Thursday, October 14, 2010


Our trip was amazing, and I could talk about it for quite a while. Here are some highlights of our five days. We were there from Saturday afternoon to Wednesday morning.

- Oldupai Gorge – We left early on Saturday morning, packing up all of our stuff into the land rovers and our giant covered truck that we call the White Rhino. Most of the drive to the Serengeti is through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and it was exciting and extremely bumpy to drive along dirt roads through beautiful hills and open plains in anticipation. On the way we stopped at Oldupai Gorge, which is a 30 mile long gorge that has been the site of tons of important discoveries of prehistoric artifacts and fossils. We heard a lecture in which there was an emphasis on how “Olduvai” was a mistake made by the German scientist who first wrote about the gorge and that we should help spread the true name, which comes from a Maasai name of a plant. We also heard about the Leakeys, who are famous for all of their discoveries and work in East Africa, saw cool fossils, and saw a reproduction of the Laetoli Footprints, found by Mary Leakey close to the gorge. We arrived at the Serengeti gate in the early afternoon and did a game drive in to our camp. On the way we saw a leopard (chui in Swahili) in a tree with its kill sitting on a nearby branch!
- So a major highlight of the trip was that we got to camp inside the park, and that meant that we had lots of wild visitors coming through our site. There are a bunch of both group and private sites within the park (which is 14,700 km2 in all) and none of the sites are fenced. We had a big campsite equipped with toilets and a covered building for food prep. We set up our tents in a circle, with students on the inside and staff surrounding us. There were two ascari (guards) who stayed up all night to chase away hyenas, etc. It was really cool to hear all the wildlife at night – hyenas, zebra, lions… We saw giraffes and elephants walking around the site during the day, and had many run-ins with hyenas at night. Once a hyena grabbed hold of a trash bin and the ascari literally played tug-of-war with it (I was so disappointed that I didn’t wake up to hear that!). We also had a lion and a hippo walk close by in the night.
- Expedition involved waking up super early almost every day, but that was okay because it was always for something cool. On Saturday we woke up for a 6am morning safari drive, on which we saw the sunrise as well as cool animals like a lioness, four cheetahs, elephants, and many beautiful birds. Even though we’ve seen many elephants by now, it will never get old to see a line of them walking across an open plain or through a wooded area. It’s the same for all the other animals as well – we’ve seen so many impala and Thomson’s gazelle by now, but I always enjoy seeing more.
- Don’t worry, we didn’t just go to the Serengeti and act like tourists for the whole time. We had three scheduled lectures from park employees. For two of them we went to the Serengeti Wildlife Research Center, where one of our professors used to work. We heard from a vet about diseases affecting wildlife in the park and from a PhD student research herbivore – plant interactions in the western part of the park. We also went to the visitor’s center and heard a lecture on tourism. We had a number of field assignments to work on while we were there, too. One is an ongoing collection of info on all the wildlife we see and then we had two exercises for our Wildlife Ecology class, one on birds and one on antelope. I really enjoyed the bird identification one, as all the birds here are really cool and beautiful, and it is also challenging and exciting to try to identify them – so much diversity!
- Serengeti is definitely my favorite park that we’ve seen. It holds tons of wildlife, which is of course awesome, but I really loved the physical environment. It is very diverse, and the weather there also varied more than we’ve seen since we arrived in Africa. On Sunday afternoon we got to experience a giant storm – torrential rain, strong winds, thunder and lightening! It was the first real rain we’ve felt and it was quite exciting. The storm came on very quickly, though we heard lots of thunder in the distance beforehand, and within the hour that it lasted our camp turned into a river. It was a very wet night, but kind of nice to be cold for once! On Tuesday night we saw another storm as we drove back to our camp – on one horizon we could watch rain clouds and lightening strikes and on the other horizon it was clear blue sky and puffy clouds.
“Serengeti” comes from a Maasai word for “endless plain”. The Serengeti is full of seas of grass with islands of kopjes (pronounced “copies”). Bubbles of volcanic rock once formed over beds of granite and then erosion of the landscape led to these outcrops being exposed at the surface, like the tips of icebergs poking up from the sea. Seeing so many kopjes and Umbrella trees made me realize where stereotypical scenes of Africa come from (think Lion King – we saw sooo many Pride Rocks!). There are also some major hills, which I didn’t really expect, and riverine and wooded habitats.
- One last highlight (I could go on…) was an afternoon we spent at one of the lodges in the park. Serena Lodge is perched on a hill and was a gorgeous, fancy haven for us after 4 days of being dirty and wet. We had the option of eating at their giant buffet (they had cheese which was a major attraction). I didn’t go for that, though, because they also had a pool! I spent most of my time swimming around the kidney bean-shaped pool, which had a fake waterfall and a view of the plains. It is always overwhelming to see such extravagance in Africa, but it was really nice to enjoy the chlorine and it was a chance to get clean.

So in general, the Serengeti is amazing and our expedition was probably the best experience we’ve had so far. We spent most of our time bouncing around in Land Rovers, woke up really early and were always tired, got really dirty, but hardly noticed those things because it was just so cool. I often have to remind myself where I am and how lucky we are to get to do the cool things that we do, but the Serengeti definitely peaked in the category of “amazing and surreal”. I hope that you enjoyed hearing about it, and I will post photos as soon as the internet cooperates and I have time. Also, I apologize for any typos, it is late and I don't have the energy to edit. 
Badai, Catherine

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