Safari II: Big Mammals Ready For Their Close Up

Wild dogs in the brush, a croc in the river, and some elephants and giraffes in the hilly distance. Not a bad way to start our day. And it was just a start.

Three other volunteer teachers (two young women from Oregon and another  from Austria) accompanied me on a day-long safari in June, the beginning of which I shared last week. This week, we pick up at those elephants having just crossed a bridge over a stunning river and leading into the heart of Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania, East Africa.


They were the first elephants and giraffes I’d ever seen in the wild. Lumbering along the hillside meadow, there was a surreal quality about seeing them in the real world–like seeing a movie star at the grocery store–to go along with their physical magnificence.

Yet we had to move on, for there was much more to see: trees, animals, colors, bigger, closer, louder.

We rode along the dusty, thinly vegetated hilly terrain, the four of us in standing room-only mode with our heads sticking out the top of the SUV and surveying the landscape for wildlife.

As was the case a few times already this morning, we heard from the mouth of Jessica, courtesy of her eagle eyes.

This time she spotted a larger animal in the brush. A deer—but what kind? It wasn’t an antelope as she was used to from her native east Oregon, nor a whitetail deer which I had seen plenty of in Minnesota. There are actually several deer-like species right here in Ruaha.

This lone animal walked just thirty feet off the road to our right. My adolescent deer hunting days kicked in when looking through the brush for a rack. I got a view, then I pulled up and fired.

Pointed horns, narrower face. Otherwise, Tanzania reminded me of Minnesota for a sec. So did the creature’s name.

“A waterback,” said Fanuel.

“What? Waterback?” I said. “That doesn’t sound very African.” Impala, Kudu. I was expecting a name like that. But Fanuel showed me the picture in his trusty book.

I turned back for another shot.

We continued on over the rolling terrain, and soon we came to a bridge over which we stopped short—probably because Fanuel knew what to expect below. It didn’t take long into the dry season for this rocky river bed to be completely exposed. And replacing the flow of water was the dotting of jumpy baboons.

We photographed feverishly out the top of the SUV at the dozen adults and babies frolicking beneath on either side of the bridge.

I wanted so badly to feed them. Fanuel said no. And cautioned that baboons are strong.

With a helping of primates in our safari buffet, we rolled along with our eyes open for more animals. Or animal sign. The vehicle stopped and the girls and I stood looking around as to why. Seeing nothing, we ducked back down into the cabin and inquired. Fanuel pointed out his passenger’s side window to a large tree whose trunk looked like an apple core.

Though we hadn’t yet seen an elephant up close, we got a good look at what the beasts’ tusks can do to a mighty tree.

Indeed, trees here were mighty.

The signature baobab trees were bold and appropriate punctuations to the safari landscape–oddly-shaped giants within this land of similarly described mammals.

We saw this one right after the elephant-marked tree:

Such wide trunks for their relatively modest heights

Our dirt path then began to turn right. And around this point, it was revealed that there were several routes a driver could take. At each intersection, animal-shaped signs pointed in directions and described the sights of that particular way. More than once, we amateur spotters abruptly alerted the others of an animal up ahead, only to be embarrassed as the zebra-shaped sign approached.

Soon though, we did see an animal yet novel to our first-time safari eyes. It was another deer. This one the graceful male impala.

Within a mile or so of the impala, our path made a slightly uphill, broad right turn. The bend revealed a couple of large trees just along the road.

As well, it revealed a couple of tree-sized giants eating them:

“Whoa!” someone whisper-yelled (could have been me) as this monster somehow suddenly came into view.  The vehicle listened to our startle with a sudden brake of its own. Settled after the SUV’s stop-jerk, we four stood and shot intensely between our wide-eyed stares at a trio of giraffes.

All the novelty of seeing that which had been only seen in media was all the more pronounced because this large beast was suddenly there and close enough to toss a football to. Yet the giraffes didn’t run. (Ruaha isn’t a zoo, but I did wonder what the animals’ response to vehicles would be if several didn’t drive by each day and stop and have gawkers whip out their cameras.)

These giraffes simply slowly, methodically chewed their leaves. One was pictured above, another was partially covered behind one of the trees, and a third was staring straight at us, not moving a muscle except for that rotating jaw.

