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Hi Everyone,

 We’re here in Malawi and it’s amazing. Endless rolling hills framing the famous lake. Wonderful people. We’ve been sleeping in caves (seriously), trekking in Nyika National Park and staying in little villages where the only other white folks they see in a given year is the local peace corp volunteer. Tomorrow we start a four day canoe trip up the remote northwest shore of the lake. No cars, no electricity, no banks.

 Hope I’ve got enough money.

 Only one problem – sat phone e-mail is down. We’re working on it, but if you’ve ever tried to “work on something” in Malawi, you’ll know that that poses serious problems.

 That means I’ll owe you a serious update when we get back.

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“It’s like they dragged the cow behind the train for a few hours.”

– Paul from New Zealand

Train travel has always appealed to me. I have this idea of chugging down the rails a la White Christmas, singing carols with Janine and Bing Crosby while sipping malts in the dining car.

So when we were looking at how to get across Tanzania to reach the Malawi border, I voted to go by train. Tazara rail’s express coach to Zambia would get us to Mbeya, within a few hours of the Malawi border.

It would take longer than the bus. But it would be cheaper and would have the added romance of an overnight stay in a first class sleeper car. Charming!

Suffice it to say, that Tazara did not live up to my White Christmas expectations. White Christmas was probably a new release when the ancient train was last cleaned and Danny Kaye would have fainted if forced to use the squat toilet facility. The dining car served oil-soggied french fries and a “t-bone” steak that, even with an hour and half’s preparation time, was beyond the ability of the two starving New Zealanders who’d ordered it to swallow.

“Can’t be beef,” one of them said incredulously, chucking it out the window. “I know what beef tastes like. I even know what bad beef tastes like.”

“It’s like they dragged the cow behind the train for a few hours,” said the other Kiwi, taking a break from his gnawing .

“Nawp,” said his friend thoughtfully. “It’d be tender enough to chew in that case.”

For my money though, the biggest problem with Tazara was the roaches. On this trip I have come to accept lizards on my walls, millipedes in my hut and even frogs in my toilet. But I can’t get used to roaches. They just give me the heebie jeebies. And on the Tazara coach they were everywhere. Crawling out of the first class lounge furniture, scurrying along the walls of the sleeping compartments; little ones, medium sizers. I figured the man-eaters were reserved for the third class passengers.

I tried to block them out, I really did. But everytime I saw one scurry out of sight I had an uncontrollable urge to jump up and shake my whole body vigorously while simultaneously shouting “nyahaahaa!”

That gets embarassing pretty fast.

I avoided bed as long as I could. Tazara separates boys from girls in its four person first class sleeper compartment (second class is 6 to a compartment; third class passengers are stacked one on top of the other like firewood). My room mates included a very nice Tanzanian with a very bad body odour problem and a Korean who couldn’t stand leaving our cubicle’s window open or the fan on. The linens on the bed must have come free with the train. When I finally curled up on my bunk, nose shoved into my shirt, carefully curled up to avoid contact with the walls (roach territory), I prayed for an early sunrise or for the train to hit one of the numerous bevels in the track hard enough to throw me against the ceiling and into a coma.

I’m pretty sure, somewhere, Bing Crosby was laughing his ass off.

***

Nestled into high green hills, coffee plantations and sunflower farms, Mbeya was just what we needed after our railroad odyssey. Teaming up with three girls from Denmark and Holland, we hired a guide to take us up Loleza Mountain which offered a scenic panoram of both the city and the surrounding rolling countryside.

It was Easter Sunday and passing Mbeyans wished happy “Paskana” as they strolled to and from Church in their formal best. The rain the night before had been fierce. But it had had the pleasant effect of scouring the city and releasing a hundred pleasant smells from the green forest surrounding our trail. Fragrant eucalyptus, wild herbs and innumerable small flowering plants were showing off their talents as we climbed.

After three and a half hours, we reached the top. Below us, to one side of the mountain Mbeya spread out prettily in a series of well-ordered neighborhoods set amongst greenery and farms. To the other, The hills rolled taller and wilder, untouched by human hands, all the way to the highlands of Malawi.

It was the perfect way to end our stay in Tanzania. We’d spent exactly two months in this country and had come to love it its people and its diverse landscapes. We’d climbed its highest mountain, tramped through its rainforests, gone ten days without wearing shoes on its beaches, consulted a medicine woman, been charged by elephants, guided by Maasai and watched in awe as a volcano shook the earth. We’d been befriended by locals, foreigners, dogs, cats, a couple of lusty birds and the odd amphibian. We’d fallen in love with a new corner of the world.

Malawi would have a tough act to follow.

Jason

“I’ll tell you what sucks. Having to throw up, but not being able to leave your hut cause there’s a lion outside. That sucks.”

– Janine

Park fees within Tanzania’s famous northern safari circuit (Serengeti, Ngorongoro, etc) are atrocious.

To visit Ngorongoro Crater for example, each person pays a $50/day entry fee for a 24 hour stay. However, to actually descend into the Crater itself, where all the animals are, there’s an additional “crater fee” of $100 per vehicle for EACH time you go down. You can’t camp within the crater itself. So this means that for two folks to do the normal 2 crater drives over a 24 hour period, you’re looking at park fees alone of $300. Add on to this camping fees of $30/person/day and the cost of your safari vehicle rental, guides and food and there’s a reason that you won’t be reading too many posts on this blog about game drives.

In the south of the country, however, it’s a much better scenario for your pocket book. Park fees are about half those in the north. The parks are far less visited (it’s not uncommon to see 10 jeeps observing a single lion in Ngorongoro). The animals are plentiful and not habituated to humans.

So after our interesting mini-bus ride to Iringa, we were excited to make arrangements for a 2 day game drive in Ruaha National Park. It was still an expensive treat, but just as we were reconciling ourselves to wincing and handing over the money, we got doubly lucky.

Lucky first because we met two fellow travellers with whom we could split the cost of the trip. And then lucky again because they were awesome. Or, to use our new favourite term, totally badical.

Mike and Else are a warm and energetic young Dutch couple. When we met them they had just finished a volunteer internship in the northwest Tanzanian town of Bukopa and were now doing a little tourism before heading back home to resume university studies. Else has the face of an angel and the personality to match (although she cheats viciously at boardgames). Mike is extroverted and completely openhearted in all his interactions with local people. I admired his facility with Swahili and his genuineness with everyone from shy kids to a teenager whose bike chain he stopped to help repair while we were on our way to lunch. But we really started to click when we discovered that we shared a mutual love of the same 80’s action television shows and a belief that it was time for the word “badical” to enter the popular lexicon.

What can I say? We made friends.

***

The drive to Ruaha Park from Iringa is one of the roughest we made in all of our African travels. The pitted red track was surprisingly bad given Ruaha’s reputation as a top-notch park and tourist draw. We braced against any available surface of our jeep’s interior with arms, legs and backs to keep from getting thrown around too badly.It didn’t work.

Rubbing my head fiercely after bashing it three successive times against the roof, I asked our guide, David, how the only land route into the park could be so badly maintained.

David smiled and shook his head sadly. “The government paid a contractor to level and grade the entire road last year,” he said. “He did a few hundred meters and then disappeared with all of the money.” Anthony, our driver, mutters something undoubtedly profane in Swahili as he swerves to avoid a shallow-grave-sized pothole.

We reach the park by lunch time. David does the final paper work on our permits while the rest of us stand outside the jeep and watch hippos emerge from the Great Ruaha river, their massive backs bobbing to the surface of the brown waters like fleshy submarines.

I have to admit that I’m a classicist when it comes to favourite animals. I know that for many people, it’s the rarities that are the most treasured sitings. But, as we make our way into the park, I’m most excited by the simultaneously gangly and elegant giraffes, the half-dozen lionesses and their two cubs lounging on a sandbank by the river, the zebras and their young; swishing their tales in perfect unison and with metronomic regularity.

And of course, there’s the elephants.

It’s the small rains season in Ruaha, so the land is green and the trees leafy. For a number of animals like leopards and lions, this makes for less than optimal viewing conditions. But nothing can hide Ruaha’s elephants. They march in slow state amongst the acacia and baobob trees.

They are often in groups of half a dozen or more. New, shrivelled looking little calves walk almost underneath the bellies of their giant mothers. At other times, a lone bull grazes noisily, effortlessly ripping great tufts of tall grass from the earth.

Ruaha is a relatively new park and its elephants still have strong memories of the days when man was a hunter, not a photographer. This doesn’t make them the friendliest of animals. Anthony keeps the car idling as we snap pictures.

We are observing one group of females with their calves when a young male bursts into the clearing, ears flared, trunk raised and blaring.

He’s not full grown, but he could easily pulverize our vehicle. He trumpets again, spins around in a dusty 360 and bluff charges us just as Anthony reverses out of the clearing. We back up far enough to do a three point turn and drive away with the young punk still screaming at us. I get the feeling that he enjoyed running us off.

“That was badical,” says Mike grinning.

“Totally badical,” I agree.

I quickly lose count of the number of elephants and giraffes we see.

They are joined by herd after herd of zebra and impala. A troop of a hundred baboons strides across the road, big males patrolling the outskirts of the pack, mothers striding smoothly with infants on their backs or clinging to the underside of their bellies. Jackals, always working in monogamous pairs, stare at us from the grasses. Hornbills and vultures sit atop trees whose trunks are decorated with brightly coloured geckos.

We drive for six hours, shooting, ogling and joking. As dusk approaches, Anthony takes us to the park staff quarters. At the social club there we watch boxing on the small television amongst rangers and bureaucrats while sipping drinks and waiting for our classic east african meal of kuku na chipsi (chicken and fries). After stuffing ourselves we head outside and Mike and I join the staffs’ kids in a twilight soccer match. Mike is really good. I am really not.

