We finally left the camp at Lake Natron at about 11:00 on the morning of December 30th. Rob had wanted us to leave an hour earlier, and we had dutifully packed all our bags the previous evening for a quick departure. However, while loading those bags into the back of the Land Cruiser, Rob and Peter had noticed a problem with the latching mechanism on the rear door, and decided it needed fixing before the arduous driving ahead.
While they worked on the car, the sun rose higher in the sky. What had been a pleasantly warm morning gradually became a very hot day. Like every other sensible creature, we sought out shade and waited patiently for developments. Eventually, repairs were complete, and we drove away from the campground, heading North towards Kenya.
For the first half hour after we left camp, the road continued more or less as we had remembered it from the previous day, rising gradually through an arid landscape characterized by low scrubby trees and bushes. It was impressive that these trees were able to eke out a living on the modest amounts of rain that fell erratically in that region. It seemed an inhospitable place, and yet, every few miles we came across Maasai walking slowly in small groups along the road. All of them were walking in the opposite direction from us, back towards the basin. Although we asked Rob, he didn’t have an explanation for what looked like a migration to the South. Perhaps there was a market somewhere, he guessed, or perhaps they were returning from one.
Comenifera tree on the road from Lake Natron
Perhaps it was the hot sun, or perhaps the miles of mono-featured landscape, but Peter missed a turn somewhere, because we rounded a bend and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a small village of huts and animal paddocks. Rob remembered that we had passed a fork some ways back, so after making a spectacle of ourselves by turning the car around in the middle of the village, we backtracked until we found the fork and took the turn that would lead us up the escarpment.
Almost as soon as we were back on the right track, the road began climbing sharply. We were now ascending the escarpment, heading roughly Northwest toward the town of Loliondo. The terrain, which hadn’t been smooth by any stretch, now became daunting. The Land Cruiser pitched and bounced, as we negotiated stretches of road with huge slabs of stone and ruts two feet deep. We would harrow through some particularly improbable section of road and think to ourselves that surely it couldn’t get any more rugged, only to encounter a worse section a few minutes later. There were stretches when it didn’t even seem we were on a road at all, just picking our way up a boulder-strewn slope trying to keep the wheels of the car moving forward.
It was here that we came to appreciate our driver, Peter. Up until now, Peter had been the overlooked member of the crew. Rob was the leader, gregarious and informative. He had planned the trip and consulted with us frequently about what was going on. Henry was our cook, and already we had begin to marvel at his ability to conjure large quantities of good food from whatever supplies had been packed and could be prepared in a camp. Peter had been mostly quiet, but as we lurched up the side of the rift, skirting disaster at every turn, his concentration and competence made us feel very fortunate and grateful.
I wish I had some pictures from that part of the drive. No one was thinking about pictures, however, since we were all hanging on to our seats trying not to careen up to the roof with every bump.
As we neared the end of our arduous climb, the dry red rocks fell away behind us, and the landscape became greener. As we gained altitude, the climate was changing before our eyes. Here, the condensation was greater and the foliage was thicker. We began to see cattle on the hillside. The road leveled out and became friendlier.
We continued to see people on or by the side of the road, mostly women and children. Invariably they waved at the car as it went by. Once in a great while we would see another vehicle coming our way. I wanted to warn them about the road they would be descending, but I’m sure they knew better than I did what they were getting themselves into.
At one point, we drove a mile off the main road into a little town where the people were not wearing the Maasai dress. We saw some teenage boys and I think I recall they were playing soccer in or next to the street. Most were wearing pants and t-shirts, very different than the the colorful shukas we had come to expect. Rob explained that these were not Maasai, but Sonjo, another tribe with different language and customs.
It must have been sometime between 1:00 and 2:00 that we stopped for lunch in a town called Wasso. I couldn’t quite figure out what kind of place it was as Peter pulled the car to a stop in a large courtyard. It seemed like an official building of some sort, although it might have been a school. If Rob told us, I’ve forgotten what he said. Although Rob suggested we eat inside, we had been sitting in the car for a long time and preferred to stay in the open air. He seemed to consider this a little strange, but accepted it and went into the building to get us some soft drinks.
A word about soft drinks: other than instant coffee or tea in the morning, beer if we were lucky, and bottled water the rest of the time, the one reliable thing to drink was Coca-Cola and its sister products. There seemed to be an excellent distribution system that supplied recycled glass bottles of Coke and Fanta to every town, where they sold for what seemed like a very reasonable price of 500 Tanzanian shillings, or about 33 cents.
It was pleasant in this courtyard, but a sense of contradiction tugged at my consciousness. Here we were at this official-looking building in this big, important town — at least big by the standards of Northern Tanzania — and yet instead of bathrooms, there was an outhouse with holes in the ground, and no running water or soap to be had anywhere.
I’m afraid I have to spend a little time on the topic of sanitary facilities. I was struck by how access to and use of the toilets was a matter of more-or-less constant concern for all of us on the trip. Other than Joni, everyone in our family experienced a certain amount of digestive distress when we got to Tanzania. We suspected that it might be related to the anti-malarial medication we were taking although it’s possible that there was some other cause. In any case, in Arusha, we had running water at the hotel, but not when we visited Oju’s family, and not when we visited Rose in Monduli. At Tarangire, the camp toilets were crude and we weren’t even allowed to use those after lights out. At Lake Natron where it was safer, it was not measurably cleaner (although there were simple showers of not-potable water). Sanitation was always an issue, and we wondered what microbes were out and about, waiting to pounce on our poorly-adapted immune systems. I wish I could say that I got used to roughing it, but it would be more accurate to say that I endured the lack of plumbing the best that I could and was very happy whenever we got to use a western-style loo.
After our lunch in Wasso, we got back into the Land Cruiser and began driving West. We would enter the Serengeti National Park at an outpost named Klein’s Gate. Although it was not many kilometers, it took us a couple of hours to reach the entrance to the Park. On the way we encountered more horrendous roads, and passed through several small, isolated villages.
One village, in particular, left a strong impression on me. The town seemed to appear out of nowhere. We had been driving along, and all of a sudden there was a cluster of buildings, some with masonry walls. What was most strange was that there seemed to be a crowd of people in the center of the town, but it didn’t seem like anything was happening. Or rather, it appeared that everyone was waiting for something to happen, but in a slow, listless fashion without any definite expectation. There was no market, no activity, just people sitting or standing or milling around.
The other strange thing was when we encountered a bus traveling in the opposite direction. To me, it was inconceivable that a bus could pass on the roads we had just traversed, and yet Rob assured me that it was heading to Arusha. I couldn’t believe it.
We reached Klein’s Gate at about 4:30. While Rob went into the office there to pick up the necessary permits, we admired a herd of giraffe a few hundred yards away. These were not our first giraffe; we had seen some in Tarangire and near Lake Natron, but these were Serengeti giraffe, and we felt very excited to have arrived, at last.
We also paused to take picture of the sign listing Park Rules and Regulations. And with the odd words of that sign lingering in our thoughts, we entered the Serengeti.