Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Tiger? In Africa?

So, where was I? About to set off on Safari, I believe. The evening before, I'd had a chat with the MEM Tours rep, Jackson, about what to expect, and deilcately asked advice with regard to how much to tip a safari driver/guide. At this stage, he said he thought the guide would be one of his colleagues, and he suggested US$25 a day. I wasn't sure if this was fair or not, but it didn't see excessive. However, when Jackson showed up in the morning and announced he'd be my driver/guide, I wondered if he'd been totally objective in his suggestion. I think maybe he already knew he would be in the driving seat and set himself up for a generous tip. Still, I didn't have to pay what he said, and could wait and see how it all went and make a decision at the end.

We set off for Arusha by 9am and the trip along what has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous roads in Tanzania went very smoothly. The lunatic overtaking was once again in evidence, but Jackson kept to a very sedate and sensible 80km/h in his huge, twin fuel tank, 7 seater Toyota Landcruiser, complete with fridge and a pop top for all your wild animal viewing needs. Along the road side were the by now familiar village scenes of local folk hawking foreign tat, as well as fruit and veg, some of which was in its prime, some which was well over due. Between the villages were large empty tracts of land, some of which was cultivated in a more professional looking manner than what I'd seen between Dar and Moshi, and some of which was used for grazing. Herds of goats (usually tended by children) and cows (usually tended by adults), all interspersed with donkeys (and even, in one area, camels - the Maasai's new livestock of chioce), seemed to wander pretty much where they liked to find grass. Both children and adults were, more often than not, Maasai people, dressed in traditional Maasai robes, carrying a stick/spear/knife to chivy their wards along. It was slightly incongruous actually, passing through the villages - and even, it turned out, the towns - and seeing locals wearing 'regular' western clothing mixing with Maasai wearing their traditional garb of a wrap-around-the-waist-and-over-one-shoulder robe with extra shawl type robe on top, complete with six foot long stick - probably traditionally this would have been a spear -looking as though they had just arrived from some remote boma (family settlement). It was only when I saw them take out a cell phone, for example, that it became clear that, although their clothing was traditional, many of the Maasai had adapted quite well to modern living. Jackson told me that in the more remote areas, there was still a lot of resistance to modern styles, and these remote Maasai frowned on their city living cousins.

Amusingly, from time to time, we passed traffic police. What I found so funny was that here, in a country where just standing in one place and doing nothing all day can leave you coated in a layer of dust and grime, they choose to give their traffic police a uniform of sparkling white. It seemed to me that no matter what time of day it was, they were immaculately, spotlessly dressed. They clearly took pride in their uniform, but I have no idea how they avoided the dirt that seemed to gravitate to me the moment I stepped outside - and them working by a busy dusty road all day to boot! It was much the same for the school kids that we passed along the road, lots of whom waved excitedly as the tourist passing by in his chauffer driven cruiser. All of them were beautifully turned out in their school uniforms, somehow keeping clean, while those children not dressed for school were definitely struggling to avoid the dirt as much as I was!

The other sight that became all to familiar was that of dangerously overloaded trucks/cars/ motorbikes/bicycles/wheel barrows/heads, all interweaving across the footpaths and roads, almost indescriminately. It was a masterclass in the physics of balance, and a lesson in the correct use of the car horn. In most western countries with road rules and highway codes, the "audible warning" has been highjacked as a form of wordless abuse, employed to let someone know that you think they're a git and a useless driver. In TZ (and most of South America too, in fact) it is still used to alert people to your presence in a friendly way, with no animosity attached. With so little apparent order on the streets, there áre surprisingly few fender benders thanks to correct hornage and people being alert to anything, rather than switching off their attention and relying on the "rules" to keep them safe.

We made it to the lodge at which I'd be staying by around 1pm. I was fairly sure I'd booked a basic, camping safari, but even though there were tents in the grounds, I was shown to a small room with an ensuite, which was a nice surprise. I suspect that, as the 3 others who were supposed to be on my trip had cancelled and paid, I got a free upgrade. I didn't enquire too closely, I just accepted it gratefully. A quick check-in later, and we were straight off to our first destination - Lake Manyara National Park. This was a place I'd not really heard of before, but within minutes of passing through the gates we had encountered a troupe of baboons criss-crossing the road at will, and a family of elephants trashing some acacia trees and enjoying a mid-afternoon wallow, also right by the road. I could almost have reached out and touched some of them as they walked past the vehicle. It was an eerie experience - half a dozen of some of the largest land mammals on the planet and it was as though I was in a sound proofed room. I could hear birds and vehicle engines (before they were shut off) but the elephants themselves were almost silent - perhaps the rustle of a tree branch or clump of grass as it was torn from its natural home and shoved down an impressively large throat, sometimes a barely detectable sub-sonic rumble that sounded like it came from the depths of the earth, but when they moved from place to place, barely a whisper. Spooky.

I'm sorry to say that, suprisingly quickly, I got a little blasee about the elephants. There are only so many photos you can take of an elephant from the side or the front before they all look the same, after all, so while it was very calming to watch them - and I could have happily stopped and watched each family we passed for ages - there were so many of them that it became unnecessry to stop for them all, unless they seemed to be doing something unusual and photo-worthy. It was far more interesting for me to see the far fewer zebra, wildebeest hippos, giraffe and even a lioness and 2 cubs sleeping on a branch of a tree. There was a lot of bird life, too, but my self proclaimed "expert" guide struggled to identify many of them. Fair dos, even with a half good photo and a bird book I didn't have much more luck, but then I never claimed to know what I was on about (not in Africa, anyway). Even the more brightly coloured (and therefore more memorable, maybe?) ones were a challenge to him, and when he named a blatent black kite as an eagle, I began to have serious doubts. He certainly knew some, but I suspect his guiding skills were more focused on the animals rather than the birds. Which is fair enough I guess.

I enjoyed our route through the park from the back of the landcruiser, standing up and holding on and peering out of the pop top. It provided both shade from the sun and a nice breeze, but also left me exposed to the dust that blew in - a particularly bad problem when Jackson was following other vehicles, which he tended to do up close. There was an element of everyone going to the same palces as that is where animals had been sighted, so perhaps there was not always a choice, but I felt he could have hung back a bit or driven on the less dusty, up wind side of the road. I stuck it out though, as the view was far better from up there.

After a very enjoyable afternoon where I saw most of the animals I'd hoped to see, albeit at a distance (apart from the elephants and baboons), we made it back to the lodge, where I was delighted to find a swimming pool! I'd not expected to be staying anywhere so flash, or have access to swimming while I was oop narf in TZ, so this was a fantastic surprise. Togless, I had to rely on the old faithful of swimming in my pants, but I think it was more of a thrill than a fright for the other guests. It was sheer bliss being able to submerge myself in cold clear water and rinse off the dust of the first safari. Also, I found that some of the people I'd met on Kili were also staying at the lodge, so after a brief chat we arranged to meet for a beer later. They got sidetracked with their group though, and in the end I had yet another solo evening. I went looking for them at one point, but couldn't find them. Maybe it was a hint...Ah well, I'll leave this entry hear and finish the other 2 safari days in the next entry - which might be very soon. Pip pip.

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