Wow. My wife Pam and I just returned from a spectacular two-week safari in the national parks of Tanzania, east Africa. It was a “family safari” with six other family (and friends of the family), organized through Thomson Safaris. Thomson is just one of many companies operating safaris in Tanzania, which is a booming industry now that the safari market in neighboring Kenya has pretty well saturated, and people are discovering Tanzania to be a safer, cheaper alternative.
We flew through Amsterdam, which gave us the opportunity for a 1-night stopover and a long jet-lagged day touring the museums and canals of that beautiful city. Probably the most important feature of the stopover was cleaning out the duty-free shops in Shipol airport, buying enough bottles of wine so our group had one for each night on safari.
The flight from there to Arusha, Tanzania is even longer, about 9 hours to span endless miles of the deserts of north-central Africa. It really gives you a sense of just how huge Africa really is when you fly for hours across so much “empty” space.
Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha is a small one-gate sort of place, primarily serving safari tourists, and diplomats attending the U.N.’s Rwandan war-crime tribunals being held in Arusha. The town of Arusha, with about 200,000 people, is closer to the major national parks, including Mt. Kilimanjaro just a few miles to the northeast, than is the coastal capital city of Dar es Salaam.
Both English and Swahili are official languages, although with a population from 120 different tribes there are another 120 other languages that can be heard around the country. Our guides were thus trilingual, speaking English, Swahili and their tribal language.
For our group of eight, Thomson supplied two guides and one guide-in-training, and two specially modified LandRovers. The guides, John and Gebra, are all native Tanzanians and had been guiding for 10-15 years, so they knew an incredible amount about the parks and wildlife. Indeed, Gebra was somewhat of a birding specialist, and could not only identify a passing bird by name, but could also instantly tell you the page and plate number where its picture could be found in the bird book. Our guides were clearly more experienced than many of the other guides we encountered; often they would stop to talk with our guides along the road. There seemed to be a friendly fraternity among the guides of various companies, and they all seemed to cooperate to give each other tips about the location of the best wildlife.
We spent the first day in Arusha national park, a relatively small park near Arusha and on the slopes of Mt. Meru. Like Kilimanjaro (at 19000+ feet the tallest in Africa), Meru is a tall volcano with a lush tropical rainforest on its lower slopes. Here we established the basic daily pattern: slowly driving along very bumpy dirt roads, watching for wildlife and stopping whenever there was something interesting to watch. The roof the LandRover popped up so that we could stand and look in all directions, yet still be shaded from the equatorial sunshine. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and misty that day, so we had no views of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Almost inches after crossing the park boundary, where the banana and coffee plantations gave way to the rainforest, we came across a set of giraffes next to the road. A little further along a troop of baboons were lolling about in the road in front of us. Ponds were filled with thousands of flamingoes, and visited by herds of cape buffalo, waterbuck, and the tiny dik-dik antelope. What amazed me is that most of these animals barely noticed our presence, even when we pulled up only a few yards away from them. In general, most of the animals in the parks have no reason to fear humans, particularly humans in LandRovers.
We hired a park ranger to join us for a hike along one of the forest roads. He carried a rifle and was a required part of any hiking party in the park. Apparently, cape buffalo (when alone) are easily startled and can become quite dangerous. One look at their horns convinced me that I did not really want to test that hypothesis. Although we did startle a pair of buffalo on the walk (and the ranger’s rifle was rapidly in position for action) they ran off into the woods, so the real excitement was spotting a bunch of black and white colobus monkeys high in the trees.
The next day we spent in Tarangire National Park, which is further to the west and is a completely different experience. Set in rolling savannah country, this dry and sparsely vegetated area is teeming with elephants. Well, let’s just say that we saw over 100 elephants in our first 3 hours. Many had (very cute) little baby elephants along with them, and many were right next to the road. One teenage male was quite blustered by our presence, flapping his ears and trumpeting, and making small false charges. Unfortunately, the elephants love to eat Baobob trees, to the point that the baobobs are likely to disappear from the park.
