Dwarfed by nature
Lake Manyara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Arusha teem with life
Waking up in the middle of the night next to a snoring stranger in a fairly compact two-person tent is a disconcerting experience. When you are serenaded by baying hyenas at the same time, it really gets the adrenaline flowing.
I sat bolt upright in the pitch darkness, sweating with panic until sleep receded enough for my rational brain to take over. I was in the Serengeti, on safari and this was the first night under canvas.
The safari company I had booked with had been offering by far the best deal in Arusha, the departure town for most safaris to the Serengeti and beyond. They already had three passengers signed up and needed a fourth, so that they could leave the next day.
What they failed to mention was that they only carried two tents, hence my waking up next to a mouth-breathing American tourist I had first met less than 12 hours previously.
Under normal circumstances, sharing such confined quarters with a stranger would be out of the question. But our first day in the National Park had been so awe-inspiring that it seemed churlish to bring up such minor niggles as the sleeping arrangements.
I had arrived in Arusha two days before and found a dusty town saved from mediocrity by a stunning setting at the foot of Mount Neru, one of the highest mountains in Africa. There wasn’t much to keep me in town and by day three, I was on the road for Lake Manyara.
The sign at the entrance to the Lake Manyara National Park says, ‘Remove nothing from this park except nourishment for the soul, consolation for the heart and inspiration for the mind.’ I couldn’t imagine a place more suited to providing those three ingredients.
Manyara is not the most famous part of the wider Serengeti area, but the game viewing was still stunning. Huge troops of baboons loped between the trees alongside our vehicle while in the savannah, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra herds congregated, nervously keeping an eye out for predators.
The lake itself was stunning: 50 kilometres of water glittered beneath the 600-metre-high Rift Valley escarpment. Birds took centre stage here as hundreds of jostling flamingos obscured the water in a feathery pink haze.
Unfortunately this scene was totally ruined by our driver. In a misguided attempt to give us a “show” he clapped his hands repeatedly until the birds flew so that we could see them rise up, creating a cloud of pink confusion while we yelled at him to stop. Due to this sort of behaviour, the flamingos have been showing signs of stress for years.
We drove onwards, passing within metres of a stately saddle-billed stork, whose curious beak looked like it had been partially dipped in scarlet paint and ornamented with plasticine blobs in red, yellow and black.
On the plains, we spotted a secretary bird, towering above the grass. These outlandish birds are in a family all of their own and we watched them stalking imperiously along on oversize legs, looking for scurrying creatures to eat and ignoring the honking hornbills above.
We were following a well-travelled tourist route, but rarely saw another vehicle until we pulled into the camping area. Our driver (who doubled as the guide) and his companion (chief cook and bottle washer) put up the tents and cooked dinner al fresco while we watched the sunset in the heart of safari country.
Animals that might enjoy eating us al fresco of an evening were kept at bay by a spiky bush fence and a sleepy-looking watchman, which was small comfort when you needed the loo in the middle of the night.
At dawn, we headed on into the Serengeti itself. We weren’t there at the right time of year for the famous migration (when a million wildebeest indulge in a frenzy of mating before heading north) but it really didn’t matter. We still saw huge herds of buffalo ambling over the plains, trailed by clouds of dust.
Elephants stepped out of the greenery into the road, the adults warily shepherding babies between safari vehicles. And gradually, we learned to distinguish one antelope from another including eland, topi, kongoni, impala and Grant’s gazelle.
These beautiful animals with their doe-like eyes were fun to photograph, but to the park’s predators, they are dinner.
Leopards, lions and cheetahs were easy to see here, although the heavy density of vehicles in the Serengeti itself meant that we were rarely alone for long.
We saw African jackals and ragged hyenas running alongside the vehicle, waiting for dark to launch into their mournful songs. The sense of space was incredible, the plains stretching far off into the horizon until they merged with the clouds.
It was hard to imagine anything topping the Serengeti, but the Ngorongoro Crater has a powerful, ancient pull to it. We reached the rim of the crater in the early morning, got out of the vehicle and stood in stunned silence looking at the view 600 metres beneath us.
The blues and greens that stretched way below our vantage point were like a view of earth from space and there was a cool, calm stillness on the rim of the crater that belied the frenzy of activity of the animals that survive on its fertile bottom.
Early man occupied the crater from around three million years ago and many key hominid fossils were found here at Olduvai Gorge.
The Maasai arrived in the 1800s, driving out earlier cultures and grazing their cattle on the lush pastures.
Europeans entered the fray in 1892, leading to ongoing conflict with the Maasai which was partially resolved with the creation of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, unique for protecting wildlife while allowing the Maasai to continue to live there.
Black rhino are the big draw here, but due to poaching, the local population has dwindled (in 1995 there were just 11-14 left although the figure is now supposed to be higher). Unsurprisingly, we didn’t see them.
The lions on the other hand, were very much in evidence, utterly ignoring our vehicles while basking in the sun.
The highlight was a cheetah hunting within metres of us. It was stalking an antelope and as we watched, entranced, it suddenly exploded out of the grass, catching the animal completely unawares and making short work of it with a swift bite to the neck.
We finished the day off in a Maasaivillage, wandering awkwardly around the inhabitants’ huts and watching a display of competitive jumping. It all felt rather staged and touristy, as one safari group after another disgorged their passengers to commune with Maasai culture, then loaded them back in for the trip back to Arusha; the Maasai themselves looked as if they would have vastly preferred to be tending theircattle in the crater.
As a finale, I had arranged for a day trip to Arusha National Park and a walking safari. After days cramped in a safari vehicle, walking through this green and leafy national park was an entirely different experience.
There was no engine to drown out the bird song and no dust to obscure the view as we hiked along animal trails with our (armed) guide.
Being on foot put everything into perspective, so the giraffes that wandered past us seemed immeasurably taller and the glimpses of gazelles hiding in the forest moreintense. We were also dwarfed by the mighty Mount Meru, and 50km away, Kilimanjaro’s snowy peak.
The element of danger added a particular twist to the experience. Giraffe can kill with a well-aimed kick and elephants would have no trouble dispatching a human if provoked (although they are rare in the park, while lions are absent altogether; this combination makes it relatively safe to walk with a guide).
It felt like we were on slightly more of an equal footing with the animal world for once and we gave the animals the respect they deserved by admiring them from afar.
I’d just visited some of the world’s most justly famous and well known conservation areas. But walking in Arusha National Park remains one of my most special memories of Tanzania, away from the safari mayhem, at one with the wildness in Tanzania’s soul.