When it’s Sunday, that means we’re either on safari in one of the parks or hiking somewhere. Today, it was decided that we’d all go to Lake Manyara, the closest park to Karatu and one that I love to drive. Joyce and her sister, Terry, were going to accompany us there so we’d have six of us total, one safari driver and guide, yours truly, and five safari goers. It was the first safari for Chris and Nan, while Jamie had been to Botswana during medical school and had done safaris there and in South Africa. Though I love to photograph the scenery and animals here, I also love to guide game drives which means that I have to give up my cameras. Chris took over my main camera with its monster safari lens and Nan used my backup camera with a smaller lens and much easier to shot handholding it. Jamie used her own camera for shots, so all the photos of animals you’ll see here were shot by the three of them, except for the black and white photos of the bull elephants which I shot.
We had decided to leave at 6am as that would get us to the gate shortly after they opened and we would very likely have the park to ourselves for much of the morning. I’ve spoken about Lake Manyara National Park many times before, but it is a spectacular park that is often overlooked on the safari circuit as it is overshadowed by the likes of Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Tarangire National Park, which is just a bit further from Karatu, but closer to Arusha, is typically on most itinerary as it is larger in regard to driving area and has all the big cats whereas Manyara has only lions that are quite often very difficult to locate. We left the comforts of Karatu and descended down the escarpment until we were at the entrance to Lake Manyara National Park. The entrance to the park is at the base of the escarpment and extends for a number of kilometers wedged between the lake and the sharp incline. There is a small bridge crossing a river at the entrance and it was this waterway that carried tons of huge boulders out of the mountains completely washing out this main artery of travel several years ago when Danielle Becker and I were here at FAME. The massive debris field of rocks also completely swallowed the visitors center at the park entrance and it is still being rebuilt to this day.
Thousands of Maribu storks were nesting in the large trees at the entrance to the park and flew overhead coming and going but usually bringing some portion of a branch with leaves with which to enlarge their nest. They are not a particularly beautiful bird as their head is without feathers, but to see them in flight is another thing for they are quite large and their wingspan is immense. We took care of our registration and entrance fees, now including an 18% VAT tax since Magufuli’s election that has been quite controversial with concerns regarding the future of tourism here as the tax can become quite expensive when a big safari trip is in question. For all of us, it was a small addition to the entrance fee and well worth it. Joyce and I pay only half the normal entrance fee since we both have our class C residents permit. It was now merely a matter of putting the top up on the Land Cruiser, getting our camera gear in order, shoes off to stand on the seats (except for me, of course) and we were on our way.
Just beyond the entrance to the park is a dense tropical forest with very large trees and many small creeks that all become raging torrents when the rain begins to fall. There has been a fair amount of rain over the last weeks and so we can see the areas that have been washed out along side the roads. Even more impressive, perhaps, was the one river crossing that was completely washed out and impassable as we made our way through the park causing us to have to backtrack a short distance to use another road whose crossing was still intact over the same creek. The landscape here is constantly changing under the forces of Mother Nature and it so impressive that I’ve been here long enough to have seen a fair amount of that change during my tenure.
The most impressive part of this visit, though, turned out to be the vast flocks of migratory birds that were everywhere along the lakeshore and in the air. And these were not small birds such as ducks or even geese, but rather the massive birds such as the Marabou stork, White Pelican, Greater and Lesser flamingos, Ibises, Herons, Spoonbills and many more. Intermittently, each species would take off as a group or sometimes several in succession and the sky would be filled overhead. They would swoop in an aerial acrobatic show in which their profiles would change in unison almost as if they suddenly disappeared only to be immediately reappear as some other color or form. Their flight seemed so effortless with wings spread wide as they soared aloft among the thermals in a colorful display that seemed to be reserved for us alone. Clouds of color continuously shifting to and fro with each change of direction.
There had been a significant drought in the area until very recently, but now the recent rains have raised the level of the lake considerably and the grasses have grown inches every day. Traveling out to the hippo pool brings us to several spots where it is difficult to pass, or at least for me, not wishing to have the Land Cruiser stuck in the mud once again as I have done in the past. There is no automobile club here to call and I can say from experience that it definitely ruins your day when something like that happens. Playing it safe is the smarter option and far less stressful. The sounds of the many birds here is almost deafening at times. Driving along the lakeshore area we see wildebeest, Cape buffalo and zebra along with many herds of impala who segregate into large harems with a single dominant buck and bachelor herds of jealous males.
We finally spot our first elephants of the day, a family of females and adolescents along with younger babies. We watch them for a bit only then to discover that there are many families in the area, perhaps well over one hundred elephants all moving slowly along in the coolness of the morning hours to their watering holes where they will be most of the midday, only to return to the surrounding hillsides at night. They are simply amazing animals who have little to be concerned about with our presence so we can sit for as long as we wish with the elephants moving along quite close us, eating and clearly communicating with each other. Very little babies are typically shielded from us by their mothers or siblings, but it is still easy to follow them as they try to imitate their elders.
Driving further into the park we finally come to Magi Moto, or hot water, named for the near boiling hot springs that flow into the lake here. There is a picnic spot for us to eat our lunch and relax with an amazing view of the lake stretching off into the distance before us. There is now a boardwalk that goes out into the lake, something that I could have done without as it ruins the pristine nature of the area, but it still a superb view from the picnic area regardless. After lunch we continue along the main road making detours towards the lakeshore on small viewing circuits where I have seen prides of lions several times, but unfortunately today we are unable to locate any. We do come across a watering hole with four bull elephants covering themselves with mud and cooling themselves off in the midday sun. They are so much larger than the females and adolescents of the herds we say earlier. We finally reach the far end of the park where the roads become mere tire tracks in the grass and traveling further becomes a bit treacherous and so we loop back around past the Manyara Tree Lodge and head back towards the main gate.
We take our time heading back, though, so we can do some more game viewing along the way and managed to run across a very young baby elephant with it’s mother and probably aunt. The baby is quite young as it can pass under its mother’s stomach and still has a significant amount of the soft fur that remains only until they are about a year old. Typically, the mother will shield them and not allow the baby to be near us, but for some reason that was not the case with these elephants. We parked for some time while the baby continued to mimic its mother and, at one point, strolled along side of our vehicle and paused for some time at the front tire to investigate. It remained far enough from its mother that both were clearly comfortable and not at all spooked by the our presence. The baby managed to put on quite a show for us, loosening the dirt with its front foot so it could then use its trunk to throw direct onto its own back. This is obviously a behavior learned from watching others and which it will have to eventually master over time.
We exited the park at around 5pm, having entered at 7am, so we’ve had quite a long day of game viewing and I’m particularly sore having spent twelve hours in the drivers seat by the time we get back to Karatu. We will need to stop for dinner somewhere on our way home and decided on the Happy Days Pub which is always a safe bet for something to eat, though it might take the better part of the evening to get served your dinner. That’s fine as we’re with friends with lots to talk about and share. It was a great day in the park even without the lions and we’re looking forward to our next safari.