Friday, Jan. 27
My alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. this morning, and I said a quick morning prayer and made my usual large mug of coffee, using the hotel’s instant coffee, bottled hot water boiled in the hotel’s carafe on an extremely efficient hot-plate, my powdered Coffeemate French Vanilla creamer, and my Truvia. I was able to spend some time journaling before I had to get ready. I organized my bags so as to have in my smaller carry-on bag only what I’d need for the safari, and then I put everything else into my larger bag that I’d check when we would fly home. By 7:00 a.m. I was showered and dressed and had my bags ready to go. I walked outside to the parking lot with my bags and greeted Fr. Matthew, who was there with his Explorer, ready to load up our unneeded bags destined for the Malaika Beach Resort ahead of us. I was the first one there, and I realized that our safari guide and driver was there with our safari vehicle, a large van-type vehicle with a roof that could be raised over the walls of the van to give us the ability to see above the walls in all directions. Speaking first in my limited Swahili, I introduced myself to our driver, who called himself “Papa” (accent on the second syllable), and who seemed to be a very pleasant and amiable gentleman of perhaps 50 years of age with a ready and warm smile. I learned quickly that Papa speaks English pretty well. Jay and Jill showed up a couple minutes later, and I introduced Papa to them. Shortly thereafter Fr. John, Christine, Eleanor and Scott showed up, and as they were all meeting Papa, I took a piece of paper and wrote all our names down in the order in which we had met Papa and put the paper on the dashboard of the van for Papa’s ready reference.
We took an inventory of all our bags that we were leaving with Fr. Matthew to take to Malaika, counting and photographing them, in case we should somehow have one or more turn up missing later. The we all said our final fond goodbyes and thank-yous to Fr. Matthew and loaded up in the Masumin safari van. The traffic heading out of Mwanza east toward Serengeti was just as crazy this morning as it had been yesterday afternoon. We again caught the red light at the city’s only traffic signal, and then we later caught the red light at the only other traffic signal in the area, which was on the outskirts of town. Eventually we were on a rural highway, passing occasional villages similar to Nyantakubwa, Nyampande, and Nyaragusu, which we had previously visited. In one village we passed through today we were stunned to see a man on the side of the road severely beating with a stick a cowering and crying young boy, who we assumed was the man’s son, striking the boy brutishly several times in front of a crowd of other villagers who watched the scene without interfering. That sight provoked a bit of conversation among us about corporal punishment as readily used by parents and school authorities back in the days of our youth and as strictly verboten today. In another village we stopped, and Papa bought a case of bottled water for the van.
At one point Papa stopped the van on the side of the highway, and we discovered that we had a flat tire on the left rear wheel of the van. The van carried two spare wheels with tires on racks mounted on the outsides of the van’s back doors, so we weren’t too concerned, until we saw the conditions of the tires on the van and the first spare. None of the five tires we saw looked to be in great shape. The tire-changing operation was quite interesting to watch, but I’m too tired tonight to take the time to describe it in detail, so I’ll just say that it seemed unduly complicated to me, and efforts by Scott and me to assist Papa didn’t seem to advance the process. Eventually, after about a half-hour to accomplish a task that should have taken half the time, we were back on the road. At least we had stopped in an area where a concrete culvert ran under the road for drainage, and the culvert served as a bathroom for a few of us, including at least one of the women, Scott and myself. (As a cyclist and triathlete, I became quite comfortable many years ago using the out-of-doors as a bathroom as necessity dictated, but the ladies on our trip apparently didn’t have that same level of comfort doing so.)
