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“The elephant raised his trunk, trumpeted and then charged at us.”

By MARTIN ZEILIG

We were warned in advance by our driver, Thomas, that Cape Water Buffalo, the most dangerous of the African Big Five “bucket list” animals, might make an appearance at our campground near Ngorongoro Crater - a World Heritage Site since 1978.
He was right.

 

Martin Zeilig with friend

A herd of those fearsome looking wild ruminants did show up later that evening - and right beside my tent too.
It was a disquieting, heart thumping but exhilarating experience. More about that later, though.


I was on an eight day safari - June 1-9 - in five national parks in Tanzania, East Africa. The trip was assisted by the Department of Tourism United Republic of Tanzania.
It was the fulfillment of a long held dream - one based on a pledge that my older brother, Ken, and I had made many decades earlier. We were going to visit Africa together. Sadly, it was not meant to be. Ken died from complications caused by a metastasizing cancer at age 50 in August 1990. He  had so much more to contribute to the world. Ken, a talented and very hard working journalist and professional actor, left behind a grieving wife and three children from his two marriages.


Over the years, my desire to visit Africa never waned. All those National Geographic, Disney and other wildlife documentaries, articles and books - such as Serengeti Story: life and science in the world’s greatest wildlife region by Anthony R. E. Sinclair (Oxford University Press 2012) - about lions (simba in Swahili) and other iconic species of animals whetted my Africa adventure appetite even more.
Movies like “Out of Africa”, based on Isak Dinesen’s memoir of her years on a four-thousand-acre coffee plantation in the hills near Nairobi,  Kenya, and “Born Free”, based on the eponymous book about Joy and George Adamson and Elsa the lioness, an orphaned cub they raised to adulthood and then released into the wilderness of Kenya, also helped keep the vision alive.

 

At entrance to Arusha National Park

So, when the opportunity to go on a camping safari in northern Tanzania arose earlier this year, I grabbed it. At last! I would be venturing into Africa. I would finally have the opportunity to see the Big Five - lion, Cape water buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino - in their native habitat, and much else too. Be still, my beating heart.


The flight was long: Winnipeg to Calgary via WestJet, then KLM to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, and finally KLM to Kilimanjaro International Airport. My return flight took me from Kilimanjaro Int’l Airport to Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania’s largest city), to Amsterdam, Minneapolis-St. Paul and then home. Expect to spend a day traveling each way.
Canadians have to pay $50.00 (U.S.) for a Tanzanian visa, which is purchased from uniformed officials seated in glass booths at the airport.


My itinerary included Arusha National Park, Tarangire National Park, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area (a World Heritage Site), and Lake Manyara National Park.
My starting and ending point was Arusha, a bustling city of some 420, 000 people in northeastern Tanzania and the capital of the Arusha Region (another 325,000 or so people).  The city is close to all those national parks. On both ends of the trip I stayed at the quaint Venice Hotel - a clean and efficiently run establishment with marble floors and spacious rooms with large silk curtained charming casement windows (that cranked open outwards to allow in a refreshing breeze), comfortable multi-pillowed beds and big bathrooms.


Daniel, the affable owner of Rhino Explorer Tours & Safaris, and a driver, Emmanuel, met me at the airport on my arrival late at night. The exotic bouquet of an African night delighted my nostrils. During the almost one hour drive on the darkened road into Arusha, Daniel filled me in on some of the details about the imminent safari.
Despite the time change and having had just a catnap on the flight from Amsterdam, I was too charged with excitement and anticipation for the adventure ahead to feel any jet lag effect. But, later, after checking into the hotel, I was able to get some sleep - but not much.
After a buffet breakfast - steamed noodles and sausages, bread, jams, butter and margarine, two types of dry cereal, milk, fruit, instant coffee and tea - in the hotel’s restaurant the next morning, I was met in the lobby by Daniel Suu and his employee, Estomih Mjema, who would be my driver to Arusha National Park.


The drive to the park in our Land Rover took about an hour. That included a stop to fill up the gas tank at a petrol station, which was being protected by a sawed-off shotgun toting military style uniform-wearing security guard, near the Clock Tower in central Arusha. While Daniel was gassing up the vehicle, I was besieged by two hawkers selling souvenir items. After a bit of price negotiating, I purchased an olive green wide-brimmed safari hat, which has Kilimanjaro lettered on its brim, for $10 from one of the men. I wore that hat throughout the trip.  
 People drive on the left side of the road in Tanzania - a holdover from their British colonial days. The country, which used to be known as Tanganyika, gained its independence from Great Britain on December 9, 1961.  In 1964, Tanganyika was unified with  Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

woman carrying a load on market day

It was market day - Saturday. So, farmers and merchants had set up stalls at the roadside to sell produce, like maize, beans, bananas, apparel and all manner of other items. Life is on the streets, I mused as we continued our drive out of Arusha and into the surrounding rural area. All during the trip, I saw women of various ages balancing large bundles, including big water containers on their heads. They walked straight and steady. Although a couple of times, I did witness older women struggling with the burden they were attempting to carry.  
“Woman have to fetch water, cook, and care for their children,” Estomih, who’s married and has a young daughter, said.
A woman’s work is never done, at least, so it seems, in Tanzania and other developing countries.


