Finding Fascinating Animals and People On Safari
13.03.2013 - 14.03.2013 80 °F
"I know this is a bad time, but I really gotta pee!" I said rueful of the three cups of coffee I drank at breakfast.
"Just wait for a few minutes." Godfrey responded, his eyes never wavering from the animals that were staring back at us.
While I waited for what felt like an eternity, I thought my bladder was gonna burst.
Finally, Godfrey whispered "Okay! Now! Go ahead!"
I jumped out of the opposite door, used the "bush toilet," and was back in the vehicle within a minute.
I thanked him saying, "Whew, thanks for looking out for me, Godfrey. I'm glad you were making sure that those cheetahs weren't going to attack me when I got out of the car."
"Attack you? I didn't want you to scare them away!" he exclaimed.
Wake-up call was at an early 5:30 AM. After a quick breakfast and checkout, we were down to the crater at 6:45 AM. One of the nice things about being at the Lemala Ngorongoro Camp is that it is only a few minute's drive to the entrance road to the Crater.
Unlike 95% of the other safari vehicles we saw which have raised hardtops, our Land Cruiser had a soft roll top--essentially we were riding in a convertible SUV. This setup is great for photography as the camera views are unencumbered by any columns or poles. However, there are downsides. When it rains, you get wet. When it is really hot out there, you fry. And when it is dusty, you choke on dirt. But this open top allows for an immersive safari experience. This open view of blue skies above and animals on all sides allowed me to fully appreciate the beauty of Africa.
While Godfrey drove the Land Cruiser around with the top rolled half-way down, I preferred to stand to watch for any animals. It was Rommelesque. Conversely, the wife opted for the comfort of the seats and shade.
Just prior to this trip, I had finally upgraded some of my camera lenses. I shot mainly with my canon 7d fitted with a 70-200 lenses and a 2x extender. I also had my 24-105 mm lens on my old rebel XTi for wider shots. The Wife also had her trusty little Sony Rx100 which she still hadn't figured out how to use yet (except for the automatic setting). While the picture quality is great for a compact point and shoot camera, the zoom just isn't enough. She mainly used our old Nikon 10x42 binoculars that we still had from our trip to the Amazon years ago. The 400 mm of zoom from my long lens was great for most situations, but there were still many instances where I regretted not having a closer reach maybe in the 600-800 mm range.
Despite having led safaris for the past 16 years, Godfrey still maintained his enthusiasm for wildlife viewing. He used a little point and shoot camera to take pictures of the animals we saw. To extend the range of the 3x zoom, he held the lens up to the eyepiece of his 12x50 binoculars. I was skeptical that this would work. But when he showed me the results, I had to admit it was pretty good. In no way did the sharpness compare to my setup, but it was a whole lot less expensive.
I appreciated the fact that Godfrey is an experienced guide. He knew where to position the vehicle to get the animals in the right position in relation to the sun. But there was only so much he could do as vehicles are not allowed to go off-road in Ngorongoro Crater. There is no shortage of animals in the crater. They are so used to vehicles that they don't run from us. In fact, our driver had to slam on the brakes on more than one occasion to avoid hitting a zebra which took its time getting out of the road. Birds are often overlooked when people think about African wildlife. However, they are just as an integral part of the African landscape as the large mammals.
The grey-crowned crane is the national bird of Uganda.
Abdim's storks are rarely harmed by humans because they are considered harbingers of rain in African lore.
(Left) The blacksmith lapwing makes a klinking noise resembling a hammer hitting an anvil. (Right) The male ostrich has black feathers, while the female has a brown coat.
The kori bustard is the heaviest bird capable of flight.
As part of its mating ritual, the male bird poofs out its feathers and makes a low whum-whum-whum noise that travels for long distances to attract females.
The big draw of any safari is the large mammals. When I planned this trip, I had hoped to see plenty of lions, hyenas, elephants, warthogs, and giraffes, etc. It would be like a real-life version of The Lion King, but with less singing and more blood.
(Left) Thomson's and Grant's gazelles are often found together. The Thomson's gazelles can be identified by the black stripe running along its side. (Middle) Even with their short stubby legs, a warthog is actually surprisingly fast, reaching a top speed of 30 miles per hour. (Right) Damien Thorn's mom.
A zebra takes a dust bath. They roll around in the dirt to help with heat control and parasites.
