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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Hacktreks in Africa

On a Honeymoon Safari in East Africa
Zia Zaman

What does it mean any more to be on safari? So many people have done it by now. So many of the animals’ movements have been tracked, analyzed and understood that much of the unknown has been eliminated. Cynically, one can imagine the Land Cruisers hunting down a lion and her kill and think that this is nothing more than a spectator sport. And yet, had I seen it with my own eyes? Had I experienced the endless plain of the savannah? Does the bush speak differently to every visitor? With all these contradictions in my head, I suggested to my soon-to-be bride that we should take a honeymoon safari.

Mt Kilamanjaro

All arranged from afar, we used books and accounts to help chart our route and make seemingly minor decisions. It would be this first, this next, and this last, all decided somewhat hurriedly between other emails or classes or appointments. When a particular lodge was out of space, plans changed drastically at the drop of a hat. I was already practicing hakuna matata, well before I even set foot on the continent. It didn’t seem to matter given all the other decisions and forks in our path with a wedding to plan. As frequent travellers in the developing world, we were accustomed to having free reign to change everything en route, a luxury that is swept aside when on a safari of certain repute. Things book up early. As much as we would like to treat it like a voyage through Anatolia, the best spots in the Tanzanian national parks are choice pieces of territory, fiercely guarded and let out to the select few. Certainly, the "War on Terror", hyperbolic paranoia about SARS, travel restrictions, BA’s flight rerouting, and insurance coverage schemes all contributed to reducing the number of visitors; but there were still plenty. It would not be empty. We would still see other humans in Land Cruisers.

But did we really have any idea for what we might feel when we stepped off the plane? I landed in Entebbe. Two weeks prior, I had no idea where Entebbe was. Considering myself relatively versant in major cities around the world, I felt ignorant; I had to look at a map to find out that it was a smaller Ugandan city near Kampala, which I had heard of. The setting, I imagined, would be serene. A morning sun in Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria. A quick flight to Nairobi to see my new bride. Gorillas in the mist below. Sashaying scarves waving as I disembark into waiting hands. Instead, the process of moving from Uganda to Kenya was remarkably quick and efficient leaving no room for romanticism. Even the quirky short flight was rather uneventful despite my frequent attempts to mention my waiting wife to the pleasantly smiling steward who must have thought me psychotic or a lonely liar. Our two planes were in synch, landing one after the other. I barely stepped away from my gate before my wife appeared. We were together again, albeit in Kenya, in the capable hands of our "friend of a friend" who whisked us away to a retreat in city center.

We slept, or I slept, while she admired the hotel and figured out where we should wander for food and clothing. She had not realized that it would be so cold. It was Africa but I had also warned her that 10 degrees was de rigueur in the evenings. She did not heed my advice and needed pants. We had Tusker beer and a Kenyan curry with considerable zest. We negotiated hard for filthy pants that required two washes and were still three sizes too big for my slim Asian-figured bride. This was the gentle easing-into that I needed after 30 hours of travelling from Singapore (on the Equator) to Nairobi (on the Equator) via London (nowhere near the Equator). It was a good sleep that we had that night, our first together in Africa.

The first true day of Safari was much heralded. James, our driver, was cunning and relaxed and braved tough roads to get us to where we needed to go, even though it seemed much further than it should. Slow-going, bumpy trails began at the main border town, a feast for its varied activities, none of which seemed shady or disorganized. It took a long two-hour drive from here, while staying on the Kenyan side of the border, to get deep inside the Amboseli Masai Reserve. We came to Tortilis Camp and exhaled audibly. While we couldn’t see Kilimanjaro, we could feel its presence, occupying 90 degrees of the horizon it being so close. We could see that our little hill was enough to create a stir of a breeze and a perch for sunsets and birdviewing. As for animals, they were far enough away and yet, would certainly come close enough at night as to wake you repeatedly from sleep with snorts and pounces. The setting was remarkable and we needed a repose to take it all in. The magnificent penne pesto lunch could be mistaken for one from a trattoria on Campo di Fiori, an unexpected delight complete with fresh pine nuts.

