Elephant at Mdonya Old River Camp
Lion at Mdonya Old River Camp
Lion in riverbed at Mwagusi
Our tent at Mdonya Old River camp
Departure Lounge at Msembe Airstrip
Dawn looking out from the Banda Mwagusi
A Caravan
Msembe Airstrip - game viewing vehicles waiting

by Dave Hucker

July 2008

"That’s a good sign" I thought as the Caravan bumped down at Msembe airstrip.  Just to the right of us were loads of elephants.

The Cessna Caravan had landed after four stops on its meandering bus journey through Tanzania from Dar es Salaam in the east to Arusha in the north.

The Caravan is a wonderfully rugged 12 seater mini-bus with wings and a turboprop engine perfectly suited to being an African bus service.

We were being bussed over to our first stop on our second visit to Tanzania. The destination was Ruaha National Park and the first camp was Mdonya Old River. Awaiting us was an open-sided Landcruiser to take us on the hour and a half drive to camp. The landscape went through many changes as we drove through the stony hills to open grassland, mopane scrubland and acacia forest.

We pulled into the camp entrance to be meeted and greeted and given a very welcome cold drink. We were led through the bushes into the main camp area and fifty yards away by the dining tent was a large elephant having a munch at some grass.

At that point I knew it was going to be an elephant time on this journey.

To avoid the elephant we were led a back route to our tent. There we luxuriated in the green loveliness of the surroundings.  Our tent was one of ten widely spread along the old river bank with thick wood and scrubland on both sides.

The tents were simple - just 2' x 16' or so, with an outside flush toilet and shower at the back surrounded by a canvas screen. Out front was a shaded seating/veranda area with a table and a stand for an oil lamp (no solar power here).  This was old style camping - increasingly rare in the expanding safari market and very welcome.

The naughty elephant having eaten his fill allowed us to go and get ours. We had lunch with Nick the camp manager and two guests. They are staying here for three weeks! They are both well into their sixties. Their names are Roger and Jan, crisply old style. He is an expert on wild dogs and she is charmingly hyperactive and talks ten to the dozen. They are old Africa hands having lived in the Serengeti for many years while researching wild dogs. They had many tales to tell, contributing mightily to the life and soul of the dinner table at night.

After a nibble and my first (of many) Kilimanjaro beers we retired to our tent and had a sleep.  We had been travelling for twenty four hours solid.  We had left the house in London at three in the afternoon and finally fell over in the depths of Ruaha at three the next afternoon.

I awoke after a couple of hours deep sleep.  Kim was still comatose so I sat out in the front and watched the world.  A large black hornet with a bright yellow rump is building a nest from mud on one of the poles supporting our tent.  Impalas wander down to the riverbed.  A couple we had passed while on the road to here went to the tent just up from us at the end.

The Vervet monkeys in a tree on the side of the bank opposite the tent erupted into a cacophony of noise. The ones in a tree twenty five yards away joined in the very noisy debate. It sounded like some kind of alarm call or major argument. Then up the path strode a figure in shorts and no shirt, a bit sunburnt, with large tattoos on his forearm and back. They were in a pattern style called Celtic. He waves as he passes.

This was Scott and he was Scottish. At a distance I took him for a large twenty something with longish hair. But no. He was here with his wife and two teenage daughters. He was a birder.

Dinner was a very pleasant affair.

We retired to our ample bed which welcomed us with open sheets. We had to put a few extra blankets on as it was a bit chilly. I slept for a while then woke up when the riverbed got very noisy with the impalas hooting and honking, hyenas laughing and jackals jackaling.

Up at 6 am for an all day drive. Breakfast: “scrambled egg, bacon and no sausage please”. It came with some kind of a frankfurter.

The only problem with Mdonya Old River Camp is that for the popular game stuff on an all dayer you will drive an hour and a half down the main road        (well, bumpy track), through patches of malevolent Tetse flies, to get to the airstrip where you properly start the drive. There were lots of elephants here including many very young babies of only a few months old - something we come across time after time in Ruaha - the mothers are also just so protective of these little'uns forming circles round them at the slightest sign of our closeness.  Then a little further on near Mwagusi Camp we found a male lion with a tie-dye mane lying in the shade of a bush by the road.  He opens a weary eye as we stop to look at him.

Ahh lovely.

We travel and on a bit with the Mwagusi River to our left and I look at the Cruiser's clock. We have been out for five hours. I have a feeling it should be lunch soon - or rather my stomach does - and my brain is taking a bashing being thrown around by the bumpy tracks and needs a break. At the confluence of the Mwagusi and Ruaha rivers we pull in at a little thatched shelter with seats.  The Mwagusi is a “sand” river.  It only has water above the sand during the rainy season; during the rest of the year the water runs about a foot underground. The Ruaha is a “wet” river.  Evidently in some places it is possible to stand with one leg in cold water (the Mwagusi) and the other in the warm water of the Ruaha.

