Serengeti

If I had to pick a favorite place in Tanzania, I’d say I didn’t want to, because the entire trip was so, so, so great. But if I absolutely, positively HAD to pick a favorite place, I’m going to have to say it was the Serengeti. The Serengeti was a bit of a surprise for me because its elevation is higher than I realized and it’s therefore not as oppressively hot as I thought it was going to be, and it was much greener than I thought it would be at the end of the dry season. Basically the Serengeti was even more awesome than I thought it was going to be. So was the place we stayed, but more on that in a moment. The Serengeti is also full of (big) cats so I have a ton of cat pictures! Okay, the Serengeti is pretty much the greatest place on this planet and I’d be perfectly happy to go spend the rest of my life there.

To get from the crater to the Serengeti, we had to hop on a tiny (you had to crawl to your seat) little plane and fly for about 45 minutes. The pilot purposely flew over the Great Migration (of zebras and wildebeests) before we landed and tipped the plane so we could see it:

We were met by our guide, Jairo, at the airport and he immediately whisked us off on a safari. But before I get to safari pictures, let me talk about where we stayed. Our itinerary said we’d be staying in a mobile tented camp, one that moves every couple of months to follow the migration. I’m sure that would have been cool and Mark was looking forward to “roughing it” in an even more rustic tent than the one we stayed in in Tarangire, but for some reason our itinerary was wrong and we were deposited at Lamai Serengeti, which is the GREATEST PLACE EVER. This was by far the best place I have stayed while traveling. The only bad thing I can think to say about it is that our 10th wedding anniversary (which we celebrated there) may have ALMOST been even more crazy-awesome than our actual wedding, and our wedding – which was held in a Scottish castle – was pretty damn amazing.

I guess the only other “bad” thing was the walk to our room was kind of long and steep:

But that’s only “bad” until you finally get to the room …

… and you realize you have complete and utter solitude. And then you walk in and see this:

This is about 2/3s of the bathroom. Yes the entire wall is a window and no, privacy was not a concern. No one can really access the area on that side of the building.

And then you walk out on the balcony and peer in:

And in the morning, the rising sun awakes you, filling your entire room from the wall of window, and you crawl out from between the mosquito netting and you retrieve the hot tea or coffee that’s been delivered to your door before you awoke, and you walk out on the balcony and watch the sun continue to rise. And you never want to leave, ever.

So yeah, I don’t know how or why we ended up there (Lamai is part of the same company as the nomad place I thought we were staying in, so it’s not THAT mysterious) but it was so very fortuitous. And the FOOD! Was so good! But I’m going to do a whole post on the whole food/vegan thing, so I’ll rhapsodize there soon.

At Lamai, we would wake up just in time to watch the sun rise, then immediately hustle off to safari. Unlike the other places we stayed where we had breakfast at the lodge before heading out, our guide packed a breakfast for us and we ate it out on the plains after driving for a while – Jairo would set up a table and put out a whole spread. It was really nice. Then we’d drive around some more then head back to Lamai for lunch. After lunch and maybe a quick swim in the pool, we’d do an afternoon drive until the sun set. Then it was time for drinks and dinner. Basically I have just described what I consider to be an absolutely perfect day, and we had three of them. :)

This is a picture of Lamai taken just after sunset as we were on our way back for dinner one night. I think the room that is closest in the foreground is Smucky and Olivia’s and ours is off-camera to the right. To the left in the mid-ground is the common area where meals were served.

To me the Serengeti looked like another planet. Another, really awesome planet. There were a lot of boulders in the areas we spent the most time (although the Serengeti is very vast and looks quite different in other areas), it’s just unlike any landscape we have at home:

Animals we saw included giraffes:

Klipspringers:

Warthogs:

Rock agama:

Cape buffalo:

Zebras:

Hyena:

Baboons:

AFRICAN DEATH STICK:

LIONS LIONS LIONS!! I have so many incredible lion pictures from the Serengeti I’m finding it really hard to restrain myself and not post all of them!!

Olivia needs to Photoshop the twigs out of this one for me (Photoshop is TOO HARD!) because they are very distracting but he’s SO CUTE I can’t delete the picture!

Oh my gosh I have so many! I can’t stop posting them! Just one more!

But wait, lions aren’t the only cat! Oh, no! Could there possibly be a better way to start your day than to engage in a staring contest with a LEOPARD???

She’s chasing an impala in this photo, hoping for breakfast:

Here is a different leopard in a tree!

I love you, leopard.

But what OTHER kinds of cats live in the Serengeti? CHEETAHS!!

Baby cheetah:

This was a funny incident from our final safari. We found this cheetah lounging about looking beautiful:

Then her cub saw some gazelles off in the distance and goaded her into chasing after them:

So she obligingly headed off in their direction, but then she hit a nice patch of dirt and just flopped down mid-stride and rolled around like a total goofball! IT WAS THE CUTEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN, EVER!

