So after we finished up in Manyara Ranch and had our day off, we had six more days of research to go. We would spend the next three days in Lake Manyara National Park and the three days after that in the community areas around Mto wa Mbu. I was so excited to be in the park because of all the elephants that we usually saw when we were there and all of the animals we might not have seen yet in the ranch. Lake Manyara has a permanent source of water, so animals that are dependent on that water are more likely to stay in the park!
In Lake Manyara, Ninah was once again our driver and we had the same group of 5 people in the car. We had sort of put a plan into place about which car would cover what areas, but the map that I was given to help navigate was probably worse than the one in Manyara Ranch. The black and white map that was given used to be in color, so the rivers and roads looked exactly the same on the map. Every time that I thought I knew where I was, there would be a river instead of a road and I would be all turned around again. We were in charge of the part of the park that contains mostly woodland, but some grassland as you approach the lake. And the roads in that area are all loops. There is not ever just one way to get somewhere, but usually three or four! I had to try and figure out a route that would save us both time and effort and keep us from doing the same area more than once! Trying to communicate this to a driver with very little English in his vocabulary got extremely frustrating. And on top of everything, every issue we had, I had to call our professor, Christian. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind calling him to clarify what was going on, but when the questions had nothing to do with me or with our research, our driver would still make me call! I felt so needy and silly calling over and over. Not to mention, the park is home to more freaking tsetse flies!!! I got a bunch more bites and blisters from them, which just took away from the fun part of the experience! Hahaha
Those were the only frustrating parts of the entire time in the park though! The rest of the time was so fun and we saw things that we never thought we would see in the park. There was a giant group of elephants, nearing 40 or 50 with lots of little babies. They were always in the same area by the lake, and I loved having them surrounding our car. Our driver was scared of the elephants though because this group had a lot of really protective males that would start to get nervous if we got too close. We had to count them as we were moving so that we would not get them angry. At one point, we heard two males trumpet in the distance and then the collision of their tusks together, clearly in a fight. We had to get out of there quickly to make sure their anger was not taken out on us!
We also got to see lions in the park too! Lake Manyara always uses their “famous tree climbing lions” as an advertising technique, but of all the days in the park, we had never seen any lions, let alone any in the trees. As we were looking at the same group of elephants, all of a sudden we saw three HUGE female lions walking gracefully behind them near the bushes separating the elephants from the lake. They were so peaceful and not bothered by the elephants at all. And the elephants didn’t seem too nervous either! They both just went on with what they were doing with no mind to each other. It was a=so neat to see because when you think of lions, you assume that every animal fears them and moves away when they are around, but this was not the case at all with these elephants!
Later that day as we were finishing up the last transect, we were in the middle of the really dark and dense riverine woodland. This woodland is amazing. It literally makes you feel like you are in the middle of a rainforest in Costa Rica! The leaves are huge and green, the air becomes moister, and barely any sunlight penetrates to the forest floor. It’s probably one of the coolest features of this national park. In less than a kilometer, you can be driving in a rainforest, then giant open grassland, and then a huge acacia woodland covered in small leaves and thorns! As I was saying, this area of forest is probably one of the most dense parts of the park, and suddenly, as we were looking ahead hoping to see some monkeys or something in the trees, another huge female lion gracefully strutted across the road around 60 meters in front of us. We were all so excited, but by the time, only a few seconds later, that we were even with where we had seen her, she had disappeared! I literally could not see one trace of her. It was almost an eerie feeling to know that she was right there in the woods near our car, but we would have no idea unless we happened to see her than one time! We stayed there for a few minutes, hoping to see her climb a tree near us or something, but after complete silence and no movement, we had to keep gong and finish the transect!
The last day in the park, we had to switch up the cars a little bit so that my group could see other parts of the park! Unfortunately, I had to stay in the same car because no one else would have any other idea how to read the map and follow the same transects that we had done the two days before. It was so hard to work with another group because they had been doing things different in the way they recorded and worked together, but by the end of the day, we had it down and finished everything we needed to. We had to wait for the other group that had a few more transects and were really far from the entrance of the park. We went into Mto wa Mbu since it is really close to the entrance and walked around for any random presents that we wanted to get! By the time the other group found us, we were burned out and ready to go back. We had to meet with our local guides for the next three days in the community area, but as soon as we met them and Christian established where he wanted to go, we headed back to camp for the rest of the day.
