Even with my outdoors upbringing in Canada, it was impossible to prepare for what awaited me in Africa. Nothing comes close to the authentic experiences with the multitude of wildlife one can see and be amongst, who thrive in this unique isolation from civilization. Arriving at night at the Kilimanjaro airport I am struck by the absolute darkness all around us. As we disembark and walk across the tarmac, the small airport has the area’s only lights. The combination of a dark arrival, a calming heat and an earthy vegetative aroma from the land, tell my senses I really am far away from home. We are met by our Tanzanian driver, in a sizable land cruising vehicle, which will be our daytime home for the next two weeks. Adam takes us to Rivertrees, a nearby resort, for several nights before we begin our safari (‘journey’ in Swahili) into north eastern Tanzania. This previous coffee grower’s estate is a delightful oasis of small, antique appointed cabins set among ten acres of mature trees, gardens and winding pathways. As I tuck in for the night I am surrounded and protected by a canopy of flowing bug netting cascading down all around my bed.
At sunrise, it’s the lively cackling calls of blue monkeys which awaken me and it is a delight to watch their agile playful antics of running and tumbling on the thatched roof tops and in the leafy tree branches around our cabin. Driving north from Arusha we enter Tarangire National Park, famous for its resident elephant herds that dwell in this arid savannah of rolling, mixed grassland. Tarangire is also famed for the impressively huge, sporadically spaced, baobab (upside down) trees, in addition to the classically African, umbrella shaped acacia trees. The roadways on game drives comprise of crisscrossing pathways of undulating stony ridges and rainy season washouts. Even the puddles are unpredictable, as many drop deeply under the water’s surface. Crossing rivers is exciting as we are continually trying not to get stuck in the gluey messy muck. At lunch, overlooking a winding river valley, 60 metres below us, we are suddenly surrounded by dozens of black and white faced, vervet monkeys who eagerly come out of the trees to greet us and are cheeky enough to take food right off our lap if allowed. Today we see; mating pairs of lions, herds of cape buffalo and elephants, plus families of bushbuck, elands, impala, gazelle, giraffe, ostrich and warthogs.
As safari travelers we photograph all wildlife interactions from inside our vehicle, mainly from a standing position under its ‘push up’ roof, as getting out of our vehicle in their presence would be seen as a threat and could cause an attack. One place we do get out to investigate, is at the aptly named ‘poacher’s hide’, a hollowed out trunk of a still living, baobab tree, which is four metres across inside. I am alert to keep a diligent lookout as we just passed a herd of cape buffalo five minutes ago. Visiting with these majestic animals here, it is reassuring to know that all are protected and free to roam at will without fear of being hunted. The whole atmosphere exudes thrilling amazement and extraordinary admiration. It is such a privilege to experience being in the midst of this unrivalled atmosphere, hearing their breath, seeing them feed and communicate with one another amid the unique landscape of unusual acacia and baobab trees.
Our camp at Maweninga consists of a scattering of six meter long, stilted tents, situated along the edge of a 300 metre high cliff, overlooking dense bush. The view stretches out into the distance, to an enormous lake 15 kilometers away. There are no road signs to get here and all foodstuffs consumed, even water, are driven in. With no aircraft overhead and power generated by solar, the prevailing silence of remote isolation is delightfully palpable. The only sounds are those of authentic, uninterrupted wilderness. While sitting on our front deck before dinner admiring the view, a furry rock hyrax climbs up from the ledges below, then chats to us while eating leaves in the nearby trees. That night, all 14 of us, mostly Europeans, dine on a superbly cooked meal, in the open air pavilion (known as a ‘banda’ in Swahili). We share today’s sighting stories, do a little star gazing out on the rocks afterwards, then are finally escorted back to our cliff top tent by an armed ranger. Later, as a gentle rain falls, I feel protected inside our modest tent, while armies of croaking frogs outside intrigue us with an enchanting lullaby to fall asleep to.
Next morning it is a festive awakening as I listen and try to differentiate between various bird’s chirps and squawks, resonating out from surrounding bush. Some calls are hollow, others boastful, yet all this repetitive bleating together makes quite an uproar here in this authentic African wilderness. The dramatic mountain ridge backdrop beside Lake Manyara, is the Rift Valley’s eastern geologic crease. It creates a powerful contrast to the parkland of dense towering black Acacia trees and lake below. It is exhilarating every time we meet roving elephants, some who calmly stroll out of the bush directly in front of our vehicle, and others who burst out trumpeting almost pushing us out of their way. Each time this happens we watch and listen in silence, soaking in precious moments of our experience together. Further along, wading in the lakeside’s alkaline shallows and feeding on algae, are thousands of long legged flamingos, with their heads bent over in the water. This proliferation of birdlife is a mesmerizing sight, especially when groups momentarily take flight, moving as one, then settle down again further along the shore.
