On December 31st, 2016, I set off on an adventure different from anything I had ever done before. A new country, a new continent, a new ocean, a new hemisphere. I was headed to Tanzania.
Fast forward one month, and I’m not the same person I was when I left. I have enough stories to last years and enough photographs to fill numerous photo albums. Because I wasn’t able to document my experiences online while I was abroad, I’m going to create a post of my favorite photos from the trip, accented by highlights taken directly from my personal journal I wrote in every day.
This trip was actually a course called Natural History and Conservation in Tanzania, organized by the Upper Midwest Association for Intercultural Education (UMAIE) and led by Gustavus Adolphus College biology professor, Dr. Cindy Johnson. There were 15 students total: 13 from Gustavus, and two from Augustana University. We were in northern Tanzania for three weeks. The first two weeks were a camping safari, which we spent traveling to national parks and conservation areas witnessing amazing wildlife, landscapes, and cultures. The last week we spent in mountainous lodges and in a safari beach camp located on the Indian Ocean. I did not have cell phone service or internet access during the trip.
I learned too much to fit in one post. Maybe I’ll revisit some ideas in the near future, otherwise, feel free to reach out to me with any further questions or thoughts. I would be thrilled to continue the conversation.
For now, enjoy.
January 2nd, 2017
“There are so many sounds! It is not quiet here. We listened to birds squawking, bugs clicking, frogs croaking, dogs barking and howling, and music playing. I managed to fall asleep for a few hours then woke up at 5 am. As I tried to fall back asleep, I listened to the Muslim call to prayer in the distance, the man’s soothing voice lilting as it climbed in pitch, stopped, and dropped down again. It was an incredible thing to hear firsthand.”
Tarangire National Park
January 4th, 2017
“This morning I woke up around 4:30am and heard hyenas howling not far from our camp. Crickets and birds filled the silence between each lonely call. We woke up and had breakfast at 7am, then loaded into the land rovers for the day in the park. … There was no door by my seat, so I sat and watched the gravel road fly beneath us and I took a tighter grip on my camera.”
“The jeep rumbled and jostled along the one-lane gravel road, the soil orange from leftover volcanic activity. We climbed hills and dove into valleys, the savannah opening around us as we climbed higher. Acacia trees are dominant here, their thorny branches eventually stretching parallel to the ground, earning them the name “flat-topped acacias”.
“It seemed like wildlife was around every turn.”
“On our way back to camp, we finally found elephants that were near the road. They were walking towards us, about to cross, and our guides pulled the land rovers forward so that when they finally reached the road, they were surrounding us. … We turned off the engines and watched them silently pass, their trunks swinging and ears flapping. It was absolutely beautiful.”
January 8th, 2017
The Hadza, or Hadzabe, are a traditional hunter-gatherer group that live in north-central Tanzania in Yaeda Valley. We were fortunate enough to be able to spend three days with them, one of which was my 22nd birthday.
“The Hadzabe are very welcoming. When we arrived in their camp, which was settled beneath a towering baobab tree, they welcomed us into their houses. Their huts were less than 4 feet tall and made of sticks then covered with grass. We were able to fit 8 or 9 people in each one, all squatting or sitting with our knees pulled up to our chest.”
“Afterwards we followed a group of men and watched them make a fire using wood that they spun between their hands. Then they dried wooden pegs and someone climbed a baobab tree, putting the pegs in with an ax as he climbed. At the top he cut out honeycomb with his ax and brought the honey down in a plastic bag for us to try. I sucked the honey out of the comb and chewed the wax before spitting it out. It was some of the sweetest honey I have ever tasted!”
“Later that afternoon, some of the Hadza were spending time in our camp. The young men and boys showed us how they make arrows, and encouraged us to help! We put straight sticks from a grewia tree on a small pile of embers, then peeled the bark away once it was warm. To straighten the arrow, we heated up the wood and tried to bend it with our teeth. They showed us how they carved it down further by holding one end between their toes and pulling the knife up towards them, the coiled shavings falling to either side.”
On my birthday, two of my classmates and I joined a Hadza man on a morning hunt starting at 6:30am. While he wasn’t successful in those first few hours (probably because he had three loud college students tromping around behind him), it was amazing to see the process of gathering food with only a bow and wooden arrows. How incredible to witness a lifestyle that has been this way for thousands of years.
Later that day we were even able to practice shooting their bows! They’re harder than they look. I also learned how to do laundry by hand. What’s a better birthday present than clean clothes?
Yaeda Valley was one of the most meaningful experiences to me of the trip.
Serengeti National Park
January 12th, 2017
“While we were out we saw birds of all kinds, including secretary birds, which are named for their legs that look like they’re wearing a pant suit and a feather on their head looks like a pen tucked into hair.”
“It wasn’t long before we saw a cheetah in the grassland, and we followed her and watched as she stalked a grant’s gazelle. The gazelle “stotted”–or jumped around up and down–in response, perhaps to warm others or to show the cheetah it could escape.”
“Later we also saw two females and a male lion. Lions sleep a lot during the day, so they were resting in the shade of some acacia trees. I teared up a little bit when the male lifted his head and blinked his golden eyes at me. I can’t believe I was able to see lions in the wild. We were also lucky enough to see a cheetah and four cubs later in the afternoon, which we were told is very rare.”