We return to our camp by the Ruaha river, where an armed ranger walks us to our hut amidst the sounds of grunting lions and hippos. We remember our core mauling avoidance lessons – don’t run from a lion, don’t get between the hippo and the water. The latch on our door doesn’t work. So I rig something and spend a good portion of the night staring at the ceiling and wondering whether it’s lion proof.Still, I have a better time of it than Janine, who gets hit with some kind of nasty stomach virus and spends most of the night nauseous, throwing up and generally praying for death. With large animals sounding like they’re just outside the door, she’s confined to being miserable inside unless she signals the ranger to come and stand beside her, rifle cocked, while she heaves up dinner.

We rise before dawn for our second drive. Janine is still pale and shaking from her long night, but is resolved to carry on. We meet up with Mike and Elsa outside their hut and the four of us make our way carefully to the bathroom. Stopping occassionally to listen to unidentifiable noises in the dark scrub.

Once in the jeep, Janine’s spirits are immediately lifted by the number of animals we see, including our first male lion of the trip. He stalks the roadside and barely acknowledges us as we drive beside him, cameras whirring.

“He is old,” David says quietly. “Now he will mostly scavenge.”

Anthony is either brave or stupid when it comes to elephants today and we’re not sure whether there’s an appreciable difference. He turns off the road and drives into a veritable thicket of them at one point. We remind him that his tip doesn’t depend on how close he comes to getting us trampled.

The biggest thrill of the day comes from seeing Big Bull, one of the parks really huge male elephants. We come around a corner and spot him grazing 50 meters from the road, casually tearing human sized hunks of vegetation from the surrounding foliage.

Anthony turns off the car. We tell him to turn it back on.

Bull tolerates us for a few minutes and then charges, ears flared, trunk raised. We leave in a hurry, our hearts thumping (I think Anthony let him get a little close on purpose) and Big Bull moves on, scratching his belly with his enormous penis.

“He will send out 20 litres of ejaculate when he mates,” David says with a touch of pride.

Well. What do you say to that?

The rest of the day is spent enjoying less adrenalin-inducing sites. A herd of 30 hippos bathing in the river, the large elk-sized elands and the tiny dog-sized dikdiks, and of course tons more giraffes, elephants, zebras and lions. In all our time at the park, we only see three or four other vehicles in passing. It feels like we have the park to ourselves, and even Janine, who can’t keep down fruit and water, enjoys the show.

The lush green hills and winding rivers of Ruaha have set a very high bar for all future game drives. We happily relive our favorite moments (elephant charge, not Janine puking), as we bounce our way back to Iringa.

Jason and Janine

“Yeah, there’s a matata. We’ve been sitting here for an hour!”

– Jason

It was my fault.

The journey from Mang’ula, at the foot of the Udzungwa Mountains, to Iringa, on the northern side of the range should take a total of 5 hours. Two to get east from Mang’ula along the jarring packed earth “muran” road to the junction town of Mikumi. Then another 3 – 4 hours northwest from Mikumi to Iringa, the launching point for our safari to Ruaha National Park.

It took us 11 hours. Along the way it provided a colourful introduction to the world of Tanzanian minibus transportation, or as it’s alternately known, matatus or daladalas.

We made it from Mang’ula to Mikumi easily on a battered but serviceable bus from the “Morobest” fleet, making only one stop to fix a flat, the passengers feeding the monkeys while the bus crew worked urgently beneath the wheel. We had no firm plans for the journey from Mikumi, simply figuring that we’d hook onto one of the more reputable buses to Iringa as it passed through town.

Plunking our bags down at the door of a roadside eatery, we sat amongst lounging soldiers, truck drivers and idlers and munched hungrily on chipsi mayai, an egg cooked omlette style with mixed in french fries.

Garnished with enough salt to thaw a frozen road, it’s a stick to your ribs (forever) first meal of the day.

But the buses didn’t come. Well, at least the safe buses didn’t come. In Tanzania you take your life in your hands travelling with certain companies, like Hood and Abood, whose safety record reads like a Civil War casualty list. Of course, Hood and Abood seemed to be the only large transport vehicles passing by. As the morning got old, I got antsy and, finally, started looking for alternatives.

A passable-looking minibus idled not far from the chip stand. Upon inquiry, we found out that it was leaving for Iringa shortly at 11:00.

When no non-suicide buses arrived before then, we bought tickets and hopped on.

What should have been our first hint that things wouldn’t go well? Our drivers massive rastafarian hat or the fact that we didn’t pull out of Mikumi until noon? You can pick. Still, even folded into my seat above the back-wheel rim like a paper airplane, it felt good to be underway.

For an hour anyway. Just before one o’clock rasta-man pulled over at a roadside town and disappeared amongst its tin-roof shacks. Most of the

16 passengers simply waited. A maasai woman breast fed her baby, an older gentleman read his newspaper and I exited the van with some of the younger men. We leaned against the van and watched a group of 50 muslim schoolchildren sing at some kind of impromptu concert. Accompanied by a single drumming teacher, the evenly divided boys and girls bobed, twisted and sang a call and answer tune, surrounded by smiling elders.

Another bus load of kids arrived shorthly after and joined in with the concert seamlessly.

It was a fascinating slice of where-the-hell-are-we-in-Tanzania-life; at least for the first 20 minutes.

Another 10 minutes went by and no driver. 10 more. The Tanzanians wait patiently, not uttering a word of complaint, while I went from simmer to boil. Where the hell was our driver? In Egypt there’d have been a full scale riot by now. The driver would have been found, the school childrens’ drum comandeered to beat him with and each kid given a free kick to his groin.

At the one hour mark, after watching several other buses pass us by, I started looking for the driver myself. This wasn’t easy in a place where no one spoke english. But through a combo of pointing at the bus and miming a dopehead at the steering wheel, I was finally led to a roadside cafeteria. Here, rasta-man sat with a group of friends amidst a table full of empty lunch dishes, drinking a Sprite and laughing his ass off. At us, I assume.

I walk up to him, thinking about all the suckers still sweating back in the bus. “Twendi (let’s go),” I say in my best you’re-an-asshole voice.

He smiles up at me innocently, swigging the Sprite. “No problem man!Hakuna matata!”

I still fantasize about what I would have liked to do this man with that bottle. But, probably figuring that an hour of driving and an hour of lunching is a good balance, he eases himself out of his chair and follows me back to the bus, somehow making me feel like I’m the rude one. Soon, we’re rolling again.

The mini-buses are the work horses of Tanzanian transport. Unlike the big passenger buses that mainly service the big centres, the minis stop in seemingly every gathering of two or more huts along the way. In addition to a rotating cast of bus characters, this also leads to a colourful array of worldly goods amassing on the roof of the van, where all large baggage is tied. By the time we reached Iringa, our roof sports a Beverley Hillbillies-sized pile of giant empty woven baskets, 3 rickety bicycles, half a dozen jumbo bags of bananas and donkey feed and two very-out-of-place-looking backpacks.

When we’re actually moving, the trip is quite lovely. The minibus gradually climbs out of low lying humid hills and up a steep winding road towards the Iringa highlands. Monkeys sit beside the road eating wild mangos. Baobob trees begin to appear. The highway’s shoulders drop steeply away from beneath the van as it navigates blind corners and roller-coaster shaped hills, improving the views and increasing the danger. This stretch of road is as notorious as it is pretty. Coming around one bend, we nearly rear end a broken down passenger bus, its passengers already trying to thumb down substitute rides. At least we’re driving safely. Transport trucks and other buses frequently blow by us in both directions at frightening speed.

I know I had a right leg once, but by the end of the trip, I can’t for the life of me feel it. I try a variety of minute stretches and changes in position, until finding one that releases the pent up blood flow and a bout of pins and needles like I’ve never felt before. Each bounce of my foot against the wheel hub is a tear-inducing agony. A large, elderly woman wearing a beautiful traditional kanga and carrying her belongings in a giant pink bag with the face and logo of Barbie plastered across its front, smiles at me and points at the collection of oncoming street lights.

“Iringa,” she says.

At the bus stand, I massage my leg in the twilight and wait for rasta-man to hand down our backpacks from the roof. The silhouettes of the big buses sit all around us, laughing at us from the shadows. They have won this round. But somewhere in this town, a small, cheap, somewhat clean hotel awaits me with a small, somewhat clean bed. The hotel sports a small, cheap, somewhat clean restaurant where “meat” can be had with minimal intestinal complications ensuing.

Within an hour I’ll be somewhat clean and eating this somewhat meat and who, I think with a tired by triumphant smirk, will be laughing then?

Probably the buses. But at least we’re here.

Jason

Into the Woods!

Hiking by the Sanjo River in Udzungwa National Park (more photos)

“Crazy friggin’ elephants.”

– Janine

There’s a lizard in my bathroom.

I notice her (it’s a her because Janine later names it Lizzie. I wanted to name it Richard Gecko) watching me brush my teeth before bed. She is about four inches long, off-white and is missing the tip of her tail.

Perched above the sink mirror, her beady black eyes stare at me as I stare at her, my mouth foaming Sensodyne green. I reach forward to touch her and, of course, Lizzie scampers up the remainder of the wall and onto the ceiling. I tell myself I’m brilliant and that it’s now my own fault if Lizzie suddenly falls on my head during the night. God help me if she falls on Janine.

Still, I like lizards. They are on the list of “bathroom friends/neutrals” I am developing during our African tour. It includes frogs in the toilet (as long as they stay in the toilet when I’m squatting) and the tiny, tiny ants that don’t bite but mainly just line up by the dozens to collect water from the beads left on the sink.

