(Photos courtesy of Susan, Susanna, Mindy and Johannes, and, of course, me)
I am always asked when I take guests on safari whether it is exhausting and I always give the very same reply. I can’t think of anywhere else on this planet that I’d rather be at that very moment and, though, it is incredibly tiring to drive for ten hours or more, starting and stopping, spotting game, and answering questions, it is perhaps the most exhilarating thing that I have been able to do in my life. As a child and young adult, I had always dreamed of being in Africa and to now have had the opportunity to be here providing care to our patients and taking some time to share the wonders of this country with those who accompany me, has been the ultimate realization of that dream.
We had had a wonderful dinner at Gibb’s last night as has always been the case and, thankfully, we were home at a reasonable hour that enabled us to make everything we needed for lunch while on safari at Lake Manyara. There are few services there, which are really like none as the Manyara Tree Lodge is open only to guests who are staying there and is very, very expensive. We have always packed our lunches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches have always sufficed for the group as the main course. We’ve had hardboiled eggs, cheese slices, cut up mango, pineapple and other assorted goodies from our house to accompany the sandwiches, but the latter have always remained a staple, most likely given the ease of putting together the night before. Preparing for safari is really not a big deal, but you have to make sure that you have enough water for the day as there are not services available in the parks and it’s quite easy to become stranded if you have a mechanical breakdown or, worse yet, if you become hopelessly stuck in the mud in some remote corner of a park. It’s happened to us in the past and we’ve always been lucky enough to have been rescued.
Lake Manyara National Park is a wonderful place that is totally dominated by the very large lake that occupies more than half of the area of the park. As you are driving along the western shore of this body of water with the high cliffs of the Great Rift to your right heading south, it is very difficult to get lost or make a wrong turn there. I’m sure I’ve been on safari here more than a dozen times over the last eight years and it has always been a pleasant experience. This is the site of Ernest Hemingway’s exciting non-fiction novelette “The Green Hills of Africa,” where he is traveling with his wife and some other big game hunters competing to land the rhino with the longest horn. Outside of the fact that they were hunting these amazing creatures for the sport and their horns so that they are no longer there and are endangered in the remainder of Tanzania, it is a good story and a great read.
The best time to view wildlife here is early in the morning and in the late afternoon, so it is always the best to arrive to the park gate as soon as they open at 6:30am. The animals are most active at those times with the herds of elephants coming out of the foothills, where they have spent their nights, and traveling across the woodlands towards the much wetter lakeshore with it’s watering holes. Several years ago, the entrance to the park changed dramatically one night as a flash flood during a tremendous rainfall raged down from the hillside hurling huge boulders onto the small huts that housed the park office and bathrooms. Thankfully, no one was around at the time, but it essentially buried what used to be the entrance area under about six feet of rock and debris requiring that they fully renovate the gate area. The flood also completely took out the road making it impassable for several days and considering that this is the only road to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, it had a huge impact on the tourist industry as it stranded guests traveling to or from those areas on the wrong side of the huge ravine that was formed. Danielle Becker and I were still in Karatu working when this happened and luckily they were able to partially repair the road in time for us to leave. Driving across the temporary roadbed that had been put in place that morning to get to the other side was a bit eerie to say the least and watching the bus pass over in front of us gave me just partial confidence that it wasn’t going to wash away while we were crossing it.
We left our house a bit after 6am and drove through the dark of Karatu as we headed out of town on our way to Manyara. Once through the gate in Manyara, you pass through a very tropical forest with streams and occasional small waterfalls on either side of the road and troops of baboons sitting or standing in the center of the road, grooming themselves or playing. There were so many tiny baby baboons that were either clinging to their mothers or sitting very close by them so if any alarm sounded they could be back in their mother’s arms and safety in a flash. We also saw the two other types of monkeys resident to Manyara, the blue monkey and the vervet monkey, both highly sociable and also with lots of babies to watch this time of year. Occasionally, you will see a waterbuck or reedbuck in the forest, but we didn’t see any this time as we entered the larger portion of the park heading towards the hippo pool.
I think the first time you leave the forest and enter the more open grasslands, it must be a real experience for everything suddenly appears before you with the lake in the background and groups of animals scattered about in front of you. As we approach the marshy wetlands heading towards the hippo pool, there were many different birds that were all gorgeous, some more spectacular than others. A goliath heron, an African spoonbill, a hamerkop, Egyptian geese, weavers, egrets, yellow storks, crowned cranes and more, all in one concentrated area and all singing and talking to each other was the most pleasant and relaxing sound. We drove around the marsh and to the elevated platform that lets you look out towards where the hippos congregate. On occasion, you may find one out of the water, still grazing from the night before, but none were in sight this morning.
There were several very large male Cape buffalo wading through the hip deep muck feeding that seemed to barely take notice as we drove closely by them. Fifty yards up the road or so, we stopped to watch some more of the waterfowl including the spoonbill that looked so very odd and prehistoric as it hunted for fish and seemed to be very successful. Suddenly, I heard several of my passengers screaming to drive forward, not an easy thing to comply with when the ignition is off, but somehow I instinctively fired up the engine, put it in gear and took off forward, only to look into my side view mirror and see a huge Cape buffalo charging at full speed towards us. As I drove a few more yards, the huge beast was suddenly beside us and I could see him running alongside our vehicle just outside the front passenger window. It was quite clear at that point, that he had had no intention of ever tangling with us, but was merely trying to get around us on a road that was surrounded by water on both sides requiring him to gallop at full-speed as he probably just wasn’t quite sure what to make of us. Had he been a bull elephant or a mother elephant defending her baby, it would have been an entirely different outcome, as they have been known to overturn vehicles on occasion. The Cape buffalo continued on his way, galloping at full speed across the grassland as we all couldn’t stop laughing over the entire experience that I think left some a bit shaken for suddenly having spotted the buffalo charging at full speed in our direction was certainly a scary site for anyone.
