Guest Writer: Allison is a zoo blogger for Zoo Critic.
I’ve always dreamed of going on safari, so when the opportunity arose to go to Tanzania for my university research trip abroad I took it. My project was focused on the aggressive interactions between hippopotamus and crocodiles. I was excited, my family was apprehensive as I had chosen two of the most dangerous animals to study!
The first animal I saw was an elephant in the small town on the outskirts of Selous reserve. That’s when it really became real – we were on foot in their territory and it was amazing. After camping out that night in the town we began our trek into Selous. As my luggage had apparently never left the airport initially I was without all my gear – being spared the first hike in sandals I was tasked with getting the campsite prepared when the rest arrived. We dug holes by the river bank as the elephants do, to allow clear water to seep in which we then boiled. On that river bank we saw our first prints – hippo, elephant, and hyena. I discovered flies were going to be a constant annoyance; I can sweat more in one day than I ever thought possible, and that boiling water over a fire means that it will indeed make it taste like ash.
The next morning we walked to the ‘hippo pond’ for the first time. The thrill of seeing an entire pod of hippos in the wild at virtually the same distance you would at a zoo was amazing. It was quite frightening when a pod of 30 hippos sinks below the surface when you approach…you know they are there (and huge!) but you can’t see them. This is also the first location of our research project which we began the next day. We recorded information on hippo communication such as grunts, yawns, and shoving. Every once in a while we would see a crocodile along the edge of the water or an Egyptian goose in a nearby tree. We asked our guide a lot of questions and had him translate as many words as we could think of. At night we heard lions in the distance and warthogs running through our camp. We saw huge spiders and geckos in our outhouse (a hole in the ground with a hut around it) and watched for snakes everywhere we went.
As there were different projects happening within our group many of us saw things that the others didn’t. By the time we began our hike to our next location I was eager to see more animals. We saw so many during our trek – impala, giraffe, warthog, zebra, wildebeest, even elephants crossing the paths. The hike was gruelling – ended up doing 28 kilometres in 7 hours, lots of sunscreen and sore joints for all of us. Although when tours passed us in jeeps it felt far more rewarding doing it on foot.
Our new camp beside Lake Tagalala was very similar to our old one in set up, however our guides had to tell us where to put our tents so the hippos wouldn’t trample us in the night. We took the next day off – hiking to the nearby hot springs. It was one of the hottest days we’d had thus far and even the bottom pool with room temperature water was refreshing. We were finally able to properly wash our hair which resembled an Herbal Essences commercial under the waterfall. When we returned to camp I caved and opened a bottle of Coca Cola I’d been saving…best decision! The water at this camp no longer tastes like campfire but we do have to filter it to remove algae and small creatures before we boil it (It looks like lemonade even after!).
Doing our research at the lake was very interesting as it was a completely different dynamic from the river. I was surprised by how close the hippo pods were to each other in the lake and how large some of them were. We were able to take data from a number of different areas with a lot more observations of crocodiles as well. Actually doing the research was something of a burden – by 10:30am it had already hit 36°C! Because of the heat the majority of the afternoons were spent resting and discussing our projects. Once it was dark we attempted to lure the many hyenas we could hear closer by being perfectly quiet so our camera trap would be able to capture something. The only thing we ended up seeing was a foot long millipede but we were able to hear the hyenas very clearly!
The next day was the most exciting of the whole trip – the day we saw the LIONS. The lake is a more popular location for guides to bring visitors to the reserve as it boasts a better chance of seeing more animals. Every once in a while one of the other guides would pass by and chat with our guides as they all know each other. This day one of the guides immediately came back after passing us exclaiming that there were lions around the corner. Offering us a ride to see them we immediately accepted – we’d been waiting our whole trip to see them! This was also the moment when we realized how out in the open we were…if we had walked two minutes further we would have been right in the middle of them. Climbing into the tour jeep was luxury enough – seats, a breeze, shade! We didn’t even see the lions at first until we noticed one was right beside the path! We watched her stalk a herd of impala unsuccessfully and observed the rest of her pride relaxing in the shade. Upon asking about a male we learned that one we were viewing was in fact the male of the pride – the males in this part of Selous have very small manes. The lion excitement continued that evening when they in turn disturbed our dinner. We had a group of lions come right into our camp, noticing them when they neared our fire. Our guides had to spend a long time scaring them away and building extra fires. When finally we were able to enter our tents for the night we then heard a leopard calling from very close by – needless to say we didn’t sleep as well that night!
Our last two days were spent making our way back to the entrance of Selous. The hikes were hot and tiresome but our guides were great and able to keep our spirits lifted as best they could. Our main motivation was to get to the store where we could get clean, cold water and a chair to sit on. It’s amazing what you think of as a luxury when you’re hiking in a reserve for two weeks! As the elephant was our first animal sighted it was fitting that it was also our last as we waited for our train back to Dar. A herd walked calmly passed the train station, not the type of animal we’re used to seeing in our backyards here!
We had many amazing experiences on our research trip – both in the reserve and during our time outside of it in Tanzania. Although the hiking and the heat were tough to deal with I wouldn’t change my first African adventure in any way.
To check out a video made by one of the professors visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwtvy8IwIsw
*all photos credited to Allison