Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Rwanda/Tanzania - September 2019

We left Toronto at around 6 pm on Friday evening, and the flight to Brussels passed the only test that seems to matter, that we registered very little of it. Flying is like surgery – an expensive procedure that you hope mostly to sleep through. It’s appealing to think of an alternative mindset where you spend the time actively contemplating the improbability of what you’re experiencing, but the immediacy of it is just too narrow and cramped. Anyway, I did a minimal amount of reading; Ally was awake only a little longer. We saw hardly anything of Brussels Airport, as the signs directed us to a stark lower-level gathering point, and then via bus to another terminal from which, one imagines, the less glamorous routes depart. That may be how they see it anyway – to us, Kigali is about as glamorous as it needs to get.

In fact the flight was to Entebbe with a stop in Kigali, which seemed even more glamorous. We slept through much of that one too, missing the meal service (we probably wouldn’t have wanted it anyway as we’d been unable to pre-order a vegetarian option, leaving a choice of meat or fish). I watched the long-forgotten (if it was ever known at all) 1977 film La menace, in which Yves Montand ends up crushed between two vigilante-driven trucks while driving to Vancouver; Ally watched Kramer vs. Kramer. Our route took us over Egypt, some of it at low enough altitude that we could see the desert.

We were far from being the only obvious tourists on the plane (at Toronto check-in, we heard a gate agent remark that almost everyone headed to Brussels seemed to be headed for Africa). Kigali Airport is fairly bright – by no means the most chaotic we’ve arrived at. The line moved quickly, just a few token questions and $30US per person for the entry visa. Our bags arrived rapidly and then we entered the waiting throng, where we rapidly found the thing that makes everything easy, a guy holding up our names. This was Kevin who would be our guide for the Rwandan portion of the trip, driving us around in a large Land Cruiser which felt a little silly just for the two of us (but anyway…) It was already pitch black, but the air was fresh and welcoming and we immediately felt relaxed and good about the whole thing (not that we were carrying much anxiety).

Most of the drive to the hotel was through a new section of Kigali, all built as part of the post-genocide reconstruction (we had wondered about the propriety of mentioning the genocide, but he matter-of-factly brought it up very quickly) – the roads are straight and modern and tree-lined, going past gleaming new hotels, and a Convention Centre which looks like an illuminated party hat. People walked slowly along, seeming to enjoy Saturday evening: the traffic was relatively orderly, punctuated with motorcycles weaving in and out (mostly taxis). It doesn’t take long though to see that Rwanda’s orderliness – he emphasized that we could walk around safely 24 hours a day – isn’t just left to chance: we saw several armed guards with guns, and the vehicle had to be swept before entering the hotel grounds.

We stayed at the Serena Hotel, which is apparently very close to the Presidential residence. It runs like a smooth machine; a young man in an immaculate white uniform handled our check-in and brought us to our room, which was huge, with easy wi-fi, an espresso machine, a large balcony with a view of the inner courtyards and its several restaurants and open-air swimming pool, and all the rest of it. We had dinner in one of the restaurants, both ordering Indian food, which seemed peculiar, but as always when leading a vegetarian life, you take what you can get. We already had the feeling of the long flight being put behind us, and of the same divided consciousness we almost always have: on the one hand marveling that we’d made it to Kigali, while at the same time thinking we could be anywhere.

The food was very cheap – less than $10 an entrée – whereas the wine cost more in line with what we’d pay back home. The restaurant was pretty quiet, and most other patrons focused mainly on their phones (as I said, they could be anywhere, or nowhere). We had a beer on our balcony, watching staff wait around for the last few patrons. We slept well, and so by the next morning we were comfortably on Rwandan time (not a big adjustment anyway – it’s just six hours ahead). The breakfast was the kind of absurdly opulent buffet that’s served in all high-end hotels everywhere. Kevin was late picking us up because of some traffic-disrupting “sports day” that apparently caused him to drive 20km out of his way. Our first stop was in the old part of Kigali, at a shop that sells the work of 55 local women, and serves at the starting point for walking tours of the area. It wasn’t the most glamorous of walking tours by any means, but that was exactly the appeal – just normal under-maintained streets crammed with little hole-in-the-wall businesses, people living their lives. Based on this (probably unrepresentative) survey, the main driver of the economy may be hairdressing – we must have seen ten or more salons, mostly just one or two chairs and no room to turn around otherwise, but apparently with all the tools and chemicals necessary to deliver. We went into a milk bar and into various vendors, mostly just with a product range you could inventory with your fingers; we went to a water collection point (because around there plenty of houses do without running water); we watched women mashing up cassava leaves. At the end we bought a few items in the collective’s store. It was very satisfying and informative and felt like we were seeing something real (this is the perpetual unknown of being a tourist – how much does your very presence change the flow of things). 

