We drive through Hai, past the unfortunately named Fuka Secondary School, traversing increasingly dodgy roads in our land rover. Our driver Stephen has some tales to tell. He once mistakenly walked through a pride of lions without seeing them at first – he lives to tell the tale! But my favourite was when a python (30 foot long) disappeared under his land rover and failed to reappear. After spending three hours trying to pull it out of his engine, he gave up and drove home with it still inside. The snake was unhurt, and slithered off when the engine cooled down, promptly consuming a dik-dik (a small antelope) shortly afterwards.
We got slightly lost on the dirt tracks, which provided an excellent opportunity to see the Masai in their natural environment. Draped in brightly coloured shukas, they herd livestock, tend maize, and ride bicycles. After a slightly roundabout trip, we arrive at Ndarakwai Ranch (named, as in Mashatu, after a local tree) in Moshi. This consists of rustic huts with jungle showers (cans of water suspended over your head that you release with a chain), no walls but canvas and mesh sides, and chemical toilets imaginatively branded the Visa Potty 268. The hut had a more evocative name – Chui, which means leopard in Swahili or, technically, Kiswahini. We are in the shadow of the mountain here – Kilimanjaro (“the big hill” not surprisingly), its counterpart Meru, and a host of other volcanoes long since extinct. This is more like rolling savannah. Elephants bathe at a waterhole, hundreds of giraffe and zebra thrive in the absence of lions to eat them. A secretary bird takes ages to land like a heavy transport aeroplane. These are birds of prey several feet tall with a black and red crest and lanky legs that they use to stamp on insects and snakes.
We have the opportunity to visit a genuine Masai village. This is no token tourist guide, but a real community who work together with Ndarakwai Ranch. The Masai watch out for poachers in return for a bit of help via the tourists. Our guide is Masai and shows us round. The boundary to the boma is a fence of thorns big enough to enclose a dozen huts and several hundred goats and sheep. They look the same, but goats’ tails go up and sheep’s go down. Boma sounds like a Swahili word but is, in fact, a relic of the days of colonial occupation, and is an acronym that stands for British Officers Mess Association. The door to the boma is a thorn bush that is dragged into place each night. The houses are made of a wooden frame covered in cow dung with a straw roof. Thorns are placed around the eves to shop the cows eating the roofs. Tiny holes allow for modest ventilation and sometimes a separate hut is set aside for cooking to keep the temperature down in the main house.
The whole area is full of dung and swarming with flies, most of which pester the women and children incessantly. We thank them for giving us a glimpse of their world and buy some of their necklaces and jewellery.
In the morning we take a walk through the bush with our guide. He is still raving about how lucky we are to have seen an aardvark on our drive the night before. “Once a year!” he exclaimed. The sunrise is turning Meru red, and he is worried that the snow cap on Kilimanjaro has been receding steadily since the mid-nineties. As we wander past various zebra and waterbuck, he regales us with tales from the bush. The varied uses of elephant dung, for example. When burnt, it keeps the mosquitoes away. When boiled in water it can be in inhaled as a decongestant or drunk to prevent diarrhoea. Fresh leopard tracks lead him to recount the day when one broke into his Masai village and killed 40 goats in a night . The leaders had a powwow and he was engaged to track it down. When the tracks ran out, there it was, in the tree above. The leopard wounded 14 Masai warriors in one minute before finally be killed. We wandered back as a black and white Augur buzzard left its perch to stamp in the dry grass, and we waved at a lady who is researching animal behaviour in the local elephants. High on a viewing platform by a waterhole, she was waiting at dawn. She had also numbered thousands of trees to assess elephant damage. Dedication indeed.
After a slap up breakfast we said thank you (Ashante sana) and headed for Arusha. Our guide was bowled over by the photograph I had taken from the plane straight down the mouth of Kilimanjaro. Arusha is Tanzania’s third largest town (600,000) behind Mwanza to the west on Lake Victoria and Dar es Salaam on the east coast. Four hours later, Lake Manyara appears to our left, backed by the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley. A huge wall of mountain is also looming in front of us – the foothills that announce of presence of the Ngorongoro Crater beyond. The word apparently means “great grazing land” or “biggest hole in the ground”, depending on who you ask, but as usual no one knows which ngoro means which word. The crater is about 15Km wide, and is actually a collapsed ancient volcano – a mountain that would originally have been easily as high as Kilimanjaro (which is 19,340 feet). The walls are 2,000 foot high and the first view down it is something no one will ever forget. Miles of sweeping plain, teeming with wildlife, with Lake Magadi inside, flanked by rainforest. We check in at the immaculate Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and savour the extraordinary view.
The diversity is enormous. A marabou stork the size of a person is roosting happily on the ground, thousands of wildebeest cross the track for their morning drink at the lake in near silence. Golden jackals harass flocks of flamingo in the shallows. A sixty year old bull elephant wanders along in the twilight of his life. Spotted hyena scuttle about in ones and twos looking for a meal to scavenge. Ostrich and Kori Bustard wander about pecking at the ground. Secretary birds and grey crowned cranes stamp the undergrowth to see what will emerge. Every now and again the cranes take to the air in pairs, their red heads and impressive straw-like golden crests trailing in the wind. Twenty or more hippopotamus wallow in a creek, grunting and spraying each other, protecting the babies at the centre. A pair of cheetah take some spotting, snoozing next to a rock on the slopes. Buffalo, eland, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle adopt a variety of poses – doing less and less as the heat of the day increases. Warthogs feed as they typically do, on their knees. Vultures and hyena find common ground around a kill somewhere in the long, yellow grass.
