While on safari, every game drive is a trip into the unexpected.., a chance to encounter nature at its most raw.
No wonder that for many, a trip to Kenya is firmly at the top of their wish list.
What many people don’t realize, however, is that while Kenya is the world’s best-known safari destination, it is far from being the only one.
‘When you go on a Kenya safari, you are watching the most amazing film in the world. But when you go on a Tanzania safari, you are the lead role,’ says our driver guide with a hint of pride in his voice.
A herd of elephants makes its way across the savannah. A leopard stalks through the grass. A pack of hyenas munch on a kill.
Reminiscing on the driver’s words, I guess, he’d say that.
A trip to Tanzania is an experience of a lifetime where you get to satisfy your wanderlust through adventure, solitude, beauty and wildlife – all in one travel.
Manyara: “the liveliest I’d seen in Africa” – Ernest Hemingway
We depart from Arusha early morning and head out to Lake Manyara National Park.
Stretching for 50km along the base of the rusty-gold 600-metre high Rift Valley escarpment, Lake Manyara is a scenic gem, with a setting extolled by Ernest Hemingway as “the loveliest I had seen in Africa”.
The park’s compact game-viewing circuit offers a virtual microcosm of the Tanzanian safari experience.
From the entrance gate, the road winds through an expanse of lush jungle- like groundwater forest where hundred-strong baboon troops lounge nonchalantly along the roadside, blue monkeys scamper nimbly between the ancient mahogany trees, dainty bushbuck tread warily through the shadows, and outsized forest hornbills honk cacophonously in the high canopy.
Contrasting with the intimacy of the forest is the grassy floodplain and its expansive views eastward, across the alkaline lake, to the jagged blue volcanic peaks that rise from the endless Maasai plains.
Large buffalo, wildebeest and zebra herds congregate on these grassy plains, as do giraffes – some so dark in coloration that they appear to be black from a distance.
Inland of the floodplain, a narrow belt of acacia woodland is the favoured haunt of Manyara’s legendary tree-climbing lions and impressively tusked elephants. Squadrons of banded mongoose dart between the acacias, while the diminutive Kirk’s dik-dik forages in their shade. Pairs of klipspringer are often seen silhouetted on the rocks above a field of searing hot springs that steams and bubbles adjacent to the lakeshore in the far south of the park.
To witness that calm rhythm of life revives our worn souls and recaptures a feeling of belonging to the natural world. No one can return from the Serengeti unchanged, for tawny lions will forever prowl our memory and great herds throng our imagination.” – George Schaller
On day two, we head out into Serengeti, conscious of the fact that the Great Migration is across the border in Kenya, its last tail of more than 1,000 wildebeest and zebra leaving TZ in the next few days.
It is only when you get into the Serengeti that the vastness of the place becomes real. Many people think of it as only one destination to be seen in two days before rushing somewhere else.
The Serengeti has different places with a range of habitats.
Treeless plains with mountains of closed canopy riverine forests influenced by the seasons, the wildlife and the character of the park vary dramatically from one season to another.
Yet even when the migration is quiet, the Serengeti offers arguably the most scintillating game-viewing in Africa: great herds of buffalo, smaller groups of elephant and giraffe, and thousands upon thousands of eland, topi, kongoni, impala and Grant’s gazelle.
The spectacle of predator versus prey dominates Tanzania’s greatest park. Golden-maned lion prides feast on the abundance of plain grazers. Solitary leopards haunt the acacia trees lining the Seronera River, while a high density of cheetahs prowls the southeastern plains. Almost uniquely, all three African jackal species occur here, alongside the spotted hyena and a host of more elusive small predators, ranging from the insectivorous aardwolf to the beautiful serval cat.
But there is more to Serengeti than large mammals. Gaudy agama lizards and rock hyraxes scuffle around the surfaces of the park’s isolated granite koppies. 500-plus bird species have been recorded, ranging from the outsized ostrich and bizarre secretary bird of the open grassland, to the black eagles that soar effortlessly above.
Overwhelmed by the expanse, the silence teeming with life, we took a while to register the beauty of our surroundings. Our driver-guide is pointing out animals, birds and plants, and we soon discovered that amongst his many qualities was patience, for our questions did not cease.
A visit to Olduvai Gorge takes us back into time as we’re amazed by evidence of the earliest evolutionary remains of humans walking on two feet and using tools were found.
Nestled between the Ngorongoro Crater (more of that in a minute…) and the Serengeti National Park, Olduvai Gorge is arguably the most important fossil sites in the world. Over thirty miles long and about three hundred feet deep, the gorge is part of a World Heritage Site called the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Hominid footprints that have been preserved in Volcanic Rock date back over 3.5 million years.
The evidence found in Olduvai Gorge has revealed a great deal about society and the early development of human society from approximately 2 million years ago. It also shows that early humans used a great diversity of habitats as they adjusted to constant change.
We stop at a place called Ewass Oldupa; in the Maa language spoken by local residents this means “the way to the Gorge”. It’s an appropriate name: the site straddles the path that links the canyon’s rim with its bottom.
The stone tools uncovered belong to the “culture” archaeologists identify as the Oldowan. This is a landmark representing early humans that interacted with their environment in novel ways, for example, by dietary innovations combining meat and plants.
