Tanzania, a tale of two national parks.

There’s just something about Africa. Despite three trips under my belt, the exhilaration of going on safari never abates. For the uninitiated, it’s a feeling difficult to express, yet, for those that have been, they fully understand. The wilderness and its inhabitants evoke a primeval feeling, a sensation of timelessness. Or is it a genetic memory of a time when our own distant ancestors walked the savannahs?  Whatever the reason, Africa gets in the blood, forever beckoning.

With some of the continent’s most famous national parks within its confines, Tanzania epitomizes that experience. Although I had come to dive Pemba, the very idea of being in Tanzania and NOT going on safari is tantamount to sacrilege!

Departure was from the international terminal, as our Easyjet flight to Arusha’s Kilimanjaro International Airport was, unsurprisingly, a jet.  Our group consisted of five. Along with Raf and Cisca, we were joined by Doug, another Bennett, and his girlfriend Maggie who had just arrived the previous day from Okinawa.

Arriving at the terminal revealed the customary scene of mayhem. Throngs of people had to somehow funnel into two lines to go through security. It was just a matter of accepting the chaos and going with the flow. This, of course, was followed by additional queues through security AND at check-in. Welcome to Africa.

Fortunately, the 50-min flight proved far more relaxing, with barely time for a drink and snack. While descending, Kilimanjaro’s snowy summit ascended from the clouds, the first time I have seen such a clear view. I hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

Upon arrival, we collected our luggage and headed outside. Waiting in a Toyota land cruiser was John our guide and driver from Matembezi Safaris. Gear loaded, we then stopped for vital supplies at a nearby bottle shop.

“Scotty, would you like a beer?”, asked Raf. In Canada, the land of rules I call home, open alcohol bottles in vehicles are off limits. Approaching a police checkpoint, I instinctively lowered my beer, much to everyone’s amusement. I felt like a teenager smuggling booze into a concert.

Turning off the A23 at Boma La Ngombe, we entered another world. In contrast to the open country surrounding the airport, the landscape was lush and green, with temperate plant and tree species in evidence. Surprisingly, it reminded me of Southern Ontario (minus the banana trees). Civilization soon vanished, taking the paved road with it. The landscape changed yet again, the greenery replaced with expanses of golden wheat rippling in the breeze. To our right, Kilimanjaro’s titanic flank ascended to a shroud of steel-grey clouds. I suspected the lofty summit would remain elusive during our stay.

An hour further on, we reached the turnoff to the park. At the entry point, Raf completed the necessary paperwork. Paperwork done, the gate was opened and we were on our way. Our accommodation for the next two nights was was Kambi ya Tembo, a tented camp within the Sinya concession. Occupying a prime hilltop location, the camp overlooks the parks vast expanse, with views of Mount Meru, Ol Doinyo Longido and Ol Doinyo Orok. On the horizon, a couple of hills marked the Kenyan border.

After a welcome drink, we were shown to our accommodation. My tent was right beside the dining area, but calling it a “tent” was something of a misnomer, being more like a giant canvas cottage. Roomy and comfortable with ensuite bathroom, it also featured 24-hr electricity, a welcome addition in the age of perpetual battery charging.

After an hour to freshen up, we set out on an afternoon game drive along the road we came in on. Wildlife wasn’t super-abundant but it was present. Closer scrutiny of the bush revealed zebra, Grant’s gazelle and lots of giraffe. A pair of dik-dik, diminutive antelope on just about every carnivore’s menu, emerged by the road, as did a pair of black-backed jackals. With birdsong and the wind as an accompaniment, we had our own private wilderness.

“Eland, 9:00,” said Raf and all binoculars were raised. Never having seen one in the wild, I was eager for a glimpse. Borrowing binoculars, I couldn’t find it. “Where,”? “Right in that open patch” said Cisca. My frustration mounted; everyone could see it but me. Turns out I was looking a bit too far to the right. A tawny colour amidst the green, it stood out like a sore thumb. How on earth could it miss it?  On our first night, we were the camp’s sole guests and the staff treated us like royalty. My head hit the pillow and I dreamed of the next morning’s game drive.

Bordering Kenya’s Amboseli National Park in northern Tanzania, Sinya is a private concession spanning some 600-square km.  Comprising open savannah, flat pans and acacia woodlands, the area is a vital wildlife corridor, especially for elephants coming down from Amboseli during the dry months. Several small mountains are also present, ranging from 1000m to 2000m. Despite lacking the wildlife density of other parks, it does offer something extraordinary: Solitude.

