‘The horror! The horror!’
Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, –he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath–
‘The horror! The horror!’
(Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)
Yep, that was me as we walked through the door of the Ilboru Lodge in Arusha, Tanzania and all my fears (and snobbery) about package tours smacked me on the nose. Before us was an assorted bunch of sun-blasted, blobby tourists lying on sun loungers sipping cocktails, or worse, donning grass skirts and giddily wobbling to warbling local riddims. Local fellas were doing cheesy acrobatic routines while asking for tips. One minute in and I was feeling queasy. I put it down to the thirty hours of flying and sloped off to the room post-haste.
A Year Earlier
“So, I want to take you kids on the holiday of a lifetime. I will pick up the tab.”
So began the conversations with Laura’s mother that eventually landed us along with her sister Kelsey in Tanzania in June 2018. Mama unexpectedly came into some money and decided to treat us to a fabulous vacation. After a couple of months of discussion, we decided on on a two-week, three-stage trip to Tanzania. We visited the northern safari parks of Tanzania, the fabled island of Zanzibar, and the fabulous eco-resort of Chole Mjini. We could do some of our favorite things: visit a new country, animal watch, dive, snorkel, and laze away the days at tropical beaches. Thanks, Mama!!!
And, although Mama ain’t no stranger to slumming it with us (hello, Tingri in Tibet) we were aiming for a higher level of luxury and pre-planning than we are typically accustomed to. Tanzania is not a budget destination and it’s not practical to plan an independent wildlife safari. So, for the safari part of our trip, we would be taking a private safari with our own driver and staying at upscale lodges on the way.
No doubt the curmudgeonly travel writer, Paul Theroux, would poo-poo our apparent ‘sell-out’. Before we left, I read his Dark Star Safari, an account of his gritty travels from Alexandria to Cape Town. It is safe to say that not a single traveler we met in Tanzania went full-on Theroux through Tanzania. It is a strident corrective for the self-indulgent traveller who thinks he is the sh*t!
Theroux typically exudes great distaste for the average tourist heading to Africa to do a ‘safari’. “The world of big game viewing is a world apart from the life of Kenya… I regarded safari people as fantasists, heading into the tamest bush in zebra-striped cars with hampers of gourmet food.” And, he reminds us, “The Swahili word safari means journey, it has nothing to do with animals, someone ‘on safari’ is just away and unobtainable and out of touch.”
But, let’s be honest, we were on safari in the Swahili sense since our mode of travel made us sadly somewhat unconnected to and unobtainable to the average Tanzanian. Even though I was looking forward to visiting Tanzania, I was acutely aware of Theroux’s sentiments and keen on setting myself apart from tacky tourists. This would be tricky as we were totally diving into the belly of the beast on this trip. We are not typically ‘package tourist’ types but with a tight schedule, the general practicalities to consider, and the need to up the comfort level with Mama coming with us, I guess we had to suck it up!
Thankfully, our driver Eddie got it. No bullshit from this guy. He would be our guide and driver for our week in the safari parks and we liked him as soon as he picked us up at Kilimanjaro Airport. As we drove towards Arusha, the mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro swiped away clouds from her summit and gave us a sneak peek. ‘Ever climbed the mountain, Eddie?’ ‘Ha, Ha, Ha! No. This is hell to me. People come here on holiday to do this? Why?’ ‘You have got a point there, Eddie,’ I thought,.
One Night In Arusha
The hotel was off a small dusty street and a world away from the town outside. Dinner was not exactly formal but the level of service was a tad over the top for us. So, far so Theroux. The fantasists cut off from the realities of the streets outside.
At breakfast, we were entertained by a thoroughly grotesque frat boy from Vancouver dressed just like his fawning mother. He was clearly out of his depths and not doing a good job of hiding it. He exhibited that awful refrain that we heard time and time again, “We have been in Africa…” and just when you are waiting to be impressed by months of intrepid derring-do crossing Congo West to East, “…five days” limps out of his mouth. Number one: you are in Tanzania, you fuck wit. Number two: Africa isn’t a country, it’s a fucking continent of 54 very diverse nations.
Anyways, enough bitching about the buffalos. I am sure there will be more and there is no point getting wound up by perpetual idiocy this early in the trip.
