Elephants, elephants and more elephants. Oh, and did I mention cute baby elephants?
I am awake before the alarm goes off this morning, being abruptly dragged out of my slumber by the not-so-distant roar of a lion.
It’s another early start today, leaving the lodge at 05:45 to get to Tarangire National park entrance for opening time at 06:15. Bleary eyed, we set off in the pitch black with humble expectations.
We don’t have to wait long for our first sighting. Just a couple of hundred yards from the lodge, we spot something in the car headlights.
Two lionesses with two cubs!
It is so dark out there we can only make them out with a torch or the car headlights, so I am surprised that the camera has picked anything up at all. (For those of you with an interest in the technical aspects, these photos were taken with a Canon EOS 6D with a 24-105mm f/4 at ISO 25,600 at 1/50 sec. Some of them have been cropped in the post processing stage, but no editing beyond the RAW conversion.)
Now it makes perfect sense why we are not permitted to walk around the lodge grounds after dark without an escort!
Mum is on the look-out for food, while the cubs just want to play.
Before we left England, Lyn was concerned “what if we don’t see any lions?”, and here we are, before 06:00 on our first day of safari, before we have even left the grounds of the lodge, let alone reached the national park; and we have four lions within feet of the car! Talk about beginners’ luck!
By 06:15 we are still here, and the sun starts to rise. We never did make it to the gate for opening time.
While it is still quite dark, at least it does mean we can actually see the lions now without resorting to shining a bright light on them.
It also means that I can bring the ISO down to a more manageable 6400-8000.
We stay with the lions until they move out of sight in their quest for breakfast.
This bachelor impala has been kicked out of his herd and will stay on his own for a while before creating his own harem and herd. He seems to have a growth on the side of his neck.
Impala bachelor herd
Progress is slow for us this morning as we encounter animals after animals within the lodge grounds.
Giraffe family consisting of eight members, young and old.
Including some very cute babies, thought to be around three months old.
As far as male giraffes go, females believe that the darker markings the better, as these are thought to be the stronger animals. Definitely a case of wanting their mates to be tall, dark and handsome!
Having read that the giraffes in Tarangire are darker than usual with deeper marking, I am keen to inspect the difference for myself. As the national animal of Tanzania, the killing of giraffes is illegal. Unfortunately, bush meat poaching is still big business in the rural areas, and illegal market hunting for meat is well known to be rampant around Tarangire.
We reluctantly tear ourselves away from the giraffes and move on to the next animal sighting – Olive Baboons.
There is a lot of squealing going on as a mother punishes her babies and they run to hide under our car.
There is playing, mating, grooming and fighting going on, with the old males just sitting around doing nothing – much like our local pub on a Friday night.
There’s another animal that seems to have a growth on its side.
Two males chase one ready-to-mate female. After a loud fight, the winner takes it all.
A warthog looks on with amusement.
Lilac Breasted Roller – apparently they got their name from the way they roll when they mate. I had no idea…
Blue Cheeked Cordon Bleu
Yellow Crowned Canary
This is the marula tree – the fruit that makes the delicious liqueur Amarula. Apparently the elephants have been known to eat the fruit and then get drunk – the thought of meeting a drunk elephant in a dark alley is a frightening one…
It is unusual to see a young baobab tree such as this one – believed to be about sixty years old – as the elephants destroy them. A Baby Baobab tree looks very different from its adult form and this is why some Bushmen believe that it doesn't grow in the same way as other trees. They think it suddenly crashes to the ground with a thump, fully grown, and then one day simply disappears.
We have finally left the grounds of the lodge and are now heading towards Tarangire National Park – just about two hours later than planned.
We are still not actually inside the park yet, and we make a few more stops before we are. That’s the beauty of a safari – you never know what nature is going to offer you.
Rufous Tailed Weaver
Tarangire National Park
Our arrival at the Tarangire National Park Entrance Gate could not be any more different to the last time we were here – this time we are the only car waiting; last time the car park was full!
