Sunday, April 29, 2007

8 February: Amboseli to Tarangire

We had a 6 am wake-up call this morning to give us plenty of time to finish packing, put our bags outside our rooms by 7 am, and go to breakfast. I spent a few minutes browsing in the gift shop and bought a small book on common East African birds (by Dave Richards) that proved invaluable. We settled our bill (for drinks and the bush walk) at the front desk and then headed out to the waiting trucks, which were now packed to the ceiling with our big green duffels.

Kilimanjaro was shrouded in a thick fog as we said farewell to Amboseli (with the top down, as our mission today was traveling, not game driving). We had time to stop and look at a couple of hyenas taking a snooze after a long night of scavenging. We drove through the Ghost Camp (a.k.a. Baboon Town) and saw a female carrying her baby and several baboons playing on the soccer goalposts again. We spotted a huge Kori Bustard, a flock of African Jacanas, and lots of cattle egrets. Near the edge of the park we saw three giraffes browsing on acacia – our closest view of wild giraffes thus far.

We passed through the park gate, where brightly-dressed Maasai women called out, “Hi!” repeatedly and tried to thrust beaded necklaces and bracelets through our open windows. We proceeded through a series of ramshackle towns on our way to the Tanzanian border, stopping at a large curio shop to use the bathroom and fill out our Kenyan immigration forms. At the border we stopped to go through passport control on the Kenyan side (I was really tempted to take a picture of the sign that said, “Do not take photographs around here”), then drove about a hundred yards across the border and went through passport control again on the Tanzanian side. The souvenir vendors were pretty obnoxious, but they are forbidden from coming within a certain distance of the immigration buildings. We had to wait in line for quite some time inside the crowded, sweltering building. Then we said farewell to Tonnie (who we will see again in Kenya in five days’ time), met another Micato staffer who would be taking us to meet our Tanzanian safari director in Arusha, and boarded a comfortable air-conditioned bus with seating for fifteen. (We were originally scheduled to fly from Amboseli to Tarangire, but a bridge was out on the road from the airstrip into Tarangire, so we had to drive instead.)

Once in Tanzania we started seeing many more Maasai (I will never get over the sight of Maasai herders talking on their cell phones; Leonard, our bush walk guide, also had one!). We left the rutted dirt roads behind for a while, taking a paved road (with only the occasional bus-swallowing pothole) past rugged mountains, including 15,000-foot Mt. Neru. We passed many Maasai villages en route to Arusha, Tanzania’s fourth-largest city. We stopped at the Arusha Hotel for a lovely buffet lunch, with a fabulous salad bar, delicious curries, tandoori chicken, chickpea stew, and rice pudding and cream puffs for dessert. Here we met Renny (short for Renatus), our Tanzanian safari director, who lives with his family near Arusha. He was not able to meet us at the border because he had just finished a safari in another part of the country.

As we drove out of Arusha, we passed numerous coffee plantations; they grow a local variety of coffee called Robusta. Renny told us a bit about Tanzania’s history and economy. The area that is now Tanzania was colonized by Arabs involved in the slave trade in the 16th century (which is why there are so many Arabic words in Swahili); at the end of the 18th century the Germans arrived and abolished the slave trade. The country originally consisted of Tanganika and Zanzibar, which combined to form Tanzania. After World War II, the area came under British control, and Tanzania won its independence in 1961. The country has an area of 400,000 square miles and a population of about 37 million. The capital city is Dodona, but Dar es Salaam on the coast is the biggest city and the largest commercial center. Renny comes from northern Tanzania, from the Sukuma tribe near Lake Victoria – the largest tribe in Tanzania.

We passed through a beautiful lush landscape en route to Tarangire. Renny pointed out a long, straight, paved road disappearing into the hazy hills and explained that it had been build by the Japanese to provide a smooth tourism route between Tarangire and Ngorongoro. He jokingly called it “the best road in Tanzania” (and probably all of Africa!). Renny explained that we were now in the eastern Rift Valley, which extends 5,000 miles from Turkey to Mozambique, formed by the separation of two massive tectonic plates. As we approached the park we saw our first Baobab trees – magnificent specimens with impossibly thick, ropey trunks. One had a long hole worn through it by elephants, which scrape off the water-retaining bark during the dry months. We bounced along on gravel roads, passing more Maasai homes, and stopped at the park gate to use the restrooms, apply bug repellent, and board a pair of shiny green Micato Land Cruisers.

