Lake Manyara National Park
There was no rest for the wicked, despite returning from the Roof of Africa, Mt Kilimanjaro, the day before. There was one last chance to see the Kibo Massif from the hotel before leaving it behind to start the cultural part of the tour. I had combined two of G Adventures tours together to allow me to experience some Tanzania highlights. With the physical part of the trip behind me, things were going to get a lot more sedate, but no less exciting. There were five of us that headed into Moshi to visit a local co-operative known as the Moshi Mammas, an enterprise giving local women the chance to earn a living through selling their crafts. They showed us how to make the bracelets that they sell in their store and we were able to make our own too, which we wore with pride alongside the bracelets that we’d received as part of our summit celebrations, having made it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro just two days prior. Then we had the nearly 2hr drive west to Arusha where we’d be meeting the rest of our group. Of the five of us, four of us had been together hiking up the mountain, and the fifth, whilst also tackling the mountain, had summited on a different route. We were a combo of North Americans and Europeans, although two of us were expats now living abroad.
Our hotel in Arusha was down a back street, low key and nestled amongst tall trees which made it feel like we were on the edge of a jungle. There was a swimming pool and a bar and it had a very different vibe to the lodge near Moshi. After the lengthy process to get into our room, three of us headed into Arusha for a wander around. Like in Moshi on the first day, we were approached often by locals, but unlike in Moshi, I didn’t feel so overwhelmed or uncomfortable, and in fact, feeling much more relaxed post-hike, I was more willing to reciprocate the interaction, and briefly chatted with one gentleman who walked with us for a bit. Rather than feeling like he was trying to sell us something, he did instead just seem genuinely interested in talking to us, and although the city itself didn’t really stand out as offering much for a visitor, I preferred its vibe. Perhaps if I’d visited here first it might have been different, but who knows.
Back at the hotel we met our new guide and the rest of the group that would be travelling with us: a mixture of nationalities that had come down from Kenya and were pursuing safaris in different national parks. After dinner and the meet and greet, it was time to sort out our belongings, ditching the no longer-needed hiking gear in favour of safari clothing. As myself and my roommate spread our stuff around, out the corner of my eye I saw something dart across the floor. This was of course Africa, so my immediate response was to cry out. This startled the creature, which turned out to be a rat, and what ensued was the two of us giggling and running around whilst filming the performance as we failed miserably to shoo the thing out of our room. I sought out a member of staff, but he was no better, and in one of those surreal moments that will stick with me for some time, we found ourselves as a trio, failing to get rid of the poor creature who was terrified. Great woops came out when at last it headed to the open door and happy that we could sleep without fear of rodents in our beds, we said goodnight to the porter, closed the door and went to bed.
It hadn’t quite been the African wildlife encounter I’d envisaged, but it was a funny story to regale at breakfast the next morning. However we had bigger creatures in sight, and before long we were off, heading west towards the national parks. As we drove, we left suburbia behind, and the land opened up before us. We saw Maasai people wandering with their cattle herds at the side of the road, we saw belongings balanced precariously on bikes, women carrying baskets on their heads, and small houses and the occasional business were dotted about the landscape. After about 2hrs of driving we pulled into a walled campsite in Mto Wa Mbu, a settlement who’s name translates as ‘River of Mosquitos’. It is an area rife with farming and cultivation and we were taken out with a local guide to show us around.
Down the road from our campsite was large rice paddies, something I’d seen on television but never seen for real. It’s a staple food source that I’ve always taken for granted, so it was interesting to me to see it in situ. We visited some carvers who sell their wares, and I was given the chance to do a bit of carving myself, being presented with some wood that was being fashioned into a giraffe. I was so worried about ruining the man’s hard work, that I didn’t try for very long. Out the back of the village on the far side, we were led past a beautiful white temple building, across a stream and through more grain fields to a banana plantation. The guide was a local woman, and I’m always pleased to see women being given the opportunity to become independent and earn their own wage. I’ve taken my childhood privileges for granted but as an adult, I’ve realised how lucky I am to have been born into a progressive society where I can work, and be independent and have choices. I’ve seen how women can be suppressed and held back in so many countries and I’ve witnessed first hand the attitude differences between myself and male companions when I’ve been abroad at times. Even in 2020, in my home country of New Zealand, I still get people surprised that I travel alone, a surprise that I never hear exclaimed to a solo male.