We've stopped at a human waterhole.  As we set up our picnic lunch in the shelter another vehicle pulls into the parking space.  Then a large party gets out and has to squeeze into a smaller area as we have bagsied the biggest and best part for the four of us.

They opened packed lunch boxes marked Fox’s Safari Co and looked at us with a bit of envy as we dined from Tupperware bowls full of pasta and salads, homemade breads and cakes. We also have Thermos flasks of hot water and coolers packed with cold drinks.

Then a German guide pitches up with a couple of Germs. No room in the shelter so they have to sit outside. Hah sweet revenge for all those towels on sun loungers.

We use the long drop provided and set off back to camp. Our guide Salvatore is enthusiastic.  The driver, Mr Alex, is a much older man who has seen most things before.  Salvatore is largely self-trained and good on birds and plant life.  He speaks a little bit of many languages, Chad, Swahili, and Spanish.  His English was not that good and so the information he shared with us was not as full as it could have been.

We pass by a nice group of giraffe.  The noun for a group of Giraffe is now 'a kaleidoscope' - it used to be 'a journey'.  Then we come across a group of zebra - 'a dazzle', which I think is a fantastic descriptive collective term - with a nice family of warthogs that deserved a photograph.   Nothing particularly special but that’s the nature of a game drive; nothing is guaranteed it just depends on the animals.

We stop at a reasonable sized Baobab tree and Salvatore (yes he is Tanzanian; they take a European name when they become Christians) gives us the spiel about the meaning and importance of the tree and where its name comes from. It's called the upside down tree because it looks like the roots are up in the air. This is result of God being angry with the Baobab because it thought it was the most beautiful tree on earth. So he turned it upside down with just its roots sticking out .

The trees are very long living - 5000 years for a good old specimen. It is a very useful tree, its fruit can be eaten, the white pulp pressed and cooked like cassava. The seeds can be roasted like peanuts. The fibrous bark can be made into a very strong twine. 

He talked about the entrance to a bees' nest we could see although he totally missed one which was really spectacular, high up in a joint of a branch with the large honeycombs dripping down. I'm pleased to find that my own spotting has got pretty good!  Mr Alex makes Kim a bush toothbrush from a toothbrush tree.

We then fetch upon a beautiful scene, a family of elephants including some small ones drinking at the river.  Having satiated themselves and got well watered up they head to a pool to spray mud on themselves.  The last part of the ritual is to go scratching themselves against a tree in the bank.

In the distance I could see the Ranger Station by the airstrip and realised we were not far away from the point where you start to get back.  About an hour away from camp my head started to hurt, I could feel a headache coming on. It was 5.45 and we had been out for over 10 hours bouncing in bright sunlight along bumpy dusty tracks.  We stumble into camp.  I ask for two Kilimanjaros to takeaway, saying one will not even touch the side of my throat. We head down the path to our tent. I spot a guy waving at us. I see why - hidden from us was an enormous elephant chewing away at some grass on the path in front of us.  We slowly backed into the open lounge tent and watched. Kim disappeared to the lavatory.  I watched as the ele comes nearer and starts stripping a big tree - my Kilis come. Kim returned looking a bit red and flushed, grabbed a cold beer bottle and ran it around her forehead and cheeks. The ele passed by us just feet away; had a look at us and moved on in search of a new tree to strip or clump of grass to eat. When we got back to the tent I discovered why Kim looked so flushed and red. She had started to feel wiped out during the last bit of the drive back to camp. She went straight to bed after a bit of retching. And she passed on dinner, which was a bit late starting anyway because the elephant was back again and stopped the boys setting up the dinner table.

Everybody was very concerned about Kim. But I allayed their concerns and said she was OK, just wiped out.

At dinner Roger regaled us with all kind of detailed information about wild dogs' life.  For example when the Alpha female decides to step back and relinquish control of the pack. It is not the Beta female that takes control but one of the Alpha females daughter's pups.

We had always planned to do nothing the next day and just hang around the camp seeing what came to us. The Scottish people - a very interesting family - had left.  The children had been really interested in what was going on around them. And they were good photographers as well.  The other English couple had also gone so we had had the camp to ourselves for most of the day along with Roger and Jan who were very pleasant and interesting company. At lunch we ended up talking about motorbikes.

In the late afternoon a couple turned up and disappeared into the tent at the end next to us. Later we saw guys building a fire and putting up a table outside their tent. This couple were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. At dinner we asked Nick who the people were and he said "They are nice people".  I noticed his lips were tight.

That evening we did what we should have done from the beginning and gone local for game viewing. We saw quite a few elephants on our drive as to be expected.  It seems everywhere was overrun by them. A highpoint was where local landscape and a lot of large animals came together. A reasonable sized herd of buffalo were coming round a bend in the dry river, behind them were cliffs and they generated a lot of dust which was caught by setting sun. It was very pretty and the buffalo came to drink right below us. It was a great setting for a sundowner.

