Tarangire National Park - Safari Part 1
Updated: May 6
Moving east to west from Arusha, you hit Tarangire National Park first, making it a common sense first stop on our three-part safari. While many people choose to bypass this for Serengeti - the most famous of Tanzanian parks - starting here was an absolutely outstanding choice.
Named after the Tarangire River, a year-round source of water for the park’s massive elephant population, Tarangire National Park opened our eyes to the beauty of Tanzania’s natural world. Sounds almost cliche to say it, but words and pictures just won’t do it justice. Here’s to trying!
Entering Tarangire, and a Little Bit of Jurassic Park
Okay, so it wasn’t completely Jurassic Park, but Tarangire has a pretty cool gate welcoming you. As a physical marker, passing through this definitely represented our transition from driving on paved roads to yes-you’re-now-on-a-safari.
And, to really get us in the mood, Chipp had a nice introduction to the local flora. Acacia trees are ubiquitous across the African savannah, with about 160 different types. The most iconic includes the flat-topped, wind-swept-looking ones dotting the Serengeti plains.
But, smaller, less aesthetically pleasing ones exist, too. More like bushes, these trees also have dagger-like thorns (makes sense why the acacia is also known as the thorntree). Walking by one without realizing this, Chipp had a nice long gash ripped into his shirt when it caught a protruding thorn. Auspicious start to the adventure!
Russian Tourists Doing Russian Tourist Things
What’s any beautiful spot without some Russian tourists doing silly, rules-don’t-apply-to-us things? A bit of a non sequitur, this story does tie into some future, monkey-related interactions for the two of us.
As Salim handled our entrance paperwork at the Tarangire gate, two other jeeps pulled up. Growing up in eastern Europe, Jenna can spot Russian tourists from a mile away. Typically dressed in clothes not necessarily relevant to the situation (e.g. sandals and designer jeans on safari), there’s a general loudness to these groups (little bit of pot calling the kettle black for Chipp…).
And, this crew didn’t disappoint. Directly next to where they parked, a large sign clearly said: “Don’t feed the animals!” Sure, you can make a language-barrier argument, but these guys spoke English. Standing next to the sign, they proceeded to start tossing snacks to a few monkeys who, quite understandably, eagerly gobbled them up.
Well, they now had the taste of human food. As the Russians wandered off, two monkeys dashed into the open window of their jeeps, grabbed a couple bags of chips, and bolted off - all in about a half second. Little guys are quick.
Two lessons: 1) don’t feed the monkeys, and 2) keep your windows rolled up.
What’s a “Game Drive?”
Setting off on our first full safari day, it dawned on us - we didn’t quite know what a safari day entailed. As we’d discover shortly, everything revolves around “game drives.” But, what’s a game drive?
As expected, it’s just what it sounds like - driving around looking for local game. But, that definition absolutely undersells the experience. Yes, you do in fact spend the day driving around parks. It’s not like being stuck in the back of your parents’ car for a Sunday drive, though.
We weren’t driving around in a normal vehicle. Our kitted out Landcruiser had an extendable roof, letting us stand up as we spent days driving through some of the most beautiful terrain on earth. And, as we stood and took in our surroundings, we had frequent shots of adrenaline from seeing a mama cheetah and her cubs, or a rhino, or a lioness on a rocky outcropping looking for prey, or any other incredible sight. Throughout it all, we’d see thousands of “boring” animals, as well - herds of wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles.
So yes, a game drive - the focal point of modern safaris - just means driving around looking for wild animals. But, it’s a driving-around experience unparalleled elsewhere.
A Zebra Welcoming Committee
Driving into Tarangire, we still hadn’t become numb to having thousands of animals around us, animals we’d only seen in zoos and documentaries before this. This made our “zebra welcoming committee” all the cooler.
Within about 100 yards of the park’s main gate, we came upon a herd of what seemed like hundreds of zebras (realistically far fewer). Intermixed with these black-and-white striped characters, we saw tons of cape buffalo, a silly looking - but extremely aggressive - type of horned buffalo.
