Tales from Tanzania: Witnessing the resiliency of nature at Lake Manyara National Park

Our first game drive through the 285 square miles (460 km2) of Lake Manyara National Park did not disappoint. Covering 89 square miles (231 km2) of the park, Lake Manyara is a salt lake ranging from 20 to 50 feet deep. The lake’s high alkalinity comes from sodium bicarbonate, which leaches out of the volcanic rock in which it sits.

When we arrived, the surrounding area had recently flooded, causing serious changes to the landscape in several ways. The most drastic had come from landslides so powerful they had nearly covered the original ranger office.

When the area flooded, the level of the lake also rose, causing the surrounding area to have significant deposits of sodium bicarbonate. This sudden change killed all of the trees in the flood area.

However, by the time of our visit we were able to witness the incredible resiliency of nature, as the area had already started to heal itself. This is helped by the many underground springs which bring in fresh water, giving the animals clean drinking water and clearing out the salt deposits. The grass is already making a comeback and the rangers are confident that the trees will soon follow.

While the flooding was terrible in so many ways, it might have done the area good, as it gets very little rain. Each year 75 percent of the lake evaporates in the dry season, which concentrates the salts. Hopefully the floods diluted the salts, if only for a short period. And as you can see in the following pictures, the animals hardly seem to have minded the flooding.

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The baboons in Africa amazed me. As far as I can tell, they are the equivalent of a diurnal raccoon in the states. They are smart, quick on the uptake, like eating leftovers, and aren’t afraid to come take something that is shiny or smells good. We didn’t have any troubles with them, but we were warned not to feed them and were told tales of cameras and other treasures lost to the unsuspecting.

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The second coolest things we saw that day was a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl with a fresh kill in its talons. It was surprising to see a diurnal owl here as most of ours are nocturnal.

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Being part of the science dork crew from the Museum, the coolest thing I think we saw that day was a hippo carcass. I was in a truck with a large animal vet that day, Mary Sue, so we spent a good bit of time trying to CSI the hippo. A clear indication that large predators are in the area, the hippo carcass was picked clean — except for the skin, which was too thick for anyone to eat.

Family time & me time: Have the best of both at HMNS this holiday season

It’s the holiday season – full of food, festivities and family. Sure, you look forward to this month year-round, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick of it. Conversations start to get stale, your mother (or worse – mother-in-law) won’t let you stop stuffing your face, and you begin to worry that none of your pants will fit anymore.

This is enough to make some shout, “Bah humbug!” at every passerby, but it needn’t be so! All you need is some way to divert your family’s attention away from your new piercing, lack of promotion, the boyfriend or girlfriend that they loathe, or whatever childhood embarrassment they still insist on using to regale holiday guests (or worse yet, reenact).

What better way than an outing to the Houston Museum of Natural Science! Not only is this the perfect excuse to get out of the house, but with all of our exhibition halls, there are plenty of places to ditch your family — if only for a short while.

THE MORIAN HALL OF PALEONTOLOGY

The stunning views of fossilized dinosaurs, giant sloths, woolly mammoths and more will buy you just enough time to slip over to the John P. and Katherine McGovern Jurassic Bark Gallery (in a separate room towards the back, on the left). Here you will find sanctuary amongst the remains of a petrified forest – clearly terrified of your family too.

You might also head up to the Morian Overlook. Just as your family’s entering the hall, slip back out, and take the elevator up to the second floor. Be careful they don’t see you, because from here, you can take in the whole hall from above.

THE HALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT

There’s a lot to see in this hall. Rush to the back as you enter while the fam plods along. Here you’ll find the mummies and sarcophagi. And we have great, dim mood lighting – which means you could totally lay out on one of the benches, and people will just think you’re another exhibit! Chill here for a while until your family catches up.

THE COCKRELL BUTTERFLY CENTER

A Rainforest, butterflies, an iguana – let your clan to take it all in while you scope out your next spot.

As you enter the Rain Forest Conservatory, head all the way to the bottom level – into the cave. You can remain unseen from above and chill with all the cool butterflies that are trying to be as exclusive as you.

