Mikumi National Park
Southern Circuit, Tanzania
I didn’t make my afternoon game drive in Mikumi. We were scheduled to arrive at 2 p.m., but after a two-hour delay at Selous and the atrocious state of the unpaved roads due to the recent wet season, we didn’t reach Mikumi until 7.30 p.m. On the journey I was jolted around so much that I couldn't read, couldn't sleep, couldn't do anything except stare out the window for hours on end. Through the rural areas we passed through village after village, smiling at the children who waved to us as we drove by. Women carried goods on their heads or babies on their backs, as the men engaged in manual labour tasks. Cows, goats and chickens lined the sides of the road, while locals sold food, fuel and furniture from their wooden or cement houses. The scene was repeated, over and over, until it was too dark to see anymore.
On a positive note, my accommodation is lovely, softly lit with delicate lights. My room is small but there is 24-hour electricity, which is an improvement from the last camp. The outside air temperature is surprisingly cold, and I have to dig out a thermal top from my pack. There is a fire pit in the open-air restaurant that looks inviting, but I'm taken straight to a table to be served dinner. Through the dark I can see a pool with a bar, and if it wasn’t for the mosquitoes I’d happily spend a few days here. Remarkably, there are other tourists around - two groups of Germans, as well as a few locals. It's a relief not to be in the spotlight.
Sitting down to breakfast the next day I meet Gilbert, my guide for Mikumi and the next park, Ruaha. We chat briefly while we eat, then I grab my bag and we hit the road. The truck-laden highway from Mikumi town passes straight through Mikumi National Park, so the game drive starts almost immediately. I spot impala and baboons meandering across the busy road, while zebras, giraffes and wildebeest are munching on leaves. Frequent traffic signs inform us of the fees for road kills while in the park. Each animal is worth a different amount, ranging from US$150 for a guineafowl, US$4,900 for a lion, and up to US$15,000 for a giraffe or elephant. Seems a little unfair on the smaller animals.
Inside the official park gate, away from the noisy main road, I gaze out over flat plains that extend forever, covered with tall, yellow grass. The occasional baobab tree dominates the horizon, and a couple of hills in the distance give contrast to the backdrop. It is stunning, and I fall in love with Mikumi right away.
Straight away I notice that the roads in here are a million times better than in Selous. Even the side tracks are well-formed and don't have me fearful that the car will tip over at any moment.
It is the middle of the controlled burning season, where section by section the vegetation is burnt to the ground. This stimulates the growth of new plants, providing food for the animals. Over the day we pass many blackened patches of earth, often followed by areas with bright green shoots poking through the dark soil. A mild, smoky odour hangs in the air, which isn't entirely unpleasant. Compared to the long grass, the burnt sections make it easier to spot wildlife, but less animals live in these parts.
The first animals we encounter are impala, an enormous pack scattered across the plains. They run along the road in front of us, not thinking to turn sideways to avoid the oncoming vehicle. Soon after leaving the impala we find a lone elephant trundling up to the road. He crosses over directly in front of us, then continues on to a herd that is almost invisible in the long grass. I worry that if it is this difficult to see elephants, how am I going to spot the shorter animals?
A few minutes later my concerns dissipate. Two female elephants are standing right beside the road, chomping away on the bushes. We sit silently in the car, hearing nothing but the leaves being torn from the plants. I don't often think of elephants being peaceful beings, but that's exactly what this scene is: peaceful.
Gilbert asks if I want to climb a baobab tree. The baobabs I've seen so far are not at all climbable, so I have no idea how he expects me to achieve this. He then drives up to a baobab in a picnic site, which surprisingly has leaves (all the others I have seen have been bare). I quickly understand what he means: this particular tree has two wooden ladders leading from the ground up to the first, low-hanging branch, perfect for one-of-a-kind photos (of both yourself and the view). Considering the height of the branch and the lack of animals nearby, I don't think it will be worth my while. I decline.
Over the rest of the morning we find:
A troupe of black vervet monkeys, running beside and over the road.