After dinner the other couple who had arrived and had the private dinner came up to say hello.  They sounded like they were from Lancashire.  She babbled away with too much information and very little of it positive. He was much quieter, warmer and probably long suffering.

There was quite a bit of noise on the riverbank that night.  In the morning there was a map of the nocturnal activity around our tent: huge elephant prints, hyenas, impalas and goodness knows what else.  We are about to head off to the airstrip where we will be handed over to Mwagusi.  I step out of the tent with the bags and say "Oh dear". Kim with her back to me zipping down the tent says "What?" Thinking I have must have left something behind. But I just point to the elephant chewing grass 10 yards away.  We sit down and watch, Kim undoes the zip to the tent, just in case we need to nip in to escape.

But she also sees Nick the manager and the Masai guard standing behind the ele in the shelter of the next tent. She indicates we are tranquillo with the situation (thumbs up and a big smile). When it is pointing in the right direction they move the ele along and it disappears into the bushes. A very nice moment.  The Masai guard was usually there to take you back and forth to the tent at night. He had shoes made of tyres, probably from a wheelbarrow. When I first saw his tracks in the path I was a bit flummoxed. Tyre tracks - not continuous and biped? Then I saw his feet.

We said our goodbyes to Roger, Jan and manger Nick.

Guide Salvatore and driver Mr Alex took us a nice route to the airstrip that included a walk over a rope bridge. Apparently lions use it as well as humans.  Many elephants around. I've lost track of the number - already we are well into the upper 200s - and each group seem to have a couple of very young ones.  They were very protective of the babies, forming a phalanx of elders around them when we stop to look.  But on the whole they were surprisingly unbothered by the Landcruiser and the bi-peds.

At the airstrip all the camps in the area (about five) were dropping off and picking up guests. Msembe was its usual meeting point and exchange hub. The park bureaucrats who were there to get signatures for each plane and collect landing fees had a busy time twice a day.  We were handed over to Mwagusi Camp staff.  A Caravan landed and brought Nick's replacement manger (as he was going away back home for two weeks) and some other new people also for Mwagusi Camp. They were a young couple on honeymoon. The guy Simon was a bit of motor mouth. He did not have a soft pedal or an on/off switch. This was his first ever safari.  He was enjoying it very much. And he was already an expert.

Mwagusi was one of our favourite camps 5 years ago.  So good we decided to revisit it.  Set on the banks of a sand river it has a unique architecture of large thatched bandas with zip up tents inside them, big bathroom areas, and a veranda overlooking the river bed.  The camp is the same but has also moved on. The founder/owner, Chris Fox, is more detached from the day to day running of it. There are two managers: Charlotte an English girl who had been bitten by the Africa bug and trained as a guide in South Africa, then got a job as a manager at Mwagusi; and Rian a very large South African who is in charge of the guiding and developing new guiding talent.

Physically new in camp there are large water towers (very pretty ones, mind you) dotted around. There used to be a big hand operated pump for the borehole. Now there is a solar powered electric pump. The ritual of the boys with yokes carrying buckets of hot water for the showers in the evening is gone now, replaced with solar heating. This is partly because the government has now set a minimum wage for all park staff in Tanzania.  While this is good in principle in practice it has meant that most camps have had to cut back their staff.  Mwagusi has gone from 100 to 38.  The water carriers got paid a low wage but it was a good starter job and there were opportunities to progress to the kitchen, the bandas and maybe even guiding.  Now the pay is better but fewer people benefit.  Tricky balance.

The Bandas are even bigger now. Ours had been extended ten feet or so. On the way to it we had to take a circuitous route, cutting through other people's verandas to avoid an ele munching away quite close. We were actually next door to the Banda we had last time. But we still had the 'folding supremo' Mr Kano looking after us.  Mr Kano has been with Chris Fox for some 20 years.  He is in charge of the banda's and new banda staff.  The bandas are immaculate and he takes great delight in tidying and folding and colour coding his guests clothes.  We feel ashamed of our crumpled wardrobe!

At our first lunch at Mwagusi we bumped into the four people who had got on the Caravan at Selous on our bus journey up here. Some were from the triangle where Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire meet and knew the village where my mother lives in South Derbyshire.  All together they were old Africa hands.

At the evening drive we were teamed up with Simon and his new wife Kate and another honeymoon couple.  We head out across the river and end up at a huge Baobab tree. Again there were masses of elephants and there really  is vast numbers of babies. Dinner that night was up on the hill. I remembered this place very well from five years before. The coals from the fire cook the food in pots in the dimples of a range/cooker made out of mud.  Lanterns hung from the bushes.  A camp fire burned.  The sky was massive and dazzling with stars.  There was a crescent moon. We were eight hours drive from the nearest town. It was great.