There are other unique trees here; one with fist sized ball ornamentation and another, the sausage tree, with its elongated growths that look like giant foot long hot dogs, dangling on a string. Today we see our first wildebeest, waterbuck and the unmistakably designed, black and white striped zebra. This is only the beginning of the great numbers which we will soon be among during their annual migration in search of fresh grass to eat on the endless plains of the Serengeti.
Then unexpectedly, right beside us, we drive past a congress of at least 30 baboons, many with adorable small babies hanging on to their mother’s underbellies and males with their spectacularly distinct faces and regal long fur coat adornment. Baboon behaviour is intoxicating to watch as some strut about the group, while others display ongoing grooming of one another and little ones playfully bully one another into friendly games of tackle. Afternoon elephant watching in the mixed undergrowth near the lake is especially interesting; many are lingering in the cooling shade of tall acacias, while others collect by a waterhole. We watch as a young elephant frolics there alongside its mother’s urgent attendance with her trunk. I observe several impressive eating adaptations that I had no idea elephants are capable of; using their front feet to load grasses onto their constantly moving, ambidextrous trunks and also shaking the dirt out of the grasses before it is inserted into their mouth.
Nearing the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, also known as ‘The Crater’, we drive onto the Maasai steppe, an expanse of rolling green hills full of acacia groves. We gaze intently as sporadically we discover small groups of towering giraffe whose heads graze through the high branches, twisting their inquisitive tongues, searching in between the two-inch spikes, for tasty morsels of green. Tonight’s camp, at Olduvai, is situated on this steppe around a massive group of boulders known as a kopje (Swahili for ‘mound of rocks’) in the middle of this open sweeping valley. All the tents face outwards from the prominent kopje and there is a rocky staircase trail that leads walkers up to a central top viewing patio, which is where we go to watch sunrises. The men working at Olduvai present a delicious collection of spicy African dishes, served in their traditional open air banda. As dinner is completed, like clockwork, up above in the rafters of this rooftop, appear pairs of eyes. These adorable silent creatures, are the elusive spotted genets, with bodies similar to those of a tabby house cat, but with a two foot long striped tails. These are the resident nocturnal cleanup committee.
Today our game drive has us venturing 600 metres down a steep switch back road and into the Ngorongoro Crater. This is the world’s largest inhabited caldera, approximately 16 km across, covering approximately about 260 square km, and is an exclusive mammalian habitat of almost every species found in Tanzania, except giraffe. Today we see for the first time a jackal family, guinea fowl, a multitude of vultures and spotted hyena. This afternoon we hike for two hours, atop the crater rim with an armed ranger. It is a spectacular trek, sometimes alongside Maasai women, who look at us with solemn faces as they collect dry sticks used for cooking, in the savannah’s meagre bush growth. Our ranger is very knowledgeable about the local flora and he shows us the plant which Maasai use as toilet paper. Then if the ambience and view is not overwhelming enough, our ranger has us quietly creeping stealthily through bushy thickets of young prickly acacia, trying to approach close to some giraffe. Seeing these remarkable, lofty creatures up close and on their own turf, is quite a thrill. Eventually we get back to the right curve on a dirt road, where we are to be picked up. Unpredictable? Yes, but this is the real Africa we have come to experience.
Once again, back at Olduvai, we have another surprise awaiting us. A Maasai man is here to accompany us to the western edge of this massive kopje to watch the sunset. It is such an inspiring visit with this gentle man who tells us about his remarkable life in the small nearby Maasai village. He tells us extraordinary stories about their struggles tending cattle, goats and sheep, and how they live peacefully and humbly in their round mud homes with only a wooden stick fencing protecting their village from the outside world. The colorful clouds of sunset painted across the western sky are a spectacular visual finale of today’s incredible ongoing African safari.
Next issue, return to Africa and witness survival of the Big Cats on the Serengeti and how symbiotic species endure their challenging existence on the scorched endless plains there.
Story and Photography By: Wilderness Traveler, Cynthia Percival