A young wildebeest practices his yoga stance.
(Above and Below) The entrance to a spotted hyena's den is usually accessible only to the cubs. This allows for protection against predators when the mother is hunting.
(Above and Below) Cape buffaloes are considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Unlike the other animals which ignore tourists, cape buffaloes will give a menacing glare.
Even the cape buffalo calves will give you the stink eye.
Despite the foul odors from the salty, alkaline water, Lake Magadi is a popular hangout for flamingos.
The number of large herbivores in the Ngorongoro Crater is impressive. However, I really wanted to see some predatory cats in action. With his extensive experience as a guide, Godfrey taught me a good strategy for searching for lions...
...you can look in the direction where all the herd animals are staring...
You can try to spot large shadows sitting in the shade of the trees...
Or you can just go where all the other cars are parked.
Unfortunately, all the lions at Ngorongoro seemed to be vegetarians. We saw no blood shed that day.
We were treated to the sight of three black rhinoceros lumbering by us. Additionally, we also spotted another trio not much farther away.
Godfrey excitedly explained how lucky we were to see these animals as many visitors can go days without seeing a single one. It's not just because their numbers are low, but also because they spend much of the day hiding out in the forest regions away from the access roads.
I DID question how lucky we were to get close-up views of these animals defecating.
I 'm glad that we had opted for a private safari. We saw so many crowded safari vehicles with six or seven heads poking out of the top. We had plenty of room to spread out and not have other people's heads in our way. By not having other people sharing our vehicle, I could sit there as long as I wanted trying to get the perfect photograph of each animal. Sadly, I don't have an artistic eye, so it was all a moot point anyway. The Wife was being a good sport patiently waiting for me, but I could tell that she was bored out of her mind. How she could be a biology major in college but not find these animals interesting is a wonder to me.
After two hours of driving around, we headed to the restroom area at one end of the park. On the way there we stopped to admire a large herd of female elephants and their offspring. Godfrey explained that these large herds rarely ever make it to the floor of the crater. These cows and calves feed off the vegetation in the more forested slopes of the park.
Unlike the Asian elephant, both the males and females of the African variety have tusks. It takes a few years before young elephants will grow sizeable ones.
The solitary bulls with massive tusks can be seen grazing at the crater bottom.
Elephants weren't the only large things we saw in Ngorongoro Crater.
When we stopped for our bathroom break, there were several other safari trucks parked nearby. Their inhabits were enjoying a late breakfast picnic. There were no fences or barriers keeping wildlife away from this rest stop. However, the most dangerous animals that approached the tourists were little vervet monkeys who were hunting for morsels of food. While some tourists and I were snapping pictures of them, some overly-angry safari driver started chasing them away with a tire iron. What a tool! Both him and the tire iron.
The vervet monkey is commonly used as a non-human primate model for biochemical research.
This isolated mud hole was occupied by a solitary male hippopotamus. He was forced to roll around constantly as it was too shallow to completely cover him.
We drove around the Lerai forest searching for some leopards. However, we saw not only an absence of cats but fewer and fewer animals altogether. In the heat of the mid morning, the animals took to the shade. We drove around for the next two hours but saw very few interesting animals.
Finally, The Wife asked, "Is it safe to use the 'bush toilet' here?"
Godfrey pulled the car barely onto the grass and parked it at a 90 degree angle from the road.
While The Wife jumped out to do her business, I inquired, "Why'd you turn the car like that? Is it so that we can keep a lookout for lions over at that big patch of tall grass?"
Godfrey pointed to a distant hill and laughed, "No. It's because there's a ranger station over there. They have really powerful telescopes and can watch you while you pee. I parked my car here so it would block their view."
We stopped by the Ngorongoro picnic area for a late lunch. Apparently, so did everybody else as there were at least 40 cars parked there. And this wasn't even during the peak season. It was surprising to see how many people were in the park that morning as we usually saw no more than one or two cars at a time as we drove around.
