“I’ll tell you what sucks. Having to throw up, but not being able to leave your hut cause there’s a lion outside. That sucks.”

– Janine

Park fees within Tanzania’s famous northern safari circuit (Serengeti, Ngorongoro, etc) are atrocious.

To visit Ngorongoro Crater for example, each person pays a $50/day entry fee for a 24 hour stay. However, to actually descend into the Crater itself, where all the animals are, there’s an additional “crater fee” of $100 per vehicle for EACH time you go down. You can’t camp within the crater itself. So this means that for two folks to do the normal 2 crater drives over a 24 hour period, you’re looking at park fees alone of $300. Add on to this camping fees of $30/person/day and the cost of your safari vehicle rental, guides and food and there’s a reason that you won’t be reading too many posts on this blog about game drives.

In the south of the country, however, it’s a much better scenario for your pocket book. Park fees are about half those in the north. The parks are far less visited (it’s not uncommon to see 10 jeeps observing a single lion in Ngorongoro). The animals are plentiful and not habituated to humans.

So after our interesting mini-bus ride to Iringa, we were excited to make arrangements for a 2 day game drive in Ruaha National Park. It was still an expensive treat, but just as we were reconciling ourselves to wincing and handing over the money, we got doubly lucky.

Lucky first because we met two fellow travellers with whom we could split the cost of the trip. And then lucky again because they were awesome. Or, to use our new favourite term, totally badical.

Mike and Else are a warm and energetic young Dutch couple. When we met them they had just finished a volunteer internship in the northwest Tanzanian town of Bukopa and were now doing a little tourism before heading back home to resume university studies. Else has the face of an angel and the personality to match (although she cheats viciously at boardgames). Mike is extroverted and completely openhearted in all his interactions with local people. I admired his facility with Swahili and his genuineness with everyone from shy kids to a teenager whose bike chain he stopped to help repair while we were on our way to lunch. But we really started to click when we discovered that we shared a mutual love of the same 80’s action television shows and a belief that it was time for the word “badical” to enter the popular lexicon.

What can I say? We made friends.

***

The drive to Ruaha Park from Iringa is one of the roughest we made in all of our African travels. The pitted red track was surprisingly bad given Ruaha’s reputation as a top-notch park and tourist draw. We braced against any available surface of our jeep’s interior with arms, legs and backs to keep from getting thrown around too badly.It didn’t work.

Rubbing my head fiercely after bashing it three successive times against the roof, I asked our guide, David, how the only land route into the park could be so badly maintained.

David smiled and shook his head sadly. “The government paid a contractor to level and grade the entire road last year,” he said. “He did a few hundred meters and then disappeared with all of the money.” Anthony, our driver, mutters something undoubtedly profane in Swahili as he swerves to avoid a shallow-grave-sized pothole.

We reach the park by lunch time. David does the final paper work on our permits while the rest of us stand outside the jeep and watch hippos emerge from the Great Ruaha river, their massive backs bobbing to the surface of the brown waters like fleshy submarines.

I have to admit that I’m a classicist when it comes to favourite animals. I know that for many people, it’s the rarities that are the most treasured sitings. But, as we make our way into the park, I’m most excited by the simultaneously gangly and elegant giraffes, the half-dozen lionesses and their two cubs lounging on a sandbank by the river, the zebras and their young; swishing their tales in perfect unison and with metronomic regularity.

And of course, there’s the elephants.

It’s the small rains season in Ruaha, so the land is green and the trees leafy. For a number of animals like leopards and lions, this makes for less than optimal viewing conditions. But nothing can hide Ruaha’s elephants. They march in slow state amongst the acacia and baobob trees.

They are often in groups of half a dozen or more. New, shrivelled looking little calves walk almost underneath the bellies of their giant mothers. At other times, a lone bull grazes noisily, effortlessly ripping great tufts of tall grass from the earth.

Ruaha is a relatively new park and its elephants still have strong memories of the days when man was a hunter, not a photographer. This doesn’t make them the friendliest of animals. Anthony keeps the car idling as we snap pictures.