While on the bumpy road, I had questioned whether Tortilis would be worth the effort. As is normally the case with remote places, it was. After settling in at this pretty secluded camp in our luxury tents, we regained our adventurous spirit and resumed our quest on an evening game drive around the park. Undoubtedly, the highlight was driving along a narrow path near a bull elephant who eventually decided we were in his space. He chased us down a footbridge, us in reverse, he in full charge, ears flapping. At one point, he came uncomfortably close to the vehicle until James stepped harder on the gas to give us ample cover. The bull left us alone but trumpeted insistently, annoyed by our trespass. We waited until the coast was relatively clear and sped through as though in a video game with imminent danger avertable with a perfectly-timed advance. Later we saw a veritable elephant walk of about twenty or so adults and a handful of adolescents and babies. We saw a herd of giraffes, three sleeping lions, two sleeping cheetahs, and a nice collection of other prey in a small area at the crossroads of, well, two roads.

The weather still did not afford us any views of Mt. Kilimanjaro but had they done so, we could have imagined the dramatic setting of the sun, the snow-covered peak and a whole slew of animals in the foreground. It would be like our guanaco picture in front of Torres del Paine in Patagonia, only more dramatic. But alas, cameras stayed focused on the near and the mountain reigned veiled. The evening’s meal was almost as scrumptious as lunch and our first night in a tent was dramatic and exciting: all that we had ever hoped for. The next morning, no doubt, we did not want to leave; but the show must go on and the next driver was waiting for us in Tanzania. As a parting gift, we saw the morning clouds give way to leave Mt K in plain view in all its snowy stark glory. It was a rewarding first stop.

Again we experienced the sterile sensation of curt and organized efficiency when we crossed the border. With virtually no delay or fanfare, we were through the formalities not having spoken once to anyone, not having to clarify visa requirements, not even getting a smiley, "Oh, Singapore!" from the border guard. Instead, the official just looked in the book, confirmed Singapore was a "no visa required" country, stamped the visa in my Canadian passport, and let us on our merry way. Unlike some borders where vehicles are not allowed, this one has an open gate policy. Our Tanzanian driver filled up petrol in Kenya, got some water, and introduced himself as Moses. He looked more like Diouf, the Senegalese footballer than Moses, but then again, does anyone really know what the prophet looked like?

Arusha Mount Lodge
We were in the Land Cruiser which would be our home for some time, speeding along a very nicely paved road to Arusha. It seemed so orchestrated, problem-free, and uneventful that it didn’t feel right. I let go of my preconceptions and enjoyed the Masai villages and the often-neglected views that go along with highway driving. In Arusha, at first glance a dirty town with lots of people selling an assortment of things to buy, we got a big wad of cash and some chocolate and chips for the ride. We sped towards the Great Rift Valley. It appeared somewhat domesticated, not wild, not overpopulated either.

The sights opened up at a majestic lake where we headed up a construction-laden road to the Lake Manyara Serena Lodge. This lodge, sitting on its perch over the lake, had a pleasant feel and served us an agreeable Indian lunch. We then rushed down the treacherous hill again to get to the National Park. We saw far fewer animals, probably owing to the lateness of the day. It can also be attributed to the thick trees covering much of the park, home to the rare tree-climbing lion. A few elephants paraded about in the bush. The true highlight was the sight of about a million storks (no exaggeration) lining the water. These storks sat quietly on the lakeside in thick bunches waiting for sunset when they would return to their homes in trees a kilometre away. While we missed this rush hour migration, we were still awed by the sheer numbers.

The show must go on, we said; so we went back to showers, beer, and a hot meal. The next day, we were planning to go to the celebrated Ngorongoro Crater and we wanted an early start.

