Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This one time, in the Serengeti

I arrived in the Dar es Salaam airport and tried to find the visa line. Eastern Africans que much like Indians, which is to say not at all. A uniformed man with a gun on his hip randomly takes passports, completed visa forms and entrance fees from new arrivals and throws them in a basket. I finally got my turn and he looked at the fifty dollar bill and said, 'One hundred dollars.' I pointed to the sign on the wall and said that I didn't need multiple entries so it should only be fifty dollars. He said, 'One hundred dollars.'

I checked out the duty-free shop and spied 'Brut-Alaska' cologne. I took a sniff. They got it wrong.

My flight to Kilimanjaro wasn't on the departure board. A voice behind me asked if I was going to Zanzibar. 'Not this trip,' I said as I turned around. The Belgian informed me that her flight also wasn't listed and that she had inquired to be informed that, 'That man who does the board is on leave.' 'Sounds about right,' says I.

She had just come off the mountain. We split a beer, the big one cuz big or little it'll run ya 4000 shillings. The Belgian nurse was very jealous that my family would be meeting me in Arusha. Her family refuses to leave Europe so she travels on her own. Even though it wasn't on the schedule, her plane boarded on time, as did mine.

The 'rents and my sis/hubby got to Arusha a few hours after me. We hugged it out and I told them that we would get breakfast at 0600, the transfer to the airport at 0700. Fast forward to the next morning. Six a.m. and the driver shows up and says we gots to get. We rush to the airport sans brekkie, wait for the pilot to pitch, get dropped off at an airstrip in the southern part of the Serengeti with no one waiting to pick us up. So far, so African.

And so was the bush. Eastern Africa has game densities that are hard to conceptualize. The plains stretch away for miles and are filled with wildebeest and zebras and gazelles and the things that eat them. We found a cheetah with five cubs less than an hour into the game drive that began from the airstrip when people showed to pick us up. From there it was on to lions from three meters away. Super fun to watch my family experience that for the first time.

The whole Tanzanian portion of my leave was wonderful. It's been way too long since I've spent more than a long weekend with my family and the most time I've spent with the newest member, my sister's husband Pete. She chose wisely.

Pete and I had what must be the best beer and potato chip episode ever. We kicked it while the African wild dogs slept off breakfast. Not sure why the name was changed from 'Painted dogs,' not ferocious enough, I reckon. Anyway, the dogs were sleeping and I suggested that we just hang and wait. By that time we had seen approximately 17 bazillion wildebeest and seeing as wild dogs are the most endangered predator on the continent and a pack of 13 needs to eat a baby wildebeest for breakfast, skip lunch and have a sensible (baby wildebeest) dinner, and they don't hunt at night, I reckoned we'd get to see another kill if we were just patient.

Two Kilimajaros (the beer, not the mountain) later, the hungriest dog woke up. The social structure of the dogs demands that the one whose stomach is growling initiate a play session with the pack to entice them to hunt. After the session, the dogs trotted off and we followed.

It didn't take too long to get a mother and baby separated from a group. Dogs have a reputation as violent killers because they eviscerate the victim by pulling the guts out and beginning to eat while the animal is still alive. The kill looks violent but in some respects is better than the way the cats and hyenas do it.

Dogs can't choke their victims because their jaws are so small. Ripping the guts is painful but quick. You'd be hard-pressed to identify the species two minutes after the first bite. Lions sometimes take twenty minutes to fully choke an animal. If you're gonna die anyway, you'd probably choose two minutes over twenty, wouldn't you?

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