The Casual Blog

Tag: Africa

Our safari in Tanzania


We returned last week from a 10-day safari in Tanzania, where we visited Tarangire National Park and Serengeti National Park.  It was a long hard trip there and back, but completely worth it.  We met some interesting people, but the highlights were the non-human animals living their lives on the savannah.  

We saw many elephants, gazelles, giraffes, buffalo, zebras, baboons, monkeys, ostriches, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and many, many wildebeests, as well as a few jackals, hyenas, lions, leopards, and cheetahs.  There were also many colorful birds, small mammals, unusual speedy antelopes, and reptiles.  

Some of the oldest known human fossils come from east Africa, and our species spent a lot of its pathbreaking years there.  It’s a big but underappreciated part of our story.  Looking out over vast grasslands, I found myself thinking of the tall grass differently:  vital food for many creatures, and hiding places and ambush spots for some. 

The Serengeti was the setting for the Lion King, which I thought was a sweet and touching movie, though I had assumed it had a large dose of romantic fantasy in depicting the animals and landscape.  It seemed unlikely that different species of animals would live close together cooperatively and mostly peacefully.  

Wildebeests crossing the Mara River

But in fact, we saw a lot of different species sharing territories, some warily but others relaxed.  In most if not all herds, there were animals of different ages, including young ones.  The young animals played while their mothers kept a watchful eye.

We saw large groups of animals organize themselves quite efficiently for travel, rest, and eating, though how they do it is still largely unknown.  One of the most amazing spectacles was the wildebeests crossing the Mara River as part of their annual migration.  We saw nine or ten of these crossings in which thousands of the creatures plunged down steep embankment, swam the river, and climbed the bank on the other side near us.  Most were successful, though we saw crocodiles get a few. 

A leopard in the Serengeti near sunset

According to Seni, our guide, who knew a lot about animal biology and behavior, wildebeests aren’t particularly smart or athletic by Serengeti standards, and some people consider them ugly.  Apart from their dramatic migration, their lives seem to be mostly about eating grass, avoiding predators, and reproducing.  We know little about how they communicate and organize to get things done.  But their huge numbers show that they do so, and their strategy appears to be successful.

The animals of Tanzania have some of the same problems we do, like rising temperatures, droughts, storms, and fires caused by global warming.  They get diseases or get caught by powerful predators, not to mention human poachers.  But I was struck and moved by how well so many of these creatures do when we just leave them alone.  In Tanzania’s huge national parks, they have territories and healthy habitats, and seem to be living mostly peacefully and doing as they like.  

When I was a schoolboy, we were taught that animals operate mostly on raw instinct, and don’t have anything similar to our mental processes for memory and planning, or even feeling.  There’s more and more evidence that this is far from true, and that many animals have strong memories, the ability to plan ahead, and emotions.  

The Washington Post had a fascinating piece this week by Lars Chittka on the consciousness of bees.  Chittka’s researchers found that individual bees could remember human faces, count, and use tools, and that they experienced positive and negative emotions.  It makes one wonder, how much more is there yet to learn about animals’ abilities and consciousness?    

We’ve been thoroughly socialized to avoid thinking about animals as agents having coherent lives worthy of respect.  Most of our education on animals just ignores the complexity and successes of their social systems (their families, herds, alliances), political systems (territories, cooperatives, group decision making, conflict resolution), and creative achievements (communication, nourishment, transportation, sports, shelter).  

We’ve long assumed that humans and their systems are separate from and superior to all non-humans and their systems.  This is, of course, self-serving, and also less and less persuasive in light of modern research.  The massive destruction wrought by humans on the rest of the earth over the last few centuries calls such thinking into question:  our species has been the main driver of our grave crises.  Yet even in the face of the human onslaught, many animals carry on with their cultures.  We can learn from them, and should.       

Lion mom and cub

For the trip, I brought along my new Nikon mirrorless camera and three lenses, one of which (the long one, 150-600 mm) malfunctioned on the first day.  Still, I took a lot of pictures, and I’m still not finished with the first pass through them.  But I wanted to go ahead and share a few that I thought reflected some of the beauty of Tanzanian animals’ lives.  I’m hoping to write more next week on the experience and share more images.    

Just in from Africa

After 30 hours of traveling, we got back this morning from a two-week African trip, our first. Not everything went according to plan, but it was an exciting adventure. In this post, I recount a few high points of our safari in South Africa, including being charged by rhinos, and next week I plan to post on scuba diving in Mozambique.

We stayed at Grand Kruger Lodge, in Marloth Park, on the south end of Kruger National Park, about half an hour from the Crocodile Bridge gate. Our room was a grass-roofed hut, with a deck for looking out on the monkeys, kudus, and warthogs. The service was especially friendly and responsive. They weren’t accustomed to hosting vegetarians, but they managed to feed us well.

Before sunrise each morning our guide would load us onto an open, elevated vehicle and take us into Kruger for several hours to look about. The first day we had good sitings of “the Big Five” — elephant, rhinoceros, water buffalo,lion, and leopard — as well as giraffes, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, impalas, kudus, wildebeests, warthogs, baboons, a python, hyenas, and others. At times the animals were really close. It was thrilling to see these animals in their native environments for the first time, but it also made me want to experience more.

Our guides were cheerful and knowledgeable, and seemed to enjoy watching the animals as much as we did. Gradually they got us to notice other things, like the gnarled trees, thorny bushes, and other plants equipped for the harsh, dry environment. We learned about various dung beetles and mound-building termites. They got us to look at elephant dung piles as an entire community of insects and other small creatures, and rhino dung pits as communication devices for rhinos who might visit from a neighboring territory.

On our second morning, we did a “bush walk,” or hike with two guides. Each carried rifles, and instructed us solemnly to stay together, keep quiet, and follow instructions. After walking for five minutes, we spotted two white rhinos through the trees about 50 yards out. We moved forward to get a better look, and the rhinos looked up. They started moving toward us, and suddenly started to charge at us. Our guides got us behind some sticks, and as the rhinos got close they shouted and threw logs. With about 20 yards left, the animals veered off. We listened for a while to the pounding of their hooves receding. My heart kept pumping hard for some time.

That evening we went out for an evening drive. Among other things, we saw a baby elephant who’d just been born that day, along with its mom and aunts. We saw a lion couple lying in the road, apparently resting between mating bouts. We had another close view of another white rhino, and more good views of giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, steenboks, and impalas.

Our third and last safari day, France, our driver, tried to locate a black rhino, without success. But we did see all the Big Five again, including a fine view of a leopard lounging, and a group of male lions in a row watching a couple of warthogs. We also saw some notable birds, including Verreaux’s eagle owls (a pair, close), a secretary bird, a pair of ostriches, fish eagle, saddle-billed stork, snake eagle, red-billed hornbills, and a kori bustard.

Listing the animals gives some sense of the varied environment, but it certainly does not do justice to the richness of the experience of being with them. I felt so happy to be close to the elephants having their lunch, and the kudus having theirs. That all these amazing creatures are still here, in spite of all, gives me hope.