If you enter the Hall of Entmology from here you’ll be right by the “Land of BEEyond.” Please understand that this area is meant for children, so let them play in peace if they get there first – but after all, you’re a kid at heart, right? Why not chill here? You might even get to meet the queen bee.
THE MINERAL HALL AND SMITH GEM VAULT

This hall is lit perfectly to enhance the natural beauty of the minerals and gems on display — and also perfect lighting for a quick escape from your tribe. Walk briskly, and stick close to the wall on the left. As you round the corner, you’ll come up on the Smith Gem Vault, which, if you’re wearing dark colors, makes you nearly invisible. The only light in this room is focused on the perfectly carved diamonds and other jewels on display. It seriously looks like they’re emitting light themselves.

Hang out here for a while, and if you do it right, you can slip back into the mineral hall as the fam goes in the gem vault. You just bought yourself another 20 minutes of freedom!

Other options for some solace in the Museum:

Wortham Giant Screen Theatre: They won’t be able talk to you in here!
Burke Baker Planetarium: With the added feature of looking up, idle chit-chat is discouraged
The Museum Store: Nothing takes the edge off quite like a bit of retail therapy

Tales from Tanzania: That’s no mint on your pillow

Some hotels leave mints on pillows. But in the African Serengeti, you get assassin bugs.

Assassin bug on a pillow

Not a mint.

Dave and I had been actively searching for invertebrates on our trip to no avail. The guides thought we were weird (crazy) from all of our questions about insects (as well as snakes and lizards). No one goes to Tanzania for the little things — they’re only interested in the big stuff.

So imagine our delight when we came “home” one night and discovered this AWESOME assassin bug on our pillows.

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David, with our non-mint, and our pillow.

Assassin bugs are awesome because they have specially adapted mouths, perfect for sucking “the goodie” out of other insects. They pierce through the exoskeleton of their prey and inject saliva into the body. The saliva liquefies the innards of the prey, which can then be sucked right out (like a smoothie!).

An assassin bug with its prey.

Not only are assassin bugs insect-smoothie-enthusiasts, but they’re great at defending themselves. They can spit their saliva into the eyes of those things that might try to eat it (birds) or accidentally disturb it (humans), causing temporary blindness.

Now tell me that’s not awesome.

The life cycle of an assassin bug

DISCLAIMER: We may have totally lied to everyone on the trip — and by, “We may have lied,” I mean, “We totally lied.” Knowing what the assassin bug can do, we decided to tell our fellow travelers that we found it outside our room rather than on the pillow. Why cause a panic? (But don’t tell the others.)

Kwa heri!

Tales from Tanzania: Wandering after dark & the trees that make elephants and baboons drunk

Jambo!

Now that we have a good Internet connection to the Internet (there aren’t a lot of Internet cafes in the middle of the Serengeti), I thought I should update you on our adventures!

The second evening in Tanzania, a brave few were fortunate enough to be taken on a late afternoon nature hike. We were in by dark, however, as we quickly learned that most of the adventures end promptly around 6:30 p.m. — when the sun sets. There are no fences at any of the places we overnighted and, as the animals — large and small — roam freely, you need to be in by dark!

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

We had several birders on the trip (a very helpful thing on a trip like this!), so as they were spotting their feathered friends, I was looking for smaller critters like this awesome matabele ant crawling across some acacia leaves.

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Termite mounds are also abundant across Tanzania. Termites need water to make their mounds, so if they have no access to water, the termites can dig up to 100 feet down to find some. Lots of things here eat termites, including some people. When roasted, they have a nutty flavor.

I don’t know a lot about plants, so I was astounded to learn that there were that many varieties of acacia. On this trip alone we saw 16 different species — my favorites being the wait-a-bit tree and the whistling thorn acacia. I was also surprised to see aloe vera here. Rather than a squat little ground plant like we have in the U.S., the aloe here grows into tall, thin trees. Below, our guide is showing us the marula tree.

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

It supposedly has medicinal properties and can be made into an after-dinner liquor named Amarula that aids in digestion. The leaves of the tree “make elephants and baboons drunk,” and so the elephant is used as the label image on the bottle.

Kwa heri!