As many of you have come to know, Sundays here are reserved for me to take the team to a National Park on a game drive. Just as an FYI, “safari” in Swahili simply means “journey,” and has no specific relationship to a game drive. The work has become synonymous with traveling to the parks to see wild life and has stuck, obviously evidenced by the huge Safari industry that exists here in Tanzania and other African countries that have built up this aspect of their economy. If someone here asks you how your safari was, there are asking you how your travel here was and not how your game drive went. Today, we had decided to go to Lake Manyara National Park which is very close and is a great first experience for those who have not been here before or have not been on a game drive. It’s also one of my favorite parks for several reasons. It has spectacular views with a very diverse landscape and it’s incredibly easy for me to navigate as the lake is on one side of the road and the sheer cliffs of the escarpment are on the other side of the road. It’s difficult to make a wrong turn here. There are plenty of elephants and hippos here along with all of the other normal players and they also have plenty of Klipspringers, a small rock antelope that can very scarce in other parks and is not often seen. Everyone was very excited to be going on a game drive today.
Prior to this trip, I had convinced Ray Price, our residency program director and colleague, to come with me to Tanzania with us for at least a part of the month. In turn, Ray had somehow convinced his wife to let him come with us despite having two small children at home, though I do believe his mother-in-law was still a bit skeptical of the proposed arrangement. Ray has been a huge part of this program since my move to Penn and has made it possible for me to bring the number of residents that I do. The rotation has also become a large part of our residency program and has attracted top candidates who have an interest in global health. Ray had had a meeting to attend in Minneapolis last week, so had made arrangements to fly from there into Kilimanjaro and then meet up with us at the park entrance at 6:45 AM, taking a very early (3:30 AM pickup) transport from the airport hotel where he slept a few hours before meeting his driver. Everything went like clockwork in that he made his three flights, got to the hotel, met his driver and then met us at the designated spot which was incredibly impressive considering all of the moving parts we had to deal with. Unfortunately, Ray made it to the meeting place, but his luggage did not as sadly, KLM had left it behind in Amsterdam to arrive on the next flight in and since there is only one flight a day, it would be coming in tonight and hopefully delivered to FAME tomorrow. Thankfully, he had packed an extra pair of safari pants and shirt in his carry-on luggage and I was able to loan him an extra safari hat that I had.
Our day didn’t begin quite as early as Ray’s, though we were up and out of the house a minute or two after 6 AM to make the 40 minute or so drive down to Manyara. We had our lunches, lots of water, camera gear, binoculars and lots of snacks (The hot and spicy Cheez-Its were a particularly popular choice for the trip). It was very overcast on our drive down towards Mto wa Mbu and remained that way throughout most of the day which was fine with us as it kept the temperature down, though on the occasion when the sun peeked through, the direct equatorial sun made its presence known and things heated up very quickly. Ray was in the parking lot waiting as we arrived to the park and, after a brief reunion, I went to pay our fees to enter the park. To begin with, I should mention that there are very few non-safari company guides who check in at the parks in general. Self-drives are perfectly legitimate here, but it’s just that they are by far the minority of vehicles in the park at any one time and that is by a magnitude of difference. On a day long drive in a park I may see one other safari vehicle driven by a non-guide. The problem this morning though was that the credit card machine was apparently not working, so after several attempts, I was told just to drive in the park and I could pay later when I was exciting. I was just a bit surprised at this as the parks here are very closely guarded national treasures and entrance to each of them is heavily scrutinized by armed park guards.
After using the restrooms, we popped the top on the vehicle and readied it for our game drive which included breaking out my camera equipment. I drove to the gate informing the guard that I was told to pay on my way out with the feeling that I was somehow going to be either arrested or shot on the spot at some point passing through, but thankfully neither of these events took place. For those of you who are worried, though, I will reassure you that Andrea is my designated alternate driver as she is the only other one here who can drive a stick shift. No worries, as I’ve reassured her that driving on the right hand side and shifting with your left hand isn’t really that tough.