Mto Wa Mbu
Mama wanted a bit of cultural activity before six days of wildlife viewing. Who were we to argue? Particularly as she was picking up the tab. Our first stop was the scruffy but charming town of Mto wa Mbu. Bright and early on our first morning, we took a short flight from Arusha airport to the Manyara landing strip.
Arusha airport is unlike any airport you are likely to see at home (well, probably not so true for the Alaskans in our group!). The quintessential bush airport, a sight we would become well-acquainted with before the end of the trip. A small coterie of tiny, colorful aircraft, a grass air strip, laid back security, unattended gift shop, and recycled boarding passes. No stern TSA to deal with, no long lines, plus efficient helpful staff, and chatty pilots. Safety instructions took thirty seconds and onboard hospitality was a bottle of water.
The flight to Manyara was spectacular. The landing strip was a little disconcerting, perched on the edge of an escarpment over the Great Rift Valley, with little room for error. The pilot put us down with aplomb, taxied haphazardly over the mud, turfed us out, took on two more passengers and was on his merry way deeper into the game parks before we had reached the terminal.
Eddie met us at the airport in the Land Cruiser and took us to a viewpoint overlooking Lake Manyara and the Great Rift Valley on the way to Mto wa Mbu.
Our local guide Shabon in Mto wa Mbu was a fount of knowledge. We learned all there is to know about bananas, the best leaves to abort a fetus, and the best herbal cure for malaria. We visited a splendid workshop of Makonde master carvers. The Makonde had left Mozambique during the long civil war and made their living carving wonderful statues.
A popular type of large statue depicted the peaceful relationships between all the tribal groups of Tanzania. One of the reasons Tanzania rarely makes the news is that since independence it has been a relatively stable and peaceful country. Let’s face it, African countries only ever make the news when there is chaos to report. Its 120 tribes acknowledge that rejoicing in similarities rather than fighting over differences is key to political stability. OK, I have grossly glossed over the situation, but our impressions of Tanzanian civil society from our rarefied viewpoint were favorable.
We walked through a banana plantation and stopped off at the local outdoor pub for a couple of jars of banana beer. This was a frothy gurgling concoction that looked like the Bog of Eternal Stench. Day one and we were already taking risks with our flimsy constitutions. One sip and day two could be more flowing turds of greasy poo rather than flowing herds of gnu-ing gnu. But, what would Paul Theroux do? And, I have to say it tasted better than it looked and and we got approving nods from the locals!
Tarangire National Park
Thankfully, there were no morning repercussions so we set off for Tarangire National Park, our first glimpse of the world as it might have been before people showed up and fucked it up. From this point on, my journal really becomes a numbers game. There are incredible amounts of animals in Northern Tanzania. And, my journal from here on in reads: elephants (9), lions (4), gnu (100,000)…
Obviously, animals don’t respect park boundaries so even before we entered the park, we saw ostriches, wildebeests, Thompson’s gazelles, and amazing bird and reptile life from the road. The people life was pretty damned colorful as well. We came upon many groups of young Masai boys, who were decked in the garb of the just-been-circumcised. Black robes, head-dress of ostrich feathers, and faces painted white.
Once in the park, the animals come thick and fast. The thing that blew us away most was that the animals were totally unconcerned by the cars and people. I expected to see plenty of animals, but I thought they might still be a little skittish. Nope. If a cheetah fancies using your spare tire as a scratch pad he absolutely will. Elephants brush past the cars and give them a gentle nudge just to remind you who is boss round here.
It’s not hard to spot wildlife on safari. The dead giveaway is a line of Land Cruisers jammed together on the road and a flurry of chatter between the guides on their radios. Not long after entering Tarangire, we pulled up to a spot where several vehicles were crowded together, their occupants peering at what looked like an empty patch of tall grass.
It turned out that two well-camouflaged cheetahs were lounging in the grass. This was the first sighting of a cat in the wild for me, Laura, and Mama, and it was a little less than satisfactory. It took us a good 10 minutes to discern a lazily blinking eye and spotted coat in the tall grass. The only giveaway was when one cheetah flicked its tail. We got a few full glimpses of a cheetah’s face and body through the binoculars. We waited for a while but the cats had no intention of strutting their stuff in front of us. Never fear, we would have a much better cheetah sighting a few days later in the Serengeti!
