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Around the Northern Circuit.


Game Warden
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PART 1.

 

Safari - Swahili for Journey

Siringit - Maasai for Endless Plains.

 

I met one of my safari companions the day before we set out: he’d been sat up to the table in the guesthouse lounge, a Kili beer in his left hand, half smoked cigarette in right alternating which went into his mouth. He was wearing a khaki waist coat, a dirty Australian army hat with the sides clipped up: sunglasses hanging at chest, almost the requisite uniform of an explorer out here in the wild. Through the windows behind him one more African sunset: so many vivid skies have I seen that now am I blasé and pay it little attention. Grinding out his cigarette he introduced himself - there was a map of East Africa spread out before him and together we examined the likely route we’d take in the morning. He’d already circled Ngorongoro Crater and Oldupai Gorge and was in the process of marking the route north to the Serengeti National Park. Despite my tiredness I was soon involved too: we both kicked back with more beer and excited talks until dinner was served.

 

Brock and I were the last ones to leave the lounge that night. Elisabete had gone back to the bedroom earlier and was not witness to my drunken decline. More Kili beers and calling each other ‘Sir’ and making stupid toasts to the Queen and similar such nonsense. Our rugged week old beards and craggy faces from bright sunshine and hard physical exertion defined us as brothers – we were family of the world and veterans of this endless struggle against mediocrity. Life. It was ours to sculpt.

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PART 2.

 

I walked around with a mug of strong sugared coffee and that was breakfast – the caffeine charge to get me going: I had a mild hangover from the night before and could not face eating anything. Saying hello to our new compatriots and other than Brock I didn’t know their names. They were all just faces and different accents, interesting but thus far anonymous. So we leant against a battered Toyota, him smoking, telling me of his trip: trekking in Rwanda and Kigali’s Genocide Museum. He says all this with a shrug of the shoulders: he had both the look and wearied experience of someone much older than I despite the fact of not being so.

 

What concerned me, as neither Elisabete nor I smoked, was that we’d be enclosed in some hot 4x4 full of those who did making me sick. But my fears were somewhat lessened when it became apparent that three vehicles would be catering for the group. Our driver was to be Ibrahim, he epitomised my ideal of a safari guide: raybans and a khaki short sleeved shirt open by two buttons, tailored shorts in a matching colour and white socks pulled up, heavy walking boots. A typical bush hat pushed forward in a rakish manner. No one was sure which vehicle was for whom so eventually I took the initiative and clambered into the battered looking Toyota against which Brock and I had leant – some tour company’s details on the side which wasn’t ours: it was the smallest of the three, a large portion of the group had been herded into this stretched green 4x4 which was out on the road, Brock and two American girls had climbed into another as they smoked together though I’d kind of hoped Brock would be with us but in his position, being with two single girls was a better proposition than this old married couple which was Elisabete and I. I put my feet up on the seats in front, pushed my hat down and closed my eyes. Elisabete stood outside unsure of what was happening and I fell asleep in the heat.

 

I was keen to get moving and hate sitting doing nothing but we had to wait for two fellow passengers: the other two vans had pulled away and were on the road – there eventually came a Dutch couple who had travelled from Kenya with their guide Rebecca and our driver whom I’d talked with minutes previous. I was annoyed for the delay this caused and when they entered the van I had to work hard to disguise my impatience. Ibrahim shoved in this great cardboard box between our legs, stuffed bottles of water into the seat backs and we were away.

 

It’s always difficult such immediate confinement but before long we were laughing and trading life experiences. As all couples do we swapped stories of how we’d met and their frankness was of no surprise and soon we were laughing out loud. They’d spent time in both the Maasai Mara and Amboseli and were keen to hear of Kilimanjaro which they’d seen from the plains. I told them of our climbing experiences and my knees still hurt from the violent descent.

 

Our first mission was to buy wine and we parked up at a Shop Rite supermarket on the old Moshi Road where armed guards patrolled in the car park. I went in with ‘Dutch’ and to him I became ‘Mad English’ and not once did we use each other’s real names. ‘Mad English’ soon just became ‘Mad’ and it was an apt description which suited me well.

 

Inside, for the first time since our arrival, I felt uncomfortable. The majority of customers within the air conditioned aisles were white tourists like us whilst the only locals worked the tills or stood by as security guards: there was none of the exciting bustle of Arusha’s fruit and vegetable market: this was more Europe than Africa. Limited shelf space was devoted to wine - dusty bottles and some boxes at prices way over my budget. We eventually settled on the cheapest boxed Spanish table red which came in at eight dollars each: back home I’d never had bought it but here was there little option and as much as I hate to drink wine from a carton, the wine snob that I am we came out heavily laden with six boxes between us and forty eight dollars lighter in the wallet. We bought Cokes for the trip and packets of biscuits – we were driving out to the Serengeti and had no real idea how long it would take us.

 

Ibrahim spoke briefly on the C.B as we pulled out of the parking lot but it seemed the others were a long way ahead. So we would just keep on going at our own pace knowing that between our feet were everyone’s lunches and we would have to meet up at some stage during the day.

 

The initial road from Arusha was a long straight slog through the outskirts and light industrial units: the road was a confusion of cars and it is quite unnerving seeing two trucks approach, one overtaking the other and forcing you to either stop or drive onto the pavement where pedestrians hold up their hands in protest. The scenery was only that of what we had seen on our foot excursion the day of our arrival and I closed my eyes for I had never been as tired as I was this morning. Head aching. Lizzy nudges me awake as we pass Arusha aerodrome on the left – different from Kilimanjaro International this was much smaller and from the look of it retained an atmosphere somewhat akin to an airfield in southern England that I knew, Headcorn in Kent, Shoreham in Sussex. Private flying clubs. The Battle of Britain. Tally ho and chocks away. It was from here that Precision Air flights flew to Zanzibar or took more wealthy clients with less time than us straight to the Serengeti National Park. I so much wanted to concentrate on our surroundings at the same time wanting to sleep and I flickered in this semi-conscious state, bumping along the road in the harsh springed Land Cruiser. Dutch was all for opening a wine box but I couldn’t face it, not yet. Hell I was so far gone I didn’t even complain when they started smoking but the smoke was just caught in the slipstream from wide open windows and I barely even smelt it.

