You knew this post was coming. Probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Africa (or at least African tourism) is a safari. But while we all have a good idea of what these excursions are like, I think you’ll be surprised (as was I) seeing what a safari is actually like.
I was blessed to able to go on one in June.
We set off in morning darkness in the SUV. I got along great with these girls—part of the reason I came along this day, changing my plans for the opportunity to safari with the enjoyable (and economical) company of friends. They were three young female volunteers, two from eastern (got to stress the eastern, they’d be quick to remind me) Oregonians and an Austrian all working at the same school in southern Tanzania. I met them during the spring as they happened to stay at the same guesthouse in Iringa as I on a couple of occasions.
Heading out to Ruaha National Park, 75 miles west of Iringa, blacktop quickly turned to dirt. And soon we were able to see the level, brush-filled terrain we were traversing as the sun began to peek over the horizon as 6:30 rolled around. Small villages went by here and there, as well, and soon we were told that we had just passed the last little community before reaching the park.
From my middle row seat (the Austrian and I sharing this row and the Oregonians in the back), I asked our guide, Fanuel, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, about the threat of big game for these villagers close to the park.
“Do they attack?” I asked.
“It happens,” said Fanuel. Indeed, it is the main reason why lions are hunted–protection and retribution. But he also said animal attacks aren’t too common.
Soon I could understand why.
“This is tha buffa zone”, said Fanuel looking out his window as we drove through a long stretch of nothing but brush and sprinkles of trees to our right and left for as far as one can see. Ruaha safari park doesn’t have a fence; they have this thick ring of land separating man and the beasts within. Driving us was Fanuel’s wife, Kathy–a middle-aged American with thick, straight, shoulder-length black hair–who came out to Tanzania some years back and fell in love with this man whom she first met on a safari of her own. Past the buffer zone Kathy rolls our safari SUV (ubiquitous vehicles in this corner of the world) up to the park entrance.
“The entrance.” I thought to myself. “Will there be lions and giraffes right away on the other side of it?” We stopped to pay entrance fees and to use the bathroom—important, so nature didn’t interrupt herself on the meandering dirt trails ahead.
Exiting the men’s room, I walked out to see that Fanuel had raised the top of the SUV, allowing us riders the ability to stand for an elevated, clear 360 degree view of the park. But before getting back in, we stood outside of the truck for a picture.
Alright, let’s go safari!
Past the reception building, we were now officially in the park.
(“Okay, now where are the elephants!?”)
Of course, it’s not what you think of when you hear the word “park”. Certainly it’s not the manicured, terrain-changing definitiveness of a city park or even a Minnesota state park. This land simply remained flat, thin brush/tree blend with some hills off in the distance that defined the buffer zone.
The rainy season ended in May. It was now June 6th. There hadn’t been but a sprinkle or two in last three weeks, and already the land was showing less green and “compensating” with more dust caking the already-yellowing foliage. Not picturesque, but we had hoped this would offer the best of both worlds—rather than the worst which would be no beautiful plant life, but still enough dry leaves and grass camouflaging the wildlife.
One comes to Africa and hopes to set their eyes on the “Big Five.” This is what a safari-experienced friend once said to me, anyway.
Can you guess which animals are included in the “Big Five?”
I guessed these:
I guessed wrong.
They are, in fact:
But who’s to say what the Big Five are supposed to be? If you prefer, substitute zebra or one of the many deer species one might see or a cheetah or put giraffe and hippo back in. Those things are huge (I’d soon see). Or what about the ostrich? Or a crocodile? Why not just hearken to your American Midwest collegiate sports fandom and make it the “Big 10” instead?
In Ruaha, though, one will not see the official Big Five, because there are no rhinos. And actually, one isn’t guaranteed to see any animals, though I don’t think getting “skunked”—as we say when going out angling and not catching a single fish—has ever happened. Regardless, it’s important to keep in mind, Kathy reminds us, that this isn’t a zoo. And this differentiates a safari in a few ways: what you will see, how the animals can and will act, and the voyeur’s approach–we’re in their world on this side of the entrance (not that animals really care about artificial, unfenced borders.)
Trekking along now in the park, we passengers all stand up to see the animals. Unlike a zoo, this can take work. Our heads stick out of the roof and we scan.
And indeed, like they did actually know the boundary themselves, right away were some guinea fowl head-bobbing in the brush near the road.
We stopped for a couple of shots and then continue to roll when no more than a kilometer later, Jessica spots another animal. “Hey stop!” she says firmly. Kathy does so, and I can see the movement of a mid-sized creature to our left. Kathy puts the truck in reverse and we roll back past a large bush to reveal a dog. A wild dog. A jackal.
“It’s rare to see these dogs here,” Fanuel says (which makes the find suddenly and magically that much cooler.) But it was cool, rare or not. I’d never seen a wild dog. We photograph it, soaking in every pose and angle as Kathy drove up just a few feet to allow us another viewing lane.
In those first minutes and first sightings, you really want to milk the experience and capture it all. By the end of the safari, you admittedly ignore that which you had recently been so excited to see. Like drinking water, quench is quick.
We move on and come to the first major terrain—a slow descent curving to the right and met at the bottom by a breathtaking sight of inanimate beauty: a wide, jogging, shallow river over a rocky shoreline featuring tall palms and other trees and brush.
We stopped a the riverside rest stop for morning tea and coffee. I wanted a closer look the river and hopped over the bluff fence in the picture above. Fanuel came right over to tell me to stay on this side. I listen—kind of.
I didn’t hop over the division again, but I did walk along the bluff until the fence ended and then walked around. While the others had tea and coffee, I found my way down to the river’s edge.
As well, I checked out a bird giving the U.S. feathered symbol a run for its money.
I walked back up and joined the ladies for tea. While sipping on some lemon grass blend, Fanuel walked up from seemingly out of nowhere and said, “There’s a crocodile!” (Even when out of the car, he continued as our guide.) My friends and I all responded physically with a jerk and vocally with “whoas” and “reallys?”.
He took us back to the bluff and pointed out a croc straight below us in the river’s edge (and right near where I was going to descend before Fanuel’s protestations.) The crocodile just sat there in the water. Not strange. What was, though, at least for someone unfamiliar with croc behavior, was that it had its mouth open in a small current. Was it trying to eat, drink, or clean it’s teeth? We didn’t know, and it remained in that position the whole time watched it.
In our “need to milk” mode, we all made sure to get several angles.
With plenty of pics, and our seasoned safari guides reminding us that we haven’t really even scratched the surface of the park, we hopped back into the truck and rode across the river valley bridge.
Now is when the fun really began.
This natural border felt like the entrance within the entrance. A hillier terrain waited on the other side, cuing us to stand back up, eyes peeled for the Big Five, Ten, Fifteen, whatever.
Things just felt more wild on this side.
Soon, Jessica (it was always Jessica) said “Hey!” as she spotted—way out in a distance meadow—a large animal. Indeed, it was as large as they come.
A real live wild elephant. Holy cow!
Kathy backed us up passed a couple of bushes to give us a space to see this (these!) animals a good three hundred yards away. Good thing they’re big.
We also spotted, way back there near the elephants, the other giants of the Tanzanian terrain–giraffes; the tall, graceful walkers; their stick necks in the distance gliding along upright. Both of these novel monster species were what I came for. My body indicated this with that feeling that brings to mind the notion of seeing something in real life that you had ever only seen before on television. Celebrity perhaps. And I was a bit star struck seeing these creatures lumber in the hilly distance.
Yet they were far away, so we continued with the hopes of seeing better views ahead. Our hopes would not be let down…
til next week, when I offer the lion’s share of our safari,