We head back south, this time inside the park, along Silale Swamp. Silale is the largest permanent wetland in Tanzania, offering water to parched animals during the dry season. This dry season has been drier than most. Rainfall at Noloholo during the last “wet” season was 1/10 of the usual. Herders are already getting into the pastures that they usually reserve for the end of the dry season. But for Tarangire-goers, this is a blessing, for the water of this basin has drawn thousands of animals to it. That includes one of the largest herds of elephant in any East African park.
There were six of us – Laly, Buddy (who drove all day on unpaved roads in a car with no power steering), Christy, Andrew, Anaile and myself. All of us love wildlife, from the smallest bee-eater to the towering giraffe. The day would have been amazing even without two very special surprises. The first was to see a young male lion, head up and annoyed at being woken from his nap by the noisy tourists. As the grass in Tarangire is quite tall, it’s not unusual for lions to lie in it, invisible, all day long. The second was even more special: as we were driving along the edge of the swamp, another safari car told us there was a leopard walking out in the swamp. Sure enough, a beautiful female was walking as if she was on a mission. She walked right out of the middle of the swamp, out of the edge, cut across the group of safari cars full of gawking tourists, and disappeared into the grass. She swaggered the whole way, stopping frequently to scent the grasses and trees. It’s almost impossible to see leopards walking along like that, let alone so boldly stepping out in front of all those cars. So, a special treat indeed.
This area of Tarangire used to be infested with tsetse, which is one of the reasons for its pristine nature. For many years, nobody wanted to come in. Now it has become part of the regular northern Tanzania safari circuit. And from the jostle of safari cars by the leopard, you'd never guess that this place has ever been unpopular.
Of course, that was all before 10am. The rest of the day was filled with the delights of animal behavior. A waterbuck so annoyed by the oxpecker bird on his back that he ran snorting to scrape it off on some brush. A young elephant was so anxious while watching us that he walked straight into a tree. We watched a big lump of leafy greens go up and down the long neck of a giraffe as he swallowed and then brought it back into his mouth to ruminate further. Later, a group of elephants went to cross a stream – the littlest one kept disappearing under the water level, only to have its momma pick it up and out of the deep spots with her trunk. I saw a hamerkop fishing, banded mongoose playing on a termite mound, and a whole flock of Maribou stork and White-headed Vultures descend on a carcass by the river while a reedbuck looked on. Olive baboon “toddlers” teased each other on low-hanging tree branches, while their parents napped nearby, or meticulously groomed one another. And we saw the diminutive rock hyrax laid out, fuzzy and gray, and marveled that their closest living relative was of all things, an elephant. There were hippos, and more birds than I could count.
At midday we stopped for a picnic, escaping the heat and sun of the day under an enormous shade tree.
Everywhere we looked there was wildlife, and in the north end of the park the wildlife was relaxed and willing to be close to people. I’d never seen ostrich lay down, or male elephants pushing each other, never before seen so many impala, wildebeest, zebra, eland. It did not escape my notice that all the tourists were non-African, nor that I was in the midst of a very special experience by being with Laly and Buddy, who have been living near and working in or around this part for over a decade. They know the wildlife, and they took time out of their _very_ busy days to make sure we could have this experience, too.
The park gates closed at 7pm, and we were out by 6:40 to begin the two hour drive back to Noloholo. The full moon lit our way. We stopped briefly to check out a sausage tree – a tree with heavy sausage-shaped woody “berries” that can apparently kill you or seriously dent your vehicle (they’re about two feet long and weight between 10-20 lbs each.
We have a magical drive back, spotting another lion along the way, and finally emerge exhausted and satisfied at Noloholo, ready for a dinner of ice cream and cookies. I reflect to myself that today has more than made up for the fact that I saw no tigers (or anything else larger than a squirrel) in terms of wildlife last summer. There is much more to say about the politics of Tanzania's parks, of the social issues surrounding them. For now, I am simply grateful that animals can live like these do, wild and on display. And that I have seen, finally, big cats in the wild.