Most of these vehicles had decals which represented practically every major safari operator out there--Leopard Tours, Thomson, African Dreams, etc. Godfrey proudly pointed to an unmarked, slightly beat-up Land Cruiser parked among them. He informed us that this vehicle belonged to his brother. Unlike most of the other guides out there, he worked for himself. So many of the safari lodges and companies in Tanzania have foreign ownership. Moreover it's not just limited to tourist activities. The government has also sold the mining concessions around Arusha to foreign companies in exchange for a small percentage of the profits. Tanzania is a very poor country, so there are not many people who have the resources available to a start a capital-heavy company. While it's good that these foreign-owned companies create jobs for the locals, most of the money eventually ends up leaving the country. Without these dollars being poured back into Tanzania, the country has little chance at improving.
The picnic area has a large lake where a pod of hippos reside. The water was too deep to really see them. The other main residents of this area were birds.
The kanga--the popular body wrap that East African women wear--is named after the Swahili word for the guinea fowl.
(Left) Black kites perched on rocks and circled the skies waiting for an opportunity to snatch a piece of meat from the lunch boxes of a careless tourist. (Middle) These helmeted guinea fowls ran up to the doors of incoming vehicles hoping for a handout. (Right) The tawny eagle eyed the guinea fowls hungrily.
Superb starlings will occasionally exhibit cooperative breeding--more than 1 pair of birds will help care for hatchlings.
The African sacred ibis was often mummified in Egypt where it can no longer be found.
After lunch, it was time for us to leave Ngorongoro Crater. As we drove up the exit route, we stopped to help another safari vehicle that had broken down. Their Land Cruiser had hit a pot hole, punctured a tire, and bent an axle. Godfrey had some tools that helped them change the tire, but it would take a few more hours of repairs before that car could be drive-able. The French tourists recounted the bad streak of luck they have been having at Ngorongoro. The last time they had visited, the brakes on their car failed on the way down the steep entrance ramp. Luckily no humans or animals were hurt before the vehicle came to a stop.
As we went on our way, I asked Godfrey how long it would take them to get a tow truck out there. He looked at me quizzically. He explained that there is no such thing as tow trucks out in the bush. When vehicles break down, they have to be fixed on the spot. That usually means abandoning them, finding the spare parts in a local town, and then coming back to do the repairs. No Autozone, no hydraulic lifts, and no power tools are available. Thus, the safari guide is not only a driver but also a mechanic.
We headed to our next destination, Asilia's Ubuntu Tented Camp, south of Lake Ndutu. Since this lodging is located outside of the national park system, the road to the site was populated by multiple Maasai settlements. Since our journey took several hours and lasted into the late afternoon, we eventually passed several groups of unescorted Maasai children dressed in uniforms. Godfrey noted that they sometimes had to walk several miles from the school back to their villages. Although this area was not as populated with large mammals, the large trees and thick vegetation made it a good place for leopards to hide. Usually, the children were safe if they travelled together in groups, but they were easy targets to get snatched and killed if walking alone. Who would have thought that being a latchkey kid would be so dangerous!
I passed the time talking with Godfrey about the issue of hunting in his country. Unlike Kenya which banned the practice in 1977, hunting wild game is still legal in some parts of the country. Godfrey recounted his experience taking some big game hunters on a drive in the Selous National Park. The hunters bought licenses to shoot specific animals and had 1-2 weeks to do it. If they failed, they didn't get their money back. Back then, the license fee to kill one of the big five animals with just a few thousand dollars. However, now the prices have increased substantially. A quick internet search details how expensive a hunting trip can be. Pretty much any animal is legal except for the giraffe, the national animal of Tanzania. However, the killing is limited to certain borders. Godfrey told us that the animals aren't stupid. They seem to understand that when they are in the boundaries where hunting is legal, then they will run away from people and vehicles. However, in the kill-free zones, they are more approachable.
Although practically every man in the American South hunts (including my gun-crazy brother), it's not my cup of tea. I prefer to shoot them with my lenses. After observing a pack of baboons for just a little while, I can't imagine putting a bullet into one of them or any other intelligent creature (the creepy cape buffaloes may be an exception). Godfrey, on the other hand, was raised in a family that hunts. His father, his brother, and he himself all have killed their fair share of furry things. But they do it because meat is a luxury for most Tanzanians. And they enjoy it too. Godfrey listed some of his favorites including the eland and the Thomson's gazelle (not the Grants, though). He also enjoyed wildebeest and zebra. Unfortunately, these meats aren't normally served in Tanzanian restaurants. But I would love to try them someday. I'll just let somebody else do the shooting.
