As a lifelong animal lover, going on an African safari has been a fantasy as long as I can remember. After months of research and planning, the big trip finally happened last week.
Technical difficulties here: I don’t know why some photos are getting flipped upside down when I add them to the post. Maybe because I’m south of the equator.
(Patricia here. I’m doing a little photo importing & inserting. All mistakes in i.d. and placement are mine. I’m sure Megan will set us straight upon her return home. Right now, she’s in the midst of 30 hours in route.)
There were an overwhelming number of choices, not knowing what we were doing for our first safari, but I can’t imagine ending up anywhere better than Mdonya Old River Camp.
We wanted to go somewhere sensitive to impact of vacationing humans on the animals, the environment, and the local community. At the same time, I am a big chicken, afraid of snakes, outdoor bathrooms, and the infinite number of unknowns going into the wilderness.
We were told that Ruaha national park was the place to go if you want an elephant to walk by your tent. Yes, I want that. I always want that. We saw a few elephants pass through the camp, the closest passed about 15 yards away.
Ruaha is one of the least visited parks with a dense animal population. We passed only one other truck each day, and all our animal viewing was up close and personal, unlike some parks where you’re part of a pack of trucks surrounding an animal.
The animals are protected from poaching in the national park, unlike wildlife reserves which allow some hunting, which I can’t even imagine. This makes for more relaxed animals most of the time. We startled one herd of elephants with a baby to protect, and had a bit of a tense moment. We also came across a panicky herd of migrating buffalo, which are dangerous because they have a tendency to stampede and charge.
For the most part, the animals would pause when they saw us, check us out, decide we were not a threat, and go about their business. It’s a good feeling when an alert elephant stops staring you down and grabs a bite of food.
The chicken in me wanted a hotel with walls, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and safe haven from tsetse flies, but a camp really did seem like the best option for experiencing the wildlife. You’re safe from passing animals when you’re in your tent, no matter how unlikely it seems when a hyena says wooooOOP or a lion roars outside your window.
We didn’t have any temptation to blow our emergency whistle to call the guards. I had hoped to spot some animals through the tent windows but slept too soundly and missed all the action on busy nights when other people saw and heard things. I heard the occasional rustling in the grass at night, which I’m told is herbivore noise, since carnivores are stealthier.
I was initially afraid of walking the sandy paths between tents but the most I saw were migrating ants.
There were good reasons to stay vigilant though. There was a black mamba spotted by the staff quarters the day we left, so you do have to watch out. Another camp goer, Trevor, stepped out of bed and onto what he thought was a snake under his tent (not in it), which may forever give me nightmares. This had never happened to him before, and he has worked in Tanzania for years running STEP, Save Tanzania’s Elephants Project. The Massai guards checked the area and found it was a monitor lizard not a snake, and fortunately it looked unharmed. This is an unrelated 4 foot monitor lizard we saw on a drive.
Trevor also saw a scorpion on the porch of his tent. Bathrooms have canvas walls with no roofs, so you have to use your flashlight in the dark and keep an eye out. One night at campfire we saw a poisonous centipede, which Trevor said, like the scorpion, can “ruin your day.” He’s British so I assume the usual dry understatement applies.
Our trip started June 1st at the very beginning of the dry season, heading into Tanzanian winter. The camps are closed for a couple months during the rainy season, when staff gets to go home and see their families. We were the very first guests of the season, and had the camp to ourselves for the first two days.
The camp was fully staffed, including:
A pair of Guides
At this camp, each set of guests had their own pair of guides, one who drives, one who scouts and communicates the whole time. Our guides were Prosper and Emmanuel and they were fantastic. You spend the bulk of your safari with your guides, so they make the biggest impact on your visit. Roads are rough and complicated, and animals can be tricky to spot, so I realized the pair of guides is a huge advantage we lucked into. We passed other trucks with only one guide/driver, and two or three rows of passengers. There would be no room for impromptu questions or requests in this setup, and you wouldn’t get to know your guides as well, which seems like it would really impact the overall quality of your trip.
Managers host all events like arrivals and send offs, meals, sundowners (the safari camp version of happy hour), and post dinner campfires. They are waiting in the driveway along with a server holding a tray of fresh mango juice whenever you return. It seems their role is to make everyone feel like a vip.
Three Massai Warriors
The Massai guards are to camp goers what the secret service agents are to the president. You are not allowed to walk without them when it’s dark, and they appear and escort you when you emerge from your tent in the morning. They patrol the camp 24 hours a day, armed with a flashlight and sticks, but are able to mitigate risks from the lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and dangerous snakes that frequent the camp.
Servers at Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
I worried we would not eat well, but there was great food, and lots of it. Service in Tanzania is extremely polite, and I couldn’t help but accept things I would ordinarily decline at home, like dinner rolls, because they were so nicely offered with the Kiswahili phrase Karibu Sana, which is translated literally to “you’re very welcome” but seemed to be used sort of like “prego” in Italian, more proactively, like “be my guest and enjoy, you’re welcome to this,” to which you respond Asante Sana (thank you very much). I found it so charming and hard to turn down, so I’d take one of everything. As a result, I have been stuffed since we arrived in Tanzania.
The safari mechanic is apparently critical, as the trucks are heavily taxed by the conditions. We learned the importance of the mechanic when our truck broke down in the heat of the day a couple hours from camp. We set up a picnic in the bush and waited for help to arrive from back at camp. When another driver, manager, and mechanic arrived, they sent us off in the other truck to continue our game drive, leaving them under the shade of a baobab to troubleshoot the dead engine. Happily, they all retuned safely with the truck running good as new.
