OnSafari: Rain

OnSafari: Rain

The rains start north to south, and we traveled north to south and always seemed to be just a day or two ahead of the rains. It was so dry and dusty in Tarangire when we got there Monday that the interior of my room was 105F and my hands were dry after washing my face in the sink before I could get to the towel rack.

We followed the Tarangire sand river and found lots of elephant but little else. At least the tse-tse were down in such conditions. Tuesday morning our dawn drive headed to the Silale Swamp and I swear that every animal in Tarangire was there.
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OnSafari: Win for Eles!

OnSafari: Win for Eles!

Our safari ended in Tarangire, Africa’s greatest elephant park, with an exciting surprise! I’ve been coming to Tarangire regularly multiple times annually for the last two decades. This is the first time I noticed that elephant tusks are getting bigger!

Whoa nelly. There’s no tonic that makes elephant tusks grow larger – it’s completely genetic. Nor did the 40-year old male that stared me in the face, or the 60-year grand dame who almost brushed the side of our vehicle, each with tusks easily 50% bigger than the norm recently visit a stretching spa. Bigger tusks are a genetic imperative, and there has now been enough non-poaching time for big tusks to begin expressing themselves again noticeably in random populations.

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OnSafari: Crater

OnSafari: Crater

Breakfast in the crater.
Our family safari plowed through the tse-tse of Tarangire, had a really quick picnic game drive in Manyara and settled into the crater for a fantastic day.

Tarangire was much wetter than usual but cold as usual. The odd combination kept the tse-tse somewhat at bay but really reduced our finding the transitory elephant in the southern half of the park. The northern half was chock-a-block full of elephant as always, and that’s where the most productive game viewing was.

On the way to our Sopa Lodge we passed elephant fighting on the rim and arrived just before dark.

The day in the crater was wonderful. I love these margins of the season, when the tourist rush hasn’t yet totally clogged out the crater and a drizzle every now keep the beautiful yellow biden-biden blooming so that the veld is covered in yellow.

When we went down there weren’t many wildebeest. We saw lots of zebra and quite a few lion – all fat and sassy from previous kills – but as we ended the morning a long line of wilde ran down the side along the down road.

They were kicking and blarting and the males were still actively rutting, which should have already come to an end. I couldn’t figure out why so much commotion and such clear migratory behavior in these 400 or so wilde, since they were headed in the wrong direction!

But that’s … nature! With so many beasts there isn’t an uniform movement, and for some reason this group – totally healthy and enthusiastic – either got turned around by a bee or the smell of new grass on the crater floor.

Whatever it was it was great fun to watch them. I’m having a particularly wonderful time, since this is my family. I guide a family safari every ten years. This was the 4th one!

From here it’s on to my favorite place in the world, the Serengeti. Stay tuned.

[Apologies from the bush. My laptop is having serious problems, and I’m going to great lengths to post blogs. Will do my best!]

OnSafari: Tarangire

OnSafari: Tarangire

The night was as still as a ghost but inside the mess tent there was almost riotous laughter as the millenials recounted a recent wedding gone awry, the old folks proudly compared whose child was eating the most barbecue and poor Charles, our waiter, searched the back pantries for still another bottle of Spier shiraz.

I stepped briefly outside the warm solar lit canvas box into a crisp Tarangire night. It was a half moon. The thick overcast which begrudgingly was giving way to a long dry season momentarily cleared. Every star in the firmament twinkled. It was so still that the terrifying screeching of an elephant fight made its way all the up from the distant river almost like a far away old-time radio trying to catch its signal.

I’d hardly walked to the camp fire, maybe 15 meters from the dinner party, when the rhythmic groans of a couple lionesses triumphantly walking the main park road back to their cubs announced to any who cared that their kill was over: At least for this night there was no further need to hide.

Tarangire in this cold end of the rainy season is like an old man at the bar. The struggles under massive thunderstorms whose rain nary touches the ground because it’s so hot, the new acacias swept away by flash floods, the endless fighting of the elephant in muskh and the thousands and thousands of open-bill, white and other migratory storks all vying for a piece of the great Silale swamp was over, now. It was time to sit on a quiet stool in the corner and look fondly at your beer as the foamed slowly dies away.

Africa is a cycle of death and rebirth like no other place. It bans our anxieties over the next election, the dumphesses who think they can control the planet and the ticket clerks who can’t find our luggage into some uncertain but undeniable future.

