Connecticut Yankees in Tanzania

Connecticut Yankees in Tanzania

TANZANIA — Milan "Miley" Bull of Fairfield has been taking people to Africa since the early 1980s, and each trip unwraps new wonders. This January day, in Ndutu, Tanzania, besides seeing a huge pride of lions, 17 strong, we see a male cheetah feasting on a zebra. Nearby, two more cheetahs, bellies bulging, lie panting in the midday sun.

This is what my wife and I — along with eight other Connecticut residents, a couple from Pennsylvania, and a woman from England — came to see: a glimpse of old Africa and its iconic mammals.

Despite our nearness to the drama we observe from three safari vehicles, the cheetahs go about their business as if we don't exist. The animals in Tanzania's immense parks and conservation areas have learned that such bouncing conveyances are of no consequence, being neither friend nor foe.

While all of us are mesmerized by the cheetahs, clicking away madly with cameras and iPhones, Miley Bull turns around and concentrates on a motley crew of vultures in waiting. Five species of scavengers are represented, including one we haven't logged yet and a 5-foot-tall marabou stork — an ungainly apparition that Miley dubs the "undertaker bird."

For Bull, who is the senior director of conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society, vultures are every bit as fascinating as the big cats. If you book one of his Audubon Eco Travel trips (ecotravel.ctaudubon.org) pack a field guide to the birds and bring your binoculars to breakfast so you don't miss the Abyssinian scimitarbill atop the baobab tree.

At first, stopping the Land Cruiser to identify obscure birds in distant shrubs, when a leopard or black rhinoceros may be lurking around the next bend, takes some getting used to. Our three exceptional Tanzanian guides/wheelmen from RA Safaris (RA stands for Real Adventure, and it surely was) are fellow travelers of Bull's, who has stoked their passion for indigenous birds.

Soon enough, however, even the non-birders among us came around to the wisdom of filling the gaps between hyenas, jackals, and Thomson's gazelles by admiring common bulbuls and exotic boubous. We saw flocks upon flocks of exquisite avifauna — nearly 250 species in 10 days — and all of the legendary animals in the bargain (we saw 40 species of mammals plus three reptiles).

To put this feat in perspective, I have recorded about half that many species while birding in Connecticut for decades. Fewer than 400 bird types have been recorded here, while Tanzania boasts some 1,500.

And with rare exceptions, the birds over there are wildly winsome and ever so accommodating. Their Connecticut counterparts pale by comparison. For example, our belted kingfisher is a handsome enough specimen, but its African cousin is a surreal mélange of turquoise, black, white and grey feathers accented by a lipstick-red and black bill. Plus it stays put, ignoring our exclamations and clicking, while dispatching a cricket.

Except for our elusive wood duck, there is nothing in Connecticut with a palette to compete with the saddle-billed stork, the red-cheeked cordon-bleu, or the lilac-breasted roller. Even their starlings are gorgeous. It's like comparing the fish in Long Island Sound to the riotous schools that ply Caribbean reefs.

Our adventure started slowly, in the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha, where we deplaned and spent the first night and day shedding jet lag at the Arumeru River Lodge, a former coffee plantation. Its manicured grounds jump-started our species seeking. Dik-diks, a miniature antelope, grazed on the lawn, and we also spied slender mongoose, vervet monkeys, leopard tortoises and gaudy birds galore. From the patio we admired Mount Kilimanjaro while imbibing 16-ounce lagers of the same name, $3 a bottle (cheaper than the bottled water).

On day two we ventured into Arusha National Park and got our first taste of wild Africa: black-and-white colobus monkeys (they look like giant arboreal skunks), water bucks, giraffes, zebras, otherworldly grey crowned cranes, ostriches, and a herd of cape buffalo, which stared at us, Miley quipped, "like we owed them money."

We traversed jungle and grassland habitats, skirted marshes and ponds, and came face to face with perhaps the scariest of our safari ordeals: our boxed lunches. These would become a standing joke among us pilgrims. Why they were so bad while most of our other meals were gourmet posed one of the great mysteries of Tanzania.

Beyond Amazement
Each day or two, like wildebeests, we would migrate somewhere else, to new places that somehow managed to outdo the previous locale. There would be more hippos and ever closer, doing things that sometimes made us wish they were farther away. Fifty hippos wallowing cheek by jowl in a small stretch of a narrow river is quite a scene. The water quality is such that the only fish that can survive there is a species that periodically crawls onto land for a breath of fresh air.

The charismatic mammals are not without issues. Hippos, elephants and rhinoceros are relentlessly grey, often sedentary, and less numerous than their rainbow-colored avian neighbors. We saw many mature male lions, all of them sound asleep. Our guide, Edward Masaki, and I identified an eagle owl while the others were ogling lethargic felines.

Masaki, 38 and married with two young children, was most knowledgeable and patient with his four Connecticut passengers. We peppered him relentlessly with questions. On our last trek together we thanked him for all that he taught us about his wonderful country. He was kind enough to reply that he had learned a great deal from us as well. When we asked him to be more specific, there was an awkward pause … until all five of us burst out laughing.

At each place there were new species, and more elephants; a large female brushed one of our vehicles and flicked her tale in the driver's face. Herds of giraffe, zebra, and gazelle abounded. A giant python slithered across the road. As remarkable as the birds and animals we saw was the landscape they dominated: a seemingly endless, undulating green manuscript punctuated by rivers, lakes, 2,000-year-old baobab trees, termite mounds, rock outcroppings, hillocks, mountains, and serene blue skies. Even outside the protected areas, wild ungulates often grazed among the cattle and goats in the pastures surrounding the numerous Maasai villages.

