“In East Africa, one is never too far from the Great Rift, which splits the earth’s crust from the Dead Sea south to the Zambezi River, and east and west in broken cracks from the Gulf of Aden to the Valley of the Congo. In places, the Rift is forty miles across, a trench of sun and tawny heat walled by plateaus. The floors that contain the Rift’s long, narrow north-south lakes were created long ago when the earth sank between parallel fractures, and they are on different levels: Manyara is eleven hundred feet higher than Lake Natron, to the north.”
-Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born
I’d felt drawn towards the Great Rift Valley since I found out I’d be going to Tanzania. Something about the raw magnitude of this crack in our planet had captivated me, and for April break I spent some time exploring the national park that it carves through. Lake Manyara National Park is small and overshadowed by other northern parks like Serengeti and Ngorongoro, but it is unique and rich in habitat biodiversity.
Arusha is the hub city for tourism in the north; on Easter Sunday a friend and I traveled from Arusha towards Karatu in a dalla-dalla. We drove through Maasai country where dry savannah swept out from the road in all directions. Herds of cattle were scattered, brown and cream and spotted with humped backs, their stoic herdsmen overlooking. The dalla-dalla stopped to pick up Maasai women along our way, and multiple generations filed on, heavy beaded earrings swinging from their gauged lobes. Soon Lake Manyara materialized out of the brown grass, placid and mystical. We passed through Mto wa Mbu, a busy town just outside the park, filled with dusty cafes, souvenir shops, and endless bushels of bananas. We climbed in elevation and wound up the ridge overlooking the park and lake, and were dropped off on the side of the road by a sign for our campsite. We stayed in a canvas tent atop the escarpment with incredible views of the valley, lake, and distant rain showers and dust devils. In the morning we had Africafe and chapati maji (like a crepe) then went out on safari. In Swahili safari means ‘travel,’ a fitting word to define an adventure through the wilds. We were greeted by treefuls of roosting yellow-billed storks, and a friendly young ranger who told us Manyara was named after a plant with milky secretions used by the Maasai for protection from lions. It was the rainy season, the time of year for birdwatching; megafauna is best viewed in dry season when the vegetation is sparse and animals are less easily hidden. The waterbird migration was in full swing and we spied spoonbills, pelicans, ibis, herons, and plovers wading through and feeding in the seasonal marshes. Hippos lazed like shimmering rocks among the water plants, and vultures bathed and sun-dried their wide wings.
Zebras grazed and Cape buffalo rested in a pile of brown fur dotted with caramel-colored calves. Driving through the forest we saw a tawny eagle on the hunt, and I spotted a grey-headed kingfisher with bright blue plumage and a watermelon-orange beak—one of my favorite sightings of the day.
After a sleepy mid-day hour with no sightings we were lucky to see a lioness saunter off into the tall grasses. Tree-climbing lions are famous at Lake Manyara but it’s somewhat rare to spot one, in a tree or otherwise; our guide actually clapped with glee. Elephants graced us towards the end of our drive, snorting dust clouds around with their trunks, and I felt full with admiration.
Back at camp we drank Safari lagers while soaking in the valley view; I was glowing with excitement from the day. Moody clouds rolled in and rain began to fall over the park as the sun set. It started to pour, an endless cleansing shower. Under the pavilion, we made our species list from the day over the most delicious rice and beans.