This park lies at about 1,100 m above sea level. It is a country of expansive views, in which wide panoramas of wooded savannah stretch in every direction. Its name is derived from the Tarangire River which flows through the park throughout the year. This river is more or less a small stream; its source is in the southern mountains of the park; from there it is winding its way all through the game reserve. In the north it makes a big curve to the west and runs into Lake Burungi. During a really dry season even the Tarangire River can sink down into the sand and disappear. But it will appear again farther downstream. Even in the driest of years this river does not disappear completely, and it is the Tarangire River that provides the only permanent water for animals in the Maasai-Steppe. At these dry seasons lots of animals gather in large numbers along the river as it is their only water source.
Tarangire harbours several animals that you have not seen yet in the other reserves you have visited. You have the chance to view Lesser kudu or the Fringe-eared Oryx. Tarangire is primarily wooded bush country that was, at one time, famous for abundant black rhino. Unfortunately, rhino have been all but eliminated during the last 50 years.
On entering the park you’ll pass through some of the most beautiful country and landscapes: You’ll notice lots of eye-striking baobab trees rising up from the high grass of the Lemiyon plains. These trees look quite odd with their massive knotty trunks, up to ten meters in diameter. Actually they can reach 2000 years of age, similar to the Sequoias in America. Some of the trees have been much scarred by elephants; one even displays a hole eaten right through its massive trunk. If you look up in the branches, you’ll notice long oval shaped fruits hanging down, which contain lots of seeds. These seeds look like marshmallows and Tanzanian kids love to chew them.
The fruits of the Baobabs can be made into a variety of useful utensils and drinking vessels. The young leaves are edible by humans. The wood with its long fibre is made into ropes and woven articles. As many baobab trees are hollow, they frequently serve as reservoirs for rain water.
Why this tree has such a funny appearance with its root-like branches, is explained in the following African fairy tale: When God created the universe, he also created the Baobab trees. But after their creation, these trees looked quite different from today’s appearance; in fact they looked the same like any other tree. This uniform appearance the Baobabs did not like at all, so they always complained: they wanted to be bigger, more beautiful, and more special than their wooden relatives. God was very angry about their behaviour of constant complaints, so he pulled them out from the ground and put them back upside down, means their treetop went down in the earth. So actually the leafless branches, which you see, are the roots of this tree.
In some trunks of Baobab trees you can observe the nest-burrows of hornbills. They build a burrow resembling that of a European woodpecker. After laying the eggs, the female is locked in the burrow by the male, who closes the entry hole with clay, leaving a small slit for feeding purposes. After hatching, the female is released from her prison and then helps feeding the hatchlings. This area is also dotted with the sausage tree which bears fruit that look exactly like huge hanging bratwursts.
To the left and right hand side of Tarangire River, the grassland is about 5km wide. On its far border starts the tree savannah. All these places teem with wildlife: You will be in a state of constant excitement, spotting zebra, giraffes, kudu, the ever-present impala, wildebeest, gazelle, hartebeest, the comical warthog, oryx, and plenty of monkeys. With water concentrated in only a few places (mostly the river) the animals are easy to find. Of course you’ll see lots of elephants, which the park is famous for. And you might also be pleased to spot eland – the biggest animal of the antelope family who the Maasai regard as honorary cattle. The thick-coated waterbuck are sometimes out in large numbers looking like very large stuffed toys. Tiny DikDik antelope, the size of a terrier, might be flushed out of bushes by your approach. Troops of baboon are as interested in you as you are in them. Also there are troops of long tailed vervet monkey in trees nearby and everywhere the most vividly colourful birds you have ever seen.
After finishing the northern sector of the park, you cross the Tarangire River over the small concrete Engelhard-Bridge. This is the only permanent bridge in the park. This is a good place to stop to look again for monitor lizards, which sun themselves in the rocky riverbed. Just beyond the bridge, the track forks at a small kopje, where klipspringer and rock hyrax are regularly seen. From Engelhard-Bridge onwards, you can see extended grassland with high elephant grass and acacia trees on your left hand side, on your right hand side the grassland is intermixed with forest areas. These habitats are populated by quite a large number of savannah animals. Your roundtrip through the park takes you through very different areas with variable landscapes.
On the banks of the Tarangire River lions will always find enough prey, so there is a good possibility for you to see a pride of lion finishing off a zebra or a buffalo. The killed animal gets rather clinically dissected by the lions. They start at the belly under the tail and eat the underside so perfectly that a butcher couldn’t do a more precise job, their faces red with blood. Unfortunately lions are quite chauvinistic: Once the prey animal is killed by the females, the male lions are the first ones to eat. If they are really hungry, they can finish forty kilos of meat in one go. After that the females are allowed to eat and in the end it is the youngsters’ turn.
