Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bunny Chow?

On the eve of the first day of my vacation, I learned that my holiday break had been extended nearly 2 weeks, so on a whim I booked a flight to Cape Town using airline miles, found an extremely cheap hotel in an amazing central location, and began planning a fourth leg to my trip.  My sister-in-laws headed home after our gorilla trekking adventure in Uganda, and I headed almost due South to a place I had always dreamed of visiting - Cape Town. 
As my driver navigated the route from the airport into the city-center where my hotel was located, the city unfolded in front of me and reminded me a bit of San Francisco.  The hills weren’t nearly as steep and the spaces weren’t nearly as crowded, but it gave off the same initial impression.  Prior to arriving, I had planned a rough outline of sights I wanted to see and activities I wanted to do for each of my 10 days in Cape Town.  I had arrived and yet another adventure had begun!
One thing that caught me a bit off-guard was how cold it was in Cape Town.  I knew that winter was coming to a close in the Southern Hemisphere, but I have been spoiled in Rwanda where our low “winter” temperature each night hovers around 62F.  I layered myself up like I was going to play in the snow with at least 4 layers each day before heading out to explore.  Side note: I don’t even want to think about what it will be like arriving back in the States in the beginning of winter! 
I have heard many things about Cape Town, but knew very little prior to researching it and planning my days.  Like most cities around the world, there is a lot to see and do, and over the course of 10 days, I nearly saw and did it all.  I won’t bore you with too many details, but instead I will highlight my favorite pieces and note some interesting observations that I made.

Cape Point
  • Point of Good Hope and Cape Point – Located roughly 50km South of Cape Town is the Cape of Good Hope.  There is a false impression that this piece of land is the most southern tip of Africa because it was once believed to be the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  Although the Cape of Good Hope is not the most southern tip of the continent, it marks the point where ships begin to travel more eastward than southward when at sea.  Located about 2.3km East and a little North of the Cape of Good Hope lies the peninsula of Cape Point.  There is a major peak that dominates the skyline locally but there is also a smaller peak about 100m further south.  Atop each of the peaks stand lighthouses.  The higher, old lighthouse was replaced by the newer, lower lighthouse for two reasons - the old lighthouse could be seen 'too early' by ships rounding the point towards the east, causing them to approach too closely, and more importantly foggy conditions often persist at the higher level, making the older lighthouse invisible to shipping, and thus ineffective.