Last time it took 3/4 hour for Dickson, our guide, to get our permits. This time Malisa has the necessary paperwork in no time at all!
The queues for the permits in 2014
The queue in 2016
Permit in hand – we’re ready to roll!
Tse Tse Flies
One of the main problems with travelling to Tanzania in the Green Season is the prevalence of tse tse flies. These pesky insects are very attracted to the colours black and navy, so large flags have been hung from trees throughout the parks to encourage the insects to land on them. The material has been impregnated with poison, so that any unsuspecting flies which come into contact with them become sterile.
There have apparently been a few cases reported recently about tourists having contracted sleeping sickness after being bitten by the tse tse fly in Tarangire, although Malisa and the other guides get bitten all the time and they haven't contracted the illness. It's probably a case of the media making a mountain out of a mole hill. It is certainly one animal that I really would rather NOT see while we are here, but unfortunately they are present in all the parks we are visiting, and are said to be particularly bothersome in Tarangire during the wet season.
These pesky flies have a painful bite, and when I was bitten on our last visit to Tanzania, the bite became quite red and swollen, but the fly thankfully did not carry the sleeping sickness disease. This time.
Von der Decken's Hornbill
Red Necked Francolin
White Crowned Fiscal Shrike
Common Waterbuck. They excrete a bad taste which predators find unpleasant, so are not generally found on the menu of the local lions and leopards.
Yellow Necked Spurfowl
Black Faced Sandgrouse
A large troupe of banded mongooses stare at us in disbelief before scampering; stopping occasionally to check if we are following them.
Superb Starling. Chris soon gets the hang of differentiating between Superb and Hildebrand Starling – it’s all in the white band on its chest and the colour of the eyes!
Giraffe with passengers
Yellow Billed Oxpecker
African Green Pigeon
The long grass almost completely hides a pair of Southern Ground Hornbill, and they are pretty large birds!
Tarangire National park is best known for its concentration of elephants – the densest anywhere in Africa – so I am therefore rather surprised that we don’t see any for quite a while after entering the park. In fact, some two hours pass before we come across the first herd – or memory as they are called – of eleven elephants, which includes this cute one-week old baby.
We have a delightful close encounter for Lyn and Chris’ first wild elephants, as the family group saunters past our car.
Mr and Mrs Ostrich
Little Bee Eaters - one of my favourite birds!
Two Banded Courser
Malisa spots some fresh lion footprints on the main track. They are heading towards the same picnic site as we are.
Matete Picnic Site
With great views over the valley below, Tarangire River, elephants and with a tree hyrax in the railings, Matete Picnic Site is not a bad place to stop for breakfast.
Elephants in Tarangire River
The facilities here have improved immensely since our last visit, with clean and modern attended toilets. A few other vans stop here too while we have our breakfast, including a group of American college student we saw on the flight from Nairobi. I am quite chuffed when – after a quick exchange of pleasantries with their driver in this native tongue – he asks: “where did you learn Swahili?”
Lilac Breasted Roller
Pygmy Falcon - the fastest bird in the park!
– Kigela Africana
Named after its large sausage-shaped fruit (that is in fact a wood berry, not a fruit), which can grow up to a metre long! It's a useful tree in that monkeys eat the seeds and elephants chew on it for water. Humans make brushes from the dried fruit and even brew beer from it. Sausage Tree Beer – it has a certain ring to it, don't you think? It's all the rage these days to drink randomly-named designer beers from micro-breweries. Like so many African plants, it is thought to have a range of medicinal benefits, including curing syphilis. I shall have to remember that. The fresh fruit, however, is poisonous. The other danger from the tree is fallen fruit – being so big, they can cause some serious damage to anyone (or anything) underneath at the time!
This 40-year old male is in musth – as can be seen by the 'tear' secreted from his temporal gland. Musth is an annual cycle when the male is primed to mate, and is indicated by a heightened sense of aggression. Elephants in musth are known to attack and fight other males, and even destroy inanimate objects that get in their way. Such as safari vehicles.