Then we drove to the genocide museum. We’ve certainly seen our share of such commemorations (Hiroshima, Holocaust centres in Berlin and Israel) but this one still brings its own kind of depressing horror, because of the horrible intimacy and immediacy of what it depicts – one story after another of friends and neighbours and even family members turning on each other in the most gruesome, savage way. The details are more than you want to process; the country’s recovery from it is just a miracle (if anyone wanted to study in depth the nature of reconciliation and forgiveness, this would surely be the place). In addition to the unprocessable exhibits (which extend to details of how individually named children were killed) there are mass graves for over 250,000 victims, and a wall of names (very much a work in progress). We couldn’t help noting that the wretched display of clothing recovered from the dead included a little boy’s Ottawa Canada T-shirt.

We moved on (if that’s possible), stopping at a little store to pick up two slices of pizza, and then driving for two and a half hours or so to the Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, near the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park in the city of Musanze, apparently Rwanda’s second biggest. It’s a scenic drive (well, we both slept for part of it, but I’m sure that portion was scenic too), rising above Kigali and on well-maintained roads through a series of little communities, almost always with mountains rising in the background. There was never a moment when we couldn’t see someone walking on the side of the road, sometimes in great numbers (apparently that was attributable to it being Sunday, Rwanda being a great churchgoing nation) – you could easily imagine that the country is in constant easygoing motion. Many of the women carry baskets or other improbably large burdens on their heads; bicycles are similarly laden down; you see sheep and goats, but not a single dog (we thought maybe this was because dogs had fallen into disfavor since the genocide – when many were slaughtered for eating the flesh of the dead – but our guide told us they’re still around, he even has two himself, but they’re kept away from the road). Periodically we saw armed police (not out to extract corrupt money as might be the case elsewhere, just keeping the peace I guess) but among all these thousands of walking people we did not see a single white face until we arrived at Musanze, and then just a mere handful.

So no surprise that when we asked the receptionist if it was OK to leave the hotel grounds and go for a walk, her only comment was not to mind if the kids called us Muzungu (white person in the Kinyarwandan language). We did indeed hear that, and we were obviously objects of wonderment to the little kids in particular. Then four teenage boys latched onto us and kept peppering us with questions about ourselves, interspersed with information about themselves, much of it along the lines of how they’re trying to make a better life, about the difficulty of obtaining sufficient school supplies, about how they don’t even have a proper soccer ball now because it broke, and so on. I decided I’d give them enough money to buy a new ball at least, but that I’d wait until we were back at the hotel (we turned back after half an hour or so). Then some crazy-seeming guy chased them away and they disappeared for a while. We met up with a Swiss guy who was also walking back to the same place (apparently not quite as inundated with attention as we had been); then they reappeared, and pulled us into a nearby church where a few people were dancing around and they got me to join in briefly (the camera was in my pocket at the time so there is no record of this). At the hotel gates I gave them $50 – even if they were embellishing or outright inventing, their need was certainly greater than ours, and they’d undoubtedly given us a memorable encounter (having said that, our preferred mode of walking really is just to be left alone).

So that was a memorable day by any measure, and as the walk ended we hadn’t even been in the country for 24 hours yet. As always, a day of immersed travel just fills your head and senses almost more than you can accommodate (this is largely why we never feel we need to take hugely long trips). Our room at the Five Volcanoes – off by itself down a little path - was also very large and pleasant, and it had wi-fi too, even though this was officially only in the common areas. It was dark not long after six.

