Laura Griffith-Jones sets out on a thrilling walking safari in the beautiful, underrated Tarangire National Park, coming face to face with elephant on foot and fly-camping under the stars
The smell of hot dust is heavy on the air — that rich, earthy aroma you only encounter in the African bush in the dry season. It is mid-October in the heart of Tarangire National Park and we are beginning to wilt.
This hidden jewel on Tanzania’s northern circuit is often overlooked in favour of the better-known Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara and the Serengeti. But the country’s sixth largest national park is a glorious place for the discerning traveller. Baobabs pepper the savannah, like Ents in Middle-earth, and the Tarangire River meanders through. Its diverse habitats range from grasslands to bushveld and swamps, all home to varied wildlife. Elephant herds speck the floodplains. Lion, Burchell’s zebra, Masai giraffe, eland and buffalo roam its 2850sq-km expanse. The rare fringe-eared oryx and long-necked gerenuk are occasionally spotted.
More than 500 species of bird reside here, with noteworthy species including the northern pied babbler, vulturine guinea fowl, ashy starling and rufous-tailed weaver. But more significantly, this is one of the country’s best places for a walking and fly-camping safari.
“The purpose of our walk is to experience aspects of nature that you don’t notice on a game drive,” says Chris Belo, our Malawian guide, as we descend the vertiginous path from Oliver’s, the only camp south of the emerald, wildlife-rich Silale Swamp. “To see things you don’t usually have the opportunity to see, such as tracks, dung, plants, insects and animal behaviour.” Indeed, exploring the African bush on foot is enthralling. The anticipation is intense and every squeak, splash or crunch above the humming of the birds and insects is a sign that some creature might be around the corner. An elephantine (excuse the pun) heap of still-steaming dung might intimate an ellie is near. And the fresh tracks of a big cat spark nervous glances into the bushes.
Out in the open, in single file, we make our way along a dusty track through a parched land of terracotta earth and golden grassland of the Minyonyo Pools floodplains. Without shelter from the acacias, the heat intensifies. But the dry season is the best time to be in Tarangire, as many migratory animals gather here at this time. Moreover, walking safaris become too unsafe during the rains, due to the reduced visibility caused by dense vegetation. Even now, the risks are very real, with countless elephant, lion and buffalo in the area.
Accordingly, we are accompanied by Mchite, an armed park ranger, and briefed thoroughly beneath a shady acacia. “We must respect the bush. Silence is key. We should use sign language,” instructs Chris, as he demonstrates various basic hand signals. “We will avoid thick areas of bush, especially along the river where we are more likely to encounter buffalo and lion in hidden areas. We should remain close to trees and termite mounds. We must check the wind direction to ensure the animals cannot smell us and do not know we are there. And if anything happens, stand your ground and never run!”
We’re alert as we continue, our senses sharp, our nerves on tenterhooks. But we have good reason to be apprehensive. The previous day we had spotted seven lion on a wildebeest carcass unnervingly close to here. And at lunch we had listened to a rather ominous tale of a young Canadian couple who were charged by five lions this very morning. Chris was their guide. “We had been walking along a ridge, watching a few impala, elephant and waterbuck,” he elaborates. “We looked towards the river and the wind was in our favour so we thought everything was fine. Then I saw a lioness about 30-40m away and two males and four other lionesses came into view. They were watching us but didn’t seem aggressive. But suddenly, one of the lionesses — protecting cubs perhaps — started to growl and they all charged. It was an emergency situation but I kept calm. I had to protect my guests so ordered the ranger to back away slowly with them. I leapt onto a termite mound and stood my ground, growling and roaring! And they stopped. Whenever you are in the bush, you should expect to see a buffalo, elephant or charging lion. You should always be prepared. The first challenge is to identify dangerous areas and then neutralise the situation. Firing the gun is the last resort.” We feel reassured that we are in the presence of a pro, a lion whisperer even.
Soon we spot a large paw print on a track. Given our recent conversation, we feel a little anxious when Chris tells us it belongs to a leopard. “You can tell,” he says, “as it is shorter than a cheetah’s and smaller than a lion’s.” We learn it is reasonably fresh, which would account for the solitary sawing sound we’d heard during the night.
Chris is full of stories of wildlife encounters and the hours pass easily in his company. We begin to relax a little and absorb the magnificent scenery, looking out for animals and birds. We spot a lilac-breasted roller flitting away and guinea fowl jabbing the dust for grubs; and a secretary bird, comical with its black trousers, white shirt and erect pen-like head feathers, makes an appearance. No yellow-collared lovebirds yet, sadly. Elephant, zebra and buffalo graze the Minyonyo Pools floodplains, oases among the scorched bushveld, which the sun has bleached shades of rose-hued ochre.
In some areas, the soil is blackened from controlled burning to encourage the regeneration of nutritious grass and prevent bush encroachment. I am interested to hear more and ask whether there is a poaching issue here. Chris is full of praise for Tanzania’s relatively new president, John Magufuli aka ‘Mr Bulldozer’, who has increased the number of rangers and soldiers patrolling the national parks, which is having a positive impact. However, there are still some problems, which Chris feels can only be resolved by involving the local community.
“There are three pillars of conservation: tourism, wildlife conservation and community,” he states. “The land is not getting bigger but the population is, so we must ensure they understand the benefits of tourism — and realise that better infrastructure, education and drinking water are coming from the animals, so they must protect them.”