Next day the morning drive with guide Samson was spectacular. We got four of the big five, with an amazing diversity of landscape. The eles were everywhere.  We had skirted around and headed up onto an escarpment. We drove down some very steep and extreme tracks into a spring and watched a lizard sunning itself. Then suddenly with in a flurry of indignation a hippo burst out of a pool just to the left of our Cruiser, it was only a few feet away. It gave us all a bit of a shock - no one, including the guides, had any idea it was there.

This was an area of beautiful sculpted volcanic rock outcrops populated by rock hyrax a large guinea pig sized creature that actually is related to the elephant. We tracked down to the river when we bumped into the German guide we had seen before. There was a conversation in Swahili with our guide Samson which included the word 'Simba' and a hand gesture that seemed to imply just round the bend in the river. We set off across the bank; we were hacking through the vegetation. After quite a short time, what do you know we found a lion under a bush.  To its right lying in the river bed in the shade of the bank and under a fallen tree were four more lions. A giraffe appeared a hundred yards away. It spotted us and the lions but kept fixated on the lions. One of the lions took an interest in the giraffe and sat up, ignoring us. We backed away and went on; passing the giraffe that was still looking at the lions.  We are pretty insignificant in this landscape.

The evening drive was with Samson again. The first thing we did was to go back to where the lions were. Hmm no sign of them at all.  He pointed to some very fresh elephant droppings and said the eles had probably chased the lions away.

 So we continued with the Cruiser pushing a way through the scrubby brush on the river bank. Over the other side of the river we spotted another vehicle with people looking at something further up the river from us. Then within yards we stumbled into two young male lions fast asleep under a bush; one on its back with its paws in the air, the other snuggling right up along side it. At one point the male stretched out its back leg. But they did not even wake up when the Cruiser's engine restarted. We never did see what the other car was looking at. We continued to push off road through the vegetation and saw a herd of buffalo in the river. Then suddenly a single female lion broke cover from the opposite bank and rushed across toward the buffalo. However she missed whatever she was aiming for and slunk way.  A lone female could never have succeeded in this situation. The buffalo quickly regrouped and sent out an aggressive phalanx of about eight animals to chase the lion away.  She sensibly chose to retreat to the bank under a palm tree. We got closer and wait.  A small dazzle of zebra caught the lion's attention for a moment. The buffalo though bad tempered and vicious have short term memories and soon moved back into the river and up into the bank only 75 yards away from the lion.  She was the one under threat now.

We backed away when it is obvious there was not going to be any action. We made a big circle around but did not see much except lots more elephants. We came back to where the lion was and found her still there. Behind us a small herd of eles browse. Down in the riverbank there are two buffalo stragglers who came up the bank to eat. This got the lion's attention.  She stirred, got up, stretched and walked just feet away from the Cruiser.  You see this kind of stuff on the wildlife documentaries but to see it in the flesh was wonderful. She then settled down and we watched her for a while before making our way back. As we crossed the Mwagusi I could see lights in the river bank by the camp. I knew where we were going to eat tonight. Mr Kano, carrying the lantern, took us an extra circuitous route via the vehicle park to get us to down into the sandy river bed. Next time I'm sure it will be via Iringa.

In the morning we were going walking. Breakfast at 6.30.  Then we picked up our armed ranger, Godfrey and our guide, Geoffrey and after about a thirty minute drive we started to walk down to the river. Walking is a wonderful chance to see the little things you will always miss on a drive. I found a nest from a paper wasp which looked like pressed tissue paper - it was grass and bark chewed up and made into hexagonal tubes - very delicate. We spent time looking at spiders' nests and I was fascinated by egg shaped indentations in trees cut by some kind of red beetle for their larvae.

We had to make various detours through the bush to avoid elephants. Taking a break one time the ranger talked to Kim about his gun collection. He had an AK47 but he explained that was no good on buffalo and elephant as the bullets were too small. But the large breech loader rifle he was carrying had large bullets so was better.

Lunch was at the main dining room as a large group of American Church guests had now gone. One of the many good things about Mwagusi is that they manage to keep the different tribes and interests separated. Compared to the Safari-istas the Christians were a bit noisy and their children still spoilt American brats.

We sat around in the afternoon at our banda watching what comes to the river to drink in the holes dug by the elephants. A large bunch of Kudu passed through.

The evening drive started with the usual things - lots of elephant and giraffe. However, we set off along a river bank and find a lion sleeping. We think there might have been a kill.  Then we spot another one nearby which we watch for a while and then make a move. Samson spots two more lions: a male and female on some open ground fast asleep. We get in close and observe.  However, we did not have time for the ritual of sundowners as it was getting quite late and the sun was dropping quickly. We head back, as we are climbing a bit of a steep slope by a bend in the river Samson spots some more lion sitting in the river bank. How he see's them in the fading light is beyond me as it took us a minute to find them even with him pointing out where they were!

