Serengeti safari

27 February 2007

Tourist operators in Arusha, Tanzania’s gateway to its world-famous national parks, rely on two things for clientele: word of mouth, and chasing every Mzunga (white person) down the street stopping until they reach an agreed price or a locked door.

Eventually we settled on Victoria Expeditions for our safari. Word of mouth had given mixed reports – ranging from ‘good’, and ‘the guide knew a thing or two’, to ‘we got held up by bandits and they took everything’. But the price looked right, even if the company director didn’t quite, in his short-sleeve pin stripe suit and Robert Mugabe smile – and just what is it about wringing your hands that makes one look so ominous?

We embarked. Overnight the promise of a ‘yes, good vehicle’ 4WD Land Cruiser had materialised into a rusting mini-van with a broken tape player, and by the fourth day it had transformed yet again, this time into a rusting mini-van with an enormous hole in the windscreen, one less shock absorber and another affixed with a rubber band, and still no tape player.

Though the first stop was listed as Lake Manyara, there were three unscheduled stopovers at tourist curio shops along the way. We bought nothing, but took plenty of photos of curious tourists.

The Lake was superb viewing for wildlife. As far as the eye could see where fields, forests and lakes full of giraffes, zebras and hippos, and if you couldn’t see anything, it would only be because another 4WD had just parked in front of you, and an army of khaki-clad sock-sandalers were clamouring up onto the rooves of their vehicles for the best view and to compare camera lenses.

And then there were the elephants. ‘This one has five legs,’ said our guide, who until then I didn’t realise had a sense of humour. The elephant did have an enormous penis though, which dragged along the ground. ‘Aren’t they fantastic?!’ yelled an elderly tourist to me from across the pop-up hood of her vehicle. ‘Yes, now I know there are so many elephants around, I feel less guilty about my elephant-foot wastepaper basket!’

Hopefully the bad joke got lost in translation or in the distance between our two vans.

The woman pursed her lips.

That night we camped overlooking the lake. A local acrobatic troupe was procured for our enjoyment; rolling, tumbling and jumping, to live African drumming, including a rendition of ‘Guantanamera’. ‘I had no idea this was a Tanzanian song!’ I said to the German guy beside me, who was in the other Victoria Expeditions vehicle.

‘Actually, it’s South American,’ he said, without a hint of irony.

‘Oh, you learn something every day.’

The next day was typically sunny. But the more pressing reason we all wore sunglasses in the van was that the driver had left the handbrake off while we ate breakfast, and it had rolled into the crossbeam of a hut at the campsite, leaving an enormous indent in the windscreen. This was now sending shards of glass backwards throughout the vehicle.

Later, bored, we entertained ourselves by hedging bets how long particular cracks would take to reach the edge of the windscreen. There was no tape player, remember.

Then we arrived at the Ngorogoro Crater – 30kms wide and 600m deep, and bursting with animals, including all the ‘big five’ animals which are most prized by hunters – buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino, of which there was anywhere between 9 and 17 - the number is a small secret due to the constant threat of poaching. Heck, even the eggs at breakfast are boiled.

And no, the giraffe is not part of the big five, though a two-metre long neck would theoretically be hard to mount on a wall.

Lions in the crater showed their skill in adaptation, using safari vehicles as shade to lie in or enjoy a meal. Meanwhile tourists held cameras out of the windows above them like they were no more ferocious than a tabby cat.

Watching them (the tourists, not the lions), I tried to compile my own top five list of favourite apparel. I only made it to three: Khaki fishing vests, 3/4 pants in red or blue, black socks/tan sandals, and any combination thereof.

Day three begins, and I inspect the vehicle. ‘Is the shock absorber fixed?’ I ask the driver.

‘Yes, all fixed,’ he said, pointing out that the twine which held it up yesterday had been replaced with a rubber band.

‘Well, all’s safe and sound by the look of it then.’

We continued towards the Serengeti, which means ‘endless plain’. A more fitting translation would have been ‘endless pain’, which is what our musical van with no shock absorbers was inflicting on us over a 100kms of unmade road.

It was a long, long expanse of straight road through a plain of one million wildebeest, punctuated only with stops for us to marvel at myriad lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and for the driver to marvel at his myriad repairs to the mini-van undercarriage.

‘Do you like your job, Leslie?’ I asked the driver.

‘No, not really.’

It was a tense moment when we drove through ‘Giraffe corridor’, on the road between the Crater and the Serengeti. It was here five travellers had been stopped by AK-47 wielding bandits only days before us, and reportedly they had struck again the prior night. It was the first time bandits had attacked in the area since 1998, when 12 people were killed.

The hunt is still on for the bandits, variously described as rhino poachers (branching out perhaps??), Somali bandits, or even local Masai villagers - for whom asking Mzungus for money seems fairly standard practice, even if doing it at gunpoint isn’t yet.

Four days is plenty of time spent watching ridiculous animals, and I was glad to return to a bed in a guest house. In many ways it was a relief, and it also made me come to a few realisations: Not only does the thought of going spotlighting for possums and koalas in my parents’ backyard now sound extremely boring (ok, sorry dad, mum, it always was), but also, every night at 4.30am when I get up for my regular pee, I never again have to worry about getting mauled by a lion, hyena or elephant. I just need to remember to lift that seat.

More tourist pictures

Zebras on crack