Animals, animals, everywhere

Posted: November 11, 2010 in Africa
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We are now safaried out! The day after our Kili climb was painful, with Muneeza heading for a massage to relieve her knee and foot pain and me moping around the hotel with an increasingly sore throat and heartburn. We opted to book a 3 day safari to give us some serious relaxation and headed off early on Monday with our guide Elia and cook Viktor. On the Sunday we had briefly tasted what it felt like to be millionaires, albeit in Tanzanian shillings where TSh1,500 = $1.

Having discussed the options during our climb, we had decided that a 3 day safari taking in 3 different national parks would give us the greatest chance of spotting a wide range of wild animals. Akaro Tours planned the itinerary based on our preferences, so we took flight on Monday for Lake Manyara National Park, home of the elusive tree climbing lions.

The journey was interesting. We passed though the bustling streets of Arusha which took forever to pass. Arusha is located at the foot of the attractive Mt Meru, standing at over 4,000m and adorned with lush vegetation and soft, wispy cloud. However, despite the idyllic location, the city itself is grimy and hot. Paved roads give way to pothole ridden dirt tracks that make your back feel every bump and twist. There is a constant movement of people scurrying to and from shacks to buy and sell all manner of goods. Despite the seemingly random order of things, there is a natural rhythm to the trade.

What is most intriguing about Arusha is that it marks the start of the Masai region in Tanzania. We didn’t realise that the Masai were in Tanzania as well as Kenya, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Masai people amongst the Arushan throngs. The convergence of old and new is bizarre as Masai tribesmen walk around in traditional woolen robes (the bright red checked numbers you will see on TV documentaries, unmistakable) with mobile phones in one hand and wooden walking poles in the other. As you pass through Arusha into the countryside and through small villages, you see the same people in identical clothes but quietly tending cattle. It is a unique experience to see how such a traditional people has progressively entwined itself with modern Tanzanian urban life.

Lake Manyara National Park

We arrived at our campsite at midday and wolfed down a quick lunch from Chrisburger, the local burger god (it actually tastes pretty good and they throw in some fruit to balance the sin). We left Viktor to sort out the tents for the night and headed to the park with Elia for our first game drive.

Unfortunately, the early afternoon is one of the worst times to spot animals as they all retreat to the shade because the sun is so fierce. This means the big boys are awol. Despite this we had a really enjoyable afternoon being driven around the park which is a stunning place to see.

Lake Manyara is, unsurprisingly, set around a huge lake, even though the rain has not fallen convincingly for 4 years so the water line is beating a hasty retreat. The forest and lake sit at the foot of the southern Rift Valley, a huge geographic trench that stretches 6,000km from Syria to Mozambique. The landscape couldn’t be painted better. The drive snakes through dense forests out into open plains and along the lake before returning to gentle scrub and scattered trees. All the time you have the backdrop of the rock face of the Rift Valley so you can imagine the scale of what we could see. Sometimes I forgot we were on safari and stared, transfixed by nature. That may sound a bit indulgent but Africa can take your breath away with its natural beauty.

We were on a mission to see the lions but lucked out. The elusive blighters reamined elusive to the end, a rather apt moniker. We were lucky to see elephants, hippo, giraffe, wilder beast, impala, zebra and many other smaller mammals including the lesser spotted zebra mongoose. As the sun set we left the park contented and enjoyed a chilled dinner before crashing ready for an early start the next day.

Ngorongoro Crater

We left the campsite at 6am to drive to the much vaunted Ngorngoro Crater where we had been told by other tourists you were ‘guaranteed’ to see lots of lions. From experience we know that people exaggerate and talk a lot of rubbish, yet we were as excited as a litter of puppies with a bag of Winalot.

The drive from the park entrance to the crater rim took about 25mins and the treat that awaited us was incredible. The Ngorongoro Crater lies in a topographical paradise, entombed on both sides by the rift valley and descending from the cloudy rain forest into an open bowl where the weather has its own micro-climate. From above it truly looks as our guide described it, another world. At the top the weather was cloudy and drizzled rain but in the crater we could see sunshine.

As we set off for the 1hr descent along a bone shattering mud path, we saw our first animal – a large male elephant emerged from the bushes to the right and ambled its way across our path, disappearing moments later into the dense bush (all puns welcome). We picked up a local Masai chap and dropped him off, then made our way to the crater floor. On the way down we could see a group of vehicles crowded together which meant one thing – cats. On safari the only time you see the vehicles in one place is when cats have been spotted.

