Mikumi – Giraffe, zebra, baboon, oh my!

Full set of photos are here

We flew from Kigali to Dar es Salaam which we had not heard positive things about.  Whenever we hear this it makes us think it will be like Accra in Ghana which was polluted, crowded and not a great place to hang out.  It was a nice surprise to discover that Dar es Salaam (literally ‘haven of peace’) lives up to its name in comparison and is a reasonably pleasant place to spend some time, if not remarkable or outstanding.  We stayed in a cheap hotel called Jambo Inn.  Jambo is pidgin Swahili for hello and is used to greet foreigners. The hotel was run down but functional in every important way and located above their own very decent Indian restaurant.  The downside was the air conditioner that sounded like a jackhammer which left as lying on the bed in a pool of sweat.

But we weren’t in Tanzania to hang out in a port city and eat Indian food.  The animals beckoned, we could hear them calling to us from over the horizon.  We only had a few days before going to Zanzibar so we headed to the closest safari park to Dar es Salaam, Mikumi, on the bus.  There is a huge safari industry in Tanzania charging through the nose for what I’m sure are very good safaris but completely beyond the budget of travellers like us.  When a room at a lodge comes with its own butler you know you’re talking serious money.  Instead we got the bus for $9 each and stayed at a fantastic hotel for $50 a night which is 2 kilometres outside the park.  We were dropped off at the door by the bus and organised for the hotel truck to take us around the park the next day.

The bus was an adventure in itself.  You drive through beautiful mountains covered in thick grass for five hours before entering the national park itself.  The guy sitting behind us was wildlife vet who lowered our expectations by saying that it was low season, the grass was high, there was plenty of water, so it might be difficult to see animals.  Right after he said that, as we zoomed along in the bus, we saw a group of giraffes sheltering under a tree.  There is a thrill about seeing an African animal in the wild that wells up from childhood and burbles through your body.  This thrill did not seem to be shared by our fellow passengers.  The locals were about as excited by the wildlife as an Australian would be by seeing a herd of kangaroos.  The guy in front of us just pulled the curtain across the window and tried to sleep.  We then saw a herd of horny impala with their delicate black markings on the rear of their thigh and ankles.  Then we saw a few elephants ambling along, then some more giraffes and zebra.  It was the best bus ride ever.

The next day we jumped in the back of the safari truck and headed back in to the park with Hellman our driver and Doreen our guide.  Doreen didn’t speak great English but she was pleasant and enthusiastic and definitely knew her animals.  We got overexcited on the highway when we saw some giraffes and wanted the driver to back up to get a better view but his attitude was “trust me, you’re going to see a lot of giraffes today, so let’s just get to the park.”  He wasn’t wrong.  The first group of animals we saw were the buffalo swanning around on a mud path.  They very sensibly stay in the mud all day, although there must be some kind of rotation system to let all the buffalo have a go.  Their horns look like 1930s parted hair which gives them a debonair look but in reality they are stupid and smelly and aggressive.

Our camera picked a really bad day to play silly buggers.  For some reason none of the photos where we use the zoom could focus properly.  We had to ditch a lot of photos but still have a good selection where the animals were close enough not to need a zoom at all.  I think Sarah wanted to throw the camera out of the window.  We lost a few photos from the next herd we saw, a massive bunch of impalas, zebra and giraffes who were just hanging out together.  The collective noise of grass being ripped up and chomped was startlingly loud.

We then saw a huge herd of zebra with their eye-bending stripes and little foals flicking the manes and tails happily.  Warthogs raced up and down in the distance, their thin tails ramrod straight like the antenna on a remote controlled car as they chased each other back and forth through the long grass.

All we needed now was for something to be eaten to make our nature documentary complete.  We spotted a vulture picking at something 100 metres off the road.  In no time vultures were flying in from everywhere like planes coming in to land at the airport.  Soon there was a feeding frenzy happening with the vultures swarming over the top of whatever dead creature lay underneath.  We drove up for a closer view and saw that it was a dead impala being torn apart beneath the writing vultures.  Then the original owners of the carcass turned up, a couple of small foxes who chased the entire group of vultures away with their sharp little fangs and proceeded to rip the impala apart themselves with furtive looks on their faces.  You have to feel a bit sorry for the impala which seem to be the main food source for all the carnivores here, but it was amazing to see nature in action so close up.  A stork came along and stick his big bill into the action but the foxes chased it off as well.

The bird life in the park makes me see how you could be a twitcher.  All the birds had iridescent reds, blues or greens which was like a splash of paint on the landscape.

We couldn’t believe how close we were to all the animals.  We thought we might see a few animals in the distance but here we were driving right through herds of wildebeest with their light brown offspring, camels and zebra.

We had seen a few herds of elephant in the distance but finally rounded a bend to see three elephants munching grass at a furious rate.  They raised their trunks and greeting and seemed pretty pleased with the world.  And why wouldn’t you if you were an elephant.  There’s nothing to eat you and your only worry are poachers and getting the 200 litres of water you need to drink every day.  I think elephants are more ‘king of the jungle’ worthy than lions, although given that they have a matriarchal society perhaps they can have the ‘queen of the jungle’ title.  I think there is a carnivore bias going on in awarding such titles but most of the really big animals just eat grass: giraffe, elephant, hippopotamus, warthog, buffalo.