My “bathroom enemies” list includes giant beetles (anything larger than a squash ball qualifies), giant spiders (one ran across a fellow traveller’s back while she was in the shower) and the giant praying mantis outside the window right now (he’s just freaky looking). In fact, just put anything giant on the bathroom enemies list.

***

The bathroom in question is in the Mountain Peak Lodge. The Mountain Peak Lodge sits in the village of Mang’ula. Mang’ula sits at the feet of Udzungwa Mountains National Park.Udzungwa Mountains National Park is where we’ve come for our next Tanzanian adventure – a 3 day, 38 km hike up to the park’s second-tallest peak, Mwanihana.

The Undzungwas form a part of the same eastern arc mountain range as the Uluguru mountains. But if you go to the Ulugurus for culture and a glimpse at traditional African village life, you come to the Udzungwas to see the mountains in their primeval state. Human habitation stops at the park borders and nothing fills the interior 1900 sq km except dense virgin forests, rugged hills and the many insect, mammal, reptile and bird species that call this wilderness home.

We arrange our hike directly through the park office and are once again lucky to receive an excellent crew for our trek. Our guide, Granted, speaks fluent English, enjoys a laugh and thoroughly impressed us on an earlier preliminary day hike with his detailed knowledge of the park’s flora and fauna. We’re happy to have him assigned to us for this longer trip.

Speaking of the park’s fauna, it’s often of the large stampy variety – elephants – or the large bitey variety – snakes. So in addition to a guide, we must also bring along an armed park ranger. Danny, like Granted in his mid-20s is an ex-army grunt who became a ranger several years ago to satisfy his love of the outdoors. He’s one of the most experienced men in the park and knows all of its trekking routes intimately. But he has no ego or swagger, preferring to talk about his wife and new baby boy, Franklin, rather than boast about his past exploits. His lithe frame makes Granted look almost stocky by comparison. Janine and I agree that in the movie version of our trip, Granted would be played by Denzel Washington while Wil Smith would play Danny. Janine would be played by Uma Thurman and I would be played a younger, rougish Harrison Ford. I didn’t consult with Janine on all the casting. The third man accompanying us is Sayeedee, a quiet young farmer from a nearby village who has agreed to be our porter for the trip. Sayeedee would be played by Terrence Howard. It’s a good looking cast. Sayeedee’s character wouldn’t say much for a lot of the movie but would come up with the plan at the end that saves us all from the rampaging elephant.Damn. Did I give too much away?

The five of us bounce down the road in one of the park’s Land Cruisers for half an hour to the trailhead. On one side of the road, the Udzungwas shoot up steeply, a wall of green pierced only by the occassional waterfall. On the other, the flat planes of sugar cane farms run all the way to the southern horizon.

Once at the trailhead, we set off immediately into the dense forest, the tall grasses and bush closing over the trail behind us “like the sea over a diver.” Danny takes the lead, a kalishnikov hanging across his back. Janine and I follow, with Granted and Sayeedee at the rear. Our guide and porter each lug heavy packs. Sayeedee carries all of Janine’s and my gear, while Granted shoulders a huge green rucksack stuffed with potatoes, pans, cooking oil, plates, cups, utensils, the crew tent, groundsheet and sleeping bags. It’s above thirty degrees and I feel the usual stab of guilt about having someone else carry our kit. The porter-client relationship is still awkward for us.

The Udzungwas are famous, among other things, for their primates. Almost immediately, we begin to encounter monkey troops, cavorting in the tree limbs, staring out at us with a moment of frank curiousity before scattering more deeply into the forest. We can’t resist waving at them – a little greeting to our near relatives. Red colobus and black and white colobus are the most common little faces. But we also catch a glimpse of the more rare highland mangabey jumping into the foliage.

Monkey

Red Colobus Monkey, Udzungwa National Park

Underfoot, the trail is a rich mulch of brown-red soil. It follows the Sonjo River for the first couple of hours, climbing steeply as the river gains pitch and narrows to a single violently tumbling stream. The dark gurgling waters are a pleasant backdrop for our many breaks, necessitated by the heat and our porters’ large loads. When we rest, Danny casually flips the hinged bayonette on the Kalishnikov so that it is perpendicular to the barrel. The bayonette is then plalnted in the ground and the gun serves as a bench seat. We’re careful to make sure we sit on Danny’s “good side”.

All around us the forest is filled with unrecognizable sounds – bird calls, insect rhythms, monkey chatter. Giant millipedes writhe across the forest floor. Occassionally, the path is cut off by the smashed wreckage of several downed trees.”Elephants,” explains Granted as Danny pushes through a wall of branches and bush to create a detour. Most of the park’s trails simply follow those pioneered by pachyderms. The elephants have a good eye for finding the best routes up the mountain and the park smartly hitched on for the ride. The elephants still use many of the trails on a regular basis.Though judging by the mess before us, they don’t always glide silently through the woods.The biggest problem that we encounter with the elephants is their stirring up of a large clan of army ants at one of these catastro-trees.There’s two main kinds of ants on the trail. Army ants swarm in the hundreds across the forest floor attacking anything – anything – in their path. Sometimes they do this in convenient, self-contained black superhighways, easy to step over and mostly avoid. When they’re spread out though, as when an elephant tramples or uproots a nest of them, getting a few ants in your pants is unavoidable and you spend the next couple of minutes after such an encounter, slapping, cursing and scratching at the little biters. The other kind of ants – termite ants – though much larger and possessing an unpleasant sting – are far easier to deal with, as they tend to clump together in groups of 50 or a hundred and to be mainly interested in plundering termite colonies.Don’t mess with them and they won’t mess with you.

The humidity in the air is complemented by a steadily increasing build up of thick clouds over our heads. Rainy season has so far ignored southern Tanzania. But by mid-afternoon it’s ready to introduce itself in a serious way. When we reach the trail’s first campsite, two hours before the Mwanihana base camp, the crew suggests stopping early. “This rain that is coming will be heavy,” says Granted, Danny nodding behind him. “We will not be comfortable if it catches us before we get to the base camp.”

As Granted says this, I look at his 50 pound pack and the sole-less running shoes he’s hiked in all day. If this guy thinks he’ll find the storm uncomfortable, I’ll probably want to roll up and die within its first 15 minutes. We agree to camp early.

Our home for the night is Mizumi Camp. It’s a simple set up of two large tarpaulins sheltering two tent pads and some makeshift bush furniture in a small clearing by the Sonjo. Danny tells us that traditionally, people came to this place to pray for rain.

As the first thunderclaps break over our heads, we agree with their choice. We barely have the tents up before the rain starts pouring down with such ferocity that we have to yell to make ourselves heard. When we scurry from our tent to the kitchen area, our crew has kindled a crackling fire and Granted is already grating vegetables with the saw of my swiss army knife for his beef and vegetable stew. A blackened tea kettle sits across two glowing logs near the heart of the blaze, already bubbling.

It’s cozy and warm and we don’t want to leave, but the rain is coming down so hard that Janine and I put on our gore-tex coats and dig a trench around our tent pad to deflect the ominous pools of water that are rapidly growing around our shelter.

This done, back under the tarp, we all chat and question one another amiably over steaming mugs of tea. Granted and Danny are full of questions about Canada – just how cold is it? how much to buy a house? etc. Sayeedee listens to everything with bright eyes but says little – his english is not as fluent as his co-workers’. The crew also peppers me with questions about my legal career. Could I represent my own father in a legal dispute? Could a dog’s owner be punished if his dog bit someone?

The rain ends just as dinner is served. Granted’s stew is delicious and we add chef to his list of professional qualifications. All around us, the forest seems to awake with renewed volume after the storm, replacing the rain’s drumbeat on the tarp with an insect orchestra of millions.

We talk about an early start tomorrow, but Danny reminds us that too early a beginning is dangerous as this is when animals are most active.

“What’s most dangerous?” we ask him.

He answers without hesitation. “Elephants in the morning. Snakes at night.”

Elephants we know about. So we pester our ranger for snake stories.

“What’s the biggest one you’ve seen?”

“Python,” he says, holding his hands several inches apart in the shape of a circle. “Wide like this. And long. From here,” he nods from his section of the bench to the edge of the tarp 12 or 14 feet away, “to there. And very fast. They will wait by the path or in a tree branch, grab a leg or an arm, then voosh,” he makes a gesture of the snake wrapping itself around the victim, “and squeeze. Scary.”

“Damn right,” I say.

I think I’d rather be poisoned. In which case the Udzungwas can also oblige. There’s a healthy population of venemous cobras, twig snakes, green and black mambas, Danny tells us.”The black mamba will follow you and strike if angered,” Granted pipes in helpfully as Janine and I squirm a little closer to the fire.I ask if either man has brought anti-venom. “No,” says Granted. “But I know the medicinal plants needed to treat a bite.”I’m impressed. But wouldn’t mind the anti-venom too.”So,” I say to Janine, thoroughly freaked out, “shall we go down to the river in the dark to wash before bed?”

We opt to sleep dirty, sweaty and snake free.

***

“Last water,” says Granted. He stoops to re-fill his water bottle in this small tributary to the Sonjo, suggesting that we follow his example. Thunder booms deeply over our heads.

After a brisk two hour walk from Mizumi camp, we reached Mwanihana’s base camp of Naji Panda a short time ago. There, we set up our tents and left camp in the care of Sayeedee, while we continued on with Granted and Danny towards the summit.

We have to hurry. (A) It’s about to rain, hard. (B) It’s noon already and we have just 6 hours left to make the long climb and ascent of the mountain before the sun sets. Danny had vetoed an earlier start to the day due to heavy elephant activty on the trails in the mornings. He’s proven right. Not long after starting our walk, the trail is intersected by a wide swath of flattened tall grass and brush. Danny stoops momentarily to inspect a pile of dung the size of a laundry basket left at the junction of the two trails.

