Adventures in Africa – Story 4

In December 2016, I very sadly made the decision to leave university after struggling with a bunch of mental health issues which had an impact on my ability to complete one of the modules of my first year. In the summer before I left, June 2016, I was supposed to have gone on a month-long field trip to South Africa, somewhere I had been 3 times prior to this trip. However, my mental health took a serious turn and whilst at my friend’s house in Cape Town, I had to make the decision to come home because I was in no state to do the trip. 

After all this had blown over and I had got myself feeling somewhat better than I had, I decided I needed a challenge to really start to work on getting myself better. I had been watching hours upon hours of YouTube videos which is where I came across a photographer called Tobias Gelston who runs PhotorecTV. I found some videos of a past trip he had done with Mckay Photography Academy to Tanzania and felt that was the thing to aim towards. 

So, with a lot of discussions and research, I found out that Mckay Photography Academy were running their trip to Tanzania in March 2018, and I wanted to be on that trip. I booked the trip and paid my first deposit in January or February 2017 and that was initially how this trip was set up. 

You may have seen on Instagram that I later returned to uni in September 2017, which I did and in complete shock I found out I was suddenly going to Iceland two weeks after I had decided to go back. Well, that trip went better than I thought it would after a bit of a rocky start on the first night. But going back to uni meant I had to work incredibly hard to get all my work done before the trip to Tanzania in March as I would be going away two weeks before the Easter holidays were meant to start. 

I managed to get a lot of my work done, with maybe one or two assignments left to do when I returned, but I was absolutely thrilled that I was going to the Serengeti while all my new classmates had to be in classrooms working. 

Due to the fact I was going to have to stay in Amsterdam for a night and I was only 21 at the time, my mum came with me on the short leg to Amsterdam to make sure I got my flight the next morning okay. I booked all of my flights with KLM as they were the most direct airline to Tanzania and also one of the cheapest. 

I flew from Southampton airport to Amsterdam the night before the big flight with mum so that we could stay in a nearby airport hotel. The flight was only maybe an hour long but taxiing into the terminal seemed to take longer than necessary due to the way the runways at Amsterdam is laid out. The next morning, I believe I had to get up at some ridiculous hour like 5am to leave the hotel at about 6am. Once at the airport, I met a few of the other guests on the trip. I was the youngest by at least 15 years, however, being the baby meant that I had no responsibilities held against me other than making sure I was where I needed to be when I needed to be there. 

The flight from Amsterdam to Tanzania was a day flight, particularly odd for me considering all previous flights to that end of the world were always night flights. I think the flight was only about 8 hours long, however it was pitch black when I left Amsterdam and pitch black when I landed. The airport I flew into was Tanzania Kilimanjaro Airport, a very small, and very badly organised place, but we all got there in the end with a bit of a kerfuffle about visas and landing cards etc. 

We were then driven in our Land Rovers for about an hour and a half to a hotel in the nearby town Arusha. The next morning, the proper adventure finally began. 

Vervet Monkey Baby in Lake Manyara National Park

The first place we visited was Lake Manyara National Park, this was a beautiful area that was quite boggy and marshy compared to everywhere else I ended up. There were quite a few animals, from elephants, to giraffes, I think also hippos, and a whole lot of bird life. It was here that I had my first experience of seeing great crowned cranes in the wild. We only spent a day in this park as we had to move on to places much further afield.

Elephant in Lake Manyara National Park

We then went to the hotel again to prepare for a long day of transferring to the next part of the trip. The next day we had to pack up everything ready to drive to the Serengeti. On our way to the Serengeti, we stopped at a very famous historic site called Olduvai Gorge. This is where it is believed we originated from, or at least very close to that area, as 2 million year old remains of our closest ancestral relative the hominids have been excavated from the gorge.  After we had finished our lunch whilst staring out at the gorge and having a look around the small museum, we were headed into the Serengeti National Park. I have never been so excited to be in a car in my life! I was on this trip because I had dreamed of being able to go to this place that I have seen so many times, but only on a screen in my living room. 

Olduvai Gorge, our ancestral plains.

When you see it for yourself, you will understand why it is called Serengeti (meaning “endless plain” in Swahili). Everywhere you look is just wide-open space with an unknown number of animals occupying it, little black dots everywhere are all wildebeest. I was staying in the South of the Serengeti as this is where the animals were on their annual migration route at that time of year. We stayed in the Serengeti for 3 nights in luxury 5-Star tents, which included en-suite bathrooms with a bucket shower, a sink with a jug of water for hand washing, and a porta-potti style toilet. For the middle of the Serengeti, this was like glamping rather than camping with a full proper single bed and lovely warm covers. The camp is completely unfenced to the wildlife however, so when putting the light on to visit the loo in the night, you may disturb a hyena taking a sniff around the outside of your tent. After three days of immense sightings in the Serengeti, including hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and their babies, we went on to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. 

One of the many hyenas of the Serengeti.

Getting to the Ngorongoro was a day filled with a bit too much excitement if you ask me. Tanzania was experiencing the rainy season during the time I was there and so the three rivers that crossed the road to exit the park became quite treacherous and we ended up being stopped for a rather long time waiting for the water levels to go down slightly before taking a risk and crossing. The water was so high it came in under the doors of the Land Rover, so we had to make sure that all of our bags were off the floor. After crossing the third river, one of the Land Rovers suddenly started producing some white smoke, not a particularly good sign when you are a good day long drive away from the nearest town that might have a mechanic. The guides tried their best to fix it by putting lots of bottled water into the radiator to try and cool it down, but after a second attempt to get up the very steep climb, the Land Rover sputtered to a stop and we suddenly found out that the radiator pipe had practically snapped in two. 