It stared at us for a comical length of time. The girls laughed out loud and let out some “aww”s at its puffy cheeks and long eye lashes. “She’s so cute,” one added. Indeed it was a female confirmed Fanuel by the way its horns looked.

Watching them for quiet minutes, I looked at the body, the neck with mane, and the head. I concluded that giraffes are just big horses with extraordinary necks.

One finally started walking in their lumbering manner. Very un-horselike.

“They move like slow motion,” said Fanuel. “Even when they run, it’s like slow motion.”

At their movement, we decided to engage in our own. Kathy fired up the diesel engine, and we drove away.

But the excitement of big mammal encounters didn’t stop for long. Soon the brush and occasional tree gave way to a large, yellow-grass field. And a hundred yards away in a couple directions, we spotted elephants.

We saw one to the right:

Then we saw a few up ahead and along the road. So rolled up and stopped near this one:

“Look at its ears,” said Fanuel. “What do they look like?”

Looking at its right ear, I said, “Africa.”

“Yes, that is African elephant,” Fanuel stated proudly.

Exposure to media warmed up my excitement seeing these monsters in the wild. Media also told me elephants like peanuts. I happen to have some shelled ones that I brought along for myself. But I was willing to share.

“Fanuel…” I said sitting in my seat as I indicated to him my half-empty clear, plastic bag of peanuts. Then I rose and held them out the top of the truck. Our driver, Kathy, laughed as I shook the bag, calling out for the elephants to come. I even threw one lone nut at the ground to lure it. But the media lies, I concluded. The elephants paid no attention.

From this angle, Fanuel pointed out an interesting fact about the beast. Its front legs are much bigger than the rear ones.


After driving through the field, we encountered a more forested section, the cause of which was up ahead in the form of another river almost gone with the dry season. Almost. There was just enough water to keep things interesting.

The road rose to a stop atop the grassy bluff above the broad, sandy-bottomed, river groove. Overlooking the scene, just a couple streams of water ran through this bed like the veins on your forearm. Yet this lifeblood was adequate for a boast of animals below–baboons, impala, and a even a couple mongooses (too quick for my camera) sprinkled in the bed for a chance to drink under the warm sun.

On the bed’s edge yet green from the recent rainy season’s nourishment giraffes ate the tree tops and baboons chilled just to our left. The baboons did so in a nook of large, white/grey boulders which they rested atop; large, broad trees which they rested under; and park benches which they saw no use for.

But we did.

I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to get out to wander this area and view the gorgeous sights it afforded. Up until now, it had been a rigid “must stay in the car” policy.

To the left
To the right
Across the river

Jessica from eastern Oregon
Baboons nearer to us

I tried to toss the baboons some potato, but they were skiddish and just ran from the projectile. These primates were considerably different than those I have bumped into in parts of Asia that come right up and take food out of your hand.

After several minutes, we loaded up and started along a trail hugging the riverside. There were more giraffes, and soon some more elephants.

Freakishly big animals were matched by like trees:

We curled around and started to make out way back away from the river. Continuing this is open, occasional brush/trees terrain, we spotted a lone juvenile elephant eating leaves off a tree right next to the road.

I guess we took the elephant’s lead and decided it was time for our lunch as well. We headed toward the park headquarters, which was actually just on the edge of several buildings making for a proper small town. A park as big as Ruaha—the second largest of 6-7 enormous safari parks in Tanzania—requires quite a few workers. And those workers live, eat, and have their families here. This requires houses of worship and a school.

Elephants in the background of this school

We stopped at a restaurant that was actually part of the city social hall:

Fanuel ordered food to go. The girls and I got sodas. Then we made our way to the big river flowing generously at the town’s edge with a couple gazebos at its edge, one of which we ate within.

Before we started to eat, though, I looked across the river and saw a couple of large animals in the water.

Big, round, grey, but not elephants. Hippos!

We enjoyed our typical Tanzania meal of rice, beef , greens, and brown beans. The hippos hung out like hippos do.


More hippos, a herd of elephants having a good time in the river, and a healthy population of zebras would await us after lunch and will be seen on next week’s wrap up of the safari.

In addition, I’m compiling the best footage from the day to really bring to life for you next week this safari experience–the animals, sights, sounds, and landscapes–described and pictured throughout.  

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