They’ll be another day. The droll almost-hoot of the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl insists (blink). Just rock a little in your chair and let the morning wind warm you up.

OnSafari: Tarangire Trials

OnSafari: Tarangire Trials

Climate change is not just hot and extreme weather, but peculiar weather. I walked into my tent in Tarangire National Park yesterday at 530p at it was 93½ F, about ten degrees above normal. Tarangire which should now be lush and green and fresh with blossoms is hot, dry and dusty.

But all over the place is water! The Tarangire sand river has running water! (It’s normal to be dry on top of the sand; water runs under the sand most of the time in Africa’s great sand rivers.)

There were ponds of water and wallows almost everywhere. My group had an exceptional introduction to amazing Africa as we watched for some time around 200 zebra race into a water hole, freak, race out, turn their funny heads back to the water in amazement there had been no lion or python, and race back into the pond! Again and again!

This strange situation, where the veld the temperature and air feels like a drought but the veld holds so much water, is precisely because in January and February there was too much rain.

This is really, really peculiar. Now the animals seem to be doing quite well with it. In addition to the hundreds of zebra, we watched with great excitement around 35 elephant saunter out of the river towards a very big sausage tree under which was trying to hide a very concerned lioness.

Ele don’t really see after they’re 12 or 13 years old, but their other senses are beyond belief. We watched anxiously until the one ele finally noticed the lioness.

The ele turned with ears out and flipped her trunk at the lion as if to throw a rock. After a single trumpet practically every elephant in view starting running towards the poor lioness!

She got away, of course, but she was very, very embarrassed.

OnSafari: Great Rift Parks

OnSafari: Great Rift Parks

lionspelicansA good safari is an adventure, and an adventure takes effort. I keep thinking of the phrase, “No Pain – No Gain.” Sure, we can end the day at an unbelievably luxurious place with bubble bath and champagne. But just take a look at a successful safari traveler stepping out of her vehicle at the end of the day:

You won’t see the Belle of the Ball.

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OnSafari: keeping it an Adventure

OnSafari: keeping it an Adventure

Ladd, Sophia and Evan inside a baobab tree! One of the many big tuskers we’re seeing more and more! Thousands and thousands of birds on Manyara!
Ladd, Sophia and Evan inside a baobab tree! One of the many big tuskers we’re seeing more and more! Thousands and thousands of birds on Manyara!

The struggle to retain a real adventure spirit in safaris, today, is no better illustrated than in our experiences in Tarangire and Manyara.

Tarangire is the best elephant park in Africa, period. The population is healthy, increasing in numbers and so the only controversial question is are there too many elephant here?

So everyone wants to come here, and that means “crowds.”

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OnSafari: Tarangire Surprises

OnSafari: Tarangire Surprises

Tar Animal MontageIt was hot and we’d been on the road for nearly eight hours. The numbers of elephant and giraffe and other animals we’d seen in Tarangire was stunning but we were almost at camp and it was time to hit the showers and go for sundowners when…

…Tumaini hit the brakes and dust flew all around us like an explosion. When it settled, hardly ten meters away was the biggest lion I think I’ve ever seen.

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OnSafari: Tse-Tsed Tarangire

OnSafari: Tse-Tsed Tarangire

PeaseWatchingTarEleTarangire is the last place on earth for really big and wild elephants. We had amazing encounters.

We stayed in the southern part of the park where there are accommodations for only a few tourists. The vast majority stay to the north of Tarangire Hill.

Bill Vogt & Jim Pease photograph safari ants.
Bill Vogt & Jim Pease photograph safari ants.
There are plenty of elephant in the north, but most of them are residents there. They’ve come to know tourists. We saw several hundred there on our first afternoon driving south towards our camp. They’re just as large and beautiful as the ones in the south, but not as wild.

So most of our time was spent in the south among hundreds if not thousands of the last great giants of the earth. Some were friendly enough that we could approach fairly closely. One wonderful family seemed almost oblivious to us: The matriarch was engrossed scratching herself on a tree.

Her little one-year old even managed to get on the other side of the tree and mimic her!

But most of our encounters in the south aren’t quite as peaceful. We had many trumpeting us, several charges and many times had to keep our distance to avoid disturbing them.

Part of the reason for their anxiety is that there’s just too many of them. The elephant density is so great today in northern Tanzania that normal elephant behaviors are breaking down. Families have no choice but to spend some time near one another, something they didn’t do when there weren’t so many.

