On Safari: Close Encounters of the Wild Kind

close-up of two elephants in Tarangire National Park TanzaniaIt didn’t take long before we had our first breathtaking wildlife encounter in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. Between 15 and 20 elephants were huddled close together in the shade of a grove of acacias, only 10 meters in front of the land rover. We stood up to get better views through the jeep’s open top. They munched on tufts of dry grass, flapped their ears lazily and gave each other little dust baths with their trunks.

We all held our breath when one of the larger elephants suddenly snorted loudly. The others waved their trunks and jostled around before settling back into their zen groove. Our guide Francis thought they might have caught a faint whiff of us. Elephants are dependent on smell, he said, since they don’t see very well. They probably didn’t know we were there downwind of them.

We watched for a full 20 minutes, fascinated by their giant peacefulness. How fortunate we were to experience this during our first hour on safari.

Wowed by wildlife

That was just the beginning. We saw many more elephant herds, often quite close up. Then there were the graceful giraffes, skittish impala, zebras galore, steenbok, warthogs, vervet monkeys, ostriches, wildebeests, baboons and mongoose. Even a lone leopard lazing in a baobab tree.

wildebeest and monkey seen while on safari in TanzaniaI never expected to see so many animals so close up in just one day. I’ll always remember standing up with my head poking out of the Land Cruiser, bright sun, wind in my hair, spotting animals left and right. I felt like a kid again on my Tanzania safari experience.

looking for wildlife on safari in Tanzania

zebras in Tanzania

Camping in the wild

Later back at camp, the moon shone brightly over a baobab tree. The air was crisp and cool as our camp cook Emmanuel prepared our first safari dinner. We relaxed on camp chairs at a fold-out table laid out with a bright checked table cloth. We enjoyed the hot chai that was ready and waiting for us and excitedly recounted our animal sightings.

Tarangire is a less-traveled national park compared to others in Tanzania. We were also there outside of the prime migration season, so we had the place mostly to ourselves. There were no other groups camping nearby. It was just the four of us in our own private Land Cruiser, along with Francis and Emmanuel.

We went to sleep to the sounds of birds making all manner of calls, dragonflies humming, and the occasional hyena howl. Amy and I had all of our tent flaps rolled up, allowing the warm breeze in. A couple of times throughout the night, we were awakened by hyenas that sounded much too close for comfort. And at one point, I’m sure I heard soft footsteps going right around the tent. It might have been the honey badger, which brings me to the next morning …

Honey badger ain’t so sweet

Ironically, one of our scariest moments in Tarangire didn’t involve lions, hyenas or other large beasts. It centred around a rather a small and vicious rabid honey badger running around our campsite. Our encounter was tragically brief. Emmanuel eventually had to end the poor creature’s tortured life with the only weapon available – a tent pole.

The badger’s demise was precluded by a frightening chase around camp. Emmanuel tried to scare him away by yelling and Harold had to jump into the supply trailer for cover when it turned to attack him. There was a temporary knock-out followed by a surprise angry resurrection and rounds of screams any time the scary little fellow came near our tent.

We were convinced that even the thick canvas of our army-issue shelter would have been easily punctured by those long, sharp weapon-teeth. We felt awful about ending his life. But truly, it was a case of self defense, and ultimately only hastened his inevitable fate. As harsh as it seems, these are the laws of the jungle.

Tanzania safari campsite with camp table, tents and wildlife warning sign

Big cats & bold birds

The close encounters continued throughout our safari. At Seronera campsite on the rim of the Ngorogoro Crater, warning signs cautioned about animal attacks. The eating area was enclosed and gated to keep hungry beasts out and there was a guard carrying a heavy-duty elephant rifle. Francis warned us not to go to the bathroom alone at night.

So, we were not all that surprised to hear lions grunting somewhere in the vicinity during the night as we dozed fitfully in tents that were surely no match for a big cat’s teeth and claws. The large kitty paw prints around the outhouse doors in the morning made me thankful I was able to avoid any nocturnal bathroom trips!

We saw four different lions on three separate occasions in the crater. It was the last female that really blew us away. She was right by the side of the road, just sitting quietly. With not even a glance in our direction, she slowly and casually crossed the road immediately behind our jeep. She was so close we could see the fleas buzzing around her coat. We stayed and watched as she walked off into the distance through the tall grass. I was awestruck at her sinuous grace.

lioness and cheetahs in the grass in the Serengeti of Tanzania

Over in the Serengeti, we had another magical big cat encounter. Two handsome cheetah brothers were just sitting serenely by the side of the road about 20 feet away from the jeep. It seemed like they were posing for us before slowly getting up and sauntering gracefully across the road. They took a brief roll in a patch of dirt and then sat up and looked back while waiting for their third brother to join them. Once he did, they ambled away from us toward a distant rock outcropping. Gorgeous.

One thing we learned at Ngorogoro is that picnics are not always a good idea. At first, we were thrilled to be enjoying our sandwiches while lounging on the grass, watching a couple of elephants grazing just a few meters away. But the idyllic atmosphere didn’t last long.

Ngorogoro lunch with elephant

Not once, but twice, we were swooped upon by a greedy black kite bird. He grabbed food right out of our hands with his talons. First it was a sandwich. Then, after the screams had subsided, he dove in again for a perfectly ripe piece of passion fruit. I felt his silky soft wings brush across my cheek as he flashed by. Man, it was scary-funny! We clumsily gathered up the remains of our lunches and beat a hasty retreat to the jeep, laughing breathlessly all the way.

Getting there

If you’re contemplating your own Tanzania safari experience, my post on planning a safari includes helpful tips and resources. And if you’d like to do some hiking while you’re there but don’t have time for Kilimanjaro, think about spending a few days in the Usambara Mountains.

Safari njema (have a good journey),

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