If it’s Sunday, it must be safari. Sorry, it’s a movie reference for those of you old enough to recall the movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” a 1969 comedy about a group of tourists traveling through Europe. As has been a tradition since my first coming here, I have always reserved Sundays for going on safari, or as they say here, a game drive. Safari in Kiswahili merely refers to a journey and actually has nothing to do with traveling to a park to view animals. The parks in Northern Tanzania are some of the most amazing parks in all of Africa with the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater being at the very top. Tarangire, a wonderful park and home to the elephants here is very large and great to visit, but there has been an overabundance of tsetse flies there of recent, and for anyone who has experienced these heat seeking missiles disguised as an insect knows, their bites are very painful and swell to a nice welt in short order. The fact that they do carry trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) as well is much less of a concern here as we haven’t had any cases of this here in forever. The other close park for us in Lake Manyara, a much smaller park that is often overlooked and on far fewer itineraries than the others, though would be our destination for today.
Lake Manyara sits on the floor of the Great Rift Valley and is well over 50 km long, with the national park nestled between the rift to the west and lake to the east. The lake itself is very shallow and quite alkaline, but not as much as nearby Lake Natron that serves as a major breeding ground for the lesser and greater flamingos that reside in Northern Tanzania. Lake Manyara is also home to the flamingos that, when in flight, can be seen as huge clouds that will appear and disappear as suddenly as it takes the flock to change direction in unison during midflight. Lake Manyara also used to be the home of the Black Rhino who was hunted to extinction in the last decades, but not before Ernest Hemmingway found the time to travel there with his wife and others to bag the rhino with the largest horn. His adventures there were documented in his non-fiction novel, “The Green Hills of Africa,” and is well worth reading, as are all of Hemingway’s novels.
We packed the Land Rover with all of our supplies for the day that included cameras, binoculars, water, food, and first aid supplies. It was dark on awakening and the stars once again blanketed the sky as though they were our escorts on this trip. The five of us and Ann Gilligan piled into the vehicle after some light breakfast and made our way down the FAME road towards the junction with the tarmac and Karatu proper, which was still in night mode with the coming dawn. It was overcast, but we knew the clouds would be lifting soon enough and we all hoped for a wonderful day at the park. The entrance is only about 30 minutes away and is all downhill traveling from the Ngorongoro Highlands making our way to Mto wa Mbu, where the entrance to the park sits. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of giant white storks nesting in the trees at the entrance of the park, each of them launching themselves into free flight on a regular interval in search of whatever branches and debris they can find to construct their nests. From a distance, they appear as stark white flowers on the tops of the enormous trees and it is only on closer inspection that one realizes the full size of these gorgeous creatures.
Entering the park is merely a matter of registering our vehicle for the day and paying the fee for each of us. I used to have a resident’s permit here that allowed me to get into these parks for half price, but the permit became too expensive to make it worth my while so that now I travel with a business instead. Regardless, the fee is quite reasonable for what we’ll see and the cost for each of us is less than $60 USD. As you drive into the park, the first section is a thick forest with streams running through it and across the road. Looking through the brush you can occasionally see a solitary reedbuck or vervet monkeys in the trees, but today it is the baboon troops that are the most abundant. They love to sit in the middle of the road playing and grooming themselves and conveniently move for us only when they’re certain that we’d like to proceed. The baboons here are incredibly healthy with many, many cute babies to show for it, jumping off of branches onto each other and riding on their mother’s backs or, for the really tiny babies, hanging onto their mother’s bellies. We encounter troop after troop of the baboons as we travel through the forest and, thankfully, everyone finally has their fill so that I don’t have to stop for each cute baby seen and we can move onto other animals and out of the forest.
Our next stop after entering the park is the hippo pool and viewing platform. This is a spot where you can get out of your vehicle (as long as there no close hippos or cape buffalo) and walk up onto a viewing platform that normally has an incredible view across the marsh towards a large pool where you often see hippos that appear as large rocks in the water until they roll over or rear up in a minor confrontation. On our way, we did spot a hippo that was still out of the water returning from an overnight foraging expedition. Hippos spend most of the daytime in the water socializing and go out to feed only at night and may travel several miles to find food before returning to their pool. Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa, accounting for more deaths than any other and it is often encountering a hippo out of the water that is the problem or coming to close to a baby with the mother around. Underestimating the ferocity and speed of one of these animals can certainly be the last fatal mistake that you make and I now understand why Leonard would always check around the car in all directions before we got out when mother nature called if we were anywhere near a hippo pool.