In order to get some relief from the heat, elephants wave their ears about; they are able to cool down an impressive 12 litres of blood at a time this way.
The grass here is so long at this time of year that the baby elephants are almost hidden in the meadow. The play around like babies of every species do, wrapping their trunks around each other, and mock sparring.
Elephants use this low frequency sound to communicate over great distances – vibrations are passed through the ground by their lowered trunks and can be picked up from up to 5 kilometres away by another elephant through the feet. Absolutely amazing stuff!
The elephants are unbelievably close now, as they go about their daily business, wandering right by our vehicle; occasionally looking up to gawk at the humans in a tin can.
In the photo below you can see just how close these elephants are to the car – that is the ledge of the car you can see in the bottom left! They are literally just feet away!
The adults are extremely protective of their youngest, most vulnerable family members, doing their best to hide them from prying eyes by placing them in the middle of the herd; but occasionally we get a brief glimpse of one of the babies through the foliage from between mum's legs.
Isn't he just simply adorable? I love the way he looks so young and innocent while his skin looks so wrinkly and weathered!
This is, without question, one of those unforgettable, magical moments.
Elephants eat around 300kg of vegetation a day; but only 60% of that is digested – the rest goes straight through. They spend a large part of the day eating, some 80% apparently! I know some people like that too.
It also means their droppings are still full of nutrients. The elephant's that is, not my acquaintances'.
We reluctantly bid the elephants goodbye and carry on to see what else nature has to offer us today.
Much excitement ensues when we spot a Savannah Monitor on the banks of the river. A very rare beast indeed, this is a first for us. Good job Malisa!
There is in fact not just one monitor, there are three of them!
A Southern Ground Hornbill preens itself in a tree. As the name suggests, this is an unusual bird to find on a tree branch.
So much greenery this time of year!
Black Faced Vervet Monkeys
It's at this point that I have to admit that it took me 29 years of safaris in Africa (last year to be precise) before I actually noticed that vervet monkeys have blue testicles. And I don't mean just slightly bluey-grey; these balls are as bright as they can be!
Baobab Trees – the Tree of Life
Regarded as the largest succulent plant in the world, the iconic baobab tree grows across 32 countries in Africa where it is often known as the ‘Tree of Life’. Found at the heart of local folklore, the baobab tree is steeped in a wealth of mystique, legend and superstition.
To me, this curious-looking ‘upside-down’ tree is synonymous with the African bush – its uniqueness in terms of geographical distribution, shape and size makes it one of the most impressive symbols of the African Savannah.
The story of how the baobab got his looks
An old bushman tale explains that the baobab was one of the first trees that were created. It was short and stocky, and when the slim, graceful palm tree appeared, the baobab was jealous of its elegance and insisted that he should be created taller like the palm. Then the glorious flowering flame tree came along and again the baobab was dissatisfied, crying out that he wanted a mass of beautiful red flowers! The magnificent fig tree also aroused great envy, as the baobab was desperate to have sweet, tasty fruits growing from his branches. Eventually God got so fed up with the baobab’s selfish, demanding ways, and in one swift motion uprooted him and stuck him back down again upside down, hoping to shut him up once and for all.
And that, my friends, is how the baobab got his peculiar upside-down appearance.
Of course, there is a very good reason for the thick trunk and spindly branches: The tree has adapted to life in seasonally arid areas. In the wet months water is stored in its thick, spongy, fire-resistant trunk in readiness for the nine dry months ahead. A large baobab can store up to 120,000 litres of water in its trunk and can withstand long periods of drought; in fact it has been known to survive for ten years with no rain. Many animals take advantage of this - they survive drought by accessing the water within the tree, including elephants who cause a lot of damage to these ancient trees in Tarangire. Baboons and warthogs also enjoy feasting on the seed pods.
Home, sweet home
A lot of birds make baobab trees their home, such as barn owls, spinetails, hornbills and weavers, making nests in the branches or clefts. The creased trunks and hollowed interiors also provide homes to countless reptiles, insects and bats, and in some cases even large cats have been known to take refuge inside the trees.
