We recently spent a few days visiting some of northern Tanzania’s wildlife parks. Having read in advance about the parks we knew that we wanted to visit Serengeti, which of course is iconic, and a “must see” if you have the chance while living in this part of the world. Then, next to it and quite different but also beautiful, is Ngorongoro Conservation Area. A bit further south is a delightfully unusual place called Tarangire National Park.
After visiting Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we headed south to Tarangire. As we approached the area, we began to wonder if we had made a mistake. We had come from the highlands which are quite lush and cool. Tarangire National park is located low in the Great Rift Valley where the climate is dry and hot; there is little vegetation, and it is quite inhospitable looking. However, the Tarangire River runs through it, and the topography is greatly changed because of it, plus the river draws large numbers of wild animals, both big and small. This was what attracted us, as well as the chance to see Baobab trees.
Baobab trees (remember the tree in The Little Prince?) are massive, with smooth silvery grey trunks and thick crooked branches. They look like they are from another world. My travel book says that their trunks’ “circumference grows to 10 meters after a century”, and it can be several meters greater after it reaches “old age.” Most live to be over 600 years old which makes them all the more astonishing. We could just not get enough of them. The interesting thing about Baobabs, aside from their enormous size, is that they are well adapted to their semi-arid habitat because their trunks are hollow, their wood is fibrous, and they store water inside of them. They can hold from three hundred to a thousand liters of water, which enables them to survive long droughts. The tree is used by Africans for several practical purposes and of course animals use them as well for nesting, shade, and elephants for sharpening their tusks. The most amazing aspect of them to us was just their size. We saw many on this trip, but most in Tarangire and we had to stop and look almost every time. They dwarf the elephants and giraffe which stand under them for shade , which tells you how giant they actually are!
We were not disappointed by Tarangire. Not only is the park home to Baobobs, it is also home to herds of elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, many monkeys, interesting birds, impala, gazelle, wart hogs, various cats, etc. We were very excited, especially, to see the herds of elephants. We had seen some in the other parks, mostly a few at a time, but seeing many at once was amazing. We are particularly partial to elephants, both because they are so awesome and interesting and also because they are endangered. I grew up with a sort of mystical feeling about elephants, so the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat, in close view, is beyond words, really.
Sadly, the poaching of elephants has become very strong again the last few years due to the incredibly sick marketing of ivory “trinkets”, particularly in Asia. They are some of the most wondrous and beautiful animals on earth and they are being killed, viciously, for their tusks. It’s brutal and horrific and just sickens us.
The feeling one has , being in an area where there are known to be big wild animals is hard to describe. Of course, you can’t wander around outside of your vehicle, but there are designated camping spots in each of the parks. One never knows, when one goes into these parks, if you are actually going to get to see a big animal, so it’s a bit mysterious and exhilarating at the same time. For me, just the excitement of looking for and possibly encountering wild animals, puts me a little on edge. It’s fun, but it is a little bit scary, like a roller coaster ride (but not as fast)!
We set up camp in Tarangire under a giant Baobab tree and were terribly pleased with ourselves to have found yet another “perfect” spot, away from the other campers. The campsites are pretty rustic but there is a shelter for leaving your “kitchen” in and here there was actually running water and “showers.” It was very hot there so we were not spending a lot of time in the tent or campsite. Before dinner we took a long drive to see animals and were treated to a lot of beautiful views of the river and both elephants and giraffes among others.
Upon returning to the campsite, we fixed our dinner in the shelter, ate and visited a bit with the safari cooks and folks that were around, and then we were going to “hit the hay” because it was getting dark and we wanted to get up very early for more animal viewing. I noticed as I was returning from the sink where we brushed our teeth, that there was a uniformed , armed ranger near the shelter. I had to ask what was up. “Oh, in case of Tembo (elephants).” “ Odd, “ I thought, “that seems a bit extreme.” “Well, whatever,” I thought, “surely they don’t shoot them.” The rangers in these parks are the ones who are typically called upon to protect elephants from poachers. Knowing that there were a lot of animals around, we made sure all of our foodstuff and gear was in the vehicle.
