Tuesday, 27 January 2015


From the jumbled hills at the base of the western scarp of the Great Rift there springs fresh water. This water flows to the valley as streams, through a belt of shady green forest, the haunt of olive baboons and silvery-cheeked hornbills. From here these streams cross a short-grass plain, then fade into the papyrus marshes which fringe Lake Manyara. Reaching the lake the water is lost to all but the most specialised life as Manyara, like most of the lakes in the Rift, is alkaline.

Yet fed by these springs, the forest, the grassland and the marshes throb with life. A slender mongoose bolts across the track as we enter the park and frequently our way is blocked by families of baboons or vervets, a few shyer blue monkeys flanking them in the forest. As the trees thin we meet elephants, scuffing the sward with their great feet to dislodge tiny legumes which they lift with their trunks in neat bunches to their mouths.

On top of the last acacia at the forest edge are two northern carmine bee-eaters, their colours explosive in the late light of an African afternoon. Beyond, on the grass, are the two bookends on the spectrum of elegance and beauty in the antelope world. The little Thomson's gazelles drift over the plain on delicate hooves, their slim black tails dancing across their black-and-white rumps. On their flanks is a bold black diagonal, dividing their toffee backs from their milky bellies.

The other bookend is the blue wildebeest. It is not a creature of beauty. Ungainly, misshapen, these flat-faced, black-faced, mottle-grey animals have scant white beards and short curved horns, too-slim legs and too-big tails; all in contrast with the dapper gazelles nearby. Around these African antelopes are numberless European birds: hundreds of yellow wagtails at their feet, hundreds of barn swallows over their backs, and on a dusty pan nearby hundreds of collared pratincoles hunkering to the earth until launched in a swallow-winged cloud by the passage of a pallid harrier.

The marsh is bright and loud and busy with life. Here three species of African lapwing pace beside many waders from the north: wood, marsh and common sandpipers and a single curlew. A muddy bank is a plate from an African field guide: a white stork, a marabou, two sacred ibis, four great white pelicans and a solemn crowd of yellow-billed storks. Fan-tailed widows and winding cisticolas fuss and fidget in the papyrus and all the while a dozen hippos belch and surface in a muddy pool which looks too small by far to hold them.

Of Manyara's tree-climbing lions we saw nothing. It mattered nothing in this wondrous place where Africa and Europe collide in a hundred-thousand wings.

Lake Manyara from my hotel room

Elephants in the Rift Valley


  1. Most evocative Nick. I've only been to Africa the once but quickly learned how it can get under your skin. I'm most envious.....do I look good in green? Hope to see you soon, Denise sends her love. Barry

  2. Great to hear from you! Thanks for reading. In the spring, once I'm back from Asia, let's see some birds.