on film too, and we both grinned all night with excitement. It was just really amazing and they were only a few metres away from our car!! I had kept saying that I really wanted to see a fully-grown male lion and well, this one did not disappoint! We celebrated by having a meal at one of the exclusive lodges next to our campsite: amazingly they did let us in for a 7-course meal!

The next morning just as we were driving over a small river, a hippo suddenly came charging towards us, ploughing through the water. In fact it seemed quite scared, the river was only about a metre deep and it ran up the bank and disappeared into the undergrowth. It was good to see a whole hippo as usually during the day they are wallowing in the water and you can only see their eyes.

We carried on and headed for where the plains were covered as far as the eye could see in wildebeest. We found a condensed herd near a river and parked on the opposite side from them, waiting, hoping that they would cross. The watching of wildebeest crossing a river is a frustrating business. Lots of them stand near the edge and contemplate crossing… I assume checking for crocs and other dangers. Some get closer and closer to the edge, the tension is mounting, you get your camera ready and binoculars poised. Then one makes a few tentative steps even closer, its going to be soon…yes, its almost near the edge, go on!….and then suddenly for no reason it changes its mind and walks up the hill. Some others are still thinking about it and you are sure one will pluck up the courage, yes a couple are definitely edging that way, so near, they are going.… but no they all start moving away and within a few minutes they have all left the river and have carried on eating grass and sitting down. OK we have been waiting two hours, we can wait a bit longer. Then one of them suddenly starts walking off in the complete opposite direction and slowly all the others obligingly get up and follow. In half an hour they all start reappearing and the whole process starts again. At this rate they are never going to reach Tanzania!

We did manage to see some cross a small river. One individual wildebeest walked to the edge to have a look and cautiously started down the steep bank. Convinced it would bottle it, I watched in fascination. Behind it a few more animals watched with worried interest. But it kept going, and suddenly there were hundreds of wildebeest following it, running, leaping, calling to each other, hoofs crashing. Later we drove over a bridge across the Mara River and along the banks floated so many dead bodies of wildebeest, being torn to pieces by vultures and Marabou stalks. It was like an image from hell, with death everywhere. I then could understand why they were so cautious when crossing the rivers, for many didn't make it.


Leaving the Masai Mara with a heavy heart, we headed towards Uganda (a small detour!). We spent some time at Kagamega forest in western Kenya, a tiny patch of mid-altitude tropical rainforest, the only bit left in Kenya. It is a beautiful forest and with no big predators quite safe to walk around on your own. It is home to lots of butterflies and seven primate species.

Once in Uganda, our first stop was Jinja, a small but nice town on the northern edge of Lake Victoria, which is one of the many places that seems to claim to be the source of the River Nile. It is a significant point in our journey, for at last we have met up with the Nile which will be our companion on and off for the rest of our journey through Africa.

Watching the Bujagali swimmers finished off a day of relaxing and fiddling with the car by the rapids. For a small fee a guy swims over the rapids with little more than a jerry can as a float. In celebration of the swimmer surviving the ordeal unscathed, another man than does an impressive dance to the sound of drums. The dance includes such feats as climbing an unfixed pole that is about 4 metres high and putting his legs behind his head. Different!

Bujagali dancer

The next day Andy went white water rafting, while Cheryl spent the day playing with a kitten in the bar at the campsite. The white water rafting was 95 dollars and included free beer at the end of the day on the 45 min bus journey home, so while I booked it I was wondering how many beers I could get through on the bus. The rafting was quite spectacular with lots of grade 5 rapids. Before each rapid the guide gave us a choice of flipping, 50/50 or the chicken run. I voted for the most extreme and bullied the others into agreeing to hit the centre of the second rapid, the Bujagali falls. We were all paddling like mad, when suddenly the boat flipped, the paddle was ripped out of my hands and I sank to the bottom. I thought no worries I will just relax and the life jacket will bring me up again. After what seemed like ages I still had not surfaced and suddenly my feet touched the bottom, again, jeez I better start swimming up! I finally reached the surface in time to take one breath and then was sucked under again. This was getting a little scary so I fought my way to the surface. I was really out of breath and then next to me was this girl who was completely freaked out so I grabbed her life vest and towed her back to the raft. At the next rapid I kept my mouth closed but the group all voted to do the most extreme route. The guide told us that that rapid was famous for pulling people under. After an exhausting day I only managed to sink 5 beers on the way home but we had a good night repeatedly boring poor Cheryl with the details.