OnSafari: Terrifying Tarangire

OnSafari: Terrifying Tarangire

TarangireWe had finished a fabulous afternoon game drive heading back to camp when an incredibly wild family of elephant intersected the road. I hesitated not knowing if we should proceed.

Most of the elephant found in Africa, today, are relatively docile: they’ve been habituated to tourists for generations.

This is not true, though, in the more remote parts of Africa or even in the remote parts of its protected areas. That’s where we were: the southern half of Tarangire National Park.

Justin, Tumaini & James Graham
Justin, Tumaini & James Graham
My Walsh Family Safari was staying at one of my favorite Tanzania camps, Oliver’s. It’s located near Silale Swamp almost exactly half way down this 2200 sq. mile, oblong national park. 95% of the tourists stay far north of here in more conventional safari camps and lodges.

According to the great elephant researcher, Charles Foley, about 2800 elephant live in the northern part of the park, and he calls them “sedentary.” An uncountable number – because they change so often – live in the southern part where we were staying and are “transitory.”

The transitory elephant are much wilder, and I think, healthier. They come through the southern half of Tarangire not to start a home, but to get somewhere else: like the eastern savannah which is equally remote.

I can usually tell the difference after just a few minutes of looking at a family. The sedentary elephant have lost many traditional behaviors, such as keeping their distance from other families and flapping their ears by rocking back and forth their head in warning.

This is because, in my opinion, there are too many elephant in this area. They’ve adapted “socially” by changing their customs. So today in the northern part of Tarangire and many other very insular protected national parks in Africa you can easily see 200 or more elephant together, males, young and mixed families.

They no longer shun other families, because — well, there just isn’t enough space to do so.

Not with the transitory elephant of Tarangire! So just as we had finished the afternoon game drive and were trying to get back to camp before dark, this one large, healthy family of 15 blocked us on the road only 40 meters in front of us. We’d watched them come down, heading for the swamp to water, and taking angry note of two other smaller elephant families in the vicinity.

The grand matriarch started some serious vocalization. This doesn’t mean just trumpeting, but deep rumbles of which we can hear only 10%. The remaining 90% are below our decibel level, so if we can hear rumblings, we know a lot more is being said!

We stopped in the road as she pulled her ears out and moved her head back, a precharge signal. So – but for only a moment – did the other two elephant families stop and take note of this swaggering grandma, but then the matriarch of the nearest one seemed to dismiss the challenge, turned her head to go and continued to saunter away.

The grand matriarch of the wild family lowered her head, trumpeted and charged the insubordinate matriarch of the family walking away.
The matriarch of the retreating family turned and faced her challenger for all of a second. By then the massive likely near 4-ton wild matriarch was practically upon the sedentary matriarch, who then began to run away from here.

But it was too late. She poked the retreating matriarch with her tusks eliciting a trumpet of pain as that smaller family fled faster and faster away. The grand matriarch then huffed and puffed a couple times before slowly walking back to her family, which had gone dead still.

I had decided we couldn’t move while she was running, because her stride together with her speed produces a 4½ ton projectile we couldn’t possibly outrun.

So began the standoff with us. The rest of her family were as still as possums as she jogged back to their front and faced us square on. The rest of the family as if on queue began moving again, seemingly in no discernible direction, just sort of milling about but suddenly we were surrounded.

Any one of the larger adults could have flipped us over. I have a front roof latch above the driver’s seat in the Landcruiser. It was open and I was standing straight through it, the first human she could sense. My clients were all standing up from the back seats.

My group was amazing. I know everyone’s hearts were beating frantically, including my own, but everyone was dead silent and unmoving.

The matriarch waved back and forth in front of us, her giant ears flopping in rhythm, but the good sign was that there was no vocalization.

Most elephant lose much of their sight after about ten years, but they continue to develop an acute hearing and smell. A brush of my bird book against the open roof, someone who is chewing gum and opens their mouth – these are the kinds of things that a grand matriarch standing only 20 meters away might take offense at.

So we just waited. Finally, she settled down and led her family down to the water away from us.

Mary Disse, who is usually not, was speechless! Everyone got extraordinary pictures, but more importantly, experienced viscerally the excitement of truly wild Africa.

