We had decided to leave Karatu and FAME at a very early hour to travel to Arusha via Tarangire National Park – it’s not actually on the way, but only about a 30 minute detour and one of the most beautiful parks in Tanzania with lots of elephants. It’s possible to spend a good part of the day at the park and still make it back to Arusha in the daylight which is always important consider the dangerous driving here after dark. The night sky just before dawn while loading the vehicle was a miracle of stars with the Milky Way being the centerpiece. It seemed there was more white than black in the sky. We were to pick up Sokoine and two others in town on our way out, but it turned out that the party had gone on much past our departure at 11pm. Many of the Tanzanians were dancing until dawn and only Sokoine was able to make it as the others were still sleeping. We left town with the sun just peaking over the horizon and a beautiful sunrise on our way to Tarangire.
(All animal photos for this post were taken by Jackie using my camera as I was doing the driving)
Tarangire is a unique park that is dominated by a river ecology. The animals all remain protected in the nearby hills during the night and then each morning travel slowly towards the life giving water of the river. The big cats, of course, sit and wait for the animals to move towards the river each day in hopes of catching some lunch. This is not the high season for Tarangire as it is very lush and green meaning that the animals can find tall grasses to eat without having to come all the way to the river and so they are more spread out and not concentrated at the river which is best for game viewing. It is still an amazing place at this time of year and there is lots to see. Tarangire is known for it’s amazing numbers of elephants and it didn’t let us down this time. There were hundreds of families of elephants usually made up of a dominant female along with her sisters and all of their babies. Males usually travel separately and alone, not in groups. There were so many babies which is always wonderful to see as the herds remain very healthy.
We traveled slowly along the river often encountering deep mud pits in search of more elusive game. It is always reassuring to see tire tracks on the opposite side of these pits with the knowledge that someone before you had made it across. Safari guides are very friendly and often share information when you pass on the trail and so I had received a tip that there was a pride of lions at the river crossing on the way to the Tarangire Sopa Lodge a number of kilometers ahead. We drove to the crossing and couldn’t find them on either side of the river, but then saw another vehicle parked a bit up river near some trees and made our way over. Two female lions were sitting in a tree and looking out over the river in search of prey. They eventually climbed down and then across the river. We could hear the male lion occasionally softly roaring across the river where they were heading. They eventually disappeared into the brush, undoubtedly getting out of the heat for a midday nap they were planning.
We crossed the river as well and decided to slowly make our way towards the Sopa Lodge as Sokoine had some friends working at the lodge and wanted to visit with them. The Lodge itself is a huge building that reminded me of the great old lodges out west in Yellowstone and Glacier. It had a grand dinning room with many tables all set in lodge style for the guests coming later for lunch and dinner. It was lunchtime for us so Sokoine walked us up to the staff area where his friends were and were invited to sit in their dining area which, though, far different from the opulence of the lodge, was equally comfortable and pleasant as we with the local Tanzanians who we felt totally at home with. We were treated to soft drinks to have with our sandwiches we had brought and watched as the guides and staff played pool and chatted. It was great.
After saying goodbye to everyone at the Sopa Lodge we loaded back into the Land Cruiser and it wasn’t long before everyone had fallen asleep other than Jackie and me, which was good since I was driving. We made our way slowly back on the opposite side of the river than we had come in on passing elephant family after family. Before everyone fell asleep, though, we did run across our two female lions again near the river crossing. One was up in a tree and underneath her was an entire family of elephants sitting in the shade and out of the sun. She didn’t look particularly comfortable with so many mortal enemies right underneath her, but she was definitely keeping her eye on several babies that were in the group of elephants. The elephants eventually moved on, much to the relief of the lion I am sure, and caused no further difficulties for her.
After leaving the river and traveling a short distance we ran across a lone bull elephant that appeared to be in musk. Unfortunately for us, he was in the middle of the road and didn’t seem to be all too happy that we were anywhere near him. As I approached him quite warily he wasn’t at all interested in moving off the road and continued walking in our direction. At one point, he looked like he was going to charge so I had the vehicle in reverse and ready for a quick escape. I started backing up very slowly and he proceeded to continue moving in our direction such that I had to keep backing up and be ready to fly if he did charge. At some point after a few minutes of this, he lost interest in our vehicle and veered off the road a little giving us the opportunity to zip around him and be on our way. Staring down a bull elephant is a nerve wracking experience.