While some of our group saw lions there, indeed, a mating lion couple, the real lion action would come later in the Serengeti.
From Tarangire to Serengeti is a long long poke over some unbelievably bumpy and dusty dirt roads. The worst roads of New Hampshire were smooth super highways compared to some of these roads. We broke up the trip with an overnight at a lodge perched on the edge of the great Rift, overlooking a huge valley with Lake Manyara and its flocks of flamingoes, and in the distance, our only view of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This was an agricultural area, and we stopped in the market in the bustling village of Mto Wa Mbu, where there were piles of bananas, rice, beans, spices, mangoes, and so forth. And a section for tourists with lots of crafts, mostly wood carvings of ebony and rosewood. Bartering was the rule here, and I managed to get a very nice carving in trade for a pair of old sneakers, a water bottle, and some cash. The hot commodity appeared to be socks (yes, socks), and anything with Michael Jordan, particularly sports magazines.
We spent three days in Serengeti National Park, a huge seemingly endless plain of grass that stretches for hundreds of miles, connecting to game reserves and to some parks in Kenya. Huge herds of animals roam these plains, following the rains. Although the largest herds had already migrated north (the rains ended in May), we nonetheless were often surrounded (quite literally) by hundreds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, topi, and others. Giraffes could be found wherever there was a clump of acacia trees, and hippos and crocodiles hung out in the pools along the river. We found troops of hyena, including one with babies, as well as jackals and foxes. But the most amazing were the lions and cheetah. We could pull right up next to snoozing lions, only 20 yards away. The cubs would tussle and play, and the adults would keep right on snoozing. We were very lucky with the one cheetah we saw, who we found in her den with 5 cubs. When we were the only folks there, she came out to look around and the cubs played in the grass.
Unfortunately, later, there were other tour operators who insisted on driving within about 3 feet of the cheetah in her den, way too close; our drivers reported those drivers to the park rangers. Apparently the parks have severe penalties for driving off road where not permitted, or for disturbing the wildlife. In Tarangire, a driver can be banned from the park for one year, which effectively puts them out of the business.
Early one morning, before dawn, we drove out for a pre-breakfast peek at the wildlife. Right outside of camp, only 100 yards from our tents, we spotted a lioness as she sprang after a herd of wildebeest. She chased them for a while, to no avail. Nearby a pack of hyenas waited patiently.
Perhaps one of the most striking things about the Serengeti, with its endless plains, roamed by herds of 1.8 million wildebeest and zebra, is that I could see what the North American west used to be like only 150 years ago. It’s sad what we have lost, and impressive what they have managed to protect.
After the Serengeti it seemed that it could not get any better. But then we moved on to Ngorongoro crater, the largest perfect caldera in the world that is habitable. Long ago it was a huge volcano, taller than Kilimanjaro. The lava that filled the core of the volcano drained away, leaving a hollow shell that collapsed to form a caldera, i.e., a crater. [My apologies to the geologists in the crowd, who I am sure see right through my simplistic understanding.] The thousand-foot high rim around the crater is 12 miles in diameter, and is high enough that it catches clouds and thus receives rain all year. Thus there is a rainforest on the rim, and the streams flow down into the relatively dry crater to form a shallow lake. With no outlet, the water evaporates to leave a highly alkaline environment. This shallow, alkaline lake is prime territory for thousands of pink flamingoes. The sight of that much pink feather and blue water is stunning, as is the smell of droppings from thousands of flamingoes (whew!).
