“Remove nothing from the park except nourishment for the soul, consolation for the heart and inspiration for the mind.”

This signboard welcomed us as we entered the Lake Manyara National Park which covers an area of 330 square kilometres, of which 230 square kilometres constitutes the lake.

We drove up to get a panoramic view of the lake. On either side of the road there was thick foliage. We found a baby elephant crossing our path eager possibly to join its herd. Baboons, monkeys, antelopes, giraffes and zebras were there in plenty. However, to our regret we couldn’t spot any tree climbing lions for which the park is well known.

We could also see Greater and Lesser flamingoes, herons, egrets, storks, ibis, pelicans, cormorants and fish eagles – the birds were as spectacular as the beasts.

We stopped near what looked like a pond and got down. I noticed half a dozen rocks forming a pattern and a pelican resting on one of them. After a few moments I was stunned to see a rock moving! It was only then that I realised that what I had thought to be rocks were dozen or so hippos relaxing in the waters. Our driver cum guide, Hamza informed us that this was the famous Hippo Pool. We posed for the mandatory photos and soon left the Lake Manyara National Park.

Ngorongoro Crater:

Our first view of the crater, right from the top left us speechless. It was a like a gigantic saucer with broad rim and a large base. The floor was huge grassland with lake in the middle. From the top we could see ‘fumes’ emanating from the lake creating a haze of white. We were told by Hamza, that since it was a salt lake it had been given the name Makat, the Maasai word for salt. As we traveled down the crater over a road, which was just about ‘one vehicle wide’, a glorious panorama unfolded layer, by exquisite, layer. With every turn we took we were served a new variant from nature’s remarkable repertoire. The grassy plains had little spots of different sizes and shapes which, a look through binoculars made us realize, were fauna. As we neared the bottom of the crater we could see Maasai boys coming up the slopes with their cattle.

“Maasai are now permitted to graze their cattle within the Crater. However, they cannot stay there – they must enter and exit daily,” Hamza informed us.

We began our game drive after reaching the bottom. We saw scores and scores of wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, a couple of rhinos and a lioness and her boy friend.

A scene quite hilarious was that of the warthogs running in twos and threes, at full speed their tails totally erect like antennae. They have been called “the incarnations of hideous dreams” and though they would never make it to any beauty contest their alacrity and acumen make them pretty tough survivors. We saw a lioness give chase to a warthog couple and the way it managed to evade the predator, without expending much energy, was quite admirable.

We could see a host of flamingoes and pelicans which are attracted by the alkaline properties of lake Makat. Hamza told us that almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa, numbering around 25,000 in all, exists within the crater.

After spending a couple of hours just driving around, clicking snaps and enjoying the beauty we commenced our ascent. The sun was setting and as we moved up we could the play of light and shadow on the hills. The shimmering waters of the lake, the myriad birds and beasts, the sun playing truant with the acacia trees - it was like viewing an endless montage of picture postcards.

The Snake Park:

Our next spot was the snake park on the outskirts of Arusha the second biggest town in Tanzania.

Our guide was an erudite, gentle and patient man. He showed us a mind-boggling variety of snakes housed in big, airy cages in the park.

The most captivating were the deadly ones – the black and green mamba, Egyptian spitting cobra, black necked spitting cobra, red spitting cobra, sand snake and the rhinoceros viper.

There are many who find snakes repulsive. I for one have always been utterly fascinated by them. The beautiful patterns on their skin, their slithering, almost sensuous, movement, their riveting eyes and above all their deadly fangs – there is something absolutely mesmeric about snakes.

We were explained the eating habits, venom and other interesting bits about the reptiles. The guide showed us the ‘seven steps snake’ so called because a person bitten by it dies before he can take the eighth step.

“How do you collect the snakes,” I asked our guide.

“We go and catch the snakes on being informed about their sightings.”

“Don’t you buy snakes?” Madhavi, my wife, wanted to know.

“No, we don’t, since this would encourage people to trap them for money.”

I and my kids Ankita and Aniket got a chance to drape a snake around our shoulders and even kiss it. We also held a baby crocodile much to the horror of Madhavi, who, though a carnivore by disposition, is a herbivore by dietary habit!!

A notice in the park just before the bird cages caught our attention. I am reproducing it in its entirety below. It will give you an idea how much the African people love and respect nature and all its myriad creations:

“Dear Visitor,

Many times people tell us how sad they think it is for the birds to be locked up in cages.