After wandering through the cultivation sites, we were lead into a local art gallery, effectively a walled area among some palm trees where local artists displayed their incredible work. It was absolutely stunning, and I would have loved to have bought something. I’d already bought a painting of a giraffe in Moshi, and neither have the wall space at home, nor the desire to own too many possessions, to entice me to purchase something, but that didn’t stop me being jealous of the stunning lion painting that my companion bought. When we were eventually dragged away, we were led to someone’s garden to be fed a banquet of local foods which were utterly delicious. Several of us went for seconds, including myself. I’m really prone to gut problems when travelling, having had several bouts of poisoning whilst abroad, so can at times be over-cautious, but despite knowing I’d be on a jeep for the rest of the day, I couldn’t deny how good the food was. Thankfully, it did not come back to haunt me.
Lake Manyara National Park was only a little out of the village, so it was a relatively short drive that led us to our first safari. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, having never heard of this park before booking the trip. The road headed into tall trees initially, and we spied some warthogs through the foliage. After a short while, the road cut down to a small river and suddenly there were monkeys everywhere: males, females, and youngsters. A large troupe lounged around, occasionally looking our way or casually walking around, displaying their colourful butts. These fully grown olive baboons were a decent size and ended up being the most plentiful monkey that we spotted. A little further along the road were a small number of blue monkeys, well hidden within the foliage. I had missed out on seeing them on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro so was ecstatic to see them here. A little further still we found a small group of vervet monkeys, including a small number of adorable babies that looked stunned among the foliage, watching us fascinated as we watched them.
The deeper into the park we drove, the more the sightings came. Impala, warthogs, and wildebeest started to pop up everywhere, and the closer to the lake we got the more the birds began to appear, including large hornbills and storks. We reached a wetland area, which aside from the bird activity, was surrounded by many large cape buffalos, a hefty-looking, and potentially dangerous herbivore. Their reputation precedes them, and they are notorious for charging, and using their bulk to cause great injury and damage. But here they were so busy munching on grass, that they barely batted an eyelid in our direction. The occasional one lifted its head to stare as it chewed the cud, but they seemed more bothered by the flies buzzing around them than of us, so we were able to watch them for a good bit without upsetting them.
When I spotted the zebra beyond them, it was hard not to get a bit excited. For me, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and zebra are what I think of when I think of Africa, so to see a small herd in the wild for the first time gave me a thrill. Little did I know how spoiled I’d be over the next few days, but among the gazelles wandering about in between the zebra, I spotted a baby zebra through the crowd. We had to move on though, passing more blue monkeys, more antelope, and more birds I didn’t recognise, until a raised area overlooking Lake Manyara gave us the opportunity to spot flamingos, and then suddenly, some giraffes. They were so far away, I needed all the zoom of my camera to appreciate them, but it was enough to make me happy, until we turned a corner and were greeted with a couple of giraffes right by the road. Their heads bobbed up and down, watching us initially, then deciding they wanted left alone, they wandered off and left us behind.
We saw more monkeys, more warthogs, more cape buffalo and more birds as we retraced our steps back towards the entrance of the park. As we reached the waterway where we’d seen the baboons earlier on, we got stuck behind a stationary car that was looking at something to our left. I couldn’t see what it was, so started looking around, when all of a sudden I spotted something grey moving to my right, and quickly exclaimed ‘ELEPHANTS!’ to attract the attention of those in the jeep with me. Everybody whipped round to where I was looking and we all watched in silent awe as a herd of elephants came out of the trees and down to the water’s edge right next to us. They kept closely bunched together, at least eight of them, but every now and again we got a glimpse of a very small baby that was being shepherded and protected by the adults as they moved. After having a good drink, they moved on, disappearing back into the trees as silently as they had arrived.
The safari was supposed to be over, but round the corner as we headed back to the entrance gate, we were quickly met by two full-grown elephants. They seemed unfazed by the audience as they ate, swaying gently on their feet, their large ears flapping away the incessant flies. The driver graciously gave us a bit of time with them, and even stopped once more when we came across more baboons as we drove out the park. It had been a successful first safari, and after dinner back at the campsite, we were able to enjoy some beer under the cooling sky. Little did I know how much our tents would mean to us the next few nights, as we went to sleep ahead of another push west the next day. After a lifetime of being glued to every David Attenborough programme as a child, I couldn’t quite believe that I was actually heading to the Serengeti.