Day 3: Lake Manyara National Park
I am finding it increasingly difficult to come up with the words to describe the incredible wildlife and landscape in Tanzania. Our adventure today took us to Manyra National Park, which is located squarely in the heart of Maasai territory. The Maasai is one of the oldest and bigger tribes in this region; historically cattle farmers, they live a very primitive lifestyle in mud huts that dot the remote countryside.
Manyra park borders a lake that is an alkaline lake full of millions of flamingos, but the park itself contains several mini ecosystems. With Ben once again at the helm, we set off in search of elephants, giraffe, monkey, and (fingers crossed) big cats. Ben told us that we’d have to be extremely lucky to see any cats in this park, it used to be more common but the cats have learned to avoid the areas visited by the 4x4’s and stick to remote areas. We started a running joke with Ben that, despite his warnings that this wasn’t a place to regularly see the big cats, we were still going to find a “leopard in a tree.” After a day and a half, the joke had evolved to finding all sorts of animals in trees: leopards, lions, and elephants! Every time we said it, Ben would chuckle and shake his head, no doubt thinking “those crazy people.”
You can imagine our excitement when a German tourist in another jeep mentioned “there is a lion in a tree just down the road, next to the wooden bridge.” Ben hit the accelerator and moments later we found the tree in question. Indeed, there was a large lioness relaxing in the upper branches in retreat of the hot sun. While we’d found our lion in a tree, this lion wasn’t exactly feeling social and only gave a view of her butt as she napped, occasionally shifting a paw to maintain her balance. As an aside, I was surprised by her choice of limbs for napping - she didn’t exactly go for big strong branches and I can’t imagine it was a terribly comfortable nap.
I am sure Ben was relieved to finally produce a cat in a tree, hoping that would quell his guests and their jokes, but we immediately began joking that we now wanted elephants and leopards in trees. (Note: elephants don’t climb trees, but since Ben had delivered a sighting that was fairly rare, we figured we’d ask for the moon and see what we got!)
As we continued down the path, Ben would stop and chat with other guides in Swahili about their sightings: “did you see any elephants? any lions?” Ben reported back to us that the other safari groups were coming back empty handed, but this didn’t deter Ben. He’s one of the best drivers in Tanzania and if anyone was going to find the impossible, it was him. Onward we went!
Less than an hour later, we passed some very fresh elephant dung and urine; when urine is still present you know the elephants MUST be nearby. Despite our eagle eyes, we couldn't find any elephants, and pressed forward, disappointed that we may have missed a sighting by mere minutes. The end of this road was an open plain that eventually stretched to the edge of the lake. As we emerged onto the plain, Ben yelled out “Lion!”
Sure enough, in the middle of the plain was a single lioness walking towards the only bush that occupied this otherwise barren grassland. I only got a few quick snaps before she disappeared into the bush and sat down. After spending a minute looking around at the other animals, Ben drove the 4x4 over to the bush, putting us just feet away from the lion as she rested in the shade.
Wow! These are big cats and very impressive to see in their natural environment - no cages or scheduled feedings. I don’t think she was as impressed with the humans as she’d occasionally lift one side of her lip to show us a long tooth. She was a truly magnificent animal and I cannot wait to see more in the Serengeti.
We felt incredibly lucky - TWO lions! Ben commented that this is very rare to see here, so we felt very good about our timing, although still bummed the elephants evaded us. Unfortunately, the park was closing soon, so we had to start the drive back to the main gate without our elephant sighting. About fifteen minutes into the drive, Ben spotted an elephant leg as it moved across the road and into the bush. We drove to that area and could hear the sounds of a bunch of large animals and saw trees shaking. Ben stopped the engine and we sat there in silence listening to the bushes and trees around us shaking from a herd of elephants. Moments later the first elephant emerged from the bush and ambled toward us, getting within inches of the truck before ducking back into the overgrowth. Another group of elephants emerged, this time with a baby. The adult elephants surrounded the baby to protect it, but I still managed a few shots. Ben was starting to get nervous - the park was closing soon and we still had a long way to drive, but the elephants we were previously struggling to identify were now not in the mood to yield from the roadway. Even as we inched closer in the truck, the elephants were not interested in moving and we had no choice but to sit and watch this group of 10 or so elephants (bummer!). Almost as quickly as we found them, they disappeared when an older elephant was spooked by a nearby sound. Ben wasted no time and we tore onward to the main gate.
At this point, it seemed every time we wished to see an animal in a tree, that animal would appear for us, albeit not always in a tree! Once again we joked that all we needed now was a leopard in a tree. Almost as if it was on command, we passed another safari truck that was watching a leopard moving in the bushes. Unfortunately he was moving very quickly so we only got a minute to watch him before he disappeared from view.
On the whole, we had an extremely lucky day in a park that is more commonly known for the bird life. We are hoping our luck didn’t run out too quickly as our next safari stop is the Serengeti! The moral of this story is that we need to keep asking to see animals in trees!