Saturday, January 21, 2012

Camping Under Serengeti Stars

If Ngorongoro was a bowl filled to the brim with wildlife, the Serengeti is an immense pantry with the greatest assortment of flavors, but only for those who know where to look.

The grasses in the Great Plains stand five feet tall in some places, providing the perfect shelter for grazing animals to hide from view. Compared to the other parks of Northern Tanzania, this made viewing the animals relatively difficult, resulting in only a few sightings per day rather than the near constant stimulation elsewhere.

Though animals are harder to spot, the sights to be seen in the Serengeti are not replicated anywhere else in the world. Sizable prides of lions rest effortlessly within the grasses, stomachs full from their plentiful selection of prey. A glance up at an Acacia may satisfy the onlooker with branches swaying from the weight of leopards. In one tree, I saw three, including a young cub. While books claim Lake Manyara National Park is the only place in the world for spotting tree-climbing lions, I had the fortune of witnessing this rare site in a lone tree of the vast Serengeti plain.

I’ve never been so excited to sleep as I was at the prospect of camping in the Serengeti. Using a new tent with entirely translucent walls, I was prepared for exciting nights of stargazing and animal watching. At one campsite, dusk brought a herd of running giraffes through the camp. At another, elephants drank from the waterspout at dawn.

I imagined the night like a childhood slumber party: giddy with anticipation for what surprises my sleep-mates might share. I went to rest beneath the brilliant starry sky, and drifted off to the lullaby of buzzing insects and the faint sound of nocturnal animals in the distance. After long days of game driving, I have never slept so well, at peace in the middle of the wild Serengeti.

The Bowl of the Earth: Ngorongoro Crater

Imagine a massive bowl created to preserve all of nature’s precious beauty with inescapable ceramic curves to keep intruders out and protect the prized contents.

Ngorongoro Crater is such a place, both a geological and natural wonder. About 2.5 million years ago, a volcano taller than Mount Kilimanjaro erupted, causing the top of the mountain to collapse inwards. The lasting crater is the largest caldera in the world, surrounded by high mountainous walls serving as a natural enclosure for a rich diversity of wildlife.

The descent into the crater takes about an hour, winding down steep roads, first through rainforest, and then through large groves of flat acacia trees. Below, sprawling savanna grassland and alkaline lakes welcome a dense concentration of Africa’s most famous wildlife.

I arrived early in the morning, in time to witness a spectacular sight of migratory Abim stork taking flight from around a herd of zebra. The early morning soft blue haze created a silhouette backdrop for the storks circling above and the stately black and white zebra below.

I spotted seven lions during my stay in the crater, some languidly resting off in the distance, others pacing just outside our vehicle. The regal males with their crowning gold manes reflecting the afternoon light matched only the majesty of the lone elephant, wandering at a distance with a backdrop of verdant rainforest and dark black clouds gathering above.

Ngorongoro is nature’s diamond, a miraculous place deserving as much recognition as the vast Serengeti. In a relatively small land area of 100 square miles, viewers enjoy as many different types of animals as one could see in the world's best zoos.

"Zoo, zoo, zoo!" Lake Manyara National Park

Driving through the Tanzanian countryside on my way to Lake Manyara National Park, I remembered how my brother used to sit in the back seat of my family’s station wagon chanting “zoo, zoo, zoo,” as if it were his own calming mantra. The truth is, we both loved the zoo. My parents bought season passes each year which allowed us unlimited visits to the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. My grandparents, aunt, and uncle would all entertain our imaginations as we crawled through the plastic termite mounds, explored the canopy from the Skyfari, and insisted on taking the monorail several times around the simulated safari park.

As I prepared to enter my first real safari park in Northern Tanzania, I fondly reminisced, appreciating the care my family took to make my brother and me curious about the world surrounding us.

The “real deal” is even cooler than I imagined. Standing out of the popped-roof of the 4x4 safari vehicle, the wind blew through my hair, leaving a sweet fragrance like a bike ride through southern honeysuckle.

In only a few hours, I saw hippos, giraffes, a large herd of migrating wildebeest, warthogs, monkeys, zebras and baboons. The black mamba snake which crossed my path—one of the deadliest in the world, killing a human in only 15 minutes—tied with the adorable baby blue monkey for my favorite animals of the day.

