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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Tanzania: Lake Manyara | Running From Elephants

(This is the seventeenth installment in an ongoing series about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. To start at the beginning, click here.)

Our last stop on our self-drive safari to Tanzania was Lake Manyara National Park. This park sits just outside the town of Mto wa Mbu; in fact the entrance is within city limits, the only park we visited that was close to an urban area.

A huge giraffe peers down at us as we drive by.

After disentangling ourselves from our new friend Emanuel, we drove to the gate and paid our fees. We had a special campsite reserved for the last two nights and we were looking forward to spending some quiet time there before going back to the Twiga Lodge in Arusha.

This park was quite a change from the other entrance rituals we had experienced. There was still the giant log book, and we still had to see at least two different people before we were allowed to enter, but the workers had official uniforms and were much younger and friendlier than our previous encounters. Part of the difference was this park was smaller, and most of the visitors were coming in just for the day. There were a lot of safari vehicles and their drivers parked at the entrance, waiting to fill their cars with tourists willing to pay by the hour. The fact that there were so many people milling around either waiting for a car or returning from a tour meant there was a (paved!) parking lot equipped with a large modern bathroom, and a gift shop to spend your shillings.

We paid our fees, showed the guard our special campsite pass and were ready to go, but first we wandered into the gift shop. The shop was built from a large shipping container–still equipped with the heavy steel doors with locking bars–and it was lined with shelves full of wooden carvings, "Genuine" Maasai blankets, the obligatory jewelry, and...could it be? Snack items!

Candy bars! Sodas! Cold water! Bags of nuts and trail mix piled high! Our shriveled stomachs could barely contain themselves.

We had been on the road now for close to two weeks. Within that time we had visited one grocery store (before we left) and found one market with fruit. We were down to the last of our peanut butter, had been out of bread for a week and our paltry canned food selection was going to make for some interesting dinners. We didn't know it at the time, but we had both lost seven pounds at that point. Not a bad thing, but when presented with the opportunity to have some high fat, high sugar snacks we were not about to pass it up.

We counted up our remaining shillings, trying to guess how much we'd need for the next few days. We still needed a few gifts for people back home, so we picked out some carved wooden animals before turning our attention to the snacks. It was so hard not to sweep the whole shelf into our arms and devour everything on the spot. Hunger isn't pretty.

We were forced to make wise choices: a bag of cashews, two large bottles of water, one chocolate bar (for a treat after dinner) along with the gifts. It cost us most of our cash, leaving just enough for another tank of diesel and possible emergencies (like a quick trip back to the store for more chocolate).

We barely made it back into the car before ripping into the nuts. The taste of cashews will forever be dear to my heart.

As we motored through the gates, we were immediately struck by how much more jungle-like it was. Monkeys swung from tree to tree, and colorful birds flew by. The forest was very dense, making it hard to see anything that wasn't right at the side of the road. We followed a few of the safari cars out to an overlook at the lake. There, huge hippos were lounging with zebra, wildebeest, and hundreds of pink flamingos.

Hippos lounge surrounded by cranes, pelicans, storks with wildebeest and zebra mixed in to complete the scene.

Lake Manyara is known for it's flamingo colony and it's curious tree-climbing lions. Lions are normally ground dwellers since they typically hang out on the plains, the dry grasses blending perfectly with their tawny fur. Here there were many more trees and the resident lions have learned to climb and lounge in the branches like oversized leopards. It was a little alarming to think our campsite for the night might have a 400 lb "bird" lurking overhead. We kept our eyes peeled as we bounced along the main road of the park.

Every time we approached our camp, we found these zebra "mowing" our site.

Our special campsite in Lake Manyara.
Our campsite turned out only to be inhabited by a herd of zebra and some curious monkeys. We set up in the clearing and as we sat down in our chairs we became aware of a low buzzing sound. It wasn't loud, but it was constant and it never seemed to waver. Soon we realized it was the millions of gnats that hovered over the site in a giant undulating cloud. They didn't seem to care about us, thank goodness, but the sheer volume of insects created a deep droning hum that only stopped once the sun was down.

That's when the elephants took over.

We were expecting the normal sounds we had become accustomed to: birds, lions roaring in the distance, hyenas making their chilling laughing sounds. The elephants in this park sounded (to our rookie ears) extraordinarily angry. They trumpeted to each other, and from within our fortress walls of canvas and nylon, seemed to be signaling that there was fresh meat on top of a yellow car, just ripe for the picking. Maybe the lingering smell of our cashews had them in a frenzy.

An abandoned boat sits among the flamingos.
The next morning we took off for the farthest reaches of the park. Lake Manyara National Park is long and skinny and the road only travels down one side, making it an out and back experience. We were on the lookout for the tree lions, but also for the elephants that had sounded so numerous. What we found were hundreds of baboons; big males with no intention of getting off the road, mothers with babies, groups of juveniles chasing and tackling each other and elderly statesmen scratching themselves. We idled slowly down the road and they wouldn't move until we were practically right on top of them. Sometimes, they wouldn't budge at all and we were forced to stop and wait. It was one of these moments, when we pulled into the middle of a pack and I was taking photos out the window, when I suddenly realized I was within arm's reach of them. The big males gave us some nasty looks, and I'm sure they could probably have ripped my face off if they decided it was a good idea. I pulled the camera back in and rolled the window up. Even a great photo isn't worth the risk; I kind of like my nose where it's located.