After we had all finally gathered ourselves up (some off the floor now suffering from PTCBS – post traumatic Cape buffalo syndrome) from the Cape buffalo episode, we continued on with our safari, traveling across the grasslands and back into the wooded regions looking for more game. Impala were everywhere, with their huge harems controlled by a single buck and the bachelor, or loser, herds made up of all those males who failed to win a harem. We later learned that the dominant male, after he is defeated by a challenger, would spend his time in a loser herd building back his strength so that he can compete once again for the harem. The dominant position is apparently a bit a revolving door so at least a number of males are successful in launching their genes into the next generation.
It was a beautiful day with a fair amount of cloud cover keeping the temperatures down, though there was still enough sun to keep things bright and it wasn’t long before I switched to my sunglasses. The route I usually take travels along the lakeshore alternating between the grasslands and wooded areas while we encountered more wildlife that included giraffes, more impala, wildebeest, Cape buffalo, warthogs and zebra. We even ran across a very small chameleon crossing the road that I almost didn’t see. He was doing this defensive maneuver in which he was stretched out completely and moving very slowly and deliberately (even exaggerated from what they normally do) so he seemed to be imitating a snake in some fashion. At least that’s what he thought he was doing. We all thought he looked like a chameleon doing some strange sort of dance. Once across the road, though, he scampered (as much as a chameleon can) quickly and disappeared into the brush having resumed his normal character.
We were on our way to Maji Moto (“hot water” in Swahili that is the site of hot springs feeding into the lake) to have lunch and to explore the new walkway that is like a boardwalk leading out onto the lake. Just as we were leaving the forested area, though, we ran across there adult elephants without any juveniles or babies. They were the first elephants most had seen in the wild so it was quite exciting and we watched them for a bit as they continued to feed on the grasses that at times were hidden underneath dead brush that they moved aside so dexterously with their huge trunks. It was still a ways to get to the hot springs so we left the elephants and continued our journey while it was still quite early in the morning. The parking at Maji Moto sits slightly elevated above the lake and from this vantage point you can see the thousands of pink flamingos that make Manyara their home during this time of year. There was a huge flock sitting just beyond the end of the boardwalk, but in the distance you could see a pink stripe of flamingos for the entirety of the opposite shore. The birds that were closest were making an incredible racket and were only overshadowed by the occasional honking of the hippos that were in a pool to our right at some distance. It took some time for me to convince the residents that those huge bumps in the pool that looked very much like smooth stones were actually hippos submerged during the middle of the day.
We left Maji Moto after eating our fine lunch of PB&Js and cheese. We had also brought along some of the leftover macaroni and cheese (and garlic) that served for some added nutrition. South of Maji Moto, there are some spots where I’ve encountered lion prides on more than once occasion, but I was unable to locate any of these felines in this area unfortunately. We continued driving along the lakeshore as the road began to peter out and we ended up pretty driving in the grass with only the sign of faint tire tracks for me to follow. We found small groups of wildebeest and Cape buffalo, but no predators. As we had reached the southernmost point that was really drivable, we decided to turn around and slowly head back towards the main entrance while still keeping our eyes out for wildlife. At one point, one of the other drivers had told me that there were some lions near the Bagayo River, so I decided that we should make that our destination for the time being.
I took a turnoff that we hadn’t been on following the river, but we saw not lions there. When I reached the lakeshore road, for some reason I decided to head away from the main gate rather than towards it, and within several minutes another tour group stopped along side of us and the guide told us that there several lion cubs in a tree 1.5 kilometers in the direction we were heading. We raced along trying to locate the spot and, sure enough, there were the cubs sitting on a tree branch with their mother nowhere to be found and probably off hunting somewhere. The two cubs were napping, but after a few moments, one of the got up and moved around on the branch. We had watched them for a bit, when Mindy spotted some elephants that were crossing the road in front of us. It’s the first time I’ve left lions in favor of elephants, but we drove ahead a short bit to see the big pachyderms and were thankful that we had. There was a watering hole on the other side of the road, which is where everyone was heading, and we had a wonderful show of the elephants drinking and showering themselves. They were also rolling in the mud to protect themselves from the hot sun.
As we watched, more and more elephants kept coming from the brush until there were probably nearly thirty elephants all in a small area surrounding the watering hole and simply enjoying themselves. There were babies and adolescents in addition to all of the adults and they could care less that we were sitting watching them for the entire time. We popped back briefly to see the lions, but they had moved off the branch and were now nowhere to be found. I would imagine that their mother had shown up, perhaps with a kill or they had heard her calling them someplace else. We went back to watch more of the elephants and when we finally drove away we continued to find family after family likely making their way back to the safety of the hills. Our drive back to the main gate was otherwise uneventful, though we continued to spot more wildlife as we drove. We departed the park after 4pm, having arrive there before 7am, so that we had nearly nine hours driving in the part which a long time for a game drive.
We stopped by our friends gallery on our way home, but they were about to close and he wasn’t there, so we made our way back to Karatu with plans to go to Happy Day for dinner as we had very little in the house to make. It takes forever to get your food there, but the pizzas were delicious as was the chicken curry. The beers were also quite refreshing, I will admit. It was off to the Raynes House and sleep as our big neurology clinic would be starting tomorrow morning and we definitely needed some rest after such a long day on safari. It was an incredible day of animal viewing, the best I have ever seen there as far as elephants go, and everyone had had a great time. It was the first safari for everyone other than Mindy, who had been to South Africa before, and I believe they all had an unforgettable day. That is why these trips are never exhausting for me and I am always in awe that I have had the privilege to bring these experiences to each of them. What more could one ask for.