With a thunderstorm on the horizon to the north, snow-speckled Mount Meru to the east, and the great Rift Valley opening up before us to the south, it felt as if we were truly entering one of the last great wild areas on the planet as we drove from Arusha to Lake Manyara National Park late one afternoon. Actually, we had arrived on the most popular and expensive safari circuit in east Africa, and almost every other vehicle on the road was a Toyota Landcruiser with a pop-up top, two spare tires, and jerry cans strapped to the back. All of them were, of course, filled with tourists burdened with camera equipment, guidebooks, and high expectations, and the drivers of these vehicles were more than ready to deliver the big game. Over the course of the next few weeks, we would encounter the same Landcruisers at park entrances, picnic sites, and animal kills, and the names of all the safari companies would eventually blur together into one great nemesis as the trucks jostled for prime viewing position in front of us. Africa Dream Safaris, Leopard Tours, Tanzania Adventure, Nature Discovery, and Wild Frontiers ironically became obstacles for us to experience all that they promised to their clients.
Lake Manyara National Park is the first stop made by these expensive guided tours that are eventually headed out to Serengeti National Park. It protects a shallow alkaline lake that stretches out from the western escarpment of the Rift Valley, as well as some excellent riparian forest, acacia woodland, and grassland habitat. The park is famous for its tree-climbing lions, a behavior that is as enigmatic to biologists as it is uncommon for tourists to observe. Philip Briggs, author of the excellent Bradt Guide to Tanzania, more suitably describes the park as the country’s finest birding site as it boasts over 400 species, 100 of which can be seen in a day even by casual birders. This is by far the more reliable claim about the park, although we fell a few species short of this figure during the full day we spent driving its complex system of roads. While I had built up the site considerably in my mind, I certainly wasn’t disappointed by what we encountered, and some observations we made here were some of the finest of our entire trip, including Grey Crowned Crane, Usambiro Barbet, Fischer’s Lovebird, and Great White Pelican.
What will always color my memories of the park is the miserable physical condition I was in. We had stayed the previous night in a decent room at Njake Jambo Lodge and Campsite in Mto Wa Mbu, which is a busy tourist town with plenty of amenities. Mto Wa Mbu means River of Mosquitos, though, and I’m pretty confident that I was bit that night with a malaria-bearing mosquito. The next morning I felt incredibly sore and achy, as if I were sick and hung-over from drinking a case of spoiled beer, and at points during the day I couldn’t even summon the energy to raise my binoculars to my eyes, much less determine the identification of a cryptically-colored weaver. I even relinquished the driving responsibilities to Mark, which shocked Aimee as I regularly spend eight to twelve hours behind the wheel on our vacations. Ten days later I would indeed be crippled by malaria, cutting our visit to the Ngorongoro Crater short. Given the incubation time of the parasite, which is seven to ten days, it would certainly make sense that I contracted malaria here (for the record, I did not drink a case of beer the night before).
After paying the entrance fee ($35 per person per 24 hours), we made our way slowly towards the hippo pool, passing through tall and lush ficus forest filled with Silvery-Cheeked Hornbills and olive baboons. We spotted a dozen Fischer’s Lovebirds perched in a tall tree, preening each other’s rainbow-colored plumage in the early morning sun, and along a rushing stream we found a pair of Mountain Wagtail busy bobbing their tails as advertised. Too tired to stop for various weavers in the bush and canaries on the ground, I pushed us on ahead to the pool, where we could see vast numbers of waterbirds, including a few Great White Pelicans and African Jacanas. The was a large group of hippos, a pair of African Fish Eagles, and hundreds of weaver nests in a tree overhead, but the views from this viewpoint weren’t very rewarding as the landscape is flat and the grass rises high along the water. Supposedly, this is also a good place for Greater Painted-Snipe, but I was hardly in the state to scan for it. Happy to tick a few new species for my country list, including White-Faced Whistling-Duck, I slouched back into the car to continue the search for the mythical tree-climbing lions.
Many kilometers later we finally caught up with a lion laying far from the road in a dry river bed, but these pitiful looks would be put to shame in just a few days as we would literally have to dodge lions on the road while driving in the Serengeti. A far more spectacular sight was the thousands of Lesser Flamingos we saw in the shallows of the lake from the Maji Moto hot springs viewpoint. This site immediately at the base of the escarpment was of great interest to Mark who is trained as a geologist and works as an environmental consultant, often on oil drilling projects. I’ve always appreciated his ability to read a landscape and deduce the narrative of its formation, and I was amazed to hear him describe how the entire continent of Africa was being ripped apart at the very place were standing. I was also growing increasingly fatigued, and it’s a wonder that I stopped the car to investigate a barbet-like call along the road. A pair of Usambiro Barbets, one of a few bird species endemic to the Serengeti region, hopped up briefly from the ground, their silver beaks and more subdued plumage clearly distinguishing them from the dapper d’Arnaud’s Barbet.
Notable birds seen: Great White Pelican, Common Squacco Heron, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, Marabou Stork, Hadada Ibis, Sacred Ibis, Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Spur-Winged Goose, Egyptian Goose, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, African Fish Eagle, African White-Backed Vulture, Palm-Nut Vulture, Augur Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Guineafowl, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Pied Avocet, Speckled Pigeon, Fischer’s Lovebird, White-Browed Coucal, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Crowned Hornbill, Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill, Usambiro Barbet, African Pied Wagtail, Mountain Wagtail, Beautiful Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Northern White-Crowned Shrike, Fork-Tailed Drongo, African Grey Flycatcher, Red-Billed Oxpecker, Superb Starling, Red-Winged Starling, Swahili Sparrow, Blue-Capped Cordon-Bleu.