“Fresh,” he says, straightening up.

Danny sets a brisk pace up the steadily inclining trail. As usual, he’s in the lead, which also means he is suffering the inconvenience of countless spider webs in the face. The most common species here is a nickel-sized Buffalo spider; black but with a large rack of red devil’s horns sprouting from its lower torso. It’s harmless but scary-looking and I duck, shimmy and limbo past any webs that Danny doesn’t snare in order to avoid making its close acquaintance.

As we climb, the tall grasses and dense bush that have accompanied the trail till now give way to a lightly forested hillside. Here, Mwanihana’s peak can be seen for the first time – patches of bald rock above a sea of green forest, in turn above a sea of churning mist and cloud. We rest and eat a lunch of french fries, prepared fresh by Granted earlier that morning and dipped (oh, sweet luxury!) in copious quantities of real Heinz ketchup. The height and lack of trees allows our guides to re-establish tenuous cell phone connections. Granted sends a text message back to park HQ about our progress while Danny checks on baby Franklin.

The interlude on the hillside is brief. Leaving our lunch containers hanging from a thorny Acacia tree in Granted’s rucksack, we enter the Mwanihana Rain Forest. The jungle until now has been dense, bushy, almost claustrophobic. But these woods are the opposite. Tall, mature trees soar majestically to a high canopy more than 70 feet from the ground in places. Each tree is the undisputed master of its area. no brush or tall grass dares compete with it for sunlight. It’s like walking amongst the pillars of a great airy church and our mood is altered to match the environment. “No person has ever lived here,”

Granted whispers during a rest stop, looking up. “And no one will ever live here.”

Danny walks over to a massive white-barked Buttress tree. It flares out in half-exposed roots at its bottom like a badminton birdie. Smacking one of the roots with the flat of his hand, he produces a deep hollow boom that drums through the silence. “Chimpanzee Mobile,” he grins, explaining that Chimps thump on these trees to communicate with one another across great distances. Scientists theorize that chimps inhabited Mwanihana’s slopes once. No one knows why they’ve since disappeared.

Buttress Tree

Buttress Tree in the Mwanihana Rainforest

Great Strangler Figs are also common here. Their vines and roots cover a host tree until it is completely subsumed. When the host dies and rots away, the mature strangler is often left with queer gaps in its trunk once occupied by the first tree. There’s also many examples of the strange “Unclimable Tree”, covered in a slick mucous that renders it unconquerable by monkeys. Palms appear again, after a halting for a stretch further down the mountain and bamboo shoots up sporadically. A hidden waterfall, gushes not far away. The air is thick with the smell of fresh shoots and decay. Shiny black millipedes with their undulating red legs wriggle smoothly across the trail of packed earth and dying leaves.

The track grows steeper, switchbacking now up and through the forest.

Danny is still watching and listening for elephants – he tells us they use this track to climb Mwanihana themselves.

“Crazy friggin’ elephants,” puffs Janine behind me.

Panting, sheathed in sweat, we break out of the forest near the top of the mountain. “Hurry!” Danny beckons excitedly to Janine from height of the clearing. “Pictures before the mist!”

We hurry up the last few steps to a spectacular view point – Mwanihana peak rises directly in front of us, the top only a few steep minutes away. A thick bank of clouds is moving rapidly to cover its face.

Behind us, the canopy of Mwanihana Forest smoothly falls away like a green velvet drape over the lower slopes. Fold after fold of treed hills run north, east and west. Most have never been walked on by humans, and you get the feeling, watching them disappear into and out of the banks of fog and cloud, that most of them never will. The green just goes on and on, stopping only at the sugar cane plain to the south.

A solitary bushbuck watchs us as we sit down to enjoy the view. We can’t stay long. Darkness and rain are coming on fast and it’s a long, knee-buckling walk back to the base camp.

We sit on grasses recently flattened by very large grey butts. It’s as if the elephants stopped to admire the Udzungwas here as well.

Maybe they’re not so crazy after all.

Jason

Mountains in the Mist

Trees in the mist near Mwanihana peak.

“I won’t leave. You can’t make me leave.”

– Jason

This is much better.

Matemwe is an hour’s drive from Stone Town. But it may as well be on a different planet.

We came here in the back of a crowded ancient covered flatbed converted into a daladala. Before leaving, another delightful resident of Stone Town boarded the bus, posed as the conductor and tried to con us into paying double the fare. He was hauled off the flatbed by the real conductor before he could do any damage. I only regret that there was a large basket of mangos on my feet that kept me from giving him a solid kick in the arse as he went.

The daladala left the roadside station shortly afterwards. Bouncing up and down on the lightly padded wooden bench we shared with 23 other passengers, we stared at the forest and small towns whizzing by, delighting as much in the wind generated by our speed as in the scenery.

It was already 40 degrees when we reached Matemwe in the late morning.

But the sight of its white beach and sapphire water made us feel like we’d be able to handle it. We’d been dropped off more than a kilometer from our intended hotel, Seles’ Bungalows, but another friendly hotel owner telephoned Seles to inform he had guests. Seles told us over the phone that he’d come and pick us up by car in twenty minutes. We made ourselves comfortable with a couple of deliciously cold Cokes and waited, soaking in the view.

Matemwe beach is almost completely sheltered by a reef that lies about 300 meters off shore. When the tide is out, the reef creates a warm shallow lagoon which is farmed by the village women for seaweed. Grids of stakes, sunk into the shallow waters hold between them lines of seaweed, which is grown and harvested twice a month. Women wade and sit amongst the grids throughout the low tide, farming and gossiping in their brightly coloured kangas. When the tide comes in over the reef, the lagoon quickly fills, submerging the farms and creating perfect conditions for swimming (though I have to say that as a good Canadian boy, I’m having a little trouble adjusting to water that’s warmer than I am).

The high tide also brings back most of the dug out fishing canoes.

During the day, these rough little outriggers, equipped with a single lanteen sail, their masts crookedly-shaved tree trunks, take their crews out in search of barracuda, royal fish, king fish, tuna, crabs and lobster. On calm nights at high tide, you can see their shadows sailing next to the reef, speckled with gas lanterns held up by the crews hunting octopus. The odd canoe has an outboard motor. But for the most part they are as silent as the fish they sail over.

A child’s job in Matemwe seems to be to shout and splash, typically naked, as much as possible. Packs of them run the beach, laughing, skylarking, unchained to schools, parents or anything resembling order, as innocent as at the dawn of the world. At high tide they swim out to the bobbing canoes, clamber up onto their uneven decks, and wave at us before they back flip, dive or belly flop into the water.

Seles’ Bungalows (www.selesbungalows.com) overlooks the beach through a grove of eucalyptus and coconut trees. The common area sits beneath a giant shady thatched roof just a few steps from the water. On the ground floor, Seles, as friendly and easy going a proprietor as we’ve yet met, mans a well-stocked bar made from the remains of a large sailing dhow. In the kitchen, Eddie and Nadi prepare the day’s catch on the grill. Up stairs, a patio with lounging chairs and kanga-topped tables looks over the beach.With the exception of a few well-spaced hotels, the area is residential.

That means no touts, no beach boys, no tourist shops, no maasai asking for money to take their picture. Local interaction is mostly in the form of exchanged waves and “Jambo!”s.

You could call it Paradise. But I’d want to see Paradise first to make sure that Seles’ was being adequately treated by the comparison.

The snorkeling and diving at Mnemba Atol just a few minutes from here is supposed to be world class. We have a large pile of books, a couple of board games, well-rested livers and a month before it gets dry in Madagascar.

We could be here a while.

Jason

 “Hello Mr. F*ck Off!”

– Papasi

No one said travel is always pretty. Stone Town sadly proved that.

We arrived there by ferry after spending another single night in Dar.

There we stayed at a Lutheran Guesthouse. Based on this stay and the Lutheran Guesthouse in Jerusalem, I have now concluded that Lutherans may be perfectly decent people, but should let other people run their hotels. In this one, we shelled out for a room with air conditioning, hot water and a t.v. The a.c. worked but there was no hot water and the t.v. had no sound.

The next morning, I spoke to the manager, politely pointing out the problems, and requesting a discount. She shook her head, explaining that this would not be possible as, no one had hot water last night due to a problem with the water tank. Similarly, the problem with the sound on the television originated from the hotel’s problematic cable connection

– everyone had experienced the same thing.

“It’s not our fault,” she concluded.

This began a long dialogue on the difference between something being your fault and something being your problem. I rarely bother with this sort of discussion in Africa (though the opportunity arises almost daily) because the service ethic is so fundamentally different here than in North America. At the end of most encounters like this, I usually just shrug my shoulders, shake my head and walk away. I’m here on vacation, not to give a seminar.

But in this case, we’d spent a decent chunk of change and were willing to fight for it. So the banter went on.

“You are the only guests who complained,” the manager said.

“Great! We’re the only ones you’ll have to refund!” we countered. Her argument was as true as it was irrelevant. Complaining is not part of the culture in Tanzania. I’ve seen local people here politely bend over the barrel on more occasions than I can believe. It’s either admirable patience or cowardly meekness. Either way, it explains a lot about how Tanzanians are able to put up with so much poverty and corruption in their daily lives.

“But the air conditioning worked,” the manager said.

I changed tactics. “If someone sold you a basket of mangos and bananas,”

I said, “and you took the basket and then realized that it only had mangos, wouldn’t you say, this is not what I bargained for?”

The manager nodded her head thoughtfully. “No bananas,” she repeated, mulling over the analogy. I thrilled in my earthy brilliance, hoping that I could bring this folksy persuasive skill back with me to Canada when I started practising law again.

