Category Archives: National Parks

An Extraordinary Photo Safari in Tanagiere National Park

Day 12: Discover Corps Experience Tanzania

Elephant Herd in Tarangire National Park
Elephant Herd in Tarangire National Park

I awoke as excited as a Mexican jumping bean, bouncing about with excess energy. The day had finally arrived for my African photo safari, and what better place than Tanzania. The Discover Corps group boarded the bus and set out for Arusha, situated at the foot of Mt. Meru. There, we would meet our safari guides and transfer to two Safari vehicles: khaki colored Land Cruisers with eight seats. Allen, our driver and guide, sat upfront and six of us sat in the back. The vans included a mini-fridge and power supply for charging electronics, plus a pop-up roof that would allow us to stand on the seats (without shoes) and take unobstructed photos.

In the safari van with my camera.
In the safari van with my camera.

We drove on for two more hours, passing Maasai lands, stretches of sun-parched fields where young herders with cattle or goats tended their flock. We zoomed by three Maasai men dressed in black. Their faces were painted black and looked rather scary. ( I was thrilled to capture a photo.)

Young Maasai Warrior with painted face.
Young Maasai Warrior with painted face.

Allen, who is Maasai (but now lives in the city), explained these men were participating in a ritual following their circumcision and initiation into manhood. The new warriors dress this way for several months as they heal. He said the face paint is to ward off the evil eye.

Crossing Sign on the Maasai Lands.
Crossing Sign on the Maasai Lands.

 

Maasai men are classed by age into three categories: boys, warriors and elders. Boys transition from herders to warrior and then to elder status, holding varying responsibilities for cattle, protecting, and advising the community.

Maasai cattle herd.
Maasai cattle herd.

Eventually, we reached Tarangire National Park, a wildlife sanctuary known for excellent large game sightings especially in the dry season- which was now- early September.

Tarangire Visitor Center Viewing Platform
Tarangire Visitor Center Viewing Platform

We stretched our legs, milled around the visitor center and ate box lunches, before setting off in the vans again. No sooner had we departed from the parking lot than we spied giraffes, zebras and gazelles in the distance. We focused on our cameras with a concentration equal to an operating neurosurgeon, but our guide told us we would soon see many more animals closer to the road.

First view of the park animals.
First view of the park animals.

Alan was right, we didn’t travel far until coming upon a pond with warthogs, wildebeest and antelope. The warthogs were bathing in the mud making us think of Pumbaa from the movie, The Lion King. We sang a few bars from Pumbaa and Timon’s song, then went on to a pretty sad rendition of The Lion Sleeps Tonight!

Pumbaa, The Warthog
Pumbaa, The Warthog

Warthog-1

Next we noticed graceful zebras with sharply defined black and white patterns on their faces: beautiful.

Two Zebra
Two Zebra
The beautiful face of a zebra.
The beautiful face of a zebra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Onward we drove and in retrospect, the next location is one of my fondest memories. Here we found a watering hole edged by a large herd of female elephants and many little ones. (You guessed it, we starting humming Baby Elephant Walk.) They seemed happy quenching their thirst, splashing in the pond and frolicking in the mud. One baby must have done something wrong because the females reprimanded with loud trumpets and chased him out of the water. Our guide explained that all the females in the group protect and teach the calves. They endearingly help each other raise the babies. (I wished I could have stayed and watched these elephants for much longer.)

Mama and baby elephant playing in the mud.
Mama and baby elephant playing in the mud.
Naughty baby-1
The naughty baby elephant scampers away.

Later, we captured photos of bull elephants (males), who travel in smaller groups and whose girth size was much larger.

Big Bull Elephants
Big Bull Elephants

Different areas of the park brought us extraordinary views. We saw the distant curves in the  river, we peered down from overlooks and observed a variety of animals at lakes including one that was completely dry.  Tarangire is renowned for having some of the biggest and oldest baobab trees in the world, some thought to be 1,000 years old. These behemoths make stunning silhouettes across the landscape: I adored them. Baobabs store large volumes of water in their trunks – which is why elephants chew the bark during dry seasons.

Giant Baobab Tree
Giant Baobab Tree

Giant Baobab-1

 

We also stopped to watch some bird species: a Bee-Eater, a lilac brested roller, a red-billed hornbill, and the gorgeous Superb Starling, perfectly named for its electric blue feathers. We also saw Pigmy Falcons and yellow-throated spurfowl, much like quail.

