Cradling my camera carefully as we bounce along the corrugated dirt track, wishing I’d worn a serious sports bra, getting painful bruises under my arms where I am standing up and clinging to bits of the open roof of the 4-wheel drive, coated in a potent mix of suntan lotion, dust and sweat, and grinning maniacally as we lurch to a stop, we spot a family of elephants just emerging to our left. Tanzania is a world-class spot for seriously impressive animal spotting, which is why we are all standing upright and clinging on for hours on end in the heat – we don’t want to risk missing a second by sitting down.
On my previous visit to Tanzania in 1992 I traveled through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Mikumi national parks. This time I am visiting Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara, and it strikes me that animal numbers in the national parks appear to have increased dramatically in the intervening years, which is very encouraging. We have quickly determined a pecking order of what gets our attention. We have seen so many monkeys, antelope and wildebeest that we barely stop any more – it’s the elephants and giraffes and any big cat, hippos and rhinos that get us excited now. Here are a few of my favourite moments.
- The Hippo Pool at Lake Manyara. We are pinning our hopes on the promisingly named Hippo Pool in Lake Manyara, and boy does it deliver. Dozens upon dozens of hippos resting into a series of shallow pools, climbing in and out of the pools, lolling around in the mud, with a backdrop of hills and zebras and great colonies of storks. And then one right in front of me does a huge yawn and I am as happy as a hippo watcher can be.
- The large herds of Elephants in Tarangire. We are awestruck watching a column of elephants come towards us through the tree line, 50 or 60 in number, about a third of them young ones, striding three or four abreast. They tower over us as they cross the track just in front of us, ignoring us. Over the next hour we see at least three more herds of similar size, all within a few km of each other. One herd is running, stampeding (luckily not in our direction), and we watch them steer and protect their babies as they thunder by.
- Spotting a Leopard in Tarangire. Just on dusk, on our first evening drive in Tarangire, Peter pulls up and points to a large acacia tree, two or three hundred metres away, and says “leopard” . At first we can’t see a thing in the waning light, but as I extend my zoom lens and follow his direction – up to the first large horizontal branch sticking out to the left, pan along it, suddenly it comes into view. Magnificent, stretched out along the branch. We joke that it’s a stuffed toy planted by the guides to fool us, as the leopard hasn’t moved. Right on cue, it stands up, stretches, moves a couple of metres further out on the branch, and lies down again. It’s a small spot in the distance, but as we assess the size of the tree and the relative size of the leopard, we start to realise it is indeed big, it has to be at least two metres in length, and we stay there and stare at it till it is just too dark to see any more.
- The very self satisfied teenage lions in Ngorongoro Crater. The epitome of self assured adolescence – nine or ten teenage lions and lionesses having an afternoon seista on a sunny hillside. One male sits to the side as a very casual guard, the remaining males are all flat on their backs, limbs spread akimbo, baring their contented bellies to the sun. The lionesses are similarly napping, albeit in a slightly more conservative pose. We get the very strong message that these lions don’t have too many worries at all.
- The sole Rhino sighting in Ngorongoro. I can’t help wondering is it is still the same rhino that I saw in the same place eighteen years ago, I like the idea that it might be. Last time I saw it a lot closer as it charged our jeep (which had stalled). This time it doesn’t charge anyone, and while I tell myself that is a good thing, I am secretly a little bit disappointed.
- The black and white beauty of the zebra. We see what seems like thousands of zebra. We also see what seems like thousands of wildebeest and quickly get bored with them, but the zebras remain fascinating. Even though they tend to turn away from us when they hear us approaching, so we end up seeing a lot of zebra arses. Its the contrast between their funny donkey-like shape and the graphic beauty of the black and white markings, no two ever the same.
- The soda lake pink flamingos and the soaring storks. I’ve never been a bird watcher when I travel, but even I am impressed when there are huge flocks of birds. A solid pink carpet of flamingoes in a lake in Ngorongoro, or vast flight of storks forming intricate synchronous flying patterns, soaring around in aerial displays by Lake Manyara.
- The teenage giraffe argy bargy. It is so hard not to endow animals with human behaviours and motivations. As we do when we see three male teenage giraffes, two of them engaged in a bit of friendly pushing and shoving, for all the world looking like a couple of footy players trying to establish a pecking order, the third giraffe looking like the try-hard hanger-oner
- The Masaai village. It’s easy to imagine the Masaai get really annoyed with us for treating them like just another animal sighting – pointing our cameras at them, wanting to capture their ‘colour’, wanting to look into their life’s. Imagine if a horde of tourists descended into your house and workplace every day doing the same to you. Near Ngorongoro, in the Serengeti, there are a number of Masaai villages which have been built specifically for tourists to visit, for a fee. Here we get welcomed with traditional dances, get shown into traditional Masaai huts, visit a school room, and have the opportunity to buy some of their intricately beaded jewellery. And we are allowed, indeed encouraged to take photos of everyone and anyone. That’s because these are ‘theme’ villages, the Masaai only work there during the day, and go home to their real villages in the evening. This is a job for them, and they get paid for it. Some tourists object to paying an entrance fee, object to it not being a real live village. I wonder when we decided we have the right to invade peoples lives and expect them to perform on demand for us for free, in their own homes. Good on them for setting up a cultural performance, of finding a way to manage the interest in them and earn an income off it, while putting a boundary around their real lives.
- The monkey that tried to steal my lunch. Sometimes I get a good reminder that I can be a dumb tourist. This was one of those days. After an early start and a full morning in Tarangire I am looking forward to our packed lunch. We’ve stopped in an official picnic spot, sitting at the tables under the trees, a river valley teeming with zebra, wildebeest and giraffe below us. A few cute little monkeys playing on the fence yonder, one a mum with the tiniest baby monkey clinging on to her under her belly. I start pulling out items from my lunch box – sandwich, samosa, juice, chocolate bar – with a big loud “yum”. One of my fellow travellers yells “watch out”, and out of the corner of my eye I see the mother monkey with baby still attached doing a giant leap through the air from fence towards my unpacked lunch box. My brain flashed ” oh no, you’re not getting my lunch” and I somehow managed to sweep all the contents into the plastic lunchbox and slam the lid on in a split second, just as the monkey’s claw grabbed one corner of the box, about 2 mm from my hand, and yanked hard. I yanked back and pulled it out of her grasp, the plastic breaking off into her claw as it went – she sat back and snarled at me, looked like she was considering attacking me, and then turned and retreated back to her fence. Only then did I remember that I’d decided I wouldn’t need a rabies shot before I came on this trip, that her claws had been only 2mm from me and strong enough to rip a plastic lunchbox and that any sane person would’ve just let her take the sandwich.