Saturday, March 26 – Battling the tsetse flies, elephants, elephants and more elephants…


This morning was both rather special and sad for me as the weekend here brought memories of my prior trips to the Simba Lodge, one of them with Kelley and Laura, and the fact that I was missing Kelley’s wedding in Puerto Rico today. Both of them were close personal friends both prior to accompanying me here, but even more so in the later years of their residencies and fellowships with Laura having moved to the Bay Area and Kelley having returned to Penn after a short stint at NYU. We were all in the Napa Valley this last August for Laura’s wedding and when Kelley told me that she was scheduling her wedding at the end of March, I tried to think of anything I could do to make it, but, in the end, it was really the issue that there was no one else who could lead this program and it would not have been fair to the residents who had been scheduled on this trip. I know that Kelley understood completely, as did her now husband, Paul, but just the same it was a huge loss to have not been there in person not to mention having missed all the wonderful dancing with my wonderful friends. There was some solace in the fact that both Kelley and Paul were able to accompany us on the last trip in September and I was able to give them a memorable balloon ride in the Serengeti as part of my wedding present.

Smugler’s notch tree

Laura and Kelley’s visit to the Simba Lodge had not been the only memorable visit lest I not mention the visit there with Susanna, Susan, Mindy and Johannes back in the spring of 2018, when we had once again discovered the amazingly refreshing pool with its nearby bar, but also later in the weekend had encountered two male lions only to discover that we also had a flat tire and were in no shape to move until it was fixed. The lions were some yards away and there was another vehicle next to us, mostly shielding Yusef, or driver, as he worked on the tire, until one of the males decided that he would come investigate. Johannes was videoing the whole thing, but all I remember was Mindy, not so calmly shouting, “Yusef, get back in the vehicle.” Needless to say, it is extremely unlikely that the lion had anything in his mind other than finding his next shady spot, but the appearance of the whole thing was certainly up for some debate as to whether there was ever any danger, yet it makes for a wonderful story.

A motley crew – Peter, Alex, Savannah, Ke, Natalie and Vitalis

So, Tarangire National Park is known as the elephant paradise in Tanzania and for good reason as it is the home to countless families of elephants, some incredibly large, that can be spotted for many miles along the river pretty much year round. The other thing that Tarangire has become known for, though, is its tsetse fly population. This is not such a nice thing to be known for as these little beasts, which are incredibly vicious and will track you down like a miniature heat-seeking missile and pack a nasty two phase bite that can leave very nasty welts on their unsuspecting victims. In the worst of cases, they can carry trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, which is caused by a small parasitic protozoan, but is thankfully quite rare in Tanzania with only 10 or so cases a year seen here. The disease, when presenting with neurologic complications is essentially 100% fatal, though there is a medication that can be used to treat it with the only downside that the treatment itself has a 10% fatality rate. I would imagine that you can gather from all this that it’s not good to contract sleeping sickness here and, though that is such an unlikely occurrence here, the issue of the bites still exists.

The nasty culprit following a meal with distended abdomen

The tsetse fly is most populous in densely wooded areas near water such as exists in many areas of Tarangire and it is impossible to avoid them as you have to pass through these areas on your way to the river. As we entered the park, we were very soon encountering them and they were following along at the same speed as our vehicle which is an amazing knack they have. When you bat one out, it just keeps flying at the same speed and lands on some other location. Don’t forget that we are traveling in a vehicle whose top is completely open so it’s not very difficult to begin to accumulate these insects in the vehicle and particularly in the rear of the vehicle. They also have a very dense exoskeleton, making them very hard to kill by simply smashing unless you make sure to crush them after swatting them. Simply giving them a firm whack with your hand will not do them in and it is amazing how often they will fly away uninjured after having just smacked them against the seat or the window with your hand. You can almost hear their little laugh as they fly away undeterred and are immediately ready for another attack. The best thing to use for this purpose is one of the two small wildlife guide books that I bring along and you have to do this again a firm surface like the window or a piece of bodywork. Striking them against a seat or a person with the book does nothing to their wicked little bodies.

