Friday, June 22

Manyara By Night

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The car grumbles beneath me and its rocking motion is making me drowsy, I’m desperately tired. I’ve been whizzed about by air and road in a long hot day. At sundown, I washed, was fed and watered and looking forward to a warm bed but I was told this was not to be missed.

The light and heat faded long ago, I see the rough road ahead in dim headlamps. We are above the Maasai steppe in Lake Manyara’s national park.

The spotter has perched himself precariously it seems on the bonnet of the car on which is a rattly frame with a cushion and belt, attached. But he is confident and folds his legs now and again in excitement, his back straightening and neck stretching into his beam. He switches his light from yellow tungsten to infra red. The hairs on my neck prickle in response. Something slinks away and I shudder in the cool of the night. I’m offered a waxy blanket and I wonder if its waterproof and what the chance of a drizzle might be.

I’m wide awake now and even more alert when we face buffalo horns directly. It’s startling in its suddenness but the buffalo makes no move, it simply stares and we move on slowly, the gears groaning. The road is rocky, ravined and pitted with large stones and plant debris, our driver dips the land cruiser this way and that so that the spotter has to hang onto his chair with both hands, and still he remains faithfully on the hot metal, shining his light into the tops of the trees. A great bird takes flight and a toucan seemingly bored by our encroachment comes into focus and then it shrieks in complaint, leaving its perch as we explore it with our spotlight.

Even more alarming is the immediate appearance of a bull elephant close to the road, the spotter switching his beam to red, just in time. Nocturnal animals need a long time to recover from the blinding of white light. He watches us carefully as he eats, folding a long green twig, it’s leaves shimmering and trembling in the coil of his trunk. Our open vehicle growls away, up an incline.

On the go again, the wind has picked up again, chilly. I pull the blanket around me and see the spotters ghostly shape roll from side to side, its probably warm out there on the metal above the engine. My eyes begin to close again and I nod off for a second before an excited sound forces my eyelids up. Massive spines. Three crested porcupines in a short stretch. They look huge in the spotlight against the blackened vegetation. We see several genet cats and a civet’s tail disappearing. We hear the low growls of lions very close by, but we don’t see them.

The African bush has one of the darkest nights on the planet, tonight there is no moon and no stars are visible. All this does, is amplify every other sense, forcing you to form coherence in a new way.

There is much skulking, scampering and grunting, the sounds are as much an excitement as the smells of crushed sap mingling with dry flora, a little dust and a pinch of animal secretion.

The air has a freshness about it as if the cold night is renewing and regenerating everything. Nothing is asleep, its just on a different cycle. You don’t see more on a night safari but you have a chance of seeing different animals, or the nocturnal life of animals that would be browsing during the day as well. What is extraordinary is the way the animals get the stage, centre spotlight, against a curtain of darkness. They seem magnanimous, sharply in focus and the experience is quite intense.

What you won’t see is the landscape, so for me a night safari is for adding a little variation if you’ve already done the dawn and dusk game drives.

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