Driving into the park, one first encounters a dense forest that goes on for several kilometers and though there are abundant animals here, they are somewhat hard to spot through the vegetation. Both greater and lesser hornbills fly overhead from tree to tree and you very quickly come across one of the many baboon troops that populate the park and love to sit in the road. The troops have consistently had many babies which is always good to see as it is a sign of the troop’s health. Our first stop is going to be the old hippo pool and platform, though, over the years, the pool has become overgrown and the platform quite rickety. Fortunately, there are still hippos here, they are just more difficult to see at times and are in different places. Driving up to the area, we quickly come across a large herd of Cape buffalo resting in the morning hours. Cape buffalo can be very dangerous animals when they are threatened and they are one of the only animals that will defend themselves against predators (lions) by forming a semicircle with the males facing our and ready to use their incredibly impressive and sharp horns to skewer whatever may be threatening them.
One animal more dangerous than the buffalo, though, is the hippo and we ran into one rather quickly who was crossing the road in front of us with her calf, making her even that much more dangerous. We quickly noticed that she was injured as she was unable to place any weight on her right front leg and was having difficulty lowering herself into the water. We remained a good distance from her while she was on land, but once in the water we were able to approach her and her calf as hippos are much more secure off land and would rarely attack. We watched the two from a close distance for some time before finishing our drive around the marsh where there were tremendous numbers of migrating birds that including pelicans, storks and flamingos. A beautiful African Fish Eagle sat very still on a nearby tree watching over the wetlands spotting for its next prey.
The weather remained overcast for most of the day and the temperature was on the cooler side making for a more pleasant drive. During the drive, we did encounter our fair share of tsetse flies which were quite annoying for everyone other than Ray and I as they somehow stayed away from the front seat which was quite OK with me. Their bite is very painful and they are very difficult to detect until after they’ve bitten. The rule in the vehicle is that it’s fair game whenever a fly is spotted on someone to strike it as hard as is necessary to kill it. They are very slow and easy to swat, but unfortunately, they are very hardy and difficult to kill. When you think you’ve done one in, it simply flies away so it’s necessary to either crush them in your hand or stomp on them with your foot. The tsetse are famous for carrying sleeping sickness, or trypanosomiasis, but there is essentially none in Tanzania. Regardless, their bite is quite painful and develops into a nasty welt that may last for days. And, oh yes, they laugh at even the most powerful of bug sprays.
We spotted all the usual suspects on the drive that included elephants, giraffes, impala, wildebeest, zebra, wart hogs, and buffalo. We also spotted several pairs of klipspringers, which are the small rock antelope that live in certain areas of parks, but are most often seen here at Manyara. By the time we reached the picnic area at Maji Moto (hot water), named for the hot springs there, it was lunchtime. We had made sandwiches and hardboiled eggs with lots of snacks and sat together at a picnic table under a shade overlooking the lake. Before lunch, everyone had a chance to walk out onto the new boardwalk that reaches out into the lake while I sat with the vehicle.
Spending time on a game drive can be incredibly exhausting and we had begun our drive a little after seven. By the time we left the park after 3 PM, we had been there for eight hours straight with most of it driving other than our lunch. It had become a bit warmer in the afternoon, but overall, the weather had been just perfect for the entire day. Everyone had had a wonderful time in the park and I had enjoyed driving them. We stopped into the African Galleria on the way home and made it back to Karatu in time for dinner, so stopped at the downtown Lilac Café where we waiting the standard 45 minutes for our dinner, but everyone enjoyed it. We introduced Ray to the Raynes House where he settled in, though still without his luggage. Hopefully, it would be on the KLM flight arriving tonight and delivered tomorrow, but there was no way of knowing that for sure. Tomorrow we would begin our busy week-long neurology clinic at FAME and, the following week, the mobile clinics.