Each of the National Parks in Northern Tanzania are based on different ecological and geological features that give each park its very own character as well as the types of scenery and animals that you will see. Ngorongoro Crater is based on the largest dry caldera in the world and serves as its own ecosystem where the animals live year round on the floor of the crater and don’t migrate as they do elsewhere. The Serengeti is most well-known for its endless plains, which is actually the meaning of the word in Ma, the language of the Maasai. Lake Manyara is a park whose ecosystem is based on this very large lake that was formed as part of the Rift Valley and is home to many, many flamingo. The park is also the setting for Hemingway’s non-fiction novel, The Green Hills of Africa, which is about a hunting trip he took there with his wife in 1933. Unfortunately, there are no longer black rhinos left in the park as they were overhunted. Tarangire National Park, which is centered around the Tarangire River that dominates the landscape of this magnificent park, is well-known as the home of the elephants here in Northern Tanzania as there are thousands of them that populate this very large park and every day travel from the surrounding hills down to the river for their water.
Tarangire National Park has been one of my favorite parks to drive for as long as I have been coming to Tanzania and driving myself which actually began in 2012. By that time, I had been on a number of game drives to all of the parks and one of the best teachers that anyone could ever hope for in the person of Leonard Temba. Leonard had been my guide when I first came here in 2009, on vacation with my two children and my only intention at the time was to bring my daughter, Anna, here as she was interested in wildlife management and it was means of exploring some of the most famous parks with her as we shared a love for animals and the outdoors. The three of us spent two weeks with Leonard, and during that time my children bonded incredibly with him, as I did as well, and from that chance meeting has evolved my love of this country and my effort to help in the best way I know possible – medicine, and, specifically, neurology. Leonard introduced me to FAME, which was only a year old at the time, and I was apparently bitten by the bug that has brought some many to this continent in a similar fashion over the years. Now, on my twenty-first trip to Tanzania, I have realized that it is more than just a passion, and it has become a mission.
I have seen so much at Tarangire over the years while taking the residents there during our visits, and have enjoyed sharing it with them every time so that it never gets old for me. With all the rain we’ve had in the last weeks, a trip to Lake Manyara was out of the question as the lake swells so much that most of the roads are undrivable and the animals scatter. Manyara is a smaller park and the water would seriously hinder our ability to explore there. Since Marin and Dan had been to Tarangire for the day when they arrived, they were able to fill us in on what to expect. There were essentially no zebra or wildebeest as the herds had migrated out of the park with all of the wetness, but there were still plenty of elephants and giraffe to be seen. One problem was that there were many tsetse flies there, though I had hoped it was mostly in the wooded areas on their way out of the park to their lodge as we would not be traveling to that same entrance. Regardless, we had decided to go Tarangire for the day and would be leaving bright and early so we could get to into the park soon after it opened at 6:30 am which is when most of the animals are more active. We compromised at leaving FAME at 5:30 am which meant that most of the drive would be well before sunrise and we would get to see the sky brighten as we drove along for the morning. At the higher elevations we were driving through a few low lying clouds which greatly reduced our visibility, but other than that, we had no issues during our way and finally pulled into the parking lot at Tarangire with a brand new gate that just opened up in the last weeks.
The entrance fee for a non-East African is around $55 with a little added for the vehicle, but all in all, an excellent price to spend the day in a park such as this where there is plenty of territory to explore and many, many animals that are great to see. At the entrance gate, their system was apparently down or, at least didn’t want to accept my credit card at that moment, so I filled out a voucher that allowed us to enter the park and pay them later before we left. The park was incredibly empty as I think we were the only ones to have gone through the gate that morning, but we did encounter a few cars later during the day. Still, this was far less than expected for the season and was undoubtedly due to the coronavirus situation around the world and, more specifically, to lots of cancellations by guests who had been planning to come on safari. There has been so much in the press over the last week, and, rightly so, as the pandemic has been announced by the WHO putting the entire world on alert.
We popped the tops on Turtle and everyone prepared themselves for a day of game viewing. The weather was just incredible for the day with high clouds and lots of sun, but not too hot so as to make it unbearable. With the front hatch open, the sun was beaming down on me for the entire day so that a hat must for me, and everyone else for that matter. I decided to head initially to a spot where I have seen a lion pride several times in the past and, on the way, we drove past herds of impala. There was actually another safari vehicle in the area and they were mainly watching a lone elephant who was just off the road. As we stopped, though, we began to accumulate first one, and then several more tsetse flies in the car which was somewhat disconcerting as it seemed very predictive of what we were to expect for the day. We moved on to join up again with the main road while trying to dodge the tsetse flies which was somewhat successful, but if you’ve ever encountered these little beasts, they are like guided missiles, flying alongside the care regardless of our speed. They are much slower than regular house flies which means you can certain swat them, but unlike house flies, they are very difficult to kill without completely squishing them against the glass or the inside of the car. What normally happens is that you think you killed the little bugger, only to have it fly off to seek another victim. The rule in the car is that if anyone spots a tsetse on someone else, they have full permission to whack it as hard as they can without any warning. This has led to some interesting scenarios in the past and I think the residents are always a bit wary around smacking me, though Alice did a good job this time in the front seat next to me as I was driving.