We drove for hours through what felt like rural country roads passing small settlement after small settlement. Little children continued to wave at us curiously as we drove past them. We rounded a bend in the road and suddenly Godfrey slammed on the brakes. The path in front of us was blocked by fifteen giraffes and countless zebras. A herd of impalas also eyed us in the distance. It's hard to imagine being a Maasai tribesman and sharing your backyard with these wild animals. I guess that if you constantly run across these beasts on a daily basis, you get used to them. And they probably get used to you.
Giraffe and zebra crossing.
The large herds of giraffes that we saw mainly consisted of younger animals. Adult giraffes can be more solitary.
Dot, dash, dash, dash = J.
A male impala guards his harem. Females travel in large groups which are herded together by a strong, territorial male. He will in turn chase away any other bachelors who trespass onto his lands.
We made it to Asilia's Ubuntu Tented Camp by the late afternoon. After checking in and signing another waiver absolving the camp of responsibility for dangerous wildlife, we hit the showers. This time, we were more savvy at conserving the water in the bucket. Unlike in the Lemala camps, the attendant doesn't wait around until you finish. If we needed anything, we called them over walkie-talkie.
The Ubuntu camp accommodates eight private tents.
Using the bucket shower takes some getting used to.
(Left) Each tent contains either a double bed or two twins. (Right) The bathrooms even have nice fancy sinks.
The common area where guests can sit and chat.
Despite being in the bush, fancy meals can be served on nice plates and flatware. Even Tabasco sauce is imported from Avery Island.
This camp was at full occupancy that evening. We met a chain-smoking Swiss couple who spoke five languages (as compared to my one). They took special pride in their country's independence from the European Union. At dinner, we were introduced to a large group of older Canadians who were finishing their annual trip to an exotic location around the world. One lady in particular entertained us with tales of travelling in the Arctic Circle and volunteering among the Inuit tribes.
I had a brief conversation with the man who was seated to my left. He was an Englishman who had ended up in Tanzania 30 years previously while backpacking through Africa. He fell in love with the country and ended up staying. Since he lives in Arusha, I told him about our enjoyable stay in the Onsea House. I told how much The Wife loved the close-up pictures of wildlife hanging up in their dining room. He thanked us and told us that he had taken those photographs. Sure enough, I recognized his name--Paul Oliver--which was the signature on those pictures. I presumed that he must be some nature photographer, so I asked him some nerdy questions about cameras and lenses. The food here was much better here than at the previous camp.
(Left) Tart with peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. (Right) Chicken with mushroom sauce and potatoes, stewed red cabbage, and roasted butternut squash.
(Left) Lemon pie. (Right) The gluten-free dessert of fruit cocktail.
As we got up from dinner to head back to our tent, I couldn't help but hear the tour leader for the Canadians profusely thanking Paul for the great time that they had at his camp. I wondered what that was all about.
The tents at this Asilia site are smaller than the ones at the Lemala camp. However, it was still big enough for the two of us. One very nice touch was the hot water bag they placed under the covers. It made the bed especially cozy. We fell asleep that night to the whooping sounds of hyenas in the distance.
Sunrise was tranquil from the "porch" of our tent.
Coffee and biscuits accompanied our wake-up call.
The following morning, Godfrey asked us eagerly if we had met Paul Oliver. He explained that Paul is a very well-known and respected guide throughout Tanzania and other parts of Africa. Godfrey told us that Mr. Oliver has probably visited every corner of the country during his travels. Paul had been influential in conservation issues in the country and had founded a very high end camp called Oliver's Camp in Tarangire Park. I remotely recalled reading great reviews about that place, but Tarangire didn't make our brief itinerary of stops. [note: Paul later told us that he had sold the camp a few years back and retained a "small share" in the Asilia group. So in a way, he was really one of the owners of the camp we were currently staying at.]
Godfrey then gave us some good news and bad news. On the bright side, the Migration was to the North of us towards Lake Ndutu. Several guides had reported huge herds of animals grazing on the thick green grass in this area. Similarly, large groups of herbivores usually means predators as well. Epimark, the camp's manager had informed us that there is a small pack of African wild dogs in that area too. He had caught them on video tearing an adult wildebeest apart. However, the horrible news was that it had been raining substantially in the last few days. The fertile black soil so good for the grass was now too soft and wet. Godfrey was told that a caravan of safari vehicles had been up in that area the day before. Seven of the eight had gotten stuck in the mud. Since we were venturing out there alone, any breakdowns would mean having to abandon our Land Cruiser and walking the long distance back. The best option would be to search around the camp where the ground would be firmer, but the wildlife would also be less populated. Although it was disappointing to have traveled so far from home and not have things work out perfectly, I understood that this was the right decision.