The manager looked up. “But you still slept in the room.”

***

At the chaotic Dar ferry ticket offices, we haggled and secured two first class seats on the M.S. Seagull – a relatively new looking catamaran that was leaving Dar for Zanzibar’s capital of Stonetown at noon that day. The flatscreen t.v. at the front of the first class section played a d.v.d. of an R. Kelly concert while the ferry loaded its remaining passengers. Africans either looked on impassively or bobbed to the rhythm of Kelly’s lyrics about sex, good sex, sex with women in the audience and sex. I wondered how many of the good Christians and Muslims aboard understood what the guy was actually singing about (though some of his more explicit humping and spanking gestures might have given it away even if English wasn’t your first language).Once out to sea, the entertainment switched to movies and we were treated to a showing of Transporter 2 dubbed in Chinese. I went to the bar (as I think anyone would if forced to watch Transporter 2 in Chinese) and while there, suggested to the guy in charge of the t.v. that he change the language to something a few people on the boat might understand.

“I cannot,” he said with a big smile and a shrug. “It’s just a cheap pirate from China. All their movies are in Chinese.”

Besides, I was the only one complaining.

Fortunately/very unfortunately, the second half of the double feature, Charlie’s Angels, was in English.

***

I understand why they say people from hot climates are hot blooded. I was only in Stone Town for a 15 minutes before I was ready to kill somebody.

It started with getting off the ferry, which was Egypt-like in its door crashing madness. It took a good ten minutes of gentle crushing, head-carried baskets to the head and shopping bags to the back of the legs to debark.

Off-ship, we were swarmed by Stone Town’s “papasi”, a.k.a. beach boys, a.k.a. touts, a.k.a. annoying vermin. They were as persistent as any we’ve met, pestering us with offers of taxis, hotels and spice tours. We literally pushed our way through them to reach the street.

The temperature hovered around 40. The same number of pounds weighed down my pack. The same number of gallons of sweat soaked through my shirt. It was early and I was already not in the best mood when an arm grabbed me from behind.

I spun around with murderous ideas and saw a blue shirted officer holding me. “You must go through customs and immigration,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “This is a domestic ferry. I obviously haven’t come from anywhere but within Tanzania, so I’ve cleared customs already.”

“Oh, so you know more than me?” said the officer, puffing up a bit.

“Probably.” I said, the little voice in my head yelling that I was an idiot at exactly the same time as Janine wisely intervened and started leading me back to the customs desk.

It had to be the heat. I was not ready to let it go. I looked at the stream of African passengers walking past customs unchecked. “Why aren’t you checking all of these people?” I asked the officer.

“They are residents,” he said.

“How do you know?” I pursued him. “How do you know they’re not from Kenya or Sudan? How do you know we’re not residents?”

“I know.” he said taking his station behind the desk.

“I think you’re racist,” I shot back, the little voice in my head going ape-shit at my idiocy. Now it was Janine grabbing my arm, reminding me in an urgent whisper how easily men in uniforms can make your life in a foreign country unpleasant. She then gracefully took over all communications with the customs officer while I fumed silently behind her.

The officer ignored me, I think a little confused by my aggression. In retrospect, I’m a little confused by my aggression. Within a minute he had placed another stamp in our passport and sent us on our way.

The touts had patiently waited for us to clear customs and now resumed their orbits around us as we left the terminal.

We lied, pretended not to speak English, reasoned, laughed at them and finally sat in the full heat of the sun reading a book until most of them buzzed off to find easier prey.

Only one really kept at us. Finally, Janine looked at him, “Don’t you understand that we don’t want you to follow us? Don’t you understand what ‘no thank you’ means?” she said politely, almost plaintively.

“Yes!” he said brightly, nodding and continuing to stand in front of us.

“I wonder if he understands what f*ck off means,” I muttered, not looking up from my book.

“I understand what f*ck off means,” he muttered back at me. “You don’t have to tell me to f*ck off.”

For the rest of our stay in Stone Town, everytime we saw this man (it’s a small town), he called me “Mr. F*ck Off!”

I can’t defend everything I did and said that morning. I throw my tired, overheated self on the mercy of the traveler’s court on most counts.

But the guy did f*ck off.

***

Gotcher Nose!

Beware the children of Uluguru. Cute though they may be, they will snatch your nose. (more photos)

And now a brief rest before we continue with your suffering.

– James / Mugende

Half the battle of reaching the Uluguru Mountains is escaping Dar Es Salaam’s central core. This is mainly due to the fact that the average Dar stoplight takes about 8-10 minutes to change.

And there are a lot of stoplights on the way out of town.

Once we make our exit from the capital, the country side quickly takes over – green fields and the occasional mud brick farm home, punctuated by roadside villages. At these, the bus often pulls over for a minute to take on or let off passengers. While stopped, the coach is surrounded by vendors selling newspapers, pineapples, roasted maize, fresh bread, cold drinks and cell phone minute cards. The vendors tap on the windows and hold up their wares, often balancing large baskets of goods on their heads. Passengers peruse, buy and/or ignore at their leisure until the bus peels out onto the highway once more in a cloud of red dust, a few successful sellers sprinting after us with change or goods held out for their purchasers like frenzied relay runners handing off a baton.

The early morning combined with the lingering fatigue of the red-eye flight from Cairo soon has our heads lolling, notwithstanding the odd Tanzanian speed bump that has us bouncing off the ceiling. We’ve unwittingly chosen seats over the back tires of the bus, which I now refer to as “catapult chairs.” When your bus crashes into one of the Tanzam highway’s many quickly-appearing potholes or speed control devices, you can get some serious hangtime. It’s quite the way to end a nap.

A few semi-conscious hours later and we have exchanged the lowlands of Dar for the rugged, forested slopes of the Uluguru. The high green mountains are shrouded in a combination of mist and smoke from the farm houses that speckle the range. Isolated peaks jab through the haze; some barefaced, others covered beneath the canopy of ancient rainforest.Just looking at them through the bus window has our feet itching to hike.

It feels like our Tanzanian adventures are really about to begin.

***

If you were on your second day in a foreign country and were trying to select a guide to take you for a hike into one of its rural regions , what would you look for in terms of qualifications?

You’d probably want someone who could speak both your and the local language. Since it’s a wilderness and cultural excursion, you’d probably also want someone who knew local customs, flora and fauna. And finally, I imagine that since you’re going to be hanging out with the person for a few days, you’d want the guy to be a decent person – fun to hang out with, hell, maybe even a sense of humour.

If you found one guide who possessed all these qualities, you’d probably count yourself pretty lucky.We found a whole company.

Now in its sixth year of operations, Chilunga Tours seems like everything a cultural tourism centre should be – fairly priced, founded and run by knowledgeable local youths, and dedicated to returning a portion of its profits to the local communities. We’re ushered into Chilunga’s simple offices in the local YWCA compound by three smiling 20-something young men – Andrew, John and James. After we exchange friendly pleasantries (this can take some time in Tanzania – people are pretty friendly). the boys give us a presentation on the various hikes, safaris, and cultural programmes they run. It’s so well done that at the end of it, Janine and I stare at each other a little slack jawed – we’re less certain of what we want to do now than we were when we came in.

What should it be? Trekking to cool mountain waterfalls? Culture tours of the traditional villages?Searching for monkeys in the rainforest? We decide to go for all three; stitching together a trek with the Chilunga guides that will see us hike to the small mountain village of Choma, then weave across the mountains to visit a traditional healer in the even smaller village of Madola and finally wind back down to Morogoro through the thickly forested Kilombero Valley to seek out monkeys and baboons. 

We work out an early morning start time for the next day and a price that is fair to everyone and includes everything except our snack foods (or, as James calls it with a giggle, “softi softi”) and lunches, which will be eaten on the march.

For these things, we’ll need to visit Morogoro’s busy central market.

***

“I think you stick out a bit,” I whisper in an exaggerated tone to Janine as we stroll by stalls brimming with onions, mangoes, pineapples, berries, oranges and peppers . Men stand by pyramids of plastic buckets, baskets of small fried fish and stacks of bread while kids try to sell shoppers plastic bags for 100 shillings a pop.

Obviously, the place doesn’t see a lot of “muzungus” – the name liberally applied to any white foreigner – and we are quickly swarmed by a horde of vendors pushing their wares on us. Pretty soon we’re surrounded by a sea of arms holding out fruit of every description for our inspection.

“No, no. We need a small pineapple. SMALL.” says Janine to one man, handing back a fruit the size of a small watermelon and miming that we have to carry this stuff on ourback for the next two days. “No, thank you, we don’t need any eggplant. No, no! Four bananas;not four pounds of bananas.” 

Of course, we don’t yet know the proper prices of anything. So our haggling is awkward and mostly done by shaking our head uncertainly at a stated price and looking towards another stall’s wares until the price comes down a few hundred shillings. The whole process is fun but exhausting. And while we walk away from the market relatively confident that we haven’t been too badly ripped off by local standards, we also realize that our bargaining probably saved us only a total of 2 bucks.

***

 John

John. The smile is permanent.

The next morning, our day packs are bursting with fruit, chocolate, nuts, rain gear and a change of clothes. Since we plan to spend the night with a family in Choma, there’s no need for heavy backpacks. 

My head, meanwhile is bursting with boogers. I had woken up in the pre-dawn hours with the undeniable sensation of coming down with something. “You can’t be serious.” I thought staring at the ceiling as my throat throbbed and my sinuses slowly filled. I’d just gotten over a cold in Egypt not a month ago. Usually I get sick once a year and that’s it. That’s the deal I have with my body. I whine and sook for seven days and Janine does more than her normal abnormal share of chores and then it’s over. There must be some kind of force majeur clause for equatorial travel.

