After much discussion the night before, we had all agreed to have our breakfast a bit early this morning despite Johannes’ initial objections. Once we had convinced him that we might actually have a better chance of seeing some more big game as in lions, leopards or cheetahs, he seemed to be more agreeable and eventually consented to disturb his beauty sleep with this prospect of a successful game drive. We all showed up for breakfast at 6am and were ready to depart by 6:30am, though the only problem was that we hadn’t yet seen our guide, Yusef, and it would not only be difficult to leave with him, but perhaps even more difficult was the fact that he still had the Land Cruiser with him at the staff area. I checked with the waiter and the word was that he was now apparently on his way to get us, and, sure enough, moments later he showed up and was ready to leave on time. Since we were not coming back to the lodge, as we’d be exiting through the main gate at the end of the day, we would not have the scrumptious picnic lunch we had been given yesterday, but rather the standard safari box lunch that is the usual fare when eating away from camp.
Since we had endured the tsetse flies the day before, we departed with the windows rolled up and the top down so as not to allow access to those little devils who had wreaked havoc on us yesterday. We stopped first at the gate and, despite the fact that it was a few minutes after seven which was their opening time, the gate agent was not yet there to take our park fees so we had to wait several minutes for him to arrive. This gate is significantly less utilized than the main gate and given this was low season here at Tarangire and that only three vehicles has passed through the day before, I couldn’t really blame him for getting a few extra minutes of sleep.
It was a cool and somewhat breezy morning and the sun was already well off the horizon with its bright rays of light beaming down on us. The sun, though, was not yet high enough to produce the intense radiant heat of the midday equatorial Africa, so we were able to drive with the windows closed for sometime without the risk of suffocating inside or having it turn into a sauna in the Land Cruiser. I had suggested to Yusef that we try a different route to get to the river this morning that would leave us in the far southern end of the park by the Silela Swamp we visited yesterday so we could then travel along the river towards the main gate at the other end of the park. We had wanted to leave the park a bit earlier than closing (6:30pm) today as we had to travel all the way back to Karatu this evening and would be dropping Yusef off in Makuyuni so he could catch a bus back to Arusha and I would drive us back to Karatu in time to perhaps catch the Maasai Market that happens there every 7th and 25th of the month. More on the market later.
As we drove, we continually gained altitude so that we would eventually reach the top of a small ridgeline that separates the portion of the park where we were staying from the Tarangire River that dominates the park. We dropped down the other side in the area where the airstrip is just in time to have the plane that had just landed and apparently dropped off passengers, take off just as we passed the end of the runway where we, thankfully, hadn’t made a wrong turn that would have left us a bit worse for the wear as we would have driven right onto the runway in the path of the departing plane. We drove around to the other side of the airstrip and promptly discovered a small pride of lions that consisted of two females and five cubs of various sizes. It was a pretty amazing find and we had he entire group to ourselves for the longest time and, even though they were mostly sleeping, every once in a while one to the cubs would get up and move around. Eventually, one by one, the baby cubs got up and strode off towards the higher grass and embankment and, one by one, disappeared, but not until we had a very nice time watching them lounging in the morning sun. Their two mothers soon followed to keep a close eye on them, undoubtedly, but before they did, Susan noticed that there was a male on the other side of the road making his way to a bush where we quickly recognized another there to be another sleeping male, clearly his brother.
Shortly thereafter, another vehicle pulled along side of us carrying a single passenger who we shortly learned had just flown in on the plane we saw at the airstrip. She had been there for a mere five minutes and had come upon the lions we were watching, but more importantly, it was quite auspicious that they had happened upon us, as the driver noticed that our rear tire was completely flat meaning that we really had no option other than to change it before driving anywhere. The females and the cubs had disappeared over the embankment, though the two males were sleeping in the tall grass less than 50 feet away making a tire change just a wee bit precarious. Yusef eventually got out of the Land Cruiser to begin the process while we all initially watched, and with Johannes capturing the action on an iPhone video, one of the males got up and began walking towards us with Yusef standing by the rear tire in between the two vehicles. Everyone began to quietly, but insistently, yell, so as not to startle the lion, “Yusef, get in the car quickly….” He very willingly complied to our urging, stepping around behind our vehicle and smartly slipped into the driver’s seat so as not to become the lion’s breakfast. Once the one brother had made his way across the road and to the spot where the females had previously been, spraying the area with his scent for a final farewell to us, he sauntered off to the embankment making it safe for us to go out and change the tire while his brother continued to sleep by the bush in the distance.
