by Dave Hucker
Friday 20th June 2003
“Hello good morning, how are you?”
“I am fine thank you,” said the man at the immigration desk at Dar Es Salaam.
Our politeness - customary in Tanzania - seemed to speed up the passport stamping, with smiles. “Thank you very much.” And we were out into the Customs Hall. We were waved through the Red Channel because someone was trying to fit a large dog carrier (with dog we assumed) through the small space by the Green counter. Standing nearby was a dark-haired man holding a card with our names on it. It was Roland, our pilot. We were shuffled out of another door to a six-seater Cessna waiting on the tarmac, picking up another couple waiting by the exit door.
“I like passengers with bags like these,” said the pilot as he squashed our two soft bags into the small compartment slung underneath the plane. And soon we were rushing along the runway and looking down at the countryside and little villages. The villages soon petered out and we just saw wilderness. We were on our way to Sand Rivers camp in the Selous Reserve. The Selous is the largest and one of the oldest reserves in Africa. 42,000 square kilometres of wilderness with a myriad of channels, lakes and swamps that make it one of the most outstanding ecosystems in East Africa. After about half an hour we started to lose height over the mighty Rufuji River, a massive brown snake of water edged by sand banks that butt up against a solid multi-greened forest. Elephant and giraffe stood out against pools of bright green vegetation. The plane swooped down and bounced along the dirt strip - ah those bumpy landings, how we’ve missed them in the two years we’ve been away from Africa!
We are met by Carlos who, it turns out, will be our guide here. Carlos seemed an unusual name for a Tanzanian born person. It turned out he was named after the Cuban doctor who had looked after his mother during his rather difficult birth. Peter and Janine, the other couple from the airport, clamber up in front of us onto the Land Rover and off we lurch. Carlos drove off the escarpment where the airstrip was and straight into an (un)welcoming party of a huge herd of buffalo. They viewed us with their usual bad temper and stomped off into the bush.
We climbed up through loads of giraffe and impala then bumped down into the Sand Rivers camp, a few thatched roofs, then a large thatched bar/dining area built round a huge tree with views over a spectacular bend in the river. Having been introduced to Julietta our manager, we were shown to our “hut”. It is Hut One, quite near the main area, it is a huge room completely open at the front with another great view framed by trees up the river. It has stone floors, a big double bed with mosquito net and large bathroom at the back. We relaxed with a cold Kilimanjaro beer, sitting in wooden chairs looking out from our room and soaking up the ambience of rural Africa, the clean air and quiet - well apart from the noisy hippo below us in the river.
The evening drive took us to one of the bright green areas we had seen from the air. The lime greenness was created by fields of Nile cabbage. In the wet season these areas reverted to being small lakes but now they were slowly drying up. Carlos told us that at Sands Rivers they called this area The Garden and we saw elephant, impala, zebra and buffalo all grazing there together. Sven, one of other workers here, calls it the supermarket because everything was available there - cabbages for the herbivores and herbivores for the carnivores. Carlos took us to a large lake nearby where there was supposed to be 11,000 crocodiles, we didn’t get to count them all, but the ones we did see were huge big monsters.
At dinner the parade of the honeymooners began, we had not realised that Tanzania was on the honeymoon circuit. Apart from Peter and Janine, we were the only couple there not on honeymoon. Luckily all the honeymooners were in huts quite a bit away from us!
Saturday 21st June
At dinner Dean the head guide, a burly Zimbabwean with a weird throat beard like the old Boers used to have, had canvassed us on what we wanted to do the next day. We elected to go for the gorge trip, so it was up at crack of sparrows’ f**t, coffee in our room and then onto the flat metal boat with Carlos. We powered up river with lots of hippo in evidence all around us. Carlos spun us through the water expertly keeping a discreet distance, anticipating where these huge creatures could suddenly surface right in front of us.
The sand and riverbanks were crawling with incredibly large crocodiles. We stopped to watch a troupe of baboons where the river narrowed and then entered Steiglers Gorge. Here the rock formations were quite fantastic with fine striations in layers in different colours. We get to a rapid which is as far as we can go. It is weird to be reminded that this ancient dreamlike place is also a key source of Tanzania’s hydropower. Carlos turns the boat around and cuts the engine. In soft silence we meander back downstream, gently twisting and turning as we go. We are like the raft in Aguirre Wrath of God. After about 10 minutes, Carlos steers us expertly on to a sandbank where he unloads large boxes with flasks of tea and coffee, cool drinks and bacon and egg toasted sandwiches wrapped in foil. We eat eagerly then Dave gets to go fishing. He’s been looking forward to a bit of fishing here, it is much more interesting here. He manages to catch a tigerfish, a long sleek silver predator with very sharp teeth.
We then motor the boat back to the camp for lunch. The solar panels have warmed up the water in the shower by now, so it was time for a refreshing douche and an afternoon siesta. We leisurely wander down at four for the afternoon tea before the evening drive. Dean is on to us straight away, “Ready to go? ” he says banging his fists together in the military ‘move along now’ gesture. “We have some wild dog, they are a long way away, so it’s no stopping for anything. I’ve told Carlos that the only things he’s allowed to stop for are elephants mating and lions on a kill.” We grab a biscuit and hop into the Land Rover with Carlos, Peter and Janine and off we go.
We have to stop for some elephant that are very near us but then we push on up toward the other side of the Crocodile Lake. We are mudplugging through the edge of the lake in 4WD when we seem to get stuck and Carlos can’t get us going. “We’ll have get out and push,” he says. Nervous eyes flick around to see just where the nearest crocodiles are. We are about to disembark when Carlos laughs, drops the clutch and powers us away. What a wind up – wonder how many times he has played that trick?
We get to the wild dogs. They are a very rare sight, one of Africa’s most endangered species. Forget about the black and the white rhino, it’s the wild dogs that are in a serious decline from the loss of their natural hunting habitat. What a ugly bunch of mutts they were with huge ears, brown and black splodgy coats, but fascinating all the same. We had never seen wild dog before and we sat and watched the family with their pups for some time.
The vultures hanging around in the trees and circling nearby were the telltale signs of a recent death, so Carlos sets off to find us the action. It seemed to be in a group of hills surrounded by palm trees. He proves what an incredible vehicle the Land Rover is when he comes across a three foot cliff in the mud that we need to get up. He just locks the diff and crawls up it, amazing. We scout around for a bit and still cannot see any lion so he stops and says he is going to have a look from the top of a hill. He gets out and disappears over the ridge and quickly comes back - running - with a big smile on his face. “I just walked into the lion!”
We go round the hill and straight away bump into two other lion lazing in the evening sun. We watch them for a while then Carlos decides to get to the lion he walked into. So we go off the road and up the side of the hill at what seems a precarious angle. The sight lines are wrong for seeing it so we retreat. Satiated, we make our way back to camp and dinner. By this time there are too many honeymooners drippily gazing into each other eyes here at Sand Rivers. Clearly it is the place to go on honeymoon. Fortunately there are only eight bungalows so it never gets too full. This lot are quite interesting and each new couple is endearingly hesitant about admitting they have just got married. After five minutes of wedding stories, the conversation opens up and flows quite freely - so it’s not too bad for us ancients!
Sunday 22nd June
Up at 6.30 for a drive out to the Tagalala Hot Springs, which turn out to be near the lion kill from the previous night. We clamber up the twisty slopes, rejecting the first rocky pool as too cold. We go for the one at the very top and soak ourselves in the very hot and minerally water while Carlos and a trainee guide called Ernest sit discreetly at a distance behind some foliage. The vultures are still in the trees so it looks like the lions are still around, but this morning we do not bother to have a look. Hmm, so blasé already.