We finally arrived at the western entrance to Serengeti National Park called “Ndaka.” We registered with a park ranger, took group photos, including Papa in them, used the bathroom, purchased some souvenirs, snacks and soft drinks at the gift shop and saw our first Serengeti wildlife, small furry animals called “rock hyrax,” which resemble marmots but are smaller in size. They were running around the entrance buildings, having learned that tourists drop crumbs of food. After 30 minutes were on our way into the park. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before we discovered that the spare tire Papa had put on the van earlier had gone flat, and we now had to stop for another change of wheels and tires, using our last spare. Another Masumin van came along, and its driver assisted Papa in changing the wheel and tire, and the other driver said he’d give us one of his spares. However, after we got our last spare on our van, the other van driver began to pull away without giving us one of his spare wheels and tires. I asked him as he pulled away about that, and he cavalierly replied, “We are together,” suggesting that if we should have another flat, he’d be there to give us one of his spares. In fact, we never saw him again today.
As we drove on after the change of the second flat tire, it wasn’t long before we began to see quite a bit of wildlife. Papa had raised the roof of the van, and several of us, including me, were standing up looking over the walls of the van at the passing country and its animal and bird inhabitants. Every time we saw something for the first time, we hollered for Papa to stop to allow us to take photos or look through binoculars. Papa himself was very observant, and he frequently pointed out to us animals, birds and flora, naming them all and describing their backgrounds and habits. Over the course of the rest of the day we saw many animals and birds, among them innumerable wildebeests, which are by far the most numerous animals in the 14,700-square-mile park (numbering in the millions), many zebras accompanying the wildebeests (Papa told us that the zebras and wildebeests travel together for protection, b/c the zebras have great eyesight, and the wildebeests have great senses of small), baboons, impalas, Thompson gazelles, topis (antelope-like mammals), ostriches, Cape buffaloes, large secretary birds, Egyptian geese, velvet (or “vervet) monkeys, wart hogs, and, before the end of the day, several giraffes (which were the most accommodating of the animals to us as we photographed them, seemingly posing for their pictures), many hippopotamuses wallowing in a muddy river, two Nile crocodiles lying near the shore in a different river, and a lioness with two small cubs. The lioness and her cubs were our most exciting viewing, as we were able to get within ten feet of them and park the van there, and we took many pictures. The cubs were apart from their mother, and although we had pulled the van between the lioness and the cubs, the lioness didn’t seem the least bit perturbed. It was very hot, and she was lying in the sparse shade of a small tree panting, while the cubs were doing likewise under a bush. At one point the lioness, facing us, yawned hugely, exposing her fierce fangs, and Scott got a great picture of that.
One sad sight we saw today was a wildebeest separated from a group of other wildebeests and lying close to a small side road we took to see more animals. As we approached within just a few feet of it, we thought it might be sick. But then we saw that a wire was wrapped around one of its hind legs, and apparently it couldn’t extricate itself from the wire. Papa explained that poachers set traps for the animals, and apparently the wire wrapped around the wildebeest’s leg was part of such a trap. We asked Papa if we couldn’t help to remove the wire and free the wildebeest, but he said no. (We had previously learned from Papa that we weren’t allowed to leave the van while on safari, after several of us had gotten out of the van to get a closer look at a group of hippopotamuses in a river where we had stopped.) However, Papa said that we could report the situation to the park rangers. We had no opportunity to do so at any time, and I doubt that even if we had we would have been able to explain to a ranger exactly where the wildebeest was trapped.
Sometime in the afternoon we stopped at a building serving as a terminal for an airstrip in the Serengeti. Papa gave us each a box with more than enough food for a lunch, and we all ended up with leftovers. As I sat there eating, I was bitten by a mosquito, which gave me pause for some concern about possibly contracting malaria (I’ve faithfully taken my malaria pills every morning), and I decided I had to “let go and let God.” I also talked to a young couple who was there from Texas. The woman, whose name is Courtney, now lives in Dallas, which was my home for many years before I moved to New Orleans in 1975, and the man, whose name I didn’t get, is from San Antonio, another Texas town in which I lived at one point as a boy.