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PART 3.

 

At some stage we turned right on this intersection and it was this which woke me for good, banging my head against the window: I wiped the dribble from the corner of my mouth. Ahead of us the freshly laid black top stretched out into Africa and it was at this point when I truly felt we were leaving Arusha behind us.

 

A sign proclaimed the road to have been constructed at the expense of some Japanese corporation and I didn’t care who financed it for it meant that we would reach the interior much quicker. It was just like the red line Brock had marked out on his map yesterday. On each side of the road bloated trunk boabab trees in leaf. Acacia thorns with their flat cap canopies and birds of prey with massive wingspans. Rebecca was pointing things out to us and I looked but could not stay focused on any one thing: there was so much to take in at once.

 

Young Maasai Morans stood by the side of the road and bowed their heads frantically at our passage: they were wearing the black and white ostrich feather head dresses and had painted faces signifying their recent circumcisions. The coming of age which defines them as young men, young warriors and should they flinch as the knife cuts through their foreskin then so they are shamed and humiliated. And in a tribe such as Maasai that will live forever. It seems so natural that I don’t even think to take my camera out and photograph them though it would be a National Geographic type of image for my wall.

 

All experiences on this road flashing past outside; colours sounds. Sensory stimulation.

 

Huge areas of agriculture – I wonder how many years previous was this where lion and elephant roamed: mankind’s demand outstrips nature conservation. We stopped at one point so I could stretch my legs – take pictures have a piss. Once off the tarmac the soil again this rich red ochre colour, dusty dry – sunburnt grass crunches underfoot. And it was that simple, stepping into wildest Africa. This great boabab tree was of interest to me – I approached to take photos through the long undergrowth when Ibrahim shouted ‘Hitari hitari!’ danger, danger for there were poisonous snakes and I was only wearing old trainers on bare feet and shorts. I hadn’t even stopped to consider them. Multicoloured weaver birds flitted from teardrop shaped nests hanging under the branches. When I was a kid I had an old book of my father’s and recall the sketches of these nests and how they were made, the weaver birds themselves and here I was watching them and recalling that book at the same time: it was if I were in two different periods of my life all at once.

 

Across the other side of the road Rebecca was showing us a whistling thorn bush. ‘If you look closely,’ she says pointing, ‘ants live in the swollen thorns.’ and she taps on one, sure enough some small ants flood out from the hole to investigate her intrusion. And it sounds hollow from the tapping of her fingernail. ‘It is called the whistling thorn because of the noise it makes. Listen.’ and she selects an old dry looking thorn and blows hard over it and sure enough comes a gentle whistling sound. ‘Only here.’ she is saying, ‘Ants in acacia.’ and it was one more thing that amazed me on this African road. I was capturing everything on the slide film with a clunk and wind on, clunk and wind on.

 

Land Rovers passed on the road and I’d look up and watch them disappear into the distance. Africa and Land Rovers. There can be no stronger relationship in the world. Every fifteen minutes or thereabouts I’d pull out a bottle and drink deep from it – what had been cold at the start was now warm: I joked with Dutch about eating the packed lunches and I think Ibrahim thought me to be serious for he shouts back ‘No no for later, later.’ in some kind of panic.

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Part 4.

 

Our route was to take us through the Maasai Steppe, this long straight road which until the gate of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was tarmacked all the way. I didn’t stop searching for game off the road but other than herds of Maasai cattle and ribby goats, donkeys braying all we had seen were camels strangely enough: they were not something I’d have expected to see here. Bomas came and went on the road sides, small tin roofed chapels with white painted crosses in the scrub. The sky was this vivid blue and lonesome traveller clouds slowly swept across it. Then far ahead on our left hand side, as the road curved gently towards it, so we could see this vast pink line; a breach wall of rock climbing high above it: this was our first view of the Rift Valley sides and the stretching pink slash was in fact Lake Manyara, the soda lake – the colour was from the lesser flamingos flocking on its surface. From a distance the water appeared to take on their hue as its own. Maasai huts and school buildings were located down tracks from the road each one of them I wanted to walk down and find out who these people were. The odd herdsman would watch us go by, lift his spear to salute our passing. His goats grinding out any vegetation from the arid soil.

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Part 5.

 

It was about this time did we see the first of the Thomson’s Gazelle, Gazella granti with their tan hides and black striped flanks, flashes of white and tails that flicked. Zebras, Equus burchelli stood in pairs far from the road and I am running a commentary for Elisabete like she can’t see what I see too. We come to this township and Ibrahim calls out its name; Mto Wa MBU and Carribean style houses bright vivid colours line the main road: green canopies overhang them and the trees are dense. The heat is so oppressive as we slow – there is no forceful slipstream through the windows and I begin sweating heavily, undo the buttons of my shirt and let it flap open in the breeze. It is the biggest centre of population we have passed through and many safari vehicles are on this tarmac strip. Big lorries hurtle down the wide road and people walk on the verges, make trades in small shacks: I see many white tourists here and it will be somewhere we will stop on the way home. Ibrahim turns up a side street and stops at a small place – this corrugated tin sided shop: he comes out with a bag of old style humbug mints wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag. Local children come up to the window. Elisabete hands them her chocolate and clasps their hands and Ibrahim tells them in Swahili to share. We never see if they do or not.

 

He hands out the mints and their taste takes me back to being a kid and the sweets my grandfather would buy for me on Sunday afternoons. Quickly through the town we pass a turn off to the Lake Manyara National Park which is famous for its tree climbing lions: we are scheduled to drive through it after the Serengeti. And shortly after we reach this gate house area where a large car park is laid out and numerous vehicles are parked: there is some kind of building, a museum but in the research I have done it states that it is somewhat of a disappointment so I persuade Elisabete to stay with me and we talk with Rebecca whilst Dutch and his girlfriend go off for the toilets, to meet with the others and waste their time inside. Inside in Africa seems this contradiction – there is so much to see outside.

