Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tanzanian Game Parks

Day 37: Arusha, Tanzania
Sunday morning we headed for our first game park in Tanzania, Lake Manyara National Park, where we saw more of the same wildlife we had spotted at Lake Nakuru. However, we finally had our first sighting of elephants. Of course, I've seen these gigantic creatures plenty in zoos, but it is another thing to see them in the unpredictability of the wild. Elephants can become startled very easily and often charge safari vehicles, so our driver was always ready to floor it in case one of the elephants started running towards us. Some of them snorted angrily a few times, but luckily none charged. Elephants are graceful, wise creatures, and it is awe-inspiring to see such huge animals in the wild.

African elephant, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Matt Prater
An African elephant in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Blue monkey, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A blue monkey sits in a tree in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania

Road into Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A safari jeep drives into the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
After leaving Lake Manyara in the afternoon, we camped for the night in the town of Karatu, near the rim of the world-famous Ngorongoro Crater. We entered the crater the following morning. As we ascended the rim, we were treated to a majestic view of the entire crater with its picturesque lake and tree-lined slopes. Ngorongoro Crater is one of the densest gatherings of wild animals anywhere on Earth. The sheer number of creatures became apparent as we descended into the crater and had to practically wade through masses of hundreds of zebras in our vehicle. Hordes of wildebeest and huge herds of African buffalo extended into the distance. But we were on the lookout for something more elusive: predatory cats. We finally spotted a lion crouching high up on a rocky outcropping. It was our first male lion, and it was hard not to think of "The Lion King" with "The Circle of Life" being sung to majestic images of Pride Rock. Later in the day, we were fortunate to experience an even more impressive sighting. This time, it was a group of lions – two male and two female – lounging right beside the road. The two females left, and the two male lions started making yawning motions with their powerful jaws. Although it looked like a silent roar, the male lions were actually smelling the scent of the females with glands located in their throats. The two lions soon looked as if they were going to fight over the lionesses, but laziness overcame them and they instead plopped down into the tall grass like overheated housecats.

Blue wildebeest fighting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A pair of blue wildebeest spar near Lake Magadi in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

In the afternoon I, along with seven others from Oasis, split from the rest of the group to head for a game drive in the Serengeti. It was an optional add-on activity, but one that I could not imagine omitting from a trip to Africa. Our afternoon safari unfortunately proved to be somewhat of a disappointment, as it took several hours of driving on teeth-chatteringly bumpy roads to reach the Serengeti, and we saw virtually no animals before we reached our camp in the center of the park. The lack of animals was discouraging, especially after having witnessed the abundant wealth of wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater. However, animals are often more active when it is cooler, so we hoped that our game drive the next morning would be more successful.

Hippopotamus fight, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A pair of hippos fighting in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
This morning, we were excited and ready to venture out into the Serengeti. We were able to see giraffes, jackals, warthogs, buffalo, and gazelles – but nothing new. We finally came upon a pond where two hippos were stirring. Every time we had seen hippos before, they had just resembled large boulders sitting motionlessly in the water. This time the two hippos had something to settle. With strange roaring sounds, they both reared up on their hind legs and locked jaws in the air. The massive creatures moved the fight towards the pond, splashing into the murky water while their powerful jaws snapped ferociously. It was a rare sight to see these massive creatures boasting their enormous crushing teeth in all their glory. Satisfied with the impressive display, we headed for the park exit and a four and a half hour drive back to Arusha.

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