The next day we headed to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. We needed to go into the city to buy some supplies. We gave a lift to 4 of the rafters who directed us to the back packer lodge. After lunch we headed into town with Adel who needed to go to the bank. The traffic was terrible and you really have to drive quite aggressively to get anywhere. Luckily I had my driver training in Bangkok (the rules are simple … biggest has right of way and who dares wins). Luckily our bull bar intimidates most of the other cars.

Anyway we were stuck at a junction right in the centre of town and nothing seemed to be moving. "What's that smell?" "It can't be our car, it couldn't possibly break down here" "That would be the worst place possible" but then the car started to fill with smoke… Oh no, the electrical cables seem to be on fire! I jump out in the middle of the junction and quickly remove the earth lead off the battery. Taxis, cars and motorbikes are all around us hooting and shouting as we are holding the whole place up. Luckily we were on a hill and we managed to roll back towards the curb. I disconnect the brake cable that seems to be the culprit and we limp back to the hostel looking a bit like a Christmas tree as all the lights are flashing on and off, our car seemingly having a mind of its own. The next day I remove the instrument panel and find that all the cables have melted together and are shorting out. I knew that electronics degree would come in handy one day and I set about replacing all the cables and soldering in new wires, which took me nearly all day. I found a short circuit on the brake wire and because we were stopped for so long this caused everything to over heat.

Fixing Wires

The next day we headed North up to Murchinson falls, everyone politely declined a lift! Murchinson falls is not a big drop but the whole of the Victoria Nile squeezes through a 6-meter gap. When you stand next to the water the power of the falls is awesome, Cheryl and I had to shout to hear each other. The next day we took a boat trip up the river to see the falls from downstream. There were loads of hippos and crocs in the water especially just below the falls, we also saw buffalo and elephants from the boat. The next morning we did a chimpanzee walk in the forest with a guide, a really nice walking-through jungle, where we spotted black and white monkeys, red tail monkeys and briefly a chimp, their genes are supposed to be 98.7% the same as ours.

We then drove 300km to Kibale to what can only be described as the Lake District. It even rained and although this was right on the equator it was really quite cold as we were over 2000m up. The campsite was fantastic, we were the only guests and we decided to treat ourselves to a meal out. They lit a fire that we sat around drinking beer and soaking up the warmth.

Murchinson Falls Drenched at Mgahinga National Park

We then headed south again down the west side of Uganda towards Queen Elizabeth NP and back across the equator. It was a fantastic place and when we got to the campsite no one was there so we set up camp and stayed the night. What a beautiful spot overlooking the plains, with a stunning gorge below and the Rwenzori mountains in the distance. This is the highest range in Africa, and tops out at over 5000 meters.

We then headed off to Mgahinga National Park in the SW corner of Uganda, this is where the borders with Congo and Rwanda meet. The area is really beautiful with volcanoes and mountains shrouded in mist. We arranged a nature walk in the National Park, but unfortunately the gorillas are in Congo at the moment. The guide turned up with 2 guards all armed with AK47 rifles; apparently they were there to protect us from animals, poachers and smugglers, as the Congo border is only 10km away. The walk was really nice but the heavens opened just as we left and it poured! After 3 hours we arrived back looking like cats that had been thrown in a lake. We have decided to treat our selves and we are now in the travellers lodge in a really smart hotel room after having a big meal sitting next to a log fire. The rumble of the next thunderstorm is looming in the distance….

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