Soon after we left John and Endallah behind us, we were on our way back to Karatu for another bicycle ride – the one that we were supposed to have on the first day. Renatus, who we’d already met that first night, would be our guide. A relaxing three hour bicycle ride – on much nicer bicycles than we’d had in Dar es Salaam – was just what we needed. I asked Renatus how much the mountain bicycles, which were a Chinese brand I didn’t recognize, cost. He estimated $200 for them, which I thought was pretty good for their quality. Bicycle riding seemed to be common all over both the Dar and Northern regions, but ever single other person I saw was riding single-gear British style bicycles (I don’t know what they’re called, but they have a single large shaped piece of metal that flips down over the back wheel to act as a kickstand). Those, according to our guide, were $100. I wondered why people were so opposed to the better bicycle when they were only twice as expensive – it would be a good investment in my opinion. Renatus reminded me of the service required to keep a multi-gear bicycle with cantilever brakes running, in a dusty bumpy environment like Tanzania. Suddenly it made a lot more sense.
The highlight of the trip was stopping by a small local outdoor bar, where we got to sample some banana beer, brewed by the owner. For the equivalent of a nickel, Renatus was handed a warm liter of frothy malt-and-banana beverage in a plastic cup. We both tried it and it was…well, it was different. Apparently bananas ferment very easily, as this stuff was only 2% alcohol but had been made merely a few days earlier. It was filled with….solid material. The malt, I guess. It wasn’t terrible at all, in fact I could see myself developing a taste for it if we were in the region for awhile, but after a bumpy bicycle ride, I don’t think my stomach could have handled more than the 200ml or so it had. At lunch later with Renatus, for $2, I purchased professionally made bottle of “banana wine” which was 10% alcohol. That stuff packed a real kick – and I could still see the malt, finally ground, stuck to the bottom of the bottle. That stuff was great, and if only I could find it cold, I’d love to have more of it.
Renatus also took us to a couple of shops, which I guess is to be expected for a tourist guide. We didn’t know that, though, thinking it was just going to be a bike ride + included beer sampling, so I hadn’t brought my wallet. All the shopkeepers seemed to know Renatus, though, and they all told us we could just pay him later. Christine and I ended up buying a couple paintings from a cooperative of young men artists. The two main styles are “tingatinga” or brush painting, and knife. No Swahili word for that, that they told us at least. I told Paul later that for future tours, he or Renatus should let the tourists know there’d be store stops so we’d know to bring our wallets. He said he didn’t know we’d be marketed to and seemed disconcerted and a bit embarrassed. I told him it was no big deal.
Paul picked us up after lunch and we headed to our fourth and final game drive region, Tarangire. This region was known for two things which immediately appeared for us – massive Baobob trees, and equally massive elephants.
They were everywhere. We saw more elephants over the next 24 hours in our two game drives than we’d seen in the entire trip, times ten. I’d estimate it at over 100, at least, usually in herds of at least 10-15. No more of the solitary elephants we saw leisurely wandering Ndutu – these were family units, almost always with a baby or two literally skipping and frolicking around a mother’s feet, a few oldsters with two foot long tusks, and most comically, the youngsters that were in the 3-4 year age group. These kids had tusks just starting to peep out from under their lips, only an inch or two long, which gave them the look of the bucktooth nerd stereotype as they trundled merrily along.
The baobobs were the other stars of the show, and Paul pointed out that the abundant water we saw in this area – more than any other – led to the trees, and the trees led to the proliferation of elephants. Everywhere we looked we saw massive, 5-meter wide trees – almost always with the telltale scrapes of tusks on them showing where the elephants tore off the succulent, water-filled bark and chowed down. Some of the trees had half their trunks missing, worn down by an excited herd like a gnawed carrot, and others had circual holes in their bases large enough for the Lion King’s Rafiki to build a shamanistic home in them.
Lions were the only predator we came across, including a single “tree lion” which Paul spotted from 300 meter distance. Apparently, it’s very uncommon to see them in trees anywhere but Lake Manyara, so we were lucky to glimpse one through binoculars. Overall, we saw 15 lions, usually in groups of 2-3. As usual, they were all napping – the show-off male from the edge of the Serengeti remains the only lion we saw doing anything but relaxing!
We also saw one more leopard, from a great distance – also napping. This was by the Silaleh swamp, an impressive multi-kilometer wide green swamp filled with Open-Bill storks and happy zebras, rolling about in the strong smelling mud at the edge.
And termite mounds. They were everywhere – I forgot to ask Paul, but I wonder now if they were also part of the Baobob ecosystem. More trees must certainly mean more animals that consume wood. Their mounds were massive, sometimes as much as 4 meters tall. Most were freestanding, but some of them were growing up right around trees, slowly and obviously killing them off as the termites bored away at them from inside their mounds. Seems like a logical to thing to do – if you’re a wood-eating creature, why make a freestanding mound when you could build right around a tree and gain shade, wind protection, and food right at your doorstep?