The Lilac Breasted Roller
The Lilac Breasted Roller
The Bee-Eater
The Bee-Eater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we were driving back toward the park gates, we came upon a herd of elephants marching very near the road. We all fell silent, listening in awe to their footsteps swishing the withered grass. I couldn’t believe we were able to be so close to these mammoth giants – on average from 6-13,000 pounds, the largest mammals on earth. I will never forget that surprising moment.

One of the biggest elephants of the day.
One of the biggest elephants of the day.

 

 

As daylight began to dwindle, we left and rode high up into the mountains and checked into a small hotel at Karatu. That evening we heard a lecture from Raymond, head of the tour company, about the next day’s exciting outing to Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Elephant Herd parading by.
Elephant Herd parading by.

I sank into my bed overwhelmed by this day’s gift: a rare opportunity to see and photograph wild African animals in their natural habitat. So far I’d counted off elephants, giraffes, and zebras from my personal Big Five list. I hoped to complete the listing by seeing a lion and a rhino in the Crater. Stay tuned to see if I do.

Enjoy this short video and the elephant march.

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For anyone interested in safari’s in Tanzania, I highly recommend Allen, our Maasai guide who works for the Maasai Warriors Tour Company, found at warriortrails.com.

Kinda Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

The challenge of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro attracts many a mere mortal as well as adventure enthusiasts. It’s the biggest freestanding mountain in the world, rising over nineteen thousand feet! For those that train, it is doable endeavor, unlike the monster Everest, but, I didn’t visit the area with that in mind. Nonetheless, I wanted to see the famed peak.

View of Mt. Kilimanjaro from Moshi on a clear day.
View of Mt. Kilimanjaro from Moshi on a clear day.

Visibility is typically difficult from the Moshi area, the location of my Discovery Corps Homebase. Most days the mountain hides behind clouds, only occasionally playing peek-a-boo. But, Day Eight of my Tanzania itinerary called for a visit to the mountain.

 

Baobab Tree down a dirt road.
Baobab Tree down a dirt road.

My group boarded a bus and headed out past the dry, dusty surrounding. As soon as the incline rose even a little, we encountered vibrant greenery. We continued climbing higher in the hills where lush vegetation abounds. Huge banana trees towered overhead shading the ground under their palms. We stopped in a touristy little town that sits at about five thousand feet. It rests in a humid rain forest, and mist was swirling around us. Alas, the visibility was even worse on this day. But, we picked up our official guides, those rugged and hearty sorts that head pilgrimages up the peak.

Boy rolling tire on dirt road
Boy rolling tire on dirt road

 

 

 

 

 

The plan was for my group was to trek to a few waterfalls that lie just below the National Park boundaries. We began on a gravel path that soon became narrow and as slippery and wet as a fish right off the line. I was happy I wore my Gore-Tex jacket because the air was chilly, a first on this trip. I had to plant carefully my footing, especially on the downhills. As on the Maasai trek, I was torn between taking in the scenic beauty, snapping photos and not slowing down those behind me. And, in this case, definitely not falling off the inclined path.

Hiking in lower Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Hiking in lower Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The first waterfall we came upon shone brightly through the spray, and we stopped for photos. Then, we proceeded onward, the path becoming more perilous and steep. The tricky part was that dampness making traction difficult. Thankfully Richard and a few other men from the Discover Corps staff lent a stabilizing hand.

One of the waterfalls in Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park.
One of the waterfalls in Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park.

We passed by a few houses partially hidden in the lush overgrowth and around small, terraced farms. Like the dancers, the farmers in this region are Chagga people, and they grow mainly bananas, and some corn, beans and coffee.

The surprising serene and lush trails on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The surprising serene and lush trails on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We trudged on, carefully balancing and traversing rocks over a shallow but flowing waterway. Nearby, we rested at another wondrous waterfall with water cascading down multiple falls. Flowering plants like impatiens peeked out of the nooks and crannies.

Beautiful waterfalls on Mt. Kilimanjaro
Beautiful waterfalls on Mt. Kilimanjaro

To proceed onward, we had to ascend one very steep, treacherous incline. Whew! We were then above the waterfalls and could stroll on through grassy fields and pass more small homes. It’s peaceful up there, far from the sounds of the city.

Steep climb
A steep climb.

Eventually, we returned near our starting point and enjoyed a picnic style lunch. Mama D had sent boxed lunches. Fried chicken, hard boiled eggs, a cheese sandwich, an apple and a piece of sweet banana bread. Yum.

The group had been asking about Banana Beer or mbege, a homebrew that we are anxious to try. One of our guides thought he could get some nearby. He returned, however, with a banana drink. We gingerly took sips, and all agreed, it tasted horrid. Later we asked Mama Simba about the banana drink and her comment was, “people drink that and go crazy.”