Two jackals, who sprint off when they hear the car.
Giraffes, who are not at all afraid of us. They stand only 10 metres away, undisturbed by our presence.
Warthogs. They run away.
Elands. They run away.
Wildebeest. They don't run away. Some hang around, some wander off, some are found in sizeable herds, some are solitary. One humongous group (interestingly, known as a "confusion" of wildebeest) crosses the road ahead of us in a mini-migration, then instantly disappears into the tall grass.
Monitor lizard, lounging on a tree trunk.
Buffalo, the biggest herd I've seen close-up.
Crocodile, in a tiny pond, swimming just below the surface.
Another monitor lizard, near this same pond. It starts off on the other side of the road, then completely flips out. It dashes through the undergrowth, scrambles up an embankment, falls back down it, successfully scales it a second time, loops around the back of our car, then dives into the tiny pond with the crocodile. The whole time its body is shaking wildly from side to side, as though it is possessed. It is hilarious.
Hippo pool. Boring. I spend more time taking photos of the giraffe several hundred metres away.
Every time we see a new animal, Gilbert turns into an information board. He recites exactly the same facts for each one in a robotic manner. "This is an elephant, it eats plants, difference between male and female is..., gestation time is..., number of births per pregnancy is..." etc. This is the irritating part about having a new guide for each park - they always start at the beginning, presuming you know nothing. On the upside, Gilbert is very patient and calmly waits for me to take my thousands of photos. He drives slowly so as not to scare the animals, and knows how to find the best vantage points. This is much appreciated.
After a few hours we hit a wooded area, with short, narrow trees sporting vibrant green leaves. The grass is shorter, recovering from recent controlled burns, allowing me to see along the ground now, however the trees block the long range view. Through this section I see loads of giraffe and buffalo (most of whom turn their back on me when I pull out the camera) and a few zebra. It definitely does not have the beauty, or diversity of animals, of the plains.
Emerging out the other side of the forest I find myself in a mix of both landscapes: medium density of trees, medium tall grass. Gilbert does his best to hunt for cats, but to no avail. Without the assistance of other tour guides, finding the more uncommon creatures was always going to be difficult. We see absolutely no animals out here.
In the middle of this hunt Gilbert, for some baffling reason, turns around and drives back the way we came, despite being on a circuit road that would take us back to the start. On the return journey I don't see nearly as many animals as I spotted on the way in, although perhaps I wasn't searching particularly hard either. The only notable highlight was a giraffe sitting down with its legs folded beneath it. I'm not sure I have ever seen a giraffe in this position before, and I wasn't even certain that they could do this. Now I know.
We head down a rough, overgrown track where, other than the tops of few elephants' heads sticking out above the grass, there isn't much to see. Halfway down this road we stop for lunch. It's 2.30 p.m. and I am starving. Outside the wind is chilly and blustery, so I opt to eat in the car. A wildebeest stares at us the entire time.
Soon after lunch we pass another car, the only other vehicle I see all day. It's an open-air safari car holding 10 people (two adults, eight kids) plus a driver. I don't understand how anyone is safe in a vehicle without sides. They have also been searching for lions, without success.
Wildebeest, zebras and warthogs all grazing together, while a few zebras and baby warthogs chase each other.
Jackal, who stands still for five seconds for me.
Reedbucks, who spring out of nowhere then vanish just as quickly.
No cats. The task of spotting a pale animal lying down in pale, two-metre-high grass is seemingly impossible.
I feel there is less wildlife here than in Selous, but maybe it's just that the animals are concentrated in smaller pockets in Mikumi. Across the day we would go through extended patches of seeing no animals, then suddenly come across 100. Another difference is the setting: while Selous consisted of picturesque watering holes for the animals to congregate, I'm more taken with the flatland scenery here. The backdrop is made even more beautiful by the appearance of the sun, which emerges just as we are leaving. It sits low in the sky, producing a golden hue across the landscape. If the sun had been shining all day, and we saw a few cats, it would have been a near-perfect day.