On the way back we stop for Dave to collect some stones. There are huge big fields of small rounded river stones everywhere, at some point in history the river was much higher than it is now, filling the whole large valley. It might even have been an inland sea or lake. Some of these colourful and attractive stones are bits of petrified wood that have obviously been stripped out of the sediment they were in and deposited again quite quickly because the edges had not been rolled and were still sharp. There was a huge range of beautiful stones just lying around, as is his habit Dave collected quite a few.
Then back to camp for lunch where new honeymooners replace those departing! For the evening activity we choose to go up the river to do some more fishing, not as far as the Gorge this time. We have some handlines and two rods. The first sandy cove we stop off at we only catch some tiddlers so we make a move for another sandbank. Unfortunately a crocodile is sitting where we want to land so Carlos just roars up in the boat and does a couple of circles close to the shore to get him to go away, which he does stirring the water as he dives under our boat. We set up the lines and look at the three huge hippo basking 50 yards away. Carlos assures us they are not interested in us. It is a momentous occasion for Kim as she catches her first ever fish with a simple nylon line. It is a catfish, which Carlos immediately cuts up to provide some fresh bait to try and get something else. He catches a couple more catfish but no luck for the rest of us.
Making our way back into the sunset a hippo suddenly surfaced 15 feet in front of us, his mouth open. Carlos, ever the expert, just cranked the boat over and steered us round him. Phew it was very close though.
At dinner we hear there has been a disaster with one of the honeymoon couples who arrived yesterday and have already shipped out. Apparently the husband had decided not to tell his new wife where they were going on honeymoon (bad move!). She had been expecting a nice sandy beach and instead ended up in Sand Rivers in the middle of deepest Africa. She refused to come out of her room – we can only imagine the row – and arrangements had to be made for them to be flown back to England. After we had exhausted that story Kim talked a lot to one of the honeymooners, a guy who worked for Christies, but when the conversation round the table turned to football the old folks (that’s us) made our way to bed.
Monday 23rd June
It was up at 6.30 to get out to the airstrip for 8. Sven gives us a letter to give to his girlfriend Pip at Mahale our next but one destination. We get to the airstrip to find a tall guy called Alex waiting for two people coming in on the plane from Dar who he will be taking on a two week walking safari. We chat to him for a while we wait – and wait. We eventually learn that the little Cessna is late taking off from Dar due to bad weather there. So we hang around for a while and kill time in various ways. Dave suggests counting impala droppings, which are lots of pea sized black pellets. Still the shady trees round the airstrip make a much nicer waiting area than the traditional airport lounge.
At 11.30 the plane appears, lands and out jumps two PLUs and Roland, the pilot who brought us from Dar to Sand Rivers. We have discovered that Roland Purcell is a bit of a legend in Tanzania and that he actually set up the two remote camps at Katavi and Mahale that we are off to next. He has now taken a step back from the day to day running of the camps and just concentrated on flying these small planes which are the lifeblood of the camps. Without them there is no tourism in these very out of the way places. There are three main pilots in this circuit and we eventually met them all: Roland, Benoit (a Belgian guy) and Alex.
From Sand Rivers to Katavi was a long flight - 3½ hours in that small six-seater Cessna. In order to make it Roland has to refuel at Sands Rivers. They have an electric pump which screws into a 50 gal drum of fuel. The pump is connected to a Land Rover battery and Roland sits on the wing holding the hose and fills the tanks.
Roland keeps his headphones on during the noisy flight – whether picking up information or listening to music we never did establish. But although it’s quite a gruelling haul the landscape is wonderful. We skirt the huge Ruaha Reserve and then well, it’s bush, bush and more bush. There were quite a lot of bush fires but only occasionally did we see any signs of habitation, usually an airstrip and camp. This was hunting territory we were going over, if you pay the Tanzanian government enough money you can go there and shoot animals.
Eventually we land in Katavi where Roland only has a five minute window on the ground before he needs to turn round and get back to Dar before it gets dark. But, oh no, they boys have forgotten to bring the pump for the refuelling. Roland is furious. They will have to drive all the way back to camp to pick it up and this means there will not be enough light for Roland to get back to Dar so he will have to spend the night halfway between Katavi and Dar at some rough hotel in Dodoma, which he does not like doing. And he has another pick up at Dar at 6 in the morning.
He stomps around but gradually calms down as we wait for the pump to arrive. We begin to talk about the hunting. Roland is quite opposed to it and comments that it is only the Americans and new money who come hunting these days. These days the new money is the Russians, the Colombians and the Mexicans who just like to come and spend vast amounts in order to go home and show off their trophies, a buffalo head on the wall? A lion skin rug?. One time the English were the new money. Not any more, we are the eco money now.
The pump turned up and Roland rushed around refuelling.
We wave goodbye as he takes off and then we are whisked away by a guide called Good Luck - who it turned out was bad luck, when he insisted on stopping to show us impala. Yes, impala. Were they doing anything unusual here? Just that old grazing thing. Next please. However, when we stopped to watch them we got swarmed by tsetse flies who had a good go at our ankles. We knew the tsetses were going to be murder here and they were. Only Martin sat impassively through them. He was the park ranger who was to be with us at all times on the drives, including from the strip. He was stocky and never spoke. He carried a AK47 rifle with a piece of rag stuffed in the barrel to keep the dirt out.
Spread out on the edge of a plain Katavi is a simple and very pure camp. Tanzania is still largely associated with the Serengeti. But whereas the Serengeti gets about 120,000 visitors a year, Katavi gets less than 250. It is Africa at its wildest and most spectacular with only two permanent camps in its one million acres.
Katavi is a dry season place. As the as the flood plain of marsh, created by the junction of two rivers dries out, thousands of animals flock to the Chada and Katasunga plains. During the wet season it is bird watcher paradise. Our Katavi Camp (aka Chada Camp) is right there on the great Chada Plain with just six tents dotted through the acacia woodland. When we pull up Dorian and Jodie, the managers, are there to meet us. Also Mark and Janie, two people from Nomad the company that runs the camps. They were round checking that everything was OK. There was also an American couple in their 60s, John and Genie Potter who, we discovered, were also going to Mahale our next camp. We discover that Dorian has recently been manager at John Coppinger’s Mwaleshi camp in North Luangwa in Zambia which we had visited 6 years ago. He knew also knew our travel agent Chris McIntyre very well. Jodie is an American girl he met when she was living in Zambia in a traditional village working for the Peace Corps. She was putting a new mud coating on her hut and was totally covered in the stuff. Dorian drove by and pulled up to ask her question. Now they are getting married in six months time.
We hit the evening drive with gusto, bumping across the tree-ringed Chada Plain. We saw the biggest herds of buffalo we had ever seen. There were loads of elephant, including some taking dust baths, and a dead puff adder. Quite a few hippo in the rivers as well.
It was back to camp for a well earned bucket shower and dinner in the big tent under the trees. Then we fell into our bed. Our guide book described the camp as “a place where lizards share your basin and, at night, moths seem strangely attracted to your soup. It’s a wild camp amidst the game, where you’re not at all insulated from the surrounding bush. In short it’s absolutely great.” We agreed.
Tuesday 24th June
6.30 brings the hot water for our bowls outside the tent then off on the early morning drive. A line of several hundred buffalo stood before us and the only way was through the middle. We parted them like Moses and the Red Sea. We drove out to a buffalo that had died of a “foaming mouth” the previous day. Now there was a lion with two cubs having a good chew on it. Loads of vultures and marabou storks stood around waiting to grab a take-away. Other less pushy birds took off into the thermals to get up and hedge their bets about finding another meal. A couple of jackals lurked as only jackals can lurk.
A marsh harrier dipped and hovered, hunting mice and small rodents. We drove off round the perimeter of the plain and saw many families of beautiful giraffe and quite a lot of hippos. On the way back we saw a pride of female lions and the two resident males – Mohammed and Ali. We watched Ali (the older one) crossing the river. He gave us a glance and then just kept coming, walking right past our totally open vehicle and on across the wide plain.