But in all this plenty, there is one event that really was exceptional. We spotted half a dozen lionesses lying in the grass. One was facing off a lone hyena. Two looked to be on the move. We anticipated their line and stopped the jeep in their intended path. One by one they walked straight past us, within feet. Then the fourth in line decided that it was a bit hot, and sat down in the shade of our jeep. This was not an open-sided vehicle like in Mala Mala, but a sided Land Rover with an open roof. We stared down in wonder at the lioness lying a couple of feet below. Her sister wandered over and joined her next to us. The whole business lasted a good twenty minutes. In theory, either of them could have leapt up and torn us in two, but they were just grateful for the shade in this mainly treeless centre of the crater. Apparently they often do it, but it provided a highly intimate encounter that will never be forgotten. The only negative point was when an idiot in another jeep started tapping on the window in a highly inappropriate attempt to get one of the lioness to pose for him. “Here pussy, pussy,” they shout, in a pathetic attempt to secure the perfect pose for a photograph. These sorts of people should either be locked up in a human zoo or offered up as a titbit for the nearest pride! After lunch at the marsh where black kites dive-bombed the picnickers, we returned to the lodge to find that our butler had already poured us a bath. Extraordinary.
“Safari Lager. As the red sun sets, like a growing tribute to our work, our pride, our tomorrows, one reward is in order. Full bodied, full flavoured, a beer for a people of purpose. Safari Lager. More than just a beer”. We are sitting in Arusha airport waiting for our plane to take us to Zanzibar. It’s a bit late because it is “in the bush somewhere”, announced the man with the Arsenal shirt. A beer in the shade seems the only sensible option. The scene at Ngorongoro had been a total contrast that morning – completely shrouded in dense fog, creating the sensation of slight drizzle. Apparently it never reaches the bottom of the crater, but at the top of the rim, 2,000 feet higher, visibility is practically zero. Retracing our steps out of the area brings us back to Arusha. Soon the plane turns up – a twin-engined Otter that will take us to the island of Zanzibar in a trip lasting 1 ½ hours. Below us the bush rolls on, interspersed by the occasional volcanic cone, and then finally the brilliant blue of the Indian Ocean. We have been delayed so we have to wait a while for a lift, and then we are off to the north-eastern part of the island where we are staying at Matemwe Bungalows, a series of twelve huts facing an immaculate reef and the island of Mnemba. The sand is brochure perfect white but the rocks are a lethal combination of volcanic intrusion and jagged coral so shoes are essential underwater. Set in an idyllic haven of sculptured paths and exotic plants, this is a significant contrast to the poverty and squalor that the island first reveals.
The main stretch leading from the airport has the normal series of huts, hustle and bustle, livestock wandering about and people washing their clothes in small streams. But the overriding impression is that of endless rubbish. Blue plastic bags, water bottles and other refuse fill every view for miles and miles, totally overwhelming what would otherwise be a charming island with lush tropical vegetation. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that there is absolutely no refuse collection service, which seems to be confirmed as a woman idly tops a basket of rubbish into the ditch seemingly in front of her own home. Whilst being deeply conscious of, and sympathetic to, the difficulties of living in poverty without running water, I cannot understand why anyone would choose to live in a rubbish pile of their own making. Even a basic effort in the community could clear this shit up and put it in one place, away from where the kids live. Indeed, on arrival at Matemwe I am heartened to read that the hotel has embarked on just such an initiative with the local village, collecting 14000 50kg bags in a day, and arranging regular collections from one central point.
The journey is reaching its end. The sea thunders in over the reef, smashing through the volcanic arches. Palm trees rustle all night. Then calm. Tide out. Locals harvesting seaweed in the shallows or sailing their dhows in their hundreds out to catch fish. Time at the bar or by the pool. A walk in the flour-like sand. Some snorkelling on the reef. Not on a par with Belize or the Great Barrier Reef, but still the usual bright colours of Moorish Idols and Triggerfish dancing in and out of the rocks. This is Mnemba Island, privately owned by a man who will “slap you in the face if you step on his sand”, according to our guide. We stick to the reef. It is easy to while away the hours watching the dhows come and go from their fishing trips, and the women tending to their seaweed farms. We transfer to Stone Town for a nights sleep before returning home. The place is steeped in history, not always of a tasteful kind. Zanzibar derives from the Arabic for Black Island, and it became the central point for storing and selling slaves. The nasty Arabs who perpetrated these crimes stole people from the continent, chained them up, forced them to march to the coast, shackled them in ships, and then sold them. We examined the cells and whipping trees appalled. Other places of interest in passing turned out to be the market, the House of Wonders – a large palace that was built by the Sultan and is now a museum – and the house in which Freddie Mercury was born.
A time for reflection. Six countries: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania. Three weeks on the move. 18,500 miles covered. Physical wonders have included Victoria Falls, particularly from a helicopter. Mount Kilimanjaro from above and below, its sister Meru, the Ngorongoro Crater, miles of sweeping savannah and the sparkling reef of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean. Wildlife encounters have been unsurpassed – over twenty leopards, more than twenty lions, four cheetahs, a dozen rhino, hundreds of wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and elephants. Hippopotamus, Cape Hunting Dogs, civet, genet, aardvark, bat-eared foxes, jackals, ostrich, storks, crocodiles, eagles, giraffe and many, many more. And scores of examples of charming people, providing great service in a multitude of circumstances. Africa had certainly revealed its riches.