  • Greenmarket Square – Just a block and a half from my hotel was one of the city’s oldest open-air markets, set on a cobbled square.  Individual vendors, numbering near 100 in total sell clothing, jewelry, local art and every imaginable nick-knack from nearly every country in Africa.  A wonderful and  somewhat chaotic, frantic buzz filled the air each and every day.  Each seller was seemingly offering every touristy-looking person a “very special price.” I loved the energy of the place and often found myself walking through the stalls on many afternoons, not looking for anything in particular, but just enjoying the sights and sounds. 
a view inside the busy Biscuit Mill Saturday market
  • Old Biscuit Mill Market – There is a market every Saturday at this converted Biscuit Mill, which now houses unique artisan stores and restaurants.  On Saturdays, tents are erected to expand the space offered by a limited permanent structure and local food craftsmen set up stands along the walls and down a central aisle to serve the local clientele.  There is communal seating via picnic tables down the center and on bales of hay and benches surrounding squares of artificial grass.  The selection of food was immense and varied – Taiwanese, French, Italian, Mediterranean, cheese, dried meat, crepes, pizza, bagels with lox, pastas, spreads and pesto, smoothies, coffee, chocolates, ice cream... – I must have circled the market four or five times before deciding on what I would eat.  There were also fresh fruits, veggies, and flowers for sale, in addition to an area that housed a “trunk sale” of sorts with clothing, leather goods, and shoes. 
    heading up Table Mountain
  • Table Mountain – It seems that no matter where you are in Cape Town, you can always see the magnificent Table Mountain.  I spent a morning on the Mountain and was “lucky” enough to have chosen a day when there was what is locally referred to as a “table cloth” over the top of the mountain.  It was encased in a thick cloud covering that was so dense that I could not see more than 6 feet in front of me when I arrived at the summit!  After getting over my feeling of claustrophobia, I began to embrace the cloud cover and found the setting to be both serene and a bit enchanting.  I was lucky enough to be the only person interested in a guided tour, so I got a personal tour of the top of the mountain with an eccentric, somewhat creepy, yet highly informative guide.  I couldn’t help but think about my brother as the guide made one geologic reference after another and came across to me as a geologist want-to-be.  I
    above the clouds on Table Mountain
    spent two hours on the guided tour, covering a few kilometers of trail.  Over time, the table cloth cloud covering changed shape and density.  There were moments when it seemed as if I was floating above the clouds, existing in a dreamlike and fantastic world, but then within minutes I was snapped back into reality as the weather changed at the drop of a hat and in one instant it was blazingly hot with the sun beating down, and in the next instant, a blustery wind blew through and I was wishing I had a parka.  It was phenomenal and bizarre. 
    a view from atop Table Mountain after the table cloth cleared
  • Township – I had the opportunity to tour a local township called Imizamo Yethu, located in the greater Hout Bay Valley area. The 18-hectare settlement houses approximately 34,000 people with little or no infrastructure for sustainable living. The settlement has dismal water facilities with no indoor plumbing or sewage system and very few communal toilets, each shared by 5-10 households of 4-8 people.  There is a local river that runs through the settlement and reportedly has the highest level of e-coli bacteria that has ever been recorded in South Africa.  To me the living conditions were abominable, yet the residents came across as being resilient and cheery.  I spent about 90 minutes in the Township and couldn’t help but think about the kids in my Village in Rwanda who come from similar settings.  It seemed however (and I was later told that my thoughts were correct) that the most underprivileged and poverty-stricken people in Rwanda are better off than the poor people in South Africa.  The township embodied a level of poverty that was beyond belief. 
  • Botanical Gardens – Flower gardens have always made me feel relaxed and comfortable.  Although the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens were not in full-bloom because of the time of year, the grounds were still captivating.  Did you know that there is a Bird of Paradise flower that was created to honor former President Nelson Mandela?  