Ngorongoro Crater Lake
We drove the next morning through mist. At the crater rim, we were denied a preview of its glory by a thick early morning fog. We were told not to worry because the crater floor some 600m below was always sunny and clear. After a seemingly long journey along the rim, we finally made our way to the descent road and to our first vista of the crater. The lake in its center, the green vertiginous slopes, and the extreme concentration of animals made an immediate impression. "This is it!" We were in awe. Three Masai boys turned up and posed for pictures and then we were off, down the rocky road, into one of the world’s largest craters. An ecosystem like no other,
Ngorongoro has the advantage of being a flat, large expanse of land in one of the most plentiful regions of Africa with no escape for animals. The volcano that was blew its top was higher than Kili. After the eruption, the caldera formed the stage for one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles. Here we were on the floor, sitting amidst tens of thousand of zebras and wildebeests grazing quietly. The alkaline lake was refuge to many hundreds of pink flamingos. The sun was beating down hard on everything, only a small forest near the ascent road provided any real shade.

We sauntered off to the lush hippo pool where 42 gigantic hippos waded, frolicked, and splashed in a muddy bath. The network of paths on the floor took us in and across the wide sweep of land in the crater, to the northeast point where we could see few animals but many remains and a few big cats. Here, it felt like the Northeast rim of the Grand Canyon. Less visited, possibly brandishing a more stark and inaccessible beauty. Later that day, we barreled into the forest to see elephants and monkeys and some much needed shade. Owing to the proximity to one of only two ascent roads to exit the crater floor, we left for the day and opted for a quiet afternoon on our perch in the hotel. We slept well.

Six lions. One black rhinoceros. Forty hyenas. Twenty hippos. Thirty more hippos. One eland. Various gazelles. Loads of warthogs. A dozen ostriches. Thousands of zebras. Tens of thousands of wildebeests, including one dead in the jaws of a hyena. It had been a good day for game viewing on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater for us. We had been lucky, opportunistic, and grateful. Sure the sun burnt my arms and put my bride to sleep twice; sure the boxed lunch was unappetizing and the bathrooms a mess; yes we were never allowed outside our vehicles except in two designated spots and our chocolate melted, but, oh, the joy of being in the right place at the right time. The rhino was a very rare sight, even more rare to be seen from only 20 metres. The first three lions were stalking a zebra which they did not mange to kill. This would have capped an incredible first hour on the crater floor, reinforcing the wisdom that says that almost all of what is worth seeing is visible only in the early morning. Still, we spent the whole day on this impressive 18km-wide crater floor, covering every section from the arid and dull to the lush forest and everywhere in between, twice.

When the safari takes a hiatus and the travelling recommences, your attitude adjusts. You’re no longer on a hunt, no longer playing the game. The unexpected nature of what may happen returns. Your choices multiply, without checklisted goals. A perfect example is on our drive away from the crater rim. We could see very little, the fog and rain stayed with us for twenty minutes. Before long, we were in barren country, looking down towards an empty plain void of wildlife, settlement, and any sort of geographical feature except for unremarkable hills in the distance. But this land was home to someone. A couple of Masai boys played dangerously by the roadside and stopped to jump on the spot as Masai dancers do, just as we whizzed by. Their little hamlet was in the distance. They had a dog. Not old enough to be warriors, they were just boys at play. I thought of their dog and wondered who was happier: it, they, or me?

It rolled on, the country, until a seam became visible. It started to open into a brook (dry, of course), and then a gully. We followed it for a while until we came to a non-descript signpost that read Oldupai. We went down the even dustier road to the celebrated site: a veritable relic of our human anthropological beginnings. The famous Olduvai Gorge is the location of many of our great finds of our ancestors. It was originally named after the plant that grows abundantly in the region called Oldupai but the German chronicler misspelled the word in his journal and since then, the world has known this famous gorge as Olduvai, birthplace of man. It is where Mark Leakey in 1959 found the nutcracker man, Australopithecus boisei, a 650cm3-brained bipedal man who proved to be a dead-end offshoot that would not evolve into modern man. It was also the location of the first discovery of a type of homo habilis, the handy man who was known for advanced stone tools. This man has a brain of 900 cm3 although he is considerably smaller than the sturdy nutcracker man. Credit goes to Peter Nzube for this find in 1968. It is possible, although unlikely, that homo habilis evolved into homo erectus, our true ancestors. And later on in history, this same space was also home to homo erectus and of course, early modern man. Indeed at Laeoli, not more than 50km from Olduvai, footprints were found of three of our ancestors, homo erectus, fleeing the scene of an erupting volcano, getting their footprints etched into the warm but quickly congealing volcanic soil, leaving behind a story 1.5 million years old. As amazing as this is, we have little else to go on to prove our ancestry that is more compelling than these 27 metres of footprints. Skills and other tools help fill in the picture but evolutionary science is dependent on this evidence, deep in the birthplace of man, in Africa, that speaks to our emergence as the dominant species on this planet.