Miley Bull has been all over Africa and is sold on the northern Tanzanian experience. "It's beyond amazement that in 2016 these relatively untouched ecosystems can function the way they have for a thousand years or more," he said. "Every time I see the great migration of animals here I keep thinking that this can't go on for much longer. But I have been going to Tanzania for 13 years and it's still the same. It gives you renewed faith in humanity."

On day four, in Tarangire National Park, we rose early for a sunrise game drive. We motored right up to two female lions and three cubs lolling about in the middle of the dirt road (they don't like the wet morning grass, Edward explained). One cub growled halfheartedly at us. Edward added that the cats looked thin. It had been raining past the normal December end of the short rainy season, and lush grasslands and water aplenty made hunting more difficult. One of the adults had what appeared to be a puncture wound in her chest.

As we returned to our lodge, where we would be sleeping in tents, we spied another small pride of lions not 200 yards from where we would rest our heads. The next morning a herd of impalas thundered through camp. After dinner in the lodge we walked together in packs to our tents, with a lodge employee as an escort.

Next we trekked to Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest unbroken caldera in the world. This dizzying soup-bowl-shaped expanse overflows with an estimated 25,000 animals and countless birds, including pink clouds of flamingoes flying in formation. We lodged in style atop the rim, some 7,800 feet above sea level; our group was nearly alone in this splendid resort, Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, with its 93 well-appointed rooms.

Tanzanian tourism has been badly damaged by the twin scares of Ebola — the epidemic is spent and was a continent away, as far as California is from Connecticut — as well as incidents of terrorism in other places. Tanzania long has been a stable nation that takes tourism, its second largest industry after agriculture, most seriously. Our guides spent two years in school to earn their government certification.

The Serengeti
Serengeti National Park was next, a place so vast and fertile it spawns writer's block. Its lush grasslands are larger than Connecticut. It adjoins the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is nearly three times the size of Rhode Island. The great herds of wildebeest and zebra were just starting to arrive from the south. Some 2 million animals make the journey of more than 1,000-miles to the Serengeti and back again. It is the last great migration on earth, and we would be driving right through it. As Miley explained, "It gives you a sense of what the American West was like in the 1840s."

Kati Kati, our base camp, is the ultimate in tent camping. The lodge itself is a tent. A hatch of termites would join us for dinner. Showers require an appointment (so buckets of hot water can be delivered) and are passingly brief. In the morning hyena tracks can be seen in our muddy footprints from the day before. The greatest danger, however, turned out to be feisty fire ants.

For all that, most of us found these rudimentary accommodations to be our favorite digs. We were beyond the pale: no 911, Wi-Fi, or AAA (two of our vehicles spent a night in the mire away from camp; some of us dined late that evening, with mud between our toes). Thankfully the larder was stocked with Kilimanjaro lagers and South African wines, and the diminutive gift shop was open 24/7.

Leaving the Serengeti on our way to Olduvai Gorge and Lake Manyara National Park, we stopped to follow a footpath to the top of a kopje, or rock outcropping, for a panoramic view of the migrating herds of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles. In every direction, as far as our binoculars could reach, the greenness was liberally seasoned with migrants, dark specks that seemed to approach infinity. As many animals as we saw on the trip, there used to be many more. Poaching is taking a toll on rhinos and elephants, among other species. Still, what remains is overwhelming.

"Every time I see this," Miley Bull said, shaking his head as his voice trailed off. Another found tears to be the most eloquent comment on a land largely impervious to time, seemingly free of dominion by our species.

Comments from Fellow Travelers
Sandra Childress of Essex once worked in Kenya, speaks passable Swahili, but had never visited Tanzania. “Whenever I go to East Africa I get a sense that there is an alternative reality that is just as valid as the life I take for granted here,” she said after the trip. “At home you get caught up in your own life and your own sphere, which is really quite isolated and doesn’t reflect what goes on in the rest of world. We have so many distractions that keep us from enjoying the present. It was good to be out of touch with that world for two weeks.”

Nelson and Peg North of Southport took the balloon ride over the Serengeti to get the big picture. He said of the experience: “The thing that I will never get over or forget is that from one horizon to another – on the Serengeti you could almost see the curvature of the earth — the expanse was so broad that all you saw were wildebeest and zebras constantly moving in a never-ending stream. The enormity of the space is what sticks with me.”

Morris Finkelstein of Cos Cob is a retired doctor whose passion is wildlife photography. His 500 mm lens was critical in helping his wife Debbie and the rest of us identify “way away” birds. A selection of his photographs from the trip can be viewed at: Morris-Finkelstein@fineartamerica.com

If You Go
The trip cost $6,820 per person, including airfare, which CAS Eco Travel can arrange. All travel and accommodations are included, except for bar beverages. There was an option for a Serengeti sunrise balloon ride, at $575 per person, and, for $175, Audubon shuttled to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

To book an Audubon Eco Travel trips with Milan "Miley" Bull, senior director of conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society, visit ecotravel.ctaudubon.org.

American dollars are welcome in Tanzania.

Don't over-think it or over pack. Laundry service is available at most lodges.

Despite being near the equator, the altitude (3,000 feet and higher) keeps the temperature comparable to summer in Connecticut. One rainy night it got down to 60 degrees.

RA Safaris (rasafaris.com) a Tanzanian owned and operated firm, provided the vehicles and three accomplished and engaging guides — trained mechanics all, which came in handy more than once.