Lake Manyara National Park

A decent breakfast of ample portions of fruit and cereal this morning at the Impala was a welcome change from the standard peanut butter on toast or fat filled French toast that would normally constitute breakfast back at the volunteer house. With a good breakfast setting us up for the day, we packed our bags and were standing outside the hotel waiting for Dennis by 8:15. Dennis was apologetic for being slightly late, but we were soon on the open road again heading for Lake Manyara National Park for another day’s game drive.

It was a two hour drive from Arusha to Lake Manyara, but the landscape on both sides of the road kept me submerged in my own thoughts for most of the journey. It was a much more arid landscape than I have experienced before; dry and dusty savannah with little or no plant life and nothing to be seen for miles bar the odd Masaai herdsman and village. The tarmac road that cut up the open plain in front seemed distinctly out of place. I watched the African tribesman walking their cattle out to their grazing spots for the day, leaving behind them their round huts and scattered settlements. Quite a contrast, it has to be said, to the Masaai I am used to seeing in and around Dar. Tribal residents in the city seem rather detached from their not so distant heritage, even though, out of respect to their ancestors, many of them continue to wear the traditional red and purple, beaded attire and carry the compulsory machete. Yet these were scenes of real Maasai roaming in their natural territory. Again, that feeling of intrusion returned, embarrassment almost of the juxtaposition of us and them; of our luxury jeep, pre-packed lunch boxes and pair of binoculars; of their clubs, machetes and cattle grazing.

On the road to Lake Manyara

On the road to Lake Manyara

We also passed a few camels on the way, being guided by their masters. Dennis told us that the camels are not from around here; that they are brought over from Ethiopia and are currently being tried out in Tanzania. Leaving the urban sprawl of Arusha town well and truly behind us, my thoughts were beginning to concur that this was real Africa, in its rawest of forms.

The next sight was not such a pleasant one as we slowed up to overtake a stationary lorry on the left hand side of the road. It had been in a head-on collision with another lorry which was now lying on its side, in a ditch, on the other side of the road. Blood was smeared on the windscreen. A masaai was sitting by the road and a herd of goats were eerily grazing between the wreckage and the road. Dennis slowed some more and uttered some Swahili to the masaai. The masaai told him that the driver was dead. I guess this must be a fairly common occurrence here, judging by the way people drive. But it was an image I did my best to put to the back of my mind as we continued bombing our way along the road at 70 plus miles an hour.

As we began to approach Lake Manyara, the Great Rift Valley appeared into view. It is startling to think that this stunning feature runs all the way from Jordan in southwest Asia to Mozambique in east Africa, still retreating at a rate of 3cm a year. Dennis pointed vaguely down a beaten track that veered off the road to the west, telling us that the lodge where we would be staying tonight was somewhere in that direction. Not being able to make out anything remotely resembling a hotel or lodge, I took little notice of this assertion. We then briskly passed though a small town just east of the lake, with familiar sites of roadside sellers and urbanised masaai with their paintings and authentic souvenirs. A short while later we reached the national park.

The park itself, although much bigger (covering much of the area north east of the lake) and with a more diverse range of inhabitants, is not too dissimilar to Arusha National Park. It is much greener than the arid land south west of the lake, due, according to Dennis, to the moisture in the wind blown over from the coast. It wasn’t very long until we came across our first sighting of elephant; a lone one, and then several groups dotted about the undergrowth.

The most memorable moment of the day was a close encounter with a family of elephants. They appeared out of nowhere and Dennis stopped the jeep for a good 15 minutes to watch them grazing. As we did so, a mother and her baby started walking directly towards us. They came literally within touching distance of the vehicle. Another elephant walked around the front of the vehicle, two metres away. The family crossed the track and made for a small lake in nearby marshland. As they made their way across the track in their slow, casual (and less than graceful) manner I could hear the ground murmur under the feet of these magnificently large creatures. One of them stopped to alleviate an itch on the bark of a tree. They bathed in the lake and we drove on.