While the Serengeti can resemble a drive-through zoo during peak seasons, visitors can have West Kilimanjaro to themselves. Wildlife includes buffalo, giraffe, gerenuk, impala, warthog, zebra, wildebeest and Thompson’s gazelle. Predators are elusive, but hyenas, jackals, leopards, cheetahs and the occasional lion have been observed. Notable bird species include Maasai ostrich, kori bustard, crested francolin, white headed buffalo weavers, tawny eagles and white-bellied go-away birds.

Living amongst the wildlife are the Maasai. Sinya’s Maasai population still live traditionally and are not used to the commercial relationships forged with tourists in other areas. We found this out early in our game drive, stopping to observe a distant boma with binoculars (and I do mean distant). Knowing the Maasai don’t like being photographed, I just wanted a record shot of the boma in the vast landscape. Within moments, a couple of young men were briskly heading in our direction. Coming alongside, they had a rather animated chat with our driver. No photos. We offered to give some money, but they wouldn’t have it. That was that and off we went.

Although lacking the sheer numbers of the Serengeti, animals were present. One just had to work a bit harder to find them, which was part of the fun. Grants and Thompson’s gazelle, hartebeest, giraffe, black-backed jackal and warthog all made frequent appearance.  In the distance, a large bird walked across a large flat of cracked earth. Binoculars revealed it to be a kori bustard, Africa’s largest flying bird. Being a private concession, we could also drive off-road and get close enough for some photos. Many more appeared during the course of the morning. A group of giraffe sauntered in front of some large flat-topped acacia trees, providing a scene right out of a nature documentary. In the distance was the imposing silhouette of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In theory, anyways, being concealed beneath swathes of grey cloud. Bummer!

While observing a troop of olive baboons, John spotted something with his binoculars and we promptly sped off in pursuit. Our quarry a solitary bull elephant in musth, a kind of sexual fury characterized by oozing tar-like secretions from the sides of the head. Pumped with testosterone 60 times higher than normal, the males become fired with aggression; not exactly something you want to be close to. Fortunately, this fellow was benign and paid us no heed. Just behind him was an old abandoned border post. During our observations, it’s highly probable we made an unintentional foray into Kenya!

By this point everyone was ready for lunch, so we found a nice spot shaded by trees. We couldn’t wander too far, this being, well, Africa. While no predators lurked about, a herd of blue wildebeest watched us warily, along with zebra, Thompson’s gazelle and 4 ostriches, a male accompanied by 3 females.

Being a private concession, walking safaris are permitted, unlike in most Tanzania’s national parks. A guided walk with one of the Maasai had been arranged for our group, but feeling a bit worn out, I decided to pass. Instead, I made myself a coffee and parked in a comfortable chair overlooking the waterhole. Sometimes, one must just sit and enjoy the surroundings, to feel the place without perpetually viewing it through a camera. (of course, my camera was ready just in case.)

The camp deliberately refrains from entirely filling the waterhole, not wanting to attract elephants to the property. However, it is a magnet for birds. Legions of glossy starlings splashed about, joined by red-billed quelea, yellow-vented bulbuls, white-bellied go-away birds and both Namaqua and Cape turtle doves. In under an hour, the water had vanished, necessitating a quick refill by a camp staff member.

Suddenly, a warthog appeared. As we stared at each other, he cautiously approached for a drink. I managed to fire off some shots before the noisy arrival of some guests made him bolt for cover. A furtive movement from the other side caught my attention. A small creature jumped atop a boulder before freezing to gawp at me. It was a slender mongoose; a species I have never seen before. I managed one quick shot before he vanished amongst the rocks. The abundance of birdlife combined with the golden light of late afternoon was truly magical. I could have watched for hours.

As evening approached, the air cooled noticeably and I was grateful for my fleece jacket. A fire was started at the fire pit and we enjoyed a sundowner of Kilimanjaro Lager watching the sun set behind distant Mr. Meru. We also had company, as a group of 40 Americans had descended on the camp. Hey, this was our resort!

I thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Kambi ya Tembo and was sad to be leave. The service was terrific and the vibe easygoing. Before we left, the entire staff came out to serenade us with a song in Swahili. I couldn’t help but notice every 4th verse had “Hakuna Matata” in it. For all I knew, they made up the entire thing on the spot and were singing about laundry. Casting aside my inner cynic, I enjoyed the moment. Arriving back at the main road, West Kilimanjaro had one final surprise; for the briefest of moments, the clouds parted, revealing the mountain’s snowy summit in all its glory.