(video courtesy of Johannes Pulst-Korenberg)
Once the tire was changed, we were once again on our way exploring the southern part of the river terrain. We drove up into the woodlands, but the tsetse flies were once again quite thick, causing us to retreat once again to the safety of the river where the flies were present, but nothing in comparison to what they were at their worst. We had seen our share of lions for the morning, including the somewhat close encounter while changing the tire, so we were now looking for the other cats in the park that included cheetah and leopards. Leopards in Tarangire have always been quite elusive for me as well as any guides we’ve had there, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for a spotting, but cheetah are much more often spotted in the park so there was still this opportunity. Unfortunately, there were absolutely no wildebeest and only a very rare zebra in the park as they were mostly outside the park where the grasses were plentiful and had no need for the park scene such that there was far less prey for the lions and leopards, while there were plenty of impala for the cheetah to go after.
Cruising along, Susan suddenly spotted a cheetah not far from the road in the tall grass as it leapt up in hot pursuit of an impala not far in front. She shouted, “cheetah!” to all our surprise including Yusef’s as no one had expected to see it at that moment and, in fact, we were all wondering if we hadn’t tipped off the impala as the cheetah, hot on it’s tail and seemingly closing in, actually failed to make the kill. Considering that cheetah have a 60% or so success rate in making a kill (far greater than lions) our presence may have had some impact in alarming the impala and ruining the cheetah’s chances. We continued to watch the cheetah for bit longer after the failed hunt, following it around until, I think, it was tired of us and wondered off into the woodlands far from our reach with the vehicle as the rules in the park insist that we use the already established trails.
We stopped at the main picnic site today for our lunch and broke out the lunchboxes, along with dozens of other parties of safari-goers, much different than the experience we had had yesterday where we were the only ones at the picnic site and had it all to ourselves. The picnic site is home to some very aggressive Vervet monkeys, who, despite the warnings posted everywhere and the general knowledge that it’s terribly inappropriate to feed any wild animals, have become more and more feisty over the years due to this totally inappropriate behavior by a small percentage of the guests there. There were children chasing the monkeys around and lunches being left unattended on picnic tables serving as easy pickings for the swift little primates who were doing what any self-respecting monkey would do given a similar opportunity. Both Johannes and I, standing together watching this mayhem, were particular offended by these individuals and Johannes joked to me that he would love to have tripped one of the children as they ran past us, completely oblivious to the fact that they were doing anything inappropriate.
Following lunch, we drove off into the area of the park known as the Little Serengeti for it’s resemblance to the vast, endless plain that serves as one of the main attraction for safari goers here in Tanzania. To me, this area of Tarangire brings back memories of having been hopelessly stuck axle deep in the muck in an incredibly remote location while trying to follow a route I had done a number of times previously, but this time had underestimated the amount of rain that had fallen in the previous days. We were on our way to Arusha to catch our flights home the following day and despite the fact that Jess Weinstein seemed to think that it was really exciting, the truth was that had we not been rescued by Leonard, who just happened to have arrived at the park shortly before our incident and was actually able to locate us in the middle of nowhere with my directions, we would have likely spent the night in our vehicle and missed our flights as this is not a place you can simply hike out of unless, of course, you’re interested in knowing the lions up close and personal. Leonard somehow found us and then pulled our vehicle out with his, much to the delight of his tour group, who found it to be an exciting adventure in Africa. I was more than happy to have been rescued at the time.
We left Tarangire National Park after a successful visit and we dropped of Yusef, having survived his run in with the flat tire and the male lion, in Makuyuni, a town at the crossroads to the Serengeti and Karatu, to take a bus home that evening so he would see his family. I drove us back to Karatu and, even though we were all quite exhausted, went to the Maasai Market that happens only twice a month and this would be everyone’s last time to see it. Johannes, Mindy and Susan decided to brave the crowds just to see what was being offered for sale, even though I had told them it was primarily livestock, recycled clothes from the US that come over in bales and other household items. Meanwhile, Susanna and I, having stayed back in the vehicle were suddenly inundated with people wanting to see us the more touristy items like ebony carvings. I hadn’t intended to buy anything from them, but each time I said, “hapana asante,” or “no thank you,” the price would drop until it became pretty impossible to say no any longer. The others came back to join us empty handed, but were quickly swarmed and hard to also partake in the buying. It was a very comical situation in some ways, but very much a part of being in Africa.