Back for lunch then disaster. I am sitting out in front of the tent reading Morality for Beautiful Girls, the third in the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series of novels about Botswana’s only detective agency owned by the indomitable Mama Precious Ramotswe. Kim is having a sleep. Suddenly there is a great big thump and she cries out in pain. Rolling over to look at the clock, she has forgotten that the high wooden bed is on sloping ground and has fallen out onto her right shoulder.
As I help her to her feet she says, “I think I’ve broken my arm.” Now this would be a major problem out here as we are at least a three-hour flight away from the nearest hospital. Also, as it is four o’clock in the afternoon, no plane let alone an air ambulance, could get here till the next day as the strip does not have landing lights.
We are both in a state of shock. I feel faint. Kim is white and in real pain. Kim tells me I can’t faint now as she can’t possibly pick me up with one arm. I breathe deep and we establish that the arm is unlikely to be broken as Kim can move her fingers. But there is no doubt that the upper part of the arm is not moveable.
I find Dorian who turns up a sling in the first aid pack and digs out some ice. And in our own first aid kit we have a tube of Arnica and some Arnica tablets! But Kim is shaky and can’t do anything on her own. So as night falls I walk her to the reed enclosure for a warm shower and use of the long-drop lavatory and then get her dressed for dinner.
Everyone is very kind. The young Tanzanian staff look very concerned, pull out the chair for Kim and help her sit at the dinning table. The fellow guests are helpful and ask ‘But how did you do it? You fell out of bed?” Dorian and Jodie offer advice about how to tie the sling. And Mark comes up trumps with some strong analgesic spray. Kim is over the shock a bit but now some kind of mad adrenaline rush has set in. Over dinner, as Dave cuts up her food, she responds in a very animated was as fellow guests ask her about the BBC.
After sitting round the camp fire for a while after dinner we go off to bed with a huge bag of ice to pack up the arm. Getting into bed is a major problem and Kim can only sleep on one side and not really move all night. But that night, stuffed with Arnica tablets and packed in ice, amazingly she does sleep. And I’m the one who lies awake listening to the night activity.
It is a busy night with action very close to the tent. The elephants strip bushes all around us and bang their heads against trees to get fruits down. The hippos sound very close and the hyenas are not far away either. In the morning the path from the tent was full of many elephant pad prints.
Wed 25th June
Here the journal has to split into two voices for although it is agreed that the travels will continue, it is obvious that Kim cannot go on all the planned activities as the pain in her arm is severe and any movement is excruciating. So while Dave is to continue with the itinerary as planned, Kim is to pursue a rather quieter journey through Tanzania but a journey which proves no less interesting and indeed has its own revelations.
We establish a regular routine. First help Kim out of bed – a two-person job. Look at the arm and see what colour it has gone. Blue to black (shoulder to elbow); then eventually yellow (shoulder to elbow) and blue (elbow to wrist). Help Kim to shower then massage arm and apply Arnica. Dress Kim and proceed to breakfast. After which our paths diverge for a bit.
This morning Kim stays at camp and I go on an early morning drive. And it was a beaut. Me, Mr Potter and Damien. [Oh God, I kept calling him Damien in my mind because of the Damien character in Drop the Dead Donkey.] So me, Dorian - like Dorian in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey - No that’s unfair, this is a man marrying a woman who knows how to make Seven Day Beer! When our travel agent emailed us and asked what we wanted to drink at the camps, we replied local beer and wine. I also asked if it was possible to have some Seven Day Beer at some point. But it seems this request was not taken seriously by the agent, otherwise Jodie would have made me some. She had learned how to make this home brew concoction of sorgum, sugar and various bits and bobs, which is then left in a dark warm place to ferment for seven days, when living in the Zambian village where she met Dorian.
So Dorian, Mr P and I hit the plain. We crashed around all over the place with a lot of conversation going on while we cross country, including the inevitable “Who really shot Kennedy?” Mr P is an interesting bod. I discover he is 60 years old and a judge in Kentucky. He’s quite radical with comments such as “I think all drugs should be legalised”. When he semi-retired he decided to do a course in forestry. So he went to Connecticut and did one.
Dorian is quite relaxed with us. Then we spot the pride of Chada female lions with either Mohammed or Ali one of the pair of males who have recently taken over the pride. Dorian is one of those guides who makes a daily notebook of what is happening and what he sees, including drawing pictures. So we hang around the lion for a while and they are very relaxed with us. We then inch through the pride lying in the sun, and park right up in the middle of them and Dorian sits and works on his notebook. He reckons that Ali is the dominant male cat in this pride. Poor Mohammed, the older one, just follows him.
While Dave is off with the lions, I spend the morning quietly at camp. Mrs Potter comes by as I am reading outside my tent and we talk about Theatre in Education. I learn she has written a book on Kentucky women – and indeed she lives near two of my favourite writers, Sue Grafton and Barbara Kingsolver. I also learn that their son is called Harry Potter.
Later in the morning I move up to the main tent for a bit and the boys come up and ask if there is anything I want. I tell them I am just taking it easy. The nod with the nod of those who know that life has to take its natural course. They teach me some Swahili, “poli, poli” – “slowly, slowly”. This becomes a phrase for the rest of the journey.
After lunch, we decide to just stay around the camp and read. We wave the Potters off to their next camp, Mahale. We will catch up with them there tomorrow.
Thursday 26th June
We leave Katavi at 8 am. It’s a bit of an effort for Kim to get up into the high open-sided Land Rover and the journey on the bumpy sandy track jars her arm painfully quite a bit.
We arrive at the airstrip five minutes before our little plane lands. Tall Alex is our pilot. He takes a look at Kim and decides the best place for her is in the rear compartment. Easiest to get her into and then she can be squashed in and supported by all the cardboard boxes of supplies that are being taken out to Mahale. There is no other way for goods to get to the camps.
The flight is only 50 minutes and the last leg, as you seem to scrape over the 2000 metre high Mahale Mountains, is spectacular. You descend and fly out over the crystal waters of Lake Tanganyika then bank over and land at Mahale. Once we’d disembarked we had to sign in the park visitors’ book at the tiny airstrip and take the opportunity to visit the wonderful breezeblock toilets at the strip. “The cleanest toilets in Tanzania,” comments Alex.
This is the first time we have landed anywhere close to a village. Children rush out to meet the tiny plane, laughing and backing away at the same time. One of the first thing we see after alighting from the plane is a girl who could not have been more than 15 or 16 walking along suckling a baby in a sling around her shoulder and carrying an enamel bowl on her head in which lay an enormous fish.
The Mahale boys are waiting to transport us to the camp. The twins Assam and Hassan are in charge of the motorboat today and we get in for the 40 minute ride out to the camp. At first they are confused by Kim’s lack of mobility but they get the idea and stack crates in the water so she can clamber aboard. Lake Tanganyika has very changeable wind and wave variances. During the middle of the day it is totally mill pond calm but later when the wind gets up and in a certain direction and you are not protected by a headland the swell is quite high. Hassan and Assam are enjoying driving the motorboat (usually they pick you up in the slower, more traditional dhow). Sometimes we go a bit too fast and the boat bangs against the waves bashing Kim’s arm. I have to ask the boys to slow down. It starts to rain and we retreat to the back of the open boat. We pass a few fishing villages perched on the lake side and eventually heave into the bay at Mahale. The boys have got the idea by now and put a cool box in the water for Kim to step on in order to get out of the boat, Elizabeth I style.
We are met by manager Pip to whom we deliver Sven’s letter. Sand Rivers seems a long time ago. The focal point of the camp and the only building on the white sand beach is the dining area and “bar” framed against the luscious greenness and the cloud hanging around the mountains behind. It looks like something out of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits film. This extraordinary thatch building has bits sticking out at weird angles and canvas panels. When you get into you can see why. The thatch and pole construction has a second floor. Accessed by ladder it has glass cases filled with books and old photographs and maps, and viewing platforms out to the lake with piles of large cushions to lie around on and luxuriate in the view. The management later also admit the guys who built this structure had actually made it up as they went along. This has to be one of the strangest and most remote camps in Africa. It is sometimes known as Greystoke.