The day is overcast and cool – perfect hiking weather – as we leave the Chilunga offices and walk on a red earth road out of town and up into the Ulugurus. Our guide is John, a 26 year old botany student who aspires to be a teacher. Sporting a Chilunga floppy-brimmed hat, a small satchel and tattered hiking boots, he quickly wins me over with his sense of humour (he likes my jokes) and Janine with his knowledge of the varied plant life we’re seeing as the road climbs the mountain.

The modern homes of Morogoro quickly peter out as the road turns into a rutted track. They are replaced with simple houses made from mud brick and roofed with corrugated tin or thatching. The tin is popular now and readily available, but, in contrast to the traditional thatch, it turns most houses into ovens during the hot season.

John explains that the bricks are all made locally. Mud is gathered, shaped and dried. The dried bricks are stacked in large A-frame piles with cavities at the bottom for fires. The pile of bricks is covered in a layer of clay and fires lit in the cavities, the clay forming a natural oven. It’s so simple, sustainable and perfect that it gets your immediate respect and we walk around several A-frames admiring the technology.

Many doorways are darkened by kids. Unused to foreigners (fewer than eighty may pass by in a year), some watch us quietly, some hide, some wave shyly and some shout “Muzungu!” and follow behind us exuberantly, laughing and dodging behind trees as if at any second we’ll turn  and start chasing them in a game of tag.

One clump of half a dozen kids stares at Janine’s camera intently when we stop to say hello. We offer to take a picture of them and they posewith expressions earnest beyond their years. But when Janine shows them the picture in the viewing monitor afterwards, they areinstantaneously kids once more – laughing and jumping up and down with giddiness over seeing themselves on the screen. Theshyest boy does a cartwheel as we leave.

The track steepens and we pass by farmers from the mountain villages on their way down to Morogoro’s market to sell their produce.Often barefoot and sporting 25 litre buckets or baskets on their heads, these men and women sprint down the slick paths with the strength and agility of mountain goats. We’re suddenly embarassed by both our relatively laboured pace and our modern hiking boots and clothes.

Soon the rutted track narrows to a single path through the bush. Here, we stop a small collection of houses where women make a pre-natal nutritional supplement from a special local clay. The clay is gathered, compacted, partially dried and then rolled into cylinders about 3 x 1 inches. The supplement is famous, popular with expectant mothers all over Tanzania (child birth mortality rates are high here) and an important source of income for the local woman that harvest and process it.

While Janine learns more about the clay and snaps pictures,I play with some curious kids who let me bang out some Muzungu hits on their home-made xylophone. I don’t know about their version of this story, but in mine, I rocked it out and all their laughter was appreciative in nature.

As we pass more houses and farms bustling with chickens, goats and the odd xenophobic little dog, John points out dozens of wild and domestic plants. What to our untrained eye is forest is actually a patchwork of cultivated land blended in with natural elements. One minute you’re walking through thick bush and the next, with no discernable transition stage, you’re walking through someone’s orchard.

 Mountains through the mist

Mountains through the mist.

Everything seems to grow here – passion fruit, pineapples, bananas, guava, avocado, berries, mangoes, maize, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes and carrots are only a partial list. As our eyes adjust and we start to see the forest for the trees, we notice farms everywhere.

John walks us through all of this with the patience of the teacher he one day hopes to be. At our frequent rest stops, he teaches us Swahili words and laughs good naturedly as we mangle their pronunciation. Remembering how our rest breaks would end in Egypt, we ask John to teach us the words for “Let’s Go!”

“Twendi!” he says with a laugh (John generally has a hard time not smiling or laughing).

“And the word for ‘banana’ is ‘ndezi’, right?” I ask, recalling one of our recent lessons. Our guide affirms.

“Ok then,” I say “Twendi ndezi!”

John laughs so hard he has to stomp.

And that’s how we got our trip’s slogan.

***

The simple homes of Choma nestle organically into the hillside of Uluguru. After 4 hours of hiking, we reach the village, footsore but excited to be getting such a strong dose of real Tanzania life so early in our travels. As usual, the children are first off the mark with greetings. The little shouts of “Muzungu!” echo across the town and we are soon trailed by a small parade of small curious faces and waving arms.

The camera is a huge hit and we are soon running a walking photo studio as one child after another herds together a bunch of friends to pose.Everyone wants to see the viewing monitor afterwards and the result is always the same – squeals of joy, laughter, pointing and demands for another picture. Eventually, the kids comandeer the camera itself and engage in their own photo shoot, a lot of the pictures accidentally focusing on feet.

 feet2.jpg

The tender toddler tootsies of Choma.

For us, the high point is when Janine, showing a group of kids their picture on the monitor, accidentally scrolls back to the beginning of her memory card, bringing up a picture of my sister’s golden retriever.

The kids leap back with a sharp intake of breath. “Simba! (Lion)” they whisper.

We slowly make our way to the town leader’s home. John explains that she is an elected official who serves with a town council of representatives – one elected for each “street” in Choma. While the leader has graciously agreed to host us tonight, she herself has been called away to Dar es Salaam on an urgent family matter and she leaves us in the care of her 3 lovely daughters – Aria, her oldest, Samia, her middle child, and little Rahema, a precocious 5 year old who displays her mother’s political gifts in leading the other children in the neighborhood.

We rest thankfully in the cool shade of the house while John chats with the older girls while Rahema thumbs carefully through our phrasebook, stopping to stare intensely at the pictures of animals that decorate some of the margins. The house is fancier than the others we’ve seen in Choma, with a large sitting room, multiple bedrooms (the leader’s own being generously offered to us), a spotless concrete outhouse and two cows penned in a small coral nearby. This is obviously a family that has done well.

I’ve barely stopped walking when my flu really pounces. Soon, my head and sinuses are throbbing and my head is lolling back on my neck, searching blindly for the best booger drainage position. I’m reluctant to call for a 2:00 p.m. bed time, so I raise myself gingerly from the sofa when John suggests that we visit a waterfall for a cool afternoon swim and shower.

“Twendi ndezi?” John asks, looking at my pale face doubtfully.

“Twendi ndizi!” I say with a sneeze and a rather limp thumbs-up.

But the waterfall is just what the doctor ordered. Reached via a steep descent through a banana tree orchard and shaded by tall leafy forest, it plunges smoothly over a rocky escarpment to a deep 10 ft wide pool below. The cool mist and waters instantly, if temporarily, banish sweat and snot.

After we’ve cleaned up, John leads us back up and through the village, stopping at houses along the way so that we can meet the families who farm the land. Here we learn about the big events in village life (weddings and a young girl’s ascension to grown woman status are the biggest celebrations in this matriarchal society) and the big challenges. While the land is abundant, drought is an unpredictable threat and the staples for which the people trade their produce are suffering drastic price increases. The most important, maize flour, was until recently thought to be outrageously priced if come across at 300 shillings per kg.  It now averages 700 shillings per kg.

Despite their problems, the people are unfailingly polite and generous to outsiders. At one house, the family gives us a large bunch of perfectly ripe bananas just as we leave. At another, the parents laugh delightedly as I teach a group of 7 kids how to juggle, play pattycake and snatch stones balanced on their elbow with one hand. I’m terrible at all these games, but the kids are, for now, worse, making me their lawful king. As we leave though, I look over my shoulder and, seeing them practice what I’ve taught, am pretty confident that within a week I’d be deposed.

***

We return to the house and are treated to a big meal of ugali (a stiff pile of maize-based porridge) and ground cassava leaves. Ugali is Tanzania’s staple. And while it may not be flashy, in a country where meat may be consumed only once a week or less, it’s filling, nutritious and, when combined with the right condiments, delicious. We roll ball after starchy ball and pop it into our mouths with great hunks of green cassava.

John is delighted with our adoption of real Tanzanian food and declares us real Africans with a slap on his knee and a genuine laugh. I suspect that he would have laughed just as good naturedly if we hadn’t been able to eat a bite. I reply to him that I’m considering buying property here and taking on an African wife, once I find Janine a good African man of course.

It really is some lovely real estate. While, we waited for dinner to finish cooking, we stood outside the house and looked back down Uluguru at the city below. In the dusk, Morogo spreads beneath us and off to the horizon like a Lightbright page. “My garden!” John said with equal parts smile and thoughtfulness, gesturing towards his hometown. Sure enough, the city does start to look like a twinkling field as John points out its features. Highways are stems, the various coloured stop lights and billboards their fruit. Cars and motorbikes buzz about like insects.

A technicolour garden, sprouting to life as the mountain forests retreat into the night.

***

Bibi Maria 

Bibi Maria

“This Bibi Maria better be good.” I think with more than a touch of my usual morning grumpiness.

We are hiking across the high face of the Ulugurus, on a track that winds steeply up, down and around the forests and farms that separate Choma from its smaller but higher neighbour, Madola.  There dwells Bibi Maria, a famous traditional healer and the main objective of today’s hike.

There are lots of reasons to be grumpy, despite the cool weather and the quiet Sunday morning majesty of the steep hills, appearing and disappearing amidst the clouds and mist. For one thing, I’m sicker today than yesterday, each of my steps being matched with an attendant sniff, cough and/or hork. For another, the trail really is a roller-coaster, dashing steeply down and the steeply back up the mountain – more of a work out than I’d hoped for after climbing so much yesterday.

John senses our tiredness at one point and calls for an early break.

“We will now relax for a few minutes before continuing with your suffering.” he says cheerfully.