I always keep our previous trips to the parks recorded on my iPad so I can return to certain high likelihood viewing areas. It also allows me to safely navigate through areas that are not well marked. Or at least that has been my experience on past trips to many parks. That was not to be the case today, unfortunately. Heading out of the park you have several options, some less direct than others, and I always like to maximize our viewing time so I decided to take one of the less direct routes out of the park this day. We traveled out to an area called the Little Serengeti Plain where I have often seen cheetah before (there were none today) and then turn to parallel the main road heading out of the park, but several kilometers to the west. Following the path on my GPS program we were clearly heading in the right direction. The path seemed to be getting bit less well defined as we traveled further and further into the grass. What I didn’t notice, though, was that the grass was getting taller and taller meaning that there was more moisture in front of us. We passed a huge herd of Cape Buffalo who kept close eyes on us and they eventually began to move to some more distant grasses. Our trail continued to be less and less defined and I eventually stopped to check things out. It appeared that there might have been another path next to us and I finally decided to move forward tentatively, but almost instantaneously our front tires dropped suddenly in the muck followed closely by our back tires as soon as I made an attempt to back up. It was very quickly apparent that we were hopelessly mired in the mud with no signs of civilization or another vehicle for many kilometers as I had traveled well off the beaten path. It was also clear that the road had likely been fine in the dry season when I had driven this road previously. Note to Mike – pay attention to the time of year in which you drove this route before. And, oh yes, pay attention to the grass as it gets taller and taller.
So, here we were, stranded in the middle of nowhere at the low season so we could be sure that no one would be passing this way for days and it was quickly approaching evening and then night. There was no way to walk out with the animals looking for dinner so we tried to jack up the vehicle. The hijack we had (a very tall jack for off-road vehicles) merely sank in the muck when you tried to use it so we pulled off the spare and used it as a base to set the jack on. Things were moving along though it was fairly clear that we weren’t going to be very successful in freeing ourselves as the wheels just spun free and we had no rocks nearby to put under them. What to do?
Had I mentioned that Leonard texted me earlier and told me he was on safari and taking a group to Tarangire that day? What is the likelihood of that happening, let alone the likelihood of our having a cell signal in the middle of nowhere, enough to text and call, but not enough for me to send my position to him. It turned out that he had just gotten to the gate entering the park and would call me back so I could describe how to get to where we were. There were storms in the area and it started to rain on us, but it was only a brief sun shower and did not continue for very long. OK, directions. Take the turnoff right before the lunch spot towards the little Serengeti and when you get to the far marker turn left. Drive along the trees for several kilometers and you’ll see a huge herd of Cape Buffalo. Just past the herd, you’ll see a small path to the left that heads in the direction of the main gate. Take that and we’re several more kilometers down that trail stuck in the muck. As amazing as it may sound, he came very close to finding us with those directions and it required only one more phone call and a small back track for him to see us in the distance with his binoculars. I can’t tell you how much relief I felt seeing him come up the trail in our direction. We hooked up a special strap (a snatch strap) that I had bought him a year ago and was in the vehicle and he was able to yank us out of the muck on the third try. I was in reverse and couldn’t see out the back well, but I kept driving for some time so as to be well clear of the muck until I heard Leonard honking to tell me to stop. What an adventure!! And what a story to tell your grandchildren. Leonard’s group in his vehicle also got a big kick out of it and I gave them money to buy drinks when they got to camp since I had delayed their arrival having to come out and rescue me.
We were behind Leonard traveling out of the area and back to the main road when we ran into our old friend, Mr. Bull Elephant. I pulled up along side Leonard and told him that the elephant was dangerous and that he had clearly not liked our presence previously. Leonard inched up towards to the elephant to drive around him on the road and was almost completely by him when the elephant decided to charge their vehicle. He gunned the engine and off they went. So here we sat with the bull elephant who just charged another vehicle and would probably like to do it again if given the chance. I waited for him to meander off the road a bit and behind a tree before I tried again to inch my way around him, but he was clearly keeping an eye on me. We waited for the right moment and gunned the engine, then drove by him as safely as we could. We were finally on our way out of the park, albeit a bit later than I had anticipated. We saw more lions on our way, but otherwise got to the gate in time as they close it at 7 pm and there’s not way to exit after that.
We began our 1+ hour trip back to Arusha with the sun setting behind us and a very treacherous road in front of us. It seemed like forever, but we finally arrived to Arusha and took Sokoine back to his in-law’s house where his wife and son were staying. We met all of her family and were given chai and banana stew in true Tanzanian fashion as you always feed a guest. We had dinner waiting for us at Leonard’s house as Pendo always makes sure we are fed, so we had a spoonful of the stew which is fine as someone else will always eat our leftovers. We arrived to Leonard’s and Pendo was already well aware of my trials and tribulations as Leonard had called her. We were all covered with mud and dirt, but dinner was delicious and I can’t recall having ever felt quite as relieved as I was that night to have made it home.