It was getting very dark; we should have been near camp by now.  But Samson had really pushed it so that we could see as much as possible.  He was a great guide.   The driver was getting agitated with him as he was not allowed to switch on his headlights as you are not supposed to be driving after dark in the National Park. This means he could not see the track or rather the faint impressions of tyre tracks. As it got darker even those disappeared. How he managed to drive is beyond me. He had some angry words with Samson about not being able to see any elephant that may be lurking.  And as we swung into camp sure enough, there was an elephant in the road.  Fortunately Samson did spot him in the gloaming.  We waited till he decided to move.  We all shook the drivers hand warmly and profusely and said thank you for getting us back.

Dinner that night was up the top site (the river being the bottom one) where we found some new Americans. One was a church family - there are a lot of connections between the Evangelical churches in America and Tanzania - the other was an American family who lived in Dar as the father worked for the IMF. They had a badly disabled son in a wheelchair who was able to go out on all the trips in the Landcruiser.  The IMF bloke told a funny story about a meeting in Antigua where the cabinet ministers were told they absolutely had to be at an early morning meeting with the Senior Big Wig from the IMF.  This would be a challenge for Caribbean time keeping.  However, Mr Big Wig arrived to find all the chairs at the table full. The IMF guys started talking and making presentations about the economy. As the various cabinet ministers eventually turned up the persons sitting in the chairs left. So there was always a full attendance but not necessarily of the ministers.

It was a noisy night outside the banda, including something that seems to thump the ground then snuffle through the fallen leaves. In the morning I could see all kind of tracks including, coming up and walking right by the banda from the river bank, elephant tracks and fresh droppings.  I never even heard the elephant!

We pay our drinks and ranger bill and set off with Simon and Kate for the airstrip. He had wanted to go off at 9 o'clock so he could get in a full game drive and hopefully see the leopard that had been eluding him. But I said no, 9.30 will do. He was a nice bloke and his eyes had well and truly been opened.  But he had a few annoying traits: one was retelling the same stories over and over; the other was after you had made a statement he would repeat it using slightly different words.

We had plenty of time at the airstrip.

I borrowed Kim's phone and rang my mother, as you could get a mobile signal there thanks to a large mast the Government had put on a nearby hill. Good news for the Park Rangers and camp staff wanting to keep in touch with their families.  Swahili texting is another thing entirely.

Various Cruisers and Landrovers turned up.  The Lancashire couple who had celebrated their wedding anniversary at Mdonya arrived. She was straightaway moaning away about how Mdonya had not come up to her expectations. I do not think she could ever be satisfied with anything. She probably complains that Sunday is before Monday.  Her husband, obviously glad to get away for a moment, hooked into me. As always we are very polite to them. A Caravan lands and a couple of smaller Cessnas. 

Then Kim thought she recognised a couple of people who got off a Cessna. I looked at the back of them as they went down the slope to the bush toilet. But they did not immediately ring a bell.  She said it looks like the Dutch couple we met last time we were at Mwagusi five years ago. When they returned I looked again and agreed it could be. Kim could not remember their names; luckily I could help her with that as the notebook I was writing our journal in was the same one we used last time. I looked - their name was Joop and Sylvie. We had all got on well together when were paired with them on drives, walks and at dinner. So I went up to them and said "Are you Joop and Sylvie?"

They were just as shocked as we were to bump into each other. We had never said "keep in touch" or exchanged email addresses with them. And here we were meeting up at the same remote dirt airstrip five years later, both of us coming from different directions. They had not been back to Tanzania either in those years.  The funny thing was they were on their way to Mahale to go chimp trekking.  When we met last time, we had just come from Mahale and must have been raving about it.

That really was one of those wonderful accidental collisions you sometimes get when travelling. There was just an hour's window of opportunity to meet on that particular day. Any other time that day or week or month or year, we would have merely passed through the same region without knowing.

Our Caravan lands piloted by a glamorous Canadian woman. There was a party of four already on the plane, then six of us and a park official and his wife. The pilot remarked it was unusual to be taking off with a full plane from this airstrip. Luckily the noise of the plane stopped our moaning Mdonya friend talking to Kim.  As we were getting into the tiny plane she said to me, 'where's my seat?'  It went over her head when I joked "The good news is you have a seat on the wing; the bad news it is next to the toilet.

At Mdonya she had been rude about Beho Beho - the camp we were going to next - saying it was ridiculously pricy.  In order to save her embarrassment and avoid confrontation we had said we were going to nearby Sand Rivers. When we got onto the plane we could no longer hide the fact we were going to Beho Beho. She got extra miffed when Kim in a moment of genius improvised and said we had been 'upgraded' to Beho Beho. 