We are shown to our tent (one of six) and wonder of wonders the bathroom enclosure at the back has a flush toilet. For the past three months Kim has had a picture on her computer of this tent with its old reed-enclosed long drop toilet. However, during the winter break the management have built new showers and toilets. It may have a flush toilet now but it is still made of thatch and reed and still was a bucket shower. We later discover there is a design fault with the shower. It is not rigged high enough for anyone over 5 feet tall to get under. So I had to stoop down almost doubled. It was too low for Kim as well. But the toilets now went into a soak away, which was described as being more ecologically friendly than the old long drops that flooded in the rainy season and could pollute the water table.
We had lunch in the main tent with our four fellow guests: two Germans who we had met briefly at Katavi and the Potters who were their usual affable selves. As the afternoon heat rose we watched a young English couple arriving. We later discovered they are graphic designers - on honeymoon!
A fishing/snorkelling excursion was agreed upon for late afternoon, so Mr Potter, Janie (the Nomad office person, who had flown with us from Katavi) and I (that’s Dave) were well up for it. The guide here is a young English guy called Jimmy (The Fish). He is a good English Upper Middle with blonde dreadlocks and a total hardcore maniac. He had just got a new powerful motor for the boat (the one we came to Mahale with) and he wanted to test it.
We were sitting up the front, I was facing the bow and Mr P and Janie had their backs to it. Maybe they knew something I didn’t because Jimmy gunned the engine and went charging into the (quite large) waves, bang bang bang. Every time we smashed into a wave I got a full on blast of a wall of water, by the third or fourth wave I was totally soaked. It was the most exhilarating ride! All I could do was just sit there holding on for my dear life, laughing hysterically.
The others went snorkelling but it was a bit too cold for me. On the way back Mr P caught the first fish. It was a decent size so Jimmy takes it, cuts the flanks into thin slices and brings it to you Sashimi style on a wooden platter with chopsticks and a soy and ginger dip and wasabi. Wow that was wonderful, you cannot get fresher fish than that - 10 minutes from catching to eating.
Back at camp Kim was reading and talking to the two young English people. She discovered that the camp was expecting a party of Australians who had set off from Botswana but were running very late.
Later that evening dinner was set up on a long table by the lake. Eventually, long after it had got dark, the four Australians turned up with their own pilot. It turned out that they had had all kinds of problems getting fuel in Lusaka in Zambia and then had to decant it in small containers as they did not have a pump. They then had to go to Kigoma in order to get through immigration. By the time they arrived at Mahale they were well worn out and somewhat pissed off. Although they are rather subdued, it is also clear they are somewhat demanding and have been everywhere and done everything (well two of them have and they are now educating their two friends). The two educators are whippet thin. The two being educated are very different – the chap is enormous and the woman is a fully-made up middle-aged blonde with a cutglass English accent. She looks vaguely like Moira Shearer.
Friday 27th June
Chimpers away! The Mahale Mountains are home to some 100 chimpanzees and the Mimikere clan has become habituated to humans. Tracking the chimpanzees is not an easy process but it is the main reason people come to Mahale. It isn’t easy to know exactly where they were going to be and it finding them often involves climbing high into the mountains. We’d come all these many miles to see the chimpanzees and now Kim was going to be left on the lake shore while Dave set off on the adventure.
You are limited to groups of seven for visiting the chimps and so it was that early on that Friday morning we set off: Jimmy, the two English Graphic Designers (EGDs), me, Mr & Mrs Potter and our local guide a middle aged guy who never broke out into a sweat the whole time. Like pilgrims we had tall wooden poles to help us walk and in our rucksacks we carried several litres of water.
This trek was the most hard work I’ve done in many a year, possibly ever. Kim simply wouldn’t have made it – not even with two arms! Once we get under the forest canopy it is hot and humid, we climb upwards on paths that are barely discernible. And straight up, there are no zig zags here just clambering up 35 to 45 degree slopes. It was very difficult terrain and very hot. Sometimes when the youngsters and the 45 year old guide got too far ahead of the oldies the only way to follow them was to track the guide by his panga cuts to the bushes. We oldies had to stick together. On some of the more difficult sections, where you were grabbing trees to pull you up 60 degree slopes, Mr P would be behind his wife pushing her up and I would be pulling her up from my secure point at the next tree. Mrs P often looks at me as if to say this is total madness. Yes it is. But it was an enjoyable kind of madness – in retrospect.
One of the funny moments was when we bump into a party of six Japanese tourists (researchers?), as we let them pass on the tight trail I bow my head and say Konichiwa (Hello in Japanese) to them and they respond. I notice that they all are wearing white cotton gloves.
After climbing for 3,000 feet we eventually hit the path that runs across the ridge top of this particular spur of the mountains. This is where some of the really scary bits start. You traverse cliffs where it is straight down a couple of hundred feet into the trees and you are clambering from toehold to toehold, the only thing to hold onto being tree roots.
We can hear the chimps clearly now. They are very close but they keep on moving and we follow them directed by the trackers who are up ahead with them. We bump into the second group made up of the Australians from our camp. The Australians had been taken on the easy route, while we had done the scenic route! They have spotted the chimps nearby. Then suddenly is a one hell of a noise from the chimps – they have spotted a leopard in the area. The trackers later tell us that they were right with the chimps when a leopard just blundered in on the troop and everybody got spooked, not least the leopard.
Then suddenly some chimps come by us. Absolutely magic, they move towards the main group down in the valley. Jimmy, the EGDs and Mr P send the guide down to check out the terrain. He reports it is pretty difficult but they decide to go down anyone to try and get a better view. Mrs P and I elect to wait up by the path and we chill out and have a nice conversation in the intense dappled greenness of the forest.
Meanwhile, 3,000 feet below on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, I am sitting outside our tent reading “Any Human Heart” by William Boyd. It’s a fictional autobiography and also the story of a British way of life in inexorable decline. Logan Mountstewart’s journey takes in the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, New York avant garde art, even the Baader-Meinhof gang. It is curiously poignant reading it in the wilds of once colonial Africa.
Occasionally I look up from my book and gaze at the seamless lake, the deepest in Africa. This is a country that repays patience. What at first appears a perfectly still landscape gradually begins to ripple. Crabs rustle up the sandy path from lakeside to tent. Birds fidget in the branches. Suddenly there is a loud rustle in the undergrowth next to the tent, accompanied by breathy grunts. A chunky warthog, tusks and nose up, trots within yards of my chair. About an hour later she trots back again.
I wander over to the main tent, lifting my head to the cloud-covered mountains and wondering when the chimpers will return. They have been gone almost five hours. I talk to the cook and mention the warthog. “Oh yes, she comes by the kitchen tent everyday”. And sure enough Mrs Warthog proves to be my daily visitor too..
Meanwhile up on the mountains, the journey back down is as hard as the way up. We are pretty exhausted after the climb up and now we really have to concentrate on the descent as it is a matter of bouncing off trees and getting traction and handholds whenever and wherever you could.
Mrs P had shoes without a lot of grip so she was very slow. The guide was helping her and eventually I left them. I knew I had to keep up a pace to make it down again. I went ahead with the EGDs. They said they had been trekking in Nepal and it had not been as hard as this. Jimmy admitted later it was the longest he had ever been out with guests. All in all it was a 10 hour trek. And I mean trek.
