Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mikumi National Park

This weekend, I went on my first trip out of Dar es Salaam to see Africa’s great landscape and wild animals. A friend, Cathy, had just purchased a (very) used SUV, and we were both eager to head out of town. She had a frustrating week at work and I... well, I just wanted to get into the countryside. She had the car serviced and finely tuned on Saturday morning, and we left town by the early afternoon.

We had decided to go to Mikumi National Park, a four-hour drive from Dar es Salaam. Mikumi is the fourth largest national park in Tanzania, and has a large variety of wildlife. The park lies in an open flood plain at the base of the Uluguru Mountains. The park is mostly flooded with impassable roads during the rainy season. It is the dry season now, so we had a easy time driving through the park and viewing the animals.

After breaking loose of the city’s tight grip, we found ourselves driving through the mountains as the sun was setting over the vast African savannah. We arrived at the park’s northern edge just after sunset. Shortly after entering the park, we came across some elephants that were gingerly strolling across the road. We continued on to the main gate for safari driving. My excitement was growing.

We arrived at the main entrance and were directed to the lodge for some warm food. I was in charge of bringing food for the weekend, and I think we were both excited not to have to eat PB&Js for dinner (the only item on my menu). We sat and ate dinner about 30 yards from a watering hole. I asked the server if the animals come to drink at night. “Oh yes, we may see something tonight”, he said. Sure enough, as I was eating my french fries, two elephants had sauntered up to the water and were drinking. There were right before our eyes, two very large wild African elephants. Amazing! I became more excited and ended up making a mess with the ketchup.

After dinner we drove over to the campsite and pitched our tent in a field of tall grass. I had already asked a man at the lodge and another at the front gate if it was safe to camp. Both had said yes, but didn’t seem to take the question as seriously as I meant it. The campsite was out in the open grass, and there was no electric fence between us and the lion that stalks his prey during the night. All I could think about was the PBS specials on TV that would show the lion hunting with commentary along the lines of, ‘and watch the stealthy lion hunting in the tall grass as he moves in on his unsuspecting prey’. I did manage some sleep that night, but having forgotten my sleeping pad at home certainly didn’t help.

Before going to bed, we sat and took in the night sky. The sky was perfectly clear, the air was calm, and the moon was only a quarter full (or three-quarters empty for some of you). The stars were radiant and beautiful. It was an unbelievable display of pinpoint lights - everywhere. The only other time I had seen so many stars was when I lived in the remote mountains of Morocco. We simply don’t see all of these stars in the States, and certainly not in any city, including Dar es Salaam. I spent a long time taking it in, and I was also a little fearful to attempt sleep thinking there had to be a lion somewhere in the tall grass just waiting for me to get in my sleeping bag.

The next morning we broke down camp and started our safari around 8 am. We drove back to the front gate and paid US $15 per person for the park entrance and were on our way to see animals. We had a poor map for a very large national park, but a lot of enthusiasm. Cathy drove and I was the animal spotter. The animal spotting started off as, “oh, there is something over there”, which Cathy aptly pointed out needed a little improvement. After a few hours, I was down to, “two giraffe at 3 o’clock, a zebra, perhaps male, at quarter ‘til eight, and watch the bump in the road”. By the end, I was ready to charge the ten dollar fee that the safari guides sitting at the front gate charge for a 3-hour tour.

Shortly after we started our drive, we came to the ‘hippo pools’, which of course have hippopotamuses (or is it hippopotami?). They don’t really do much but stand submerged in the water, and weighing in at about 1-2 tons I don’t suppose I can blame them. Then, we found some elephants drinking water and splashing mud at another small watering spot. Elephants are just fun to watch, especially the clumsy baby elephants. Like any other species, including humans, baby elephants just try to imitate and learn. A little while further, we came upon a herd of buffalo. Further back into the park (we didn’t really know where we were going), we found some zebras, giraffes, impala, and yellow baboons (no lions - certainly not due to poor spotting ability). The giraffes were my favorite.

Once we reached the area that was furthest from the entrance, two German tourists stopped us. The guy on my passenger side, leaned out the window and asked, “where are you coming from?” I simply pointed backwards. Then, he took out a flimsy sheet of paper that had a sketch of the park roads. “Do you know where we are on here?” he said. I’ve always thought I was somewhat astute with directions, so I showed him where the entrance was location, where we had come from, and where we were sitting. He looked at me blankly and said, “so, basically, you have absolutely no idea where we are?” I felt defeated, and so we kept on driving.

We had bumped along the dirt roads for about 4 hours, and somehow managed to work up a healthy appetite. We headed back to the lodge for lunch - again equally happy not to have to eat PB&Js. After lunch, we drove a little further in the park, but didn’t see any animals. Cathy claims this was because there were no animals in the area, and wants to be very clear that it was not because she was the spotter.

We then drove the 4-hours back to Dar es Salaam, almost ran out of gas (I was just checking to see how far the needle would go down), and were stuck in traffic shortly after entering the city. It was a wonderful short weekend and a very nice opportunity to see some of the great animals of Africa.