They really had a bee in their bonnet about the camp calling it a "luxury camp with air conditioning" When I questioned that they fell back and said it had fans. Well yes, it had a ceiling fan above the bed and one in the seating area. But even a two bit flea ridden brothel has ceiling fans! At Beho Beho there certainly is air-conditioning - it is the huge big cinemascope shaped hole that stretches the width of the banda and lets the breeze blow in. I could find very little to complain about at Beho but I'm sure she would have found something.

The bus landed at a few places before we touched down at the strip for Beho Beho. Our Canadian pilot put us down smoothly on the dirt. I've thought about her a quite a few times. Why was she flying a bus service in Tanzania? Was her father a bush pilot in Canada? Did she get her pilot's license before she got her driving license?   Who knows, but she was very smooth, as she lifted our two bags out of the bottom of the plane she nodded and said "You'll like Beho Beho."

A lanky figure strode over from the Cruiser.  This was Onesmo a clever, cheeky street kid from Arusha. He was also the number one black guide here at Beho Beho. The white Zimbabwean managers are really top guides and like Mwagusi they have a training programme to bring up the locals to the top echelons of guiding. They send them on courses to Malta to learn firearm training, First Aid and English and other things they will need to know to be good guides.

Mr Onesmo loads us into the Cruiser and we cruise down the dirt airstrip to make sure no impala stray on to it as the plane is taking off. They do not and we turn round and to go then we hear a train whistle - well, that hooting sound.

 "Ah the train is here - let's hurry" says Onesmo. We pull up at a crossing and a huge big train is stopped, straddling the road. There are two trains a week.  This is the slow train that comes from Zambia to Dar every Monday, stopping at every little halt and stop to pick up everyone and anything, from farmers with sacks of produce and live chickens trussed up, to people on their way somewhere or other for one reason or another. We sat and watched and many of the people packed into the carriages waved. We waved back. The way they looked at us it was clear a white face was a rare sight for some.

When the train pulled away you could see everybody who had got off, including a party of schoolchildren with large packs of bottled water.  It takes two and half days to do the whole journey. We make a note to add this train to our must do journeys.

We stopped for lunch by a dam creating a large pool. It was a very nice picnic. Onesmo had a neat trick with a bracelet to open bottle tops.  I've not seen that one before. I warm to him he drives fast and makes disparaging remarks like "Another bloody impala", recognising that this is not our first time in the bush. The road is pretty rough at times with huge big valleys dug into it by vehicles in the rainy season. Now they are rock hard canyons. The Tetses make a few forays at us, but we fooled them by dressing up as Masai warriors. Or rather just wrapping Masai blankets around us.  But a few get us.  We had forgotten to bring Avon's Skin So Soft, said to be one of the few deterrents.

 After an hour and a half we bumped into the entrance of Beho Beho and a guy brings us a welcoming cold towel to wipe off the dust from our hands and faces. Manager Tamlyn led us down into the main reception/bar/relaxing area, a high vaulted thatched affair. The views out were very stunning a large vista of plains, trees, a river and large hills in the background. We were shown to our banda - number 4 Swala (Swahili for impala). It was very nice with a wood burning stove to heat water for the outdoor shower. The banda had the bed in the middle surrounded by a mosquito net; to the front was the seating area and the large cinemascope open veranda. There was good furniture and family photographs sprinkled around. A family called the Baileys own the lodge. We ordered a sundowner of a Kilimanjaro and a white wine.  A whole bottle of wine appears together with canapés! It was very pleasant sitting watching the sun go down.

At 7.45 we were collected for dinner by Sasha one of the guides/managers.  In the dusk we passed some Masai warriors who guard the camp at night - mainly to stop the Hyenas coming in and chewing up the furniture. At drinks before dinner we met the other guests - a pair of Brazilians, a group of English people and a new guide Sean, recently arrived from South Africa. Dinner was on an open space overlooking a waterhole that attracts wildlife such as buffalo, elephant, hippo and hyena which we watched as we eat.

We signed up for a watery themed visit the next day with Salum one of the trainee guides. We started with a bang before we had even got out of the lodge driveway Kim spotted a young Hyena who did not know whether to run or come closer. He was intrigued by us and kept getting closer to our completely open vehicle. We then drove on to Lake Tagalala where a bush breakfast awaited us.  The cooks had gone ahead to prepare a lovely cooked breakfast on a grill over an open fire.  We sat at a table set up under the trees and soaked up the food and the atmosphere as the sun twinkled on the lake and the smell of the heat rose. 

After breakfast we got onto a small flat bottomed aluminium boat and set out.  Lake Tagalala is rightly renowned for its vast number of crocodiles. Each bush seemed to contain a dozen crocs from small to supersize sixteen footers. At our approach they slid into the water causing fish to scatter on the surface to get away from them. There were also huge pods of hippos. We cruised around spotting various birds including some very pretty kingfishers.