The drive to Tarangire would take approximately 3 hours via Arusha. Arriving in town, we stopped for a break at the Café Barrista, a perennial favourite right on the Clocktower Roundabout. A couple of cappuccinos and samosas hit the spot as everyone caught up with emails courtesy of the free wi-fi. Nearby was the Arusha Clock tower, representing the halfway point Cairo and Cape Town, the two termini of the British Empire in Africa. In actuality, the true midpoint is in central Congo, but don’t tell Arusha tourism….

Afterwards, we stopped in at the Cultural Heritage Centre for some quick shopping. The massive interior featured carvings, paintings and artifacts from all over Africa. There were some great items to buy but I forced myself to abstain. After all, how on earth would I get a 2m tall wooden giraffe in my carry-on? Outside, whimsical carvings of people and animals were scattered about the property. The diorama of an elephant, giraffe, zebra and cheetah siting around a stone table fell into the “so bad it’s good” category.

Despite having been to Lake Manyara, Ngornongoro Crater and the Serengeti, I had missed Tarangire on my first trip. Tanzania’s sixth largest national park, Tarangire is in the Manyara Region, a two-hour drive from Arusha. Encompassing approximately 2,850 square kilometres, the landscape is a varied patchwork of granitic ridges, river valley and swamp. Vegetation is a mix of Acacia woodland, Commiphora-Combretum woodland and seasonally flooded grassland. The park’s name originates from the Tarangire River, a primary source of fresh water during the dry season. Especially prominent are the baobab trees, which are absent from many of the northern Tanzania parks.

Tarangire is especially renowned for its elephants, boasting one of the highest densities of any Tanzanian park. Along with thousands of zebra, wildebeest and cape buffalo, residents include waterbuck, giraffe, dik-dik, impala, eland, Grant’s gazelle, vervet monkey and olive baboon. Predators include lion, leopard, cheetah, caracal, honey badger, and wild dog. A haven for birders, more than 550 bird species are present, including several Tanzanian endemics. I suspected finding wildlife would not be an issue.

Arriving at the main entrance, we stopped in to sort our permits. Prior to the game drive, we had our packed lunches at the picnic area. Ah yes, the ubiquitous safari lunch. Everyone who’s been on safari knows it well: a very dry cheese sandwich, chicken leg, samosa, nuts, an apple, orange, yoghurt, chocolate bar and a bottle of water. Way too much for one person, a fact sensed by the local birdlife, as glossy starlings and white-headed buffalo weavers amassed in hope of some leftovers. Nearby, a pair of endemic Tanzanian hornbills tapped on a shop takeaway window with their beaks. I guess the service wasn’t quick enough.

In contrast to Sinya’s solitude, Tarangire had a lot more tourist traffic, However, it was but a fraction of what would be found in the Serengeti, even in the height of the dry season. Starting our drive, the park’s treasures soon revealed themselves. Open areas of grassland were packed with blue wildebeest and Burchell’s zebra, along with waterbuck, guineafowl and vervet monkeys. We observed the latter casually picking seeds from elephant dung; living proof that nature isn’t always pretty!

One of the day’s most iconic images was of a lilac breasted roller sitting on a roadside shrub. After snapping a few shots, a bolt of inspiration hit. “Drive forward about 4m”, I exclaimed excitedly. Looking back, the bird was now silhouetted against a herd of zebra. It proved to be my favourite image of the entire week.

However, the star attractions were the elephants. As well as being numerous, they were also approachable, allowing endless photo opportunities for both wide-angle and portraits. Although one can never guarantee seeing wildlife, I think it’s possible in Tarangire’s elephants. Not seeing them would be virtually impossible, especially in the dry season.

Later in the afternoon, we drove to the southern end of the park to an expansive area of grassland reminiscent of the Serengeti. In the distance, we saw the day’s first ostrich along with a pair of secretary birds. Close to the road, a red-necked francolin (bush chicken to the locals) foraged for seeds. Without warning a black-backed jackal erupted from the grass, startling everyone! The bird barely escaped as the jackal leapt after it, a moment I missed photographing by a split second.

