Tarangire National Park was one of my favorite places in Tanzania because of the number of wild elephants.
Stepping off the plane at Kilimanjaro, we met our safari team. They had everything perfectly preplanned and ready to go. There was the company owner, who had recruited me online who I’d spoken to for a few months. He introduced himself as White. Several days later, after getting to know him a bit, I would chuckle when I read “Wilson” on his business card. White suited him. “We call him White because he is lighter skinned than us”, the driver Hamisi said. White had a beautiful caramel complexion and was from a different region of Tanzania. Other than Congo, Tanzania has the largest number of ethnic groups in Africa. Hamisi, who I’d later know as kind, quiet, and strong, who I would eventually grow to admire as a very skilled driver as he chugged through impossible looking water crossing and mud holes– was to be our main guide for a week in the country spotting game. And even in lion infested terrritory, with dark approaching in torrential rain, Hamisi’s confidence and experience would make me feel safe. I’d read ahead of time to check over the 4 wd vehicle before embarking, which looked capable. It never let us down. Rather familiar with 4wd and off-roading, the Land Cruiser would surprise. . . even us. Zungu Safaris was a newer company that had launched in the few months before global shutdown. And while most countries closed their borders to tourism, Tanzania was capitalizing on the opportunity to welcome the few remaining travelers willing to visit in 2020. Zungu is the Swahili word for a white Tanzanian, explaining the company namesake, White. While Mzungu, was an endearing term used to address foreigners, like me, white in East Africa. Photographing lions were what brought this Mzungu to Tanzania.
The safari company, Zungu Safari was fantastic, and highly recommended, and a fair price. They had nothing to do with what happened next.
I asked for a detour from their plan to pick up cell phone minutes from a local vendor. I also needed special water because my filter had broken. The bottled waters in East Africa were (and are) various Coca-Cola subsidiaries which put harmful preservatives like Nitrates in bottled water. Wait for my Pulitzer Prize winning coverage on that later– insert sarcastic eye roll. So on the hunt for rare Nitrate-free water, on one of the busiest streets in Arusha, I got caught in what’s known as a “flytrap”.
An aggressive stranger got in my face unprovoked, he was well seasoned, and I could tell this wasn’t his first time at intimidation or harassment. First he tried to sell me trinkets, wanting to see where my wallet was. I responded with several calm and dismissive “nos” (literally 7). Angered that his basic ploys didn’t work, he began demanding money and poking me hard in my chest. (Who does that to a woman anyways? These double Ds are hard to miss bro! ) The aggression was the type of nightmare that often woke me from my sleep. But this time, it wasn’t imagined. Feeling threatened, my animal fight or flight kicked in. My mind flashed back to a dominance test I had with a female brown bear in Alaska. You’re as strong as her (the bear) I told myself in mere seconds. I envisioned myself as one of the lions that I had come to East Africa to see. Something snapped inside of me– I was animal, human, the most dangerous animal of all. I made eye contact. Pulled my pack close and held my ground. Kept cool. Used my wit. Refusing to be prey, I caught the leader off guard: I used a tough and deep tone, motioned to the street, but I knew I was the only Mzungu around:
I used a low and powerful voice that came out like a roar,
“There’s a street full of people here! Why are you picking on me? Do I look weak to you?”
Surprised at my fight, he stepped back. “No”.
A group of men gathered, not sure what to make of me. Apparently this type of fight with a feisty Mzungu bitch didn’t usually happen.
“All I want is peace and respect!” I pushed farther. A bluff of confidence, I backed down 4 grown men on my own. Snarled & bore my teeth
“I respect you, the leader replied”. He kept his distance but followed me for my remaining time on the street. He was a Hyena, ready to snatch any prize of my kill that I left unattended.
The further and wider afield that I travel, the more acquainted I get with my flight or flight self. After the altercation, I stuck with my guide and didn’t go back out in town.
Lioness, we all have her in us. She’s not invincible, but she’s in there. Outmatched in strength and outnumbered, I knew it was only the grace of God, not my own understanding, which kept the scene from escalating further.
[**If you’re headed to Tanzania, I recommend avoiding the busy streets in front of grocery stores and the central market in Arusha].
Later that day, blood pressure still high, but proud of myself, I began to feel more at ease out in the bush of Tarangire National Park. One of the lesser known parks internationally, it’s known locally as the best place in Africa to see wild elephants.