At one point we passed by a botanical garden planted with heavenly scented, magenta, pink, purple, orange and white, among other bold colours, Bougainvillea and other beautiful shrubs.
The road was clogged with automobiles, motorcycles, sometimes with two or three people on board, including, in one instance, a live goat strapped athwart between the driver and his human passenger.  Colourfully decorated and overcrowded dala dalas (“thumni” in Swahili) or “share taxis”, sped through the traffic when  space opened up, while commuter buses and transport trucks spewed diesel exhaust into the environment.  
Bicycles, often with more than one person, are another means of popular transport.  Always, of course, there are people walking. It’s the least expensive and often the most direct method of transporting oneself to a destination.    
We drove past small farms of one or two acres each where the main crops are coffee, maize, banana, beans, millet, pears, and other some other crops. Cattle are kept too for milk, which is often sold during market day.
“Most of the people here are farmers, or rely on tourism or have small businesses,” Estomih said in answer to another one of my questions about life in Tanzania, as we passed by some farm workers - strong looking young men - waiting to be picked up for work.

 

Mount Mero dominated Arusha National Park

We finally arrived at our destination.  
“The transition between unappealing urban chaos and pristine mountain hiking trails is rarely so abrupt as it is in Arusha National Park,” says the Lonely Planet guide book. “One of Tanzania’s most beautiful and topographically varied protected areas, the park is dominated by Mount Meru, an almost perfect volcanic cone with a spectacular crater. It also shelters Ngurdoto Crater (often dubbed Little Ngorongoro), with its swamp-filled floor and lost-world feel.”  
It was a misty day, not surprising considering our elevation and the rain forest. As well, it was winter season in that part of the world.  


Although it’s the smallest national park in northern Tanzania, we still encountered zebra, giraffe, Cape buffalo (including two testosterone surging young males trying to assert dominance by butting heads with each other), Olive baboons, blue monkeys, and rare black and white Colobus monkeys.
Leopards and hyenas, but not lions, are known to inhabit the park.
We observed flamingoes and other shore birds in the alkaline waters of Small Momella Lake and Big Momella Lake.  Overall, the park is a paradise for many species of birds.
At one point, as we drove through the park’s winding, hard packed and dusty rough road, we came across fresh elephant dung. They were as big as mortar shells.
“Good thing it didn’t explode,” I said as Estomih laughed out loud.


Then, around a bend in the road, we came upon two young adult bull elephants feeding in the dense bushes.
One of the pachyderms took umbrage at how close we were parked.
He raised his trunk, trumpeted and then charged at us. Estomih quickly put the idling vehicle into reverse, and backed up about 50 feet just as the elephant erupted out of the forest.
I had been taking photographs and shooting video with my new Canon SX 620 HS through the open roof, and stumbled, but didn’t tumble, before taking my seat as the Land Rover lurched backward.
The big guy, ears flapping and trunk held up at an angle, stared directly at us from the middle of the road for a few seconds. “Who wants you here? Don’t bother me again,” Mr. elephant seemed to be saying.  He then sauntered off into the bush on the other side.
Meanwhile, the other elephant was unperturbed by our presence. He just kept on feeding. Go figure.


After our substantial boxed lunch at a scenic lookout point on the shores of Little Momella Lake, where we saw giraffe and flamingoes, Estomih drove to the park’s ranger station where I went on a 45 minute walking safari with a rifle-toting park ranger, Tino.   Our path led us to the lovely and gushing Tululusia waterfall on the slopes of Mount Meru. It brought to mind similar waterfalls I’ve seen during sojourns in our own Rocky Mountain parks, including Banff and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
At one point a bit earlier, we walked close by a herd of buffalo chewing their cud while resting in the luxuriant grass by a pond under the sweltering sun.  
Tino, who’s been a ranger for many years now, recounted the story of his unexpected encounter with a herd of water buffalo while hiking the path on Mount Meru.
“I met with a group of about 40-50 buffalo about 100 metres away,” he said. “Normally, you whistle or clap your hands and they turn away. But, these ‘people’ started coming towards me. I’m looking at them. At 50 metres they started to run towards to me.  I thought this is no joking. I have to do something before they come to me. I take off my bag. I loaded my gun. When they are just 20 metres away, I decided to shoot up into the air at the charging herd. Then, the buffalo just stopped and turned around. They stopped and turned.
“Sometimes I think what would have happened if I didn’t have a gun or didn’t use my gun. So, the buffalo is a very dangerous animal. If you want to hide in the bush, don’t, because the buffalo will come after you. Go behind a tree and climb it. Or just lay down.”  
 Later, of course, I would have my own scary encounter with Cape Water buffalo.


To be continued.