Though our game drives have typically always occurred on Sundays (hence the term “safari Sunday” that I’ve used over the years), with Whitley and Meredith departing on Saturday, I took the opportunity to switch around the schedule a bit so they would be able to experience two game drives during their two weeks here. Two weeks is an incredibly short time to come to FAME, but with everything already in place for them, as well as the fact that Whitley had been to FAME previously and Meredith to Bugando Medical School in Mwanza during her residency, they had both experienced the culture here in the past and it was not a difficult transition for them. I was also so happy to have the two of them here to work with us as our clinics had been incredibly busy requiring four teams seeing patients at once given the volume meaning that there that many more patients to staff. I knew that I would be swamped for the upcoming two weeks and the little respite I had with them here was tremendously appreciated. It had allowed me to tend to some of my other responsibilities such as the fact that I am on the Board of Directors for FAME and we are currently working on our five year strategic planning.
The national parks on the Northern Tanzania safari circuit each have their own unique features making it worthwhile to see all of them if possible. The parks include the Serengeti, which obviously speaks for itself and is perhaps the finest of all experiences in Africa with its vast and never-ending plains and the draw of the great migration; Ngorongoro Crater, an ecosystem of its own with herds of animals that do not migrate for they have everything they need within their home range; Tarangire National Park, which is centered around a river ecology for the Tarangire River that runs the length of the park and dominates the behavior of the animals with them scattered in the wet season and congregated in the around the river in the dry season; Lake Manyara, a park that is center around the lake ecology and was once the home of numerous black rhino that were over hunted and are now gone forever in that location. There is also Arusha National Park on the slopes of Mt. Meru, a park dominated by the mountainous terrain where there are plenty of animals other than the big cats, but lots of monkeys including the large black colobus. There are also many other parks in Tanzania as well, a few much bigger than the Serengeti and are in the southern and central parts of the country, but they are much less visited as accessibility is much more difficult.
As I have mentioned previously, Lake Manyara was made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his book, The Green Hills of Africa, a less common non-fiction piece that was written about a hunting trip to Tanzania by the author and his wife in search of the largest rhino horns they could find with a number of friends. From a historical perspective it is quite good, but would obviously be quite frowned upon based on our current cultural mores and what is considered politically correct. Regardless, the book is a colorful collection of images from another era in the history of Africa and that of the colonialism that so dominated the land until it was all turned on end and independence became the norm. As many of you may be aware, the Nobel Prize in Literature was won last year by Abdulrazak Gurnah, an amazing author who was born and lived in Tanzania for his early life and then emigrated to England after his teenage years. His books tell the story of colonialism in East Africa and its effect on the population here. The stories are colorful and informative and well worth reading if you can find them.
Thankfully, Manyara is the closest park to FAME as far as the time it takes to get into the park itself. Though Ngorongoro Crater may be closer as the crow flies, the time it takes to reach the crater floor considering the drive up to the crater rim and then down into the crater itself is tremendously greater as the route to Manyara is all tarmac the entire way. Starting out that morning, Karatu was essentially in the middle of a dense cloud making the visibility nearly impossible as we began our journey. Still worse, driving through Rhotia, higher in elevation than Karatu, visibility dropped to precipitously and without other vehicles on the road that early, there were no taillights to follow. As we made our way lower towards the village of Manyara, still high on the escarpment about Lake Manyara, the fog began to lift and we were finally able to see the lake down below. Thankfully, the weather only continued to improve throughout the day and remained incredibly gorgeous during our entire stay in the park.
There is a new entrance to the park with artificial waterfalls spilling down the sides and the entire gatehouse has been moved well inside where it was before. About seven years ago, there was a tremendous flash flood that occurred here with an incredible number of huge boulders that came tumbling down the stream that crossed the road into the entrance area of the park. The result was that the entire road and bridge were washed away and the entrance area inside the park where a number of buildings existed such as the bathrooms and small displays were entirely covered with over six feet of debris that filled in the entire area. No one was hurt as it occurred over night, but with the only highway connecting Arusha with Karatu and the Serengeti beyond now completely washed out, no vehicles could cross. This occurred three days prior to Danielle Becker and me having to leave and there was a question of whether we could actually get out or not. Safari vehicles and buses were trapped on either side and the washed out road became a waypoint where guests were passed on to waiting vehicles on the other side, either coming or going, with luggage having to be hand carried across the ravine. Amazingly, and somewhat to our disappointment, the road was repaired in time for our departure and other than having to drive across a part of the newly constructed road that was still covered in debris and water, we made it safely and were on our way to Arusha and Kilimanjaro International Airport for our scheduled departure.
