I AM no more than 2m from the colossal matriarch of a Tarangire National Park elephant herd.
I can see each individual lash around the grand old dame’s soulful eye, the dried mud packed into the deep wrinkles on her face, the scuffs and scratches on her worn tusks, and the rough nicks on the edge of a floppy ear that sweeps rhythmically forward to keep the flies at bay.
She is enormous but surprisingly agile, towering above our safari vehicle from her perch on a narrow ledge beside the track, and she peers across at us while pulling dried grass from the ground by twisting the tip of her trunk around the stems and hoisting each harvest to her mouth.
I know she’s a wild animal, unpredictable and deadly if she decides to charge, but from my perch she seems regal and tranquil with an inquisitive sparkle in her eye. What makes this encounter even more magnificent is the fact it seems to have happened so easily.
I arrived in Africa 26 hours ago, crossed from Kenya to Tanzania this morning after spending the first night of my Bunnik Tour’s adventure in one of Nairobi’s elegant colonial-era hotels, and drove through Tarangire’s front gate only 15 minutes ago.
Now, I’m standing in the back of a Land Cruiser peering at a herd of mothers and their children wandering below the acacia trees.
Tarangire National Park – the sixth-largest in Tanzania, a country where 25 per cent of the land is now protected – is the first wildlife sanctuary we will visit on this 18-day expedition through Kenya and Tanzania.
And already the trip is exceeding my expectations.
I knew there would be animals but I didn’t realise there would be such a regular abundance of wildlife, and I expected to see specks in the distance rather than these glorious creatures loitering so close to the track.
From where I stand on this still and serene afternoon, with my camera rested on the edge of the 4WD to let the zoom work on catching each weathered line in this elephant’s wistful face, I can hear her teeth grinding the grass after she rips each clump roughly from the soil.
But this encounter is not an exceptional event in Tarangire, with the 2850sq km national park called “the home of the elephant’’ by our knowledgeable Tanzanian guide Joshua.
“This place is good because the animals can get water all year round,’’ the host explains in a whisper as the elephants amble around our parked vehicle.
The elephants are able to dig holes to get water, so even if we can’t see the water, they can dig deep holes in the dry riverbeds with their trunks to get at the cool water far below the surface, and that helps all the other animals in the park.
“Sometimes, when it rains, the elephants will move to other parts of the park because there is too much phosphorus in the soil and that hurts their feet, but they will come back as soon as the rain stops when the grass is dry and sweet to eat.’’
But there’s more than just elephants to this national park, which is 120km from Tanzania’s regional capital Arusha, home to a wealth of game from zebra and wildebeest to giraffe and lions as well as more than 500 bird species.
As we cruise towards our accommodation – the comfortable Tarangire Sopa Lodge, a place where elephants wander around the buildings and I hear trumpeting nearby when I’m cleaning my teeth before bed – we spy a female lion with her cubs relaxing in the long grass near a gaggle of gazelle trying to be invisible.
We see ostriches patrolling in couples, gangs of zebra standing in pairs with tails constantly swishing to keep the flies from each other’s faces, and a herd of young male giraffe tearing the leaves from the highest branches.
“Tarangire is special because visitors can see lots of animals in just a few hours, especially in the dry season from June to August when the animals come to the river to drink,’’ Joshua says.
“We used to see the big five here, but no more because they were the most hunted animals, and this is the park lots of poachers used to kill rhino because Tarangire has many baobab trees and the poachers use to hide in the baobab trees.
“But we like the people that are coming here now to shoot the animals only with their cameras.’’
*The writer was a guest of Bunnik Tours.
“Kenya & Tanzania” is one of Bunnik Tour’s small-group adventures visiting Africa, and there is a variety of departures scheduled for this year and next, with the comfortable 18-day expedition costing from $9830 with the price covering flights from Australia.
More For more information on Tarangire National Park visit the Tanzania National Parks website.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2012