The Casual Blog

Tag: Tarangire

Processing Tanzania animals and travel

Baboons in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

I’m still working my way through my photos from Tanzania, and processing impressions from the trip.  We saw a lot of animals!  In some situations, I took dozens of pictures, and it’s tough to decide which is my final favorite.  

Anyhow, here are a few current favorites.  What I was looking for was more than just the beauty and strangeness of the animals.  The trip helped me appreciate better that their lives are part of complex relationships with their fellow creatures and their environments.  

But the much bigger point is Tanzania is a fascinating place.  Getting there from the U.S. is hard on a body, at least if you’re not in an ultra high-end airline seat/bed.  It took us about 36 hours from airport to airport each way.  We flew on Qatar Airways, which treated us better than our recent U.S. carriers.  It had planes with seats that didn’t seem specially engineered to torture you and flight attendants who seemed to view their job as helping passengers.    

An impala — a delicate, speedy creature that loves grass

On long flights, I’m usually not able to sleep much, but I look forward to having extra time for reading.   There comes a point, though, even for a big reader like me, when the eyes and mind get too tired for reading.  Instead, recently, on planes equipped with individual screens, I watch movies.  I try to pick ones that Sally probably wouldn’t be interested in, and ones that haven’t made my must-see list.  The point is to achieve a state of mild engagement/distraction – enough so as not think about how many more hours before I can get off the plane.  

Cape buffalo — a stolid creature that also loves grass

Part of the point of Qatar Airways seems to be to raise the profile of that little country and get international travelers into its hub airport at Doha.  We had long layovers there going and coming, and it was impressive, in a post-modern way.  Even in the middle of the night, shops, restaurants, and bars were open, and the assemblage of luxury goods stores (handbags, watches, jewelry, clothing, luggage) reminded me of Fifth Avenue, or Zermott.  We were a bit confused about the value of the local currency, and so managed to set a new high-end record for an airport meal in their Italian restaurant.

We also had a long layover in London’s Heathrow airport on the way home.  There had recently been reports about Heathrow’s poor operations in handling passengers and baggage, but we had no special problems, other than a very slow line at a coffee shop.   

One thing I confirmed coming back was that it’s definitely worthwhile on long trips to wear compression socks.  I’d worn a pair on the way over, but mine were among the items lost when our tent at Serian Serengeti North was blown away.  Regular socks just didn’t cut it.  When I got back to Raleigh, my ankles had swollen dramatically, and were very sore.  For my next trip, I got a replacement set from an outfit called Vim and Vigr.  

Leopard in Serengeti National Park

As to that storm:  we were out late in the day on the savannah close to the Kenya border watching a pair of lions, which seemed to be considering whether to take another nap or go for a hunt.  We had great close views, but the cats weren’t doing much.  As the sun started to set, huge dark clouds rolled in, and we started the long drive back to camp.

Lions waking up

A few minutes later came the first drops of a deluge.  Our guides unfolded the canvas top and plastic windows of the 4Runner and put up the windshield.  Visibility quickly dropped to near zero, while the winds picked up.  Then we began to have lightning flashes and thunder close by every few seconds.  Our driver asked if I thought it was OK to stop, and I said I saw no other choice.  It looked entirely possible that we would not be able to make it back to camp that night.

Not long after, visibility improved enough to move forward, and our driver managed to get us through some creeks that had gotten a lot deeper since the earlier crossing.  We came across a vehicle that was stuck in the mud, and tried unsuccessfully to push them out of their rut.  Finally we got back to the camp.  We were happy to be there, but everyone else was in a state of high anxiety, trying to figure out how much of the camp had been destroyed.  

Alex Walker and his dedicated team managed to feed us a satisfying hot meal in one of the two remaining dining tents, and worked through the night assessing damage and starting repairs.  Our tent had been flooded and blown away, but most of our possessions were eventually found.  The staff worked hard cleaning and drying things while we were out on our last game drive the following day.

Of course, it’s always good to get home.  We’ve been watching some documentaries this week, and I wanted to particularly recommend one:  Eating Our Way to Extinction.  It’s a powerful summary of the problems with our animal agriculture system, and especially the part it plays in climate change.  The presentation is upbeat, with narration by Kate Winslett and cameos by several celebrities.  It emphasizes that it is not too late to change the system, and we as individuals can help.  

Thompson’s gazelle — also a speedy grass lover

One last thing:  I read a good book on the trip:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.  In my teens and twenties I made a point of reading quite a few officially recognized “classics,” which may or may not have been the best use of my time.  In any case, Grapes is one that I never got to, and I came to it without a lot of assumptions.

The book tells the story of a poor farm family forced from their farm in Oklahoma and hoping for a new life in California.  Their story is both specific (each character is an individual) and general (there are many thousands in their predicament).  I was pulled along by the classic story telling, but also got a better understanding of the economic and social forces that created their desperate poverty along with dramatic wealth for a few.

Cheetahs in Serengeti

I was surprised at how timely the book seemed, as climate change and political upheaval unleashes enormous migration around the globe.  Steinbeck helps us process these kinds of forces, and encourages us to show compassion and work on solutions. 

Our safari in Tanzania

Cheetah

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.