Baboons. They're so cute when they're little.
We stopped for lunch at a designated picnic area. We had rummaged around in our food box and pulled out the last of our lunch items: a peanut butter jar with a half inch left in the bottom, the last crumbs from a bag of "French Cheese" flavored potato chips, and our coveted bag of cashews. We sat at a table and took turns scraping the peanut butter jar with a spoon and watched the tour groups pull in with their drivers.
The picnic areas at Lake Manyara were quite posh. Laid out before me was our less-than-posh meal.
A set of white Toyota Land Cruisers pulled into the parking area and disgorged a large family of Americans. There were four college age boys and their parents helping the two drivers unload the lunch boxes. It was an incredible sight: a full size cooler overflowing with icy drinks, three bins containing bagels, bread, lunchmeat, sausages, cookies and other delectable treats. Our mouths were watering, but at the same time it was almost obscene. Did they really need all that food? My mind immediately started plotting how to get some. I had the patter all lined up in my head ("Hey guys! Where are you all from? How long have you been in Tanzania?") I was getting ready to march over there when Mark grabbed my arm. "Seriously? You're going to beg?" I looked down at my hands and realized they were the same color as the dirt. I hadn't even noticed. I now have much greater sympathy for the homeless.

At the far end of the park lies a fancy lodge where the more well-heeled tourists stay. We passed the ornate wooden gates in the thick forest and tried to imagine what it would be like to be Lodge People. You can bet they weren't eating canned spaghetti sauce for dinner.

This was the end of the park, and we still hadn't spied any elephants. They were winning at Hide and Seek, even though they outweighed us by thousands of pounds. We set off down a narrow side road and saw fresh elephant dung. We must be close! We kept going and found a few more piles, hoping we were gaining on them enough to catch them before they slipped into the trees. Rounding a curve we spotted a few giant gray butts, tails swinging, buried in the bushes at the side of the road. We stopped and waited for them to pass through and a curious male stepped out onto the road. We took his picture and waited to see which way he would go. He stood in the middle of the road and waited to see where we were going.

Our first day out, in Tarangire National Park, a guide had stopped us on the road and told us what to watch for when viewing elephants. "They flare their ears and puff up. Watch for trunk swinging too–if they swing a lot they're irritated." This guy in the road looked a little irritated.

He picked up a trunk full of dust and threw it on his back. He flapped his ears and dared us to come closer. We were stuck on a one lane road in dense forest; the only alternative was to back up. We waited a moment to see if he'd get tired of the game and wander off. He started walking toward us, picking up dust and flapping his ears. Time to move out of his way.

Mark slammed the car into reverse, a task he'd had trouble with every time he'd tried it up until this moment. When a 10,000 lb animal decides it should have the right of way you learn the gear shift position in a hurry. We backed up until he stopped approaching. We watched while he plucked at a few branches, keeping his eye on us throughout. He decided he wasn't done with us and started advancing again. Again Mark found reverse with no problem and backed us up a few hundred feet. Finally, our friend seemed happy and he started walking off the road in the direction of his crew. We waited a bit then slowly crawled forward. Our friend reappeared out of the trees, just a reminder that he wasn't satisfied with our distance just yet. Back we went.

This went on for several minutes, as Mark and I prayed no one would drive up behind us. The road was barely wide enough for one vehicle; if someone came up from the rear they would have to back up too, if we could convince them of the urgency before the elephant's tusk's made it into our radiator.

Finally the elephant seemed to be happy that he had won this game of chicken, and we were happy enough to admit defeat. We slowly crawled forward, just passing the place he had walked off the road as he disappeared into the trees. Here's a video of part of the action from our GoPro:

Storks stand guard over the hot springs.
After wandering a bit more through the park, catching a little bit of an ostrich mating dance, visiting the hot springs on the side of the lake (burning hot! do not touch!), and having a safari driver stop us to ask where the animals were (a crowning achievement–just goes to show what two weeks without a shower will do for your credibility as a driver) then headed back to camp. We needed to clean ourselves and the vehicle before we turned in the car and rejoined civilization.
An unfinished walkway over the hot springs has been completely taken over by water birds.

An ostrich watches as we pass by the lakeside, his army of flamingos behind him.

Lesser mongoose look out from a termite mound.
"You can't see me!" A waterbuck hides behind branches.

This bird would not leave our mirror alone.

He was either flirting or in battle with himself.

As we attempted to brush two weeks worth of African dust out of all the nooks and crannies, I thought it would be fun to take some photos of Plucky, the Land Rover that had become our best friend. I was backing up trying to get a good shot when I heard a noise behind me. I turned and found myself far too close to an elephant that had materialized there. How do they do that?

"SHIT!" I ran back to the car and hid behind it, Mark laughing at me (but also not straying too far from the car I noticed). The elephant didn't seem to even notice I was there, he just kept grazing. The rest of the day we had a large group of elephants circling us, browsing and trumpeting to each other. I think we were the afternoon's entertainment for them.

We settled into the tent that night listening to the sounds of Africa. It had been a wild ride; stressful, dirty, scary, beautiful and thrilling. Just before going to sleep, I asked Mark if he'd ever come back here. "In a heartbeat." he said.

I'd have to agree.

Feel free to write to us if you have any questions that weren't answered in this series. We would be happy to share our experience with costs for the trip, what to expect, and how to plan for this type of adventure. You can contact us at: