Olias tells me about the short grasslands. “The ash from the fallen mountain that made the Ngorongoro caldera, makes the soil mineral rich. And “it’s why the wildebeest go there to give birth in February.”
All creatures adhere to the nomadic culture intrinsic to this landscape. There are no people living in the National park as herding of cattle and hunting of game is forbidden – herding increases the risk of cross infection with diseases like foot and mouth which affects buffalo, wildebeest, warthog and other cloven hoofed game. “The Maasai still migrate around the ridge of Ngorongoro Crater and the Kuria, who eat wildebeest, have been moved to Mwanza”.
From the crater, the wildebeest start travelling through the central ecotone of the park into the northern woodlands of the Serengeti, where there is more rainfall. Not as thick as forest, impala, buffalo and even elephants graze under the green roofs of the black barked Acacia woodland. Olias tells me the word Keekorok the name for Acacia Robustus, is made up of the Maa words keye for wood and korok for black.
He is a Maasai married to a Sukuma woman and they speak Kiswahili at home. This is Tanzania where the socialist ideals of the past attempted to homogenise the population by stamping out diversity and uniting people with one national language. They speak beautifully, like the Swahili of the coastal people, using old fashioned greetings like “shikamoo” meaning “I touch your feet” inviting the reply “marahaba” meaning “welcome” even in the middle of these wilds. This is now considered very formal even in cultures like in India, where people still touch the feet of elders. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling that Tanzania more than any other place in East Africa evokes poetic nostalgia.
We drive back to Serena Hotel. It’s delightfully designed, like a village with thatched huts, child friendly with a pool and a menu that caters for all diets. At lunch, a sprinkle of rain falls to settle the dust but not the flies that are attracted to the beer pool in my glass.
From here, I am whisked efficiently before dawn, at four am the next morning, to drive through the Seronera area to the spot where the hot air balloons are laid out. Wrapped in scarves, we wait for our briefing. There isn’t a bush or ant hill in sight and a small undulation in the land some distance away, will have to do as the ladies toilet.
We get into an elevator sized basket, feet first, faces upward, secured by a belt attached to our waists. A great roar bellows the balloon and we take off. It’s surprisingly smooth as the basket straightens to all sixteen of us standing upright, cosy but able to move enough for a few shaky pictures. We glide and soar, the Serengeti’s grandness unmistakable as it disappears into the horizons in every direction. Serengeti means endless plain in Maa.
Two balloons take to the sky. The impala scamper in panic as we fly overhead. Even at 11000 feet, they can hear the fire’s howl. We must appear like dragons above them. Afterwards, our captain entertains us with the history and traditions of hot air ballooning.
When the brothers Montgolfier created the balloon, they sent a chicken, goat and pig up in the basket. The animals survived. King Louis XVI wanted to send up a couple of convicts next, but was convinced by his wife, Marie Antoinette, to send instead, two noblemen. In those days, they thought it was smoke that lifted the balloon, (not hot air) so they created as much smoke as possible. On running out of fuel, they crash-landed into a fields filled with peasants. Afraid of the smoke breathing ship from whence emerged two sooty aliens, they attacked it with sticks and stones. So, aeronauts began to carry champagne to appease the common folk and prove to them that they were French.
Today, we will be landing amongst terrified game animals and since we can’t give them any champagne, we drink it. We are told the wind will allow us to have a drag landing which is most exciting. The basket will bounce on its side and get pulled some distance still on its side, churning up dust as we hang on in lying position, waiting for it to stop. The actual landing is much less bumpy or scary than a rollercoaster ride.
The champagne toasts are followed with a cooked breakfast in the bush. It’s no picnic. There is silver ware on white table cloths and we are attended to by turbaned waiters in long kaftans who hold brass urns over copper basins for hand washing. There are French, English and German speakers amongst us, their chatting excited by adrenalin. The age group is varied and younger than I expected.
Last night, Felix the manager of Serengeti Serena and I sit over roasted cashews and a long dink speaking of tourism in these parts. He tells me that most of his visitors are around sixty years old. Christmas is the busiest season. “One year we planned so many activities in the lodge but all the visitors wanted to do was go on safari” It’s unchangeable he adds, no matter what time of year it is, the people who come here on safari, just want to be out in the wild. “Mostly, we do all day safaris, we see our guests when they come back to shower and have dinner. Tourism has been hit by Ebola scares,” he frowns “even if the danger is in West Africa, which is closer to Europe than it is to East Africa”.
The candle lit restaurant is busy this evening and the park is “empty” right now. The Gnu (wildebeest) are in the north, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and have taken with them, the action tales of the predators. Yet, lion, cheetah and leopard stories are being shared all around me.