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Part 6.

 

Rebecca tells us about her life in Kenya and it is clear her high level of education. A degree in wildlife conservation, I forget exactly the full title and being a Kenyan national she possesses a visa to pass between both countries freely. I would have so much to learn from her, I realise that in the short minutes together and Elisabete is taking to her immediately; you can see by the way the two girls laugh together. One of the amusing annecdotes she tells us regards her parents. It turns out she is twenty seven and is considered an aged spinster for she has not yet married nor had children: this is what her father wants from her and does not understand the need for university education. It is that way with many African families who still expect the daughters to be married as soon as possible. Slowly are things changing she says, slowly – poli poli. This discussion about marriage leads onto the Maasai people: men take multiple brides and believe that to have sex with a young girl keeps them too young in spirit – this is what Rebecca tells us and I know no different thus to interject. The younger bride acts as helper for the prominent wives helping with the babies and building the houses, repairing the acacia fences whilst the men go out and tend the cattle and goats. They are more like servants than lovers. Men of seventy can have wives of fourteen, fifteen: it’s not uncommon and the cultural traditional practice of female genital excision is still widely practised here.

 

A Maasai warrior has the right to enter any boma, meaning single homestead in this sense, place his spear in the ground outside the hut door and the husband will have to find alternate lodgings for the night. It is accepted as their tradition as far as I can make out from what Rebecca says – it is something I will have to research further in future: there is a huge AIDS epedemic in Africa and the Maasai for their sexual promiscuity suffer the most. It used to be syphilis a long time ago so she says but now whole villages die out in time and AIDS is like some curse to them. Many Maasai are now wary of white tourism for in the past men have visited the villages and raped the young Maasai girls for they are taught not to say no. A Maasai girl will never admit to having had forced sex with a white man and should he infect her then because of that one girl, that one white man a whole village will be decimated. The husband will have sex with her and pass it to each of his wives in turn. Perhaps a spear will be planted outside of his door and so it goes on and thus the virus is transmitted unchecked. Babies die without medication and for the Maasai that is just a combination of powerful herbs: I’d seen their dispensary in Arusha outside the hospital gates. Rebecca shakes her head and in this moment I cannot admit my shame at what it is to be a white male. Men and the constant search for sex. Young girls. Girls who will never tell. A spear in the ground. H.I.V in the bloodstream; their blood stream: the outlook for Maasai looks grim. Once the white man came to Africa and stole its soul. Shipped free men to be slaves. Killed. Maimed. Abused. Raped the country of its resources, the diamonds the gold the rubber. Hunted down its wildlife and got rich whilst it stayed poor. Tied it down to vast debts which would take centuries to pay. That is the blood on our hands, the sins of our fathers and now we come steal its oil and rape its girls. We will never change and never can I see the west making apologies for its past crimes. To wipe out those huge crippling debts may go some way but still it is never enough.

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Part 7.

 

This boundary on which we stand, the car park and gate house in front of us marks the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The difference, Rebecca tells us, between Ngorongoro and Serengeti is that within the conservation area the Maasai have the right to live traditionally and graze their livestock although none actually live within the crater itself. The zone north of Manyara was proclaimed as a conservation area in 1959 and later in 1979 the crater itself was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the Serengeti National Park there are no Maasai, no other tribes and thus few conflicts between wildlife conservation and human encroachment. One has to wonder just how much strain the Maasai’s presence places on the lion population for Maasai have no qualms in killing a lion, indeed it is still viewed as a right of passage when becoming a warrior. I ask Rebecca this and she shakes her head. ‘Oh many lion, many simba in the crater. Don’t you worry, you see lions.’ so she assures me. And the Maasai don’t kill or eat wild animals as it is against their belief, just their cows, the goats. It is unlikely they see riches in an ivory horn.

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Part 8.

 

Dutch and his girlfriend return from the museum, they have been but minutes in which we have talked: I have to ask ‘Well?’ and they just raise their eyebrows sigh and that says it all – I really want to say I told you so but can’t be bothered. We stand in the shade of a tree. A lizard with purple skin basks on a rock by my feet and so I take its picture. I fear that I will lose focus, ignoring the small creatures, those I wrongly deem insignificant during these days on the road; this safari – journey: the objectives I have set all relate to the big cats and seeing my first wild rhino. I am afraid that I will just be dismissive of the birdlife, the small mammals. Creatures. Details I will miss and regret later. Because what I really desire is an early morning kill. Lions at a wildebeest clawing its hind quarters – pulling it down, teeth tearing apart flesh. Ibrahim returns with the paperwork – we are now entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We drink some Cokes and then set off once again.

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Part 9.

 

I love the African road. Any road – that feeling of freedom. Just driving: going. In Africa. Past armed officers at the guard house whom I salute – they salute me back and shout ‘Jambo Bwana.’ but it is just words on the wind as we leave them in dust. The road now becomes more ragged, still tarmacked but less well maintained. We curve away to the left up on a ridge that looks down over Lake Manyara and we stop for photos. It is only a little further on when we break for lunch in some restaurant car park: we eat sat up at tables on their patio and I get the feeling from the way our head guide Dennis talks to the owners that this is a regular stop. Dutch finally opens the first box of wine and we swig from it making theatrical appreciative sounds. Brock then retrieves a dented silver hip flask from his pocket and hands it round. Some refuse, some accept. I drink from it – the sharp hit of burning Scotch is just what this afternoon needs, a wine and whiskey lunch. I think some of the others assume us to be alcoholics or something.

 

Mangy cats slink around our feet for handouts. Birds strut along the wall behind me. The noise of a passing car. Hawkers approach us and try to sell us cheap goods, carved animals and necklaces. All kinds of stuff none of which I want but some of our group buy things and show us later. I have not the heart to tell them I think it’s crap.

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Part 10.