As you can tell, the cats were once again my absolute favorite and we saw a ton of them and I was pretty much the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, but what a lot of people go to the Serengeti hoping to see is the Great Migration. We were fortunate to witness a “crossing” – herds of wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River. Not everyone gets to see such an event – the manager at Lamai told me she’s lived there for 5 years and has still not managed to see one – so when Jairo spotted some wildebeests looking like they might take the plunge, from a good mile away at least (safari guides have AMAZING eyesight), he ROCKETED over to the river so we wouldn’t miss it.

What a spectacle! Why is it kind of a rare opportunity? Because even if you do manage to time your drive so that you encounter a herd at the right time, there’s no guarantee they’ll be brave enough to follow through. We later saw a “near-crossing” when a bunch of zebras tried to push each other into the water, but no one was brave enough to go first and they eventually retreated. It’s very dangerous for them to cross and many of them don’t make it. They either drown or are devoured by:

And yes, we saw a few crocs staring down the brave animals we saw crossing. I was very worried for them but all the animals I saw crossed successfully.

I’d better wrap it up here as that has been a LOT of pictures. Okay, ONE MORE, here is the last wildlife photo I had the opportunity to take on safari. It was just about time for that lazy guy to wake up and go hunting!

Next: exotic, spicy ZANZIBAR!

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Black Bean Stir Fry

Yeah, that’s right, I HAVE A RECIPE. It’s not the most exciting or innovative recipe in the world, but I figured it would help me ease back into actual food blogging at some point. :)

The secret ingredient in this dish is Chinese fermented black beans. You are supposed to rinse these before use but the brand I bought wasn’t too salty and I didn’t bother. I really simplified the preparation for this dish. As I had some cooked brown rice in the freezer, this meal took about 15 minutes to prepare, most of which was devoted to vegetable chopping.

Black Bean Stir Fry

12 oz seasoned baked tofu, chopped
1/2 small head savoy or Napa cabbage, cored and chopped into 1″ pieces
1 small head broccoli, chopped into florets
2 leaks, white parts only, cleaned and sliced
2 small carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 hot pepper, chopped
1 small can sliced water chestnuts
2 scallions, sliced
about 2 Tbsp Shaoxing wine or sherry

For the sauce:
3/4 cup vegetable broth or vegan “chicken” broth
3-4 Tbsp Chinese fermented black beans
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp black vinegar
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1-2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger

1 Tbsp corn starch whisked into 3 Tbsp water

Prep the tofu and all the vegetables and set aside. Stir in all of the rest of the sauce ingredients (except the cornstarch mixture). Heat a wok over high heat and add a little oil. Add the leaks and stir fry for a couple of minutes, then add each of the remaining vegetables, except the scallions, and the tofu a minute or two apart in order of their required cooking time, stir frying the entire time (for the ingredients above, I went in the following order: leeks, carrots, celery, pepper, broccoli, tofu, cabbage, water chestnuts). Use the wine or sherry to deglaze the wok, then pour in the sauce and toss. Lower the heat a bit and let the sauce cook for a minute or so, then pour the cornstarch mixture into the wok, stir, and cook for another minute or so until the sauce thickens.

Top with the sliced scallions. Serve with chili garlic sauce or Sriracha on the side.

Aaaaand back to non-food matters. I’ve been suffering from photography withdrawal since returning from Africa. Yes, this is somewhat due to the fact that I’m sad there are no non-zoo lions in Virginia, but it’s compounded by the fact that it’s winter. We had such a FABULOUS summer that I got VERY used to going to a park every single night after work, but not only is it cold this time of year, worse, it’s dark when I leave work, so parks are out. It’s very depressing. I decided that to motivate myself I would attempt a “365” photo project, which means that every day for the next 365 days I need to take and publish a photograph. What’s more, I decided my theme would be self-portraits. Upon reflection I realized that people may think I want to take “selfies”, but that’s the last thing I want to do. I kind of see “selfies” as something you take with your phone at arm’s length. I can’t think of any reason I would take a picture of myself with my phone. The reason I chose to concentrate of self-portraits is, however, possibly more sad than a desire to take a good “selfie”. The reason is I used to take a lot of pictures of friends and I like taking pictures of people. Maybe not as much as I like taking pictures of animals, but I like it. The fact is, though, that I don’t go out that much any more, and I don’t particularly want to, which means if I want to practice taking pictures of people, that leaves me or Mark, and there’s no way Mark will agree to be my model, so I’m left with myself. Which is actually kind of appropriate because although I DID go out a lot in high school when I was teaching myself photography, there were still a lot of times when I was home alone with no subjects to photograph so I’d take pictures of myself. Like this one, which I like because THERE’S AN AWESOME PICTURE OF TIGER BEHIND ME in our living room:

Or more ridiculously, this one wearing my dad’s suit – and apparently carrying the mail – for some unknown reason:

Okay, I also like to play dress-up.

