18 January 2007

Safari Post IV

Okay… when last we were on safari (which was two months ago; I'm really sorry about the delay here. Technical problems suck), we had finally arrived in beautiful Tanzania and begun the real safari. The first park we visited, just outside the town of Mto wa Mbu, was Lake Manyara National Park.

We drove into the park and stopped at the visitor center, which like visitor centers at national parks in the United States has knick-knacks and books for sale and a few simplistic displays about the geography of the park. A lot of the trees on the visitor center boardwalk look vaguely familiar. The visitor center is in a part of the park that is a lush forest of fig and mahogany, without the acacias and other thornbushes that you associate with Africa. It sort of looks like the forested parts of the Southeast. Also, there are no animals at the park entrance apart from millions of ants and a solitary, possibly dead, spider with nothing in its web. Never having heard of Lake Manyara, I began to wonder what we were doing here. Bryson (our driver, if you can recall back from our last post several weeks ago…) assured us this was a very good park—lots of animals, but no lions. Bryson had put the top up on the truck, so we could stand up and look out the roof.

We drove into the park on a dirt road. All roads in all national parks in Tanzania are dirt, although the road to the park was very nicely paved. This isn't so much a matter of wanting to preserve the natural habitat as it is a convenient excuse to cover for the government's inability to pave the country's roads. The dirt road soon crossed a large stone bridge, and sitting on a tree near the bridge was a lone baboon. We took a picture. Thus far the park had been as devoid of wildlife as a highway median.

Later we were passing through dense trees and came upon two stopped vehicles sprouting camera lenses. We looked and looked into the dense underbrush, but saw nothing, not even a moving tree branch. We heard… idling truck engines. Nothing. Bryson drove on.

We made a few turns through variable flora and finally started up a hill. Through breaks in the trees we could see the actual Lake Manyara*, and the short plain leading to it. It was pretty. There were no animals, but it was pretty. Pretty is good.

It was pushing one. We were hungry. I was ready to tear into the first bag of chili-lemon chips when we stopped at a picnic area. Bryson produced boxed lunches, which had been hiding on the floor of the front seat, out of the sun. We scrambled out of the truck, cameras in hand, hoping to catch a glimpse of… something. The picnic area ended in a near-vertical drop of eighty or a hundred feet, beyond the bottom of which the park sloped slowly down through thick forest to the plains and then to the lake. And then… there! Off in the distance! That thing that looks like a tree? It's a giraffe! And what's that behind it? Is that an elephant? Wow!

We took copious pictures of animals very very far away in the distance, unsure whether we'd get any better pictures. I tried repeatedly to snap a photo of a brilliantly colored bird in an acacia tree near our table, but it was camera shy.

Lunch was good, a quarter of a (small) fried chicken, buttered roll, carrot salad sandwich, cucumber and carrots, peanut butter crackers and other assorted snacks, and for dessert a little wedge of soft cheese and Cadbury milk chocolates. Mmm-mm! I was happy, and we didn't even have to attack the chips.

We trundled on back down the hill from the picnic area and entered thick brush. Then, suddenly: an elephant!
He had clearly been in a fight or two in his day (we hope) and was missing a tusk, but there he was, right beside the road. Two or three other elephants were hiding back in the brush as well. That was certainly cool!

Bryson put the truck back into gear and we drove about seven feet, and then on the other side of the road: a dik-dik! I was a total animal nerd when I was little (I have no regrets whatsoever) so I sort of knew what all the animals were before Bryson said so… but I didn't want to say, usually. But dik-diks are very cool and I shouted "It's a dik-dik!" in the tone of voice you'd reserve for shouting "I won the lottery!" when I saw it. They are cute little creatures. This is one of the smallest of antelopes, and in recent years there has actually been discussion of raising them for meat in New Zealand. They certainly don't take up much space. Dik-diks are monogamous and mate for life, which could make them a little... odd for livestock raising.

Lake Manyara was turning into a better park than we'd anticipated. Just a moment later we drove by this brightly colored kingfisher sitting before a thicket. I was still afraid to use the digital zoom on my camera, or the kingfisher would be somewhat bigger in this image.

Very shortly we came up herds of impala. This is a reasonably fast antelope, namesake of a Chevrolet popular with police departments. It may or may not be the fastest of antelopes, depending on who you talk to; I'm disinclined to think it is but it has a cool name. I have many, many pictures of impala of varying quality, including some with numerous babies (this one only has one baby), but I like this picture because the doe in the foreground appears to be giving us the evil eye—which caught up with us the next day.

We were having a very good time now. We saw zebras and giraffes, and more elephants, and then we were tooling along the road through a thin forest of thorny acacias when I spied something in the road up ahead. "I think it's a tortoise," I said, proving that animal nerd or not I was not really that great at guessing wildlife from a distance. We rolled to a stop in front of two very busy little dung beetles. I don't wish to speculate on exactly what dung beetles do with dung, but this pair had a ball slightly larger than a softball. The black one just hung on to the ball, moving about on it to aid in steering. The brown one did all the pushing. Both were very actively involved in getting their prize across the road. We watched them go, and declined to speculate on what they were doing with the dung, and drove on.

We happened upon many, many impala throughout the day. Apart from the face on their rump, they look very similar to a standard white-tailed deer such as you'd see in the states. But they aren't deer. They're antelope, and more closely related to your standard dairy cow than to the deer they more closely resemble. A giraffe, on the other hand, is not anything at all apart from a giraffe. We rarely saw more than three or four giraffes at once, though I kept a steady (and fruitless) lookout for herds. At Lake Manyara, with an abundance of trees and seemingly few predators (sources disagree on the presence of lions; there are no hyenas, but there are leopards in the park. We didn't see any large predators though leopards are evidently quite numerous (leopards are very hard to spot); there are smaller cats and there may be jackals as well, but certainly nothing else big enough to bring down a healthy zebra or even an ill giraffe), the giraffes and impala and zebras just sort of hang out in clearings together and munch, and don't seem to worry much about anything. Here are all three of them together, though you may have a tough time spotting the zebra (ha ha! Of course you can't spot a zebra; they have stripes!). (Sorry about that.)

Later still we happened upon this happy troop of baboons. Rather than wandering into town, these guys were perfectly happy to remain in the park and forage. This particular troop had a baby, but it was hideously ugly and I didn't want to scare anyone by putting his picture up.

Tomorrow we'll continue with more of Lake Manyara. I know you're conditioned to assume you won't see another safari post for weeks, but in fact the next one is already written! See you tomorrow!

Safari Post I (Introduction)
Safari Post II (Nairobi)
Safari Post III (Arusha – The Safari Begins)
Safari Post IV - Lake Manyara A
Safari Post V - Lake Manyara B
Safari Post VI - Lake Manyara Lodge
Safari Post VII - Off to Serengeti!

*Wikipedia's article says the park has lions, as does the government of Tanzania's official website on the park, but Bryson said he'd never seen them and he's been driving safaris for a decade. They climb trees, like leopards. Maybe they're just light-colored leopards; in any event we didn't see any.


The Former Lepidopterist said...

Ahh, I love those pictures...

Ayzair said...

Glad you're back!

years_reading said...

Wow, that first pic you posted is amazing... perhaps one worth framing?...

Smitty said...

Well.... there are better ones coming. Soon. Very soon. In fact, later today after I do some business dealings re: something large and red that I just purchased. And tomorrow, too.