Ngorogoro to Shinyanga
The descent from Ngorogoro to the plains of the Serengeti was another day of mind blowing transformation. Coming down off the mountain, we were soon rolling through grass carpeted hills punctuated by small groups of the round mud huts that make up Masai villages. Their herds of cattle grazed nearby intermixed with zebras and wildebeests.
It was here that we encountered our second African traffic jam. We rounded a corner and had to punch the brakes to avoid making a mess of a Masai herder and his cows. We waited a few minutes for the cow crowd to disperse, tried to chat with their fearless leader (with very little success) and were soon on our way deeper into the rolling pastures.
About an hour later we were pretty sure that we were lost. The two track path that we had been following had ended, and there were slightly worn tire tracks headed off in a few directions from where we were. James suggested we backtrack to the last junction we saw and see what happened if we took the other road. I wanted to aim “toward those houses over there” and see how that went. His logic won out since there was no road, path, trail, or clear view to “that group of houses” which were not much more than a few mud huts.
So we found the trail we’d followed in, tracked back to the fork, and took the road less traveled. We soon found that this was very unlikely to be the right choice. There was a trail, or path of sorts, but it was mostly washed out ruts in the grass that wound between scrubby trees. We were basically following a trail that some cows likely forged a few days before and that the rain of the last couple of nights washed out to look like something we could follow.
Eventually we found a few helpful locals to get us on our way. Their English was just slightly better than my Masai. By that I mean together we had the 5 words we needed in order to find ourselves – “Ngorogoro”, “Shinyanga”, “Serengeti”, “Yes”, & “No”. First we had two ladies offer directions.
Dave - “Hello. How are you? I hope you can help. We are trying to get to Serengeti.”
Masai Ladies - “Serengeti?”
Dave - “Yes”
Masai Ladies - “Ngorogoro?” Dave - “No… Serengeti.”
Masai Ladies - “Serengeti”
Dave - “Yes”
Masai Ladies - Emphatic pointing back to where we just came from.
Dave - “That way?” Masai Ladies - “Serengeti” Dave - “Serengeti that way?”
Masai Ladies - “Serengeti”
Dave - “OK. Thank you”
James – “We’re screwed”
Just as we’re about to turn around and head back to where we came from a Masai man comes running up from the glen below us.
Masai Guy – Pointing where we are still aimed “No”
Dave – “Thank you. Serengeti?”
Masai Guy – Points off into the field
Dave – Pointing “Serengeti?”
Masai Guy – Shakes Head “No” Points back to where we came from
Dave – Pointing back to where we came from – “Serengeti?”
Masai Guy - “No. Ngorogoro”
Dave – “We need to get to Shinyanga in Serengeti.”
Masai Guy – “Shinyanga?”
Dave – “Yes. Shinyanga.”
Masai Guy – Big Smile.
Masai Guy – Crazy series of hand jestures, pantomime, and noises guiding us back the way we came, back to the other side of the fork in the road, over a hill, off to the right.
Dave – Tries to repeat the 3 act play of pantomime directions and adds the little group of houses at the end.
Masai Guy – “No” Repeats entire set of directions, points one way pantomimes the houses, then points the other way emphatically.
Dave – “Awesome. Got it.” Pantomimes the entire set of directions back complete with rolling hills and sweeping turns. Masai Guy – Big Smile. “Shinyaga”
James – “Yep. We’re definitely screwed.
So we accepted the seemingly condescending round of applause from our Masai friends for turning the truck around without getting stuck and headed back the way we came, switched back at the fork in the road, and ended up at the exact same spot where we knew we were lost.
At this point we’re supposed to turn right, but there is definitely no option to go right. So we go left, and then take another trail about 45 degrees off of that one, and then another. All lead to absolute and undeniable dead ends. So we went back to that same spot at the edge of lost where we had spoked out from and just went right across an open field roughly in the direction that kind Masai man had indicated. No trail, no hint of a trail, just hoping to God that we were going the right way. At this point we’re still a couple of hundred miles from where we’re going, and just aiming the truck across Africa.
About half a mile later we see the first hints of a trail… Then 2 tire tracks in the grass. Then cresting a small hill and running up from our right, our Masai friend who had apparently hauled ass across the pastures while we drove around to make sure that we were going the right way. He pointed us down the path with his big smile and waved us off on our way as we headed off into the unknown.
I could tell you that this “road” improved, but I would be lying to you. It remained an elusive path for most of the time we were on it. But every once in a while, for a few kilometers it would turn into something resembling a dirt road just long enough for us to have confidence that we were going the right way.
And then we descended out of the hills and on to the plains of the Serengeti. Holy shit! I cannot even begin to explain what it feels like to be driving down into the middle of the Great Migration. There were tens of thousands of wildebeests and zebras EVERYWHERE. And a little dirt trail weaving through them. Of course, the zebras and wildebeests didn’t acknowledge the road, so they were trotting alongside us, munching grass next to us, lying down in front of us, and generally treating our dusty brown Land Cruiser like another member of the herd just trying to get from one place to another.
We drove on through the herds for hours. Sometimes it would thin out to a few hundred animals around us. But at other times it seemed like there environment was more wildebeest than air. You could smell the musky scent of them. Hear their husky breathing, at times feel the beat of their hooves on the road as one challenged another to a quick scuffle. We weren’t watching the Great Migration, we were participating in it.
From time to time the impact of all of those hooves on the path we were following meant that the path went away. We would have to just aim the truck toward the same mountain in the distance that we had been approaching and hope that we’d pick up the road again… which we did. Or at least we picked up a road. And it got us to where we wanted to go… eventually.
First we had to pass through one more shift of ecosystem. I guess you’d call it Savannah scrubland. We were kind of in the woods, but the trees were very scraggly, pretty spaced out, and only about 30 feet tall for the most part, and there were still zebras and wildebeests everywhere as we wound our way through. Hundreds of them. Everywhere. And then it was just us for a while. No wildebeests. No zebras. Just 2 guys in a truck in the woods. And a cheetah. Yeah. A cheetah. Just sitting there on the side of the “road” under a tree. Chillin’. Like she was waiting for us to cruise by and tell her that half a mile back there were more wildebeests than she could eat in a million years. As we pulled up next to her, she wandered over to a nearby tree, stretched out by clawing her way up onto the tree, yawned a couple of times (the photos will tell you she roared), and sauntered off in the direction of the ungulate buffet up the road.
So now we knew we were on the right road. All of the chaos from earlier had led us right to this cheetah. To this magical moment. If we hadn’t been there, who would’ve appreciated how beautiful this cat and its movements were? If we had taken the paved road around the wilderness, would we have felt as immersed in the experience? Would we have felt like participants rather than observers. Out here we were part of the ecosystem. And in the back of our minds we knew that we were also just one mechanical issue away from joining the food chain – in the middle!
When we arrived at the safari lodge that afternoon I was whooped. I was probably asleep within 10 mintues of checking in to our cabin. I awoke to the sound of thunder, and just as I was headed outside to stroll over to the reception building to grab a beer and watch the storm, the sky just opened up and dumped dime sized hail. Well, nobody ever said that Africa was predictable.
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