Though there have been no flash floods lately, there were some extra heavy rains in February causing the level of Manyara to have risen to unexpectedly such that much of the area along the lakeshore is now completely underwater. Where we used to spend lots of time around the hippo pool looking at all the incredible birds, it is now an eerie sea of dead trees and our previous roads have now completely disappeared into the oblivion. It’s a very strange sight having been coming here frequently for the last twelve years and to now see the present landscape. The main road through the park is still completely intact and it drives along the cliffs that lead from the valley floor up the escarpment. The steep rise and incredibly lovely trees and undergrowth up the cliffs remains intact and the scenery remains spectacular, but the amount of dry land for all of the wildlife has been greatly reduced and the areas where I have spotted the prides of lions on past trips are now gone. Whether this is a sign of global warming or just an aberrant weather season is unclear, but either way, it’s disappointing to see as it looks like the landscape is suffering in some way.
There were plenty of impala in the foothills, with the large harems of a single male and many, many females as well as the bachelor herds made up of the single males hoping someday to have their own harem by either challenging a dominant male or stealing some females and growing their own harem. We saw none of the incredibly cute klipspringers, a small rock antelope that looks the part, stocky and heavily muscled for jumping from rock outcropping to rock outcropping. I had always seen them around the Magi Moto (hot water) lunch spot where the hot springs are, but now with the water level so high, the shore has taken them over.
One thing was for sure, though, and that was the tremendous troops of olive baboons that seemed to appear at every turn and, whether in the trees by the roadside or merely making their way along the road, they are always an attraction. The little babies either riding on their mother’s backs or hanging on for dear life on their mother’s chest as they scamper along the ground. They seem to be thriving and though not visibly affected by the altered landscape, I am sure that in some way they must be. There are also smaller families of vervet monkeys and even fewer of the blue monkeys. These are equally cute and perhaps even more so for there are no large ferocious males lurking around dominating the actions of others. There is always something about the baby monkeys, though, for the emotion they stir in all of us. Other baby animals, such as the elephants and lions, are also tremendously cute, but they do not create that same emotion in us that the baby monkeys do and it is clearly understandable.
The big attraction today, though, was the elephants, which were initially few in number, but at the end of the day, began to grow in numbers as they were making their way to their homes for the night. Watching these huge creatures that are clearly so intelligent when you glance into their eyes as they are watching every move of ours. Parking the vehicle in the middle of a small family feeding along the road, they will slowly move towards us, initially with some skepticism, though once reassured that we are not dangerous, they become less tense and even allow their babies nearby. Despite reassuring everyone in the vehicle that as long as they remain quiet and make no sudden moves, it can still be unsettling to have these huge behemoths ambling only a foot or two from the car. I think this is one of my favorite things, to sit quietly almost as part of the landscape and to have at least some acceptance by these remarkable creatures that they are willing to relax (albeit somewhat) and for us to be in their presence. They are simply the most graceful of beings.
Despite the severely altered landscape, we were able to spot other wildlife during the day and the weather turned out to be absolutely spectacular for us, something that has been hit or miss as you heard from the rains of the last days. We left the park fully satisfied that we had once again had a wonderful experience in this amazing country. After a quick stop at the African Galleria for someone to pick up something they had purchased earlier, we were back on the road to get Alex home in time for another interview, this one much shorter, and then it was out to dinner at Green Park, a local outdoor restaurant serving nyamachoma, or barbecue, as it was Whitley and Meredith’s last night here. They would be departing tomorrow and would be greatly missed by everyone, but mostly me, for their assistance in helping with the residents was a godsend for me during their time here. Now I would be on my own, and though I have done this for so many years, it is always wonderful to have a few partners in the process.