As the saying goes, teamwork makes the dream work - turns out zebras and cape buffalo buy into this ridiculous saying, too. Talking to Salim, he explained that cape buffalo have awful vision but great smell, while zebras have great vision and awful smell. Doing the whole symbiosis thing, they tend to travel together, with zebras scanning with their eyes and cape buffalo with their noses. Cool bar trivia.
Elephants - Chipp’s New Favorite Animal
Hands down, elephants are the best animals in the world (per Chipp). Tarangire is known for having a huge elephant population, and it didn’t disappoint. With the Tarangire River winding through the park, a year-round water source exists, making this a great place for these massive creatures.
For background, matriarchs run things in elephant herds. And, when you watch the lumbering beasts (with surprisingly soft footsteps) move, it’s pretty easy to pick out the gal leading the movement. Incredible to watch dozens of massive animals moving in unison, with the subtle changes of a single leader quickly echoing throughout the entire herd.
What’s most impressive is just how protective these elephants are of their young. Though seemingly calm and caring, mama elephants possess an incredibly fierce streak if you threaten their “little” ones. We saw this first hand driving along the river. As we drove along a dirt track by the river, a herd of a few dozen elephants crossed the trail in front of us. To protect the exposed herd, one of the elders placed itself - quite belligerently - directly in front of our jeep, shouldering us off from the other elephants.
It’s hard to say definitively, but we’re pretty sure that if either of us got out and made a dash towards the herd, we’d have been quickly gored by one of this enforcer’s lethal tusks.
Safari Picnics and Some “Monkey Business”
It seems strange to say - surrounded by such beautiful countryside - but our picnic lunches were absolutely high points of every day. Not because the rest of the days weren’t awesome - just because food is awesome-er.
Every morning, as we left whatever lodge where we’d spent the prior night, Salim would coordinate with the kitchen to load up a delicious picnic lunch. No military MREs here - delicious, hot meals paired with fresh fruit and piping hot cups of Tanzanian coffee, French press style. It almost seems too ludicrous to say, but there’s just something spectacular about a big meal, washed down by hot coffee, while overlooking such incredible terrain. Chipp definitely fell into kid-on-Christmas-morning mode every time we pulled into a picnic area to unpack the day’s lunch.
But, our lunches also weren’t without “risk” (reference Russian tourists). Our second day out in Tarangire, we’d posted up at a stunning, cliff-top picnic area overlooking a big bend in the Tarangire River. And, as a picnic area with plenty of food, we had plenty of monkeys trying to eat said food.
Most of these designated picnic areas employ someone who ostensibly cleans up, but actually spends the day with a sling shot chasing off thieving monkeys. But, a sling shot can only do so much. As we sat and ate, keeping our eyes on the monkeys just waiting for an opportunity to dash in for a snack, we briefly let our guard down. In a blink of an eye, a little monkey shot in, grabbed the carrots off Jenna’s plate, and shot right back out - proceeding to sit out of reach, seeming to laugh at us as it chomped on some carrots.
Thought we’d learned our lesson, but we obviously hadn’t - you can’t underestimate these ones.
Tarangire Balloon “Camp” and a Giraffe Host
Where does one sleep on safari?
Great question! And, it’s one we didn’t quite understand ourselves. When we booked our trip, the itinerary included places to stay every night. It’s one thing to see a name on an itinerary, but it’s quite another to spend a night in the middle of a Tanzanian national park.
First of all, we certainly weren’t “roughing it.” Glamping best describes our lodgings, and even that doesn’t do it justice. Our first night out, we stayed in the park at Tarangire Balloon Camp. In normal times, it’s a launch pad for tourists taking hot air balloon trips over the park (aptly named). For us, we nearly had a private stay (plus a couple wonderful gals from Texas!).
