"Don’t try and be strong and brave. If you need to come to the mess tent, get an askari [guard] to escort you. It’s only a hundred yards, but we’ve had lionesses here. I don’t want to be pulling you out of her teeth, it’ll be hard work, and I don’t have toothpicks!”
Julius, the maître d’, is smiling warmly all the way through this speech. It’s hard to take him seriously. It’s hard to remember that for all the sweeping plains, scrubby acacia, and the elegant cheetahs surveying the horizon, Africa really is dangerous.
A strict ban on poaching in Tanzania has resulted in animals that are literally fearless. Driving from the airport, we are surrounded by 200 buffalo (a particularly unusual traffic jam). Buffalo don’t respect schedules.
Manyara Ranch Conservancy is a luxury tented camp in 35,000 acres of land. This is a landscape that is a character in its own right: willowy figures with sticks walk beside dusty caravans of cows, their Maasai blankets billowing in the blasting sun.
Casually teeming with animals, Manyara is a corridor between two major game parks. Giraffes, zebra, wildebeest and lions all amble into sight a few hundred yards from our armchairs, and not a fence to be seen. And all this is just an hour’s drive from the city of Arusha. Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro flank the park, towering over it like protective forces.
Mount Kilimanjaro (Kili, as she’s affectionately known locally) is begging to be climbed. Packing arctic sleeping bags and thermal underwear down at sea level seems surreal, but it’s necessary. Climbing Kili is a physical, mental and spiritual journey, not to be undertaken lightly, and it involves porters, guides and serious camping.
The summit is often prioritised over the lower slopes through the forest, but these are stunning in their own right. There are five or six routes up to the real slog, some of which are a conveyor belt of foot traffic. The lower foothills of the western Lemosho route are the least walked, most pristine and biologically and ecologically fascinating.
The first day and a half is through forest – an Avatar set of gushing organic growth, sweating fertility, chaos and abundance. Above 3,000m, bizarre alien forms dominate – giant lobelias, dusky lichens and heathers.
After the rigours of Kili, pampering is called for. Heading east to Zanzibar, the spicy promise of fish banquets and massage beckons. The practice of massage in Zanzibar hails from the Persian and Omani occupations. The Singo Scrub is a vigorous affair, traditionally enjoyed by women preparing to marry. The ‘bride’ is splattered with dried and pounded ylang-ylang, jasmine and rose petals, local herbs, sandalwood and cloves, followed by an oil massage.
Fully cleansed and purified, we go to the evening open-air food market in Forodhani. The speciality is pwesa (barbecued octopus, thought to improve virility), and the (secret recipe) soup, containing tamarind, cassava and potato.
Chefs working on fiercely burning braziers compete for custom. Bantering and gossiping in their white hats, whilst the local dhows (ancient wooden fishing boats) begin another night’s fishing in the Indian Ocean. The smells of oud (frankincense) and barbecue smoke mingle, as local Zanzibari families show off their finery, and stray cats skulk for leftovers.
Two exhilarating hours away in a six-seat plane, and a million miles away scenically, is the Ruaha Game Reserve. There is nothing on the airstrip apart from a lone giraffe. No sleepy official, no hut, no customs check, no tarmac, no lights, no billboards, telegraph poles, signs or advertising. Driving along small dirt tracks to the reserve, there are stately, ancient baobabs everywhere, with their bark stripped back around the trunks.
“It’s the elephants,” explains Mollel, the guide. “They eat the bark for moisture in the dry season.” This is a bleak, harsh, unforgiving landscape with occasional dashes of colour from ‘toothbrush trees’. Their bright red pods taste like pistachio nuts. It is hard to imagine this exploding rudely into colour after the rains. The baobabs are the oldest tree, many thousand years old, testimony to slow growing and prehistoric life. The first mention of the baobab is by Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan trader and historian, who wrote in 1353, “The trees are of a great age and size, a caravan can shelter under a single one of them, some have no branches or leaves, but the trunk gives enough shade to shelter many men; some have rotted inside, and rainwater has collected, as if it were a well.” I expect to see a dinosaur gently wandering amongst the branches.
In reality, Ruaha is teeming with impala, duiker, and giant kudu with their huge ears. Giraffes and zebras work in coalition (zebras have an excellent sense of smell, giraffes excellent eyesight) as do baboons and impala: baboons shake the leaves of the high trees, impala stay below (again, good eyesight and smell). It’s all about survival and working together. I almost feel sorry for these animals: life is a neurotically tense experience.
No wildlife documentary can prepare you for the thud of your own heart as a matriarch elephant purposefully eyes you across open savannah.
