Being located in Northern Tanzania and the number one safari site in the world does have its advantages. Our schedule here has always been seeing patients for six days a week and then we have our “Safari Sunday.” It has been my version of “as God would have intended,” and I have stuck with this plan for my entire time here other than the fact that we have somewhat morphed our last weekend into a two-night trip to the Serengeti given the distance and the fact that this is not something to miss. The parks on the Northern Safari Circuit are each very different as they are each based on a different dominating geologic feature that determines their character. Manyara National Park, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, is dominated by Lake Manyara, a very large lake that sits smack in the Great Rift Valley and is incredibly picturesque with the 2000 foot escarpment of the rift rising from the lake and the park.
Tarangire National Park, our subject for today, is dominated by the Tarangire River that runs through it and provides water for all of the migrating animals during the dry season. Ngorongoro Crater is obviously dominated by an enormous caldera that was created with the collapse of a mountain hundreds of thousands of years ago. The crater is 10 miles across and 2000 feet deep with a lake in the bottom and herds of animals that do not have to migrate as they do in the other parks. It has everything other than giraffe and crocodiles, but most importantly is the increasing numbers of the endangered black rhino that are constantly being guarded again poachers. And then there are is the Serengeti. There is little to be said that hasn’t been said before, but it is truly an experience like no other and there will be much more in the future on this. Oh, and one last thing. “Safari” in Swahili actually just means “a journey,” and has absolutely nothing to do with a game drive. A common comment to a traveler here would be, “safari njema,” meaning “safe travels,” for any travel they are doing. When I arrive here, I am always asked, “how was your safari?”
We had elected to travel to Tarangire today which is about an hour and a half drive back past Lake Manyara on the same road we arrived on, except we make a right turn at Makuyuni junction and head southeast to the entrance of Tarangire National Park. As the gates of the park open at 6:30 AM and the animals are always more active in the morning, everyone had elected to leave Karatu at 5:00 AM, meaning that we would be leaving well before sunrise. We had made sandwiches the night before that we’d bring for lunch and had stocked up on water bottles. We were on the road by 5:15 and it was a brisk morning, but everyone was bundled up in Turtle and excited to be on our way. Traveling through Mto wa Mbu, the streets were quiet which is quite different than the normal hustle bustle encountered here. It is a major stop for buses with passengers stocking up on all sorts of fruit, but mostly their bananas that come in all shapes and sizes, and, believe it or not, colors. They are famous here for their red bananas that are advertised through town.
We left the tarmac at the turn for Tarangire and drove along the very rough and dusty and incredibly “washboarded” road until we reached the main gate where we would check in. Checking in at the gate is always a bit stressful me as I have had troubles with this in the past, though that has mostly occurred at either the Ngorongoro Crater or Serengeti entrances (which are completely separate administrations and each very highly regulated) and for what reason, I’m really never certain other than the fact that I am usually the only private driver there. Today’s entrance went as smoothly as ever, though, and after a few minutes, we had the tops popped on Turtle and were ready to hit the road. One of the only downsides to Tarangire is the fact that it does have a large population of tsetse flies that are typically out in full force and are quite fondly remembered by a number of residents, some of them probably still carrying either the physical or emotional scars of their confrontations with these little beasts.
The morning remained over cast and cool and seemed to have been ordered just for us. It was probably the most pleasant day I’ve had in the park in regard to the weather which is typically either hot, humid and dusty or more hot, humid and dusty. As we drove along the far side of the river towards the Selela Swamp, where would be having our lunch, there were huge herds of zebra, wildebeest and cape buffalo, many down in the riverbed. We saw herds of eland and the occasional waterbuck, as well as many, many groups of impala – harems with a single male and many female along with the occasional bachelor herds. Giraffe, warthogs and ostrich were all around. Large troops of baboons were everywhere as well as groups of vervet monkeys here and there.
This is the home of the elephants in Tanzania, though, and they did not disappoint in any respect. There were dozens and dozens of families and some were quite large with many babies and adolescents. It was wonderful to sit and watch them, though it is always clear that they are watching us as well, not from a point of fear as it is with other animals, but rather watching to understand and monitor us. On most occasions, we were able to just stop our vehicle nearby and wait for them to come closer while they were grazing, again, always monitoring our location, especially when there are young babies around. After lunch, we drove along the edge of the swamp where there were more elephants, some of who were in the water cooling themselves off despite the fact it wasn’t that hot out.
What we didn’t see today, unfortunately, were the lions. Though it’s really hit or miss, I most often see them here and it was really a shame that we didn’t. It wasn’t for a lack of looking as we scanned every river bank and under every tree looking for them sleeping in the shade, but they were nowhere to be found. The sheer number of prey animals was absolutely incredible, though, and it didn’t take much to imagine that they could have been fully satiated and sleeping the day away after a night’s hunt that would have been very, very successful. Thankfully, Sean had seen plenty of cats in the Serengeti and the Crater and the rest of the team would be heading to both of these places later with more than enough opportunities to see not only lions, but also cheetah.
All in all, it was a fantastic day, but very exhausting and especially for me as I had been behind the wheel continuously since 5:00 AM with most of it on the dirt and gravel roads of the park. When driving, you are constantly watching the road in front of you as well as the bush on either side looking for animals. In addition, since everyone is standing in the back with their heads poking out, I have to monitor any branches hanging over the road to make sure that none of them smack into the top of the vehicle and strike one of my passengers. The branches are almost exclusively acacia trees with various sized prickly spines protracting from the branches and something that you’d rather not have grab ahold of you while moving. This is perhaps what I enjoy the most about being here in East Africa, though. Had you told me as a child or young adult, back when I was reading stories about Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall and others who explored this region many years ago, that I would be driving a Land Rover in the wilds of East Africa, I would never have believed you. But yet, here I am doing just that. And even greater is the fact that I have been given the opportunity to come here and work among these wonderful people who have taught me much more than I could have ever taught them. For this I am forever grateful.
We arrived back in Karatu at sunset, tired, hungry, thirsty and filthy. We had arranged to have hot water for the evening at our houses, but needed to feed ourselves first before having showers and so pulled into Patamu, the little pub on the FAME road to order dinners. The cold Safari beer was incredibly fulfilling after spending the day in the car and hit the spot. Like most pubs here, though, dinner was at least 45 minutes away, but well worth waiting for as we were all starving. We arrived home, emptying Turtle, showered, and called it a day. An amazingly full day, at that.