Humans too utilise the enormous trunks (the largest circumference on record is 47m) and baobab trees have been used as jail, water tank, post office, shop, toilet ( apparently complete with a flushing system), bus stop and pubs, amongst other things.
The baobab is a prehistoric species, predating both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago. In Tarangire there are some pretty ancient trees, with most of the larger specimens exceeding one thousand years old. The baobabs can have a lifespan of up to 5000 years.
This tree is believed to be some 1,800 years old and the huge vault was created when an elephant broke down a branch.
Having only ever seen the trees naked (“oh err missus!”) - as the branches are leaf-less most of the year - I am very excited to find leaves on them today!
Once it reaches the age of 20 or so, the baobab produces large, sweetly scented flowers on long drooping stalks. Having never seen them flower, I was hoping that the rainy season might bring them out, but no such luck. The flowers bloom at night only and bushmen believe that the flowers are home to spirits and that anyone picking the flowers will be torn apart by lions. The flowers only last 24 hours after which they turn brown and give off an unpleasant aroma. Pollination by fruit bats also takes place at night.
Six months after flowing, large, egg-shaped fruits – known as monkey-breads – are produced. These have a hard outer shell and a white powdery interior, which was previously used to produce cream of tartar. Rich in ascorbic acid, drinks made from baobab fruits are used to treat fever. It doesn’t really taste of much – we tried it last time we were in Tanzania.
The baobab fruit is said to have an amazing amount of health benefits, however, and is reputed to be one of the most nutrient-dense fruits in the world.
A good all-round plant
Almost every part of the baobab tree is utilised; in addition to nutritious drinks, porridge is also made from the pulp, seeds are used as thickener for soups, the pollen can be used as glue, and the leaves are eaten as a vegetable. Fibres from the bark are used for string and ropes, and the roots produce dye.
Traditionally the baobab is thought to have a wide range of medicinal benefits, and various parts of the tree are used to treat a number of ailments: kidney and bladder disease, asthma, insect bites. Maybe that is something worth trying for tse tse bites?
Superstition and folklore
As well as the story of the origin of the ‘upside down tree’ above and the one about evil spirits in the flowers punishing anyone who picks them by being ripped apart by a lion, there are a number of traditional beliefs surrounding the baobabs. I love legends, so here are a few others I have heard over the years or found during my research:
In some part of Africa the tree is worshipped as a symbol of fertility, and shrines are built at the base of the tree, such as this one we saw in Taberma in Togo in 2006. There is some scientific truth behind this superstition, however, as eating plenty of baobab leaves has been proven to increase a woman’s fertility rate.
In Zambia, one particularly large baobab tree is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a python, who inhabited the tree long before the arrival of the white man. Locals worshipped the python, who in turn answered their prayers for good luck on their hunting expeditions, rain for their crops, or a good harvest. When the white hunters arrived and shot the python, the consequences were disastrous. It is said that you can still hear a loud hissing noise from the tree on a still night.
Drinking the water in which baobab pips have been soaked is believed to protect you from crocodiles, whereas sucking or eating the seeds will attract crocs.
Bathing a baby boy in a bark infusion will make him strong, but if you leave him in the water for too long, he will become obese; and should the water touch his head, it could cause this to swell.
Again in Zambia, there is a tree known as ‘Kondanamwali’ – the tree that eats maidens. Legend tells that the tree fell in love with four beautiful young girls, but when they grew up and got married, the tree opened up its huge trunk during a raging thunderstorm and swallowed up the girls in a fit of jealousy. To this day you can hear the pitiful cries of the imprisoned maidens on a stormy night.
The Big Screen
Does the tree look familiar to you? There could be a reason for that. Baobabs played an important role in Disney’s Lion King – Rafiki (the baboon) lived in one. It has also featured in Avatar (The Tree of Souls), Madagascar and The Little Prince.
