Having successfully bagged our first ever high-altitude peak, it was time for some wildlife viewing in northern Tanzania's famous national park circuit. Six more of our friends from DC met us in Moshi on Christmas Eve, making for a total of 12 of us, and we spent the day catching up and had some of the best Indian food we've ever tasted (although perhaps it tasted so good because it took two hours to arrive?!). We packed our bags and piled into two safari Land Rovers and headed first to Lake Manyara National Park, which is a relatively small park and makes a good introduction to a safari. We saw tons of baboons, monkeys, giraffes, and hippos. We camped in a nearby campsite, had a delicious outdoor dinner, and drank gin and Krest Bitter Lemon-- probably one of the randomest ways to celebrate Christmas, but we were all happy to be with our second family!
The next day we packed up and pretty much drove all day, through Ngorongoro Conservation Area into the Serengeti, perhaps the most well-known park in Tanzania, perhaps in all of Africa. As we neared the entrance gate we saw thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle grazing in what seemed like an endless plain in every direction (Siringit does mean "endless plain" after all). After a rather long wait for our permits at the gate, we drove toward our campsite, spotting a very Lion King-esque scene on the way: a lion sitting atop a huge rock formation, gazing at the vast expanse below. This was our first big cat sighting in Tanzania (and for most of our friends, their first big cat sighting ever!). After a flat tire on one of the jeeps that coincided with a very heavy but quick rainshower, we made it to the campsite and set up our tents in the mud.
The next morning we embarked on an early morning game drive. Highlights included: two hippos on land (a rare sight in the daytime, as they spend most of their time in the water), three cheetahs peeking out of the tall grass, two leopards in nearby trees, five lions in a tree (which our jeep was the first to spot, so we had the view to ourselves for a few minutes!), and a partridge in a pear tree (not really). The Serengeti is a huge park, and I don't think its size is lost on anyone who visits. Animals can sometimes seem to be few and far between (aside from the 2.5 million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles when they're all migrating together), but luckily all the drivers and guides radio each other to share the location of animals, so a sighting is never too long a drive away.
After a really satisfying few hours with our heads popped up out of the jeep, we drove back to Ngorongoro Crater, and set up camp for our third and final night at the most stunning campsite yet, overlooking the crater and surrounded by hills in almost all directions. Not even 15 minutes after we arrived, an elephant wandered onto the campground and starting drinking from a huge water tank, allowing for some alarmingly close photo opps.
We woke up early the next morning and headed into the crater, which used to be a huge volcano that collapsed an estimated two to three million years ago, leaving a 20-km wide caldera that is now filled with wide, flat grasslands, some forest areas, and a few lakes. This area was my favorite of the three parks we visited. The greenness and sheer numbers of all different kinds of animals--countless gazelles, impalas, zebra, wildebeest, elephants, lions, warthogs, flamingoes, an even a black rhino in the distance--all sharing the same plains and lakes leaves a visitor with an almost fairy tale-like impression. I will also never forget pulling up to a crowd of jeeps surrounding eight lions, some of whom had taken the liberty to lay in the shade just under the cars and right under our noses!
Some of my favorite memories of the four days we spent wildlife viewing are not just the close-up sightings and the time spent driving through some gorgeous landscapes with our heads popped out of the roof, but also the bonding and catching up with our friends who we hadn't seen in six months during these long days in the jeeps.