When we got back to camp that day, I suddenly realized that my feet were GIGANTIC!!!! They have been really swollen the entire time I have been in Africa, but this was by far the worst they had ever looked! They were giant and puffy, with my toes sticking out like they didn’t belong. You know when you take rubber gloves and blow them up like a little kid and the fingers stick out of the giant hand? That is exactly what my feet looked like! I couldn’t fit any shoes on them, including my huge flip flops I have here! I kind of felt like I was in a freak show the way that everyone was gathering around and taking pictures!!! hahaha The blisters from the tsetse fly bites weren’t helping either! We soaked my feet all night, but literally nothing was helping. On top of everything, our SAM was out of town for her days off, so there was no one here that knew how to help me! It was so scary to see part of my body not look like it belonged! I somehow convinced the fill in SAM to not take me to the clinic because they had already told me there was nothing they could do until I go home. I went to bed so early with my feet on top of my sleeping bag trying to get the swelling down. The next day wasn’t much better, but they have slowly been improving since then, thank goodness!
After wrapping everything up in the national park, it was time to start all of our transects in the community areas surround Mto wa Mbu! The first day was quite the adventure of the entire data collection period. The night before, it had poured from the moment I went to sleep and continued to rain even when I woke up the next morning. We knew we were in for a muddy day, but we had no idea what it was going to be like when we got down off the escarpment of the rift valley. As soon as we picked up our local guide, we started down our first transect. This transect was terrible at the beginning because in addition to recording all of the wildlife we see, we also had to record people, dogs, livestock, and houses!!! Our first transect was literally right off the main road in Mto wa Mbu so you can only imagine the number of all of these things there were. The first kilometer of our transect took over half an hour because we had to count all of the silly houses and people surrounding them. We were so happy when finally the developed area stopped and we were in the midst of a giant banana plantation!
This area is very well known for its bananas, and you would not believe the size of these plantations where the bananas were grown. We were completely surrounded by bananas with no sign of human settlement anywhere! It’s so green and healthy and a nice change from the barren areas on the other side of Mto wa Mbu. Suddenly, as we made a sharp turn in the bananas, we realized that the road was almost non-existent because of the huge amount of water that had flooded it! We had to keep going with our transect, so our driver got out of the car, put the four wheel drive on, back up, and floored into the huge muddle puddle! This mud puddle literally kept going and going. We had driven almost half a kilometer before we finally made it out safely, but I think that the car was literally sliding for 90% of it! The wheels were spinning so fast, yet we were sliding around and not moving very fast. At one point, we hit this huge yet hidden speed bump and started fishtailing through the mud! It was so fun and at one point, three of us let out a squeal because we were flying so fast through the mud!
After we successfully made it out of that transect, we had about 4 more to do that day, mostly without as much mud as we had seen on the first transect. It was crazy the difference between the banana plantations where we were and the giant dirt areas in Maasailand with almost nothing green at all! As we were finishing up on of the last transects, we were getting ready to turn around and go back to the main road when we stopped and asked two older Maasai men if there was a quicker way to get to our last transect. They pointed us in the right direction, and we turned off the main track we had been following. We didn’t realize what a mistake this would be as we started this turn.
We went about 5 meters, and suddenly felt the car sink quickly into the ground, ground that looked so solid from the car, but was apparently a mud trap! The car was instantly stuck in the ground and we had to get out of the car quickly before our weight made it sink into the ground any farther! We all jumped out and looked at the damage that had been done. The back two tires were at least three feet deep in the mud and there was almost a stream of water filling in the holes around them. I knew this time was going to be a lot tougher to get the car out of the mud, but I was ready to do anything that we could to help.