If this isn’t enough, my stomach is still posing a barrage of difficult questions about breakfast. Today’s offering was ‘manioc’, boiled white cassava roots. After last night’s delicious supper, I unhesitatingly heaped my plate full of the pale tubers before discovering that plain manioc has all the tastiness of eating a roll of toilet paper. At least to a Muzungu – our African hosts had no problem cleaning their plates and I felt like more than a bit of a heel for not reciprocating. I resolve to instruct my African wife to serve manioc with large bowls of maple syrup and brown sugar.

Adding to my discomfort is John’s frequent stopping along the way to ask for directions on the best way to Choma. I grow steadily more convinced that our guide is unsure of the trail, until at one rest stop he explains to us that while he’d done this route many times, requests for help were both a show of respect to the villagers we encountered and a way of making them feel involved in having foreigners on their lands – both important ingredients to the success of the cultural tourism programme.

Whether or not it’s true, it makes sense. So I start to smile a little more easily at the harvesting farmers, reclining old-timers, nursing mothers and occasional idle young person from whom we ask assistance. Their uniform cheerfulness soon gets the better of me and my mood lightens. On our way past one mango orchard, a farmer cries out a greeting and starts rolling armloads of freshly gathered fruit down the hill at us. We wave back thanks and stop at the next stream to wash and peel our catch.

When I bite in, I realize instantly that mangos are now ruined for me forever. Where else will they ever be so juicy and perfectly tart at the same time? Dropping our packs, we settle down for the gooey, slurping, tooth-picking extravaganza these little green wonders demand.

Between mouthfuls, I tell John that in Thailand, people eat unripe mangoes as a vegetable. “In Africa, to do that would mean the family is starving,” he says seriously.

I’m also downing as many mangoes as possible in the hopes their vitamin C will be a good backup if Bibi Maria’s medecine doesn’t cure my flu. While I don’t usually go in for the whole “natural” cure craze, at this stage I’m willing to give anything a shot.

The six or eight simple huts of Madola sit at the base of a tall, bare rockwall that juts out slightly from the rest of the mountain. Bibi Maria has already met us once today, though Janine and I didn’t realize it at the time, as Bibi preferred to keep her identity a secret until she could get a feel for us. It’s a trick straight out of the old fairytales, but effective.

When she is ready to receive us, Bibi Maria ushers us towards her thatched hut. It’s a curious structure that, beneath its roof, looks like a single hallway coiled around itself, rather like a snake or a garden hose.

At the first bend in the hallway, the old lady plunks down a short stool and sits, partially secluded in the gloom. With a calm but unsmiling demeanour (rather doctorish really), she asks us through John whether we’ve come for a consultation or to interview her.

Until her question, I’ve been focused mostly and selfishly on my stupid cold. But now, with the option to probe, I suddenly find myself bursting with questions. Janine feels the same way and we both start pitching. When did she get her powers? How does she know what plants cure what illnesses? Who can’t she cure? Who treats her when she is sick?

Over the course of the next half hour, we learn some of Bibi Maria’s strange story. She knew she was a healer in the womb and as a child displayed strange traits and powers, knowing things she wasn’t supposed to know about people and waking up in the forest or strange houses. As a young woman, she began to be visited by visions of forest plants, herbs and trees in her dreams and would be told that they had powers to heal certain kinds of sicknesses if gathered and prepared as instructed.

There was no formal training, but over time, her fame grew and she now runs a busy practice, curing everything from malaria to madness. The only exception, she says solemly, is HIV, which she calls a curse from God himself. At 55, she still travels by herself into the rainforest to gather her medicines. She cannot travel by any means other than walking – a condition of her powers.

If she can cure malaria (“Easy,” John translates, as Maria slaps her hands together dismissively), then I’m guessing she can put a stop to the gooey mess that is my head. Although we’ve already taken up a good chunk of her afternoon with our many questions, I can’t help but ask for some medicine too. The procedure is simple – I describe my problem and place a sum of money beneath a heavy piece of wood just inside the hut (Bibi does not touch money herself). Maria then disappears around a corner and re-emerges a minute later with a large coke bottle and a four litre water jug – both filled with a powdery substance that looks remarkably like dirt. The first, she explains as she measures out a portion into a piece of newspaper, I take a pinch of raw in the morning. The other, I mix two teaspoons into my daily tea. “In two days, ” John translates as Bibi Maria stares at me, “you will feel completely better.”

I still think it looks like dirt. But something about Bibi Maria, staring out at me from the gloom of that spiraling hut, has me taking the two little packets of medicine reverently and with thanks. We leave Madola deeply grateful for the experience, and in my case, a little high off the placebo effect alone.

***

It’s a knee buckling descent down the mountainside from Madola. We scooch and slide down the steep path, past vines bristling with passion fruit and trees drooping under the weight of jackfruits the size of footballs. Two thirds of the way down we enter the thickly forested Kigurunyembe Valley, bisected by a tumbling creek of the same name. Here, young men from the nearby teacher’s college relax with their homework assignments on the rock-shelf banks while monkeys leap acrobatically through the canopy.

Sensing our time in the Ulugurus is drawing to an end, we stop for one last break before leaving the valley. Stretched out on the river rocks, we gab about everything from religion to politics – our comfort level with John making no topic taboo. He seems as reluctant as us to say good bye to the trip, even offering to take the long way home.

But it’s getting towards dusk and Janine and I can sense that we’ve already had the perfect day, the perfect trip, the perfect balance of stunning scenery and fascinating culture that we had hoped for. No need to push it.

Besides, these mountains have really kicked my ass. I’m tired.

We pose for one last picture by the river, holding the camera out at arm’s length in front of us to get all three of us in the shot.

John shoulders his satchel and looks at us over his shoulder.

“Twendi ndezi?” he grins.

“Twendi ndezi.”

 The Walk Home

The Walk Home

Okay. Let’s mail some elephants.

– Janine

 Zanzibar is a strip club in downtown Toronto. I don’t visit it of course. The interior design is tacky and the girls just aren’t friendly.

 But, it turns out that Zanzibar is not just a strip club, it’s a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania. I don’t know much about it’s interior design or the friendliness of the girls, but since I’d spend spend most of my time there on the beach and in the company of my wife, I don’t think either of those criteria much matter in my case.

 So, with our safari adventures over for now, Janine and I have elected to take the long bus back to Dar Es Salaam and catch a ferry for paradise. I don’t know if we deserve it – we’ve been sitting on our butts here for the past four days straight. But we’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re adults and we’re going anyway. So there Mom!

Today was a preparation day –  bus snack purchasing, e-mailing and most importantly, spending the equivalent of a Tanzanian family’s gross annual income mailing home two giant elephant bookends we somehow convinced ourselves to purchase as a souvenir.

But they’re really pretty. At least we think so now. Hopefully, we’ll feel the same when we get home.

Alternatively, I can see a rather awkward moment where we hoist out our ten kilogram ebony behemoths out of their packaging, say “Oh… yes… the elephants”, and start thinking about whose wedding/birthday/graduation is coming up next.

I don’t have to outrun the fastest animal on earth. I just need to outrun Janine and my guide.

– Jason

Our Maasai warrior’s name is Dennis.

 

Janine and I wake up a little later than planned on our first morning at our campsite just outside Ngare Sero Village, near lake Natron. Our tent is pitched underneath a green acacia tree / bird condominium and the combination of cool early morning shade and twittering song was too much to resist. When we finally emerge for breakfast, we’re running a full hour late for the start of our walk to the lake.

Our driver, Abdou, seems a little worried about us getting caught out in the intense morning heat, but Dennis, who has been hired as our local guide, is calm. In fact, very little seems to ruffle Dennis. 28 years old, medium height, clad simply in two purple, blue and gold Maasai shuka, he has the relaxed confidence of someone who knows his job and territory well. Slinging his walking stick over his shoulders and tucking a water bottle into a fold of his robe, he leads us out of our camp and into the dry lake shore plains for the first of three enjoyable and informative hikes.

***

The walk to Lake Natron is a hot and dusty two hours across beds of hardened volcanic ash. For the first half hour, intermittent shade is provided by scattered acacia trees. The comfort of the shade is balanced by the presence on the ground of a creeping vine covered at this time of year in thorny seed pods. These have an uncanny knack for finding their way into the crevices of toes, arches of feet and the spaces between skin and sandal strap. Janine and I stop abruptly more than a dozen times to lean on each other and pull out the prickly little buggers.

While we doff and don footgear, we look over our shoulders at Ol Doinyo Lengai, only a few kilometers away. The grey cone puffs irregularly like a train waiting at the station. The Maasai believe God lives in the mountain. I suggest to Dennis that maybe he’s taken the day off. 

He looks up at the crater, grins and shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says. 

He’s guided hundreds of trips to the summit over the past 6 years, the last one just a couple of weeks ago. It’s too dangerous to go up to the top now so we try to live vicariously and ask him what that last trip was like. The volcano’s crater bottom is usually coated over in a thick ash rime. Through vents in its surface you can see natrocarbonite lava flows and pools. On his last trip to the top, Dennis says the rime was almost non existent and the crater bottom one large bubbling lava pit.

“Scary,” our guide says with another head shake. “A French and a German hired me take them to the top. I told them it wasn’t safe.” As if to accent the point, Ol Doinyo Lengai rumbles and shoots a thick geyser of ash into the morning sky. “They were crazy,” he laughs. 

The acacia soon peter out and all that dares to stick its head above the black earth is dry, stunted grass. The sun, unhindered by even a hint of cloud, burns at full force, turning the sky an almost whitish hue. We’ve been walking for half an hour and have already demolished half our supply of water. My hat brim is already soaked through with sweat and I keep switching between rolling up my shirtsleeves to avoid overheating and rolling them down to avoid cancer. Dennis is unfazed by the heat, but Abdou, who is trotting along behind us in jeans and a golf shirt is a virtual sweat fountain. 