Unfortunately, it was time to go. The main park entrance was over 30 min away and park closing time was fast approaching. Being inside after hours would result in a fine, so we had to motor. I prayed we didn’t come across mating lions….

Happily, we made it in the nick of time and headed for Sangaiwe Tented Lodge, our accommodation outside the park. Just getting there proved an adventure. Turning off the main highway and bumping along in pitch darkness, I wondered if we would be spending the night in the landscruiser. After another half hour, twinkling lights appeared and we finally arrived at Sangaiwe Tented Lodge. Walking up to the reception, a welcome drink was waiting and we promptly checked in. During dinner, the distinctive cough of a leopard punctuated the stillness along with the occasional cackle of a hyena. I was grateful to have an escort back to my room.

With the rising sun brushing the landscape gold, I could finally see where we were. Flanking forty acres of wooded hillside, the lodge occupied a prime location, with expansive views over Lake Burunge and the surrounding countryside. The large common area comprised of reception, bar, dining, lounge along with a large outdoor viewing patio. After a hearty breakfast with legions of bees in attendance (well, we were in the bush), it was safari time!

After the previous evening’s overland adventure, I was surprised to discover the park’s Sangaiwe Gate was less than a km down the road. Arriving at the gate, we were the only vehicle, entry procedures were quick. Ten minutes from the gate, we found a lioness sitting in the open close to the road. She also had an admirer; a young male with the beginnings of a mane. He gingerly approached but she clearly wasn’t in the mood. With a roar, she lunged at him with surprising ferocity. Startled, the male ran for cover. Voicing his displeasure, he promptly vanished into the bush. The lioness sat to watch us before moving off. Best of all, we had the entire encounter to ourselves. What a way to start the morning!

As it turned out, the day only got better. The park’s waterholes were abuzz with activity and we spent time at several of them. However, one large waterhole proved especially memorable. Parking behind another vehicle, we decided to wait and see what would happen. Things started off quietly. There were some impala and wildebeest around but activity was fairly subdued.

Glancing towards a hill on my left, I was surprised to see a large elephant heading in our direction. We all watched it approach, but the people in the other vehicle were utterly oblivious. As the elephant passed by, all the other passengers jumped!

An entire herd was now cresting the hill and heading our way. Approaching the water, their pace quickened and they plunged in. Transfixed, we watch them splash and frolic, their joy at finding water infectious. The show went on for a good 15 minutes and my camera went into overdrive. As they were finishing up, I was astonished to see a second herd approaching. However, this group proved more possessive of the water hole. There was a definite pecking order here, with the elephants clearly at the top. Zebra and wildebeest appeared but warily kept their distance. A pair of warthog approached the water’s edge, but were promptly seen off.

While the second group wallowed, the first indulged in a dust bath under some nearby acacias. One individual used a massive baobab as a scratching post, rubbing its backside with sheer delight. Atop the tree, a bateleur eagle surveyed the proceedings. Back at the water hole, the matriarch decided bath time was over and it was time to leave. One youngster clearly wasn’t ready, despite his mother’s insistence. He gleefully turned to run back in, only to skid and wipe out into the mud! A true BBC wildlife moment. The only thing missing was Sir Richard and everyone had ear-to-ear smiles.

With the elephants gone, the other animals could finally come to drink. Wildebeest, zebra, impala and warthog crowded the water’s edge along with a pair of eland, the first time I had ever seen them so close in the wild. A pair of secretary birds flew in to complete the picture. I easily shot several hundred images.

With the 5:00 closing time imminent, it was time to head back to Sangaiwe. After a quick stop to photograph a family of crowned cranes, we really had to hustle. In a spot near our morning lion encounter, John stopped the car and raised his binoculars. “Look”, he gestured. “There are a pair of lion cubs in that tree.” I could only see the tail of one, but the second sat sprawled over a tree limb in full view. After staring at us for a few minutes, he promptly conked out with paws dangling in midair. Approaching the gate my emotions were mixed. I was sad as it was my final game drive but what a way to finish!

Back at the lodge, we enjoyed sundowners on the lodge’s view patio, as the setting sun silhouetted the distant acacias. Savouring that final gin and tonic, I reflected over the previous few days. From epic wildlife scenes to intimate moments, there had been so many highlights, I’d lost count. Once again, Africa had grabbed hold and refused to relinquish its grip.  My 4th trip over, it wouldn’t be my last. The safari bug will bite for a lifetime.

Scott Bennett travels to Africa with the African and Oriental Travel Company.