The next day, we headed South. Southwards lay an off-the-beaten track tract of land that was often visited in the wet season but was a ghost town as it got dry. There we saw the landscape change again and witnessed enduring vistas of endless plain punctuated only by sparse umbrella acacias. These precise trees look like bonsai in majuscule, their tops appearing cut off, perfectly groomed to grow to a certain height, and no more. They provide shade and umbrage to the plain dweller and a lair to many a leopard. They are fascinating and beautiful and gave our day in the southern Serengeti region of Lake Ndutu a well-earned sophistication. We rambled our way to a forgotten lodge site that seemed to have missed the modernization train. It sported an open dining area, low dwellings, and vast escapes of unencumbered view. Hidden was a measly one-foot high DANGER fence that was meant to keep people out of the wild, and not the wild away from the people. In the chair at the reception there was an uncomplicated view of an ephemeral-looking lake called Ndutu. Once in a while, birds and animals entered our line of sight, but more often than not, they were just a feature of the vista, not its focus. We were squarely in the bush. We were not alone but we felt apart from it all. We felt like we were truly, unmistakably, unpretentiously, in Africa. Most of our fellow lodgers were also akimbo from the regular tourist fare. In fact, at one point, everyone sitting around the conversation piece campfire was a resident, but not a citizen, of Tanzania, save us. Two women running a cheetah education and tagging project regaled us with stories of their disadvantaged furry friends, blessed with speed but less competitive survival instinct compared to the stately lions whom she called "big yellow scum". Another threesome were workers at the development branch of the European Commission. They worked at the consulate in Dar and were holidaymaking in the bush. Another traveller ran a simple lodge in the popular Seronera area of the Serengeti and told us of her Welsh upbringings and spoke highly of the expensive ballooning tour. And then there was us: honeymooners, plain and simple, looking for a quiet place away from the circuit.

We talked about a lot on that one night around the campfire. One of the EC diplomats was a big fan of V.S. Naipaul’s travel writing and engaged me in an intelligent discussion about seeing the underside of the world, about writing plainly, about being a non-observant Muslim travelling in Muslim countries. I spoke to him about my travel writing and even more about the sense of displacement I feel towards every place. He seemed to resonate with my explanation and likened my perspective to an increasing number of travellers he’s encountered who have no real fixed address, for whom the simplest questions on domicile and heritage are not evident.

I posited that we all around the campfire were of the same ilk, somewhere between immigrant, foreign worker, migrant, diplomat, traveller, expat, and refugee. In many ways, we assume different roles as the occasion arises. Like one of my dear friends is fond of saying, I am a nationality surfer, responding to the same question in a myriad of different ways to suit the situation. There is a great deal of truth in this accusation and so long as no one calls me in a tribunal, I’ll continue to exercise my right to be from somewhere I’m from.

The night goes by and the sun promises another day of looking for game, and the safari recommences.
We go to the Seronera and see many animals on kopjis, in the bush, everywhere but where you think they will be.

