Thursday, June 7, 2007

Habari Safari?

I realized that I've been really laxed about keeping a regular blog. In fact there were many a time where I would have prefered to write a journal because there is something so personal about my journey. I've completely missed out on writing about my visit to the Gorillas at Virunga National Park but I will put it in as a late entry later. For now, I'm freshly off our Safari and keen to share it.

Safari in swahili means journey. It truly is a word that encompasses itself as our safari has been a journey not only into nature and the heart of Africa but also into my self and soul. Troy and I have always felt blessed. We have had our share of trials and living through Roger's suicide has not been easy but it has also caused us to be more sensitive to the needs of our soul. It has taken this Safari for me to realize just how blessed we truly are.

Our guide's name was Baraka, this by coincidence means "Blessed" in Swahili. He had short hair, large eyes with long eyelashes and looked capable of climbing mountians, which he does. He has climbed Kilimanjaro over 20 times, he stopped counting after a while. He belongs to the Hehe tribe and is the head of his family. Because this is a safari blog, he reminded me of an elephant. He had the memory of one, the patience to wait while we viewed animals or went shopping, the knowledge of an old tusker and the solid dependence of an examplary guide. He could also charge about with much speed when he wanted to, which was usually around dusk to get us back to camp on time because we would usually push the time at sunsets (the magical hour as Troy calls it for photography) for game viewing.

As we elected to go for semi luxury camping, we also had a cook. Damian reminded me of the Banded Mongoose, a creature I had not erstwhile seen until Africa. He wore an ebony bangle on his left wrist, had sharp, pointed features and fast eyes. He moved quickly and efficiently and was keen at all tasks. He had a fantastic sense of knowing what ever hour we would arrive back to camp eventhough we always kept erratic hours. A phenomenal cook, he made a fantastic quiche for lunch one day and a vegetable pizza with dough that rivaled the best places for pizza I've eaten at. All this on a charcoal stove and working surface of about 1-2 feet. He also had a soft heart and made me custard two nights in a row because I loved it so much.

We spent one day at Lake Manyara, three nights on the Serengeti and one night at Ngorongoro Crater. Lake Manyara surprised me. In the distance, I spotted an elephant and like a mirage he came towards us. How can I describe the sensation of seeing a wild creature which one recognizes but ones brain which lives in the city says, "impossible, you can't just see an elephant today". I did not expect to see so many creatures. The large herds of elephants were impressive and two males came close to the road and challenged each other with their trunks and tusks. The giraffes were curious and melanistic in colour compared to their relatives at Akagera in Rwanda. We even saw two lions, not in trees, where the lions at Lake Manyara are famous for, but in the plains. We even saw them mate, a rare event at this park. At night we returned to Mto Wa Mbu a town populated by many Maasai who left thier pastureland for the city. We saw red bananas and tried them for the first time. I bargained hard and bought a few Maasai Blankets.

The next day we set off for the Serengeti. At the Ngorongoro Entry gate, Baraka turned towards us.
"Excuse me, sorry but this is where the tarmac road ends"

How exciting, I couldn't understand why he would apologize for this. We bypassed the Ngorongoro Crater except for a quick picture at a view point where I was suddenly swarmed by Maasai boys selling their jewellery. The Conservation area allows the Maasai to inhabit the Crater rim and for their cattle to graze at this point. They may also enter the Crater but only to water their Cattle. As expected, I purchased some jewellery with beads that only the Maasai appear to be able to wear with such dignity but are still beautiful visually. We made our way through mist or cloud as we were driving at an altitude of 3500 m above sea level. When we descended it became hot. Baraka had given us a choice of either seeing a Maasai Boma or to go to Oldepai Gorge. Of course we wanted to do both so we settled on going to the Gorge on the way to the Serengeti and on the journey back to the Boma.

Oldepai Gorge, not Oldevai as that is the corruption of the Maasai word for Sisal which is what the area is known as, is the location where the famous Archeological Leakey Family first made their discovery of Astrolopithicus the first Hominids known to walk upright. The footprints of a "family" were found at the Laetoli site after the volcano had errupted 3.5 million years ago and ash was laid down then the area buried under soil that kept the footprints buried and preserved for the Leakeys to find. The museum though small was excellent. There are skulls of extinct species of a quality that rivals those at the Royal Tyrell Museum. They also have a marvellous exhibit on stone tools and mortars made using the hip socket of the Rhino or elephant and their femurs fashioned into the pestles. In all I was highly impressed. They also hire Maasai to guard the area and for is upkeep. I saw a beautiful man graceful in his Maasai blanket and beaded jewellery. He carried a club made of ebony but not the spear that one can commonly see them carrying when they are watching their cattle graze. I watched in see a caucasian tourist stumble and wondered what he though of us. Clumsy, selfish, silly in our hats with our cameras and sunglasses. I had too much to eat so gave away my apple and cupcake to another Maasai who was slender and long limbed. He too was beautiful, almost androgynous apart from the knife he carried on his hip. He had long hair past his shoulder blades, braided and tinged red from the soil in that region. He appeared too thin and was gentle in his gratitude. I later learnt at the Maasai Boma that only "Hero's" could wear their hair long and what made them heros was the fact that they had killed a lion with only their spear. I hope he enjoyed the cupcake.

