It's always something

Trip Start Dec 28, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Monday, January 4, 2010

Lonely Planet says Lake Manyara National Park is 'one of Tanzania's more underrated parks' although it doesn't have the 'raw drama and variety of animals' as other parks in the north. I have not idea what 'raw drama' means aside from typical poetically empty Lonely Planet-speak, but Lake Manyara is most definitely underrated as a mere backup park if people have an extra day while hitting the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. And that's because the assessment that it lacks a 'variety of animals' is way off base.

I was particularly upbeat about the first day of our five-day safari because it was really the first time all trip that I had reason to be upbeat at the start of the day. I'd gotten my first good night's sleep thanks to the cooler temperatures and the full array of power, and followed that up with the trip's first hot shower and then the realization that my stomach bug had disappeared not a moment too soon.

During the two-hour drive from Arusha to our campsite just outside Manyara, I was wondering if the quality of our car was the first casualty of going budget on our safari. Rachel and I were crammed into the backseat without much of a view and even less leg-space while our cook Juma rode in the middle front seat. But after we ditched our bags and left Juma back at the site while we went on our game drive, the backseat turned out to be the best place to be to stand up and view out over the top of the car.

Our first sighting of the safari, not two minutes inside the park, was a huge pack of baboons. This seemed to be a bit anticlimactic as a first viewing, it's not like baboons are part of the 'big five' or the 'big seven' and probably wouldn't even be part of a big twenty. But the longer we stayed watching them -- partly out of necessity since a bunch of them were just chilling in the middle of the road -- the more fun we had watching them. There were monkey fights, baby monkey fights, nitpicking monkeys, monkeys yawning to show their massive fangs and monkeys lounging with their red rockets flopping in the wind.

For all the talk of a lack of diversity, we probably saw more different kinds of animals than we did on any one day of the safari. We saw warthogs playing in the mud with their cute babies (and yet they grow up to be so ugly), vervet monkeys, blue monkeys, impalas, zebras, giraffes, elephants, dik-diks and all sorts of birds. The hippo pool was anticlimactic. There was a couple dozen hippos and it was kind of odd how the birds that perched on the hippos' backs would fly up in giant circles for several minutes and then return right where they started, like it was their own crazy version of musical chairs. But the hippos did absolutely nothing but stay semi-submerged in the pool, making me wish I had brought some marbles to entice them out. Even the random guide with the UNC hat who was completely confused why I wanted a picture of him (and probably even more disappointed I didn't tip him for the picture) wasn't enough to make the pool less of a bust.

The rest of the park was exceptional though, and not just for the variety of animals we did see. We had viewings of the Lake at a distance where water buffaloes roamed and flamingos formed a pink horizon along the lakefront. The Rift Valley made for a stunning backdrop with rolling hills and green mountains. There's always something special about seeing exotic animals in the wild, a certain rush that doesn't exist when you see them in a zoo, but the scenery all around made it that much more special. Half the time when I was riding out the back, ducking branches and avoiding dust, I wasn't even worried about spotting animals, I was just taking in the surroundings. As the day was coming to a close -- we had to be out of the park by 6 -- and we were heading back to the exit, Jolanda was expressing disappointment that we'd hardly seen any elephants. Not two minutes later, we cleared a corner and we were suddenly five feet from a mother and her baby. We were so close I felt like I could touch them. More importantly, they were definitely close enough to reach out and touch me, but thankfully the larger animals didn't view our cars as threats and went about their feeding. We stuck with the small pack for nearly 20 minutes, watching them eat and watching the baby struggle to wrap its trunk around a branch to make it easier to eat.

Charles, our strong, silent-type of a driver managed to get us out the park right at the stroke of 6, where we celebrated by picking up a couple Kilis a piece to enjoy over our dinner Juma prepared. We ate our zucchini soup and fried fish curry while sipping cold beers and teaching the Dutch how to play shithead. I also taught John about 'choose my side' becoming the first Dutch person to realize what he was saying before he finished saying it. Sharp guy. But after such a successful day, I should've known trouble was lurking. There were only two tents on our trip, so Joy, Rachel and I were crammed into one of them. This made sleeping rigid enough. But shortly after we were getting settled, the rains started coming. The wet season was just beginning, and a a light drizzle quickly turned into a torrent. And this is when we learned that the safari company had only packed one waterproof tarp for the tent, and that one was resting on top of John and Jolanda's tent. As the rains came, the sides of our started to sag. So as the wet side started to sag on me, the bottom of the tent started to soak from underneath. Sleeping was impossible. Eventually I decided to make the sacrifice that my stuff not getting drenched was more important than me getting sleep -- since that probably wasn't going to be happening anyway. I was now very much looking forward to the next three nights.
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