At the entrance to Tarangire National Park we settled in for a picnic lunch while Robert took care of the paperwork. (This would become a regular routine, as there seem to be plenty of fees and paperwork to enter each of the parks.) I have to say, the facilities at the parks we visited were generally excellent, with well-maintained picnic sites and flush restrooms available here and there.
We spent the afternoon driving slowly into the park, stopping to view and photograph all manner of wildlife. There seemed to be a maze of narrow dirt tracks criss-crossing the park, through open scrub on the higher elevations and some along the brushy tree-lined shores of the Tarangire river and its tributaries. Most intersections were well marked, but Robert and Freddy clearly know this place like the back of their hands, and they knew particular locations where one might have a good opportunity to view elephants or lions or birds.
Our destination for this evening was a nyumba – campsite – deep in the heart of the park. Thomson manages a network of these campsites in strategic locations, and many of its safaris offer this opportunity to camp instead of staying in hotels. Of our ten nights on safari, we spent six nights at three nyumba, and four nights at two delightful hotels. As a life-long backpacker I am hard-pressed to call the experience at these nyumba “camping”, however, and we came to call it “glamping” for glamour camping. Although this first nyumba had no permanent structures – Thomson staff break it down during the off-season and set it back up again in the next season – we stayed in individual two-person canvas tents that each had a private bathroom complete with shower and toilet, and a proper frame bed with mattress and sheets. The staff would bring hot water to fill the exterior reservoir whenever you wanted a shower, and the self-contained plastic toilet had a hand-operated pump to flush waste into its reservoir. At first light the staff would come to the table in front of your tent, wake you with a friendly “Jambo, Jambo!” and leave behind a pot of warm washing-up water and a pot of coffee or tea. In the main dining tent they served delicious 4-course meals, and the adjacent lounge tent had board games and a well-stocked bar. Glamping, indeed.
Despite the luxury, of course, the tents are nonetheless made of canvas and this camp is nonetheless sited in the middle of a wildlife park. A park with lots of nocturnally active animals who know the park is really their territory; overnight we could hear hyenas passing through camp, and distant lions calling to each other in the night. The guides assured us they’d seen every kind of animal pass through a nyumba at some time or other. Sleep tight ;-).
As we bumped along the dirt roads to the nyumba, Robert mentioned by way of courtesy that we were going to be sharing the first site with a group from Dortmund University. He sounded apologetic, that our 10-person group would need to share with another 14-person group.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Dortmund is a university in Germany, right?”
“No, from USA: Dartmund University.”
Uh-oh. No way. “You mean Dartmouth?” I queried.
“Yes, that’s it! Dartmouth University!” he said.
Sure enough, we pulled into camp and I learned that the other Thomson group was a trip organized by Dartmouth Alumni Travel. Their trips are all led by a Dartmouth professor, I knew, and I soon met Professor Bob Baum from the Religion departmet and AAAS program at Dartmouth. Among the members of the group were Professor Emeritus David Lindgren (Geography), and my very own classmate, Susan McCormack ’86. Talk about a small world! I had two delightful evenings around the campfire listening to Bob talk about religion in Africa and in Tanzania in particular. Like us, they were just beginning their safari; although our itineraries never aligned for another evening, we later bumped into them in Ngorogoro Crater and in the Serengeti as well. Though round the girdled earth we roam…!
We spent all of Day 3 (my birthday!) exploring Tarangire, broken up by a stop for lunch in the restaurant at the Tarangire Safari Lodge. While the kids took advantage of the swimming pool, I noted with déjà vu the fact that we had stayed at this location 18 years earlier, when it was essentially just a nyumba.
One highlight this day was a troupe of elephants, including several very cute youngsters. Grazing peacefully on both sides of the road, with the occasional elephant strolling across the road in front or behind us, we watched with quiet interest for a long time. At one point, an elephant close to our rover seemed to be getting nervous; Freddy noted how her ears were flaring outward. Freddy’s intuition was right – as he started the rover and pulled away, she charged the rover and, we later saw, put two small dents in the rear side of the truck with her tusks. “She was just warning us,” Freddy assured us. “If she had really been angry, there would have been much more damage.”
Another highlight was our first good view of lions. We came across a pair of lions close to the roadside, a male and female resting in the shade. Likely a mating pair, said Freddy. I didn’t quite expect his assessment to be quite so accurate, quite so graphically and so immediately. As we watched, the male got lazily up from his nap, stretched, and proceeded to mount the lioness. This dramatic moment lasted only a couple of minutes, before she made it clear it was time to stop. He lay down again to rest while she rolled onto her back. Perhaps 15 minutes later they repeated this activity. (See photos.)
As we learned more about lions – and saw many more in the Serengeti – we learned about the structure of a lion pride. A pride is a group of lionesses, all sisters, with their cubs; the pride is led by a male lion (or perhaps a lion and his trusty brother) that has managed to defeat the pride’s previous patriarch.
The final highlight of the day was a surprise — when the nyumba’s entire crew of about a dozen staff came dancing and singing through the dining room, carrying a birthday cake. They sang a delightful song, Hakuna Matata (no, not the Disney song), which served nicely as a replacement for “Happy Birthday”. In fact, I like it better! The next day, Mara and Isabel learned the words and this cheerful song with a catchy tune quickly became the soundtrack to our safari.
With the advent of Day 4 we left Tarangire; we crossed the main road to the west of the park and along some back roads to the southern entry to spend the day in Lake Manyara National Park.
These back roads gave us a glimpse into rural Tanzanian life, as we watched all manner of pedestrians, cyclists, and farm trucks bringing people and their produce to market. I wish we had had time to stop in the village hosting this week’s market day; around the world I always find markets to be both photographically rich and culturally interesting. As we moved ever deeper into rural countryside, uniformed schoolchildren stopped on their walk to school to wave cheerfully. (Unfortunately, some also asked for money or candy and ran after us; too many tourists have provided these treats and Thomson discourages the practice.) Most of the homes seemed attached to small farms, interspersed with the occasional tiny shop run by a village entrepreneur.
Lake Manyara National Park is an impressively large soda lake – that is, highly alkaline because it has no outlet; its waters slowly evaporate as the dry season progresses. Nonetheless it provides a rich ecosystem for the algae and tiny crustaceans that feed flamingo and dozens of other aquatic bird species. Along its west side are the steep slopes of the Great Rift (actually, Gregory Rift), verdant with springs that nourish the green forest and meadows along the west shore of the lake. As we drove from south to north between the rift wall and the lake, we encountered an impressive family of elephants. (We stopped to watch – not that we had any choice, with elephants standing in the road in front of us – but then, we wondered, what to do when more elephants park themselves in the road behind you?) Eventually the elephants stepped aside and we moved along. Soon after, a busy family of baboons grazed in the roadside vegetation. Scattered across the lakeside meadows were grazing zebra, giraffe, and wildebeest, including one unlucky zebra that now fed a pack of vultures. Near the geothermal hotsprings were rich fields of marsh grass and a satisfied-looking family of hippos; the park had built a nice pier out into the lake here to make it easier to explore the birdlife on foot. Far out into the shallow lake waded hundreds, nay thousands, of flamingoes, storks, gulls, and herons of all sorts. Impressive place — and to think we saw it in the dry season, when there are fewer animals present!
More in the next post! and don’t miss the full photo collection.