The Rest of the Staff Behind the Scenes
It wasn’t clear how many staff members there were, but several. There were people cutting fire lines in the thick grass surrounding the camp. There must have been cooks. There were builders working on some new screens around staff quarters. There were people doing daily laundry, cleaning and straightening up tents. And someone who dealt with the black mamba, which is an unenviable job.
All of this while we were the only two visitors. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to feeling like a Crowley of Downton Abbey.
The animals were of course the reason we visited, but the plant life was an unexpected bonus. Because the rains recently stopped and winter is approaching, things were very fall-like. Some plants were still green, others were turning gold but hadn’t dried up and died back. Some stretches of the drive in “leopard country” felt like a hay ride at a pumpkin patch, with yellowing leaves on the trees and that beautiful amber quality in the sunlight. And you know, elephants.
One the first unexpected plants to catch my eye was Euphorbia ingens, aka Candelabra Euphorbia, which was everywhere. Some were in bloom. Apparently bright red fruit follows and attracts hungry birds, but we didn’t see any in fruit. Like other euphorbia varieties, it exudes poisonous milky sap. It has been used for a bunch of hunting purposes on birds, fish, and elephants, which I’d rather not think about.
I have always associated Baobab with The Little Prince’s asteroid, but it was all over Ruaha. The wood of baobab is soft and holds a lot of water and nutrients, so elephants will chip off the bark and help themselves to the moist pulp inside the trunk. You see lots of baobabs with huge holes or mangled trunks.
I *think* this is a young baobab with a bunch of buffalo weaver nests, but I could have my details wrong. Tree with birds nests, that much I know for sure.
Baobabs get these hard fuzzy seedpods filled with dry sweet fruit that baboons and elephants like to eat. The baboon here has one in his mouth.
Our guide, Prosper, broke one open against a rock for us to try. He said they’re rich in calcium. It was slightly sweet and citrusy but he said they are often sweeter.
I would describe the texture almost like circus peanuts, if you don’t chew them, or like those pastel colored mints that some restaurants have by the cash register. Kind of dry and porous. You suck the fruit off and spit out the seed. I wonder if baobab fruit is available at home. I’d eat it if I could get it, but it does seem funny to shop for something you can find all over the ground here.
The other signature tree in the Ruaha landscape is the Acacia tortilis. There were other acacia species around, I don’t know the varieties well enough to say for sure which species these are. Some were shrubby and thorny, others were giraffe height. I read that giraffe can only eat an acacia for a short time, then the tree sends out tannins that make it unpleasant tasting and anti-nutritious so they can’t be completely eaten. They also signal nearby acacia so the giraffes have to move on to a new location, which is why they’re always on the move. I haven’t had enough internet access to verify the story, but I liked it as a concept.
There were also good mature sausage tree specimens, Kigelia africana all around. Apparently giraffe love them, and the underside of the crown is neatly pruned up just taller the giraffe. When in flower, the dangling stems are covered in up to 50 buds, but only two flowers open at a time, overnight when they can be pollinated by bats. Once a flower is pollinated, the rest of the buds usually die so there is only one sausage per stem.
I was surprised to see wild palm trees in certain areas of the park. They’re Hyphaene petersiana. The leaves can be used to weave baskets or thatched huts. I can’t help but think of California, especially in the hilly areas. Speaking of California, whenever I travel far from home, people don’t know Oregon, so I end up telling them I live near California, which everyone seems to know. So if you ask anybody I met abroad, they all think I’m a Californian.
I haven’t yet identified this plant I spotted from a distance, but I’m sure I’ve seen it before. The photo is bad because we were at the foot of a waterfall.
Mdonya only offers driving safaris, which is what I prefer. Walking in snake territory is outside of my comfort zone. However, our camp manager Rebecca told us about a waterfall which Justin was excited to see. It meant getting out on foot, scrambling down a little hill, and walking down to a secluded spot between the rocks.
Prosper and Emmanuel told us to wait in the truck while they scouted ahead, then came back for us when they ensured the coast was clear. We did this right after upsetting the protective elephants and stampeding buffalo so I was already a bit rattled. I asked what animals visit the waterfalls. Lions, buffalo, big snakes. They tell me that the animals won’t come in if there are people already there, but I found it hard to relax. Justin has a much higher risk tolerance than I do, and kicked off his shoes and took a look around.
Me, I was watching the guides closely as they scanned the rocks. They are not easily spooked so I asked what they were looking for.
Apparently big snakes hang out on the rocks, and they slide down, sounding just like the crashing water of the falls. I could not get out of there fast enough.
That’s plenty of snake talk for now. Even far away, enjoying jet lag in a Zanzibar bungalow at 4 am, I’m shining my flashlight around the room looking for lurking serpents.
I only got a common name id on this plant, which is a milkweed. I’m not sure it’s related to our milkweed in the states, but it stands out looking lush while the rest of the landscape is drying out.
I was surprised to see a familiar orange flower in the bush. I didn’t get a good shot of the flowers because it would have required stopping where the tsetse would swarm the car, but do you recognize this one?
Prosper called it a “lion plant” which I assume is the same as leonotis. They grew alongside the grasses, some up to 8 feet tall. I’ve never planted it before, but I will now that it’s a reminder of this beautiful trip to Africa.
And now I head into the most unpleasant part of the journey, 30 hours of transit to get back home. Looking forward to setting foot back on Portland soil soon.