Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lake Manyara

With our time at Amboseli National Park over, it was time to head south of the border, leaving Kenya behind and heading into Tanzania (or T-Zed as it's sometimes known locally) for a week. Tanzania meant more national parks and more wildlife along with a lot of learning about the people we'd meet in our second week on the Dark Continent. Our handover at the border happened in typical organized African safari style, with our guides in Kenya delivering us to counterparts in our new country. Welcome to Tanzania! Almost.

The border crossing went smoothly for most of our group, with the only hiccup being yours truly. After getting my passport stamped right on my brand new visa procured ahead of time in the Tanzanian embassy in downtown Washington, I walked away from immigration with a license to explore Tanzania. Except then I was called back and asked if this was my first visit to their country. I replied it was which caused a supervisor to be called over and some puzzled looks at the computer screen by both men on the other side of the counter who had now repossessed my passport. Seems there is a person out there with a name similar to mine that is, shall we say, a "person of interest" to the Tanzanian authorities. But they allowed that there were enough differences between the two of us that they decided it would be OK to let me in.

Phew! This was my first visit to Tanzania, I swear! Time to go back down to the Valley.

Both Masai Mara National Reserve and Lake Nakuru National Park that we visited in Kenya lie within the boundaries of the Great Rift Valley, an almost 3,700 mile long depression in the Earth's crust. The Valley was formed some 30 million years ago when the African tectonic plate cracked into two subplates which then separated, leaving a depression between them formed by enough volcanic material to make solid land. The Valley varies in depth along its length but most places we went we encountered a pretty definitive and sudden drop in the landscape of what I'm estimating was about 1,000 feet.

Elephants grazing in Lake Manyara National Park with the cliff of the Great Rift Valley beyond.
Our next stop, Lake Manyara National Park, was the third Reserve or Park we'd visit in the Great Rift Valley. No park we visited was more obviously in the Valley than Manyara, as the lake itself is located right next to an escarpment several hundred feet in height. If you want to visit a Park next to a cliff, Lake Manyara is a pretty good choice.

Manyara is famous for two things: flamingos and tree-climbing lions. Yep, you read that right. After missing out (mostly) on the elusive flamingos at Lake Nakuru the prior week in Kenya, we'd get another shot at the pink birds in our second week. And the tree-climbing lions? Well, that's true too. There's no definitive consensus as to why the lions do this, but better vantage points to spot prey and relief from heat and tsetse flies down on the ground seem to be two good conjectures. Suffice it to say we were pretty enthusiastic about the possibility of seeing both of Manyara's most famous attractions.

Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room, shall we? No, not the elephants above. I mean the flamingos. If you've read my blog before, you might know that I have a certain mania about seeing masses of live and wild flamingos in one spot. This bird has cropped up or not cropped up en masse in our travels to Florida in 2014 (didn't realize they were there), Africa in 2015 (wrong part of Africa), Ecuador in 2016 (just saw two), Mexico in 2017 (50,000 live there; we saw fewer than 100) and Kenya in 2018 (climate change driving them off). Lake Manyara represented yet another chance to see these birds. 

And noooooo, we didn't see them. Well, not the way we wanted to. There were clearly, by the mass of pink in the very very far distance, more flamingos than we had ever seen in one spot on this planet. They were clearly there. They were also clearly not seen or maybe better said not seen clearly. The Lake was so far from us and the heat coming off the ground was so intense that even with the benefit of our new super-duper camera, the best we could do was a photograph that resembled some sort of impressionist painting done by an impressionist painter somehow on vacation in Africa. Another miss. Curses!!!

Three wildebeest with an impressionist painting-like background (complete with flamingos) at Lake Manyara.
So about those tree-climbing lions...how cool were they? I'd never in my life seen a lion up a tree, not that I've spent even three weeks of my life looking for lions in trees in the wild. And after visiting Lake Manyara National Park,  I still haven't seen tree-climbing lions. To make it even worse, Manyara was actually the only park that we didn't see lions in. 0 for 2!

In many ways, Lake Manyara was the least memorable of the parks we visited in our two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. We obviously didn't see the Park's signature residents, but beyond that, it seemed like forever until we saw anything exciting except troop after troop of monkeys. Don't misunderstand me, monkeys are probably in the upper half of species on the interesting-to-watch list but they are very activity dependent. And even though we saw our first Syke's monkeys ever and got a better look at some baboons up close that we'd ever had before, they weren't that compelling a subject in the first maybe 90 minutes we were in the park. Something about them sitting in one spot and doing very little.