She is 20 metres away, her one-year-old baby snuggling up under chest and trunk, peeping out. The jeep wheels make unhelpful groaning sounds, as the tyres embed deeper and deeper into the sand of a completely dry river bed.
“It’s fine, watch her ears” says Mollel. “She’s not angry, just curious.” Still, seven tonnes of mammal defending her offspring is something to be taken seriously.
The really good guides seem to understand the porini (bush) in a feral, intuitive way, smelling animals long before they are seen. Pen de Vries has a constant, reassuring and informative commentary about everything from animal behaviour to the gender of dung.
“See the lion?” says De Vries. “He’s about nine, look at the black tinges on his mane, and he’s hungry – see the hollow in his tummy? The way he’s lowered his shoulders?” He mimics a hyena and the lions sit up, alert. “There’s much more co-operation between animals than we realise, more monogamy and less aggression, but we often choose not to see it.”
In the Selous, west of Ruaha, the animals are more skittish and shy. Abandoning the jeep, we set off on foot.
Giraffe run away, their movement a comic miracle.
Locals maintain that engineers build the roads in the parks following the paths of elephants, which seem to have an uncanny ability to get around quickly and directly.
I take a boat down the massive, soupy Rufiji River with ‘professor’ Frank: grinning macabre crocodiles slip silently into the water. Hippo ears and eyes poke out from the brown water. There’s no noise. Literally none. It’s the oddest feeling. I look on the map. I am not sure I have ever been so far from human habitation.
The engine conks out on a sandbank. Frank and I swirl in hopeless confusion, not working as a team. It’s getting dark, we are stuck with a broken boat in a river 500 metres wide and teeming with crocs. We paddle slowly to the shore, using the current. Then we clamber out. We stride along the bank of the river. First there are hippo tracks, then elephant, many waterbuck, eland, impala, then leopard, then lion. All are freshly imprinted. Frank is unnecessarily jolly.
Clinking gin and tonic later, with another glorious sunset in the distance, I surrender to being a colonial princess (queen even), and try not to feel bad about such blatant indulgence. Safaris in Tanzania are about selling a fantasy, complete with outfits: whether it’s Livingstone, Burton and Speke, complete with suede desert boots, white linen, safari suits, topis and mad moustaches, or beds turned down at night with frangipani flowers on the pillows and outdoor showers overlooking zebras sipping at the water hole.
“Tanzanian civility is deep in our country – maybe it’s the Arab influences, maybe it’s our ancient African ways,” says Frank, winking as he talks.
It’s hard to disagree.
Tanzania fact file
KLM operates five flights per week to Dar es Salaam International Airport via Kilimanjaro International Airport, from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
GUIDES AND SAFARIS African Adventures: Winner of the Condé Nast Award for Ecotourism, this established and well-organised, ethical tour operator will take you up Kilimanjaro and around Tanzania (Frank Castro; firstname.lastname@example.org). African Environments: A well-established firm capable of organising trips in Tanzania and bordering countries (www.africanenvironments.co.tz). George Mavroudis: Friendly, efficient, professional and highly knowledgeable guide (www.gmsafaris.com; +255 784290100).
WHERE TO STAY
&Beyond: Luxury lodges in Tanzania, excellent hotel overlooking Ngorongoro Crater (www.andbeyond.com). Kisima Ngeda: (www.kisimangeda.com; +255 272548715).
Ilboru Safari Lodge: Friendly, mid-range/budget hotel in a great location in Arusha, with a pool and a good restaurant, with campsite for budget options (www.ilborusafarilodge. com).
AfrikaAfrika: Five small personal resorts in great locations around Tanzania: subtly designed, fantastic guides, flexible, thoughtful, and reasonably priced (www.afrikaafrikasafaris.com). Manta Resort: Private resort on Pemba Island with superb diving facilities, and innovative community work, superlative beach and service (www.themantaresort.com; email@example.com). Manyara Ranch Conservancy: Private conservancy in a corridor between two major game parks: excellent game viewing an hour outside of Arusha. See image bottom left for tent interior (www.manyararanch.com).
WELLNESS Mrembo Traditional Spa: a locally run spa in Zanzibar using professionally trained masseuses and all local Zanzibari flowers, herbs and cleansing traditions (mtoni. com; +255 242250140). Breathing Space: for yoga/ bodywork treatments in a beautiful rural retreat near Arusha (breathingspacetz. com; Stacia Soysal +255 769548787).
For yoga classes around Tanzania, contact Jo Fox (+255 773271942; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Independent park permits can take time, but both of these can help: Ngorongoro Conservation Authority (ngorongorocrater.org), TANAPA (www.tanzaniaparks.com).
You can take this magazine with you, or read this article again at www.holland-herald.com