The Bad Banana Drink
The Bad Banana Drink

Instead, we discovered the local bottled beer, Kilimanjaro, and it was quite tasty.

Kilimanjaro Beer
Kilimanjaro Beer

I decided to skip a portion of the afternoon hike, not wanting to press my luck. Instead, I ventured on to the Visitors Center to learn all about the mountain. I also dropped into the gift shop where I bought a tee shirt emblazoned with a drawing of a Kilimanjaro beer bottle “If you can’t climb it… Drink it!” it said. Exactly my sentiments.
Eventually, I caught back with the group as they were making the climb to the Marangu Gate, one of the official starting points into Kilimanjaro National Park.

The Starting Point for a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Just kidding!
The Starting Point for a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Just kidding!

Our guide explained that most hikers take four days for the ascent and another two to come down. He said he wakes the climbers around midnight the night before they reach the summit. I asked if that was so they can watch the sunrise from the top. “No,” he said, “it’s so they don’t see the trail. Once they are on top, they have to come back down.” Hmmm. Mountain climbing has never been my thing. Need I say more?

Kilimanjaro: If you Can't Climb it...Drink it!!
Kilimanjaro: If you Can’t Climb it…Drink it!!

 

Chincoteague Pony Roundup on the Eastern Shore

Drawn by oysters and wild ponies, not to mention uncrowded beaches, Virginia’s Eastern Shore becomes a solid choice for a summer getaway. The peninsula includes 23 undeveloped barrier islands and a chance to experience the engineering marvel of the 23-mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

 

I approached from the Norfolk area after visiting Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown, known as the Historic Triangle. Driving through the Bay Bridge-Tunnel, built from 1960-64, deposits you onto a road that stretches like a spine from Cape Charles in the south to Assateague Island to the north. The top half of Assateague belongs to Maryland.
Chincoteague is the most popular destination on the Peninsula and must be doing something right because the spot has won happiest town, friendliest seaside town and other lifestyle awards over the years. The plethora of ice cream stands may help the voting. My cone from the Island Creamery earned rave reviews.

The town of Chincoteague on Virginia's Eastern Shore
The town of Chincoteague on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

If you grew up on Newberry Award-winner Marguerite Henry’s books and fell in Love with “Misty of Chincoteague,” the Museum of Chincoteague will be a must stop. The famed horse stands as a stuffed display with Stormy, her third and last foal. The Museum isn’t much more than a photo op and a quirky one at that, but Misty fans shouldn’t skip. Very doable with kids.

Debi meets Misty of Chincoteague
Debi meets Misty of Chincoteague

 

Oysters At Don's Seafood
Oysters At Don’s Seafood

Oysters from the Eastern Shore also garner extraordinary kudos. Don’s Seafood is my recommendation. The oysters served at Don’s are grown at Tom’s Cove Aqua Farms based on the island.
To see the wild ponies, you need to visit the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Stop by the Assateague Island National Seashore Visitors Center at Little Toms Cove, and then drive along the Wildlife Loop Road. From there, hopefully, you’ll catch a glimpse of the ponies on Assateague Island.

Wild Ponies on Assateague Island
Wild Ponies on Assateague Island

The popular myth is that the wild horses washed ashore from a capsized Spanish galleon, but genetics indicates they were of domestic stock and were placed on the islands to escape a livestock tax. The ponies proved tough enough to survive scorching heat, abundant insects, stormy weather and poor quality food.

 

Festival and Auction Grounds
Carnival and Auction Grounds

I had the opportunity to meet Denise Bowden, the first woman accepted into the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, and now director of Public Relations. She explained that the fire company owns and cares for over 150 Virginia-bred but free roaming horses that produce from 60-90 foals per year. According to Denise, the Chincoteague firemen have auctioned off young ponies as a way to control the size of the herd since the early 1940’s. The money is used to purchase and maintain firehouse equipment. Today the average price for a pony at auction runs around $2,700.

Misty Book Cover
Misty Book Cover
Misty of Chincoteague
Misty of Chincoteaague in the Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The annual roundup is an immense event for the little town. The population of 3,000 grows to over 50,000 with visitors. The calendar calls for the swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, Pony Penning, auction and carnival on the last consecutive Tuesday and Wednesday of July. The preliminaries – rounding up the herds, walking them to the assembly area and checking the ponies for health fills Saturday through Tuesday. The swim takes place on Wednesday, this year the date is July 29, 2015. The auction runs on Thursday. On Friday, the remaining herd swims back to Assateague for another year.
Make reservations early! www.esvatourism.org