An early morning family of elephants
Coming to check us out

If you’re really interested in the mechanics of a tsetse fly bite, there is a video online that I will not include here so as to spare those of you who do not wish to have nightmares of these beasts, but leave it to say that the tsetse has a very firm proboscis that is immediately inserted through your skin, as well as any piece of clothing such as socks, pants or shirts, nearly instantaneously upon landing. This is their test probe, and though it is painful and will leave a smaller welt, it is nothing like the discomfort that occurs when they remain attached and begin drilling for blood, which is their ultimate goal. Why anyone would ever do this is beyond me, but the video I mentioned above is of a volunteer allowing a tsetse to land on their arm and then, undisturbed, proceed to engorge itself with the volunteers blood taking several minutes to do so. The last point I’ll make about these insects is that they laugh at normal insect repellants. I think they eat DEET for breakfast. Alex, though, did bring Tiger Balm with her and based on our non-randomized, non-controlled, and simply unscientific study that was conducted, it does seem like she suffered far fewer, or perhaps, no bites during the weekend after completely slathering herself with it. Further studies will need to be conducted in the future.

So, despite the tsetse fly attacks, we continued on intrepidly towards the Tarangire River looking for game as most of the wildlife in the park focuses either on the river here or on the Selela Swamp, an immense body of grass and marsh that alternates between a shallow lake and a swamp throughout the year depending on the rains. Along the way, the Poacher’s Tree greeted us as it always has when nearing the river. The story goes that poachers used to hide their ivory here some years ago before the anti-poaching forces began to protect all the animals in the park. Ivory, of course, has been outlawed now for many years due to the decimation of the African elephant that reached its height during the early years of the 20th century when millions and millions were killed purely for their ivory. The population of African elephants in 1800 have been estimated at 40 million, while the current number is now less than half a million. Though the trade of ivory was fully banned in 1990, there has been a constant demand for this precious commodity that has been fueled mostly by the far east. And it also became very complicated as there were a number of countries who were exempted from the ban for assorted reasons, none of which made a lot of sense or had any legitimacy.

Just saying “hi”

Today, elephants continue to be poached at numbers of twenty to thirty-thousand per year and though there has been a slight decline in numbers in the recent years, researchers believe this has not declined in regions other than East Africa, where strong anti-poaching efforts have given the appearance of the overall decline in other regions of Africa. For those of you who have not read King Leopold’s Ghost, it is truly a must for it tells the story of King Leopold of Belgium who, under the guise of bettering the population of the Congo, instead perpetrated perhaps the greatest genocide in modern history while also first raping the country of its elephants and ivory, and then its natural rubber, all the while making millions upon millions of dollars in the process. This atrocity occurred in the late 1800s and into the early part of the twentieth century until it finally came to light what his intentions had been along. This dark secret continues to haunt the Belgium people, knowing that the vast majority of their public memorials honoring the Royal Family had been funded by a reign of death and mutilation masterminded by their King.

A male waterbuck

If one were to spend only a short period of time with these marvelous creatures in their natural habitat, it would be entirely impossible to think anything less of them than our equals in so many ways. The families we encountered were all incredibly healthy, with lots of adolescents and very small babies, some only weeks old, sticking very close to their mother’s sides, nursing at times, playing at others, and trying to imitate their older siblings. Families are dominated by a lead matriarch, whose children, sisters, nieces and nephews make up the rest of the group. Adult males do not travel with the families, but either roam on their own or in groups, usually made up of related males. Occasionally, I have encounter bull male elephants on their own and they have usually been in a bad mood when I have. They are not to tangle with and you are usually best to let them have their way as they will typically become bored and move on with not harm. Those encounters have most often occurred her in Tarangire.