The park is also famous for the termite mounds that dot the landscape. Those that have been abandoned are often seen to be home to dwarf mongoose or snakes as we saw earlier.
We slide and slither along the sandy tracks, from one side to the other, doing the Tarangire Tango, as we make our way along the unmade roads that criss-cross the park.
Red Billed Hornbill (male)
Red Billed Hornbill (female)
White Headed Buffalo Weaver
We come across another cartload of vervet monkeys, including some young babies.
This little kid looks so blissful during the mother-child bonding session (AKA picking-nits-out-of-the-little-bugger’s-fur)
Lilac Breasted Roller - another of my favourite birds
Red Billed Hornbill
Another large memory of elephants grazing merrily under the trees in the far distance.
Three Banded Plover
Another Hammerkop – one of Malisa’s favourite birds
Tillya has another surprise for us today – in honour of our wedding anniversary yesterday, he has arranged for us to take lunch at the Tarangire River Lodge, which is inside the actual park; rather than having the usual lunch box.
After all our animals and bird sightings this morning, we are running a little late, so the lodge calls us up on the radio "Calabash, Calabash, are you there?", to make sure we are still coming. I guess it is getting towards the end of the lunchtime session and they want to finish serving soon.
When we enter the lodge, we are welcomed with the greeting: “At last you arrive”. It’s nice to feel welcome… All joking apart, everywhere we go on this trip, we are made to feel like we are extremely welcome and much anticipated VIPs.
A large-ish lodge, it has great views over the plains and river below from its expansive terrace.
Although the usual lunch boxes provided by the lodges are more than adequate, it is very nice to be able to choose hot food from a buffet and eat with proper knives and forks. And very tasty the food is too.
Chicken enchilada, beef meatballs, spicy beans, pilau and chapati
Pancakes with mango
We make friends with some of the local inhabitants.
Soon we are on our way again, checking out some more of the critters in the park.
We seem to go ages, however, without seeing anything this afternoon. It is hot, the sun is beaming down on me, I had quite a big lunch..... I find myself starting to nod off. Game viewing is nearly always best first thing in the morning and last thing at night. In the middle of the day, the birds and animals don't tend to do much. Probably because they feel just like I do now...
We eventually come across a couple more elephants – perhaps not surprising, as that is what Tarangire is most famous for. Some 3000+ of them live in the park year round.
It was just what I needed to drag myself out of the land of slumber.
Grey Headed Kingfisher
Green Wood Hoopoe
We come to a stop as the road is ‘blocked’ by some impala.
And an African Ground Squirrel.
For a while there is a most peculiar staring match between them.
After a while both parties get bored and wander off in their different directions.
I know impala are two-a-penny in the Tanzanian parks, but I still very much enjoy seeing them, and still find them rather cute – especially the youngsters.
Grey Breasted Francolin
We are being bitten to smithereens this afternoon by those pesky tse tse flies. Their appearance – and bite – is somewhat similar to the horse fly, equally painful when they get you. They are quite slow in their reactions, however, so we manage to swat quite a few before they know what’s hit them! Reducing the population doesn’t seem to have any effect though; I get around 15 bites in a short time. There has to be something that repels them?
This is thankfully not life sized!
Bare Faced Go Away Bird
White Rumped Helmet Shrike
Dik Dik – this normally shy and very skittish antelope stands completely still right by our vehicle. This is almost unheard of and we discuss possible reasons for its lack of fear These tiny animals mate for life, but there is no sign of his wife anywhere, so maybe a leopard has taken her and he has lost the will to live?
Whatever the reason, he does not seem to care at all about our presence and goes about his daily activities regardless, even when we start the engine and drive off. Most bizarre.
Lost the will to live?
These little Red Necked Spurfowl chicks cause us a bit of concern as one of them appears spread-eagled and totally motionless on the track, while the others tip toe around.
Chris is ready to get out and give the little fellah a helping hand, but thankfully no intervention is necessary – he is obviously just warming himself up in the sun and as soon as we start the engine he plods along with his brothers. We all breathe a sigh of relief.