  • Winery – Similarly to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, you cannot visit South Africa and NOT go to a winery.  If I were to sum up my visit to Groot Constantia winery in one word, I would choose: lovely.  The restaurant was pleasant, the grounds were open for visitors to walk around at their leisure, and the cellar tour and wine tasting was delectable! I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc, a Blanc de Noir, a Shiraz, the Gouvernerurs Reserve, and a Cape Ruby (Port).  Which was my favorite?  All of them. 
  • Eastern Food Bazaar – Located 20 steps away from my hotel was the Eastern Food Bazaar, a food court-like establishment with 10 eateries over 80 menu items from which to choose.  It was a gem of a find!  The best part, aside from the scrumptious food was the fact that I never paid more than USD$5 for a complete meal (drink and gelato included!)  My favorites: Falafel and the local “street food” known as bunny chow which is a hollowed-out ½ loaf of bread, filled with a curry dish.  WOW!  My mouth is watering just writing about it :)
Having traveled quite extensively, I have found that my favorite and the most welcoming people reside in Scotland.  I have found the most spirited, cultural people in Tanzania, and I found South Africans to be some of my least favorite people I have crossed paths with during my travels.  It is just a personal point of view and I learned long ago that I do not have to like everyone and I do not have to try to win over the favor of everyone in a quest to have them like me.  People are who they are, and I found South Africans in Cape Town and the surrounding area to have a bit of an air about them as they often present themselves as elitist, superior to anyone and everyone.  Through many conversations I uncovered that they really don’t like anyone and seem to have an opinion on and criticism for every person from every place.  It was interesting in a sociological sort of way.  I especially found it interesting to see Cape Town-ians’ reactions when I told them that I was living in Rwanda.  Although just a few countries removed, everyone’s reaction made it seem as if Rwanda was an entire world away, filled with danger, risk, and untamed, uncultivated people.  They seemed somewhat perplexed and horrified as to why I had CHOSEN to live in Rwanda instead of say, staying within the boarders of “safe” America (although they had plenty of criticism about America too!).  I could have just let their comments be, as I have learned the value of biting my tongue since beginning this African journey, however I have also come to embrace Rwanda as my home and after the first few pitiless comments, I took it upon myself to inform and educate them about the Rwanda of today.  I did not lecture them or force my opinions on them, but rather update them on the vast developments that have happened in-country and the makeup of the population.   After some carefully selected commentary about Rwanda I slid in an extra statement of comparison.  I’ll just say that I did not win too many fans over when I told them outright that I feel safer at any hour of the day or night in Rwanda than I do in the middle of the day in Cape Town.  It was the truth, and if there is one thing I pride myself on, it is being brutally honest when I am trying to make a point.  Point made. 
The other surprise that Cape Town thrust upon me was the racially divided neighborhoods that are still very much a reality more than two decades after apartheid ended.  It is a piece of Cape Town that most tourists do not see, and most likely it is a part that they do not want to see.  I had the privilege of touring a “black” neighborhood (see township section above) that was just across the street from a much nicer “white” neighborhood and just down the block from the “colored” neighborhood that was not as pleasant as the white one, but a vast improvement over the black settlement.  The “color” classifications still exist and the differences between the communities are striking and somewhat horrifying in an appalling way.  At one point I just stood in the middle of the black neighborhood, staring at the communal 1-stall toilet as a troop of white girls belonging to the local equestrian club rode by on their horses.  I struggled trying to figure out how this separation and segregation was still in existence in a newly industrialized country in the year 2012.  I was dumbfounded and dismayed.