I had lunch at about 4pm. By now I was really beginning to get worried. The treks were only meant to be about 4 hours max. Something must have happened. Then the largest Australian staggered in. He’d had to be escorted back – and it turned out he’d been on the ‘easy’ route. He was totally dehydrated and had to drink three litres of water and a sachet of rehydration salts. I went back to my tent and tried to read. The light began to drop and one of the boys brought over an early lantern (no electricity here). At about 5.30 I looked up and saw a figure stomping across the sand towards the tent. Face etched in granite. A bottle of Kili in one hand. Chimper returned.
On reaching the beach I made straight for the bar grabbed a cold Kili, went to the tent got my swimmers on and parked the cold Kili in the sand while I luxuriated in the soothing waters of Lake Tanganyika. I even had blisters on my hands from holding the stick it was necessary to use to get up and down the mountain. On the terrible trek down I had made up a song to get me through some of the more taxing moments. It took the melody line from La Cucaracha but the words went
“Lake Tanganyika, Lake Tanganyika with your gold alluring sands, (repeat)/
I want your blue cool, blue soothing water to soak I till all my aches have gone.”
Saturday 28th June
Next day Mr Potter (aged sixty something) went off again on an equally long and arduous chimp trek. He is one tough cookie. Mike the young English guy was really annoyed when I told him Mr P had gone out chimping again. It was an affront to his manhood that a 60 year old was tougher than he was.
While the hard people were out chimping again the wimps were supposed to go fishing. The camp had a beautiful large dhow – an almost antique wooden boat that was perfect for the lake. However, throughout our visit it sat moored offshore while for four days the head boatman struggled to rebuild its motor. We could see him at his workshop with the engine block in front of him, looked like he was reboring the cylinders manually. Meanwhile, the middle sized dhow was in the control of one of the trainee boat guys and Hassam. Hassam was one of the twins we met on the boat to Mahale, his brother was called Assam. It was difficult to tell which was which, but there were subtle differences between them.
Now Hassam and trainee boat guy were not experts in boating or fishing and they trundled along just off the shore and when we asked them to go just out to deeper water a bit to where we could see where birds and therefore the fish were, they would not. Alongside me and Mike were the Aussies and their South African pilot. We all quickly got bored with the empty water and we just slumped into sitting around chatting and unable to get any enthusiasm for fishing. So everybody just sat around had a beer and a talk.
When we run out of conversation we demand the boat turns back and that we go back to camp. But then somebody at the back of the boat catches a small fish, and at the same moment I get snagged on the bottom. The guys stop the boat, to get in the little fish. I tell them to reverse back a bit as I’m stuck on the bottom. And once they have dealt with landing this tiny fish they do reverse back but by this time the boat had drifted right into my line so they wrap a whole reel full of my line around the prop and jam it. They do not have a knife to cut it free. So we are stuck.
Then I have an idea and go to the cool box and there is a bottle opener with a foil cutter blade on it and pass it to them. The boys were total amateurs, they had no idea, they did not even have a radio to call the camp and say they were having problems. We drifted very close to the shore while the line was cut away from the prop, If the wind had been blowing offshore we would have drifted way out into the lake. This is how you get into problems, very stupid.
Sunday 29th June
We decide to make this an official rest day. While we are sitting reading outside our tent I meet Kim's friend, Mrs Warthog. By now the two of them are quite used to each other but she looks very surprised to find me there on a Sunday morning. Early in the morning I had heard a real load mechanical sound out on the lake. The noise was incredible a real thumping and severe friction noise. It was the boat that did the run up and down the lake. The volume was very loud but the boat was at least a mile and a half away on the horizon. What must it have been like actually on board this legendary old clunker?. Shouted conversations and ear plugs as standard?. But this old boat had a real history, in 1912 when Tanzania was called German East Africa and was a German colonial possession, a boat to sail up and down the lake was built in Germany. Now as Lake Tanganyika is a landlocked lake, the boat sailed round Africa to Dar and then had to be disassembled, taken overland to the lake and then reassembled. Then it plied it’s trade for a few years until the 1st World War, when it was scuttled as part of the skirmishes that occurred between England and Germany in Tanzania at the time. After the war it was refloated and has chugged up and down Lake Tanganyika twice a week ever since.
Jimmy The Fish has gone out on another equally long Chimp walk (with the two EGDs amongst the party). When he gets back we are due to go fishing again. I get down to the boats and am told that I am not on his boat but on the dhow with the bozo who had reversed into my line. I ask that I go on Jimmy’s boat, but he does not seem very keen on it. Eventually he relents when I say “Ok no problem, another time” and start to walk away towards the tents, flatly refusing to go on the dhow.
It turned out to be a very productive evening fishing wise. We caught enough fish to feed the whole camp that night. One of the Australian’s, a pugnacious lawyer who had been somewhat peeved I had intruded on his “private” fishing trip with Jimmy, eventually warmed to me when we hit the fish.
It’s an animated dinner table with the Australians in full flow. We miss the Potters, who set off that afternoon on their long journey back to Kentucky. English Graphic Designer, Mike, stays in his tent. His second trek up on the mountains seems to have defeated him. He is badly sick. Kim dispenses Arsenicum Alb from her homeopathic kit which seems to help.
It’s our last night at Mahale. It’s strange how in a few days this strange and remote place has come to feel like home. We feel curiously safe in the shadow of the mountains. We are used to life with Jimmy The Fish, Pip, Assan, Hassam, the cook, the boatmen – even the Australians. After our fish supper we look up at the stars as we walk to our tent one last time and then see them reflected in the glassy stillness of the lake.
Monday 30th June
Kim is getting better every day. Poli, poli she can do more and more. The daily massage routine is doing a lot of good. She says that the more I massage the more she can move her arm. It seems I am loosening up the damage. I’ve got to say this was the most bruising I had ever seen on a person, her arm had gone purple, now it was getting purple yellowish. It was definitely getting better even though different bits kept keep coming up different colours.
So the jump onto the dhow for the trip back to Mahale airstrip is easier for her and it is a leisurely cruise to the strip, accompanied by two boat boys and the EGDs. We get there and see the Australian’s plane stashed on the edge of the airstrip. It is a twin-engine one, hmmmm luxury.
A turbo prop Caravan (twelve-seater) picks up the English couple. We, however, are going to Mwagusi and we wait surrounded by children to see who is going to pick us up this time. It is Roland again. “Oh, well done,” he says when he sees Kim’s arm. He tells her she has to find a better story to take back to England about how she did it.
We then stop at Katavi to refuel. As we set off he checks which camp we are staying at - good thing he did: ” Oh I thought you were going to Jongomero which is another airstrip a good 20 minute flight from where we should be at Mwagusi.”
We land and 10 minutes another plane lands with a Dutch Honeymoon couple (not much younger than us) who have a nightmare journey from Sand Rivers. Their twin-engine plane had started to lose oil in one engine, flying with them was an old English guy with 3000 PLP (private pilot licence) hours. He strongly suggested maybe they should turn back, the pilot agreed and by the time they landed back at Sand Rivers there was smoke coming from the engine. So they were stuck there until a replacement plane turned up.
The four of us and two guides hit the road to Mwagusi camp. We pass through a landscape thickly populated by large numbers of the most wonderful Baobab trees you have ever seen. We bump over a dried up river that has large boulders and tree trunks entwined in them from the last time the river ran over ground in the rainy season. We power up the river bank on the other side and into camp pulling into a circular parking area to be meeted and greeted by a pair of the most unlikely combinations you might imagine: a bubbly blonde upper-class girly and a young girl of about twenty with blonde dreadlocks, a nose piercing and bellbottom trousers.
We unload our bags and are led by our banga (hut) person up along what seems like a never-ending path turning and twisting through large boulders and grass. This seems a much bigger camp than we have been used to although there are only nine thatched huts. To our left was the water pump, manually operated and behind it the laundry. To the right following the river bank were a few large thatched huts. As we walk along the sandy paths marked out with stones, Hella, our blonde hostess, points out landmarks. “Watch for the giraffe skull there when you come back and turn left – that takes you to the main eating area. See this buffalo skull, this is where you turn right towards your banga. Now at this little fork, go left and …welcome to your home for the next four days.”