We drove over and could see 2 male lions lying in the thick grass, casually sowtting flies with their tales. Unfortunately, they were too well camouflaged for us to get a clear view and we had made a school boy error again- we forgot to get binoculars from the tour company so had to rely on our own eyesight!

Encouraged but disappointed we drove on and started our day long quest to see cats. We were soon rewarded as we saw another long line of vehicles clumped together and turned to corner to see an adult male lion asleep by the side of the road. We waited patiently then had our turn near the beast. It was a beautiful sight and incredible moment – he sat up and stared right at us. Seeing a lion less than 10ft away from you is a heart thumping moment – they are just awesome creatures. We didn’t want to leave but decided he deserved his peace and drove off.

The rest of the day was a pleasure. The crater itself is a beautiful place with such a diverse landscape you are constantly surprised. We drove across barren tundra, around a hippo pool surrounded by lush green plants, encircled a shimmering blue and yellow lake, ambled through trees and then snaked through the animal village which is a mini forest. The crater itself would be well worth a visit even without animals.

During the day we had several treats but the best by far were the cats. In total we saw at close range 6 lions and 5 more at distance. We stumbled upon 2 cheetahs lazing in the grass. We saw in the far distance 2 black rhinos, incredibly hard to find. There were all sorts of other animals including a small herd of elephant that came within 3ft of our faces and gave us a little scare.

We left the park tired and very content. The view as we made the ascent back to the crater rim was stunning and it truly felt like we were leaving behind another world.

Tarangire National Park

And so to our last chance saloon to see the last of the Big 5, the reclusive leopard. Leopards are the hardest to spot of the cats bcause they shy away from people (can’t blame them) and generally hang out in landscapes that make it very difficult to see anything other than bushes and branches. If you were to organise a giant game of hide and seek in the African wilderness, the leopard would be that irritating kid who is never found.

We made it to the park entrance at 06.40 and headed off with the roof up for maximum animal spotting opportunity. Tarangire is what I consider the classic African safari wilderness – endless open plains with light scrub and long grass in which anything could be sitting and you would be lucky to see. The landscape was mesmerising with mile after mile of pristine animal heaven. Running through the park is the Tarangire river which is currently mostly dry as the rainy season is in its infancy. The river breaks up the barren plains and provides a contrast of colours and animals, mainly the bountiful selection of birds on offer including eagles.

I’ll spare you the detail because one safari is much like the other in regards to the animals. The highlights were (1) Spotting 5 young lionesses relaxing in the shade of a tree near the river, staring intently back at us (2) Watching 4 different families of elephants converge on the river for mud rolling and bath time – we just sat there and watched for about 30mins as an endless line of ambling oiliphants rocked on down to the water without a care in the world (3) Stepping out the vehicle at watch points and toilet facilities fully fuelled with the fear that killer cats could be anywhere in the surrounding bushes – I’ve never weed so fast in my life.

We left the park just after midday satisfied at having seen some incredible sights and crashed on the long drive back to Moshi. As we got to Moshi we were greeted by the wonderful sight of the two peaks of Kili, Kibo and Mawenzi, rising out of the cloud, once more snow clad. It was a fitting end to an unforgettable experience in Tanzania.

Come on safari with me

We’ve learned a few things about how to get the most out of your safari, so here are our tips for anyone else planning a trip to check out the animals:

1) Research your guide carefully and find someone who is experienced at tracking animals – all the guides can tell you about the animals but most aren’t skilled at reading the signs and following the tracks so spotting is more luck than skill

2) Bring or hire a high quality pair of binoculars – you will need them

3) Visit different national parks – variety is important as you can soon tire of the same surroundings and this gives you a better chance of seeing more animals

4) If you really want to see 1 species up close and personal, you will need to pay for an experienced tracker and/or take walking safaris which can be intimidating

5) Set realistic expectations – it is not guarnteed you will see any of the big animals, this is the wild and they don’t operate like a tourist attraction and you can drive for hours without seeing anything so enjoy the scenery

6) You are the boss – you have paid a lot of money for this priviledge so don’t let the guides dictate how and what you do – take their advice but make sure you make the decisions, especially regarding what time to get into the parks

7) The best time to see the exciting stuff is first thing in the morning and late in the evening – most animals retreat into the abyss during the hottest hours of the day to seek shade

We hope you have enjoyed reading about the animal adventures. Whenever we find an internet cafe that uploads photos without giving my camera a virus, we’ll share some pics.

love james & muneeza x

  1. Muneeza says:

    Ngorongoro Crater was my favourite safari, just because the surroundings were beautiful and we got to see a Lion really close up (and they had normal toilets not holes in the floor) xx

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