Safaris bring even their oldest guests back to childhood, wide-eyed and in amazement of the world surrounding. At once, I was six again, climbing through those termite mounds, chanting “zoo, zoo, zoo” to the driver in front of me.

"I've been to the mountaintop:" Seeing Africa from it's Highest Point

In the miniature room of Kilimanjaro Backpacker’s Hotel, I unpacked and repacked my bag for the second time, cautiously accounting for each piece of climbing gear, knowing that missing only one could inhibit my ability to reach the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain safely.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the fourth tallest of the Seven Summits and the world’s highest freestanding mountain. At 5,895 meters (19,340 feet), glaciers make a permanent home and the thin air offers about one-third of the oxygen our bodies normally enjoy.

From Machame Gate, where my trek began, blue monkeys taunted tourists attempting to eat their last restaurant-prepared meal. I had been told I would be joining a group of five, and patiently waited until a minibus arrived and four men and a woman jumped out, belting a Polish drinking song with lyrics meaning “the party must go on.”

My expedition crew contained 23 people, with a ratio of 21 males to 2 females. The five Polish twenty-eight year olds were friends from business school, enjoying a trip around east Africa. Three had climbed in the Himalayas and one shared his plans of reaching the summit of Mt. Everest. Also joining us were two guides and a large team of 14 porters and assistants tasked with ensuring our safety and well-being.

Day one began with an easy trek through the forest, one of the five ecosystems the mountain boasts. On Day two, we continued, pole pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly) up the mountain, making easy progress on the 50mi trek to ensure acclimatization. By day three, many of my peers were showing signs of altitude sickness: headaches, nosebleeds, heavy breathing, and an inability to sleep soundly at night.

The fourth day began with what the guides call, “climbing the wall,” a near-vertical ascent that takes an hour and a half. The porters accomplish this while still balancing duffel bags filled with gear on their heads, a truly amazing feat.

After a quick lunch at 4,600 meters, the sleet began to fall and blow cold ice against my face. We had already been walking in clouds for hours, and ominous thunder claps could be heard in the distance. Nine hours of high-altitude, steep hiking would be followed by a two hour rest period before attempting a dawn summit.

At the 11pm preparation meeting, the rest of my team decided they would not summit that night. The weather, their health, and sheer exhaustion made the sunrise summit less than appealing. They would wait another day, and then decide whether or not to continue to the top.

Exhausted, too, from the long day of hiking and no sleep, I decided I still wanted to go for it. My guide and I set out at midnight, pole pole up the final ascent, a very steep 1,350 meters to the top. In the frigid night, the clouds had all disappeared, exposing a beautiful star-filled sky and city lights of Kenya and Tanzania many miles away. From the East, a thin layer of clouds shot heat lightening into the sky. While I was told it was -15 degrees that night on the mountain, below in the African savannah, it was dry season and people were sweating through sleep in 85 degree weather.

As I climbed higher and higher, I passed many faces I had seen in earlier days, some still smiling, many showing visible signs that this moment was one of the hardest of their lives. Some wobbled on their feet, drunk from the lack of O2. Others, could be heard vomiting behind rocks, while still others, literally crawled towards the top. My body ached all over, with muscles unable to replenish themselves with so little oxygen. Fortunately, I experienced no serious altitude sickness. By focusing on yoga breathing, slow and deep, I made it to the summit, about two hours before our expected arrival.

It was still dark when I reached the famed sign. I wanted to wait until sunrise, but the low temperatures, blowing wind, and thin air made it almost impossible. I waited as long as I could, taking in the beautiful views from the roof of Africa, and then began my descent as the sun peeked out from the clouds below.

The full descent is accomplished the 24 hours following a successful reach of the summit, resulting in extreme exhaustion. On top of it all, my crew ran out of food, so I am quite sure I have never been so physically depleted in my life.

Climbing a mountain like Kilimanjaro requires quite a bit of preparation, both physically and mentally. Over a year ago, I had written “climb a mountain taller than you thought you could” on my Embrace Life List, a list of goals and dreams I have written down to accomplish in my brother’s memory. It was with great joy, on the brink of tears, that I checked off number 17 from the top of the mountain and raised my handwritten sign in remembrance of my brother's spirit.