We set off futilely searching for animals. There wasn't much except for sporadic stragglers from the zebra, gazelle, giraffe, and wildebeest herds. We tried approaching large groups of elands, but they would start running away when we were more than two hundred yards away. Godfrey explained that they are usually hunted by shooters in cars. Therefore, they know to be fearful of vehicles.
With their longer necks, do giraffes have an easier time licking their balls than dogs do?
The ground was littered with large white shells as big as our palms that had been discarded by East African land snails.
These speckle-fronted weavers have built a communal nest in an acacia tree.
(Left) The crowned lapwing have distinctive bright red legs. (Middle and Right) Several species of aloe plants grow throughout Africa. This variety bears red rosette flowers.
After two hours of frustration and me cursing every eland that looked like a lion from afar, Godfrey stopped to check out three small dots way back in the horizon. I looked through my binoculars but could only see three tiny tan shapes. I didn't think much of them, but Godfrey has much better instincts than me. Since we were no longer within the national parks, off-road driving was permitted.
As our vehicle chased after those animals, we could see the distinctive slinking silhouettes of cheetahs.
Godfrey cautioned us that, unlike the Ngorongoro Crater, these animals were likely not used to vehicles. We would have to slowly creep up to these animals to make them realize that we were of no threat to them. Over the next hour, Godfrey deftly zigzagged the car making sure that we didn't drive straight at the cats. We watched their body language to make sure that they weren't getting spooked. They would eye us cautiously each time we got closer. But we could tell when they were more comfortable when they would start lying down and cat-napping. After I used the bush toilet, Godfrey explained that any human silhouette would cause the cheetahs to flee.
One of the cheetahs climbed a tree to get a better vantage point.
Eventually, we closed to within just a few yards away.
Godfrey noted that these three were all males. He told us that cheetahs are usually solitary animals. Females will travel with their cubs until they are ready to hunt alone. However, on some occasions such as this, cheetah brothers would form life-long packs and work together for food and protection.
I had a great time watching these graceful animals from such a close range. Their behavior was not dissimilar to my housecat at home. I only wished that they were in a hunting mode so that we could have observed their legendary speed. After some time, all three cheetahs bolted up and glared in the direction behind us. Then just like that, they started trotting away. I glanced behind us expecting to see a ferocious lion or pack of rabid cape buffaloes. However, the most dangerous creature of all soon appeared. About 100 yards away, two spear-laden Maasai warriors came into view. They must have seen our vehicle sitting there for so long, so they came to investigate if somebody needed help. It's amazing that we can talk and stand up with our head and shoulders outside of a vehicle merely 10 yards away from these animals. However, they get freaked out from human shapes 10 times farther away.
These cheetahs are fearful of human contact.
We encountered a deserted Maasai village. Perhaps those warriors were on their way there.
We returned to camp for an alfresco lunch. Since the animals would be inactive in the heat of the midday, we napped back in our tent until 3:30 PM.
(Left) Grilled beef with assorted vegetables. (Right) Gluten-free bread.
(Left) Meat lasagna, avocados and bread. (Right) Grilled pineapple.
Godfrey then drove us to the area on the other side of the camp. We passed a large watering hole that was built to nourish the cattle of local Maasai. Luckily, there were no villagers nearby or they would have gotten quite a surprise from a pair of submerged hippos.
A flock of Egyptian geese kept their distance from the hippos.
A grey heron also resided near the watering hole.
Whenever we encountered a partially dried river bed, Godfrey would stop and get out of the Land Cruiser to check if the ground was dry enough to cross. One time he disappeared for several minutes behind some scrub. The Wife and I exchanged worried glances that he may have gotten eaten by a lion. Luckily, that was not the case. Unfortunately, all of Godfrey's navigational skills were all for naught. None of the areas that we visited proved fruitful for interesting animals. Even my patience and enjoyment of animal watching was tested by three hours of non-sightings.
