I remember clearly the first time I saw a breeding herd of elephants. They cast a spell on me that day which has never been broken. I was just 15 and on my first trip to Africa. For hours we watched the antics of the trumpeting babies getting under the feet of the adults and experimenting with that new-found multi-tool known as a trunk.
Then there were the adolescent males sparring with each other and raising hell before being brought to book by the regal matriarch. I sensed then much that I have learnt since about their strong family bonds, emotional intelligence and, it sometimes seems, telepathic communication skills.
My wife, Sarah, and I have had many memorable elephant encounters during our year in the bush, but few have been as magical as our recent experiences at Oliver’s Camp
in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. The park is not as well known as its near neighbour, the much larger Serengeti, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in the diversity and beauty of its landscapes, its baobab forests, its big cats and, of course, its elephants.
There are many elements that make for a truly memorable wildlife sighting, but the surrounding environment can hugely enhance the experience, not to mention the behaviour of the elephants themselves. The rolling savannah grasslands of Tarangire are studded with umbrella thorn acacia trees and at its centre is the life-giving umbilical cord of the Tarangire River itself. During the wet season the swamp grass turns a vivid emerald green against the jagged backdrop of the Kware Mountains and the sky an electric shade of blue. Tarangire’s bright red soil adds another primary colour to this epic landscape.
After arriving in their family groups, the elephants wallow in the mudbaths adjacent to the swamp and emerge stained a deep shade of ochre before mingling in the shade of the acacia trees. This ritual evening socialising was one of the highlights of our stay. Our favourite individual was an older matriarch, probably in her 50s, the tops of whose ears had become floppy, giving her a comically woebegone but endearing appearance.
Our guide was the peerless Lewis Mangaba, a tribal chief and the head guide at Oliver’s Camp. “Animal numbers in the park are growing and Tarangire accounts for just 10 per cent of a much larger ecosystem, which includes Lake Manyara to the north,” he told us. “In many ways the park is at its most beautiful now in the wet season, but in the dry season from June to October the river is a magnet for thousands of elephant and wildebeest that come into the park from surrounding areas.”
was created by a pioneering Bolton-born conservationist named Paul Oliver, who has a passion for walking safaris in general and Tarangire in particular. Located in a remote area in the south – most camps are outside the park – Oliver’s feels like a real bushman’s hideaway with a unique atmosphere and all creature comforts laid on.
Overnight fly-camping is a speciality. Nothing brings you closer to nature than walking through the African bush to a surprise location as the sun goes down over the horizon before watching it rise again over breakfast round the camp fire next morning. During the night we heard the screech of honey badgers, those hyper-aggressive lion-tamers, and examined their distinctive tracks outside our tent in the dawn light.
With all five senses on full alert and with Lewis as our sixth, we had both an amiable companion and a walking encyclopedia of bush lore. Everything in the bush, it seems, has a story to tell. As we contemplated a termite mound, Lewis described the extraordinary complexity of its underground cooling system, revealed that the biomass of a colony is greater than an elephant, and informed us that while termite workers live for two to three years, a queen can sometimes make it to 45.
And for you military history enthusiasts out there, the great King Shaka Zulu developed his empire-building battle strategy by observing the enveloping buffalo-horn tactics of termite-eating Matabele ants. After all that, a rare sighting of a family of bat-eared foxes and a brush with a highly aggressive elephant – a lone male ready to mate – seemed almost commonplace in comparison.
Choosing complementary camps will ensure a successful African safari. Over a week or 10 days, a few days’ break from 5am wake-up calls and morning game drives can be a welcome change. Deciding on your own itinerary is part of the attraction of Lake Victoria’s Rubondo Island Camp
in north-western Tanzania.
Apart from the camp and the park rangers, the island – about 90 square miles – is uninhabited and is part of a national park that includes a roughly equal area of the surrounding lake. “This feels like the opening scene of Jurassic Park,” said Sarah as the forest canopy closed in around us on the way to camp from the airstrip.
And Rubondo does feel ancient. Its bird life is phenomenal – fish eagles dominate the shoreline – while the jungle is home to elephant and giraffe as well as one of Africa’s rarest antelopes, the sitatunga, which we saw almost daily outside our banda. The forest is also home to about 40 wild chimpanzees, the descendants of a group of circus animals that were released here by the German zoologist Bernhard Grzimek in the late Sixties. A habituation project is under way in the hope that visitors soon will be able to track and view the animals during their stay.
In the meantime, as well as the secrets of the forest, the lake itself is a potent attraction. Day trips to hidden bays and coves are interspersed with catch-and-release fly-fishing trips in pursuit of giant Nile perch in the company of the camp’s manager and fishing guru, Henk Ferrera.
“Not bad, not bad at all,” Henk said as Sarah finally landed a 12kg (26lb) specimen. It may not have been in Henk’s league – 40kg (88lb) is more his style – but Nile perch are tricky fish to land and a few giants had successfully thrown the hook before she triumphantly posed for her trophy photo.
Please take some time to watch the video of the Magical Herds of Tanzania HERE>