In the eastern part of Tarangire National park the soil is predominantly black cotton soil. If there is some rainfall ion your safari, you can easily get stuck in the mud with your vehicle. The main type of vegetation in this area is the long-grass savannah, which dries up more and more after the rains have stopped and now has become a big grazing ground for elephants. But literally the moment you enter the park you will be having encounters with elephants – very close and very many. The behaviour of Tarangire elephants contrasts sharply to that of Manyara’s pachyderms. They tend to cluster together in huge groups: it is not unusual for you to see herds of more than hundred of these giants.
You can spend a long time just a few meters away from herds of maybe female groups with babies or young to medium aged bulls, who are feeding off trees and who are not at all bothered by your presence. In fact sometimes you’ll have no choice but to watch them as a whole herd might be blocking your track while intently shaking the trees for fruit. In that case it is wise that your driver let them clear the road at their own pace. Elephants are impressive and highly intelligent beasts and it is a treat to be able to observe them so intimately. If you happen to be really close, you can even see their eyelashes and watch the nimble work of their trunks picking up tiny bits of vegetation. Watching them eat you’ll realize that they destroy anything near them – the banks of the river, bushes, trees, etc.!
If you were an Elephant researcher, you would recognise them individually by looking at the shape of their tusks and nicks in the outline of their ears. Both male and female African elephants have tusks and tusk length and circumference can also be used to determine the age of an animal. Sometimes they walk just a few meters past your vehicle so silently you hardly hear their steps. They look so benevolent that it’s easy to forget that they can charge at a speed of 50 k/ph. Cows with babies are particularly bad tempered if they are approached too close. They often put on intimidating displays, with trunks raised to catch the wind and ears flapping in annoyance. Failure to heed the warnings can provoke a charge – and charges are by no means all bluff.
Moving on you might see some elephants in the river, quite amusing if a little one is trying to climb the banks out of the river, which can be quite steep at places. Sometimes baby elephants cannot quite manage to climb, so Mum helps pushing it up the river bank with her trunk.
Similar to us humans, elephants live in families. These families show a lot of interest and concern for its members. There are many recorded cases of senile matriarchs kept in tow by their family unit after they had lost their senses and in fact, it is in the female sector of elephant activity that we human beings can find many parallels with. As the young males reach puberty (from 12 to 15 years), they are driven away from the family herd by senior females and join bachelor herds. The bulls become satellites of the family unit and hang around the fringes. Between the ages of twenty and twenty-five growth accelerates. The now-adult male starts to come into ‘musth’ (pronounced must), a phenomenon only recently described in the African elephant. It is apparently a high sexual state, characterized by a radical change in hormone balances. Levels of the male hormone (testosterone) soar and the temporal glands at the side of the head start to discharge; this looks like a dark stain. There is also a constant dribble of urine from the penis. The ‘musth’ bull will move out of its normal range to look for females in oestrus, this means, such males usually join female herds when one or a few females in this herd are in season. After several weeks of mating the high testosterone levels drop and the bull returns to his bachelor group.
Herds of zebra, wildebeest, mixed with smaller groups of Hartebeest and Grant gazelle, feed on the open plains. Lions spend their day in the bush of a nearby river gorge after their nocturnal hunting forays onto the grasslands. Cheetahs are rare in Tarangire, but you might see one or two on the track that goes past the airstrip to the fringing woodlands on the park’s eastern boundary.
Your driver will choose a winding track parallel to the main road, which follows the gorge along the edge of the Lemiyon plains. It affords good views into a narrow and heavily wooded river valley, where you may spot bushbuck on the brushy hillsides, or encounter steenbok (oribi) in the high grass on the lip of the gorge. Where the track dips down to the valley bottom, the country is densely covered in bush. This is an excellent area for a great variety of birds and other animals like mongoose, dikdik, impala and lesser kudu, as well as elephant and giraffe.
Now you are exploring the river valley to the south. Leaving the Lemiyon plains, a track descends through a baobab and acacia covered bluff. You continue on the main road along the river valley, its edges are bordered with park like groves of Umbrella acacia, well trimmed by giraffe. Impala, baboons and vervet monkeys also feed among the trees. In the valley below, the high matete grass that grows along the river bank gives the area its name. Tall Hyphaene palms dot the grassy floodplain. Troops of baboons forage among the palms, while the green beds of matete are the place to spot reedbuck or lion.