I really enjoyed the camp we stayed at – it was a nice cross between the quiet solitude of Hugo Camp the first night, and the loud boisterousness of Nyani camp the second night. It was small, but had urinals and toilets, and even showers (filled with wasps nests, unfortunately). We had about a half dozen other campers, including one machine gun-toting Ranger who walked silently about the camp during dinner and breakfast, nodding politely at everyone.
What did we need protection from? Perhaps it would be nearsighted elephants. As I sat writing blog entries in the darkness of our tent with Christine sleeping in the other cot I began to hear crunching…and snuffling. Like a trombone hooked up to an air pump being slowly and gently crumpled. Dark shadows moved in the dim light from the almost-full moon above us. I nudged Christine – “hey, I think there are elephants eating in our camp.” She blearily rose and pressed her face to the screen of the tent door. “Where? What? I don’t see them…I’m gonna go outside and take a look.” I reminded her that Paul definitely didn’t want us to do anything that might spook or alarm the wild animals, and she grudgingly resumed pressing her face to the screen, peering around.
There was a crunch, a twang, and the tent vibrated. Christine leapt back, falling over my cot and jammed her fists to her mouth, whisper-screaming “ohmygodohmygodohmygoditsrightthere”
Seconds later, I saw it too – it’d be hard not to. An elephant’s foot had lightly brushed over the taut nylon ropes holding the tent covering down, which were pinned to the earth a meter from the tent itself. The dimness of the moon vanished and a huge shape passed in front of the door, no more than six inches from us. Christine told me that she had seen the eye itself, heavy lidded with long eyelashes, go right past her face. The ground shook again as the elephant took a few ponderous steps right past us, and in another second or two, was over by the bathrooms, grazing on a tree. Christine lay back down, shaking her head and muttering. In the resumed silence as the elephants moved off, I could hear her heart pounding.
I asked Paul casually the next day – “so, um, you told us that elephants have bad eyesight. What stops them from, y’know, stepping on tents? Accidentally, of course. Or tripping over their ropes.” His answer wasn’t particularly reassuring – “They know an unnatural thing and don’t go near it.” Someone tell that to the big fellow who was inches away from tripping and landing on us!
The last – and definitely least – were the tsetse flies. They were unfortunately everywhere as well, and I have a few red welts on my hands (the only unprotected part of my body) to show for it. They itch like the dickens. Before I realized what they were, I photographed a massive, two-inch long one that had landed on Christine’s kitenga and was nosing about, looking for a weak spot to drill into. Paul later pointed out the flapping blue and black pieces of cloth, hung around every camp and picnic spot. They were drenched in a combination of tsetse fly attracting scent – and poison. The way most Americans have heard of this species of fly is because they carry the movie-famous “sleeping sickness” – but Paul assured me that only 1 in 1000 flies have it. Their bites, however, are still quite annoying and the government pays to put up those cloth banners all over Tarangire to try to keep their population down.
After our alloted 24 hours in the park, it was time to say goodbye to the elephants and baobobs and head back to Arusha. After we departed our last park, Paul frequented the healthy business of air filter cleaners for 15 minutes and a beefy auto mechanic blew out a termite mound’s worth of dust out of the truck’s filter. I was impressed, and asked Paul how often he replaced the filter in the truck. “After every tourist group,” he told me. Tanzania is a dusty country at this time of year.
We dropped Nico off at a bus stop at a crossroads near his hometown, Mto’mboo (which means “Mosquito River”) and we were immediately beset by trinket sellers who of course harrassed us, but I was surprised to see they also went after Nico and Paul. I pressed our tip – $10 per day – into his palm carefully and discreetly. Paul bluntly told me this wasn’t a good area and to keep our money hidden.
Another hour later, and we were back in Arusha, staying at a curious place called, according to our program, “Lenana.” We really didn’t know what to make of it – it was a fine, modern looking home seemingly pressed against the back of a beer distributing warehouse (I saw their prices and advertisements tacked to the wall outside). A young woman, the daughter of the owner, greeted us – or rather Paul, since she didn’t speak any English. We took showers in the clean and tidy bathroom and I accidentally electrocuted my rump when it touched the water faucet – it seems that the electric water heater affixed to the shower head wasn’t properly grounded and the entire metal faucet/shower/handle system was coursing with electricity. Needless to say, between not having any English speaking receptionist to help tell us how to get to the Arusha airport the next day and the dangerous shower, I think I’ll be asking Endallah Tours to reconsider the usage of Lenana as the end-of-tour lodgings, at least in its current (pun intended) state.