Then Kim got a little paranoid about three pods of hippos she was sure were trying to encircle our boat.  Salum took us back to the vehicle. Next stop the hot springs.  We had visited these last time and were looking forward to their recuperative powers. We were not disappointed.  The Tetse bites seemed to just fade away. Even Salum jumped in - his first time.  We made our way back to the lodge in a very short time.  S'funny it seemed to take two hours to have got to the lake.

We went back and hung out in the banda, we were lying on our bed in the heat of the afternoon and suddenly there was a large thump on a canvas fly sheet over the bed.

I got up and looked and it was a snake. It was very thin and very green and about 3 feet long. I assumed it was not dangerous to us but took a few pictures of it and went down to reception to get an opinion on it. It was called a speckled green and lived in the thatched roof where it ate geckos. I was told sometimes when the snake is hunting, the gecko makes a sudden turn to get away and the snake falls out of the thatch. Which was obviously what had happened. It climbed back up the poles and went straight back into the thatch obviously feeling a bit embarrassed.

Later I went and got a Kili and bottle of wine for Kim.  I also took the opportunity to go to the library where they have a collection of cartridge cases and objects like badges from the battle of Beho Beho. This was a significant skirmish between the English and its Allies and the Germans under Count Von Lettow - Vorbeck. He was an old style Prussian soldier who ran rings round the English with a guerrilla campaign in the First World War when Tanzania was German East Africa.   He has been described as the German Lawrence of Arabia.

It was 1917 and the Germans were retreating, wanting to join up with the rest of their forces south of the Rufiji River. The English wanted to cut them off. The English troops were from Nigeria, Ghana and India as well as South Africans and were led by famed game hunter Selous (who the park is named after); Von Lettow had the best of the Tanzanian tribes.

In the battle Selous was killed by a German sniper, his (official) grave is 800 yards from the battlefield. I have Von Lettow- Vorbeck's book about the campaign and it is a fascinating read. One of the badges in the library at Beho Beho was from the Royal Engineers. A guest had researched the RE archives and discovered who it had belonged to - a radio operator who died in the battle.

After getting back to the banda I realised I had not said what time we wanted to be picked up for dinner - no walking alone after dark is allowed. So I wandered back down to the lounge to find somebody.  I got as far as the swimming pool and saw an elephant by the lounge area.  By the pool I spotted a staff member laying the table for dinner and slid over to him. He had been busy and had not seen the ele, so we watched the ele and talked. The ele moved over to by the office and started ripping at a bush. With his back to me and a reasonable distance from me it gave me an opportunity to make my way back. "Elephant Trouble" I say to Kim who wondered where I had gone.

At drinks that night I talked to co-manger Zimbabwean Sean about my interest in Von Lettow-Vorbeck and this obscure part of our colonial history that nobody really knows much about. I made sure we sat together at dinner. I told my story about my great grandfather The Reverend Allen Lea who had been a missionary in South Africa and had travelled through Tanganyika in the late 1920s and had sailed on the Graf Von Gotzen (then renamed Liemba), the German steamer that went up and down the lake, I had seen this same boat when we were at Mahale on the shore of the lake last time we were in Tanzania. Allen Lea also wrote a book about his journeys called "Twice to the Heart of Africa"

Kim talked to the elderly Brazilians who become her new best friends. The husband is a diplomat and they were posted in London for a while.  Lucia takes lots of photographs and is a great traveller.  She tells Kim they will hire their own guide and go off across Africa together.  They will camp out and Lucia will do the cooking.  OK. There was also an English family who turned up that afternoon alongside a Scottish honeymoon couple. South African guide Sean came over and asks us what we want to do tomorrow. I said: "We would like the best you can offer please, preferably including cats."  Salum had been a good guide but we didn't see that much on the drive to the lake. He was very enthusiastic. His father was a Park Ranger. But Beho Beho has a reputation for fantastic guiding and we wanted as much experience of that as possible.

In the morning at reception I saluted South African Sean and said "Reporting for duty, sir".  We set off with the Edinburgers. I thought we had set Sean a hard task but he was up to it. He decided to go to Lake Manze and look for the Manze pride. We did not have to go very far before we found a male Lion just lying in the road. He had lots of old scars on his face and did not stir an inch when we stopped by him.  We then found a large herd of buffalo at a swamp. Then the lake heaved in to view.  We parked up on the edge and Sean went and checked the nearby bushes to see if there were any dangerous animals hiding there. He came back and confirmed it was safe to go and water them. We had excellent bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast. As we were finishing off Onesma, who had gone out on the same route with the English family, radioed in and said he was sitting looking at seven lions and the seven lions were looking at us. So we hopped on the Cruiser and went looking for them.  We find them just the other side of the bushes where we were eating our breakfast!

As we approached the lions we spotted three hyenas who also spotted the lions and made a detour, lions and hyenas not being the best of friends. The lions had eaten a wildebeest and so were dozing. We watched them and then made our way back to Beho Beho very happy.  We had asked Sean to show us their best and he had obliged.

