It has been such a special trip the prior Sunday and, having decided not spend three days traveling in the Serengeti on my own but rather have a few days to myself, today was a perfect day to once again host a group mostly made up of FAME employees to Tarangire. As I have mentioned before, most of the residents here have not gone on a game drive to any of the parks for several reasons despite the greatly reduced entrance fee for Tanzanian citizens. One of the reasons, of course, is the cost of hiring a vehicle and a driver for the day as this is mostly out of the reach for the average Tanzanian. The other reason is more of a cultural one that also considers the issue of cost and that is the difference between a society with disposable income and one that defines things based on necessity. For those of us in the West, we often consider travel as a necessity, but, in truth, it is not for you can’t provide for your family with travel and it is quite the opposite. The benefit of travel to us is provide relaxation or, at other times, to provide a sense of adventure to our lives by broadening our experiences. This is not the case for the vast majority of the world, though, where the knowledge of where your, or your family’s, next meal is going to come from is not always readily apparent.
So, it was with this in mind, that I once again offered to take a group to Tarangire, one of my favorite parks to drive in for several reasons. The animal viewing is superb and, in particular, the birds as well as the elephants which are the most numerous in this park. Another reason is the ease of driving there as the park is completely centered around its river ecology and the Tarangire River. In the dry season, which we were in now, the animals must all travel to the river for their water so huge families of elephants come from the surrounding hills to make their way to the river by midday and then travel back to the hills for safety later in the afternoon. The park is usually entered through the main gate, which was recently replaced with a very new building in which to register for the visit. I have driven here dozens and dozens of times and have a typical route that I take for the best chance to catch lions early on. While I was registering at the gate and taking care of payment, the others were taking care of popping the tops on Turtle and securing everything for our game drive. Revo sat up front with me and also had the ability to stand up, though had no protection over his head from the sun as did the others in the back.
As we made our way to one of the watering holes where I have encountered lion prides on several occasions and even have seen a kill after the fact, we saw numerous impala that included both large harems (a male with his many females) and bachelor herds that comprise only males that have not been successful in acquiring their own harem, but could one day challenge for that dominant role. The male of a harem can be replaced by a challenger at any time and, unlike lions, where the conquering male will kill off any of the offspring of his predecessor, a victorious male impala will not do this. Just before the watering hole, we ran into a huge gang of banded mongoose that were on both sides of the road and, despite the fact they are usually quite skittish and scatter as soon as you stop, this group continued their quest for food (typically insects and small reptiles) in our presence and much to everyone’s delight watching them. I have actually never seen them remain at their business for as long as they did this day.
There were a few giraffe along with zebra in the region of the watering hole, but not a feline to found when you need one, so we moved on connecting back to the main road that led us down to the first river crossing. Once on the other side, there are numerous “river circuits” that leave the main road and loop close to the river and then back again. Depending on the season, these routes can be quite an adventure on their own with huge pools of water submerging the trail for some distance. I had learned long ago that it’s not good practice to enter one of these pools without first seeing tire tracks entering and, hopefully, leaving on the far side just to be certain you won’t spend the day trying to figure a way out. I will tell you that I have not learned that the hard way in the past and am thankful that I drive a Land Rover as they will rarely ever became hopelessly stuck, in contrast to the Land Cruiser, which can. Some of you may recall, though, that there have two exceptions to this in my past, one of which occurred in bad weather on an incredibly slippery road, and the other, here in Tarangire, that was my fault for driving on a trail that I was familiar with in the dry season rather than the wet, and I became hopelessly stuck in the mud. We were miles from anywhere late in the day and it had started to rain on us in place where there was no hope in our hiking out given the lions, elephants and Cape buffalo in the area. We were rescued by Leonard, who just happened to be in the park, and a very sturdy row that we used to pull me out.
After driving a bit down the river on our way to my favorite lunch area in the Selela Swamp, we encountered several very large families of elephants. As we were watching one, we say another crossing the road far ahead and went to watch the second group. When they were finished crossing, I backed up the Land Rover to watch the first group who had just completed their crossing as well and paid particular attention not to get too close or to threaten them as there were little ones with the group. Watching out of my side mirrors, I had a perfect view of the road, but what I failed to see was that a male from the group had apparently taken offense to our approach, regardless of the distance, and was making a bee line for the road and our vehicle. I heard lots of commotion in the back, which is not all that unusual as I have had plenty of guests become a bit unnerved by the proximity of these huge animals as they wake close to the vehicle. I had turned the vehicle off, as I always do when we are stopped watching animals, and especially elephants, as they are less threatened by the quiet and if someone is taking photos, it makes for a sharper photo with the lack of vibration. Suddenly, I heard Abdulhamid yelling, “Dr. Mike, drive the car!!,” as, unbeknownst to me, he had flown from the very back of the Land Rover, where he had been watching, to right behind my front seat, clearly for the effect of getting me to listen as quickly as possible.