We actually probably had the odds stacked against us at Manyara. We arrived probably later than we should have after heading out that morning from Arusha and the terrain in the first part of the park was mostly jungle, which is cool but also hides wildlife really pretty well. By "arrived probably later than we should have" I don't mean that we were late or got stuck in traffic or something like that; our schedule just had us arriving in the late morning when the sun is getting a bit hot. And when that happens, the activity level among the animals tends to dip noticeably no matter where you are. We were sort of victims of our own pre-set schedule. And that led to a fairly frustrating first half of driving around the jungle and bush.

Welcome to the jungle. Hornbills at Lake Manyara.
But Manyara redeemed itself in a way that was unexpected at the time and still sticks in my memory as one of the more complete and complex species sightings that we've had at any park in Africa.

When on safari, there are species that you tend to spend more time watching than others. Sure, the stripes on a zebra are amazing to look at and impala have pretty cool horns but unless you enjoy staring at deer, antelopes and horses that just eat grass all the time, you'd rather spend your waking hours watching animals with more complex social structures like elephants or lions. And so would your fellow travelers. So when these kinds of animals are somewhere around you, odds are you will spend time chasing these creatures rather than something else.

As I've already mentioned, we saw no lions at Manyara. And the elephants that we saw in the second photograph of this post disappeared into the bush shortly after we met them. We were kind of at a loss and it was getting hotter, not cooler. Even though we got a decent look at some zebra fighting in the haze of the heat coming off the land, even that didn't go on that long.

Then we found the giraffes. Or maybe they found us. 

We didn't stop much in our time in the six parks and reserves we visited in our two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. There was so much to see and so many places to get to that we rarely stayed in one spot for more than 20 minutes or so. Sure we camped out and watched a potential lion hunt in Amboseli and stayed after a leopard for a while in Masai Mara and lingered long enough to get a great look at some rhino families at Lake Nakuru. But then we were off to the next thing. It was in many ways a really nice problem to have.

But Lake Manyara was a little slow, so by the time a mother giraffe and her baby joined a group of eight other giraffe less than 100 yards from us, we were good and ready to watch for a while. Like 45 minutes a while. 

When giraffe mothers give birth (and in addition to dropping their babies about six or seven feet straight onto the ground), they typically take off into the forest or bush for a while. This gives the mother a chance to nurse the baby in a sheltered area while also allowing her to feed while parking the kid near a tree or two. Not kidding. She'll actually get a good distance from her newborn so she can go gather leaves from the thorny-but-softened-by-giraffe-saliva acacia trees.

After a while and when she feels confident her infant has his or her legs ready to run if necessary from potential predators in the open, she'll take her calf out to see the rest of the herd. According to our guide, Filbert, that's exactly what we saw by the side of Lake Manyara.

Giraffe of just about every size. Mom and the young one are on the right.
What happened next was basically a giraffe meet and greet. Every member of the herd got to check out the new baby and get reacquainted with the new mom. Giraffes sometimes engage in communal calf raising through babysitting stints by the females in the herd so I guess this kind of thing is necessary if baby is going to be looked after by another mother in the herd sometime in his or her childhood. 

This was one of those experiences in Africa that I pin the word "intimate" on. This was a family group getting to know the youngest member of their clan and watching them touch and look and sniff the new calf was a rare treat. I consider myself lucky to have seen this. 

Maybe it happens all the time for people in Tanzania but we'd never seen anything of the sort. It's a scene that is I suppose unique to giraffes since other species don't go into a kind of self-imposed exile immediately after giving birth. It's also an exercise that could not likely be witnessed in captivity, since there are rarely this many giraffes in one place and whatever enclosure man had decided was big enough couldn't very well allow for the kind of separation that a new mother might need. No separation, no re-acquainting.

This all took about three quarters of an hour. That's both it and a long time. That was apparently enough time for the various sized giraffes to get to know their newest son or daughter or niece or nephew or whatever he or she was. By the time the hello session was over, the herd started to separate and take interest in different things including maybe a nearby tree for a snack or, in the case of the bull of the herd, the new mother. How you doin'?