Game viewing would prove to be difficult in Tarangire because the recent heavy rains had resulted in an explosion of thick, chest-high grass. Renny warned us that we wouldn’t be seeing many of the short-grass grazers like zebra, wildebeest, and gazelles and it would be harder to spot predators and snakes. Our first new sighting was a young male Dik-dik, one of the smallest of the gazelle species, looking decidely cartoonish as it stood wide-eyed and watchful in the middle of the road. We also saw our first impalas - several bachelor males hanging out with a warthog.

Tarangire National Park is known for its birds – and we saw a lot of them! Lilac-breasted Rollers and Helmeted Guinea Fowl were common on our drive in. (The latter competes with the Red-necked Spurfowl as the dumbest bird in Africa – they seem to prefer scampering along desperately in front of the truck instead of taking flight; right when you think you will have to run them over, they finally dart into the grass along the side of the road.) We saw the flooded bridge that we were supposed to have taken on the way from the airstrip and got a kick out of the sign blocking the road that said, “Out of Order.” We saw our first African Sausage Tree, which has fruit that look exactly like, well, giant white sausages. Apparently they are mildly alcoholic and the animals that eat them can get a little tipsy on their juice.

We watched several elephants browsing in the marshy grasses along the Tarangire River, which was swollen almost to the tops of its banks. The tall palm trees and unusually lush vegetation made for a very prehistoric-looking scene. We stopped to watch a Dik-dik pair by the side of the road – I believe they mate for life, or at least until one makes a tasty snack for a lion or leopard. Renny pointed out a giant Baobab tree with a large hole carved out of its trunk; poachers used to hoard their elephant tusks in such spots.

My bird list grew rapidly as we continued into the park: Ring-necked dove, Speckled Mousebird, White-headed Buffalo Weaver, Magpie Shrike, Gray Hornbill, Woodland Kingfisher, Ashy Starling. The road was almost impassable in spots, which made jotting down bird names quite a difficult task!

Tarangire National Park covers 1,000 square miles and is home to a laundry list of Africa's most dangerous snakes - Black Adders, Green Mambas, Tree Pythons, Cobras, Black Mambas (which will "kill you in seven steps" and are the most dangerous because they move so fast), and the dreaded Boomslang, whose venom is the most deadly, but is fortunately quite shy.

We crossed several dry riverbeds, driving through deep sand, and finally had our sighting of the day – two pairs of black-backed jackals, which trotted right up to our trucks. They were gorgeous animals, their coats gleaming in the late afternoon sun. They looked at us curiously for several minutes before continuing on down the riverbed. We saw a tree laden with weaver-bird nests, a large harem of impala watched over by a regal-looking male, and two more warthogs (the official comedians of the African plains).

Finally, after nearly ten hours on the road, we arrived at Tarangire Sopa Lodge. The cavernous main building resembles an elephant’s head and the rooms are built to look like large Maasai huts. Our room was not nearly as nice as at Amboseli Serena lodge. For one thing we had two double beds instead of a single king, and the bathroom was aged and a bit on the grimy side. We did have a nice balcony overlooking the pool and surrounding woodlands – I figured a leopard was probably out there somewhere, watching us. We saw a funny small rodent-like animal crouching on the roof and later determined that it was a Rock Hyrax, which is the closest living relative of elephants. We had seen something jumping around in the trees at night at Amboseli (not a monkey) and Renny figured that it was probably a Tree Hyrax or a Bushbaby. The hyrax are quite cute – they look like a cross between a squirrel and a koala bear.

We had forty-five minutes to clean up before our safari briefing at 7:15. It had been a long, hot drive so I was very happy to take a refreshing shower. We met the group for drinks (courtesy of Micato) in a private room in the main building and after downing two large vodka tonics I felt much better. Renny gave an overview of the Tanzania portion of our trip, and then we went to dinner in the large dining room. The meal was rather ordinary – cream of vegetable soup, a rather sparse salad buffet, and a mediocre selection of meat entrĂ©es, but there was a nice sherry trifle and coconut cake for dessert. When we returned to our room we were surprised to be escorted by a hotel employee (although we found out in the morning that not everyone got an escort!). We are just spending one night in Tarangire, so we will pack up again in the morning, go on a game drive, and then press onwards to Ngorongoro.

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