Our first task was to gather as many rocks and branches and other materials that were solid that could be stuck under the tires. At one point, we were cutting giant thorny branches off of the acacia trees to try and put under the car. We got the jack out and had to try and balance it on a giant rock because otherwise it would sink straight into the mud like the wheels had. Our driver was working so hard, and finally he got the car jacked up enough that we could throw rocks and whatever else under the left back wheel. He let the jack down and then we moved to the right tire and did the same thing! We were all down on hands and knees working to get the car out, and when we finally had all of these things under the tires, it was time to try and see if we could back the car out of this mess. We all stood on the side, hoping to avoid getting sprayed with mud or the car sliding too close to us. Our driver climbed in, took a deep breath, and punched it in reverse!!! The wheels spun 100 miles per hour, but nothing happened other than the car lurching back and forth. We all got really bummed at this point because it had almost taken an hour and a half at this point and we had made no progress. We all decided to sit on a rock while our driver pondered what to do next. We called Christian to let him know what was happening and he said he would come save us in a bit if it was still necessary. Our driver continued to work with the rocks and branches, but at this point, we all knew it was pointless because the tires just kept getting deeper and deeper in the mud.
We had one more idea, and that was to try and help push the car when he got it moving back and forth a little bit in the mud. And let me tell you, movies where people get sprayed with the mud do not lie hahaha. By the end of pushing the car, we all had mud covering our arms and legs and clothes. Thank goodness I had my rain jacket on! And the worst part was that it didn’t help at all! It was so slippery where we were trying to push that our feet kept slipping out and we would hit the ground with our knees! We finally gave in and decided it was time to call Christian to get us out. He came about half an hour later and we got the cars hooked up together, but it still took a lot of force to get the car out! When the tires finally slid out of the holes, we all cheered and threw up our hands! After two and a half hours, we had gotten the car loose and finally got to eat the rest of our well-deserved lunches! Haha We finished up a transect and were happy to head back and take a nice shower to get all of the lovely mud off!
The next day in the community area was probably one of the best days of DR! We had all new transects to explore in the community area! Our first transect took us deep into Maasai land, where we were attacked by the flies that infest the bomas! I literally had to have my legs covered the entire time we were on that transect because the flies were tickling so badly! And then on top of it, the Maasai people kept stopping us and asking what we were doing! The Maasai in this area are very used to tourists, so anytime they would see our binoculars or range finders, they would tell us that we needed to pay them because we were taking their pictures! We had to prove to them several times that we were looking at the cows in the distance and not taking pictures of the actual Maasai people! It was so frustrating because the transects took a lot longer after we had to stop and explain to every single Maasai man we saw!
Our last transect ended up near the hippo pool that was a part of Lake Manyara National Park. The Park ends at the hippo pool, so the road right on the other side is considered the community area! We were in the middle of this giant grassland and our local guide said that we were allowed to get out of the car and see if we could get close enough to the hippos to see them! We walked from around 100 meters away, but as we got within 50 meters, the ground was so muddy that our shoes were getting stuck! At one point, I completely lost one of my flip flops in the mud and had to dig and find it. We decided that if we needed to run away from the hippos, it would not be possible in the mud, so unfortunately we had to turn back before we got too close. We still took tons of pictures in the middle of the grassland running around like crazy people. I absolutely loved it out there because the town of Mto wa Mbu was completely hidden by huge woodlands and there was nothing around us except zebra, wildebeest, hippos, and grass! I was skipping around like I was in The Sound of Music! Finally, our driver told us it was time to go, so we went and got pizza with one of the other DR groups before heading back to camp for the day! It was such a fun day filled with excitement and it made me realize how much I loved Tanzania!
On our last day in the community area, we had to repeat all study areas that we had done the two days before, so we were really rushed! We had to drive really fast and write down GPS coordinates as we were moving! For once, we didn’t stop for the Maasai at all and we kept trucking through the entire day. Not getting stuck in the mud with our feet or the mud saved a lot of time, and we ended up being done earlier than we had the other days! We celebrated with a soda at the pizza point and then walked around Mto wa Mbo because we didn’t want to head back to camp yet! It was so exciting to be completely done with DR research and packed lunches until the end of the semester!!! What a weight off of our shoulders!
Thanks for reading!!!