We drove along washboard red earthed roads to the Serengeti. It was hot and dry in comparison to Arusha or to Mto Wa Mbu. Baraka spoke to many guides while we were on our way and in guide code he was passed along information about a leopard in a tree. He rushed over, not telling us what we would see and there he was, magnificent cat, in a tree, his tail lazily swinging off a brach. He grazed around, it was evening, likely hunting time and slowly meandered off the tree. Graceful, agile creature, when were lucky enough to spot him the next morning, he had licked his lips several times and jumped near a pond before settling in for a nice leopard nap (this means a very long while, even for Africans). We were extremely blessed. The four days we were on the Serengeti, we saw a leopard every day. The other leopard we spotted on an early game drive had a kill of a baby wilderbeest in the tree and slept the day away. When we came back later that evening, he had nibbled slightly on the leg but made no other moves despite our patient vigilence for two hours into the sunset. The next morning, he had dragged the kill higher in the tree but had again only taken small nibbles off the belly. He slept under the tree that morning.

Our first night in the Serengeti we rushed to the campsite (we were always late). The first site - Dik Dik, was full so we made our way to Pimbi campsite adjacent to it. Damian jumped out and ran to the water tank banging against it, when he was satisfied we had enough water, he gave a nod and we set up camp. Damian and Baraka relunctantly let us help set up camp. The first to go up was our tent then the shower stall, yes you are reading this correctly, we had a shower stall, this is what semi luxury camping means in Africa. Damian got us hot water in time shorter than I expected when heating with coals, magnificent man. I didn't expect to enjoy the shower so much but a hot shower in the middle of the Serengeti after a dusty day is marvellous. It is the ultimate in luxury, the cool air against your skin, the goosebumps before the hot water, looking up and seeing a thousand million stars against the navy black sky, it was magical. There were hundreds of wilderbeest near our campsite and zebras too. Baraka set up a kerosene lamp on a rock to keep the animals at bay. I didn't take him as seriously then but decided to later in the stay when the hyenas ran through our camp not to mention the presence of lions.

Speaking of lions, we had chosen to opt for the semi luxury camping instead of a lodge primarily because Troy read on Thorn Tree someones comment about camping on safari: "the lions roaring". We thought, hell why not. I must say, reading about it and experiencing it are two very different things. Our first night, we didn't hear lions but early the next morning at 5:30 we were woken up by a roar. Initially one thinks, its my dream, or maybe I have watched too many MGM movies, but no, this was true, what we consider impossible is possible in Canada. Not all dreams are impossibilities, and dreams are literally reality. At the second roar Troy and I moved closer together. We didn't emerge until we heard Damian and other guides around. When we told Baraka, he said, he had heard it too but shrugged it off as a common occurrence. When we were brushing our teeth, watching the sun rise over the Serengeti, Troy suddenly claimed he saw a lion.

"Impossible, it was a wildebeest in the sun"

Like I've said, impossibilities are possible in Africa. In the next few seconds, through the brush magical to my eyes came a lion, golden, with a mane, padding towards us. Shining in the sun, his mane truly was a halo. I called out to Baraka, we stood there watching that lion moving towards us, about 100m away he spotted us and took off in the other direction. Later that night and on all our nights on the Serengeti, we heard the lions. We also found the wildebeest they had killed just feet away from our camp. The vultures came, the hyenas descended and the bones too were eaten away. Showering under that magical sky in the heat of the water with a lion in the background, how can I forget this?

We saw lions many times, on one special occasion there were seventeen lions in total in one pride. Approaching them in the fading light, makes reality surreal, like a cheesy documentary except we were living it. These animals are massive, beautiful, graceful and addictive. We always looked for lions. Even then, reality becomes our dreams and for me to say, "Baraka, I see a lion in the ditch" is in all reality my magical dream.

Steven Lewis, the humanitarian, the social commentator, the powerful speaker once gave a talk on Africa. He said the country, the people, the atmosphere, it was addictive. He called it "Mal d'Afrique". When I met him and spoke to him, he knew I was going to Africa, and he warned me again. How should I explain that I have this disease, this infection, that I am eating it, drinking it, living it. How should I illustrate this, but to say that all I seem to do is dream of Africa.

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