Unfortunately, the grasses were so tall that you really couldn’t even see the pool or the hippos from the platform, but it was gorgeous just the same and Cape buffalo foraging nearby made it more than worth our while to have traveled out here. On our way out from the viewing area we did see an African Fish Eagle sitting atop a tree eyeing the pond for some prey while a black heron walked along frequently spreading it’s wings outward to form an “umbrella” that shades the water and allows it to hunt for small fish and insects. It would take several steps, then spread its wings for another few steps and the process would repeat itself over and over again, all the while hunting and eating. There were herds of wildebeest, Cape buffalo, and zebra and many, many groups of impala, both harems with their single male and its dozens of females, as well as the bachelor herds, made up of up to dozens of males that continually challenge other males for their harem. Impala are the dominant antelope in the woodland areas while it is the Thompson gazelle and Grant’s gazelle that are in the open plains of the Serengeti. We finally ran across some giraffe, or twiga, at first a few solitary ones and then more in groups as you commonly see them. They are incredibly graceful animals who always look as if they’re running in slow motion, but can pick up speed so very quickly as to be deceiving.
It was everyone’s very first safari which I though was very cool as they were getting some great game viewing, though we still hadn’t seen any elephants. That was to change shortly, for as we turned one corner we ran into what we thought was going to be a small group of elephants, but that very quickly became a huge family of dozens of elephants including may young ones, some much less than six months as they couldn’t quite reach their mother’s stomachs. The elephants were all moving in one direction in a very slow manner, stopping every so often to eat some grass or strip the leaves from some branch of a bush or a tree. They are incredibly majestic and magnificent animals, meandering down from the safety of the hills in the morning to seek food and water during the day before heading back up to the safety of the hills for the night. They have little to fear here as there are no poachers nearby, though occasionally a pride of lions may decide to go after one of their babies when times are tough.
We watched this family of elephants for a very long time as they mostly tolerated us slowing moving our vehicle forward to stay in the middle of the group. As we left, though, one of the larger females took some offense to our being there and took just a bit of an aggressive stance, though it was little more than that in the end and she let us pass by on our way without incident. It was just a bit further until we reached Maji Moto, which means “hot springs” in Kiswahili and marks the spot where there is a picnic area and everyone is able to get out and walk around. It was 11 am as we reached Maji Moto and we had only been in the park for 4 hours now, but had already seen so much. It was time for an early lunch after everyone had a chance to walk out onto the new boardwalk that reaches out into the lake. Adjacent to this there was a group of hippos floating along, again looking like a group of huge smooth rocks until one of them decides to bellow loudly or open its giant mouth widely to display its massive canines. We had a relaxing lunch on the picnic tables once everyone came back from their stroll to the end of the boardwalk, with everyone sharing the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches lovingly made by Jon the night before and the hard boiled eggs. There were also protein bars and mango slices to share.
After lunch, we decided to head further into the park as we were still hoping to see some of the lions that live in the park. I had seen them on a regular basis during previous excursions, but in the last two years or so, they have been much more difficult to find so that whenever I query another guide along the road as we pass, it seems that no one has seen them. Though all lions climb trees to sleep, it seems the lions here are much more prone to spend the day lounging in the branches here to get out of the heat of the day. It’s no hotter here, though, than it is in the Serengeti, so that isn’t really an answer as to why that’s the case in this park. It is some learned behavior that these lions have passed down from generation to generation and I’m not sure it’s known why other than some theories.
Much to everyone’s dismay, we didn’t locate any lions and, in the afternoon, most everyone save Sheena decided to take a little snooze which meant that my driving must not have been that bad as it allowed them to catch some shuteye on four wheel drive roads. Right before we reached Maji Moto on our way back, I spotted two Klipspringers just feet from our vehicle on the side of the road and they just sat there posing for us without ever moving. Klipspringers are a very small mountain antelope that is about the size of a Thompson gazelle, though much stockier with downward pointed hoofs designed for jumping from rock to rock. They are probably one of the most docile of antelopes as they always seem to just sit and pose for us. The dik dik, which we did not see today, is smaller and much more skittish, scurrying into the underbrush as you drive past them. The drive out of the park was much less eventful than the morning which was fine as I think everyone was quite exhausted and I had been driving since 6 am straight through save lunch. It is very tiring driving on a game drive, but something that I absolutely love to do and always hate to give up the assignment to someone else.
As a child, I had always dreamed of going to Africa and had always looked to the Leakey’s and Jane Goodall as my heroes unlike other kids. If someone had told me that someday I would be here as a significant part of life, bringing others to experience what I truly love, I never would have believed them. Driving a safari vehicle here and actually guiding safaris is like icing on the cake.