At the gate we were met by Columbo Monkeys and herds of impala. Instantly I knew that I had entered a special place, a garden. Later we saw dikdik, the strange rodent sized deer and motitor lizards.
The first time you see an elephant, it puts you in a trance. You stand in awe at their wrinkles, swinging trunk, and eyelashes. They command respect because of their size, but display a certain cuteness that can’t be denied. And that’s how I stood, face to face with a bull, a mere 30 meters away.
Further down the dirt path, the Land Cruiser came to a stop when I quietly squealed in delight at five young elephants wrestling in a pond. The water covered all but their snorkel trunks as they sprayed one another, pushed, and played like puppies. An the moment became larger, more intensified, as it began to rain.
(caption above): waterbuck
A lioness crept out of the long grasses, marked by the gathering of vehicles: a lion jam. Her shoulder muscles displayed her strength with every creeping step. Behind her, two other females followed suit. Bringing up the tail, a mature male with a mohawk mane stretched his neck above the grasses, peaked with interest at his companions hunting. The lead female went directly for a group of waterbuck, sturdy dark colored deer, with horns that poked directly toward the sky. She scared the heard and they bolted. She pursued the chase but gave up after a brief lollop because she was unable to target an individual. She sat on a dirt hill, panting, then began calling out with a bellow deep from her belly. Was she calling out to other family members? This group of four looked young. Shocked and confused, I stood in disbelief. Lions, whose numbers were dwindling down to that of rhinos, were here, directly beneath me! I wondered if the conglomerate of loud human families had alerted her prey of her presence. Were we negatively impacting the food chain for these fantastic hunters? Her sisters disappeared into the long grasses. While the male lazily posed under an acacia for shade. The heard of trucks held tourists with wee heads poking out. We bore binoculars and floral shirts, and goofy looking hats unfit to be seen in in public.
(caption above): This was the lead lioness. She goes first for the kill. The day I met her, my first lion, I channeled my own inner lioness earlier in town.
We ate a lunch of homemade stew and rice, prepared by Zungu Safari, inside of a cage meant to protect us from the wildlife. I’ll take this option over a zoo, I thought, roles reversed. At rest points, the toilets were better cared for than the national parks in America, cleaner. They had toilet paper! Which was a bit of a shock after traversing lesser known parts of nearby countries, where I always carried my own. Late in the afternoon, we drove the backroads deep inside the park. We accessed a hill looking over the Tarangire River, the park’s namesake. And that’s when the most magical moment of the day happened.
On the valley floor beneath us, a heard of elephants, 200 strong trumpeted and stomped. We went in for a closer look, and turned off the engine. They then approached. In the quiet, standing in the open canopy roof of the Land Cruiser, juveniles first came forth. They wiggled their ears and shook their heads, each displaying their own personality. Larger ones approached and scratched their necks and backs on nearby trees. Others chewed bark and wrestled with branches. Most chomped awkward mouthfuls of grass that fanned out of their mouths rudely as they smiled. Mothers with tiny calves were cautious, keeping the newborns close for nursing. After they introduced themselves their babies shyly peeked out from behind their tree trunk legs. Other mothers pushed away too-old calves, as they encouraged them to eat grass instead of suckle. We remained surrounded, alone with this vast number as they crossed around the vehicle for an hour. And I was relieved that the other tourist vehicles couldn’t be found anywhere on the horizon. Bulls briefly fought and bullied smaller elephants. In a darling instant, I watched a tiny but boisterous infant get angry at a quail on the ground and trample her nest. The bird retreated to a bush. Then the magic was over when a grown bull gave playful chase to the vehicle from behind, briefly chasing us as the elephants chased each other. When I looked over my photos when I returned home I was especially delighted at the sun baked red mud that contrasted against their gray bodies and the excessive sagging wrinkles of the grandmothers and old bulls.
(caption above): mothers feed their young with two teats under their front arms
Later in the trip I would ask the driver, Hamisi, what his favorite animal to see was on what he called “game drives”. He explained that everyone (like me) always wanted to see lions. They begged for him to find lions for them. But then he paused. Thoughtfully, he said that he liked . . . elephants . . . the best. Lions were too violent, always exercising and parading their strength. But elephants, even with their strength and size, were gentle, and reserved.
And that — when compared my own human spirit, thinking back on my flytrap lioness encounter in town, I thought that was the greatest allegory of all: be an elephant, not a lion.