Yr-Round Tarangire

Yr-Round Tarangire

Don’t consider Tarangire only a seasonal park any longer.

For several years, now, I’ve been writing how wonderful Tarangire National Park is at any time of the year. So many guide books claim otherwise. They’re wrong.

Until the early 1980s, Tarangire was a hunting preserve. The 2200 sq. miles is the best elephant habitat in all of northern Tanzania and Kenya. It’s even better than Amboseli, which is famous for elephants.

One of my clients, Hans Wede, a successful “numbers” businessman from Denmark, estimated that we saw 500 elephants during our three game drives in the park. We saw fights, got charged, saw a half dozen newborns, watched a family for 40 minutes taking a mud bath and generally had one of the finest elephant viewing experiences I’ve myself had in 37 years!

And this is supposed to be the time you don’t go to Tarangire, because the elephants aren’t here.

In many regards, Tarangire is more like a southern than East African wilderness. It is heavily wooded and defined by its great Tarangire sand river and a number of other smaller sand rivers that flow into the Tarangire.

We spent the last two days in Tarangire avoiding elephants. We saw a lot more than just elephants, by the way, including a magnificent male lion (and several more females), lots of bat-eared fox and jackal, giraffe, lots of impala, zebra, buffalo, klipspringer and Tarangire’s outstanding birdlife. At the campfire during sundowners, my clients watched a leopard walk by. But elephants were the feature.

This is the wet season. Now admittedly there are some disadvantages to coming now: very hot, very humid, wet with great thunderstorms, and all this means more and more tse-tse fly. But it also means it’s a beautiful time. The veld is lush and green, the sand river is flowing and drawing all the migrant shore birds, and the forests are abloom with the earliest orchids.

And, contrary to virtually all the popular guide books, there are lots and lots of elephants!

Like so much in East African tourism, the notion that Tarangire is a seasonal park is based in early fact that was never revised as conditions changed. A half century ago when safari tourism began we were confronted with the catastrophic slaughter of elephants. Ninety-five percent of Kenya’s elephants were wiped out; probably 60% of Tanzania’s.

Those that remained were understandably skittish. Their behavior kept them away from people as much as possible. Sand rivers, like Tarangire, were their only source for water in the dry season, so they had to come to the sand rivers, then, even if tourists were waiting to watch them. Water flows nearly continuously under the sand, even in the driest times, and elephants then dig for it.

(My safari group this time even noticed that the elephants preferred to dig for water, even when it was flowing not far from their holes! We were at Samburu earlier, and that area is very dry right now in contrast to Tarangire. There were areas of streaming water in the Ewaso Nyiro sand river, but on one game drive we noticed that the elephants actually preferred to dig holes further down stream where no surface water was streaming. The filtered water through the sand is cleaner and sweeter than surface water.)

When the wet season came and water was everywhere, the elephants abandoned the sand rivers for locations with fewer people.

That’s no longer necessary. The elephant population has rebounded and elephant poaching is well under control. And Tarangire’s ecosystem beyond its sand river is great for elephant. So while there may, indeed, be even a more spectacular elephant experience in the dry season (July – November), you’d find that difficult to explain to my client, Joyce Hassell, who had a 5-ton bull’s ears practically wrapped around her Landrover. Or to my other client, Jodi Eckenhoff, who figures she took about as many pictures of elephant as we decided we’d seen: 500!