Egyptian Cobra - another item I can cross off my wish list this afternoon! In all the years I have been coming to Kenya and Tanzania on safari – this is the first time I have seen one.
Further along the track we see a few of these Red and Yellow Barbets – one of which is not only considerably larger than the others; it also has no tail! Chris theorises that with no tail he is unable to exercise (fly), hence he has put on weight. Hmmm
Looking at the pictures on my computer screen back home, I think that the smaller one is possibly a Crested Barbet rather than a Red and Yellow, or maybe a juvenile; which would account for the size difference.
Oh, and our tail-less wonder does fly, so no need to get a personal trainer involved.
Giraffe. There is something so prehistoric about this animal; so graceful yet so awkward looking. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing them in the wild. It was the very first wild animal I saw on our very fist safari in Kenya in 1986, and I was captivated. I still am.
Fresh lion paw prints, but no lions.
Grey Headed Kingfisher
A lone elephant kicks up dust as he walks along the track in front of us. We follow him for a while despite that we are now in a little bit of a rush – we have to be out of the park by 18:30.
Elephants are fickle creatures, and right now this particular one has changed his mind. He turns round to walk in the opposite direction.
Malisa starts to back off, as Tarangire’s elephants are not known for their friendliness. Best to play safe, so we keep our distance.
He really is not happy now, so Malisa speeds up (going backwards) and eventually reverses into the bushes, leaving the track free for the elephant to pass. Does the animal not know we are on a tight schedule?
Did I mention that our elephant friend is fickle? Instead of making his way down the track past out vehicle, he eventually – after a few tense moments – wanders off into the bush again.
Phew. We can continue on our way towards the gate as the sun gets lower on the horizon.
Egrets flying home to roost for the night
A flock of Red and Yellow Billed Oxpeckers congregate on a giraffe. They have a symbiotic relationship – the giraffe provide the oxpeckers with a dining table while the birds remove insects from the larger animal.
As with our last two previous visits to Tarangire, we have been 'side tracked' by the animals and are in a mad rush to get out of the gate. And this time too, I stand in the vehicle, trying to hold on for dear life with one hand and photograph the sunset with the other.
While the sunset is not overly spectacular as sunsets go, it is still worth the effort.
Tarangire has to be one of my all time favourite places to photograph the sunset – those awesome baobab trees make for striking foregrounds.
A large herd (obstinacy) of buffalo hinders our progress towards the gate.
I do find their stare rather unnerving.
One of the photos I took while travelling at speed to reach the gate before the official closing time in 2014 has somehow become my most popular image on Flickr, with 36,000 views and over 500 ‘favourites’. This picture is in the back of my mind as I am hanging on to the rattling car for dear life and shooting wildly towards the sunset this evening.
And there it is! My tree! The others don’t believe me when I tell them I recognise the tree from 20 months ago (Chris suggests that maybe I need to get out more), but here is the proof!
Same tree, different sunset!
We make it to the gate at 18:35, and Malisa does not get fined when he checks out. Phew.
The lodge is busy tonight with lots of people coming down from Arusha for the weekend. We take a quick shower and sort out our luggage as we are moving on to another park and another lodge tomorrow; then go for dinner.
I love the the Maramboi Tented Camp, their grounds are like a safari park in its own right – as soon as we enter through the gate this evening, we pick out a giraffe in the headlights of the car!
Lit almost entirely by candlelight, the open air dining area is very dark at night. Even at ISO 25,600, my camera struggles to pick up much of the surroundings here.
Another thing I like very much about Maramboi is that, unlike most other lodges, the guides eat with the guests. During dinner Malisa asks us, one by one, what our highlight of the day has been. It is hard to choose – the lions in the lodge grounds before sunrise, or the elephants that came so close to our car? Maybe the little one peeking out from behind mum’s legs? Even the savanna monitor gets an honorary mention. It was all go good – how can we possibly top that?
I huge thank you must go to Tillya and his team at Calabash Adventures for yet again organising a superb safari for us.