The camp has a large welcome/reception tent, and then you continue along a path to a series of individual “tents.” Really, these are all more like suites, with full baths, couches to lounge on, and comfy, pillow-filled beds. Only a couple things remind you that you’re in the middle of the Tanzanian wilderness. First, the beds have mosquito nets over them. Second, if you need to leave your tent at night, you must radio for an escort (don’t want to get snatched up by a lion walking after dark…).
We checked in for our one night at the Balloon camp, cleaned up, and walked over to the bar - absurd to even say that (definitely beats Chipp’s “field time” in the Marines!). Sitting on the back deck on a clifftop in Tarangire, looking over the park, and sucking down a few cold beverages - life was good. And, dinner would be just as good. We sat down for a formal meal - not what one expects while “camping” - and ate to our heart’s content. If we weren’t surrounded by complete darkness (not an ambient light on the horizon), we could’ve been at any restaurant anywhere. Incredible.
The next morning, we had an equally delicious breakfast. And, walking from our tent to the dining tent, we saw massive hoof prints along the dirt trail. Apparently we’d been visited by a local giraffe the night before. As we loaded up the jeep and took off, we made it one turn in the road before meeting our friend - Mr. Giraffe was casually chomping on some leaves and looked at us as if to say, “I hope you had a good time - I love this place, too.”
“Want to Take a Picture?”
Our second day in Tarangire, Salim was dead set on finding a leopard for us. We hadn’t seen one on Day 1, and he knew Jenna was obsessed with cats - big or small.
Professional that he was, Salim spotted one from about a half kilometer away. We didn’t know the trick at the time, but the key with leopards is to look for big acacia trees and find a tail hanging from the branches. Where there’s a tail, there’s a leopard.
When he spotted one, he turned around from the driver’s seat and asked if we’d like to take a picture. Armed with nothing more than iPhone cameras, we told him not to worry about it - the tree was too far off the road for a good shot.
He smiled and took care of the rest. Turning off our dirt track, he drove directly at the tree. We expected him to stop at 100m. 50m. 25m. 10m. Nope. He pulled directly under the leopard’s branch, giving us an unbelievable - and terrifying - picture opportunity of this gorgeous creature. With hearts pumping, we took some great pictures and kept our fingers crossed the leopard wouldn’t pounce from its resting place.
Mr. and Mrs. Dik-Dik - Jenna’s Favorites
We’ve been very clear throughout all of our blog posts - Jenna’s obsessed with cats. But, in Tarangire, we may have come as close as possible to having another animal usurp the I’m-obsessed-with-you throne.
Dik-diks are the smallest antelopes on earth, standing about a foot and a half tall. They are, without exaggeration, some of the most adorable little things we’ve ever seen. And, how do you make them even more adorable? Tell Jenna that they mate for life, so Mr. and Mrs. Dik-Dik are together forever.
For the rest of our safari adventure, peeking behind bushes to find some dik-diks became a critical mission. Anytime we spotted a pair, Jenna would inevitably let out an “Oi! Dik-diks! Back up!”
“They’re Probably Looking at That Sausage Tree”
From a little boy’s humor perspective, sausage trees definitely take the cake in terms of inappropriate humor. These trees - dotted all over Tarangire - quite literally look like they have large sausages hanging down on threads from the branches. Yes, these phallic-looking objects are actually fruit. But, that doesn’t mean that Chipp - and boys everywhere - weren’t making jokes about the tree.
This set the stage for an interaction as we were leaving the park. Making our way back towards the exit, we saw a group of three or four jeeps bottled up on the side of the road, clearly looking up at a tree.
Jenna: “What are all those people looking at?” Chipp: “I think they’re looking at that sausage tree.”
Salim: “Looks like a leopard pulled an antelope into the branches.”
Yep, Chipp just found the sausage tree in and of itself hilarious. Everyone else was - understandably - more impressed by the leopard cub snacking on the antelope carcass its mom had likely pulled up into the tree. Sausage trees, feeding leopards - they’re all interesting!