IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Going wild over animals

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 20, 2013

Barbecued cow intestine is just as you would imagine: Rubbery. It also tastes faintly of tyre. But it is a speciality of a roadside cafe that my guide has taken me here in Arusha, Tanzania. Not wishing to offend, I eat as many pieces as I can. Gulps of Coke and lumps of the starchy maize staple, ugali, help push it down.

Raphaeli, my guide, says with admiration: "The restaurant made a mistake. I didn't order intestines. I don't like it. But you like it, so it's okay."

I wish he had mentioned it sooner.

A few missed signals are inevitable when you spend all day with a stranger from another continent, but smoky bovine innards are worth the risk. Raphaeli has the near-miraculous ability of game guides to drive a Toyota Land Cruiser over deep ruts while navigating and spotting creatures hidden in the bush.

My trip into East Africa actually began a few days earlier, in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. This is a few days after the late-September terrorist attack at the Westgate mall and police operations are winding down. At a blood donation centre set up in a park near my hotel, the lines are long; the emergency has pulled everyone together.

The early morning drive from the traffic-choked city to the Maasai Mara National Reserve (www.narokcitycountil.org, US$80, or S$99, a person a day, usually included in tour package) takes six hours. At rest stops, Kenyans take a look at me and holler "Ni hao!" hoping to lure another China tourist into their curio shops.

Around this time of year, the park's claim to fame is the herd migration, when hundreds of thousands of zebras and wildebeests surge across the Mara river in a magnificent pell-mell of horns, hooves and frothing water. For the waiting crocodiles and the hordes of click-happy tourists who mass around the swimming points, it must be their equivalent of Christmas and Chinese New Year rolled into one.

The Kenyan guide Joel and I spot the herds almost as soon as we enter the park. I am so excited to take photographs I bash my skull against the window and the edge of the roof opening several times trying to stick my head out.

Out here are elephants, giraffes and too many species of antelope to remember. I had expected the animals of the African savanna to be present, but not in such quantity and so close to the car. A few zebras come so close that I am tempted to lean out and touch them but for the first rule of park tourism: Visitors must stay inside the vehicle. If your eyes, camera zoom lens or binoculars cannot pick up an animal, move the car closer.

After a night at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge (www.serenahotels.com/serenamara, from US$300 a night), Joel heads to the river. The main migratory mass had passed a few months earlier, but smaller herds are still trying to cross the Mara. We see a half-dozen zebras grazing by the river bank. Then the first one splashes in, followed by the rest all in a line, jerkily making for the other shore. The crocodiles are lurking in the wrong spot. They glide closer, but are too late. No zebra on the menu today.

Joel tells me that earlier in the year, when the massive herds cross, the river banks are choked with television crew. A team from China had set up a live, round-the-clock satellite feed for viewers to catch the crossing, and the reptile feeding frenzy that occurs.

There is not much to do at the hilltop refuge of the Mara Serena in the evenings except to go to the restaurant or bar, places where herds of tourists can be observed feeding in their natural habitats.

The food here, and at the other hotels in the safari areas, is European - pasta, roasts, salads, cheeses, grilled fish and chicken. Wildebeests can be heard lowing not far away. Joel says their other name, "gnu", comes from the noise they make. And they do sound like that. I fall asleep to gentle gnu-ing in the distance.

There is a small swimming pool, but on both nights I was there, it was empty, probably because the 15 deg C evenings in September are too cool. The dry season from June to September is the peak tourism period.

In the lobby is a desk selling balloon rides, a must for many visitors to the 1,500 sq km park. These cost US$470 each and leave at dawn so riders can catch the sunrise as it spreads across the herd-dotted plain. They last an hour and a hot breakfast, dished out by mobile cookhouses that chase the balloons across the plain, is provided.

But the balloon is out for me as Joel and I have to leave the hotel for the Tanzanian border early in the morning, for the part of the grasslands called the Serengeti.

For the next eight hours, I ride the dirt road. By ride, I mean bounce, buck, rattle and occasionally, heave. By the end of the journey, my fillings are loose and my knees are wobbly and I envy the tourists who cross the park in small planes.

This is an option for those not in physical condition for the bone-jarring car trips, but it is of course more expensive (starting at about US$100 an adult for each leg).

Across the border, I say goodbye to Joel, my Kenyan guide, and say hello to Raphaeli, my Tanzanian guide.

A short but heavy downpour - not uncommon this time of year - makes the drive tricky but we get lucky almost as soon as the rain stops when we see a cheetah walking across our path.

Later in the day, and the next day at the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area (ngorongorocrater.org, US$50 an adult a day, usually included in tour package), the area teems with buffalo, baboons, vervet monkeys, bushbuck, gazelle and yes, vast herds of gnus. I am beginning to think that for a change, no gnus would be good gnus.

But the crater lake in Ngorongoro offers something different - a flock of flamingoes. Here we also spot a lion pride and a leopard and, far in the distance, we see three rhinos.

On our way to the airport in Arusha, where I will fly to Ethiopia, Raphaeli offers to buy lunch at a cafe where locals eat. The tilapia fish from the nearby Lake Victoria, stewed in a sour tomato gravy, is fabulous. The grilled intestine, however, will most likely remain a local secret.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by Changi Airport Group and Ethiopian Airlines. This is the fourth of an eight-part series.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 20, 2013

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