Asked about the pros and cons of Rwanda, the kids spoke positively about the company’s security and safety, citing lack of technology as the main negative – they said their school has some 20 computers for 1,000 pupils (a contrast to the promotional volume in the Kigali hotel, showing a little country school where everyone’s on a laptop). Driving up from Kigali, we could see the divide between the old city and the new – some of the roads we drove on were just a couple of months old (replacing what appeared to be little more than dirt tracks). You instantly feel huge affection for it, and excitement for its potential (the Swiss guy mentioned that Uganda, where he’d just been, is far less impressive at this point). Actually, even after a day, we were speculating about what we might do on a return trip (we did not realize that the “Big 5” safari animals, along with chimpanzees and of course gorillas, can all be viewed within Rwanda) but that’s a topic for another time…

We had dinner in the hotel – given the minimal choice, Ally ended up having almost exactly the same Indian-styled meal as on the first night. We finished the night with some wine on our veranda. We had to be ready to go by 6.45 am on the next day, because it was gorilla day!! This starts by driving to the central site where the day’s license holders (there are only 88 a day) are allocated into groups (eight to a group) – as you can imagine, the air is thick with excited anticipation. Kevin told us that some groups walk about two hours where others walk for twice as long or more, and yet the gorilla spotting is often better with the former, so he advised us to claim we were incapable of doing the longer walks and thus to achieve a cushier allocation. We achieved this without any playacting, and then had to drive to the actual hike starting point (during which our vehicle’s off-roading capacities were finally justified). Our group contained four Americans, including one hefty gentleman who found the whole thing very arduous and made sure we constantly knew that, and two Torontonians, one of whom I actually recognized from my brief time at Deloitte. The walking portion of it took less than two hours there and back and wasn’t too tough (just a bit steep) but the experience was made more taxing by lots of pushing through dense growth, potentially tearing your hands and clothes and so on. We were underdressed compared to the others (no gloves in particular) but it really didn’t matter…

Because the gorilla tracking was everything we hoped it would be and more! Of the 24 gorillas in the family we were assigned to, we saw 16 or 17 of them - we did not see the alpha male but we saw three other silverback males and various females and infants. The guide had said we should only expect to spend an hour around the gorillas, but we spent over two hours, I believe (some of our group, incredibly, seemed to have had enough by the end); she had also said we should expect to get no closer than seven metres, but we were much closer than that, frequently almost within touching distance, and several times well within, such as the occasions on which they brushed right past us (one picture makes it look as if Ally is being charged, which happily wasn’t the case). Mostly they were just hanging out, eating or basking, showing limited interest in us, even when I was worried we were crowding them. The effort was led by a fearless group of trackers who, as mentioned, constantly hacked out new (sort of) paths for us with their machetes, leading us to further awesome sightings (the trackers stay with the gorillas until they settle down for the night, and then return early in the morning before they’ve had a chance to move too far – it must be an exhausting life). Everyone also hires a porter, which we didn’t need for actual porting, but they were useful in assisting us during the climb (I don’t know if I’ve ever spent so much time gripping another dude’s hand) - it seems to be pretty openly acknowledged that hiring the porters is a semi-charity gig for locals who might otherwise, in a worst case, turn to poaching. Anyway, it was just a thrilling morning, a stand-out even among our wonderful existing safari memories: we felt so privileged and lucky to be experiencing this (and certainly did not utter a single word of complaint about anything…)

(I only remembered later that I’d been paranoid for months about being prevented from coming because of having a cold, as I almost perpetually do (they emphasize that this can get you turned away with no refund, to avoid infecting the gorillas). As it was, my nose had never been as clear (Ally had a similar fear, and managed not to draw attention to the moments at which she felt congested). The temperature was very cool and accommodating – it would be much tougher if it was hot (although apparently that’s not common given the higher altitude) and even more so if it rained and was muddy (which can certainly happen). We got lots of great pictures, although we’re always wary of the experience being overly defined by picture-taking rather than by just being there, of one’s memory being composed entirely of what was caught on camera. For example, I recall the moment in which the gorilla was standing right next to me, which isn’t in a photo, much more vividly than the next few seconds in which it moved on, and in which I instinctively raised my arms to take a picture. On the other hand, the resulting photo is one of my all-time favourites, not least for recording the moaning American taking a picture of his wife, and thus entirely missing the great moment happening behind him.