 

Winding up the serpentine road our passage scares troops of baboons on the left, wandering aimlessly so it appears to me: more are in the trees overlooking us and I am amazed to see them, shouting for everybody to look. ‘Stop stop!’ so I’m going but Ibrahim just continues up that gradient, ‘Just baboons.’ he goes as if this is some everyday occurrence and for him it may well be. I scan the treeline, the low slung branches but don’t see one lion or leopard in the shade. We pass various armed checkpoints and the guards know our driver by name, jokes pass between them it is the only time he makes a pretence at wearing a seat belt: I have my bare feet up at the open window, shades on through which I see a sepia world go by. Gnarled trunks butt up to the road side thick green canopies of forest, and still we rise through the early afternoon, vivid blue sky and towering clouds overhead. The trees clear and I catch glimpses of fertile land, lush vegetation, plantations and my heart beats quickly every time I think to have seen something move. Dutch calls out, ‘Antelope.’ and we all look, Ibrahim slows but this is nothing he tells us. ‘You see everything, big five. Ya big five.’ and he laughs. He was always laughing.

 

He passes back the bag of humbugs and it was after did the game really begin to appear and I joke about hallucinogenic drugs with Dutch and his girlfriend and they know exactly what I mean. Ibrahim turns round and slows a little: ‘Magic mints - oh you see everything.’ and everybody laughs together.

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Part 11.

 

All three trucks stop together at a vantage point which looks out across the huge collapsed caldera of Ngorongoro Crater, the diameter of which is almost twenty kilometres and the basin floor is approximately twenty six thousand hectares or one hundred square miles. I’d have never realised those figures just by looking but Dennis tells us and it’s his job to know such pertinent facts. He says that the Crater ‘has the largest concentration of wildlife in the world.’ and estimates that twenty odd thousand large mammals inhabit it. ‘Maybe more.’ he says looking over the rim. I’m hopeful of seeing some.

 

A weathered brass placard set in stone records all those whom have given their lives to protect the wildlife of the crater and it makes me sad to see all those who fell to a poachers gun. Behind, some huge stretching vista, devestating eruptions created this landscape eons ago and it is believed this volcano was larger than Kilimanjaro. I get the Nikon out with the 28mm F2.8 wideangle and fire off some shots knowing that whatever I take so will I never do it justice. Approaching the edge it becomes apparent that the boundary between solid surface on which I stand and tree canopies below is poorly defined: there are no fences here. I could just step off and fall.

 

I can see that there is a large lake, Dennis sees me looking and says ‘Lake Magadi.’ but mostly I see grassland and plains, a few small forested areas. Dark dots moving around in herds and these are the antelope, the wildebeest, the zebras. Solitary groups with much fewer animals and I am thinking buffalo and elephant. Dennis says that within the crater itself we will only see bull elephants because with the steep sides females will not venture down into it with their calves. Hence when it comes to mating the bulls have to make the effort and climb up – it doesn’t come easy for them. Someone laughs at his joke. I don’t look round. For the same reason we will not see giraffe – the steep sides make it impossible for them to climb down and he says there are not the acacia thorn trees to support them anyway: no food, no giraffes. Somewhere hidden down there are the lions. Leopards. The rhinos. Even through the binoculars I cannot make out what everything is. And the most visible animal despite its small in proportion numbers is us. The humans. White 4x4s drive on the tracks, great clouds of dust thrown up by their tyres slowly dispersing behind them. I watch three or four hurry in convoy, look further down the direction in which they travel and see some others bunched up. I know what this means. Somewhere close something is happening and I want to be down there watching it too, not here. I’m urgent to start, impatient so I am. But before we move off again Ibrahim dismantles the roof and we help him fold the fiberglass panels back, fix them down. I tell him to wait a moment and then I’m tying my still damp underwear to the roofrack, socks – stuff that wasn’t yet dry from having been washed in the bath yesterday. And then we set out to catch the others up, Dutch and his girlfriend, Elisabete and I standing barefeet on the seats, heads out through the open roof hatches, wind fierce in our faces, sun warm on our skin. We were about to descend into the crater itself.

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Part 12.

 

Once through the gate the track down is rough, rutted and though Ibrahim takes it slow in low gear as would I the Land Cruiser lurches from side to side and we bang ribs against the edges of the roof hatch. I pull the V shaped rim of my hat down between thumb and forefinger and rubbed the sweat from the back of my neck. Got my camera ready; checked through the viewfinder which wasn’t easy with the constant jerking around, rotated the focus and extended the zoom to its full 200mm, having swapped over lenses. Breathed deeply and smelt for the first time that strong fragrance of safari, somewhat similar to the smell of farmyards, but this was dry and hot and not wet and repulsive like the slurry from a diary farm.

 

On our right as the entry track levelled out was a small wooden shack in the shade of a tree and round it a circle of wooden benches. Ibrahim said this was a toilet break if any of us wanted it and he slowed to a stop but none of us went to open the door. I could detect this fear amongst us within the cocoon of steel and glass: it was our protection from the elements, from the wildlife we knew to be outside. Even the thought alone of stepping out made my heart beat faster. We continued on and the first things we saw were guinea fowl which fled together from our approach. But from far across the short stubble grass came the evocative sounds of zebra braying and wildebeest calling warnings to each other. Wildebeest, connochaetes taurinus with their long preoccupied faces and greasy looking manes, black stripes that look to have been painted upon their grey bodies: they make odd travelling companions but together work well, grazing different parts of the same grass from the zebra which have superior eyesight and hearing: act as radar for the wildebeest who possess a strong sense of direction: they’ll need it on the great migration from the Maasai Mara to Serengeti. But here in the Ngorongoro Crater they are permanent residents. There’s so much food they don’t need to travel thus to find it.

 

Ahead, from the roof line of the stretched 4x4 there sprout the heads and shoulders of other group members, all looking in differing directions as keen as I to see something new. Camera lenses and binoculars focused. Dust thrown up from the tyres below them.

