Closer to Mother Nature
“I can smell elephant” says our guide in hushed tones.
Elephant? As a complete novice at taking a walking safari, I can only smell my own fear. The three of us have been on foot in the forests of Lake Manyara for about twenty minutes, tiptoeing in single file, motioning to each other with hand signals, whispering when words are required. I am spellbound: although this “elephant smell” is the morning’s first sign of large mammals, we have already discovered incredible facts about creatures so small that you would be completely unaware of their existence from the confines of a Land Cruiser. That is the joy of a walking safari.
All Creatures Great…and Small
Even a tiny, seemingly insignificant hole in the ground can reveal extraordinary secrets. I had never even heard of the antlion, a member of the so-called ‘Small Five’, each of which shares part of its name with the ‘Big Five’. We are standing over a little crater in the sand, no more than five centimetres in diameter and dug by the ant-lion. Like its feline namesake, this cunning creature uses ambush as its chosen hunting method. To demonstrate, our guide stoops down, finds an unfortunate ant and pops it in the crater. Furiously, the insect tries to scramble up the wall of the mini-crater, but the sandy surface offers it no help. Within a few seconds, up pops the antlion from below and the ant becomes lunch. Fresh, fast food, though looking around us at the hundreds of craters, there is plenty of competition from the neighbours.
From lonely hunter to insect factory: the termite mound
While the antlion lurks in solitary style beneath the surface, the giant termite mound in front of us reveals a different, communal way of living. This strange mud-like construction has taken months to build and provides living-space to the genet, mongoose, civet cat and snakes, as well as thousands of termites – queen, king, soldiers and workers. (One creature who is definitely not welcome here is the aardvark, the termite’s biggest predator.) The mound’s careful construction gives it a constant temperature and can last for up to fifty years.
A pile of poo
What can you learn from a pile of animal dung? We are now poised over a huge pile of dik-dik poo, and I am wondering how a such a small, fragile little creature can have excreted so much at once. But our guide explains that the dik-dik will actually have only three or four places in his whole territory where he and his family will defecate, rather than just doing it in any old random location. Fresh poo is dropped on top of old poo, so any would-be predator struggles to pick up any clues as to the dik-dik’s most recent location. A clever strategy: “Being small in the bush you have to be smart to survive” our guide advises.
The smell of the elephant
As we reach a dried-out river bed, this is the moment that our guide catches a whiff of pachyderm. I stick my nose in the air, but my senses are amateur, and I smell nothing.
Sure enough though, a few moments later, a rustle of foliage will alert us to the presence of a small herd of elephant, and a low bellow of warning sends us into a cautious, slow-paced retreat. An elephant will always give you warning – and it’s one you need to obey! We even get a glimpse of some flapping, giant ears as we back off. Magical.
A giant’s grave
And then, there’s a tinge of sadness as we stumble upon a skeleton of a giraffe. Picked clean – no doubt in accordance with the natural hierarchy – it has clearly been dead for some while. Only bones remain, as following the lion’s share – no other beast would have brought down a mammal of this size – the vultures and hyenas will also have had their fill. Our guide bends down to show us the teeth and explains how the giraffe is a “browser” in the way it eats. From the skull, he shows us the cranial bump and then the horn free of tuft which shows that this was a male; from the size of the foot, he concludes that this was indeed a big creature, even by giraffe standards.
When we reach the end of our fascinating walk, down by Lake Manyara, a solitary yellow-billed stork stands guard over the shallow waters. A small squadron of the lake’s famous flamingos take off in formation, their slender frames making them look like mere pencil drawings as they stretch out in flight to their full, elegant length.
We wait on our vehicle to pick us up. All our safaris have been amazing, but our walking safari in Lake Manyara National Park will live long in the memory as a being a true highlight.
At around 650 square kilometres, Lake Manyara is the third smallest national park in Tanzania. And only some of it is actually land, as the shallow waters of the lake occupy a large proportion of its space. Although small, the diverse environments ensure a good variety of wildlife and a great collection of bird species. The grassy floodplains are a favourite location, either permanent or seasonal, for large mammals such as buffalo, giraffe, hippo or maybe a troop of playful olive baboons. Don’t forget the hippo pool and keep an eye open for lion, cheetah and leopard too. The crowned eagle and African hawk-eagle are often seen looking for prey, and the lake is of course home to those wonderful flamingos.
Getting You There?
At only around two hours’ drive west from Arusha, this small but magnificent park is incorporated into many of Easy Travel’s itineraries, or can be otherwise included in a custom-made safari. Just contact us and our exceptional customer service staff will help you organise a safari to meet your individual wishes and provide you with memories to last a lifetime. A walking safari is highly recommended!