By about 5:30 p.m. we reached the turn-off to the Mbalageti Lodge, where we were to spend the night. The lodge was quite a way off the main road, and it was a good twenty minutes after we turned off the main road before we got to the lodge, seeing more wildlife long the way. The lodge is very nice, and we were met at an open-air reception building by friendly staff members who welcomed us with wet towels and glasses of fruit juice and water. We were told about the amenities of the lodge, which included Wi-Fi, although once again, none of us was able to connect to the Internet with it. We were given the keys to our “chalets,” which were all located a three-minute walk from the reception building, told the hours of the restaurant and gift shop, told that power was provided by a generator and was available from 5:00 a.m. until 10;30 p.m. but was unavailable between 10:30 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., and told that no one was allowed to walk outside between buildings during dark hours without being accompanied by security personnel, which we later discovered were hotel employees armed with spears and flashlights. Scott and I were to share a chalet, as were Christine and Eleanor and, of course, Jay and Jill. Fr. John was the only one who would be alone in a chalet.
Porters carrying all our bags escorted us to our chalets, which were raised structures having tent-like walls, two beds, an armoire, easy chairs, a dresser, an oscillating fan between the beds (no a/c, however), a full bathroom with a spacious shower, lots of towels, and hot water. Scott and I left our bags in the chalet and walked over to the building where there were the restaurant, an indoor and outdoor bar, a small gift shop, restrooms, a swimming pool and a tiered patio with stunning views of the Serengeti, which dropped away below us from the hillside where the building sits and was visible for many, many miles in the distance. We ordered Kilimanjaros at the outdoor bar, walked over to the lower tier of the patio and saw the couple from Texas with whom I had spoken during our lunch break. I shared a few pleasantries with Courtney, and then Scott and I resumed our conversation. As we talked, we saw a big rainstorm in the distance, and shortly thereafter we had a pretty hard but short rainstorm pass over us, causing us to have to retire to the indoor bar.
By the time Scott and I finished our Kilimanjaros, it was 7:00 p.m., and the rest of our group joined us for dinner. We were able to get a table for the seven of us, and we enjoyed a very good meal with a bottle of Merlot that Fr. John, Scott, Christine and I shared. I suddenly realized that it was 8:30 p.m. and recalled that we would have electric power in our chalet for only two more hours. I hadn’t plugged my electronic devices into one of the electric outlets available at the chalet to recharge them all, which was something I should have done before Scott and I left the chalet earlier to go to the bar. With all the photos and videos I had taken with my iPhone, the battery had run down earlier in the day, and I’d had to connect my portable charger to it. Fr. John, who was using both his iPhone and his iPad all day, had run down the batteries of both his devices, and neither of them would recharge with his large solar charger or the cigar lighter of the van. So I had lent him my portable charger, which he used thereafter for several hours to recharge his iPhone, and I had connected my solar charger to my iPhone, which nearly fully recharged the iPhone’s battery by the end of the day. My portable charger was pretty low on stored power, and I wanted to recharge my iPhone, my portable charger and my solar charger. So I excused myself from the dinner table before dessert was served, walked to the entrance of the building and asked one of the security guards to accompany me to my chalet. (That’s when I learned how they were armed.) Once we got to the chalet, I asked the guard to wait for me, as I would shortly be returning to the restaurant. I unpacked and plugged in all my electronic devices, confirmed that everything was charging, hoped (but didn’t anticipate) that they would all fully recharge in only two hours, and went back to the restaurant for dessert.
By the time we finished dinner, it was about 9:30 p.m., and we were the last people in the restaurant. (There hadn’t been that many people there in the first place.) We asked for our bill and learned that everything was included with the price of our chalets except the drinks, which came to a total of only $33 U.S. Scott and I agreed to share that bill and asked if we could charge it to our chalet, a request to which the waiter willingly agreed. By the time Scott and I got back to our chalet and into our beds, it was after ten o’clock, and I told Scott that my alarm was set for 5:00 a.m. He was okay with that, and within minutes thereafter, I was fast asleep.