 

We are third in line and so am I fed up already with being last for it feels no more than being on a theme park ride and so I push Ibrahim to break from the others no matter he is the driver and so much more experienced than me. I don’t want them in front to see it first, I want to find my own excitement out here, standing atop the bench seat face cooling in the breeze. I’ve sought the wilderness for so long: closely bunched off road vehicles obscuring my view has not figured into the equation. So I smack the roof, the van slows and I point and quickly do we veer left and the other two vehicles proceed on their own whilst we branch away from them.

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Part 13.

 

Alone on a track little more than two lines of tyre marks through the grass: this wide vista until the breach walls surrounding us. Flies come towards us but I just swat them away – you hear the buzz of their wings such is their size. I point: ‘There!’ and some vehicles are stationary but they are not ours. I scan the horizon right but just make out dust trails in the distance. That is them. Ibrahim rolls slowly up to the group and I touch my hat rim in greeting to those others who stand like us. I can see nothing and thus we edge even closer and then in the long grass is a lion pride, one female and three cubs: judging from TV documentaries I’d put them to be around six months old but then I have little experience in these matters and could be totally wrong. They lie in the shade of a culvert which tunnels under the road beneath us, lazy tails flick at flies that seek to bite them. Perhaps five metres back we’d not seen them and now we did and that is how lions are such successful hunters for their camouflage is superb. Occasionally there comes a cry from one of the cubs and he’ll open his mouth, look round, pant and flop down again. From behind the engine block of the nearest vehicle, the head of a large adult, who I assume to be the Alpha male for his mane is dense and bushy, black almost and his head is large, powerful jaws and with one paw he rubs at his eyes – there is scarring on his face, deep welts were the fur grows less, descriptions of past combats fought and won.

 

Ibrahim talks on the C.B, something in Swahili, urging the others to come here and so on for it’s this kind of communication which allows you to see everything. The big male suddenly rises up, stretches and makes this rumbling groan noise from his throat and so close the depth of the bass reminds me of a tenor saxophone, sitting front row at an intimate jazz concert when the musician really blows. The Sonny Rollins kind of sound on old Blue Note recordings. I watch this male walk towards us and will never forget looking at my wife’s expression for it was a combination of fear and excitement, wonderment and one has to have been on safari to appreciate what I mean for never will you experience the same emotions watching animals in a zoo. He pads over to the side of our vehicle and I dip down into the cabin, slide back the window as he slumps down into the shade beside me. If I were to stretch out my hand I could stroke his mane for he is that close and his behaviour mimics that of our two cats. Elisabete grasps my shoulder and I feel her breath on my neck. I take his photograph zooming in close to his eyes just before they are closed to the sun and suddenly his whole body relaxes and he leans his head to the floor and sighs loudly. Elisabete grabs my hand and so we are together with this big old male lion only a metre or so from us. He is that close I don’t need to use the Nikon with its zoom, just the digital compact and it gives me a chance at least to be assured good images. As we regard him in awe it becomes clear the vehicle is just one more part of the landscape, just one more object which offers him shade in this baking afternoon.

 

‘Simba.’ Ibrahim’s going, nodding, ‘Ya, big simba.’ and laughs. None of us in the back move: I can hear each breath he takes, see the nostrils twitch and the rise and fall of his chest. Those combat scars. The muscles in his forelegs, ribs which become prominent when he exhales. His full stomach for he is well fed. The big old Alpha male. Panthera leo.

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Part 14.

 

In time we decide to move on from this area, it may come as a surprise but in fact watching a lion sleeping can become a little tedious and we were willing him to move and roar or something but still he just used us as a protection from the sun. I’d taken enough photographs to cover him from most angles which we reviewed on the L.C.D screen before Ibrahim edged the Land Cruiser away: the lion barely stirred. I waved to those in our other vehicles who had turned up long after we had arrived and slowly did we drive from the collection of vehicles and once again we were free and onwards. We’d not been here more than half an hour and already did we have this lion pride to talk of – it filled me with expectation for the rest of the day.

 

Heat rose from the parched plains and game was stationary. In time we passed close to a muddy pool and watched a small pod of hippos wallowing. Hippopotamus amphibious. Rebecca tells us this is the Mandusi swamp and I can imagine the terrain in the wet season. Close by a pack of spotted hyenas, Crocuta crocuta squabbled over a large skull and ownership of this ragged white thing changed in seconds. It looked to be that of a juvenile buffalo, there was the crash helmet of horn but I didn’t really know. It was old, any flesh remnants long since stripped: I watched them through the binoculars, one would prowl up to it dragging his belly almost upon the floor in that diagonal sloping stance which they have. Their cries pierce the calm afternoon. Large birds perhaps vultures, (I couldn’t discern details – they were but silhouettes against the sun) circled overhead riding the thermals in dizzying spirals. The C.B crackled with the constant exchange of guides and drivers, deep and gruff and laughter – private jokes between them all. That’s how it sounded to me.

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Part 15.

 

Ibrahim had the permits under a Coke can on the dash board – we hit a pothole and it rolled off hitting Rebecca on the knees and suddenly the paperwork blew through open window and out into the grass. Thomson’s gazelle looked up from eating, flicked their tails, alert: a zebra skittered away. I opened the door without thinking and was gone, Ibrahim shouting for me to come back, Rebecca ‘No Matthew.’ from her window and Elisabete shuts the door quickly but is frantically gesturing for me to return. Everything is in slow motion, the papers caught on the wind flit further away from me and each of my steps are mechanical: but then I have the paperwork in my hand and I stop. The sun is fierce focused into the bowl of this old volcano. The breeze carries the scent of wildlife; of dry soil and dust whipped up by the Toyota’s wheels. Over my head an eagle cirles and I look up for suddenly am I in shadow. I am alone nothing exists bar this precise second. One breath. Two breaths. Long exhalation. Calm. I feel so damn calm. I feel this link to the earth like I have never felt before. Here could I be that hunter gatherer. Here am I my own ancestor of ten thousand years ago: I am free. Regressed. And then they call again and I hear them this time: I have no fear of anything – out here in the crater no hitari exists for me and I am struck by this sudden desire just to walk off and renounce a modern human existence. Guinea fowl, their small rotund black bodies speckled with white: they watch me and the moment I move so they break together running for the longer grass.