We did encounter a sad reality of nature. A solitary wildebeest calf had become separated from its mother and was miles away from any other herd animals. The calf ran up to our vehicle and tried to endear itself to our tires. It made meek honking noises at us hoping that we were its mother. Godfrey tried to wave it off to the direction of the last group of wildebeests that we had seen, but it was to no avail. As we drove off, the calf even ran after us for half a mile before it tired out.
(Left) Godfrey reassured us that this calf would likely be fine since it was old enough not to be dependent on its mother's milk. (Right) Judging by the number of wildebeest carcasses that dotted the plains, we knew that the new gnu had little chance.
(Left and Right) It was clear that the Migration had already passed through this area, leaving no shortage of corpses and vultures.
After cleaning up back at camp, we had yet another delicious meal.
(Left) Zucchini soup. (Right) Beef stew, green beans, and potatoes.
(Left) Chocolate cake. (Right) Sautéed bananas in sauce.
Channel Ubuntu on bush TV
We discovered that we were one of the last guests at camp. Most had left earlier in the day, leaving only Paul Oliver, his friend/client named John, and both of their spouses. John is a semi-retired nuclear physicist from England, a life-long mountaineer, and avid country music fan. He had visited the Dark Continent 20 years ago and loved it. At the young age of 50, he began an annual journey to Tanzania, eventually joining Paul Oliver on many an adventure. Both of them are self-proclaimed "bird-nuts." (Paul often darted away from the table to photograph small weavers fluttering around the camp). In an attempt to compile the definitive database of all things avian in Tanzania, they have journeyed to the farthest reaches of the country way outside of the usual safari bubble that most tourist are accustomed to.
Those two happily reminisced about some of their past misadventures. Twice they had crashed their vehicle by driving over a tree stump in the dead of night. One time, their car was so badly damaged that the axle was bent out of shape and the door was practically off the hinges. The driver had to steer the vehicle in a zigzagged fashion while the passenger had to manually hold the door in place. Another time, before the advent of GPS, they had become lost for days searching in some of the most obscure nooks and crannies of the country just to verify the rumors of a rare bird. There was a constant theme of them having to ask wandering Maasai warriors for directions, only to be led further astray. Paul even recounted the time when he encountered a flooded river crossing that was blocked by the bodies of dead wildebeest that had drowned while trying to cross. He had to wade in and manually haul away the stinking, bloated carcasses in order to get his vehicle across. While we don't share their infatuation for dinosaur descendants, we really appreciated their passion for their hobby as well as their timeless sense of adventure.
The two men also gave us some good pointers for future safari adventures. John had recently taken his grandchildren to Kenya. Since children (and some adults) can easily tire of long game drives, some lodges over there offer fun, kid-friendly activities such as "warrior training" and archery. Paul also critiqued some of the problems with the big safari companies. Most large operators use Toyota Land Cruisers that had been modified to add an extra row of seats. This of course was to cram in more clients and thus make more money. The downside, as we had experienced that day, is that the heavier vehicles have a greater potential to get stuck in the mud. Thus, Paul recommended lighter vehicles such as a three-rowed Land Rovers which he says has superior off-road capabilities.
Paul's wife was as equally intriguing. She is an expat Australian who used to produce nature documentaries especially on cheetahs. Although she had made them initially for German television, the footage had been recycled and re-edited for the short-attention spans of American audiences. Thus, I'm sure I must have seen some of her work on the Discovery or National Geographic Channels. More recently, she had helped the producers of The Amazing Race when they came to Tanzania a year or two ago. However, her experience with them has made her skeptical about the reality in reality television.
One nice touch about this camp is how the staff is willing to engage the guests in conversation. We liked how they weren't just relegated to a role of servants. During our two day stay there, we had an enjoyable conversation with an African man who was the same age as me. He was staying at the Ubuntu Camp to get experience because he would be the assistant manager at Asilia's newest property in Mozambique. Although he hailed from Zimbabwe, he had worked in the tourist industry in five or six different countries. But he said that his most enjoyable experience was when he took time off just to explore East and West Africa. Hitching rides on the back of trucks traveling through some of the poorest and tumultuous parts of the continent helped him see what real Africa was like away from the tourist bubble.
With regret, we left the Ubuntu Camp the following morning. Although the wildlife sightings were somewhat disappointing, the human encounters were very enriching.