Was Cape Town everything I had hoped it would be?  That’s hard to say because I live in a seemingly perpetual state of not having expectations, so it is difficult to judge how something measures up against that which I don’t formulate.  It was spectacular in so many ways, and really educational and eye-opening.  I feel as though I see the world through a new set of eyes since living in Rwanda, and having this new perspective gives me the opportunity to open myself up to a new way of thinking, questioning, and evaluating that which I see and experience.  It was a great trip!

A few other favorite photos from South Africa:
inside The Great Synagogue
some of the colorful houses in Bo-Kaap
Hout Bay Harbor
a view from Chapmans Peak Drive

Sunday, September 16, 2012

the torture of trekking gorillas in Uganda

The third leg of my vacation took me to Uganda.  As soon as I saw the landscape from the airplane window, I felt a sense of familiarity, as Uganda’s topography is very similar to Rwanda, albeit a bit less hilly.  Kampala is like Kigali on steroids, and I got great enjoyment out of seeing it through the eyes of my sister-in-laws who seemed in awe of the number of people, the amount of traffic, and the level of chaos as we traveled through the city.  We spent three days total in Uganda, two days traveling from Kampala to the Southwest corner and back again (each ~12 hour trips) and one day with the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  The roads in Uganda are not kind, but I will say that they have the art of speed bumps perfected.  One bump is apparently not sufficient in Uganda so they have "quints" as we affectionately named them, which are 5 speed bumps in a row.  Yes, they make for a very unpleasant ride.  Not only do they have "quints," but there are sections of road that have speed bumps spaced every 25 meters or so!  It's over-the-top and absurd in so many ways.  
Our eco-lodge was magnificently placed one hour off the main road, through a series of switchbacks set into the side of the mountain, with sheer cliffs off to the one side and not a guardrail in sight.  It was clear to us why our driver wanted to arrive before dark and before any rain had a chance to fall.  The road was precarious at best and downright nauseating at other times.  It was quite magnificent!  (see photo above) Our lodging consisted of a permanent tent with three single beds, a nice wrap-around deck with chairs, and a lovely stone-encased bathroom.  Considering our beyond-remote location, we were pleasantly shocked to learn that not only did we have running water and electricity (provided from a generator), we had HOT water!  The entire facility was just darling and the staff made us feel most welcome and “at home.”  
 I have several friends who have done the gorilla trek in Rwanda and some were blown away by the experience and others felt luke-warm about it.  All of them considered it to be a rather easy hike, requiring minimal effort.  After my experience, I quickly decided that THAT describes Rwanda gorilla trekking and Uganda is NOT Rwanda.  To say that the experience was the most physically demanding endeavor I have ever put my body through is probably as accurate of a statement as I can make.  It was brutal at times and not overly enjoyable.  There were times when there was no path at all to follow, other times when the path was the width of my foot and a cliff fell off to the side, other areas that were wide open, and other times where the jungle was so dense that I could barely keep track of the people around me.  Some of the forest was welcoming and the underbrush was soft and bouncy, and some of the forest was not so hospitable and was filled with spiky trees, thorns that seemingly reached out and grabbed my arms and legs, slippery moss, hidden booby-trap holes (that I fell into more than once) and bugs that swarmed around each of our heads in what can only be described as a brutal effort to suffocate us or drive us crazy at the very least. 
a view of an entrance into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Three hours into the hike, I honestly thought to myself that NOTHING could make the trek worthwhile, and I am still considering whether or not that was a true statement.  The jury is still out.  When we finally approached the family we were tracking, we saw the giant silverback.  He was 200kg+ and is the largest of all of the silverbacks in Uganda.  I have to say that the encounter was surreal and captivating.  As we watched him, he watched us and for a while I got lost in the moment.  We spent most our allotted hour with him (each tracking group only gets 1 hour with a gorilla family, so as not to intrude in their world too much), and spent just a few minutes with other members of his family – a young toddler who was very playful, and a female.  Our guide said that it was not a great encounter because of the dense vegetation, but I thought it was spectacular that we got to see a silverback! 
an "after-the-trek" photo op
After our time with the gorillas, we had a quick picnic lunch and then began the equally long and arduous trek back to where we began the journey.  I honestly did not know whether to cry or collapse when we finished – I was elated, and somewhat dazed. But we made it!  We each got gorilla trekking certificates for our accomplishment, and were congratulated for conquering the task-at-hand and not being conquered by it.  I wasn’t sure whether I had really dominated anything, but at least I finished and was still smiling.  I rewarded myself with a 90-minute massage back at the eco-lodge, and although it was a bit unconventional, it was absolutely glorious after battering and abusing my body all day on the hike (AND it only cost USD$15!)  
After a 12-hour drive back to the airport in Entebbe, my sister-in-laws and I realized that after three very different voyages spanning the mainland of Tanzania as well as the island of Zanzibar, and then ultimately Uganda, it was time to say goodbye.  They were headed back to the USA and I was headed to South Africa for the final 10 days of my vacation.  It was exceptional to share Africa with my sister-in-laws and have them experience a piece of my world.  Our time together was extraordinary and I will forever cherish the memories in my heart. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

I'll take a dala dala and some spices, please

Zanzibar is seemingly where the Arab world meets India and collides with sub-Saharan Africa.  It is unlike anywhere I have ever been, and spectacular in so many ways. Zanzibar is located in the Indian Ocean, 6° south of the equator and 36 km from the Tanzanian mainland coast. It is 108 km long and 32 km wide, with an area of 2,461 km2 (950 sq mi).  Zanzibar is characterized by beautiful sandy beaches with fringing coral reefs, and the magic of historic Stone Town – said to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa.  Several years ago, a friend of mine told me that Zanzibar was his "favorite place in the world."  I honestly had never given the island much thought before then, but it was on my must-visit list when I moved to Rwanda, 9 months ago today.  
Going from being within arm's reach of a lion several hours before, to the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar made it seem like I had been transported to another world when I arrived early in the evening.  I was still wearing the dust of the Serengeti when I landed, and I felt like I had arrived on the set of Aladdin and was instantly infused with wonder, delight, and pure excitement! 
The first full-day was spent getting lost in Stone Town (literally and figuratively).  Once I ventured off of the main roads, a maze-like series of narrow alleys exploded in front of me.  Although at times it felt a bit claustrophobic, it was sort of enchanting.  The alleys were lined with store after store, filled with African crafts, spices, fabrics, and food.  It was such a lovely escape, and there were times when I felt like I had tripped down Alice's rabbit hole because it seemed so other-worldly.  

