Tarangire National Park

Northern Circuit, Tanzania

It's the first morning of our Northern Circuit safari tour, and we have no luggage. No update from the airline, no idea where it is. To add to the great start, I am left with no choice but to have a freezing cold shower at the hotel, where it took an obscene amount of mental strength to force my head under the faucet to wash my hair. I then have to put back on the clothes I've been wearing for the last 48 hours, as I have nothing else to change into. Thankfully, things improve with breakfast, which is huge and tasty: fruit, spinach, mixed vegetables, potatoes, toast with loads of avocado, and watermelon juice. 

 

After breakfast we meet our guide for the week, Richard, and cook, Dickson. Both are young and friendly, immediately putting us at ease. They take us to the company office, where we are kindly loaned thermal clothes, hiking pants, sleeping bags and given a company shirt, bringing our total outfits to two. We didn’t expect to receive so much and we express our immense appreciation. The staff are equally grateful that we have chosen their company in these hard times, when tourists are few and far between. 

 

As we commence our drive, I stare out at a landscape that reminds me of rural Australia. Farmland in shades of yellow and light brown, completely flat except for the occasional tree sticking up. Kilimanjaro is obscured - you would have no idea the tallest mountain in Africa is looming nearby. It differs to Australia in the number of people ambling along the highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Many are dressed for Sunday church service, walking for kilometres along dirty, dusty roads to reach their chosen house of worship. 

 

Richard stops at a basic supermarket and a tiny clothing store so we can stock up on underwear, insect repellent, chilli sauce (essential), toiletries for Danny, and a towel for me. They only stock tea towels, but it's better than nothing. We are all decked out now with the bare essentials and ready to head off on safari. 

Congesting the roads, other than the infuriatingly slow trucks, are tuk-tuks and the famous dalla-dallas, minibuses that are used to transport locals and livestock alike. Each is individually pimped up, although not quite as spectacularly as the Guatemalan chicken busses. A brief stop at a petrol station results in us being accosted by three Maasai women, sporting a ton of jewellery and attempting to offload beaded bracelets onto us. Free photo if we buy the bracelets, they say. I am keen on the photo but not the accessories. We decline. 

 

Several hours later we arrive at Tarangire National Park, stopping at a picnic ground inside the gate to eat our provided lunch box. Usually the picnic site is overrun with tourists, Richard tells us, but today we are alone. The adjacent cafe, offering cappuccinos, is closed, much to Danny’s dismay.

 

Tarangire means “river of warthog”, and the name doesn’t disappoint. The first animal we spot, while eating our lunch, is a warthog. I quickly dash after it with my camera, but he clearly does not want to pose for a photo and runs when he sees me coming.

Once we finish our massive, carb-heavy lunch, we get started on our first ever game drive. The roof of our modified Land Cruiser is popped open, allowing us to stand up for a full 360-degree view while we travel around. Danny and I don’t have high expectations (or really any expectations), and we will be happy if we see a few zebra off in the distance.

The safari blows us away. Not only are there tons of animals and a wide range of species, but many of them are only metres from the road. Here’s a rundown of the wildlife on display for us, in the order we spot them:

  • Zebras. Everywhere. Zebras are very high on my list of animals I want to see, and they are ticked off almost immediately. They are as cool in real life as I imagined. 

  • Black vervet monkeys. They don't do much for us.

  • Impala. One lucky bachelor mingling with a herd of females. 

  • Giraffes. Also near the top of my list. There’s something about their kind eyes and disproportionate bodies I can’t resist. 

  • Wildebeest. One of the uglier antelopes going around. 

  • Baboons. It’s really hard not to stare at their prominent rear ends. 

  • Crowned cranes. I have never heard of these birds, but their heads are quite striking. 

  • Elephants. A large herd line each side of the road, happily munching on plants. One gigantic male stares straight at us, only a few paces away - I hold my breath and stand perfectly still, scared I will somehow upset him and he will charge at us. He doesn't see us as a threat and wanders off. Other elephants are happily spraying themselves with dirt for protection against insects, parasites and the heat. It is amusing to watch. 

  • Superb starlings. A beautiful multicoloured bird that is also new to me. I’m going to be an expert ornithologist by the time I leave Tanzania. 

  • Two female lions, way off in the distance. They lie on a riverbank in the sun, inconveniently nowhere near a road. Apparently it is difficult to spot lions here so we consider ourselves lucky, despite the fact that we needed binoculars to even know they are lions.

  • Jackals. Another ugly animal.

  • Waterbuck. A frightened thing, all by itself, hiding behind a tree. It occasionally pokes its head out to see if we are still there. 

  • Dik-diks. One of the tinier antelopes, and super speedy. Far too fast for my camera.

  • Ostrich. Again, too far away for a decent photo.

  • Baobab trees are frequently pointed out to us, being a renowned place to view the mighty trees. I am more interested in the fauna than the flora though.

The afternoon flies by, and we are both on a high as we leave the park. It feels so stereotypically African that it doesn’t seem real. To see all these animals in their natural environment, going about their day without being lured or taunted by humans to perform for the tourists is incredible. Our main reason for coming to Tanzania is to climb Kilimanjaro; the safari is just an add-on, something we may as well do while we are here. I never imagined that I would enjoy it this much. 

For the whole journey we only pass three other vehicles - we basically have the place to ourselves. We're told that the park is often overrun with tourists and it can be hard to get good vantage points for seeing the animals, so we feel incredibly lucky. The only downside is the swarms of tsetse flies that inundate us at times. They are apparently attracted to blue and black colours, which just happen to be the colours we are wearing (not that we have much of a choice in the matter, with our limited luggage). I sense one sting in my shoulder, the fly biting straight through my shirt. I am on guard for the rest of the safari, but it doesn't detract from the phenomenal experience.

Driving away from Tarangire, Richard stops at a touristy shack selling iconic African paintings and wood carvings. We are given a small tour, watching a local man chisel a small piece of wood, probably for our benefit. I quickly peruse the offerings before heading back to the car, but Danny is sucked in by the hard sell. He emerges with a colourful print of the local Maasai people, which he promises is the one and only souvenir he will buy. It's day one of our trip - I can see a few more mementos sneaking into his bag over the next two weeks. 

Overnight we stay at a campsite in a nearby town, which is much more luxurious than we are anticipating. Hot water showers, swimming pool, bar, WiFi, more souvenir stores - we aren’t exactly roughing it. Also surprising is the size of our tent: it can easily accommodate five people and we can stand up inside. I was prepared for a squishy two-man tent that Danny and I would fight for space in. In this tent we are so far apart I can't even touch him when I reach out.

 

Late afternoon, Dickson cooks up an overflowing plate of popcorn and we demolish the lot, washing it down with vodka/gin and tonic. Dinner is enormous: vegetable curry, avocado salad, potatoes, sautéed spinach and carrot, and ugali , a dough made of cornmeal that is meant to be kneaded by hand and eaten with the vegetables. I am not ready to pretend to be competent eating without cutlery, so I stick with the spoon. The taste is similar to polenta and not unpleasant. Dessert is fruit, with a fantastic mango that tastes nothing like the mango I’m familiar with. We are well and truly stuffed by the end.

 

Richard calls his office to get an update on our bags. Still no news. No one can tell us where they are. I’m glad we were able to swap our tours and not start the Kilimanjaro trek today - we would have been lost without all of our gear.

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