We had a grand two days in Tarangire, Africa’s best elephant park. In addition to the tembos, we saw leopard, cheetah, lion, hundreds of impala, buffalo and wildebeest; thousands of zebra, dozens of bird species, and were incredibly lucky to have also encountered oryx and kudu. It was an extraordinary success.

Now we’re relaxing at another of my favorite places, Gibb’s Farm, before heading to the crater. Stay tuned!

OnSafari: Wild is Unpredictable!

OnSafari: Wild is Unpredictable!

lionintree.manyara.ckordash.648.14aprLions don’t climb, hippos aren’t in Tarangire, vervets hate thorns, and guides know it all. Just a few of the things disproved so far on my safari!

Apologies for the big delays between blogs, but Tanzania is in something of a data congestion at the moment. Reports from businesses in Dar and Arusha are all complaining of the slow internet signal.

It’s not the weather, which is beautiful and quite normal, nor nearby conflicts, because except for distant Burundi there are none. So common wisdom is probably true: there are suddenly just too many people trying to use to few satellites.

Common wisdom, though, would not hold much rank on the McGrath family safari. Today in Lake Manyara National Park we saw two near-adult lions in an acacia tortilis tree sleeping their lives away until we arrived.

They were draped over the branches like wet laundry hung out to dry. We watched them for a while until another car came up at which time one of the lions got nervous and teetered down quite ungracefully.

The last one tolerated 2 or 3 more cars before she finally took to the ground, too. So what’s all this about lions not climbing well?

The truth is that lions will climb trees everywhere, if it’s the right kind of tree: fantastic Manyara is filled with so many different kinds of trees there are plenty with the requisite low horizontal branches that will tempt this largest of the cats.

But you can tell it’s a real balancing act, because they never seem completely comfortable up there. But unlike their many cousins on the savannah, their views on the ground are obscured by Manyara’s thick vegetation, so anything that gives them height gives them comfort.

Manyara was great in several wonderful ways, today! The lake is pretty full, so the hippos are plenty. The wind was down, the morning not too cold, and we first watched for a good long time at least a couple dozen silvery-cheeked hornbills flying around and cackling madly.

This is the largest of the hornbills in Tanzania and true dinosaur looking bird!

Grandma Cindy asked if there were any malachite kingfishers, and a few minutes later as we headed to the platform overlooking the hippo pool, we saw two! Also saw lanner falcon, long-toed plover and a bunch of other stuff.

Manyara is baboon heaven, but otherwise I never expect Manyara to be a memorable animal experience. Yet we added to the lions-in-the-tree, 15 minutes literally immersed in an elephant family of 13, and the truly beautiful lake shore landscapes covered with giraffe, wildebeest and zebra.

I even glanced a klipspringer as we were leaving. Manyara was a much better animal experience today than I would expect.

The last several days in Tarangire were classic. The park is absolutely the best elephant park in all of Africa, and it gave us opportunities to learn to distinguish between healthy elephants, lone elephants, sick elephants … elephants that were agitated, and so forth.

The northern half of the park has the more docile and approachable sedentary elephants, whereas the south half of the park usually has more temperamental and transitory ones. Only this time I felt they were pretty calm in the south.

It could be that just over time the homesteaders are arriving. Or it might be that the transitory folks were just coincidentally absent, giving entry to the over crowded north. Either way it was an astounding experience for us.

That is except for Hakon and Alden on the way to their Tent #1 at Little Oliver’s, unable to do so because the elephant wouldn’t leave the path.

I think the manager, Julie, did exactly the right thing. Took a truck down the path and let the guy know he wasn’t welcome. Far too often camps try to cultivate wild animals, and it never ends up well.

We had a chance this time to visit the far southwestern side of Silale swamp, and that was a real treat. Lemala has put a semi-permanent camp down there and the tracks are being better maintained.

It gave us an opportunity to see larger numbers of Grant’s gazelle and hartebeest. If there is any drawback to Tarangire it has been the uniformity of its wildlife experience: almost exclusively elephant and giraffe. The new tracks in the south now will broaden its appeal.

Finally, too, as we were leaving we stopped at a water hole in the Serengeti Plains. We’d already spent probably hours watching elephant frolicking in water, but here they were frolicking among very angry zebra definitely not pleased with their arrival.

It was a wonderful interaction that ended when the Mommy elephants finally got the youngsters to leave the swimming pool and the zebra came down to drink. A wonderful end for us in this marvelous park.

Stay tuned! We’re on our way to the crater!