My sister-in-laws and I chose two excursions to go on while in Zanzibar - a Spice Tour, and a snorkeling trip near Prison Island.  After breakfast in our boutique hotel's rooftop cafe (we found that most cafes and restaurants in Stone Town were located on the roofs of buildings), we headed about thirty minutes away from Stone Town to a spice farm.  We really had no idea what we were in for, but it turned out to be exceptional!  During the tour we put our senses to work while we saw, touched, tasted, and smelled a variety of nature's finest - a teak forest, a mahogany forest, pineapple plants, banana trees (see banana fruit photo to the left), peppercorn plants (5 colors), lemongrass, cinnamon, coconuts, star fruit, lychee, coffee, turmeric, breadfruit, jack fruit, oranges, cloves, ginger, nutmeg (see photo of the red nutmeg nut to the left, above the banana fruit), cardamon, cocoa pods, chili peppers, vanilla beans, annoto (a red seed that makes dyes for cosmetics - photo above, to the right), curry, ylang flowers, and much more. It was incredible!  Throughout the tour of the farm, three local men made palm frond bracelets, rings, necklaces, and glasses for us to wear, as well as a little container to hold all of our spice samples.  They were charming and so creative with the natural fibers and materials at their disposal.  To be honest, the spice tour was quite fascinating and much more enjoyale and captivating than I could have ever imagined.  
After the tour, we had a traditional Zanzabarian lunch underneath a traditional African thatched hut - pilau rice with steamed spinach and coconut sauce, infused with spices and vegetables.  It was prepared for us by the locals and was absolutely delicious (and perfectly seasoned!)
Our return trip to Stone Town contained a bit of excitement as we boarded a dala dala bus with the locals  (see photo to the right).  
 Our second excursion had us boarding a local's boat and venturing out into the Indian Ocean to a coral reef just off the coast of Prison Island (also known as Changuu or Quarantine Island) which is 3.5 miles north-west of Stone Town. The island saw use as a prison for rebellious slaves in the 1860s and also functioned as a coral mine.  No prisoners were ever housed on the island and instead it became a quarantine station for yellow fever cases. More recently the island has become a government-owned tourist resort and houses over 100 endangered Aldabra Giant Tortoises which were originally a gift from the British governor of the Seychelles in 1919.  After enduring the sun and heat out on the spice tour, I was eager to jump into the Indian Ocean for a bit of snorkeling.  There weren't as many fish as I had hoped for, but I saw a few small schools and plenty of starfish and urchins.  The sea was the most beautiful color imaginable with its turquoise color accentuated by the white-washed buildings along the coast of Stone Town.  After some fun in the water, we toured the Tortoise Sanctuary and I even got to hold one of the endangered creatures!  (somehow I don't think that would have been permitted in the USA)
My trip to Zanzibar came to a close with a perfect dinner on the beach, looking out at the Indian Ocean as the sun set, with drinks in hand, laughter in the air, and a sense of excitement as my sister-in-laws and I looked forward to taking off on our third leg of the trip - Uganda and the gorillas!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lions, Zebras, and Cheetahs - OH MY!