Elephant crosses the road right in front of the jeep

Elephant crosses the road right in front of the jeep

Another memorable moment was the sighting of a leopard lying in a tree. We wouldn’t have seen it if it wasn’t for the other safari vehicles littering the side of the track. It was quite a distance away, just close enough to make out but not distinguishable without the binoculars. The solitary cat was stretched out on a branch in the tree tops just under the cover of the forest canopy. As a nocturnal creature, such sighting is rare – Dennis told us it was the first time he had seen a leopard in the park. I was very grateful for the opportunity.

It was also fascinating watching half a dozen giraffe wonder around at a lakeside stop where we were allowed to get out of the vehicle. I stood there for five or ten minutes watching the giraffe roaming around in their peculiar way, whilst a family of mircats popped up to say hello in the foreground. Other sightings in the park included Cape Buffalo, Hippopotamus’, Blue Monkeys, Vervet Monekys, Black and White Colobus Monkeys, Baboons, Kirk’s Dikdik (tiny antelopes), Impala, Warthogs, Flamingos and Kingfishers.

The afternoon was not quite the excitement of this morning’s sightings, and we went a fair distance without seeing anything at all. Still, the beauty of the landscape was enough to keep me occupied as we journeyed back through park. Dennis called it a day a little earlier than yesterday, telling us that we would want some rest and relax time back at the lodge. We would soon discover what he meant by this.

The journey to the lodge took half an hour. We travelled back through the town and left the main road for a dust track that veered off to the West. Dennis had pointed it out on the way, but it hadn’t registered with me that we would be driving down it. We passed a small village on the left and then yonder into the wilderness; nothing to be seen but wild, open savannah. There was no tarmac road this time… just a dusty track that didn’t seem to lead to anything of note on the horizon. The jeep filled with that weird dusty smell as the sand from the savannah filtered through the windows. I was definitely feeling a little unsettled, wondering just what kind of lodge this would turn out to be.

Then, out of nowhere, we pulled into a driveway and parked up outside a stone building, hidden away in the shrubbery. Two masaai stood at the entrance and started walking towards the jeep. An eccentric South African lady came out to welcome us, presumably the owner. The masaai took our bags and the lady guided us around to the front of the building towards a seated area and a bar. Four glasses of iced-tea were waiting for us at the bar. This place is utterly breathtaking. There is a lawn and a small pool out front, and then nothing. Nothing except an uninterrupted view of the savannah, with Lake Manyara to the North West and the Great Rift Valley in the background. Whilst we were arriving, masaai herdsman were walking their cattle back across the plain to their residings. The sound of cattle bells was the only thing to be heard above the faint rustling of the wind. This luxury tented lodge has been picked up and dropped right into the heart of tribal Africa. It baffles me how such a place manages to exist.

Chilling by the pool, Lake Manyara and the Great Rift Valley in the background

Chilling by the pool, Lake Manyara and the Great Rift Valley in the background

Dennis drank up his ice tea and left us to it, he is staying somewhere in the nearby town. Our lodge is just down the path from the main building. Although it is tented, it is big enough to accommodate three good sized beds and a bathroom. It is raised on a wooden platform and has a thatched roof; very comfortable. The view, as aforementioned, is incredible. I wonder whether I will ever stay in such an amazing place as this again. I headed straight for the swimming pool. Although the temperature was not particularly inviting, I was more than content to bathe in the water whilst watching masaai and their cattle cross the plain in front. I wanted to savour the view during the last hour of sunlight. For a good while, very little was spoken between the three of us, I guess there just wasn’t much to be said other than how lucky we all were to have found ourselves here.

Shortly after I watched the sun disappear behind the Rift Valley we were invited upstairs for dinner. The restaurant is situated on the second floor of the main building, where a candle lit table had been laid for us. What I have failed to mention thus far is that we are the only people staying at the lodge tonight and we have the entire place to ourselves. It has been a very quiet week here apparently. It makes me slightly uncomfortable that we are being waited on exclusively by the services of at least six staff, but all the more grateful for having the place to ourselves. The food was very good, although probably enhanced a great deal by the extraordinary situation.

Sun sets over the savannah

Sun sets over the savannah

We ended the evening sitting around a log fire that had been lit for us. After enough pondering, we called it a day and three masaai guards escorted us back to the lodge. Their principal role is to guard the lodge from straying animals overnight. I’m heading off to bed. Tomorrow I plan to be up early enough to see the sun rise above the Rift Valley, and, with another long day ahead, I require ample sleep.


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