Tarangire is the most recently annexed of the parks in this region. It is far less spectacular than the great volcano-ridden parks just to the North, being far more a regular piece of ‘honest Africa’, with undulating hills covered by scrub, leading down to swampland to the south.
Tarangire has around 20% of the visitor numbers of the Serengeti and the place has the feeling of being a remote wilderness, especially as you drive further south. The southern areas of the park are very rarely visited by anyone.
The main feature of the park is the Tarangire River, which flows throughout the year and it is the presence of this permanent water source that drives the Tarangire migration. Unlike the migration in the Serengeti, which rotates in a clockwise direction, the Tarangire migration expands and contracts inwards and outwards with the rains. During the dry season, the animals come into the water along the river and game-viewing tends to be superb, especially for an elephant. During the wet season, the animals head out of the park in search of good grazing. The park itself is around 2600 sq km, but during the wet season, the animals disperse across a vast area of around 20500 sq km of Maasai land, heading as far North as Manyara and even Natron and as far east as the outskirts of Arusha.
The very best time to visit Tarangire is about 10 days after the first rains when the park has transformed into a verdant Eden and the animals have not yet moved out in search of grazing, but there is no predicting when this might be.
Elephants are the main event here in Tarangire. During the dry season, it is not uncommon to see large family groups in the park. On one day in February 2002, we lost count after seeing over 1200 elephant in less than three hours. We also saw a Batchelor herd of around 40 males around Lake Burungi, some of whom were carrying some pretty heavy ivory, perhaps 30kg per tusk. In late 2001 a herd of over 4000 buffalo was reported in the swamps to the south (which would be one of the largest herds in all Africa). We saw a large herd around Poacher’s Baobab in February 2002, but we estimated this to be less than 1000 head, so presumably the herd disperses with the rains and reforms during the dry season, same as the elephant. The very long dry season in 2001 would, therefore, explain the presence of this enormous herd.
Apart from the elephant and buffalo, game-viewing in Tarangire is usually pretty good, with plenty of giraffe, warthog, waterbuck, impala, zebra, and ostrich usually on view. This is often tempered by a shortage of good cat sightings, although the lion can be seen along the river. Cheetahs are not present in most areas as the ground is not open enough for them to hunt. Leopard, caracal and serval are all present, but being nocturnal are less often sighted except on night-drives outside the park.
The first section of the park beyond the gate is quite flat and featureless, except for the presence of an enormous number of magnificent baobabs. These amazing trees can reach enormous proportions and attain a great age. Many of the baobabs are scarred from the attentions of elephant, which like to sharpen their tusks on the outer bark and during the dry season dig into the softer heartwood, which they chew to extract moisture. In this area, there are also a number of small pools, which are very good for game-viewing during June, but which tend to dry up as the dry season progresses.
The main feature of the park is the river valley, which cuts across from Lake Burungi in the west to turn south towards to swamps.
It is along this valley that the main game-viewing areas are located, whilst up on the drier scrub and forest land on either side, the game tends to be thinner, but often offering up some more unusual sightings.
Just outside the Western boundary to the park lies Lake Burungi, which is a shallow soda lake, which plays host to flamingo during the dry season in July to November.
It is quite a drive to get there, through areas not renowned for their game-viewing, but you are usually rewarded by the odd unusual sighting, such as kudu or eland.
There is black cotton soil out there though, so don’t try it if there has been recent rain.
The drive along the ridge road down to Poacher’s Baobab can be superb on a clear day, with views of the hills of Ngorongoro and even the distant volcanoes of Lengai, Meru and even Kilimanjaro. One of the largest trees in the park, Poacher’s Baobab has a diameter of around 10m and is reckoned to be over 3000 years old (although it is difficult to tell because baobabs cannot be aged by counting rings like other trees). Passing through a small doorway in the side of the tree, one enters the cavernous interior, which has clearly been used in the past for shelter, perhaps for twenty or more hunter-gatherers. There is evidence of honey-collector activity inside the tree itself. Outside the door, there is a large round stone, which was obviously used to roll over the doorway to keep out intruders.
During the dry season, it is possible to head down to the swamps, where there is excellent birdlife especially. There is also good game-viewing where standing water remains, with buffalo and elephant heading into the water. These areas are also renowned for huge tree-climbing pythons, although we have not encountered one here ourselves yet (although we have in North Serengeti – around 12m in length).
Tarangire owes its existence to the tsetse fly, without which the whole area would have been long since turned into grazing areas for the Maasai cattle (tsetse bites are fatal for domestic animals). Some areas of the park in some seasons can get pretty bad and the only defence is to close all windows and doors whilst passing through.