21 October 2017 Saturday - Balloon ride, anti-poaching, lions ~ Day 12

This has been another very busy day in the Serengeti and we took a ton of photos.

Kathy and I got up very early and were met by a land rover that took us to a hot air balloon ride we had signed up for. The balloons took off around sunrise, so we had to get up very early and drive through the dark to get there. When we got there, the sunrise was beautiful, but maybe not as glorious as sunrise at the lake lodge.

I was surprised to find two hot air balloons, and both were on their side. There was a team of men inflating both balloons, and when they became full enough, the pilots started shooting hot air into them, which made them slowly rise.

While the basket was still on its side, we climbed into it and strapped ourselves in. Then the pilot ignited the burners, filling the balloon with hot air. In a few minutes, the balloon popped up into an upright state and we were ready to go.

Our balloon pilot was a Canadian. He had the most ridiculous, exaggerated accent I’ve ever heard. If I’d heard it in a Hollywood movie, I would have sworn it was fake. It was really unbelievable. And I’m from Minnesota, which borders Canada, so I’ve heard a lot of Canadians.

The team of men held onto the balloon from the ground while it uprighted itself. We couldn’t see them, but we could see the other balloon’s team at work.

We watched them become upright too.

Soon both balloons were off the ground and into the air.

The men quickly got back into the land rovers and started to chase us across the savanna.

We stayed low to the ground for a while.

The wind took us across a long twisty river. We could see several large pods of hippos swimming in the river below.

From above, we saw one of those “Secretary Birds” sitting at the top of a tree. For some reason they’re very hard to photograph.

We also saw some birds that looked like parrots. They looked very out of place.

It was interesting how the tree line followed the river, and when you got away from the river, the plains became quite barren.

We found another pod of hippos that weren’t in the water. They were apparently walking back to the river from a mud bath.

It was fun to see them walking on land. We’ve always just seen them in the water.

We saw another huge crocodile in the river. Man, he was a monster. He was at least twice as big as the biggest alligator I’ve seen, and yes, I’ve been to the Everglades.

We started going up higher. It was a pretty view from up there.

From above, we could see lots of hippo tracks in the mud going every direction.

On the drive, we met some Germans who were very friendly, especially when they learned I spoke a little of their language, and had just been on a trip to Germany. They took a couple of photos of us from the balloon using my cell phone and I think they turned out nice.

The main German woman, a social butterfly, was both pretty and very intelligent. She must have been fluent in a dozen languages. I heard her talking to various other tourists in their native languages, like Italian and Dutch. She told us she’d lived in several European countries when she was growing up.

We kept going up, and pretty soon the trees looked like dots and the roads looked like lines etched on the surface.

We kept going higher and higher; much higher than I expected. More than ten thousand feet?

We went up and down several times. When we got low, we could see small groups of wildebeests walking around, but not many other animals. Which made us wonder: On previous days, we had seen literally millions of wildebeests. Where were they all hiding now? We could see for many miles.

We also saw a few other birds; vultures and such, but overall, we were disappointed. There weren’t as many animals as we had hoped. Kathy was unhappy. It was a fun ride, but we just didn’t see many animals besides the hippos. Just dust-devils like this one and a few animals here and there.

Even the birds seemed scarce.

The captain landed the balloon in an upright condition, despite the winds. After the balloon landed, we got into the land rovers and drove to a picnic site where we ate a nice brunch and drank traditional champagne. We did see a few more animals along the way, like another secretary bird. Why are they so hard to photograph? Unfortunately, the land rover didn’t stop for any photos.

Kathy joked that we saw more animals on the land rover ride to brunch than we did from the air. We did see a few, including this eagle.

Here’s a photo of us holding bottles of champagne.

We each got a certificate stating that we had taken the balloon ride. Thrilling, huh?

The most amusing thing is that they had a “loo with a view.” This was a portable toilet that was open on one side.

Here’s the front side. Yep. That’s it.

When we were planning the trip, I had insisted that we take the hot air balloon ride, but all in all, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s too expensive and you don’t see that much. The winds are too fickle, and so are the animals.

They dropped us off at a park visitor’s center where we rejoined our regular OAT group, who told us they had spent the morning on a game drive and saw a group of cheetahs kill an animal, and we missed it! Aaaarrrggghhh. Now Kathy was really pissed.

From there, we drove a while to a secret location. There, we met the head of anti-poaching for all of Tanzania. He talked about the different types of poaching and how they’re fighting it. We weren’t allowed to take any photos, because that would endanger his life and the lives of his staff. We were impressed with his lecture.

There are two basic kinds of poachers: The most common are people who poach animals like wildebeest for their meat and sell it on the black market. The second kind are the elephant and rhino poachers, who are funded by rich foreign interests.

If you’re caught poaching, they can tell which kind you are by the equipment you’re carrying. If you’re carrying snares, traps and small guns, they know you’re type one. You’ll be arrested and thrown in jail. If you’re caught there are serious fines and serious jail time. They have a “three strikes” rule. They understand people have got to eat, and there are literally millions of wildebeests, so they’re shown a little bit of mercy.

If you’re carrying a large-game high-powered rifle, or other equipment to grind up rhino horns, or equipment to remove elephant tusks, they know you’re there to kill an elephant or rhino. And they kill you. No mercy. No police. No judge. No jury. No arrests. No jail time. They just kill you. And I applaud that. Humans have abused these animals to the point of near extinction; enough is enough. I told the head of anti-poaching they should give out licenses for people to hunt and kill the poachers.

