Elephants and the circus have a long history and deep connection to Sarasota. John Ringling moved the winter quarters of his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota in 1927. The trapeze artists, the lion tamers, the tightrope walkers, and the elephants came.
The circus acts almost always included animals, and the elephant acts were crowd favorites. They became synonymous with the Big Top. However, over the years, animal rights activists began speaking against the use of animals for entertainment. By 2016, Ringling Brothers retired all their elephants, ending a 145-year tradition, and the circus closed in 2017.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Next we noticed graceful zebras with sharply defined black and white patterns on their faces: beautiful.
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.)
Later, we captured photos of bull elephants (males), who travel in smaller groups and whose girth size was much larger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.