We are shown to our banga and told we cannot wander around unattended during the evening or at night because of the lion and elephant that also wander around. Our banga person then goes off and gets us a cold Kili. When he returns with the beer(s) he also arranges what time he will pick us up and escort us to dinner – 7 o’clock.
Now these are truly fantastic “huts”. What they really comprise of is a large A-frame thatched structure open at the front and with a large circular bit at the back for the shower and toilet. We now realise that we had come into camp the back way and the bangas themselves are all perched on the rocks on the dry and sandy river bank which is where the main action is. Each banga has a large open veranda wrapped in reeds with a soft sofa and chair. In the middle of the large thatched A-frame structure, sits a big tent which is the sleeping area. You can zip yourself in at night to keep out the mosquitoes and any curious animals.
As we’d approached our banga we’d spotted a rough log ladder leaning against the roof. Each day the ‘shower man’ uses this to climb up onto the thatched roof balancing two huge buckets of warm water on a long pole across his shoulders. He pours the water into a tank made out of an oil drum and – your shower awaits you.
Darkness falls and our banga man comes back for us at the agreed time. He guides us along the twisty sand paths carrying an oil lamp. Rather than going to the dining room we are taken to a sandy enclosure out in the open where we are met by Hella, the blonde manageress and Chris Fox who is the camp owner, builder and main guide. We sit round a camp fire which crackles fiercely, the logs giving out showers of sparks which were spun up by the wind. The Dutch couple, Joop and Sylvia, join us. Six for dinner under the stars.
There is a very nice home-made mud cooker. Well, it is a sculpted pile of earth with several large bowl-like indentations in it. Red-hot coals are put in the indentations to finish off the cooking or keep warm the luscious juicy contents of cooking pots.
Hella dictates the democratic seating arrangements, i.e. breaking up couples so they interact and intermix with each other. Unfortunately this mean I cannot sit on Kim’s side and cut up her food for her. Hella is actually very relaxed and a deep lover of Africa. She disguises her English public school education with her Danish parentage. She is an intriguing mixture of kind and charming and firm and capable. She knows her way around the bush.
Chris Fox is a quieter and more enigmatic character. One of three brothers who had grown up in Tanzania, where his father ran one of Brook Bond’s big tea plantations, he’d been shipped off to public school in England but couldn’t wait to get back to the land and the wilderness that he loved. All the brothers had run camps of some kind in the Ruaha but Chris had undoubtedly taken the most imaginative route, creating an extraordinary camp at Mwagusi with its unique architecture, great location, and really excellent guiding. It all looked effortless on the surface but the constant work that goes into making these remote places run smoothly is extraordinary.
Chris had a very loyal staff of local people many of whom had been with him all their working lives. And Chris had made his life here, meeting an Italian zoologist who had been working in the area and marrying her. They had just recently had their first baby. It seemed more stressful for Chris than all the wild animals. Mother, mother-in-law and baby were currently staying in the town that was 3 hours drive away as the baby was not that well at the moment.
Dinner was relaxed and the bush cooker food was great. Afterwards we were led by lantern back to our banga and we snuggled down in our tent with the river bed on one side or us and the total luxury of a en-suite bathroom there on the other.
Tuesday 1st July
In the morning we are woken up with a tray of tea and some rusk-like biscuits. Then 10 minutes later we hear the sound of water being poured into the tank on our roof. Getting up, I spot our plastic shampoo bottle lying on the floor of our big open shower. I put it back between the soap dish and the reed wall of the banga and then went for breakfast and our morning drive.
There was a lot of “look, a lilac breasted roller” stuff. It always takes a while to get right out into the bush and It must be very difficult for the trackers to gauge the interests of the clients and decide if they are birders who really do want to be pointed in the direction of every lilac breasted roller perched on a tree. Beautiful as lilac breasted rollers, are after a while you do get bored with them. We move around the local area and through into the dried up riverbed where a herd of buffalo are gathered. They look at us with their cross and short-sighted eyes. But then the tracker spots that there is a lion underneath a fallen tree trunk on the bank, right in front of the buffalo.
This female lion has just killed a baby buffalo. She spots us and is clearly nervous about our intentions – are we after her prey? As she starts to drag it away, we drive over the dusty riverbed and get to where the lion is heading. She drags the young buffalo up the embankment to a clearing under a tree. Here there is a sign nailed to a tree that says LEAVE THE AREA CLEAN (the first one of those we’ve ever seen in the bush!). Yes, I’m sure that after Mrs and Mr Lion and their cubs had spent a night having a good chew, the vultures will be next, followed by the hyenas, all the way down to the ants. Then I’m sure the bones will be picked very clean.
We follow the lion as she drags the buffalo calf under a bush. We are only 6-10 feet away and we watch her panting with all the exertion of dragging something probably heavier than the weight of a human being up a river bank and then 20 more yards along through the trees.
Our Land Cruiser continues down the river criss-crossing it several times. Over the next few hours we get to see many giraffe, craning their velvet necks to watch us pass. Then, as we are heading back along the river towards camp, near where the lion had killed the baby buffalo, our tracker spots a cheetah with four cubs on the opposite bank. Oh wow.
The tracker is amazing. How he spotted her on the other side of the river bed, camouflaged in the trees, I don’t know. But there she is a cheetah with these small babies. This is a real treat. We sit there quietly with our binoculars trained on them. The cubs have little button eyes and tufty fur. They have not got their cheetah markings yet. But we dare not move towards her across the river bed as we know she will immediately move her family on and we don’t want to harass them in any way.
While we in the area we also check in on Mrs Lion. She was still there, munching away.
Back at camp we have a light lunch in the big open eating area. The table is set up under the huge thatched roof and we look out along the course of the dried up river. Amazing to think that a few months earlier this was a raging torrent. Then we trot back to our banga, confidently navigating the twisting sandy paths.
It’s at this point that we realised that we had problems with a gerbil. Well Kim called him a rat. I said no he was a gerbil. Anyway, we discovered that the reason that our plastic shampoo bottle was on the floor that morning was not that it had just fallen down, but that something has chewed a hole in it and knocked it down. And that something turned out to be a ‘gerbil’. We knew it was a gerbil because, as we were discussing the lack of shampoo, Kim saw something poke a pointed and whiskery nose through the reeds next to the shower. As she pointed it out to me (rather loudly) it backed out. But within minutes had nosed its way in again to drink water and eat the soap left in the large carved stone soap dish. Neither of us wanted to do any damage to the gerbil/rat but when we saw him actually trying to drag the soap out through the reed wall, we realised we would have to take defensive action. So we planted a “sacrificial” soap which became his, while ours we kept away from him by the wash basin. These gerbils were very adventurous and clearly interested in personal hygiene. We learned that some guests had commented that their toothbrushes had mysteriously disappeared. All we had lost to gerbil was the shampoo which had drained out of the chewed bottle. But the nearest shops were at least a couple of hundred miles away.
That evening the drive is superb. Chris Fox has been encouraged to come out with us on the drive to take his mind off his sick 7 month old son, holed up in the town three-hours drive away with his Italian mother and grandmother.
It was a real cross country hack, directed by a master who knew every square inch of this wild territory. We went far and wide over a vast area of the incredible landscape which is thickly populated by more Baobab trees in one place than you have ever seen. They are so thick on the ground, it is almost like a Baobab forest, Driving through these 3,000-year-old trees we speculated about exactly what the climatic and ecological conditions were that allowed such a profusion of these very slow-growing trees to do so well and also flourish. Chris thought there might have been less elephant then so more saplings survived. There were not many young Baobabs sprouting up now, so in another few thousand years the landscape would be totally different. In some favoured spots they were almost the dominant tree. They also leached the colour out of the ground. For instance, where earth was red they have a more reddish tinge but where the earth was brown then their bark was brown.
