The do-it-yourself budget safari

26 07 2010

You can’t spend a summer in Africa and not go on a safari…especially when you are a nature-loving environmentalist engaged to an ecology nerd. However, you also can’t go on a safari from the stranded coastal city of Dar es Salaam without taking a few days off of work and paying a significant price tag worth of transportation to and from the park, park entrance fees, tour vehicles and guides, and overnight lodging. At least that’s what I originally thought.

Due to limited time and budget but an aching desire to return to the big African savannah, which I so regretfully only spent an afternoon in last time I was in Tanzania, I started pouring over the guidebooks (I had 3 different ones of various out-dated ages) and talking to my friends. I easily convinced 2 friends that a cheap weekend trip would be fun, and they quickly convinced two more friends to join us. In a humorous chain of 35 or so emails sent over a few days from our various offices around town, we planned the perfect Do-It-Yourself Budget Adventure.

The cook among the group took Friday off of work to prepare a gourmet menu for our trip. The self-titled Sir Packs-A-Lot, burdened with the teasing we all gave him after he over-packed for our 2-day sailing trip to the remote, uninhabited Sinda Island a few weeks ago, and the knowledge that our Rav4 was very tight on space, managed to pack only the necessities. The self-proclaimed Leader helped by writing him a simple “packing list”, which included a reminded to pack his wife, who was working long and stressful hours at her job to ensure she could take the weekend off. The Leader also was supposed to take the little Rav4 we’d be driving to the car mechanic, to check out a funky noise and get a tune up before our 800+ km adventure…but come to think of it, I have no idea if this actually happened. I, as the instigator of the adventure, continued to pour through guidebooks and make phone calls to the Park Warden to get more information. “What’s the cost for camping in the park? Is there a fee for a vehicle? How many campsites are there? Do we need to reserve campsites ahead of time?” And my personal favorite, “Do the campsites have a guard to watch our tents while we go on a game drive, and keep animals out at night?” to which I was given the reply “Each campsite has toilets and a place to build a fire.” Oh boy, were we in for an adventure.

We woke up at 5:30am to hit the road by 6..though, it’s amazing how fast time passes that early in the morning, and our “running a bit behind schedule” meant we actually were on the road at 7:30am. The drive to Mikumi takes a variable amount of time. Some say 4 hours, others say 7 or 8. The reasons being that first, you must go through Dar es Salaam itself, which, depending on day of the week and time of the day, could take forever. Then, the 4+ hours of driving is pretty simple, directionally speaking: take the road from Dar to Morogoro, at Morogoro take the road towards Iringa and before you get to Iringa, you reach Mikumi. The whole drive was a single lane paved road with no real turn offs, just patches of small “town centers” here and there and the occasional thatch roof house close that gave you the knowledge that scattered across the country side which this paved “highway” cut through was a network of dirt paths leading to communities of people living in small, self-built homes hidden among tall grass and farm fields. But, it’s not a simple 4+ hours of driving in terms of safety! The thin road has no shoulder and deep ditches cut on either side, and is heavy with truckers and buses going way too fast and making dangerous passes, or going way too slow and blocking your view, giving you no choice but to risk a pass. Accidents on this road are frequent and tragic, and are the reason the 4 hour drive can easily become 7. Luckily we had two fearless (to varying levels) drivers….and a couple backseat drivers yelling warnings and keeping the stress-level high! We made it there and back with just one close call.

One unique aspect of Mikumi, compared to most other National parks, game reserves, and protected areas, is that this “highway” does not stop at the border of the park. Nor does it go around. Instead, the highway cuts right through, for 50 km! The travel guides I read all highlighted this as a positive, because a cheap backpacker can simply hop on a bus going from Morogoro to Iringa and drive 50 km through the park’s savannah landscape, with a good chance of seeing zebra, giraffe, baboon, antelope and possibly even an elephant or lion– without paying for anything but the $10-or-less bus ticket. From my ecological, conservation perspective, however, I found it fascinating to see, and in some ways take advantage of, the concept I have often learned about: habitat fragmentation. When looking at an aerial image of the Mikumi National Park region, one would see a vast area of 3230 square kilometers, a large landscape that would easily support large prides of lions and roaming herds of elephants. The tiny area of the road cutting through is practically not worth noting. However, that road and the traffic it brings essentially break the park into two smaller ecosystems, which exponentially decreases the amount of wildlife that can be supported in the total area. (I invite anyone with more expertise in this area to elaborate on habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction, and conservation via a comment!). Mikumi is contiguous with the Selous Game Reserve to it’s south, and in recent years, since the construction and increased use of this road, many animals have shifted more permanently out of Mikumi and into to the Selous area. Not to mention the number of direct fatalities that occur, especially during the dark of night.

Yet despite the impact this road has a lowering the biodiversity in the region, I am surprised to report that we saw more animals that I could have ever expected, dotted across an absolutely breathtaking landscape. It started just a few kilometers in from the boundary of the park—still on the highway and before reaching the official entrance gate we found ourselves amidst a group of giraffes and zebras who were working their way across the road. In the 10 minutes we spent stopped on the side watching, we were joined by a lone baboon. Inside the park, we saw another group of baboons, countless more zebras, and giraffes, along with numerous impala, wildebeest, buffalo, warthog, elephants, and guinea fowl. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any lions, most likely the result of driving through the park ourselves without an experienced driver to bring us to the usual lion hangouts, or a guide with the sharp eye to spot a lion hidden in the tall grass 10 km out in the distance and quickly redirect us towards it. Though, if we had a guide and driver, we would certainly not have gotten out of our vehicle as many times as we did or for as long as we did. In retrospect, it might not have been the safest to be outside, unprotected in the middle of lion and leopard country. But at the time, it was amazing to feel the huge expanse of ecosystem around you. We also wouldn’t have accidentally ending up driving back to our campsite after dark. While the poor timing caused a bit of tension at first, we all agreed after that there are very few things more amazing than having your headlights suddenly fall upon up a group of giraffes 10 feet from your car.

– Kristen Pfau




One response

28 07 2010

Sounds like you had a great time! Love the pics – and I am very jealous. 🙂

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