Regardless of the sense of urgency that everyone felt, it would be incredibly unlikely for an elephant to strike a safari vehicle in this situation, and I have no question that it was more for show than anything else, but it still seemed like a good idea for me to start the engine, engage the transmission, and move. And to do so quickly as I didn’t necessarily wish to test my hypothesis when it involved the safety of others. As I slung the vehicle into gear and stepped on the gas, I could now see the elephant standing in the road and am pretty certain that I heard him trumpet a victory salute just for effect. There were several video of the event, though I must admit that I am not proud of any of them as even though I don’t believe I had encroached on their space and have been around them as a driver many, many times, it should always one’s intention never to stress or threaten these animals I any way and I felt as though it was a failure on my part having done so.
After the commotion of being chased by an elephant, it seemed that we had probably encountered the most exciting event for the day and, though this did eventually prove to be the case, we had lots of exploring still to do I the park. The next river crossing, which is real crossing and not a bridge, was unfortunately washed out, but was not apparent until I had driven all the way down to it, requiring that we turn around, head back to the main road, and look for the final crossing which was a cement platform placed across the river bed and typically intact. Had that not been the case, it would have been a very long drive all the way back to the first crossing. Thankfully, we were in good shape and, once on the other side of the river, began to make our way towards the lunch spot overlooking Selela Swamp.
I guess it would be appropriate here to also mention one of the not so favorite attractions of Tarangire that seems to have become more prevalent in the recent years, much to everyone’s displeasure. These are the tsetse flies that are most common in wooded regions which is much of what Tarangire is made of in addition to the river area. Tsetse flies, which are most famous for carrying trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, are absolutely an incredibly annoying biting fly that inflicts a very painful wound and also sucks your blood which it’s at it. They are like heat seeking missiles with a single mission in mind and they are relentless in their execution. Though they are incredible slow, they are also very sturdy and quite difficult to kill if unless you are planning to something other than just swatting them. It usually requires that you either trap them with your hand and actually crush them (yes, I know that is gross, but if you’ve ever been bitten by one you would certainly understand) or you smash them against the window with a book or something very solid. I cannot count the amount of times that I’ve seen them simply swatted like you would any other fly and have them just turn around, laugh at you, and fly away. Their bites are not only very painful, but they also leave a nasty wound that causes a large welt and will often last for days. Simply put, they are not fun at all. Just ask any of my residents who have encountered them.
Today wasn’t the worst of days that I have seen, but they were still quite bothersome to those in the back which is mostly were they seem to collect when driving and though that might be a plus for me as the driver, I do feel bad listening to everyone else swatting and cursing these little bastards. I have seen the sweetest of individuals completely transform when they’ve been introduced to these miniature torture machines. I won’t mention any names (Megan, Lauda, Kelley, Mindy, Susannah, Amisha and others), but please rest assured that even the most composed have quickly become a blubbering mess encountering the mighty tsetse. The one thing we have to be thankful for is that sleeping sickness is not endemic in any of the Tanzanian regions to which we travel.
Much of the lower portions of Tarangire had been burned recently, a practice that helps regenerate the grasses, and so we passed through very long stretches of blackness and ashes blowing with the wind. Dust devils rose to extreme heights as we made our way to the lunch area at Selela Swamp that was thankfully not thick with tsetse flies as that would have been incredibly uncomfortable. After a nice a relaxing lunch on the picnic benches, I set a course to drive along the swamp in the direction of the river, a route I had never taken before. As we drove along, I was convinced that there was a connection between the river road and the one we were on, but just couldn’t seem to find it, so ended up driving a short distance in the wrong direction before taking out my trusty iPad with its navigation package (thank you MotionX GPS), which I guess is akin to stopping at a service station for a guy, and, with Revo’s help, found the connection I had known must exist and we were back on the right track finally.
Heading back, Kitashu spotted two lions, one, a pregnant lioness which was an impossible find across the river on the far bank and virtually invisible, and the other, a young male, was much closer and had a kill hidden nearby. The male got up and began walking back to his kill, which, as we followed it slowly in reverse along the road, was at least a day old and quite easily identified by its rancid and very pungent odor. The male then walked off in the direction of the female and we lost him in the undergrowth. Here, in the parks, you must remain on the roads and, though they may consist of two tire tracks through the grass, it’s still the rule and there are heavy fines if you are caught violating them. And, I am sure, they would love nothing more than giving a mzungu driver such a fine if they were given the chance. In the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, there is no such rule, so you are able to follow predators, but at a good distance, of course.
By now, it was well into the midafternoon and we had at least an hour’s drive to get back to the main gate. Though the park is open until 6 pm, everyone was quite tired as we had left Karatu at 6 am, and game viewing can be very exhausting, not to mention game driving. We arrived to the gate around 4 pm to exit the park and on our way back to the tarmac discovered that it was market day in the village there. Kitashu’s sister lives in the area, so he called her and we waited in the center of the commotion for her to come while we were offered just about everything you can imagine to buy, perhaps short of a goat or a cow. Our next stop was in Mto wa Mbu, where the bananas are particularly good and I think everyone in the vehicle purchased a huge bunch of the fruit. I asked for 4 bananas as payment for my driving for the day, but was given 8 and wasn’t sure how I’d eat them in only the several days I had left at FAME, but I’d give it a try. We arrived back in Karatu by sunset, all quite exhausted, but very satisfied with the day having seen lions, which were Abdulhamid’s request in addition to the elephants, which they had gotten their fill of rather up close and personal. I think everyone had a wonderful day of game viewing and I was quite happy to have made it possible for them.