Before us lies a charred elephant skull. We stop, examining it like detectives, trying to ascertain its age and the cause of death. Chris informs us that these immense animals can live for up to 70 years and have six sets of teeth in that time. Soon we stumble across a gigantic, sun-blistered termite mound, about 8m tall. The park is dotted with these rust-red, rather phallic structures that are home to fungus-growing termites — which, much to our surprise, we discover are captivating. The queen can live for 30 years and can grow to 12cm long and 3cm wide, a terrifying thought. The mound is an implausible 80 years old, with cleverly constructed chimneys to regulate the temperature. We observe an aardvark hole at its base, half hoping a brown-velveteen snout might emerge. Meanwhile, Chris takes this opportunity to reach for his small bag of ash, which he puffs into the air to establish the wind direction. Luckily, it’s in our favour and the distant pachyderms remain oblivious to our presence.
We cross a dry tributary of the Tarangire River and spy some massive oval footprints in the sand: an elephant. We wonder how fresh it is, as Chris stops to check the wind direction again. All is well and we continue. There are no baobabs in this region of the park and we are now moving through an area of acacia woodland on the other side of the river. In the lower branches of one tree, a monitor lizard lounges, dinosaur-like. We observe him, warily, keeping our distance. “Smooth-barked acacia,” says Chris, pointing to the shiny bark of a nearby tree. We quickly realise he is joking and that the unfortunate tree has simply become a favourite place for elephants to scratch their derrieres.
We are introduced to other interesting plants on our walk, too, such as a whistling thorn acacia, which, laced with spider webs, is almost silver in the late-afternoon light. Chris explains that the tent spiders and ants that are crawling around its branches are useful to the bush as they deter browsers. In addition, the plant has another ingenious defence mechanism: its thorns slow down the feeding animals, giving the tree time to produce tannins that make the sweet leaves bitter and unpalatable. This forces the creature to leave without eating all the leaves. We are also shown Salvadora persica, an evergreen shrub that locals use to clean their teeth — a “bush toothbrush”. Later, we smell something on the air, reminiscent of Mediterranean cooking. Chris stops and points to a small straggly plant resembling thyme. “Wild basil,” he says. That would explain it.
I feel warm and woozy as I inhale the wonderful aroma and soak up the evening sun, until suddenly, our ranger tells us to stop, in a harsh whisper, pointing towards a pair of bull elephant just a stone’s throw away, perhaps 100m. It seems inconceivable we haven’t spotted them before but their silent, surprisingly swift strides across the savannah are muffled by the usual bush symphony. Keeping calm, Chris checks the wind direction — and confirms we are safe. “They are unaware of our presence,” he says. He then gestures to the other side of the river and we begin to move quickly and quietly away from them.
This really is a giant game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’, I think to myself. We’re dodging pachyderms and trying to avoid being eaten by serpents. The wind could change direction at any moment, so we cautiously find shelter under the camouflage of a tree. It’s interesting to watch their behaviour, as they lumber onwards, continuously glancing around, clearly disgruntled. “They are conscious of the zebra moving behind them,” Chris elucidates. “Elephant have bad eyesight but a brilliant sense of smell. They can smell the zebra but they can’t see them.”
By now, the sun is beginning to sink, painting the landscape a buttery gold, and to our relief, the temperature is at last dropping. Once the elephant are far enough from us, we continue towards our fly-camp. As we cross another dry tributary, a vast colony of pelicans appears as if from nowhere, soaring over the dappled amber lagoons and wheeling overhead before crowding into their treetop roosts. A pair of rare eland sip thirstily from the dwindling pools and a family of warthogs dart away, television-aerial tails upright, as we pass. We gingerly step over abundant ostrich droppings — but there’s no sign of them.
We see a small cluster of tents in the distance, and begin to get excited about the night’s fly-camping ahead. Sleeping with nothing but a thin sheet of canvas between you and the wilderness has got to be one of life’s greatest joys.
Our small tent, perched on a ridge overlooking a dry riverbed, is quite a contrast from the huge, lavish tented suites back at Oliver’s. However, there’s something refreshingly authentic about it. It feels more adventurous and as if we are the only people on Earth. After a short ‘shower with a view’, we sip gin and tonics and feast under the stars beside a blazing campfire, and Chris reveals his astronomy knowledge. We note Venus and Mars among the gazillion twinkling fireflies of the night.
The day’s anticipation and exhilaration have exhausted us and we slip into a fitful sleep, serenaded by the orchestra of the night. Crickets pipe, elephant rumble in deep conversation nearby and hyena whoop somewhere in the back of beyond. My adrenaline-fuelled reverie is disturbed by mysterious puffs of ash swirling in the breeze, trumpeting elephant and charging lion. The following morning, much to our excitement (and, to some extent, trepidation) we hear that elephant and lion had been in the vicinity under the shadow of night. There is no denying it — the giant oval footmarks and tell-tale paw prints are stamped in the dew-kissed sand to prove it, as clear as day.
• Getting there Many airlines fly to Kilimanjaro Airport, near Arusha. The writer flew with Kenya Airways. From there, it’s about a two-hour drive to Tarangire National Park. It’s best to arrange your trip through a company such as South African-based Wild Frontiers, an excellent tour operator specialising in East, West and southern Africa, with camps, lodges, guides and operations in South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
• Where to stay There are several good accommodation options in Tarangire, including Tarangire Ndovu and Tarangire Safari Lodge. The writer stayed at Asilia’s Oliver’s Camp, situated in the southern reaches of the park, which has 10 beautiful tents overlooking a floodplain of the Minyonyo Pools, near the Silale Swamp.
• How long? Thanks to its proximity to Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park is usually a short stop-off on a larger northern circuit itinerary. However, it deserves several days, particularly in the dry season (from August to October), which is the best time to visit.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic well in advance of your trip to find out which vaccinations you need and the best antimalarial to take.
• Further reading Read Bradt’s Tanzania Safari Guide (7th edition) by Philip Briggs and Chris McIntyre or visit tanzaniaparks.go.tz