Lions hunting, giraffes mating and herbivores galore: Mikumi National Park provided a special background for a birthday weekend safari. Despite a fleeting visit, Mikumi definitely revealed its magic!
After two weeks spent in Tanzania, it was to be my first ever birthday abroad. What better occasion for an African Safari? So, we headed to Mikumi National Park for a long weekend and a wildlife bonanza. It certainly didn’t disappoint!
Our first day involved a full day game drive, leaving at 7am and returning at 6pm. The day began well as almost immediately, we saw two of the big five: elephants and buffalo. Many of the common herbivores could also readily be seen, with herds of zebra, impala and wildebeest scattered around the park. It provided a stark contrast to the surrounding area, where we had seen a mere lone duiker in the two preceding weeks. It truly emphasised the impact the country’s growing population was having on the wildlife and the important role national parks are playing in conservation at present. It certainly put our work into perspective!
Almost an hour into our drive, we came across our first big carnivore: a lone lioness. We arrived in time to see her strolling elegantly through the grass. Already by mid-morning though, it was beginning to heat up and unsurprisingly this female was seeking some shade, heading for a lie-down under a tree. This lion certainly lived up to its stereotype of sleeping all day.
Moving on, we refound the elephants we had encountered earlier. Unsurprisingly, they too were feeling pretty tired, hanging out under an epic baobab tree. It was funny to see them sleep as they used their trunk as a fifth leg. It was also very noticeable how considerably smaller they were compared to those I had encountered in Kenya. Poaching for ivory has been rife in the area near Mikumi and still continues to this day. Big males with large tusks are often the targets for poachers, leaving only the smaller individuals to reproduce. The evidence of this continued selection pressure was clear to see in Mikumi with only smaller individuals remaining.
We carried on our game drive towards the two main watering holes of the park. By now, the temperature had really begun to rise and all the animals were desperate to quench their thirst. Zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffes, warthogs, baboons and vervet monkeys all flocked in their droves to the ponds, waiting their turn to rehydrate. They all did so with great caution though, and for good reason. Lurking in the water were several Nile crocodiles, but fortunately for the drinkers, none were yet big enough to take down a large mammal. Instead, they were patiently waiting for an unsuspecting bird or fish to eat. Also in the pond, several hippos had chosen to take residence to avoid the midday sun. Accompanying them were numerous birds – herons, egrets, sandpipers, and geese to name a few. The importance of water to life could not have been made more evident.
Soon after we ourselves headed for some food and drink. The wildlife show did not stop though, with several vervet monkeys waiting for the opportune moment to make our lunch theirs. It was a little reminder of how opportunistic wild animals can be!
After refuelling, it was time to continue our drive through the park. However, by now many of the large megafauna had hidden themselves away for a mid-afternoon nap. Consequently, all attention was switched to birding, and there was plenty to occupy ourselves. Lilac-breasted rollers, starlings, kingfishers, hornbills and lapwings were aplenty. Some more unusual birds were on display too, with Southern Ground-hornbills feeding in the grasses and a big Marabou stork approaching us. It was also fantastic to see the vultures were numerous in the park, contrasting drastically to the rest of Africa where many have been in rapid decline. We were treated to Lappet-faced, Africa White-backed and palm nut vultures overall.
By late afternoon, the sun had begun to lose its power and the air began to cool once more. As a result, the mammals began to emerge again. We were now back on the lookout for predators and we got agonisingly close an hour before we had to depart with a pride of lions hiding behind a tree in some thick grass. Not wishing to disturb them and go off-road to see them, we continued on. Fortunately our decision was justified as we came across another pride just as the sun began to set. It provided the climax to a fantastic birthday, with a beautiful sunset behind the Udzungwa mountains providing the backdrop.
Our time in Mikumi was not yet at end though. The next day we were up even earlier, arriving at the park entrance for sunrise in hope of catching the end of the night’s action. We were in luck too. Instantly after entering, we came across the same pride of lions we had encountered the night before. Initially they seemed disinterested, sleeping as lions tend to do. But then, something caught their attention. A warthog was feeding 50m away in the tall grass. Immediately their mood changed and they started moving in unison towards their prey. Keeping low, carefully placing each foot meticulously on the ground as to minimise noise, they slowly approached the warthog. Instinctively, each of them knew their role, one taking the lead, with the others close behind. As they stalked, the tension built, they were ready to pounce. 30, 20, 10m away… they could almost taste their next meal. One false move though, and dinner would be gone. Warthogs are not stupid, and look up to check for danger every now and again. As this one did so, it stared death in the face! To stop it becoming the lions’ next meal, it quickly ran away before they could seal its fate. One lucky escape!
After all that excitement, we were in high spirits. We still had three hours left of our morning drive too! As we drove, we continued to see some spectacular wildlife: A giant herd of buffalo, numerous elephants and a rich array of birds could be seen. It felt very special to appreciate the landscape as it would once been across the whole continent. Just as we were leaving the park for the last time, we were given one final show – two giraffes trying to get it on. The male was desperate for some action, closely following his chosen lady until she allowed him to make his move. It was not the most graceful of actions, with the male clumsily mounting the female. Giraffes definitely did not evolve their long legs for this moment! Nonetheless, the male still seemed very satisfied with his actions.
And so, our time in Mikumi was over. I was sad to leave having seen such incredible wildlife and interesting behaviour. My birthday weekend in Mikumi had turned out to be truly magical indeed!