Tsetse flies are blood suckers and if you’d like to watch a YouTube video that is like something out of a horror movie, but google it. They have a long proboscis that they sink into you several times before you feel anything and then they begin to feed. Their abdomen fills massively to many times its normal size which explains what has happened to me on several occasions and what happed to Molly during this trip. They love to bite at your ankles and sometimes travel up your pants so that you feel something crawling around, grab it, realize it’s a tsetse fly and then can do nothing else but squish the hell out of it at which point you have a significant amount of blood on your leg and the inside of your pants. Thankfully, or perhaps not, the blood isn’t usually your own and it’s typically from one of the wild animals at the park, most likely an impala, wildebeest, Cape buffalo or zebra.
As we drove up the first river crossing closest to main gate, the effect of the recent heavy rains was readily apparent as the bridge, which is rather low and close to the river’s surface was completely underwater by at least several feet and with an incredibly heavy current that would have washed our vehicle downstream had we attempted it. The Land Rover can actually cross fairly deep rivers as it’s designed for that, but it’s the current that was the problem here, not the depth. I usually drive up the other side of the river and back on the side we were on, but I was just going to have to make some adjustments and that really wasn’t going to be a problem. It was a really fun day of driving through the mud as there were very many deep pools of mud along the way, some of which required a bit of navigation, but we always made it to the other side. One trick with these hazards is always to make sure you see tracks exiting the other side as then you know someone made it before you and that’s always reassuring. Also, the Land Rover is like a tank and has a reputation for almost never becoming stuck.
We saw herd after herd of impala, but no wildebeest or zebra to speak of in the park. Thankfully, we had seen lots of them in the Ngorongoro Crater last Sunday, and today we were really in search of elephants and giraffe. It took a bit of time, but we were finally able to spot family after family of elephants and a tremendous number of babies, some very young. For the most part, the elephants pay little attention to you, unless, of course, there is a baby nearby in which case the mothers become very protective of their offspring, typically shielding them on the opposite side of their body so photos are sometime difficult. Getting too close to one of the babies, though, or demonstrating any threating behavior, can easily create an issue for you in which you have a very angry mother to deal with. The elephants are matriarchal and a family is typically composed of many sisters or related females with a dominant female. Males are separate from the family and running into a lone bull elephant with an attitude can also be an issue for you as it has been on several occasion in the past where they just won’t let you continue and you have to wait for them get bored, deciding to move on.
We drove all the way to the Selela Swamp on the far side of the park and made it there by lunch time. This is typically a very popular lunch spot, but today there was only one car as we drove up and the swamp itself, often full of hundreds of elephants wading in the deep water and mud, was devoid of any pachyderms, or any other animals for that matter. When it is so wet, like it has been in the last weeks, there is no need for the animals to seek out water and they become more scattered around the countryside. There really weren’t any tsetse flies here so it was a bit more comfortable, and we brought our sandwiches, mostly peanut butter and banana (Carrie’s specialty), out to one of the concrete tables for our meal. I drove down to the swamp edge after lunch, hoping to find something interesting, but other than some ostriches, we were unable to turn up any of the other interesting animals I’ve found here in the past.
I crossed the river at the high bridge near Selela, and under us was a raging torrent of muddy water that made up the Tarangire River and had to have been 50 times the normal volume that I’m used to. We drove for a bit on the other side, spotting more elephants and giraffe, but didn’t turn up any large cats, unfortunately. Driving back, I drove up the Sopa Lodge road where I have seen lions on several occasions, but there was none to be found, so we decided to stop at the lodge for cold drinks that was a welcome break from the driving for me as we had been on the move since 5:30 am and my rear was getting a bit tired. After stopping at the lodge, we made our way slowly back to the main gate after a short detour onto the Small Serengeti Plain where we did spot a Hoopoe bird prancing along the road and allowing us to take lots of photos.
We ended up leaving the main gate around 5 pm or so and getting back on the road to Karatu and FAME. One interesting event on the drive home was encountering a huge tree that had fallen nearly completely across the road and clearly hadn’t been there in the morning. I was driving along at a pretty fast clip (80 kph) and was focused on something with the radio at the moment and, given that the road is straight as an arrow, hadn’t been looking in the distance. Alice, sitting beside me in the front seat suddenly said, “tree!,” and it took me just a moment to realize what she was talking about, but when I did, we negotiated around the massive tree with all of its limb and everyone breathed a big sigh of relief. I’m used to herds of cows, goats, and sheep as well as an occasional elephant, but hadn’t encountered a downed tree across a major highway here yet. There’s always a first.
We arrived home a little before 7 pm and decided to eat in for the night since dinner is not prepared for us on the weekends. It was a mixed concoction of Amisha’s Indian food in packets that she had brought and other leftovers. Everyone was pretty exhausted from the day and I was certainly looking forward to my comfortable bed that night. Tomorrow we would begin our mobile clinics and it would be in Kambi ya Simba, the sight of my very first mobile neurology clinic in 2011. We didn’t need to leave super early since it wasn’t too far and I think everyone was really looking forward to experiencing these clinics.