28 June 2010
my first safari
Located just 300 km southwest of Dar, Mikumi National Park is a poor man’s Serengeti: a great option for those short on money, time, or both but who still want to see some of Africa’s most majestic animals. I went there for my first Tanzanian safari this weekend, joining a motley group of ten people connected in various ways to the U.S. Embassy. Half the group left on Friday afternoon in an Embassy car, while the poor schmucks who have to work a full day on Friday (yours truly included) got up at 5:00 on Saturday morning to take a taxi to Ubungo, Dar’s fearsome main bus station. We arrived in time to join the rest of the group for lunch and then set out for an afternoon game drive.
Our sweet ride: it’s a little embarrassing how excited I was by our vehicle- a triple-decker, open-air affair that resembled something out of an amusement park ride.
Impala: the most underrated of the savannah animals, in my humble opinion, the lovely impala is abundant enough to be hardly noticed after the first few minutes of the safari. Female impala travel around in harems consisting of a few dozen females and one lucky stud, while the rest of the males prowl around in big groups of bachelors, waiting for their opportunity to fight for their shot with the ladies. The females do get their say, rejecting a suitor if they’re not sufficiently impressed with the length of his… horns.
Giraffes: the giraffe is the national animal of Tanzania. Giraffes are held in the kind of reverence Americans reserve for bald eagles, and killing one brings a stiff prison sentence. The giraffe’s Swahili name is twiga, and many businesses try to burnish their image by invoking it, from the Twiga Cement Company to a cell phone promotion called “Twiga Time.” In the interest of preserving the giraffe’s dignity, I won’t post any pictures of the attempted giraffe seduction that we witnessed. The male giraffe was sniffing around the object of his attentions, trying to catch a whiff of the telltale hormones that lady giraffes produce when they’re in heat. A couple of times he appeared to be, errr, assuming the position, but then she demurred and walked a few feet away. From there the process repeated itself. We didn’t stay long enough to find out if he finally got lucky, but apparently this is all part of the ritual.
Wildlife/scenery overload: This was our first sighting of elephants, and you can also see impala in the foreground and wildebeest in the background. Not long after, this elephant family provided us with an equally photogenic late-afternoon stroll:
Later we saw another group of elephants giving themselves what appeared to be a dirt bath. They would grab some dirt with their trunks and fling it over their heads, sending a dust cloud over their backs. In this picture you can see the one on the far left in mid-fling:
Our guide explained that this is the elephants’ way of keeping themselves cool. Given that this is winter in the highlands—the night was cool enough for us all to put on long-sleeve shirts—they must be throwing tons of dirt on themselves during the hotter parts of the year. We stayed and watched these elephants for some time, and after a while we got complacent about the amount of noise we were making. The elephant on the far right expressed his displeasure by facing us head on, fanning his ears, and apparently getting ready to charge. It was a bluff, just like what grizzly bears usually do when they feel threatened (this was not my first reminder of Alaskan wildlife during the safari), but it was a little bit disconcerting nonetheless.
For the trip home, the five who came in the embassy car went back the same way, leaving the rest of us to wait for a bus at the roadside by the park entrance. We grew increasingly nervous as bus after bus barely slowed down, the driver making a downward motion with his hand signaling that the bus was already full. (As an aside, speeding vehicles colliding with wildlife is a huge problem around the park, as the grisly photographic display of roadkill in the visitors center will attest. Several dozen speed bumps along the highway have not solved the problem, so the authorities are beginning to send out traffic patrols to crack down.) Many Tanzanians work in Dar during the week and then head home for the weekend, meaning that the buses coming back from the sticks are always jammed with people on Sunday. Then by sheer luck, we saw some familiar faces: a Canadian couple with whom Elana and I have played frisbee was leaving the park in their own car. They only had three empty seats, so we sent Elana with the two other group members we deemed most likely to freak out. The two of us who remained were soon rescued by some kindhearted strangers, a guy from Northern Ireland and his English wife. Unfortunately for them, the traffic coming back into Dar was much worse than anticipated, so they followed England’s drubbing by Germany via text messages from their friends.
I’ll conclude with a self-portrait of our merry band. With me in the front row are intern housemates Jasmine and Hammad, and in the back row next to my head you can see the other half of “Elawn.”