They also routinely tranquilized (“darted”) the rhinos and either removed their horns, replacing them with prosthetic horns, or drilled them out and inserted tracking devices. They keep very careful watch on their rhinos, and if a rhino is found dead, they immediately search, often using helicopters, to find the tracking device. They poachers are almost always caught and dealt with. I believe them, because if you look at the rhino photos we took, you can see the horns have been drilled out. And we did see helicopters on a mission to dart more rhinos. These guys are good. Very good.

After we left the anti-poaching headquarters, we went on another game drive. First, we saw some antelopes, like a topi who had a pretty young baby. It was really cute.

We saw a lone hyena.

I took this shot of Kathy standing up in the land rover.

We also saw a few elephants.

Then we started seeing lions. Lots of lions. First, we saw a male lion sprawled out, resting. He looked at us to see if were were a threat. Then he decided we weren’t and went back to sleep.

Next, we saw a pretty old female lion matriarch. She looked a little haggard.

She had a leather tracking collar, and you could see its antenna sticking out.

Our land rovers got pretty close to the lion.

Not far away, we saw another female sitting majestically on top a large rock.

For some reason, we drove back and got a second look at the older female.

We got out and had a short picnic lunch. There were tons of wildebeests walking around the area. I took her photo.

She took mine.

There were thousands, or even millions of wildebeests. This photo only begins to give you a hint at it.

We took a few photos of our OAT guides. From left to right: Eki, Moody, and Yonah.

By this time it was mid-afternoon, and it was starting to get hot outside.

We drove to another pride of lions, and spent a long time there. There were two main adult females and they both had cubs. They were so cute.

The mother tried to get the cubs’ attention by making some noises. She called them, but the cubs ignored her.

She was not to be bargained with.

The second female yawned a toothy yawn and watched her sister discipline the disobedient cubs.

The mama went over and bit the heads of a couple of these unruly cubs to show them who is boss. They didn’t like it one bit and whined a bit. Then she threatened to pick them up, as cats do, by the scruff of the neck, but it was more of a show of force than anything.

We both got this in several photos, and I even recorded it with my video camera. Afterward, Kathy told me this was the most memorable moment of the trip for her. Mine was soon to come!

After the mama cat had properly disciplined her kittens, she licked them, cuddled with them, and made up. It was the cutest thing ever.

This mama-kitten interaction was just adorable.

A vulture sat nearby, unimpressed.

The mama lion left her cubs and rejoined her sister and they spent some time licking and cuddling each other too.

Somehow a third adult lioness appeared. I was making a video of a group of the three lions, slightly distracted by the kittens, and bumped the camera. When I stabilized the camera, only two lions were there. I wondered, “What the heck happened to the third lion?” I looked out the window and didn’t see her anywhere. Then I (foolishly) stuck my head of the window to get a better look. I turned my head and saw the third lion. She had lain down next to our land rover to use its shade. And she was looking at me! Our eyes met, and it was really creepy. I saw her, and she knew it. She saw me, and I knew it. I felt this moment of terror and a huge adrenaline rush; an automatic fight-or-flight response. I whipped my head back inside the land rover and swiped the window partly shut. My heart was pounding. Meanwhile, Kathy took this photo of the big cat looking up at me.

This was my most memorable moment of the trip, and probably the most terrifying.

I asked Kathy if she saw that. She had. She took my photo, and I was still visibly shaken.

The exposure was too dark, so she adjusted her camera and took another.

Soon, another lioness got up and walked over to the shade of our truck. She walked right underneath me! I could have reached down and easily petted her back as she passed. Kathy took this photo of me taking a picture while the lion watched.

Kathy got some good close-ups like this one.

We drove a very short distance and found another group of lions, undoubtedly from the same pride. One of the females was still eating a wildebeest they had recently killed. The kittens did some munching too, but they were restless and walked around, trying to find a place to cool off.

The lions had chewed a hole all the way through this poor dead wildebeest.

Meanwhile, the kittens walked restlessly around the vehicles.

Finally, they found some shade under the truck next to ours. It was so awesome.

Eventually, we left the lions and went out looking for other animals. We found a decent-sized group of elephants with young ones.

They got closer and closer to our vehicle.

They walked right up to the land rover, as if they were posing for a photo.

They were so close, we got some pretty decent close-up photos where you can see the hair follicles and texture of their skin.

The elephants were cute, but not as cute as those lions.

We started heading back to our tent camp, and on the way, we found a lonesome hyena just sitting in a muddy hole at the side of the road.

When our vehicle approached him, he looked around. So we got close to him too.

He decided we weren’t a threat, so he went back to sleep.

When we got back to the camp, I decided to do some laundry: socks and underwear. There was a pretty tight weight restriction on our luggage for the flight to Masai Mara (33 pounds / 15kg), so we couldn’t bring three weeks worth of clothes. So we had to do some wash. The camp provided some tubs, water, and laundry soap for us to use.

At night, we had a great meal, and after the meal, the camp hosts brought Kathy and I an anniversary cake. They started singing and dancing and making a fuss. Wow! We definitely weren’t expecting that. We had told someone that the trip was for our anniversary, which was back in May.