Then, after a night at the seemingly empty and quiet Serena Seronera Lodge, we travel West towards Grumeti. It’s one of the roughest rides yet, not just because of the road but because of the tse tse flies that are attracted to the dark vehicle. When we stop to watch a proud male lion, we are at ease with the surroundings but then once again the motor starts and we feel out of touch, not interacting with what’s around us, except to scare it. This is when we see the first glimpse of the migration. Tens of thousands of wildebeests running in file towards the plains of the North. Unrelenting. Determined. Thirsty. Driven by nature. Instinctive. Mob-like. Safety in numbers. Coordinated. Synchronized. Intelligent. Perennial. Successful. Eventful. Memorable. Celebrated. Gigantic. Innumerable. Astounding. Tragic. Fleeting. Seasonal. Necessary. So many ways to describe the migration. The only true way to know it is to see it. Or, of course, to participate.

The road winds along a river we’re sure is full of crocs. A mass of a thousand zebras is trying to drink from a lake and are chased away by crocodiles that lurk hidden under the surface. The neighing is loud enough to drown out conversation. It is as colourful a sight as any we’ve seen on this trip, these two-toned beautiful animals standing in bunches, disguising themselves by blurring the delineation as to where one ends and the other begins. The beauty of the Serengeti is in its size and its numbers. I didn’t really believe that bigger is always better but in this case, the more animals you see, the less humans seem relevant. And that is the point of this whole trip, in essence.

Grumeti River Camp is run by a green hotel group called Conversation Company (CC) Africa. We spent two luxurious nights in a great big tent with all the amenities right in the bush. We had hippos and baboons and leopard and hyenas around us all night. We saw a wide variety of game including cheetahs, lions galore, and all kinds of animals all day. We saw a young zebra collapse from a wound it had recently received from a pack of hyenas. We averted our eyes as it lay down and died. We came close to a Disneyesque scene of a pride of lions frolicking, three cubs playing and a more Touchstone scene of two mating like clockwork every eight minutes. We saw birds and beautiful sunsets and moths and insects and other non-traditional safari sights. It was all so much and a fitting end to the safari portion of our voyage.

My wife lost a Scrabble tile, a "A". I got an even darker tan. We slept a lot. We ate well. We decided to fly over the entire Serengeti and the equator and the lake all the way back to Arusha. Instead of driving. It was an easy choice in the end. The flight was circus-like. Our young Northern English pilot took many liberties with our lives to give us sweeping views of the migration, of the flocks of animals, of the Serengeti. We scared the animals, scattering them in all directions, we flew so close. Over the crater, we had to fly much higher and more safely.

There used to be a landing strip on its rim but one too many accidents shut that down. At the Lake, we saw beautifully landscaped and terraced agricultural fields in the environs. It was much more rural, even suburban as we approached Arusha. And then we were there, at Arusha airport, knees wobbly, and ready to relax. The mountain retreat called Arusha Mountain Lodge was a pleasant surprise 10km from town. We rested, strolled in the gardens, and were delighted by the friendliest staff we’d seen yet. We eschewed more game drives and decided instead of a walking tour of town, the town where Moses called home. We saw the side streets, the main street, many mosques, and a few local hangouts including Khan’s, a great Indian barbecue. Moses was married with two twin boys. As a guide, he was okay. As a man and a person to talk to, he was exemplary.
We came to like the place. A lot. Arusha is a town in the foothills of the great Kilimanjaro, said to be exactly halfway between Cape Town and Cairo, sitting almost squarely on the equator. I found myself here, thinking about the place, waiting. I was waiting for my Internet site to load. I was in the Bumati stationery and Internet shop in Arusha, getting my next flight sorted out. I met the proprietor and went to collect the ticket and zoomed off for the airport.

I was on my way to Zanzibar with my new wife, my sleeping beauty perched on my shoulder, hampering my writing. I was hungry but happy, looking forward to a spicy meal in the Arab-influenced city of Stone Town. We had just made our way through two airports due to a change because of fog and were clumsily herded onto a 12-seater with our luggage and were now sitting airborne somewhere over the Tanzanian coastline. The clouds were surprisingly impotent, not introducing much turbulence at all. We could feel the anticipation of rest in everyone on board. It was palpable, the need for repose of the Californian woman who summited Kili just a day earlier. The five Belgian lesbians looked tired of carrying their heavy backpacks and despite trepidation about the plane, were ready to break out in song with their national anthem. The two high-end English and two high-end American tourists were about to be whisked away to their obscenely luxurious destinations upon arrival, separating themselves quite rightly from the riff-raff that was the rest of us. We were again, the honeymooners, holding hands, sleeping on each other’s shoulders, telling private jokes, sharing everything with each other and nothing with everyone else.