As always the vultures give it away. Chris had spotted them way off and we went off piste, quite a way off the track, just bashing through bush. We get to a male lion hanging around the periphery. Closer in is a dead juvenile giraffe and the female members of the pride lounging on the ground around it. Nine altogether in this pride, we creep up among them, a gentle stealthy clutch movement at a time and we circle the ex-giraffe. An absolute wonderful and shocking moment as we see it’s stomach and the meat on its ribs eaten away.
On the way back Chris navigates us across country. There are no paths and the bush looks shapeless and un-ending. Incredible knowledge, but I suppose he might get stuck trying to get to Wood Green from Wormwood Scrubs via Lewisham. Hmmm that one might even get me sweating a bit.
We had time to return to our banga before dinner. I had a good talk to Mr/Mrs Gerbil when it came round later and sipped the shower water. A cockroach popped his head out of the overflow in the sink in the bathroom. I put him down the toilet, but when I got up to use the toilet later that night he was on the toilet seat. This time he got flushed down. Sorry, just hope I don’t get reincarnated as a cockroach.
The bangas are kept spotlessly clean by out banga man. Not only does he provide early morning coffee, hot shower water and bed-making, but he folds up anything you leave around. We got to really admire the folding school that the banga boy had studied at. Everything was folded up beautifully. Whatever clothes we left hanging up or in a pile on the chair were always folded away neatly in piles when we came back. Each pile colour co-ordinated.
Dinner that night started with a “roundabout” journey. Our guy picked us up at 7,45 and we set out in the pitch dark along a load of sandy tracks that we never seemed to have gone down before. The journey to the dining area seemed to be taking a very long time tonight but then we suddenly ended up on the river bank near the main area of the camp. A fire blazed away in the lee of a cliff opposite and a semi circle of canvas chairs stood round it. In the middle of the dry river bed was a table and cut into the riverbank was another hot coal barbecue.
There were just six of us there under the stars again. Towards the end of the dinner things got a bit intensive. There was the sounds of shouting and flip flops being banged together in the camp. Hella explained that a ‘naughty elephant’ was in the camp area and flip flops banged together was the best line of defence. This elephant had been around at night for a few weeks. He liked the acacia trees around the camp and he could be quite aggressive if you came on him unawares.
All of the staff suddenly seemed to disappear. We sat with the Dutch couple and talked away on the river bed as the flames of the camp fire began to die down. In a while someone came and said the elephant was being troublesome so we needed to make a move – and we should take an even more roundabout route back to the bangas. We dodged up from the bank to the back area of camp, up to the kitchen and then through it and into the main reception bit of the camp. But the elephant seemed to be between us and the huts, so we had to go down again into the river bed, along it and eventually a scramble up the river bank to the bangas. We had had been told not to go into the river bed because of the deep holes the elephants dig to drink the water that flows 18 inches below the surface of the sand. But as the elephant had come up to our place, we had no option but to go down to his.
That night it was very active in the river bed below the banga. I don’t think we had ever been closer to the action. The lions and the elephants disagreed noisily, very noisily indeed.
Wednesday 2nd July
At breakfast Joop, the Dutch guy, says that when he got up in the night use the toilet he found a gerbil swimming in it and had flushed that away. We were sympathetic (what else could you do?) but also horrified. We really hoped he was a good swimmer.
It felt as though there were only six of us in camp but for a day and a half we were kept separate from a large group of US Lutheran evangelists who occupy another part of the camp. It seems they do not want to mix with atheist, agnostic or non American riff raff. But this morning we meet briefly around the camp fire. They are packing up to leave and we saw them loading up large cardboard boxes that said “Evangelical Publishing House” onto the roof of a cruiser.
I took a walk this morning with Joop and Sylvie and two guides. It was a 20 minute drive out to the escarpment then down and along the river back to camp, very nice through we had to detour onto the road at the end because there were too many elephant in the riverbed and it was just too dangerous for us to walk there.
While the walkers were out I spent the morning sitting on the veranda of our banga with a book and the binoculars. The dry river bed was like a stage spread before me and over a period of some three hours a large cast came and went.
At first it seemed as if nothing was stirring in the morning heat. Then the tree immediately in front of our banga was occupied by a pair of black and white birds, prancing and flirting and chirruping noisily. They twirl off and I return to my book. Then on the far side of the river bed, a family of four warthogs trot down (male, female and two babies). Their tails are straight up like aerials (Radio Tanzania). They come down to a waterhole. Have a quick drink and root around and then trot off. They are followed a few minutes later by a troop of baboons who watch me casually from the far side as they drink the water accumulating in the holes that the Elephants had dug during the night.
From a different direction some vervet monkeys scamper along. To my amazement they scramble up onto the huge boulder in front of the banga only a few yards from where I am sitting. A lot of grooming goes on, the mother keeping a beady eye on the babies who are intent on climbing the tree behind the boulder. The tiny babies try to copy the older ones who are swinging confidently from branch to branch. One baby is over ambitious and is left hanging by his tail squeaking piteously until rescued by his mum. This tree had survived and flourished in the riverbed because it had sprouted behind a couple of very large boulders which were probably ten feet high. They had protected the tree when the river flooded and debris was swept downstream knocking over everything in its path.
By far the most beautifully choreographed act of the morning’s play was that played out by the impala. I spotted a couple of fawn ears on the opposite bank, then some more. Very very slowly and cautiously a few impala came down the river bank looking watchfully around to see who might be interested in them for dinner. Over about 20 minutes 40 female impala picked their way delicately down towards the waterholes. They were accompanied by one dominant male, who played the role of lookout, leader, and rounder. His job was to gather them all up once they had drunk and get them safely back onto the bank. He took his job very seriously and was diligent in rounding up his playful harem Then absolute silence returned to the river bed – until Dave returned from his walk..
That evening we went on an incredible drive. From the camp you could see this massive hump of a mountain on the horizon. Both the Dutch couple and us wanted to see a big spotty cat – well, a leopard actually. And the guides, ever mindful of guests wishes took us out towards the mountain. This was the only place locally where there were some leopard. But the thing about these incredible animals is that if they do not want to be seen then you will not see them.
There could have been dozens of them hanging from the profusion of trees, scrabbling to sides of cliffs and screes or sitting on the amazing rock formations and huge great big boulders the size of houses. The leopards did not choose to be spotted. However the sunset over the mountain made up for that.
Another busy night on the riverbed below with the lion and elephant duking it out.
Thursday 3rd July
Joop and Sylvie had gone out for a day long drive. We passed on that one. After all they are on their honeymoon and I’m sure they would prefer to be alone! We didn’t do anything in the morning just sat around at the banga and watched the baboons then some warthog and some very stately kudu.
We were having lunch when a park ranger turned up to say he had spotted the cheetah and cubs a long way away. Hella got on the radio to the guide with the Dutch couple and told them to find and follow the cheetahs. Later in the afternoon we went out Hella and two of our own trackers to see if we could find them too.
It was a long way and some of the most intense bushwhacking we’ve ever done, it was straight over the bush and scrubland, driving round trees, squashing bushes, dodging warthog and anteater holes. Eventually we find them right out in the bush. We watch the mother and cubs with their mohican baby fur. But they did not want us to get too close so they always kept a reasonable distance between us and them. As soon as we got too near they just moved on a bit. It was quite difficult to see them in this tall thick grass and scrubland. But that’s what the spots are for. And it was still magical,
Then another trek back across country to even get to a track to take us somewhere on the way to home.
We went down and back over the river and stopped for a beer and to water the trees. When we moved on we had only travelled a few hundred yards round a cliff and we had to stop because there were two lion sitting down in the track. We watched them for a while then edged forward closer to them to hustle them out of the way so we could get back to camp before dark. We stopped about 25 yards away from these two and they seemed to ignore us and take no notice. We sat quietly for a while then I looked to my right and there in the grass at the side of the track were another four lion just lying there looking at me, the nearest one was only 6 feet away. Ooops.
