Our second night in the Simba Lodge had been as nice as the first though there had been some soft rains through the night as the ground was still wet in the morning. Savannah hadn’t been feeling well the day before with the long game drive and it was unclear what our plans were going to be for the day. We decided to meet for breakfast a bit later than our previous days 6:00 am sharp and it remained a game time decision as it took a fair bit of time for her to show up in the dining tent. Though we hadn’t planned to leave the park at the end of the day by way of the lodge, we could certainly have changed those plans to accommodate whatever she wished to do. We had also told the Tarangire Maasai chief that we were going to stop by her place on our way out, though he lived close to the main entrance and not the eastern one where the lodge sat. But, like the champion she is, or perhaps it was the FOMO, Savannah made her way to the breakfast table and elected to depart with the team on schedule. Having left her behind for the day would have been difficult, not logistically, but more emotionally.
So, with our crew complete, our baggage packed, and our lunchboxes stowed, we bid farewell to the Simba Lodge and began our long trek back to the river area, passing by the smuggler’s tree on our way and, once again battling the tsetse flies that were a touch less dense today mostly because of the rains overnight. The interior of Turtle was now smelling a bit like a Tiger Balm factory after Alex’s claims of it being something like a force field against these nasty predators and she was so convincing that she even had me applying the stuff to my socks. Whether it worked or not on the tsetse flies, it sure had us all smelling pretty good.
Instead of driving straight to the river, though, Vitalis had decided to take a few side roads in search of other game, one of which lead by an unoccupied camp and was also another way to cross the river, though in seasons where the river was not so full. Driving in front of the camp, we immediately noticed a group of vultures who were devouring something on the ground that they were quite pleased with as they barely budge with us driving probably three meters from them. It was hard to make out what it was, but there was also a largo troop of baboons nearby on the ground and in the trees above with neither members of the quite divergent species being disturbed by the others. Although baboons will certainly eat meat, you will not see them going after carrion and never when there are vultures snacking on the remains of something. We drove on to an overlook and the road down to the river, but turned around since it would not us anywhere and, on our return, right were the baboons and vultures were, was an impala carcass up in the tree.
It was impaled on the branches as a leopard will always do when it drags its prey into the tree to protect it from hyenas and lions, who will typically never climb into a tree to steal prey, but do sleep in the trees to get out of the heat. The abdomen had been opened first and it is very likely that the vultures had been eating some of the abdominal contents that had fallen and were then dragged away for them to picnic. The large baboon troop had chased the leopard away as a leopard would never wish to tangle with a large group of male baboons, whose canines can inflict devastating wounds. There is clearly a hierarchy for everything here in the bush and, though the big cats are clearly at the very top of the food chain, there is a time and place to stand your ground and suffering a disabling wound to defend your prey isn’t something that is conducive to a long and healthy life in Tanzania. Numbers often matter more here than might.
Unfortunately, the baboon troop appeared to have absolutely no intention of moving anytime soon and as there was no way the leopard, most likely hiding in a tree somewhere nearby, was ever going to come back to its prey until they were gone. We backtracked the way we had come in and then made our way slowly down to the river. Descending towards the water, we had spotted a very large family of elephants in the water who appeared to by making their way up towards one of the “river circuits,” small loops of trail off of the main road that bring you quite close to the river, or will sometimes even cross it. Taking the river circuit, we drove until we knew we had a good vantage point that would serve us well as the family came up over the riverbank. Being incredibly patient will most often pay off and, sure enough, the family eventually came out of the river basin and marched directly towards us without a care in the world for they were quite dominant in numbers and everything they needed was right here in front of them.
They had the tiniest of babies with them, which was perhaps only a week or two old and though most often the mother will completely shield this young of a calf from us by keeping it on her other side, this was not the case and we were treated to a wonderful display as this huge family clearly took its time walking past us with a worry. There were several other babies and lots of adolescents with the group and they were all just magnificent. As I said before, the thought of taking aim and killing one of these animals for the mere sake of glory is something I cannot simply not understand and never will. They are our equals in regard to intelligence and sensitivity in the same fashion as the great apes, whales, and dolphins and it is not at all unreasonable to appropriately anthropomorphize them.