Elephant in Ngorongoro Conservation Area. (Definitely a boy).

The crater edge of the Ngorongoro is over 9000m high, this is because it is actually an old volcano that went dormant some 11,000 years ago and the crater floor collapsed which is what makes the conservation area. We were situated in another luxury camp, with pretty much the same set up to the one in the Serengeti, but this time on the crater rim. It gets incredibly cold at that altitude at night however and so they provide you with hot water bottles which make it incredibly comfortable and warm. 

Abstract photo of a lion inside Ngorongoro.

The next morning when we went for our first adventure into the actual reserve where the animals are, the Land Rovers were slipping and sliding all over the place on the very wet and muddy paths. The Land Rover I was in slipped right off the path into a rocky bank and we got a little stuck, but no need to panic as the guides were excellent and sorted it all out within about 20 mins. 

Baby Zebra born in Ngorongoro about 20 mins before we found it

The sights in the Ngorongoro were incredible, the animals that are in the crater tend not to migrate out because of the steep climbs, and we saw so many amazing things in the two days we got to explore. The only animals you won’t find in the crater are giraffe and impala, this is due to the steep slopes and the fact that there are almost no trees inside the crater. 

After an amazing two days in Ngorongoro, it was time to move on again, this time to a rather posh hotel in the Great Rift Valley. This was situated closer to civilization, but still far enough away for the next adventures to still feel a bit wild. This time, it was not animals we were looking for, but traditional tribes that are allowed to live in the bush still. The first tribe we visited were the Datoga Community, who live in traditional huts with no electricity or any mod-cons.  The experience was slightly overwhelming for me, due to the fact I’m not keen on having people too close to me if I don’t know them, and this tribe had never seen someone with natural ginger hair. They kept touching it and standing really close to me, also speaking a language I didn’t understand so it wasn’t my most enjoyable moment of the trip, but it is also good to experience some of the traditional cultures of the country you visit to see how other people live and survive. The men of this tribe make arrows, bracelets and other accessories out of melted down padlocks, quite an incredible process to watch, however I was quite concerned about one of the men’s feet as he was using them to hold the metal while hitting it quite hard with a hammer! 

A beautiful Datoga woman making jewellery inside her hut.

I was unfortunately not feeling too well on the last full day of the trip and so I missed out on the last tribe that they went to visit, the Hadzabe People. There is a video of what an encounter might be like on Toby Gelston’s YouTube channel ‘PhotorecTV’. 

On the penultimate day of the trip we found out that a huge rainstorm had washed the road away out from where the hotel was. Due to the weather conditions the guides wanted to get us out early; but we missed our opportunity to leave by about 20 minutes and so we were stuck at the hotel for the night. We then ended up having to cross the river by foot to get on Land Rovers they had arranged to meet us on the other side, while the guides waited with our bags for the road to be fixed. 

On our way back to Arusha, we were taken to an amazing shop that sold all sorts of traditional items made in Tanzania, as well as your normal souvenir items like t-shirts, hats, fridge magnets etc. I purchased a very small piece of Tanzanite that cost me $250; which, when the time comes, will be used on my engagement ring. 

We then were taken for a last lunch together as a group before being driven back to Tanzania Kilimanjaro Airport. The lunch was at Arusha Coffee Lodge and I felt incredibly out of place being somewhere so nice in my very un-nice clothes. We then went to a hotel to use a day room for a few hours to freshen up before the long haul back home. The majority of the group were American, so had quite some way further than me to go, with only one other member from the UK. 

The tour was absolutely amazing. It was easily one of my best experiences and I’m so glad that I have managed to get to the Serengeti at least once in my life. I would definitely love to go back one day, perhaps travelling with a bit less luggage, but everything else the same. The touring company taking us round Tanzania was Thompson Safaris, whose guides were so incredible in every way, from their knowledge of the animals, to their skilled driving in difficult situations, and even sorting out cars to transfer us to still have our last day while the other cars were stuck on the wrong side of the river. The only thing I would maybe like to do next time is to go in August to see the Mara river crossing part of the migration and go up to experience the Masaai Mara. 

Every day we had an abundance of healthy and delicious meals, and when we couldn’t get back to camp for lunch, they would pack them for us into cardboard boxes with individual items wrapped in paper due to plastic being banned in Tanzania and Kenya, an absolutely immense effort on their part for trying to help fix the environment. The guides were also great at stopping to pick up litter that we saw chucked on the side of the roads in the Serengeti.

Mckay Photography Academy have award winning photography instructors, with a ratio of 1 instructor to 3 clients per vehicle, you couldn’t find better set ups for wildlife photography courses anywhere else. Dave and Ally Mckay are two of the most passionate photographers I have ever met and are so inspiring with their stories from their trips all around the globe. Toby, and their other instructor Steve, are also incredible. All four of them were so helpful in determining what it was I was doing wrong and knew just what advice I needed to get those images perfect. I can’t recommend this trip highly enough, and I’m sure their other tours around the world are just as incredible and adventurous, and I hope one day to be able to join onto one of their tours again. 

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