I take my mind off the heat by peppering Dennis with questions about Maasai life. Although he’s had little formal training, his English is excellent after years of guiding tourists. His forthright answers to all our questions paint a picture of a traditional life under siege and a culture that is rapidly changing, whether it wants to or not. 

A Maasai boy becomes a man and a warrior (morani) when he is circumcised around the age of 13. The ritual once required the boy to kill a lion, but the Tanzanian government has put an end to that practice (despite allowing foreign big game hunters to continue doing the same) and boys now do a three month solo stint in the bush instead. A warrior serves the community until the age of 30 or so, but is also allowed to marry and herd his own cattle. Warrior life is less warlike than it used to be. Inter-Maasai community fighting is rare and cattle rustling (Maasai regard all cattle as belonging to them by divine right) is more dangerous than before, with other tribes now guarding their cattle with guns vs. the Maasai spear. “It’s harder now,” Dennis laughs. 

He also gives us some interesting thoughts on modern schooling that contrast with what we learned in Bulati a few days earlier. The government forces every child to attend school, which teaches in Swahili, not the very different Maasai language. Together with their Christian teachings the schools are a powerful force for conversion away from the old belief systems. Clever Maasai girls have been taken away from their families and sent to boarding schools, where they are not allowed to leave or receive any visitors. This is supposedly all to keep the girls from being circumcised and sold into arranged marriages. But it’s rending on the families involved and creates distrust of schools in the community. 

Dennis seems to hold out little hope for the survival of the traditional Maasai ways. I think of the uniformed children of Bulati, looking so different from their shuka clad elders, and I wonder what the solution is. On one hand, you can argue that survival in the modern world necessitates that these children receive at least a basic educaion. On the other, if the world is so modern why can’t it figure out a way to let these people live the way they’ve always lived? How many Maasai computer technicians do we really need to rear anyways? Warriors vs. word processors. 

*** 

Lake Natron is one of those places an extremophile would love. 1300 sq. km, the shallow lake receives only 40 cm of rain each year, part of that falling as “phantom rain”, meaning that the raindrops evaporate before they hit the ground. Even that much precipitation seems hard to believe as you walk along the shoreline, where the concentration of salt, sodium carbonate (or natron) and magnesite in the volcanic soil turn the ground into something resembling a vast sheet of shattered tinted glass. 

Yet there’s an alien beauty to the place too. The water is clear, if shallow (a helicopter crashed a couple of km off shore 5 years ago and the wreckage can still be seen poking up above the waves). Low green hills, reminiscent of the Ferryland Downs, roll right up to the lake and thousands of flamingos stalk the beaches, feeding on its microscopic algae.

Natron is the most important breeding ground for flamingos in the world. And the flamingo guide to parenting is rather unique as well. They simply lay their eggs on the low rocks fringing the shore and walk away. The heat of the sun on the volcanic stone makes for a natural incubator. The young hatch and instinctively hobble down to the beach to feed. That’s it. If flamingos had Christmas, there’d be genuine doubt in my mind about whether we were the more evolved species.

It’s one of those moments where we couldn’t be anywhere else but Africa. Watching flamingos on a desert lake with a Maasai warrior while a volcano huffs in the background. I run my shirt sleeve across my sopping wet brow and smile, sweaty but happy too. 

“Let’s go now, before it becomes very hot,” says Dennis standing. 

*** 

Dennis won’t tell us his traditional name.

He has one of course. All Maasai do, whether Christian or not, and Dennis admits he’s no exception. And it’s not that he’s ashamed or overly secretive about it. It’s more that he’s shy.  A lot of Tanzanians I’ve met have seemed this way when it comes to talking about their traditionanl culture. One of our Christian guides once asked me what I thought about his priest telling him he shouldn’t worship anymore at his tribe’s sacred trees with this grandparents. 

I tried telling him, diplomatically, that his priest was an idiot. 

Anyway, Dennis is good at ducking questions about his true personal beliefs. Every time the topic comes up, he cannily manages to steer the subject in another direction. After a while I accept his story that he just wants to be a good Christian. Just because he’s my guide doesn’t mean that I get to be his confessor. Besides, this is too nice a place to talk politics.

It’s late afternoon and we’ve left the parched Lake Natron shores for a hike up the Ngare Sero gorge, a thin crack in the Crater Highlands ramparts. A tumbling river falls down and throught the cleft bringing fresh water all the way from Lake Victoria to the Rift Valley floor.

We clamber alongside the steep valley walls, crossing the river numerous times on route to a supposedly fabulous swimming hole further upstream. Along the way, Dennis points out interesting plants and tells us about his litle son Alex, who lives with his mother in a community an hour and a half up the rough dirt road back towards the main highway. Because the tourist business is all in Ngare Sero, Dennis stays here with his uncle most of the time, seeing his family only a few days each month.

It’s a common story in Tanzania. I’ve lost track of how many people we’ve met who have had to leave their families on a semi-permanant basis in order to keep food on the table .  Almost as amazing is the calmness with which people accept these fates. There’s so little of the resentment here that ran near the surface of Egypt’s working class poverty. To the contrary, for the most part people are exceedingly friendly and generous with what little they have. I earlier complimented Dennis on a brass arm band he sported on his right arm. Without hesitating he wrenched it off and clasped it around my wrist. “A gift,” he said, refusing all efforts to return it and then turning his back like it never happened. 

At the swimming hole, the river runs underneath a broad waterfall that sprays it at a perpendicular angle from the lip of the escarpment higher up. Suddenly, our unflappable guide is a kid again, eagerly stripping down to his shorts and wading towards the falls. “Maasai people come here at Christmas!” he shouts back at us over his shoulder and the loud smattering of water on water. With a high pitched whoop he flops into jet of white water and lets the current carry him back down to where we are still shedding our trekking clothes. “Come!” he says standing up and heading back to the waterfall, which he promptly walks through and under. 

We follow under the laconic stares of a troop of olive baboons perched a little way up the canyon wall. We yip at cold water until it starts to feel like a comfortable alternative to the muggy heat. Within seconds, we’re kids too, screaming with delight as we duck through the waterfall. On the other side, the river gushes through a narrow channel after a three meter drop. The raging water has carved out deep niches in the canyon that serve as natural jacuzzi tubs. Dennis takes little time to relax though. His favourite activity is seeing just how close he can get to the base of the three meter drop before the enraged water jets him back down stream. Each one of his attempts, including scaling the canyon wall and jumping into the base of the chute, ends with the same whoop, laugh and wave goodbye as he floats by us. 

It’s the most expressive I’ve ever seen a Maasai. Who knew it only took a water slide? 

Janine and I sit in one of the rock clefts, enjoying the scouring we are getting from the rough volcanic silt that washes over us with the water. “I’m cleaner than I’ve been all trip and I didn’t even bring any soap up here.” I say happily, admiring my once-again-white fingernails.

Janine laughs and then grimaces, reaching below the water’s surface to make some adjustment to her swimsuit. “It’s great. But I’ve got sand in places sand just wasn’t meant to be.”  

Downstream, Dennis is looking up at the patch of sky visible above the canyon walls. 

“It’s raining,” he announces, his face resuming its normal expression. 

***

On our last morning at Natron, we learn from the previous day’s mistake and rise at a truly ugly hour for a hike to the feet of Ol Doinyo Lengai. We may not be able to climb the volcano, but I’d like to get close enough to feel the earth actually move underneath my feet. Maybe just a jiggle will do. 

I’m glad we can also give Dennis a little extra business with this hike. With the volcano so active, climbs to the top – his main source of revenue – have died off. It’s bad news for him and the local Maasai generally, as tourism constitutes an important part of their economy. 

We pick our way down and back up deep crevices in the black volcanic soil where torrents rage down to Lake Natron during the heavy rains. It’s hard to imagine such water today though. Even with our early start, the heat is definitely on. I curse myself vigorously for forgetting my hat back at camp and scan the path ahead, hopeful for the sight of a shady acacia.

Instead, tall stiff grasses grow all the way to the volcano itself. God is up and at’em this morning. Lengai rumbles continuously, a cloud of ash thousands of feet tall billows out of the cone. The prevailing winds continue to carry the toxic dust west towards the Crater Highlands. Where the ash cloud meets the formerly lush escarpment, green abruptly gives way to grey. 

Suddenly Dennis stops. “Ah!” he says before jogging a little ways into the grass, “Cheetah!” 

We scan the waving fields alertly but see nothing. “It saw me and then crouched low,” our guides says quietly, still looking intently. “Now I cannot see it.” 

It occurs to me for the first time that morning that Dennis is unarmed. But he bounds off into the grass looking for the big cat like it’s a tabby, chucking rocks into random sections of the field in an effort to flush the cheetah out. I bravely follow a discreet distance behind, thinking to myself that if this goes sideways, “I don’t have to outrun the fastest animal on earth. I just need to outrun Janine and my guide.” 

But the Cheetah will not be flushed. After a few more chucked rocks, Dennis gives up the hunt. “It is here, but it won’t come out,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. “The volcano is pushing more animals down here from the highlands.” 

Ol Doinyo Lengai gives its deepest rumble yet. I look around the field in vain one last time – a free cheetah siting would be a huge bonus. But the yellow-tipped grass is the perfect camoflauge. It could be anywhere. We continue our walk up a rounded hill at the base of the volcano. This is as far as we will go.

I wonder how the cheetah will do in this new environment, so different from the green highlands it has known; out of its element; adapting; learning to co-exist with new forces. Not so different from its Maasai neighbours in those respects. 

I silently wish the cat good luck and turn to gaze up at Ol Doinyo Lengai, where God sits deciding what to do with this amazing corner of the world. 

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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