I don’t know, we might be heading into selfie territory with this one:

Anyway, I’m REALLY unphotogenic, increasingly so the further I get from high school, so I’m hoping that over the course of the year I’ll come away with at least a couple of photos of myself that I don’t hate, either because I improve at taking them or I come to terms with my appearance. One of those things. Although I have absolutely no confidence I will actually keep this up for 365 days. I’m surprised I’ve done it for three, quite frankly. The only reason I’m mentioning it here is to make myself a little bit more accountable by actually confessing that I’m doing it. It will actually be much easier to keep up with in the spring and summer when I’m out hiking every night as I usually take my tripod with me and I can just hop in front of it for a shot or two. I have absolutely no idea how I will possibly manage to take a different photo of myself every single night of the long, cold, horrible winter. That will require a lot more creativity than I have. But here’s to trying!

I assure you I will VERY RARELY, if ever again, post any of these self-portraits here. This is supposed to be a food blog and most pictures of me will make you lose your appetite! But here was photo 1 of 365, taken while I was figuring out how to tether my DSLR to my laptop in Lightroom. Gomez thought he’d assist with that endeavor.

And today’s:

I’m kissing her little paw!

An outtake from today that shows Torticia, who NEVER looks bad in a picture, better:

I said I don’t take “selfies” (because I’m snobby and I take “self-portraits”), but that’s not entirely true. I can’t be trusted not to take pictures of myself with my underwater camera just because I CAN take pictures of myself underwater and I think that’s awesome. In the pool at the lodge in Zanzibar:

See what I said about being unphotogenic?!

Okay, NEXT, a request. So I’m going to apply for the Virginia Master Naturalist program this spring and although there aren’t really any previous education requirements, I feel like it would be a good idea to do some reading before classes begin in February. Anyone have any favorite books on natural history, biology, or the like? When I read science books, I usually read physics or neuroscience books, so it’s sort of a new field for me.

Next stop: SERENGETI!

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Ngorongoro Crater

After our very first day of safari, in Tarangire National Park, I thought to myself that if that had been the ONLY day I had been able to spend in Africa, it would have been worth all the expense, all the planning, all the flying, all the everything. It was THAT incredible. And then the second day was even better. And THEN we went to Ngorongoro Crater.

Ngorongoro Crater was created 2 to 3 million years ago when a volcano collapsed, forming the largest intact caldera on the planet. “Ngorongoro” is pronounced just as it’s spelled and according to our guide was named after the sound the bells around the necks of the Maasai’s cattle made as they walked down the crater walls. Driving from Tarangire, we stopped at a village for a cultural visit (where Mark decided he was moving to Africa to teach children) and some banana beer and banana wine, and then at an art shop, and finally at the crater rim.

I had never taken a panorama photo before but you really kind of have to; the crater is simply immense. This is 3 or 4 photos stitched together and if you click on it, you can see the bigger, better version.

One of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the entire world lives in this crater.

After spending a lot of time taking in the impressive view from the crater rim, we made our way to the lodge. There were random marabou storks roaming around the courtyard at all times at the lodge. Those things are HUGE. And kind of weird! “Yeah, I’m just walking to dinner and there’s a marabou stork 10 feet away; that’s totally normal.”

The next morning we descended to the crater floor. The drive down was beautiful – fog completely envelopes the crater.

Lots of ungulates in the crater. This is a Thompson’s gazelle, which you can identify by the black stripe on his side.

These are grand gazelles:

We saw two wildebeests fighting – very close to our car.

It’s probably an easy life for vultures in the crater!

I told you I loved it when ostriches cross roads; they seem to do it often:

Cape buffalo, with a bird flying by:

Hyena:

Hippos lounging:

Hippos sleeping in water with bird friends:

Another crazy African bird, the bustard:

But what was my favorite animal of the crater, you ask??? Need you really ask?

The lion population of the crater is actually pretty inbred because their numbers are dwindling, so I’m kind of concerned for their future. We saw some lionesses eating a gazelle or some other kill, then they collected their cubs, who were situated away from the kill, and led them to a stream.

They had to cross the road we were parked on to get to the stream; this they did RIGHT in front of us.

The cubs didn’t want to get their paws wet….sooooooo adorable!

After drinking for a bit, they crossed the road again to get back to their original spot. If I had thought it wise, I could have reached out of the car and scooped this cub up AND BELIEVE ME I THOUGHT ABOUT DOING IT.

(PS LOOK AT THOSE SPOTS!)

But I would have had to contend with a very angry mother.

And finally, the only thing we DIDN’T get a good opportunity to see on safari was a rhino. Sadly this is the only rhino we saw and he was VERY far away, so far away he’s little more than a rhino-shaped blob in this photo, and this was taken with a 600mm lens on a crop sensor camera. In a way, I guess it’s kind of poignant because it’s very likely that these animals will be extinct in our lifetime. One day soon all we may have of rhinos will be hazy memories. I wish I could express to you how much I hate poachers. It physically hurts me to have so much hatred inside me, but poaching is nothing short of pure evil.

I don’t want to leave you on a depressing note; it would be inappropriate because except for the times when I was contemplating my intense hatred of poachers, I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of this entire trip. So let’s end with more lion cubs, which are the cutest things on the planet and therefore the exact opposite of poachers.

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