As it turned out, our giraffe encounter both made our trip to Manyara worthwhile and jump started the rest of our day there. In a statement that makes very little sense and is complete coincidence, the quantity of our wildlife sightings improved and increased dramatically after our better part of an hour with the tallest mammals on the planet.

The focus of the rest of the day at the Lake? Birds, something we hadn't paid a lot of attention to in Kenya because there was so much else to see but now that we were down by a good sized body of water seemed to be everywhere and very close to us to allow us some excellent sightings. Except, of course, for the flamingos.

One of my favorite creatures in the world is the marabou stork or "undertaker bird". It's a really tall species of stork that has an enormous wingspan and generally hangs around rotting carcasses to feed after the cats, dogs and vultures have had their fill. I acknowledge it's a strange favorite to have but I'm impressed by large birds with huge wings and the marabous are some of the largest. We'd seen one waiting a respectful distance from the remains of an animal being polished off by a lion in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and we'd even seen a few on the first full day of our trip in Nairobi. But Manyara was the first quality look we had at these gorgeous (to me) birds. 

Others clearly disagree with my opinion of the marabou stork. They are one of Africa's unofficial "ugly five" along with the spotted hyena, lappet-faced vulture, wildebeest and warthog. I think they are impressive and they engender a healthy respect from me. They do look like undertakers though.

A murderer's row of ugly (to some) marabou storks with a single vulture on the left.
We'd see some prettier birds too. We saw plenty of small iridescent birds like the lilac-breasted roller (the national bird of Kenya) and its relative, the Eurasian roller, which is shown in the first picture of this post. We also got a fantastic look at a carmine bee-eater sitting on the branch of a very thorny tree (shown below). Do all trees in Africa have thorns by the way? It seems that way.

Bodies of water like rivers and lakes are great places to spot African fish eagles, which of course we did. We saw these birds elsewhere on our trip but just like the carmine bee-eater and the marabou storks, our best sighting of the trip was at Lake Manyara. Fish eagles are huge, with wingspans of over six feet long when fully grown. We saw many pairs of these birds, which mate for life, in 2015 along the Chobe River in Botswana.

We also managed to see some hornbills on the way out of the park when we were back in the jungle near the exit. We'd seen these birds, which resemble toucans in their general body shape, both in Botswana and Zimbabwe on our last African trip and earlier in this one at our lodge near Kenya's Amboseli National Park. Some of these birds can be extremely colorful. Our couple was not. I love these birds. Not quite as much as toucans, but they are cool nonetheless.

I have to admit, I don't often pay attention to birds when I'm traveling and if I do, it will be to the large birds like storks, herons and flamingos (if they are ever visible). But the variety and frequency of bird sightings we encountered at Lake Manyara made bird-watching at this place a highlight of the day. There are not many places I'll say that about.

Carmine bee-eater in a thorny tree.
African fish eagle in a thorny tree.
Lake Manyara was the only park of the six we visited that we only saw on a single day, so in addition to the terrain and the time of day we visited working against us, we only got one shot here. We spent a single night at Lake Nakuru in Kenya and would spend just a single night near Ngorongoro Crater later that same week in Tanzania. But we saw or drove through both those places either a day or two before or the day after our main game drive. In the end, Manyara was a success even if it was touch and go for a little while there. I've written before in the posts about this trip that every park had its own wildlife story. Lake Manyara turned out to be about birds and giraffes and that worked just fine for me, even if I'd hoped for flamingos and tree-climbing lions.

There's one other thing we got out of our visit to Lake Manyara. After our day in the park we headed to our camp for the night, the Rift Valley Photographic Lodge. This was one of the couple of places we stayed where we likely did not want to be wandering around at night. There were Masai porters stationed on the paths outside our huts and we were serenaded all night by "whoop whoop" sounds, which we found out in the morning were hyena. Better outside than in.

On our way to the Lodge we passed some enormous baobab trees (are any baobab trees not enormous?) which is one of my favorite types of trees in the world. These things can grow to be centuries old and are so large around that they've been used in the past as house or jails. Turns out that there was another we'd see that night right in the middle of the main deck outside the Lodge's dining hall. It was just an amazing setting for a camp and the first time I ever laid hands on one of these old trees.

One night and we were gone the next morning, on the road to the Serengeti.

Always good to find a baobab tree or two on your way from one place to the next.
Last giraffe picture. They are all paying attention to something that the one on the right is doing.

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