Zebras hang out munching on grass like a ceramic figurines up in your grandmother’s dusty curio cabinet. Warthogs run around with their goofy grins and messy manes. Long-necked, docile giraffes stroll by as if in slow motion.
It is all surreal. We have to keep reminding ourselves, for various reasons, T.I.A.: This is Africa.
I love animals. Honestly, it is the main reason I am in Tanzania, to witness such a different landscape and wildlife for my own. Many go on safari in Africa to see the “big five” (elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, and leopard). Originally a term coined by hunters as hardest and most dangerous animals to hunt, all the safari companies now use it as a buzzword for marketing. I am kind of on the lookout for the “tiny five” including the serval cat and the romantically-named dik-dik (a tiny antelope basically).
Either way, we (I am on safari with new friends and fellow bloggers, Chris of Aussie on the Road and Robert of Leave Your Daily Hell) see them all except for the elusive leopard. Next time. Oh, there has to be a next time!
Bring on the Beasts
On our very first safari day with Shadows of Africa in Tarangire National Park, we stare with mouths agape, as the apparent red carpet is rolled out. I never expect to see such a plethora of animals and so fast: zebras, giraffes, gazelles, impalas, warthogs, baboons, mongoose, and even a lion…all on our first freaking day.
It’s hard for me to even convey how I feel. It is exciting and wonderful. All I can say is the entire time I feel fortunate; privileged to be able to experience such a place. And also surreal, I have to keep reminding myself where I am and that this isn’t a zoo or fake Jurassic Park-like film set.
Although we bounce back and forth between songs from the Lion King and Toto’s “Africa” the entire time, I personally am partial to Toto:
It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become
I marvel at not only the beautiful animals, but also the landscape and flora. Seeing everything and even all the baobab trees (also called the “upside-down” tree because its branches can seem like roots) which can grow to be 100 feet tall, is really like being on the real life set of the Lion King.
We left the small, bustling city of Arusha and head south a couple hours to Tarangire National Park, the sixth largest I the country. Timo, is our guide and driver and he imparts us with his vast knowledge along the way.
On the way, we pass Maasai villages with their mud huts, herds of cows and goats grazing in the open lands led by young boys, and police checks. It’s not unforeseen in these parts to be stopped for a bit of a squeeze.
In fact, we are pulled over one day with a policeman holding a radar gun. Our driver goes back and forth with him in Swahili in a seemingly heated exchange. In the end, we drive away without a ticket or paying a fine.
It turns out we were basically pulled over for NO reason. In fact, the radar gun in his hand actually showed that we were going three kilometers UNDER the speed limit. But, no matter, he still tried to bribe our driver of a few shillings. Why not? Here he was working for a safari company driving around “wealthy” tourists (and, all things being relative, we are), he must have extra cash to share, right? Corruption is the norm and runs deep in places like this.
And unfortunately, that corruption affects not only the people, but the animals that are supposedly protected.
Tanzania has become a target for poachers, and conservationists have warned that the current rate at which elephants are being killed for their ivory the entire population could die out by the end of the decade.
Because I love lists, here are the animals we see that I can remember:
Tanzania has 1,100 species of birds, more than any other African nation.
- Lilac-Breasted Roller
- Guinea Fowl
- Kori Bustard
- Blue-cheecked Bee Eater
- Fisher’s Lovebird
- Cape buffalo
- Serval cat
- Vervet Monkey
- Waterbuck (antelope)
In THE Serengeti
Driving under the unassuming wooden archway that welcomes us into THE Serengeti, adds more surrealness to our safari. The Serengeti ecosystem spans 12,000 square miles and hosts the largest animal migration in the world. It is so vast, so huge, and we really only got to see a small part. I am always amazed at how many animals are near the main, dirt road and often wonder what it would be like far from the road.
A few years ago, the government of Tanzania announced plans to build a controversial 53-kilometer, commercial highway across the northern section of the Serengeti National Park. The highway would replace an existing dirt road. According to a Tanzanian government study it would carry up to 800 commercial vehicles a day. Scientists warned that the highway would bisect a narrow section of the Serengeti ecosystem that was critical to the annual wildebeest migration. Therefore, the proposed highway would cause the migration to collapse due the fragmentation of natural migration patterns. Luckily (for now) the East African Court of Justice, which settles regional disputes under a treaty binding Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, ruled that the road was unlawful. But concerns remain that the Tanzanian government is still moving forward with their plan. Look out for this story and speak out against it.
Down in Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), which encompasses and surrounds the crater itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera. It formed about two to three million years ago when a volcano erupted and collapsed in on itself. It’s 2000 feet deep and covers one hundred square miles. Today, it is home to more than 120 species of mammals including some of East Africa’s endangered last black rhinos.
Did you know?
- Zebras and wildebeests are buddies? They protect each other from predators in between laughing and cavorting about.
- The giraffe is a national symbol of Tanzania, and as such it cannot be hunted. But many other animals can still be hunted on game reserves including lions, leopards, and elephants. Trophy hunting is a booming business all over Africa bringing in dollars to cash-strapped governments, but often controversial due to the dwindling numbers of these majestic animals that have no natural way to fight a rifle. And often the animals are killed for sheer sport and bragging rights, not for meat or survival.
- Jane Goodall arrived in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park in 1960 to study chimpanzees. The studies are still ongoing today.
- Before 1964 the country was known as Tanganyika.
- Olduvai Gorge, inside the NCA, which is also know as the “cradle of mankind,” is said to be where humans originally evolved. Louis and Mary Leaky discovered the skeleton of Homo Habilis, a predecessor to homo sapiens, that occupied this area about 1.9 million years ago…give or take a few hundred thousand years.
- Tanzania has at least 270 different tribes speaking more than 100 different languages besides the two official languages of Swahili and English
Disclosure: During part of my time in Tanzania I was a guest of Shadows of Africa. As always, all writing, content and opinions are my own.