We were on our way to a quirky colonial inn in the heart of Stone Town. A charming old luxury hotel which should entice us to see little of Zanzibar and loads of its curious interior. Still, the film festival was on as was the Festival of the Dhow countries replete with music, dance, and general merriment. And hunger set in. Life, in all its complicated details awaited us on the streets of Zanzibar. Before the requisite Spice Tour, before the sandy getaway, we’ll saunter and haggle, imbibe and swallow, affecting the diversity and splendour of this fantasy island. An afternoon like this should be anticipated, savoured, dawdled over, recounted, reminisced, and shared. Ah, travelling!

Stone Town
And then Stone Town hit us. Its curvy streets led us astray. Its view of the ocean brought us comfort. Its smells were less of spices, more a mixture of a million different things including jungle, fruit, spice, sea, filth, fish, sweetness, and mirth. It was really like no place I’d seen with all its dark complexity and visible religion and celebrating people. It was very different from stereotypical Africa and yet very African. It had its own identity, a proud people of Zanzibar and Pemba, a religious people, Muslims since the 9th century. It can be a place of wealth and opportunity but as much it is a place where the Quran is sung out and schoolchildren recite verse like popular music. It has a spirit of undeniable mixtures. It is the quintessential cool island in the Indian Ocean.

We shopped the streets and saw the old Zanzibari doors with heavy chains and elephant-repelling points. We observed each of the classic colonial hotels, marveling most at ours: Emerson & Green. We ate seafood by the beach and drank 7-Up to fight the heat. The Spice Tour was phenomenal. We saw so many spices and had little village boys running along side, stuffing little flowers into handmade vases that we carried. One fashioned a tie he made for my neck and made my wife a few bracelets and necklaces. It was done so generously and happily that we couldn’t help but feel the abundant spirit of this place. It was a bit like Kerala, a bit like Bali, a bit like Lahore too. But it was a place that celebrated the Dhow, East African music, and the bush. We sat through the music festival on two consecutive nights hearing a variety of hymnal music and even a series of boy bands. We ventured to the film festival where the organizers met us with faces of doom. We inquired with the head of the festival who solemnly said that overnight, one of their two projectors was stolen and that they were working on a solution. She invited us to sit in the café adjacent and await further news. Fifteen minutes later, the show was to commence and we watched a great West African film about a man who comes home from Paris to reconnect to his village at the turn of the millennium. Life on Earth is more than just about being from Solo in Mali, it was about being any man, anywhere on this planet. Sweet and uncomplicated, moving and heartbreaking, it moved slowly and left a lot to be filled in. I think my interpretation left me in a more agreeable place than my bored wife’s.

The festival added a sense of excitement to the town and to our nights. It kept us away from the de rigueur shops for long enough. It was something to look at, to participate in, to experience.

Two days on a windswept gorgeous beach alternately covered by bright sun and hard rain were to be the end point of our journey. Matemwe’s history and location were more interesting than the actual resort. That having been said, our bungalow was marvelous and kept us away from other people for long periods of time. Solitary walks on the beach and quiet sunset drinks were a nice way for the many husbands and wives to enjoy each other’s company. The conversation we did have over dinners was lively and relaxed. So many of us had procured a sense of hakuna matata and let it imbue everything we did. Others had yet to learn that lesson and were summarily ignored by us. At the end of two days, we knew it was time to leave and we set off on one last journey on this island four times the size of Singapore, towards the airport. We flew to Nairobi where we waited for some time and then flew off to our respective destinations, me back to New York, and my wife back to Singapore. Our lives could wait. But already, after only hours apart, we couldn’t wait to be back together.

© Zia Zaman September 2003

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