Tracks leave the main road to loop through the valley, crossing areas of high grass to stands of riverine forest in which tamarind trees, sausage trees, and Acacia sieberiana trees line the banks of the river. At one pool, vultures regularly come to bathe. Dozens may be seen standing in the riverbed with wings outspread to dry. Elephants prefer to quench their thirst where cleaner water flows beneath the ground. They kick holes in the sand then wait for the water to seep upward before drinking. This behaviour is interesting to observe, so it’s better to remain at a non-threatening distance than to try to get too close. If you see elephants in the riverbed, your driver will approach them carefully so as not to scare them away. If elephants are not present, you will notice copious amounts of dung where they visit daily to dig and drink.
Riverine thickets and bush-filled gullies are the habitat of lesser kudu. These striped antelopes are as shy as they are beautiful. It is worth making a special effort to see them, but you must do so with deliberation: keep silent and drive very slowly, because they often run from fast-moving vehicles. Their haunts are also good places for leopard. Naturally, these cats are not often seen, but they are common in Tarangire and if it is your lucky day you might see one of them in a tree. It is perfect country for them, with bush and long grass giving plenty of cover and a large menu of small animals and game birds as prey. Tarangire’s woodlands are filled with suitable leopard trees, so keep your eyes peeled for a twitching tail dangling from a branch.
If you see a buffalo herd in Tarangire, that can be a really impressive sight, as they are running hundreds or even a thousand strong. Such large aggregations are easily panicked, filling the woodlands with dust clouds and the rumbling sound of heavy hooves. The ostriches you see in Tarangire again are bizarre; surreally large birds strutting around the savannah.
Once your driver has reached the Kuro ranger post, you cross the river over a bridge to go on to the edge of the Larmakau mbuga. This is a wide plain of black cotton soil. Tasty grasses fill the mbuga and it is sometimes possible to see hundreds of elephants spread out on the marsh. Animals come to pools at the western edge of the mbuga, so watchful lions like to rest under the acacias that line the rim of the swamp. Keep a sharp eye on the branches of these trees: large pythons often seek refuge there from the trampling feet of buffalo herds, wildebeest and zebra. Although an adult python can attain a length of up to 6 meter, it is unlikely to present any danger to a human. It prefers to lie in wait for more manageable-sized prey such as small antelope, young warthogs, guinea fowl or baboons. Even if no lions or pythons are present, the shady acacias make an ideal picnic spot.
If you want to see fringe-eared oryx, the driver will take you to the grassy acacia woodlands near Lake Burungi. Groups of eland can be seen along the way, but game is generally scarce until you reach the fringes of Burungi. It is a saucer-shaped depression, quite shallow and filled with saline water. Usually it has its complement of flamingos, but often dries up completely by the end of October. Beyond Burungi, you can see Lake Manyara in the distance, backed by the towering wall of its escarpment.
Throughout the park you’ll see large sculptured earth mounds; these are built by termites. Termites are sometimes called White ants, which is incorrect as they are neither white nor ants but related to cockroaches.
Termites are able to feed on wood because of an interesting symbiotic partnership. Small organisms called protozoa live in a termite’s gut and are able to breakdown the cellulose in the wood into a form that can be digested by the termites. The termite faeces give food to certain fungi and the termites again live on these fungi.
Termite mounds vary in size and shape depending upon the different soil types of soils and climatic conditions in the area. They are made up of a system of galleries that serve as air-conditioners keeping the temperature and humidity at a constant level suitable for their vulnerable thin-skinned termites.
The termite colonies are divided into interdependent castes of queen, king, soldiers and workers, each with a specific function to perform. The queen is the largest inhabitant and may reach a length of 20 cm. The passages of the mound are too small for her to enter, she is too broad, so she spends her life in a central chamber laying eggs, as many as 10,000 per day while the workers feed her. The king is the only sexually active male so the three million or so termites of the colony are all the offspring of the queen and the king.
During the rains, vast numbers of termites fly out from the mounds in the hope of founding a new colony. They are eaten by many different animals including birds, snakes, frogs and toads, as well as humans. Few survive and only those pairs that find shelter underground manage to establish themselves.
Many termite hills, which are not in use any more, are populated by mongooses. Quite a sturdy species is the Banded Mongoose, a stocky little animal with a wiry coat which is marked by dark vertical bands. They live in packs up to 30 individuals and can often be seen following one another very closely as the move like a huge snake winding through the bush. They eat snails, lizards, mice, grasshoppers and locusts. When crossing the termite hill in this rope-like chain, some of them will stop to balance on their hind legs. They’ll stare curiously at you and your safari vehicle before carrying on. In the end they disappear down the tunnels of the termite hill. From there, after some time, you might see anxious heads poking up, curious to know, what is going on. Individuals keep in contact with each other by continually twittering.