After seeing the armed guard, and hearing a story about a lion attack earlier in the day, Michael even brought our “panga” (machete) into the tent as a precaution. We stripped down to our undies and even took the fly off the tent because it was so hot, and there was a lovely near full moon and a slight breeze. We lay sweating, under the moon, whispering as we heard the forest wake up. The critter noises at night never cease to amaze. Many birds are out at night, insects of course, and who knows what all nocturnal animals are scurrying around in the dark. Michael challenged us to figure out what was what, but soon we all fell asleep.
I don’t know what time it was, but several hours later (we’d gone to bed early, mind you) I awoke with a start to a distinctly loud noise. Not sudden, but consistent. At first it sounded like it was coming from the “kitchen” which was fairly far away. I thought , “ok, it must be baboons getting into the foodstuff. “ No worries.” I tried to relax and go back to sleep, but I was pretty awake and the moonlight was streaming into the tent, nearly as bright as a spotlight. I lay quietly, listening intently. The noise stopped for awhile and then it started again. This time it was more distinct, like movement, dragging, heavy walking, dragging….I lay listening…I felt my ears were going to cramp I was listening so hard. As I lay, wondering, speculating, I eventually realized that the sound was coming from closer by than I originally had thought. It was coming from my side of the tent, and was not so far off…I thought it must be monkeys still but they tend to scurry around and make verbal noises, so I was not sure….I sat upright and looked to my right into the darkness….since there was no covering, I could see perfectly out the “window’. To my surprise there was an ENORMOUS elephant walking straight towards us…his tusks were huge, maybe 5 feet long, and they were glinting in the moonlight, like giant weapons of some sort! He looked to be about 15-20 feet away. His big ears were swaying and his trunk was busy scouring the ground. It was an amazing sight, the light of the moon adding a lovely touch to the scene.
I sat still, staring at him. I couldn’t move but my brain was busy jumping around for answers. “ok, what is one supposed to do in this situation?” You can’t imagine the ridiculous thoughts that went through my head for the next few minutes. Everything from quickly running to the car, to offering him peanuts seemed like a good idea for just a second, but nothing seemed quite right. I was both entranced by his size and beauty, and scared to death that he might walk right over us! I waited a few minutes before waking the boys. We all sat up watching him for a bit, whispering about what we should do. Michael’s size and his panga seemed useless at this point. Finally I whispered, “ok, if he continues to approach, we’ll have to run, but I think he will smell us and go away.” After a few more minutes of slow forward movement, getting closer and closer to our tent, eating as he went, fortunately, he did turn and go straight under the Baobab that we were also under, near enough that we could see him, but not so near that we were in his path. Michael and Liam, relieved, went back to sleep, knowing that I would stay awake to alert them if he headed back our way. I was awake for a long time ( an hour or two) watching him from the little ventilation window by my head. He was probably 15 feet away and with the brilliant moonlight I could see his silhouette perfectly, as he ate, lifted his trunk to pull down small branches, ate some more, flapped his giant ears, moved leisurely to a new spot nearby, and continued his snacking. He was glorious, truly, and I felt so lucky and blessed to get this gift of seeing him with the glow of the moonlight around him. After a long time, he turned finally and lumbered away. I had to chuckle to myself, as I tried to calm down and fall back to sleep, that “our baobab” turned out to be one of this giant elephant’s favorite eating spots! Needless to say, it took me quite awhile to doze off and upon awaking very early, it all felt a bit dreamlike.
The broken branches and large loads of elephant poop proved to us that indeed we had had that experience. I described to the guys how long I was awake watching him and how long he stayed. Michael, who had been feeling rather brave before said it best, “ Having an elephant in your campsite makes you feel pretty small, especially when you’re in your briefs.”