“A great way to end our tour of the Serengeti.”
January 13th, 2017
“Today we ventured into the Ngorongoro Crater, which was once a massive volcano that collapsed and formed a caldera. The grassland/forest inside is 100 square miles. It was a clear day, and as we drove down the side of the mountain and into the crater, we could see all sides of it, stretching around the interior like arms trying to keep it safe.”
“Though most animals don’t venture out of the crater, there is a lot of diversity here. We saw jackals, hyenas, lions, wildebeest, zebras, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles, warthogs, ostriches water buffalo, hippos, and too many birds to even name here (however I will say that my favorite bird was the gray crowned crane.”
January 14th, 2017
“We left camp in Karatu and are now on our way back to Arusha. The land is beautiful out here–all rolling hills and mountains covered in fields and dotted with trees and bushes. It’s a clear, bright day and for the first time in two weeks we’re driving on a paved road again. The drive feels so smooth compared to the bumpy roads in the bush. We’ve off-roaded on paths that wouldn’t even qualify as roads in the U.S. And that’s been one of the most amazing parts of this adventure.
On this road we’re passing thatched-roof houses, houses made of sticks and mud or brick. I see brick walls that will someday be a store or a house, but it’s taken so long to save up money to finish that grasses and small trees grow on the inside.”
The Usambara Mountains
January 16th, 2016
“Eventually around 2 or 3 pm we turned onto a ‘new’ offroad, following a sign that read, ‘Mambo View Point Ecolodge 4×4, 2 hours’. The one-lane road first cut across the flat desert-like terrain before starting to climb up the mountainside. I have never gone offroading up a mountain, and it was beautiful. The mountains here are rocky, the soil orange, with trees covering the tops at higher elevations. As we climbed we began to see a few farms and houses scattered around, a few people in the fields or on the side of the road.”
“The higher we climbed into the mountain, the more people seemed to be around. Suddenly we came over one rise and an entire village appeared–we were driving down its main road. It was market day, and the streets were full of life and color. My professor asked our guide to stop the car and we bough a bag of mandazis, delicious fried bread.”
“As we exited the main market, it was clear we were now in a mountainous secluded hub of civilization. Houses and fields were scattered over the green mountaintops. Women carried 5-gallon buckets of water on their heads from the local tap. Children waved and smiled and laughed as we drove past. The sun was starting to set, and it cast a golden light over the hilltops. The recent rain made the air sweet and cast rainbows in the sky. It was so exciting and shocking to find so much life so far up when the areas surrounding the mountains were so desolate. It was one of the most magical experiences of my time here.”
“The Mambo View Point Ecolodge is situated on the top of one of these mountains on the western edge of the range. The buildings are cottage-style with white walls, thatched roofs, and cobblestone paths. I was paired with three other girls to stay in the ‘family house’, which sits on the edge of the mountain looking west.”
“This morning we gathered for breakfast and drove through the village to the nearby forest preserve. We started a roughly 5 km trail to the village and our guides drove the cars to meet us there. The trail was about a foot wide and cut straight through the forest.”
“The Eastern Arc Mountains are currently among the top places in the world that need to be conserved. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity and many endemic species (meaning they can only be found here in these mountains) in danger of extinction. We saw beautiful flowers, black and white colobus monkeys, and chameleons.”
Pembe Abwe Beach
January 18th-21st, 2017
“On Wednesday we had a lot of free time to catch up on readings, study, and finish our field journals. We practiced snorkeling from our beach, but the waters were too murky to see anything. That evening we took a walk down the beach with our professor and guide, Mika, to check out the mangrove trees near the ocean. These are trees that have adapted to living near saltwater, even in it sometimes, with specialized leaves and roots. It was awesome to see a plant that I learned about in my plant physiology class last fall.”
The next few days were full of snorkeling, beach excursions, swimming, and relaxing in the sun. Spending as much time as possible with our new family before we had to part.
“On our last night, we had a final reflection after dinner, where everyone talked about what this trip meant to them, how it challenged them, etc. I talked about how I usually rely on communication with people back home to help me through transitions, but this was easier for me compared to others, and it think that it may be because I just needed to get myself through it.”
“After reflection, we made a big bonfire on the beach by the Indian Ocean. The fire cast or shadows on the sand and the stars swirled above us. We danced to African music, then sang and danced to the soundtracks of Tarzan and The Lion King. It was surreal, and a great way to spend our last night in Tanzania.”
The way home–and after.
We spent our final morning packing and preparing to start the long journey home. Our first step was a short charter flight from the beach to the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam. The runway was a grassy patch in the middle of an agricultural field. It was a bittersweet departure as we said goodbye to our guides, who had become like family to us. We had a lovely seaside dinner in the capital before flying to Amsterdam, then on to Chicago and finally Minneapolis. In total, it was around 36 hours of travel time, and by the end of it many of us were relieved to be home.
These three weeks turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. I learned how to be more independent, take care of myself, and think more critically about issues happening in the world around me. This trip also brought up many big and very difficult questions as we explored environmental problems in Tanzania. I continue to think about these questions at home, and I strive to continue learning from here. I hope to share more of what I learned about these topics in the future, but that is for another day. If you made it to the end of this post, congratulations, and thank you for reading and being a part of my life-changing journey. Asante sana!
Until next time,