Hordes of baboons wandered around, crossing the road in packs.  It was mating season which you could tell by the red bums.  When not available for jiggy-jiggy their bums are blue.  You could also tell it was mating season by all the mating going on.  There was not much foreplay, barely a break in stride.  Some of the baboons sat on a stump like it was a stool and watched us go by as if they were curious old men at a cafe.

We ate lunch ourself at the lodge located within the park, which I assume is hideously expensive to stay in but did a pretty nice vege pancake which we ate outside under a huge tree while watching elephants graze in the distance.  It was hot and sleepy weather but idyllic.  After lunch we jumped back in the open-air truck and lathered ourselves in sunscreen.  We drove across the highway to the other side of the park where Doreen our guide said that there were far fewer animals.  We saw a group of warthogs but after a while driving around with the sun beating down and nowhere near as many animals as the area we had been in earlier I was starting to wonder why we were wasting time in this part of the park. At that point Doreen squealed and got the truck to backup.  Lurking in a small gully next to the road was a leopard staring sullenly at us.  It is a rare sighting so good on Doreen.  It’s coat was beautiful but it didn’t hang around long enough for us to admire it for long.

That sighting successfully achieved we headed back to the other side of the highway and drove through hordes of giraffe.  At one count we could see almost forty in one go, loping along with their funny yet graceful run and appearing as improbable as an animal can.  One can only imagine what the Ming dynasty rulers in China made of the giraffe when it was brought back to the imperial court by their famous voyage of discovery.  Apparently the giraffe is the spitting image of a mythical Chinese creature, which is a bit like finding a new country that has unicorns in it.

Our last stop was the hippopotamus pool which is not as exciting as it sounds.  Hippos spend the vast majority of their time underwater.  Their sensitive skin can’t stand the African sun so they only come out in the darkening light.  When we got there it looked like they were just starting to rouse themselves. There was some yawning and farting when they bobbed up to the surface to take a breath, but for the most part they were just a pair of nostrils and the glimpse of a broad back.

We said goodbye to the animals as the sun pierced the storm clouds casting a glorious golden light all around.  It was an amazing day.

The following day we took much needed day off.  Our one major activity was to go for a run through the millet fields near the hotel.  The millet plants (a plant a bit like wheat)
were head high but there were little dirt paths cutting through them which we could run on.  It was only when the millet fields ran out and we found ourselves in bush not dissimilar to what we had seen all the animals in yesterday that we reminded ourselves that we were only two kilometres from a national park and that no-one briefed the animals on where the borders are. The one animal we didn’t see the day before were lions but they do have them in the park.  Accidentally stumbling over a lion would not be a good end to the day.  Instead we ran back through the millet and Sarah took a tumble.  I was running ahead and Sarah started to pretend that a leopard was chasing her as motivation for catching up.  Some tricky sidesteps through a narrow section where head-high millet stalks crowded the cracked dirt path led to her downfall.  Somehow Sarah stubbed her second toe so savagely that a small piece of gravel lodged in her skin, only to be discovered when she took her five fingers off.  It was a classic swan dive which resulted in a scraped elbow and bruised knee.  I only heard the plaintive cry for help in the distance behind me and a “Hurry!”  I thought she was being attacked by baboons.  We walked back to the hotel together dripping sweat through lovely scenery.

We caught the bus back to Dar es Salaam the following day.  It was sprinkling rain in the morning, one of the rare rainy moment on our trip.  We were waiting on the other side of the highway from the hotel where the bus was due to pull up.  We saw it coming in the distance.  It did a swerve when it got close to us and locked the wheels up in an attempt to stop, sliding across the slick surface, luckily in a straight line down the road.  It stopped right in front of us and we were hustled on.  This bus was on a tight schedule.  We careened back to Dar es Salaam overtaking anything going at less than warp speed.  The driver held the steering wheel with one hand and his prayer beads in the other.  We wouldn’t be killed while overtaking, god willing.  The only time he dropped the prayer beads was for changing gear or a particularly hairy overtaking manoeuvre that required two hands on the wheel.  At one point the driver lifted both arms off the wheel to give them a bit of a stretch as we drifted slowly into the other lane.  In the end we made it past the corrupt police road blocks, the ‘slower than slow’ trucks and the market towns in one piece and went for a lie down out of the noon heat.

The list of animals we saw, for the record:

  • Giraffes and foals
  • Zebra and babies
  • Vultures (two types including Hooded) and foxes eating an impala
  • Two types of stork (including Marabou)
  • Lolalilac bird (not positive about the spelling of this one)
  • Water buffalo
  • Reedbuck
  • Wildebeest and calves
  • Warthogs racing each other
  • Baboons
  • Monitor lizard (not as big as goannas back home)
  • Egret
  • Crane
  • Zanzibar Red Bishop
  • Bustard
  • Bats
  • Leopard
  • Hippos
  • Eland
  • Hornbill
  • Frog (that night at the hotel – it hopped under our table)
  • The hotel also had geese, guinea fowl, ducks, chickens and rabbits

Full set of photos are here

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