|Hey there, big fella!|
Knowing we would be up before dawn the next day, we all got to bed early that night at our hotel in Morogoro, Charlie and I included, despite the uneasy feeling we shared after noticing two bullet holes in the wall of our hotel room. (Nothing like a little World Cup to soothe the nerves.)
At 4:30 we woke, packed up and were soon on our way to Mikumi, hoping to arrive by 6:00 AM, the official time of dawn in Tanzania and thus the time when the animals should begin moving around in search of food. I say the "official time" because of the somewhat peculiar time scheme that exists in Tanzania. Since we're not exactly on the equator, day lengths do vary somewhat, yet that fact is somewhat ignored here. Unlike anywhere else I have ever been, Tanzania and presumably
several of its neighbors operate on "Swahili time." The day starts exactly at dawn, which they call 12:00 AM, and the counting begins there, yielding a day comprised of 12 hours of daylight and then another 12 of darkness.
Therefore, when someone in Tanzania asks you the time, if it's 9:00 AM on your watch then you have to perform a mental conversion of both time and language, and translate "It's 3:00 in the morning" into Swahili. This further complicates an already confounding process.
Unfortunately, in the millions of years that they've been living here, the animals were apparently never informed of exactly when was the appropriate time to emerge. With several notable exceptions, they were largely absent during our first few hours of bumping across the savanna. The driver spotted a very distant herd of elephants as we entered the park, right after we passed the "Welcome to Mikumi National Park: Dangerous Animals Next 50 Kilometers" sign. Impala proved plentiful early on, and were found throughout the park in small herds. A few buffalo and zebra heads poked up from the grasses at various points during the next several hours, but our guide failed to produce any whole specimens.
Thought not one of Tanzania's most famous game reserves, Mikumi is known as the best place within a few hours of Dar to see many of Africa's most famous large animals. The unusual rains we've been getting in the past few weeks were blamed for our difficulties in seeing game that day—rains cause the grasses to grow taller, and also allow grazers and predators alike to avoid the watering holes on which they are otherwise forced to rely and where they are thus easy to spot.
In mid-morning we did see a few more zebra, several wildebeest, baboons, and occasionally another of the savanna's many brilliantly colored birds. We also paused for several minutes to watch a group of giraffes feeding near the road. We might have seen more animals if a very distracting disaster had not suddenly struck. A swarm of tsetse flies—infamous carriers of African Sleeping Sickness—invaded our bus, prompting a window lockdown and spirited squashing session to rid ourselves of the surprisingly resilient insects.
Following lunch, we drove along the highway through the park, en route back to Morogoro. As we sped along, we passed a gap in the brush, where I and our professor simultaneously spotted a hulking beast of an animal and in unison yelled, "TEMBO!!!" The bus driver obligingly slammed on the breaks then backed up very, very, very slowly. No more than fifteen meters from the road, the full-grown African elephant packed a trunk-full of grasses into his mouth as we pulled up beside him. He chomped slowly, eyeing the creeping bus with suspicion. Suddenly, with a tremendous snort he tossed his head, surrounding himself in a cloud of thick dust and thrusting his tusks at us proudly, or perhaps in warning. After a few minutes we pulled slowly back out onto the road, leaving him to his meal, and returned to Morogoro. No lions or rhinos yet, among others, but more parks are on the schedule for July.
The next day, half our group, along with two of our teachers and a local guide, hiked for about five hours up a peak in the Uluguru Mountains, next to Morogoro town. On the steep ascent we passed numerous villages, whose inhabitants have lived their entire lives farming the precipitous slopes, their children hiking their narrow trails to school every day.