The concentration of stone tools and animal fossils is evidence that both humans and fauna gathered around water sources. We also learned that Oldowan hominins cast their net wide for resources.
What’s not clear is which hominin species made the tools. It’s likely that either Homo habilis or a member of the genus Paranthropus – remains of which have also been found at Olduvai Gorge previously – was the tool maker
“If I’ve ever seen magic it’s been in Africa.“–John Hemingway
At dawn the next morning, we zip up our jackets, pile into the 4×4 and zigzag down a four-wheel drive trail to the caldera floor. It is pretty scary, especially the first time.
You can tell that you’re inside a volcano. From the ridge you can almost picture a time of bubbling lava. The caldera is almost entirely circular and you can usually see from one side to the other.
Lone elephant bulls wander past. They are giants, with tusks that curl skywards and hang above the vehicle. These are some of Africa’s largest elephants. The crater is like a retirement home for old bulls that have the size to impress, yet not the heart to battle each other.
Cape buffalos cluster in small herds all across the crater floor. Wildebeest do the same, their galloping and rutting bringing an infectious energy to a morning drive.
Lions lounge around the crater floor. With a Ngorongoro safari it feels like you have entered their world. It feels as if you are exploring a wildlife utopia that has existed since the dawn of time. If you visit Ngorongoro Crater and don’t see lions then you need a new safari guide.
Ngorongoro crater is the largest unbroken caldera in the world. Together with the Olmoti and Empakaai craters, it forms part of the eastern Rift Valley, whose volcanism dates back to the late Mesozoic / early Tertiary periods and is famous for its geology.
One lake is carpeted pink by flamingos. Another lake is dominated by the grumpy and rumbustious antics of hippos.
Hyena scamper around and seem to occupy every vista. Zebra stripes contrast the distinct frames of Grant’s gazelle. Eland stick to the crater fringes, sometimes grazing with waterbucks.
As a safari destination it seems unreal. From the very first moment you can see that this is not purely a wildlife refuge. No, Ngorongoro Crater feels like a utopia where humans can never be more than visitors. Perhaps nowhere in Africa is as magical.
Thomson’s gazelle skip about as well, their movements followed by serval and jackals. The only famous animals you will miss are giraffe and cheetah. Giraffe legs are too long and spindly to descend into the crater, while cheetahs appear to have been scared off by the profusion of other predators.
Sometimes you can be so engrossed in a particular animal or scene, that you do not even realise that lionesses are just 20 metres away. Sometimes you gaze across the caldera floor and can see more than ten species in a single panorama.
There are only a few black rhinos. But these shy creatures are easy to spot on the open caldera floor each morning. Leopards do live in Ngorongoro but are mostly nocturnal. It is very unlikely you will see one on a game drive
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth nd reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Rachel Carson
The last stop was Tarangire National Park, home to the largest elephant population in northern Tanzania. There is nothing like seeing a parade of elephants under baobab trees. There were hundreds of animals including zebras, giraffes, impalas, dik diks and gazelles.
The fierce sun sucks the moisture from the landscape, baking the earth a dusty red, the withered grass as brittle as straw. The Tarangire River has shrivelled to a shadow of its wet season self. Herds of up to 300 elephants scratch the dry riverbed for water. On drier ground we see the Kori bustard, the heaviest flying bird, while migratory wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, impala, gazelle, hartebeest and eland crowd the shrinking lagoons. It’s the greatest concentration of wildlife outside the Serengeti ecosystem – a smorgasbord for predators – and the one place in Tanzania where dry-country antelope such as the stately fringe-eared oryx and peculiar long-necked gerenuk are regularly observed.
Amongst safari connoisseurs; those who really enjoy the African safari travel experience – the vast open spaces, the Acacia savannas, the dramatic wildlife, the sandy river beds, the sausage trees, the changing seasons, the cool fresh mornings, the heat of mid-day, the day-long birdsong, the sound of crickets at night, the whooping call of hyena, the far distant roar of lion – Tarangire is a place to put on your itinerary.
It is also a birder’s paradise with more resident breeding species than anywhere else in Tanzania. Raptors are everywhere; from the masters of predation and soaring – the martial and bateleur eagles – down to the tiny but vicious pygmy falcon.
Later that day, we are driven to within feet of a female leopard. She is beautiful.
With the dismissive air of a bored supermodel, she nonchalantly observes us through haunting emerald eyes. Tired of our gawping, she leaps to a higher branch to resume her midday nap.
It was overcast when we drove back to Arusha. On a clear day, the highest point in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, would have been in sight. The last afternoon experience was of the Arusha market with its colourful fresh fruits, vegetables and dry goods filling the vibrant stalls that clarified why the food along the safari was so delicious.
“Jambo. Jambo Bwana. Mzuri sana. Wageni mwakaribishwa. Tanzania yetu. Hakuna matata…Nchi ya maajabu” played in my head, while we packed ebony woodcarvings and other souvenirs and artifacts from a Mto Wa Mbu artisan. I stopped short of asking the vendor if those were Kenyan or Tanzanian songs, but I guessed he would’ve said Tanzanian.
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