 

Before I get back in I watch another vehicle descending the entry road, that switchback drop which we had made earlier. Ibrahim admonishes me but I don’t care – I was at greater risk slipping in frozen piss and diarrhoea in the long drop toilet at Karanga Valley on Kilimanjaro. In fact this is not the first time that I have stepped into the bush. Exposed myself to uncertainty and the wild. In Kruger Park the only safe points to exit the vehicle, once away from the camps and picnic sites are on the bridges and I recall crossing the Limpopo River on these modern concrete spans: along its length but more concentrated so in the centre, piles of human excrement, swathes of crusted toilet paper. Stains of long dried urine. There’s some kind of reassurance crouched with extended fields of visibility up and down the road. There is nowhere on a bridge for a lion to hide. And I’d walked to the foundation rock of the park itself in the Skukuza region: a sign makes it clear you exit the vehicle at your own risk. I’d left my uncle close to the boulders on which the plaque is fixed commemorating the proclamation of the Sabie Game reserve in 1898, stepped down from his combi, scuffed my feet through the dry grass and looked at the dusty road on which we’d driven, disappearing into the hills. Paced to the large pebble shaped rock balancing atop the others. Read the words and took a photo, returning with my uncle urging me on. Since I have seen photographs of lions on the very spot on which I stood. And even then did I not feel fear. I am this great believer in fate, kismet. At some stage will I die but deep inside I somehow knew it was not here. Not in this Africa. Ngorongoro. Today.

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Part 16.

 

It has been twelve years since Kruger Park and I feel regressed to the state of a self concious and nervous virgin: my sense of anticipation is intense and so can I barely control my enthusiasm. Every tree hides something new and every stubby branch which hangs down at an awkward angle could be the shadowed leg of some leopard who lounges in the shade. Each tan hummock protruding the grass is the back of a lion who lays on the ground. I scan intently for any sign of movement; a sudden burst of intense energy lightening strike and take down teeth penetrate delicate neck and the clamping jaws suffocate the prey. A kill.

 

Despite the thrill of Ngorongoro, the scenery, the heat and zebra which scatter at our approach, their rising falling bray – eh ah eh ah eha so they go I want to be that voyeur of death: I think somewhere deep inside us all is that urge for blood. Out here in the plains can one indulge in the most ancient of instincts – survival. Fight. Flight. No matter numerous documentaries I’m still not completely numb to killing: I’ve flinched as some new born is taken down bleating for its mother in a frenzy of lion’s teeth and claws. The feeling of hopelessness, the inability to assist: hoping the cameraman or narrator will step in. They never do. It’s nature’s rules of engagment. Interference could lead to any kind of alternative destiny. Whole prides could die. One young impala. Every child cries at such scenes and parents explain but still will they cry the next time. Children never understand death. Hope is always with the prey. Kill. Lions at the kill. That is what I desire and I bluntly admit this fact to my wife – Dutch and his girlfriend for a thousand zebra and wildebeest can only stimulate me so much.

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Part 17.

 

Out there, shimmering air above the grass; translucent reflections from a mirage that is just the heat and its visual tricks. I’ve unbuttoned my shirt totally and it flaps wide in the breeze. There is little movement and the sun is focused on us: when I was a kid I used to sit cross legged on the garden path burning holes in old dried leaves with the sun intensified through a magnifying glass. Now am I that old dried leaf and the smell of that small plume of smoke into my nostrils is so strong and yet all it is some memory of my past. Sweat from my armpits, soaked into my shirt.

 

Ibrahim drives up close to the edge of Lake Magadi which is the large body of water I had observed from the lookout point high on the rim. It is an expanse of water on which flamingos flock together and close up can you discern their pink bodies. From a distance, like Manyara it is just a pink slash of water. It is a gentle muddy approach to the water’s edge and the air feels slightly cooler, once or twice do I feel the tyres lose grip and the Land Cruiser slides a little but our driver is experienced and maintains control. This is the perfect way to spend time for the breeze across the lake cools us and Ibrahim opens his door. I get out briefly to stretch my legs, at least that is what I say but it is just an excuse to stand out here: be surrounded. Be in Africa.

 

We drink from the bottles and hand round the biscuits. Dutch and I slurp wine from the box. Talk some and laugh and there is no point wishing to move on for nothing exciting is happening nothing is moving, at least that we've seen. In the heat on safari it is good to rest for a while. Even those old bull elephants on the plains are stationary: big old tusks almost resting upon the floor, great leathery ears flapping. Though solitary they are grouped in approximation to each other but not too close. Loxodonta Africana.

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Part 18.

 

At four fifty do I see my first wild rhino, I've checked against the watch Dutch wears for this is a moment I so wish to record in my life. The Black Rhinoceros – Diceros bicornis. Out there to our right, distant across the grass: there is no way we can get closer than we are. I'm frantically slapping the roof even after we stop such is my excitement. I fumble with the Nikon and all the time am I saying 'Elisabete look, look!' over again. There is a cow with two calves following her much smaller than she, at least so it appears from here and slowly do they amble across my vision. I zoom out to the maximum focal distance and even then are they miniscule in my viewfinder but I take one shot anyway before putting the camera down. The female, at least which I take to be has a great front horn and even her second is large and it is this which has led them to be hunted to near extinction. I hope no one sees my tears: it is sadness it is joy all manner of emotions that have been inside me since summiting the mountain. Here I expell them and each tear rolls down my cheeks gathering the dust which is smeared onto my skin. Disperses into my week old beard. I take my hat off wipe across my forehead with back of my hand and it glides through the sweat. Roughly rubbing at my face, both palms and those tears are disguised. Stubble makes a rasping noise under my hands. I sigh and then breathe in deep. How I wish to stay and just watch these three rhino wandering into the distance but time dictates our schedule and there is still some way to go before we leave. There are still things to see but already I feel somehow complete – at that moment did I feel some kind of hope for the future and it was the delicate tear upon my cheek and it is my emotion alone. Kruger Park in 93. Rhinos. Missing from the big five – I never saw one: it has taken me twelve years: now that five is complete. I don't think anyone would have understood had I tried to explain what it meant to me.