Please note that ALL the birds living here have a very good reason for being kept in a cage. The giant eagle owl, for example, has permanent wing damage and is thus incapable of hunting. It would be inhumane, irresponsible and unacceptable to release a raptor without being 100% reasonably assured of its survival in the wild. Retention in captivity is a much better alternative in many of these instances.

Some of these birds will however be rehabilitated as soon as they meet the desired ethical and physical criteria for a successful release and survival in the wild.

As you might understand, we love our birds very much but actually never asked for them being here.

We too, much rather have them soaring the African Skies.”

As we left the Snake Park these words kept echoing in my mind. ‘It is in the fitness of things that a country like Tanzania, which has been blessed so liberally with nature’s bounty, should have a people whose empathy quotient is so high’, I thought. I also wondered when the denizens of Mera Bharat Mahaan would learn to treat nature with respect and dignity, as a phenomenon to be venerated not merely to be exploited.

Olduvai gorge:

“In 1911, Professor William Kattwinkel, a German lepidopterist, stumbled upon Olduvai Gorge. Later he described the gorge as a “book of life.” In many ways the description is more accurate than the myriad phrases that have followed: The cradle of mankind, the Grand Canyon of Human Evolution the Garden of Eden, etc.” These words spoken by our guide hooked us to his narration.

We were sitting on a bench in the lunch room cum orientation centre of Olduvai Gorge listening to our guide wax eloquence about the story of the gorge which is inextricably linked to the history of mankind. As our guide, tall, well built and pleasant looking, narrated in his near perfect English the tale of the gorge we were completely enthralled.

We came to know from him that in 1929 Louis Leakey, a Kenyan born pre-historian, began excavation at Olduvai and unearthed on the very first day of his work a prehistoric hand-axe and subsequently other stone tools. In 1959 Leakey’s wife Mary, an internationally famous archeologist, spotted a skull at the same spot. The skull was referred to as Zinj and nicknamed the ‘Nut cracker Man’ because of its large back teeth.

In 1960 Leakey’s son Jonathan unearthed Homo habilis, the earliest toolmaker who was nicknamed the handyman. Homo habilis was about the same age as the Nutcracker Man (1.75million years old) but with a larger brain cavity and was directly link to humans. Zinj, however, was placed in a different genus to humans.

Louis Leakey took the study of human evolution a step further at Olduvai with his discovery of the skull of Homo Eructus. This was the next step in human evolution before homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens who are today’s humans.

We had reached the Olduvai gorge a couple of hours earlier. Hamza told us that Olduvai (or oldupai) is derived from the maasai name for the wild sisal plant. On reaching the site we went straight to the museum where every facet of the history, archeology, the numerous milestones, the flora, fauna, the findings and discoveries are showcased in a truly impressive manner.

Later we went to the lunch room and had our first glimpse of the gorge in all its breath taking glory. The thirty mile long and 300 feet gorge is a steep ravine in the Great Rift Valley, which stretches along eastern Africa. In the middle are huge columns of mud and stone created by various excavations. The soil in various layers of brown and gray stretches across the ravine looking like the creation of an extremely talented landscape artist.

We sat down on bunches and placed our lunch packets the tables in front. We found a number of multi-hued birds hovering around. A sign asked us not to feed the birds.

I opened my packet and decided to begin with a piece of water melon. Within seconds a bird swooped down and plucking it from my hands disappeared. Looking at the startled expression on my face everyone laughed. Soon it was my turn to return the ‘compliment’ as other tourists shared a similar experience. The birds got bolder by the second and soon they had settled comfortable on the tables within half a swoop distance from our lunch packets.

Just then our charismatic guide appeared and clapped his hands. It was almost as if he had waved a magic wand. The birds disappeared from the scene and gathered on the branches of the trees overlooking the gorge. We were amazed at the act performed by our modern day Pied Piper.

As we left Oldupai there was a sense of awe, a feeling of fulfillment. If Olduvai was the book of life, we were quite happy being its evanescent footnotes….

Our tryst with Tanzania had proved to be hugely fulfilling. Spectacular game drives inside a crater and a jungle, a momentous date with history and above all a priceless lesson in nurturing nature - our sojourn had been a pleasurable treasure hunt with the ultimate prize at the end – an infinite cache of indelible memories!