At Same, an unpretentious town on the Moshi-Dar road, the sign for Mkomazi National Park pops up. It’s not on our itinerary but the sign points six kilometres to the gate at Zange. The 3,245-square –kilometre national park was by 1989 overrun by poachers, hunters and cattle without a single rhino and only a few elephants. It was desolate.
In ten minutes, we were at the gates of Zange at Mkomazi that has one of the smartest gates to a national park…flanked by a Fringe-eared oryx and a Black rhino. Young Amina Omari was assigned to be our guide.
With the many hills of the Pare and Usambara mountains on the southern side, the park was so green after the rains that it defied its name. Mkomazi is from the Pare language – Mko for the traditional small spoon and mazi for water – meaning that there is little water in the park.
In the now lush paradise a herd of red elephants grazed, ignoring us. It’s in contract to 1989 when only 11 elephants survived from 4000. Today there are up to 500 during the rainy season migrating from Tsavo West in Kenya following the path of most grass. In an iconic photograph shot by the famous photographer Peter Beard in 1974 from a low flying plane, there’s not enough space in the frame to photograph one herd of elephants in Mkomazi. They look like ants, something that no generation may ever witness again. Sadly.
“That’s a Grey hornbill,” pointed our guide. On the ground, flocks of Yellow-necked spurfowls tried to outdistance us. A herd of elands ran across and soon we were watching giraffes by the dam coming for an evening drink.
When Fitzjohn arrived in 1989, giraffes had been slaughtered using high snares to strangle their ten-foot long necks for their meat, skin and tail for fly whisks. Again the petrified giants would hide in the bushes.
Now, we’re following a female and her foal leisurely strolling on the road because the sides are water-filled. And there are giraffes everywhere, the Maasai kind which is the largest subspecies. When Fitzjohn arrived there were no roads, airstrips or lodges in the reserve. Everything had returned to the bush.
At the top of the viewpoint we scan the wildly beautiful park with a dramatic view of the valley flanked by the massifs of Pare and Usambara.
“Wild dogs are common,” tells our young guide. In the 1950s, the first warden of Mkomazi wrote in his diary that there were African wild dogs everywhere. By the 1980s, the tally was zero.
Thinking ahead to attract donors for the much needed cash to operate such a vast paradise, Fitzjohn zeroed in on bringing back the planet’s most endangered canine and rhinos. Mkomazi became Tanzania’s first rhino sanctuary in a country that had lost 90 per cent of the horned mega-herbivore to poachers.
The sun is setting signalling that we must leave. Returning to Mkomazi is a must because in one afternoon we’ve only seen a speck of it and awed by its epic story.
In 2006, Mkomazi received good news. It was no more a reserve but elevated to national park status. With success stories like Mkomazi, there is hope for Africa’s wildlife.
Nairobi to Mkomazi is 544 kilometres. The Tarakea border is quiet and scenic along the shoulder of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Kenyans don’t need a visa to enter Tanzania you must have your passport stamped at the border and your car log book deposited for collection on return. That’s a hassle forcing you to return via the same border. Entry into the national parks is very affordable as the East African rate applies. Check out TANAPA https://www.tanzaniaparks.go.tz/ for rates.