A martial eagle
A juvenile martial eagle

For all the game we saw this day, there were no wildebeest or zebra herds that we ran across as it turned out that they were all out of the park on the Manyara Ranch, an area of open grazing land that sits between Tarangire and Lake Manyara, with some of the herds having been visible to us as we were driving to the lodge yesterday. There were some fairly large herds of cape buffalo that we saw, any many, many groups of impala with their large harems with a single male and their bachelor herds of males who have yet to be successful challenging a male for his harem. And then there were the Olive Baboons, whose large troops were very diverse as far as aging is concerned. There were ostriches and giraffe, waterbuck, and many of the tiny dik dik, who mate for life and can always be seen in pairs with their significant other. Crossing the bridge at the far end of the park on way to the lunch spot, we spotted two large Nile monitors, one warming themselves on the rocks and the other swimming along with the current. These large green, yellow and black lizards feed on fish, small mammals and birds, and, of course, carrion. There are no Nile crocodiles in Tarangire.

A long-crested eagle
Leopard tortoise

The lunch area that we always stop at overlooks the Selela Swamp at the far end of the park. I have seen hundreds of elephants in the water here before, but there were none today for there was enough water in the river so that the elephants didn’t have to travel this far. Thankfully, there were far fewer tsetse flies here than in some of the other parts of the park as is much less wooded on the slopes overlooking the swamp, and we were able to eat our lunch with some degree of relaxation from the constant swatting of those incredibly pesky bugs. Since we were returning to the lodge in the evening, we were supplied with a wonderful picnic lunch rather than the typical lunch boxes that you receive when leaving camp for good. After enjoying our lunch, we made our way along the swamp heading over the hill in the direction of the balloon camp and the Sopa Lodge, meeting the river on the opposite side from what we had taken in the morning.

Vervet monkey guarding his post
White-bellied Go-away-bird (thanks to Dan Licht for the ID)

We were obviously looking for any of the big cats throughout the day, whether they be lions, cheetahs or even leopards in the trees by the swamp, but we had seen none and suspected that they had likely followed the herds out of the park. None of the guides we had met along the way had seen anything for the entire day and Vitalis had also been on the shortwave radio listening for any sightings of which there had been none. Heading back in the direction of our lodge, we stopped by the overlook lunch spot for a bathroom break and some great views in both directions of the river. One of the last times I was here at Tarangire, the river had been so full that the main river crossing was impossible and you had to drive all the way to the far side of the park towards the swamp to cross at the bridge. The main road that crosses does so on cement slabs that are only several feet about the normal level of the river requiring only a moderate downpour to make the crossing impossible. Though the Land Rovers are specifically designed for water crossings that can completely submerge the engine thanks to its snorkel, it is the current that is the problem, and taking chances when unnecessary will only leave one very disappointed and in need of a rescue. I will mention that Turtle is equipped with an electric winch on the front, though I typically tell people that’s mainly for rescuing Land Cruisers that get stuck and need our help. I guess that’s really a joke best told in Africa.

A pair of Bare-faced Go-away-birds

A family of elephants by the river

Having mostly survived the day amongst the tsetse flies, for Savannah ended up having her ankles severely bitten as we would learn later, we made our way back by the smuggler’s tree and home to the lodge where a dip in the pool sounded like the most amazing thing ever given the heat and the bug bites. As we arrived to the gate of park to head to the lodge, we ran into the very first zebra we had seen all day in a small area. It had been raining off and on in the area and there were some pools of water by the roadside. There had also been lightning and thunder overhead, but we seemed to dodge most of it and on our arrival, there was enough of a break and lack of any lightning for us to consider a dip in the pool.

Relaxing after our safari
Spotting wildlife from the tower

The cool water seemed to ease the itching and I’m sure that the drinks also helped, but in a different manner. After the pool, I had decided to try the outdoor shower, which was an interesting experience with the occasional flashes in the sky and drizzle that would fall. There were many more people that had showed up to spend the night, which was great to see considering how significantly the pandemic had impacted the tourist industry here with many tour operators going out of business and lodges closing. It did seem as though things were slowly returning to normal and for dinner, we had more of the standard buffet meal as most of the tables were full of guests tonight. One of the highlights of the safari camps is the fresh made soups that are so spectacular and have long been my favorite. A very heavy rain fell during our dinner, with the loud sound of the falling rain on the roof of the tent so that at one point it became difficult to hear. It was truly pleasant and we were fairly confident that the precipitation would be gone by morning when we were planning to head back into the park for our second day.

A white-headed buffalo weaver joining us for lunch

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