Who knew heaven on Earth could actually exist?
I recently got back from four days in the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and I am still hardly able to process all of the amazing experiences I had. Read on to learn about my trip, and hear about some of my craziest stories, from having three baboons jump into our car, to watching our guard scare away a hyena with a bat at 1am.
We all dragged our bodies out of bed for breakfast at 6am, our heads still heavy with sleep. We tossed our duffel bags onto the truck, shoved some mayai and mkate in our mouths, and headed out to one of the most famous national parks in the entire world.
On our way, we drove through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and Ngorongoro Crater. The crater, not actually a crater at all, is the world’s largest caldera. A caldera is formed when a volcano has its magma chamber collapse, and after millions of years it resembles an area such as the Ngorongoro Crater (just usually on a much smaller scale). The crater is known for its thriving wildlife, as well as its rhino population, as it is unfortunately the only place left in Tanzania to see rhinos in their natural habitat. Throughout the drive, we saw so many amazing sights, and in the crater alone we stumbled across four of the well known “big five” in Africa (we saw: buffalo, rhino, lion, and elephant; didn’t see: leopard).
After having an astounding drive through the conservation area, we finally reached the Serengeti National Park, and before even reaching the main gate we ran across the great wildebeest migration. It came as no surprise that the great wildebeest migration is considered the 8th wonder of the world by so many. There were wildebeest stretched as far as the eye can see, and just in our area alone there were at least 30,000 spread throughout the landscape, with 1.3 million migrating in total.
From the gate we drove about an hour into the Serengeti in order to get to the campground. Once there, we set up our sleeping bags, ate around the bugs in our camp-cooked dinner, and spent the majority of the evening taking pictures of the night sky and walking to the bathroom with our SFS guards, as our camp was unfenced and was prone to wandering wildlife (including a leopard which wandered 50 feet away from me just before midnight, marking my fifth and final of the big five in one day).
The second day was a busy day of fieldwork and staring at wild animals (which I suppose in this program are considered one-and-the-same). We spent the morning working on bird identification as practice for data collection the next day. For this we drove around, stopping each time we saw a bird in order to flip through our 576 page bird book to attempt to identify it. While working on this exercise we also collected mammal behavioral information for all mammalian groups we ran across. This made for a busy morning alternating between data collection activities, but fun and beneficial nonetheless.
After our busy morning, we came back to the camp for lunch and a history lecture on the Serengeti National Park by one of our professors. From camp, we stopped by the nearby park visitors’ center, and I learned so many interesting facts about the wildebeest migration, as well as other living organisms in the park at the outdoor history walk they had. I learned about a tree known as the sandpaper tree because its leaves feel exactly like sandpaper, and a candelabra tree whose sap can leave you blind. I also learned that only one in twenty cheetah cubs grow to adulthood, and that giraffes have the same number of vertebrae as humans. It was an extremely interesting history walk to say the least.
After the visitors’ center, we spent the rest of the day resuming our data collection activities. In total, we identified over 80 birds which most of us had never seen before. Finally, after a very long day, we headed back to camp. We spent our evening joking by the fire, and were finally ushered off to our tents after a group of lions was heard unnervingly close to our bonfire.
The morning of day 3 was spent conducting our bird distribution data collection activity. For this activity, we would drive along a set transect. Every 500 meters we would stop and identify all birds in a 30 meter radius for five minutes, and then continue driving for another 500 meters. Unfortunately, I ended up in the car which was destined for the least eventful transect: the grasslands. Although we did identify a handful of birds, the grasslands were definitely not the most noteworthy of places to find birds, to say the least.
We spent our lunch at a lodge in the nearby area of the Serengeti, treating ourselves to all the complimentary coffee we could get our hands on. After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon on a search for cheetahs and leopards. Although we were lucky on the leopard search (spot the leopard in the tree below if you can), we came up empty-handed on cheetahs once again (unlike some other groups).
At night, we couldn’t help but wonder how our trip had gone by so fast. In the morning we would head out from the Serengeti, and bid goodbye to such a beautiful place that now held a special place in so many of our hearts. As I pondered this thought late in the evening, sitting with a guard and a couple of my friends, we watched as a hyena climbed to a nearby trashcan which was attached to a tree. The hyena nearly fell in until our guard Burra ran over to it and smacked it on the back with a bat, causing in to sprint into the night. What an interesting finale to an amazing trip.
We headed out of the Serengeti on our last day, keeping our eyes hopefully peeled for cheetahs which never appeared. We stopped at the gate to the National Park for one group picture, and a final appreciation of the beauty of the wildebeest migration.
On our way back, we stopped at Oldupai Gorge (commonly misspelled Olduvai Gorge due to a miscommunication with local Maasai upon its original discoveries). Oldupai Gorge is one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the entire world. The gorge has had bones found from four different human species, and people travel from all over the world to conduct excavations and research there. Not only is it a historical treasure, but it also an absolutely stunning place, with unbeatable views that just took my breath away the moment I stepped out of our car.
As we passed out of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we caught one last glimpse of the gorgeous caldera. Stopping at the gate so our professor could use the restroom, we also had one last experience of a lifetime. You see, when our professor left to use the restroom, he made one key mistake: he left his car door open. Now in the United States this would not have been an issue, but here at the gate entrance, there are groups of olive baboons which have become so habituated to humans that they will do anything they can to get food from them. In our experience, this included three of them leaping through the open door of our car, and climbing through our car full of students to scavenge our trash for food. It wasn’t until some of our other staff came running to the rescue and scaring the baboons did they decide to leap out of the car and sprint off with one of the other student’s lunch boxes, which is now forever lost to the Ngorongoro baboons.
We finally made it back to camp, and I still can barely comprehend all of what I have gone through over this trip. It was certainly an experience I will never forget, and one that I am so glad I have had the opportunity to have.
“No one can return from the Serengeti unchanged, for tawny lions will forever prowl our memory and great herds throng our imagination.” ~George Schaller