Everyone needs a reprieve from the daily grind, and that goes for those of us in fellowship and volunteer programs as well.  To the outside world, some view my year in Rwanda as an adjournment from life, when in fact it’s more of an alternate route that I have chosen to take in lieu of continuing on in the same direction I was headed prior to moving here.  My year in Rwanda is not a year of vacation, relaxation and rest.  In the second term alone, I was responsible for overseeing 97 overnight guests and over 73 day visitors in the Village.  One group of visitors blended into the next, and by the end of the term, I felt utterly drained and a bit ragged.   6 weeks of vacation was a welcome antidote.  Some people only dream of having that much time off, and here it is part of my reality living in Rwanda.  The term break between the 2nd and 3rd final term of the school year began on 21st July, affording me the opportunity to see and do the three things I wanted to experience when I first moved to Rwanda – trekking with the gorillas, exploring Zanzibar, and visiting Cape Town.  Along with those adventures, I also had the opportunity to go on my second Tanzanian safari with two of the best travel companions – 2 of my sister-in-laws (who also trekked with me and explored Zanzibar).  Before I get too far ahead of myself, allow me to jump back to the first two weeks of vacation, which I spent in the Village. This quiet “down time” permitted me to get my room and house in order, relax, think, meditate, and spend time with the few students who remained in the Village. The Senior 6 (4th year) students were in the Village studying for the upcoming National Exam (somewhat the equivalent of the SATs in America), Senior 5 (3rd year) students were also in the Village, and 25 Enrichment Year (1st year) students were in the Village working with the International Theatre and Literacy Program from NYC.  Each afternoon I attended rehearsals with the aforementioned theatre students, which took me back to the days when I performed on stage.  To see the magic of theatre manifest itself in and take hold of the students was just enchanting!  So many of the first year students are still a bit reclusive and withdrawn, but leave it to the stage to encourage and allow them to emerge from their cocoons and experience the joy of expression!  After untold hours of rehearsal, they would leave energized, animated, and full of life – it was magnificent to see.  In the end, after 2 weeks of work, a drama was scripted, roles were developed, the staging was set, and the students performed their dramatic play.  It was a brilliant piece of art and I sat in the audience looking at all of the kids as if each of them were my own brothers and sisters.  I know the kind of therapeutic magic theatre and acting did for me through my many years on stage, but to witness it from a different perspective was absolutely lovely and profound.

To prevent this from being the longest blog entry on record, I am going to break the remaining 4 weeks of my vacation time traveling into several entries, each describing a different leg of my journey.   

First up – the Tanzanian safari!    

Nearly two years ago to the date, I was afforded the opportunity to go on safari with an amazing group of friends, who are more like family to me than acquaintances.  We spent nearly two weeks on a Tauck Bridges safari, which is a “glamping” (or glamorous camping) safari, spending nights in exquisite lodges.  This time, my sister-in-laws and I decided to “rough it” a bit and opted to camp - in tents - with wild animals all around us - and squatty potty toilets (holes in the ground).  There was nothing glamorous about any aspect of our trip, but it was extraordinary! Two years after I fell in love with Tanzania, I was back.  I had dreamed for so long to go on an African safari, and now in the span of just over two years, I have gone on two safaris.  That is truly remarkable and fills me with awe!

Day 1 – My sister-in-laws flew from America and met me at the Kilimanjaro airport in Arusha, Tanzania.  I had not seen either of them since Thanksgiving, so tears flooded my eyes as soon as I got a glimpse of them in the baggage claim area.  A sudden rush of sadness hit me though, realizing for the first time that had my brother Kurt been alive, he very likely would have been accompanying them and going on this adventure with us.  Family has become everything to me since my brother’s death, so having two of my sister-in-laws travel literally around the world to see me meant more than the world to me.  I don’t have the words to describe my gratitude.  

Day 2 – We met our driver Moses and personal cook for the safari (nicknamed rabbit) and traveled to Tarangire National Park, which occupies an area 2850km2, making it the 5th largest park in Tanzania.  It is best known for its many elephants and magnificent Baobab trees.  After setting up camp, we went for a late afternoon game drive and hit the jackpot – we saw water bucks, buffalo, a cheetah and her baby eating a gazelle, zebra, lions, impala, elephants, monkeys (including one that nearly climbed inside our vehicle!), a dik dik, a jackal, and numerous birds.  What a great way to christen our safari!  It was so incredible to be back and feel such love for Tanzania – the country makes me feel something very special, unlike anywhere else I have discovered.  There is such a sense of serenity that I need to bottle and take with me everywhere I go.  