We are observing one group of females with their calves when a young male bursts into the clearing, ears flared, trunk raised and blaring.

He’s not full grown, but he could easily pulverize our vehicle. He trumpets again, spins around in a dusty 360 and bluff charges us just as Anthony reverses out of the clearing. We back up far enough to do a three point turn and drive away with the young punk still screaming at us. I get the feeling that he enjoyed running us off.

“That was badical,” says Mike grinning.

“Totally badical,” I agree.

I quickly lose count of the number of elephants and giraffes we see.

They are joined by herd after herd of zebra and impala. A troop of a hundred baboons strides across the road, big males patrolling the outskirts of the pack, mothers striding smoothly with infants on their backs or clinging to the underside of their bellies. Jackals, always working in monogamous pairs, stare at us from the grasses. Hornbills and vultures sit atop trees whose trunks are decorated with brightly coloured geckos.

We drive for six hours, shooting, ogling and joking. As dusk approaches, Anthony takes us to the park staff quarters. At the social club there we watch boxing on the small television amongst rangers and bureaucrats while sipping drinks and waiting for our classic east african meal of kuku na chipsi (chicken and fries). After stuffing ourselves we head outside and Mike and I join the staffs’ kids in a twilight soccer match. Mike is really good. I am really not.

We return to our camp by the Ruaha river, where an armed ranger walks us to our hut amidst the sounds of grunting lions and hippos. We remember our core mauling avoidance lessons – don’t run from a lion, don’t get between the hippo and the water. The latch on our door doesn’t work. So I rig something and spend a good portion of the night staring at the ceiling and wondering whether it’s lion proof.Still, I have a better time of it than Janine, who gets hit with some kind of nasty stomach virus and spends most of the night nauseous, throwing up and generally praying for death. With large animals sounding like they’re just outside the door, she’s confined to being miserable inside unless she signals the ranger to come and stand beside her, rifle cocked, while she heaves up dinner.

We rise before dawn for our second drive. Janine is still pale and shaking from her long night, but is resolved to carry on. We meet up with Mike and Elsa outside their hut and the four of us make our way carefully to the bathroom. Stopping occassionally to listen to unidentifiable noises in the dark scrub.

Once in the jeep, Janine’s spirits are immediately lifted by the number of animals we see, including our first male lion of the trip. He stalks the roadside and barely acknowledges us as we drive beside him, cameras whirring.

“He is old,” David says quietly. “Now he will mostly scavenge.”

Anthony is either brave or stupid when it comes to elephants today and we’re not sure whether there’s an appreciable difference. He turns off the road and drives into a veritable thicket of them at one point. We remind him that his tip doesn’t depend on how close he comes to getting us trampled.

The biggest thrill of the day comes from seeing Big Bull, one of the parks really huge male elephants. We come around a corner and spot him grazing 50 meters from the road, casually tearing human sized hunks of vegetation from the surrounding foliage.

Anthony turns off the car. We tell him to turn it back on.

Bull tolerates us for a few minutes and then charges, ears flared, trunk raised. We leave in a hurry, our hearts thumping (I think Anthony let him get a little close on purpose) and Big Bull moves on, scratching his belly with his enormous penis.

“He will send out 20 litres of ejaculate when he mates,” David says with a touch of pride.

Well. What do you say to that?

The rest of the day is spent enjoying less adrenalin-inducing sites. A herd of 30 hippos bathing in the river, the large elk-sized elands and the tiny dog-sized dikdiks, and of course tons more giraffes, elephants, zebras and lions. In all our time at the park, we only see three or four other vehicles in passing. It feels like we have the park to ourselves, and even Janine, who can’t keep down fruit and water, enjoys the show.

The lush green hills and winding rivers of Ruaha have set a very high bar for all future game drives. We happily relive our favorite moments (elephant charge, not Janine puking), as we bounce our way back to Iringa.

Jason and Janine

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