Dinner that night was on yet another terrace.  Two Australians had arrived that afternoon. SA Sean managed to set himself up for some serious ribbing. He suddenly jumped up from the table very excited and said "Look, look a leopard! It's just over there right in camp!"  Everybody stood up and looked. A torch was shone in the direction of the "Leopard". It was actually a domestic cat, which as a kitten had snuck away in a consignment of food coming up from Dar. Nobody had expected it to survive but it had and was doing very well for itself so far. Sean would not be able to live that one down for a while.

I arranged to go out in the next morning with Zim Sean and Salum to the battlefield to look for cartridges and talk about what happened. I did not realise just how close it was to the lodge - only about a quarter of mile. I was given a metal detector to sweep the ground with and we set out exploring the site a series of lumps, bumps and small hills that were a good defensive position that commanded all the approaches. I soon had the detector beeping; it was an ammunition box nail. Then I started to find cartridges both English and German, we looked at what had been trenches and machine gun emplacements. Sean explained what had gone on, who Selous was and his importance.  He talked a lot about Von Lettow-Vorbeck who later on had fallen out with Hitler who destroyed him and he died a pauper. He was a highly regarded as a great warrior even by his enemies. For example General Smuts, who had led the campaign for the English, used to send food parcels to Germany when Von Lettow- Vorbeck could no longer afford food. We explored a hillock in front of the German lines and I hit pay dirt with a large cache of German cartridges cases. Sean was very interested in this as he had not dug this hillock before. We talked some more and I found some tin sheeting of some kind.  We then cut over some grassland and found a fallen tree with a smallish branch sticking up that had been used as a scratching post by animals. It was totally worn smooth; it looked just like piece of horn. Spotting and explaining what things like this were is an example of the great detail you found with the Zim guys Sean and Sasha here, who really are top men.

We then headed towards a drainage ditch. Sean said the English would have used these cuts through the landscape as cover to get near to the Germans. He said though Selous's "official" grave (his grave stone) is nearby he was actually buried by an old fig tree. On the side of the channel Sean pointed out the only old fig tree in the area. There was also another famous burial in this drainage cut.  A Scottish cartographer named Keith Johnson was buried here in 1879.  He died of malaria and dysentery.  The average life span of Europeans in Africa at this time was six months. It was a very interesting morning all together. On the way back we bumped into an old male ele, a magnificent specimen with massive four foot tusks. You really do not see many eles like that these days.

Back to lunch - our last one. Salum took us back to the airstrip by the park entrance.  They have to use this one at the moment as their regular strip, two minutes away from the camp, is being redone by the Park Rangers.  It has taken three and a half months and now work has stopped altogether.  However, this did not stop one Cessna bringing in the English family; the pilot did not know he had to go to the other strip!

It was a very bad journey to the big strip.  There were millions of Tetse flies mobbing us and it was in places where the road was very rough so we could not even get up any speed and outpace them. The blankets did not protect us either as there were too many. Even Salum said they were very bad.

We hung out at the strip waiting for the plane.  It disgorged some people and we climbed on. We took off then landed 10 minutes later at another strip to pick up more people.  Then one more short hop to another to let one person off.  Then we headed off to Dar.  A man with our names on a board was waiting outside the domestic terminal to take us to the hotel.  Dar is a wonderful place with an incredible mix of people, Arab, African and Indian. We did not see a single white face on the streets that are all a very hustle and a bustle; it is a teeming ant heap of humanity. It would be good to spend some time there and explore this vast sprawling city. The markets look absolutely amazing, people also set up shop on the streets.  I saw rows and rows of shoes for sale at one point.

 The Royal Palm (Movenpick) Hotel was fine. It certainly was an "international" one. We went to the bar and found a large party of Brazilians there.

Up at 5.45 in the morning for a 6.30 pick up. On the drive to the airport I discovered that roundabouts are called "Keep lefties". We saw a part of the Dar rush hour. Women standing with plastic bags balanced on top of their heads or large plastic buckets. At the Airport we went through various bits of security.  They take away our bottle of water, give Kim's bag a good rummage but leave the large bottles of suntan lotion.

The advantage of the daytime flight is that you get to see the vastness of the Sahara desert as you fly for hours over it.  I finished the final entries for this journal as we crossed the French coast somewhere near Nice. 

Another fantastic time in Tanzania. The game was spectacular, especially the elephants; the people so friendly and pleasant as always; and the accommodation top notch. We started off in a basic tent, then progressed to a tent within a thatched banda then finally a full on banda. For us, Mwagusi still leads by a substantial margin.

Next time we might go in the "Green season" when there is little game, just birds and insects and the grass is green and the flowers in full bloom.

Main Menu / Columns by Date / Reviews by Artists / Bob's Books / Dave Hucker / Hey Mr. Music