Day 3 -  We saw hippos (see photo to the left), hartebeest, giraffe, antelopes, topi, gazelles, more lions, and a warthog today, even with spending much of the day driving from Tarangire into Ngorongoro conservation area, around the top edge of the caldera (see photo below, to the left), and into the Serengeti.  It was a long, dusty, and bumpy ride, but the scenery was just breath-taking.  On our way, we stopped at a Maasai Village where we were greeted with a traditional welcome dance.  The three of us joined in the fun and wore traditional beaded necklaces while we jumped up and down and did a dance with the locals (see photo below, to the right).  The day was filled (for me) with two extraordinary sights.  The first being the “white faced” Maasai, which I hadn’t seen on my last trip to Tanzania.  I was told that every three years, young Maasai men go on a three month journey where they venture away from their Villages and live in the bush.  They must do it before they turn 18, so their ages vary.  During this journey, they dress in black (a stark contrast to their usual bluish purple and red Maasai attire), and adorn their faces in decorative and ornate patterns of white paint.  It is during this time that their bodies recover from a recent circumcision, and when they return to their Villages, they are deemed a “man” and are given a spear and are allowed to begin courting females.  At first site, their appearance is a bit ghoulish, yet fantastic and mesmerizing.  The second extraordinary sight of the day was seeing 5 lionesses laying out, lounging in the afternoon sun as we drove into Serengeti National Park!  It was glorious!
Day 4 – Today’s close encounter was with a leopard!  Leopards are such magnificent creatures, elusive and stealthy and absolutely beautiful!  After that sighting, we saw 2 cheetahs perched atop a mound, almost posing for the cameras (see photo to the left).  We also saw a serval, a hyrax, baboons, blue-balled monkeys (yes, they have fluorescent blue balls), vultures, the infamous Tanzanian love birds (see photo below), warthogs, and hippos galore at the hippo pond.  The noises and sights on safari are truly exceptional.  It is such a remarkable place and I found myself smiling just from looking around at the landscape.  We returned to camp just as the majestic sun set over the Serengeti, and I snapped one of my all-time favorite photos of buffalo grazing (see photo at the beginning of this post).  
Day 5 – We saw 17 lions on our early morning game drive!  A pride of 7 females crossed our path two times, literally walking within a car’s length of our vehicle (see photo to the right and watch the video below).   They were returning from a kill and were smeared with blood, which stained the fur around their noses and mouths and on their paws.  What a spectacle and glimpse of the rawness of nature!  After all that excitement, we returned to camp, had brunch, and headed back to Ngorongoro. 

When we arrived at our campsite later in the day, my breath was stolen from me for a moment – the setting was brilliant, perched atop the ridge, overlooking the caldera below (see photo below).  It was absolutely wild, in fact I had to walk through a herd of grazing zebras on my way to the bathroom!   
Day 6 – Between the seemingly sub-zero temperatures that made me shiver all night long, and the WHOOOOP calls of the nearby hyenas, I did not sleep well, but that didn’t put a damper on our last day of safari – inside the Ngorongoro Caldera.  We finally saw the big daddy lion, with its untamed mane blowing in the gentle breeze (see photo to the left).  We found him with is “lady” at the end of their mating cycle.  Lions mate every 15 minutes or so for 7 continuous days, once or twice a year, so you can only imagine how exhausted the female lion looked when we found her.  A bit further along the path, we joined dozens of other safari cars and could barely make out in the distance one of the 26 remaining black rhinos in the caldera.  Further along the road, we came to a screeching halt because right next to the road, literally within arm’s reach lay a lioness, just relaxing as if she didn’t have a care in the world.  If I had stepped out of the vehicle, I would have stepped on her – that’s how close she was to us!  Just beyond her was one of my favorite sights of the trip – a lion in a tree! (see photo to the right) What a stunning and exhilarating way to finish off our safari!   

As our airplane taxied down the runway, Mt. Kilimanjaro came out from hiding behind the clouds (a rare occurrence during this time of year).  What a spectacular sight to see out of the airplane window as we took off for our next leg – Zanzibar!