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Part 19.

 

As the day concludes do we pass once again the soda lake where we had parked and watched the birdlife for half an hour. Slowly edge through Lerai Forest close to the breach walls where a twisting track climbs up the side. We’d passed more elephants and motionless lions whom we could barely see for they were in long grass way back from the road. It was only Ibrahim’s attention which discovered them – he was proving to be as an efficient a guide as he was driver. I take extra care to look into the trees but fail to spot a single leopard and with more time could we have stopped, turned off the engine and scanned the branches but Ibrahim was worried and this promising location was merely a momentary diversion on the way to camp for us.

 

As we climb out on the steep rutted roadway lurching from side to side and banging around in the roof hatch holes I look back into the crater and wish we could stay. I have read it to be some kind of Eden and now I understand how the comparison came to be made. Only two other vehicles are behind us, neither from our party: I’ve pushed Ibrahim as long as I can and we’ll just get out before the barriers are lowered, the park closed and we’d pay a fine to exit. No matter whether we stay or go the story of African plains life continues – of life and death: one day will it all be gone for the greed of man is unabated. I feel privileged to have been a part of it and I am sad for in the mid sixties were there perhaps one hundred black rhinos at Ngorongoro; now it is estimated there are less than fifteen and they are constantly monitored from what I’ve read. I saw three and perhaps the two calves increase the tally. Three out of fifteen – that’s how many I saw.

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Part 20.

 

The entry and exit roads are different, have to be: narrow and without passing places, so steep and only off road vehicles like ours are permitted to descend into the basin; we come back on ourselves, rising up onto the rim of the crater – everything happens below us in the dusk. We pass by a small police post where once more armed officers salute our passage. A luxurious lodge overhangs the sudden drop, its spired roofs poke up from the trees. ‘Almost there.’ Ibrahim is going and I don’t care how long it takes for I am still sat on the Toyota’s roof my legs dangling inside and arms taught, hands gripping the roof bars supporting me over every potholed bump. ‘Hey Ibrahim.’ I shout down into the cab ‘Are we likely to see any wildlife close to camp?’ and after a second’s pause he shouts back ‘Lots of temba.’ and at that moment, as we come round a bend a small herd of them crashes through the bushes to our left. And where it had been only I who was up and not sitting now is it everyone amazed at the site of these six great creatures matching our pace. ‘Yes elephants.’ so he is going and laughing out loud. ‘Magic mints, trust Ibrahim.’ and we all laugh in the sunset.

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Part 21.

 

Simba Public Campsite is situated high above the crater on the rim, you turn right from the main road, and go down a small track: it’s where we saw the elephants. The vehicles parked at the top end and the tents were situated further down the slope within the thick grass. I was glad to see they were much bigger than those on the mountain and there was space to really stretch out: they really were remiscent of old safari days, stained green canvas outersheets. Mosquito netting. Lines stretching out and staked to the ground. Immediately to our right this huge strangler fig tree with a great canopy: we take the closest tent to it and Dutch and Miriam that next to us. On the left was the cook house and communal dining area protected with heavy duty caging. Once inside it gave an impression of being confined, imprisoned but would go some way to keeping the wildlife out. Toilet facilities were approximately two hundred metres from the food area, doors facing down towards the crater itself. There was no distinction between male or female, you just waited your turn. Breathed deeply before going in – held it in till your exit. Tried not to slip on the disgusting tiles, placed feet each side of the porcelain bowl sunk into the floor. Two others were up by the cook house on the opposite side.

 

Dennis explained the rules and we didn’t need to be told the dangers: this was as wild as it gets – the elephants were evidence enough. Two armed wardens patrol the boundaries, we’d seen them when walking from the Toyota and still was I shocked to see rifles so close to wild animals.

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Part 22.

 

It was important in the sunset to finish my first day on safari with the wine: Dutch and I pulled the tabs and together with Elisabete and Miriam we drank, passing the boxes between us. We’d almost finished one during the day. The heat slowly fading: the sky turning orange around us high on this cliff face as we were; the smell of the game occasionally blown our way on the breeze, the distant bray of a zebra. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much as we did in the fading light. Anything that Dutch said became a joke – it was the way he was. Safari at times can be too serious – it needs humour thus to break up our concentration: the single pointed focus out over the grass. Everyone needs to laugh occasionally. Wine has a great habit of bonding people together, the communal well from which we drink and I was not afraid of sharing – it seemed the right thing to do: it was my vision of Africa. My safari. Brock came across and I chucked an unopened box to him: he’d given me a few dollars. ‘Cheers old boy!’ he said tipping it back and we clunked the boxes which made a kind of shucking noise and swallowed warmed wine from a day in the Land Cruiser. Standing around in the grass watching weaver birds flitting in and out of the crater trees.