Over 22,000 large mammals live in the crater; huge herds of resident zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, etc. These make easy targets for a fat and happy population of lions and hyenas. We spent an hour one day watching a lioness, barely crouched behind a tiny hillock, tense and waiting to spring as unsuspecting wildebeest strolled by. Neither the wildebeest nor the lioness seemed to notice that we were only about 25 yards away the whole time. Several times we were *sure* that she would spring out to catch a wildebeest that was only about 15 yards from her, but she decided to wait. Apparently she was waiting for a particularly stupid wildebeest (and they are pretty stupid) to stumble right over her. Ultimately we tired of watching before the lioness tired of waiting for her lunch; we later heard that she never did chase anything that day.
The confined space makes for wonderful wildlife viewing, but it also means that there is a very high density of LandRovers. At one stop we counted 14 LandRovers stopped to watch a rhino family. The black rhino are dwindling in number– only 22 left– despite intense protection from poaching. The Japanese market for rhino horn means that poachers can make a lot of money for killing one rhino, leaving it to rot while they take only the horn.
We took a side trip here to hike up to the rim of neighboring Olmoti crater. The 10,000′ altitude plus two weeks of sitting on our butts in a LandRover made this climb somewhat strenuous, though short. From the rim we could look over another beautiful crater, this one filled with cows. Here we met a young mother of three; she was just one of several wives of her husband, who apparently owned many cows and thus could afford several wives and many children. They carry their children on their backs, wrapped in the long blankets they all wear.
Yes, this is Maasai country, and the area is managed as a conservation area in which the Maasai tribe is allowed to live and graze their cows as they have done for centuries. Indeed, the Maasai have done an amazing job of maintaining their traditional culture and living style, in small villages of round stick-and-dung huts, living off their cows. They are a tall, proud people with very colorful dress: men wear a red blanket, somewhat like a toga, and carry a wooden staff and a spear, women wear gorgeous silver and bead jewelry.
We stopped by one village, where (for a price) they let us look around, visit their homes, and take pictures. They offered some of their crafts for sale, particularly the gorgeous beadwork of the women and the carved staffs and spears of the men. I don’t want to romanticize it– the area between the huts was strewn with cow manure, there were flies everywhere, and the huts were filled with smoke. They have a hard life, and I am really impressed that they have managed to maintain the traditional lifestyle despite the modernization of the rest of their country.
So Tanzania is a fascinating and diverse country, with many kinds of people and many lifestyles. There is a lot of poverty, which is particularly obvious in contrast with the tourists and their fancy hotels, Gore-tex rainwear, and video cameras. It made me very thankful for the things that I have.
We had three types of accomodations: fancy lodges, tented lodges, and tented camp. They all had spectacular locations, such as the lodge on the rim of Ngorongoro crater. Tented lodges were permanent installations where each “room” was an independent canvas tent, albeit with a concrete floor and shower/toilet attachment. The tented camp was a temporary setup run by Thomson folks, although none of us have ever camped in such luxury. Each couple had their own large canvas tent, with attached toilet tent; little shower tents; a dining tent; beer and wine on hand; great food; campfire made for you; warm water and a basin prepared for you at bedtime and at wake-up time. They even baked and decorated a birthday cake for me on my birthday.
Overall I found the Tanzanians to be a very friendly people, and the country to be absolutely gorgeous place. Definitely worth a visit if you ever have a chance. Although excessive tourism often ruins many places, the country seems (for now anyway) to have a fairly good conservationist attitude, as did our tour company. One quarter of Tanzania is already set aside in parks and game reserves. Thus it seems likely that the wildlife, scenery, and culture will survive reasonably well.
Sorry I did not include many photos here. I scanned the best of the prints, but most of the really good pictures are on slides. The photographic opportunities were phenomenal, given the amount and proximity of wildlife, and stunning scenery.
P.S. Our son John, 9 months old at the time, spent one week with his grandparents and another week with his cousins, and by all accounts had a blast without mom and dad around. Mom and dad missed him, on the other hand, quite a bit. At one refueling stop we met a local woman and her baby; Pam was so taken with her baby that she pulled out a photo of John to show her. In this picture of her you can just see her holding John’s photo, which she kept.