Zebras were the most abundant and recognizable animal we saw on our first morning in Tarangire. We took millions of photos of a group of zebras at a watering hole. Later in our trip, zebras were so abundant that they felt commonplace but today we were excited to see so many of them. A clump of zebras under an acacia tree was a classic scene that made it feel like we were really on safari. Eddie explained that zebras stand close together in small groups to confuse predators.
Warthogs were another hit with the whole gang. We saw several groups of warthogs soon after entering the park. The beasts are surprisingly endearing and cute in an ugly way. They run around with their tails sticking straight up like flags on mailboxes.
In addition to wildlife, Tarangire is noted for its acacia woodland and baobab trees. Eddie told us that there is a local belief that witches live in baobabs. We can see where that comes from. The bulbous trees have a spooky presence unlike any other tree.
The picnic spot amusingly had a cage so that we could lock ourselves inside in the event that a big beast with a hungry look came wandering through. No such fun, which was a shame since there were some tasty looking annoying tourists on the menu!
After lunch, we went in search of Tarangire’s elephants. We didn’t get far before we had another first: giraffes. We saw one, two, then more giraffes nibbling on foliage.
As we were watching a giraffe, a lone male elephant came out of the forest and headed to the riverbank. He dug in the mud, blew out the water he didn’t like, and guzzled down gallons of the tasty sweet stuff.
A few loud trumpets behind us alerted to the presence of a larger group so off we drove. Within seconds, we came upon nine or so gobbling up pounds of foliage totally unconcerned by our coos and clicks. We watched for a good half hour and could have stayed longer. Elephants are fascinating, social creatures and you can tell they are frequently communicating with each other.
Further on up the road, we came upon a group of sixteen elephants. The matriarch seemed a little annoyed we had disturbed them and she gave a small warning by means of a low guttural drone. A young male sauntered up to the car and gave it a little nudge. Message delivered and understood.
We drove on and the numbers kept on rising. Eddie had the uncanny ability to spot camouflaged animals to one side of the car while expertly navigating the Land Rover over the dusty roads. We saw vultures, fish eagles, honey badgers, pelicans, monitor lizards, and a cute posse of mongoose.
The abundant and beautiful bird life was a surprise. Everyone who goes on safari wants to see the big stuff: lions, elephants, hippos. We weren’t expecting to see colorful birds like in Costa Rica or Indonesia, so it was a pleasant surprise to see a variety of birds. We are big fans of hornbills and even though African hornbills aren’t as showy as their Southeast Asian cousins, Laura was thrilled to see a population of them at the lodge.
The Tangarire Safari Lodge is perched upon an escarpment overlooking the Tarangire River winding through open acacia woodlands. It is a sensational sunset spot. Not often is your Moscow Mule accompanied by the sight of lions! Even rarer, you have to be accompanied back to your tent cabin after dark by attendants since lions occasionally wander through the lodge!
The most fascinating sight from the lodge, however, were our fellow tourists. Silver-haired, blue hair-haired wrinkle-faced Nigels and Marjories from Grosshampton. “Nigel and I had a wonderful time on the Zambezi with our chap from Kampala”. I kept imagining the reverse of all the situations I witnessed. Would Nigel sing ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’ to some Maasai visitors to the US the night before taking them around the neighborhood to see the local raccoons and squirrels?
We slept well in our sturdy tent cabin, that is until a screeching bird and roaring lion in the distance woke us up! In the morning, we did another quick drive around Tarangire. We saw ostriches, zebra, waterbuck, ground hornbills, buffalo, and secretary birds. The highlight was a group of three female lions and their delightfully playful cubs.
We could have left Tanzania that day and it would still have been among the most memorable couple of days of my life. And the real highlights, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, were still to come.
Before I end, I want to make mention of our tour company, Fair Travel Tanzania. We chose them because they are a small company that genuinely invests in the livelihood of the people that work for them. They pay fair wages, are transparent about that on their invoices, and were very responsive to all our requests as we were setting up the trip. They offer lower prices than typical safari operators because they’re not focused on making a profit. Everything went absolutely according to plan and we recommend them highly.