 

Then comes the shouting and Rebecca runs over and pulls us all to the dining area – ‘Look look!’ she’s going and a group are gathered at the vehicles. It’s easy to see why. A large bull elephant with long thick tusks is standing at the verge of the forest. I’m swigging on the wine box then handing it round once again. My wife in this amazing dream world her face so beautiful in the half light – the elephant begins walking towards us and there are exclamations of fear and amazement: the armed wardens stand between us and him and Dennis warns about flash photography: harsh bursts of light have already annoyed him: his stance indicates this, the swinging of his head and trunk which flopped around. These great tusks spearing the night and drawing each millisecond of my attention. He starts heading for the cook house and I’m pushing Elisabete as close as I dare whilst all the time maintaining the engine block of a 4x4 between us and him. The wardens keep us back: we are safe - they make us so. I can feel her pulling away more nervous than I. And this is everything that safari should represent: never in a zoo would such an intimate experience occur. I feel that there’s some kind of bond between us: we are in his house now. In the scrub from where he’s come another elephant waits less confident than the first. And behind it, ‘Look, Elisabete look!’ I’m going, somewhat frantic and she’s looking, seeing nothing then something then nothing again so we move and then again this head sticks up from the long grass: a spotted hyena – that definitive snub face, the rounded ears sticking up slick black nose and scruffy fur. Up, down, camouflaged and I only caught it from the brief movement. Up again: left right left goes his head, sharp alert but wary: he watches us from the cover of the second elephant’s backside. It’s too dark for a photograph, at least with the Nikon and to run and get the digital now will be to miss the moment anyway: all that would come out would be a blur in my haste to return. Record it within the grooves of my mind. Retrieve it later with my fingers upon the keyboard in frantic bursts of coffee fuelled writing. Sharp recall. Never forget.

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Part 23.

 

The elephant continues on to the concrete water tower taking great strides: no one moves away or returns to their tents – I think all are as stunned as I. The two American girls from our group who have been in the toilets choose this moment to exit and simultaneously open the doors almost straight onto his legs. Some people shout to stay there. Panicked. Urgent. A warden asks for quiet and the girls scream in surprise, immediately slamming themselves in hoping the flimsy wooden walls will offer them some protection. He lifts his trunk high and puts it into the top of the concrete tower, pulls out water, into his mouth as elephants do when they drink. The other warden shines his torch into the elephant’s face and I see the beam highlight his eye and it looks for a moment like he is crying: the shame and indignity of having to rely on us: his greatest threat. So many of them shot and butchered, left to rot as carion in the sun, huge round scars where those great tusks have been hacked out of their faces and for what? The brief monetary gain that ivory brings and what will happen when they are all gone? What will the poachers shoot then? The rhino are all but a memory. Body guards. Radio tracking collars. The last ones in existence. Eventually he decides that he’s had his fill and lopes off into the trees, the sound of crashing branches and trampled bushes disappears as he does too.

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Part 24.

 

At dinner the twelve of us sit on this long wooden table and so it appears that we are the largest group being catered for. Smaller parties sit in conversation and it is interesting to compare the levels of care. We are sat on folding metal framed chairs, canvas slings stained, have a red and white checked tablecloth spread before us: plates of bread, tubs of butter, flasks of boiling hot water drawn from the elephant’s drinking place no doubt. Hot chocolate powder. Our boxes of wine. Mineral water. Popcorn warm. And Elias brings round the plates and all of a sudden our guides turn into waiters but our van, the magic bus demand Rebecca sit beside us so she does and leaves the work to the men. It seems she is as much on holiday as we are.

 

Round this great table so the process begins of getting to know each other. It had taken days to mesh as a climbing unit and now would we have to repeat the same undertaking here. It was my intention to not give everything about me away as was my want – I had done that the first week and really couldn’t be bothered again. But I was glad to be making new acquaintances for on the mountain we had been witness to the best and worst of each other. At altitude the smallest grievances transform into the largest chasms and it is not unusual for words to become heated. It had happened to us. I wish it hadn’t.

 

Our group now comprised of a Canadian, five Americans, a Chilean, a New Zealander, the two Dutch and us. If we included Rebecca as well then a Kenyan too but we were paying whilst she was being paid. Oh to be a safari guide. There were so many stories from around the world and we were comprised of differing age groups so experiences were completely removed from each other. I could listen to everybody forever and have this warm glow from the wine traversing the greater interior map of blood vessels inside of me. My brain. I just want to sit and smile: listen for sometimes I have no words to say. No means of describing my feelings at this exact moment.

 

The sound of mosquitoes buzzing, large moths circle the oil lanterns: they bump against them. Bats flit from the trees and in the distance are the noises of nature in the middle of Africa. That sound of falling trees and broken branches somewhere near: those elephants pass us by.

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Part 25.

 

Sat on my right is Don, an ageing grey haired San Franciscan. From the way he talks it’s easy to appreciate his outlook on life – he is still excited about everything and loves to experience new scenes. It’s his first time in Africa, first time on safari. We soon get talking about the sixties West Coast scene, of Haight Ashbury and the Grateful Dead; Jefferson Airplane and he’s seen them both in concert. It transpires that he and his wife, to whom he introduces me, were at Woodstock together and we end up talking long into the night of the Acid Tests, Jerry Garcia, the Merry Pranksters and so on. Vietnam and avoiding the draft. And it’s what I love about travelling in groups composed of different nationalities: everyone’s stories are so much more interesting than mine and so we drink the wine and laugh out loud and talk of what a day it has been thus far.

 

We sat opposite Brock at dinner and he was quite focused on his two travelling companions from the jeep, I was getting to know faces and names, people were getting to know me: barriers were breaking down. It was clear from the outset that Brock and I thought alike and I’d seen that the night before as we got drunk together in the guesthouse lounge. Tonight it was the Shop Rite boxed Spanish wine for eight dollars. Bought this morning and that seems so long ago already. We have driven to the edge of the Serengeti and I sit on the border of one of the world’s most incredible places. And already I’ve seen so many fantastic sights on this journey, this safari – slept a little in the heat, been woken to see Maasai Moran with their ostrich feather head-dresses, saluting armed police officers on check points as we passed them by. Herds of antelope and zebra – wildebeest. Those lions. Solitary elephants in the shimmering haze of an African afternoon. My rhino – what I’ve always wanted to see but never have until this afternoon. You have to appreciate that time in Africa is some unreal entity for it stretches forever and is filled with the most incredible experiences. Life can never be the same again; you only have to ask someone like me. Brock has this deep laugh and gravelly voice as if there is a cheese grater between his larynx and lips, sandpapered words: constantly smoking, drinking like me but his manners are those of a true gentleman. There is no bullshit with him: I know it. And with him as a companion, this week will definitely be amusing. Him and Dutch and Don and everyone. I could not have imagined a better group.

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