There were still no cats to be seen in the park, nor had anyone reported any sightings on the radio. This is a park where, though leopards may be very scarce, I have never come and not seen at least a half dozen lions and a cheetah or two. I’ve seen a number of kills here in the past and have even seen the incredibly elusive African Hunting Dog here for first and only time in Tanzania when one year, a family had decided to take up residence along the river – they had a large den and there were pups in addition to the adults that could be easily seen with your binoculars. Though we had had our fair share of elephants this weekend, there was some disappointment in the lack of other wildlife and especially the cats. We drove out into the Small Serengeti for a good distance, an expanse of flat land and some rolling hills that obviously reminded the locals of the Serengeti and, hence, its name.
The Small Serengeti was the site of a near disaster for me back in 2015 when, on our way to Arusha, we decided to take one last game drive despite the fact that we were leaving the following day. It was the wet season and I drove into the Small Serengeti taking the same roads I had always done, but with the wet ground, the grass kept getting higher and higher with the road narrower and narrower and, rather than turning back, I forged ahead. I was driving a Land Cruiser at the time and had the residents spotting ahead for me from pop top, when, quite suddenly and without any warning, our vehicle suddenly sank. We were in the middle of a park that normally has many lions as opposed to our current trip, completely stuck in the mud with no hope of digging ourselves out, our cell signal was very weak and it was beginning to rain. Walking was not an option and staying in our vehicle overnight with the hope that they realized we hadn’t exited the park and send a search party for us, would ensure that we’d all miss our flights the following day. Leave it say that miracles do happen as I got a single call outs to Leonard, who by divine intervention, just happened to be entering the park at that very moment with a group of clients and, with my description to take the Small Serengeti road a few kilometers, then turn left at the large herd of cape buffalo and drive another kilometer or so, then look for our vehicle out in the middle of the tall grass. He found us and we were able to pull the Land Cruiser out of the mud and be on our way back to Arusha with darkness setting in.
Not to worry those of you who are unfamiliar with the logistics of driving in these types of condition, or to give you the idea that these things happen commonly, but a year ago, we were in a similar pickle having come to Tarangire for only the day. We had suffered a flat before lunch which, with the help of Alex Gill, we were able to change, no small feat with a vehicle the size and weight of Turtle. After changing the tire, we had gone to lunch, and while driving along what is normally a main road, but in the pandemic reduced tourism had become a bit overgrown, the front tire wheel that we had changed suddenly fell completely off the vehicle with a sudden drop of one corner of the front end and the disc rotor digging a nice grove in the thankfully dirt road. Watching the wheel and tire continue rolling ahead as we stopped was rather comically, but then again not. Because if was worried about Turtle falling off the hijack, we had let the car down before completely tightening the lug nuts, allowing them to loosen and drop off one by one over the several kilometers that it had taken that to happen. Retrieving the wheel was the easy part and thankfully the undercarriage of Turtle was undamaged, but there was no way we could simply walk back on the road to find the lug nuts given we had seen lions along the way, so we cannibalized a lug nut from each of the other wheels and, along with the two from the spare tire, we were able to get the wheel back on and drive away, a bit shaken but unscathed.
We had no such incidents this visit and, after searching high and low for a cat of any kind, we made our way to the gate to have lunch at a small coffee stand where there were tables and umbrellas. We still had a bit of time to explore after lunch (which by the way was probably eaten around 2:30pm, so we decided to explore a few more areas where we spotted some more elephants, birds and a group of waterbuck standing in the river. We had plans to visit the Tarangire chief’s home around 4pm so that we could check on the patient from last week with the finger infection, which was thankfully doing very well, and then were on our way home back to FAME. We had requested a bunch of cooked white rice on Friday as we were planning to make fried rice for dinner and Ke was dying to watch the Formula 1 race with me. The fried rice, cooked by Natalie and Peter turned out great, the race was a bit of a flop due to a number of logistical issues with the internet that seemed to block every plan we came up with. ESPN would let us stream to the TV, Comcast would let me stream the race as I was recording it at home, and, ultimately, the bandwidth was just not satisfactory to support the continuous feed. We watched, but the broadcast would freeze every several minutes and we missed late race events that determined the top scoring positions. Oh well, thankfully the rice was delicious.