Friday 4th July
As we get up on our last Mwagusi morning I spot an elephant on the river bank just by the main dining area. I wonder - will breakfast be a little late today?
We have never eaten so many breakfasts of real tasty scrambled egg, tomato, wonderful bacon and sausage. All produce sourced from their own gardens or local farmers, each kitchen generally made it’s own sausages as well. But it is time to leave Mwagusi, our time in Tanzania is almost over. Before we leave we write in the visitors’ book:
Ten Reasons to love Mwagusi
1 The best game
2 The best guides
3 The best staff
4 The best food
5 The best showers in Tanzania
6 The most Baobab trees in one place
7 The best folding of clothes
8 The naughtiest elephants
9 The loudest lions at night
10 The friendliest gerbils
We are driven out for the last time to the airstrip. As we wait on the strip with Joop and Sylvia, Zebra gather close by. Then a Caravan lands. This is the large 12 seat turboprop Cessna. 5 or 6 of the park rangers are off on leave and waiting for the plane as well. There seems to be some arguments with the pilot about numbers of passengers.
We took off and flew for 20 minutes and picked up a English couple at Jongomero, the other camp in this part of the Ruaha. It turns out it was the guy who had come up with the Dutch couple and had suggested the pilot turn back. He immediately got in next to the pilot. His wife was a bit loud upper clarse bossyoid. It was a very comfortable flight, those little 6 seat Cessna’s are a very exciting seat of the pants flying experience, but sometimes it’s nice to have a little luxury.
At Dar airport we get picked up by a guy in a minibus waiting to transfer us to our last destination Ras Kutani outside of Dar.
Dar Es Salaam is all a hustle and bustle, a real ant heap of humanity with many different faces on view: Arabic, Indian, African and also very Muslim. All the action on the streets is a bit of a shock to the system after our two weeks in the bush. “Ah this too is real Africa” we think. There are millions of little shops, people are everywhere, kids sit on the pavement selling a few shoes, there are lots of bicycle repair shops. The roads are complete chaos it’s a matter of pushing your way into the traffic flow. It’s push push now not Poli Poli! But no one seems to get too upset just a lot of honking the horns. There are traffic jams! The most traffic jam I have seen in two weeks was a few elephant or lion blocking the road.
At some crossroads there are massive big markets selling everything under the sun. Then in other places the markets are just one product and everything you need to use with this item, like the shoe market with the repairers there as were the shoelace sellers and the shoe cleaners. We pass through the embassy row, where the US embassy stood. It’s been rebuilt since Osama Bin Laden bombed it in about 97. Lots of police and army there now!
In order to get to Ras Kutani we need to take a ferry, we wait while the President of Tanzania and his large entourage of vehicles comes by us. At the gates to the ferry our driver gets into a argument with the bloke collecting the money for the tickets. It seems to boil down to paying per passenger rather than per journey. The ticket seller has seen it all before and a very interesting discussion goes on, the seller gently telling the driver what was the score about what you pay, our driver pays up eventually saying “too many words” as he lost his cool with the gateman. He obviously was trying it on to make more money for himself out of the trip.
There are three lines of traffic waiting to get on the little ferry and a huge big covered area where the foot passengers wait. We sit and wait and listen to the radio which is playing a mixture of Rap, R&B, Ragga and occasionally a local song in a R&B style. Hmmm not too sure about that, one time the world was full of different regional music’s now it is less so, American music has got everywhere. It’s just like the clothes, baggy shorts and a baseball cap seem to be a universal style these days. Sad.
We eventually get the taxi on to the ferry and as we approach the other side we see a load of fishing boats one that has “bad boy posse” painted on the side, another example of how non-African concepts - in this case Jamaican - are fed into to Africa via MTV and American music. We push our way off up the ramp gingerly winding through the flood of humanity - one wave coming off the ferry and another very keen to get on.
All the stalls and shacks selling goods here have metal or wooden grills over the front and a small serving hole, some are even behind metal fences and the seller passes what you have bought over the fence. It is obviously a little rough here, like all ferry crossings the world over I suppose. We drive out into the countryside passing through village after village. There are tailors working outside houses and scruffy little shops. It gets poorer and poorer and the road gets worse with huge great big water-filled ruts and potholes. We see people on bicycles with huge bundles of tomatoes and other produce precariously balanced on the frame. Then it is just subsistence farming and people living in tiny crude huts in their field. After about an hour we turn left through what appears to be a field. Then we see the sea in the distance and eventually we arrive at Ras Kutani. We offer to walk the last couple of hundred yards as it had been raining recently and the driver did not want to get his little minibus stuck on the hill down to the hotel.
Our room, well another thatched place with a bed and a mosquito net, is very nice and overlooking a lagoon where you can see people wheeling bicycles over the beach. The hot water here comes from a little wood fired boiler just behind the hut. The electricity is a solar panel and inverter to recharge a battery, it has been a bit rainy the last few days here. I guess the lights could be a little low.
When we came back from dinner the first night and switched on the lights they did not come on, so I had to go and get the manager who came and changed the (truck) battery stashed behind our hut.
The bar had ample cold Kilis but one thing that struck us was how weird it was not eating around a single table, chatting away with other people. The whole process of the food service at Ras Kutani was strict and formulated – edging us back to the western world. A waiter brings you a roll of bread served on tongs. We had been used to reaching over to the plate of bread on the table and grabbing as much as you want, when ever you want. Truth is, we’d just been spoiled.
Saturday 5th July
We wander along the pure gold beach a bit, passing a few fishermen at work mending their nets. Eventually we come to a little rough shelter in the dunes that looks like someone lives in it. The rest of the day is spent hanging around our balcony in the hammocks, reading . We had been shedding books all over Tanzania, I had been chugging through the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency books and donated them to various camps libraries. It was often the only way the managers got any new reading material. That is if they have any time to read after working from sunup to way past sundown. Being a manager at the camps is very hard work, 16 hour days are the norm.
Sunday 6th July
We get up in the dark and as dawn breaks we are rowed across the lagoon toward the jeep waiting to take us to the airstrip. It is a romantic way to leave. But then the plane picking us up from Ras Kutani is delayed due to the office being late opening. I actually got to fly a bit on this 15 minute flight to Dar.
We are pitched straight into the usual chaos of an international airport except at Dar the background musak is old Congolese Rumba and Congolese - inspired Kenyan bands like Super Mazembe. But filtered through a totally distorted PA system. I thought I heard an old Latin tune in there as well, but it was difficult to tell.
The usual scramble to the plane after some heavy-duty security checks. As well as two X ray machines, one at the entrance to the airport, the second in it’s usual place at the departure gate, we then had to take our boots off and put them through the third machine to go into the departure lounge. Kim of course still could not tie or untie her own bootlaces, so we held up the queue while I took off her boots, the guy looked at me quizzically, I explained my wife had a bad arm and I had to untie her boots for her, he replied, “we must always look out for each other”. Then we got the frisk and a thorough search of the hand luggage which opens up everything including our well stocked homeopathic and chemical drugs bags.
On the plane we get stuck near the back, seated behind a family of Afro-American evangelists. The mother had a bible in her hand at all times. The long and lanky children were typical American teenagers. Straight away back go the seats to maximum recline so we have no space. We could not tip our own seats back because behind us was the last row on the plane where the seats had no flexibility at all. It was very tight for my knees, when we ate the stewardesses had to ask them to move their seats forward.
You may think you have God on your side but he isn’t necessarily reminding you to consider other people and give respect to them.
Strange to be back in London, we sort of keep expecting to go out on an evening drive - isn’t that a lilac breasted roller?.