I mentioned the poor quality of the road leading to the hike starting point; it was also a further window on the more modest aspects of Rwanda – lots of farming (potatoes, maize, cabbage), extremely poor-looking houses. It appears that Rwandans let even the youngest kids run unsupervised, and so we had a steady stream of interest in our vehicle (we must have waved more than the Queen). Private cars are relatively uncommon outside Kigali it seems – on this day we mainly saw bicycles, again often impossibly laden down. On the other end of things, we passed a sign for a research campus to be built and named for Ellen DeGeneres, who’s become interested in Rwanda in recent years and was apparently here just a few weeks earlier. We were told she stays at a place that charges $15,000 a night, which seems absurd and obscene, especially in this context (we tried speculating on what could ever justify such a price tag, but it was beyond our imagination). Good to know though that regardless, she and others still have to go through the same process in terms of coming down to the central site, being allocated to a group of eight and so forth, or that’s what Kevin says anyway. Yet more luxury hotels are under construction.

We returned to the hotel for lunch at around 1 pm. Kevin relayed to us on the way back that some of the other ten groups were still searching for gorillas (we subsequently heard that one group arrived back after 5 pm). He said they’re always successful in the end though. We could certainly have managed being assigned to a more arduous group, but it was nice we didn’t have to.

The planned afternoon activity was a boat ride on a nearby lake - we were initially told this was going to be called off due to looming bad weather, but then it was back on again. We set off, with a fine view of the five volcanos, and little activity on the lake other than a family transporting a big load of produce in an unsuitable looking craft. I asked about an impressive-looking house on one of the islands within the lake  and Kevin said it was the boatman’s house – I took this as a joke but it was actually true: when not working as a boatman, he’s building a hotel and restaurant. We stopped off there for a beer-  by then the weather was getting bad, and we were also being told that the engine on the boat was not very reliable (thanks!) But we made it back with no problem and then returned to the hotel, with both of us in a constant state of trepidation as our massive vehicle hurled itself on the wet roads past kids and cyclists (many of which, by the way, are also taxis and so carry two people, which of course doesn’t make it seem any safer as you roar past them). 

So that was a second wonderful day. Notwithstanding those reservations, we were happy that our photos captured the experience very well, and we were so excited to send them out that we even went into the main hotel area for a while to get that done (as the wi-fi in the room was too weak). We had dinner in the hotel – vegetarian empanadas (it seems the chef likes to experiment with global culinary concepts). The following morning we again woke up early and drove back to the same central site, this time to be allocated to a walking tour for golden monkeys. The structure is exactly the same – you drive to the starting point down a dirt road; there’s a guide, trackers, porters – but the monkeys don’t move around as much as the gorillas, and it doesn’t take too much walking to reach them, so the porters in particular are not at all required (mine basically got paid for taking a nice morning stroll). Still, once again, it serves to spread a little money around.

All three of the couples with whom we did the gorilla trekking were there for a second day of it, although the Toronto couple commented they didn’t really need a second day, and as I mentioned, some of the Americans moaned their way through the first. But I guess you never know these things in advance. When we mentioned this to Kevin, he talked about two Canadian couples who did it every day for a week, spending every night at that $15,000 a shot location. The mind boggles!

The group was twice as large as the previous day’s, made up largely of garrulous Australians (many of whom were too mean to hire a porter!) The walk went through farmers’ fields, mostly potatoes; the golden monkeys live in an adjoining forest, but like to swoop into the fields and steal the crops. The guide tolerated this for a while, just to facilitate amusing photos I suppose, but thereafter chased them away. Otherwise they were mostly in the trees, and hard to observe (and even more so to photograph) but putting on a nice little show. There’s something very odd though about watching a monkey innocuously living his life in a tree, with ten or twelve cameras pointing up at it. There are elephants in the national park as well (we crossed some footprints during the gorilla walk) but they are apparently seldom seen, and aren’t suitable for tourism as they keep their distance (we saw the same thing on our last trip to Tanzania – the elephants in the Selous, where there is a past history of poaching, avoid humans at all costs, whereas those in the Serengeti, where there’s no such history, are happy to be observed up close) (as will be happily reported later, the Ruaha elephants very much take the latter approach).

The walk was over before 11 am. The official itinerary was that we were to have lunch at the hotel before returning to Kigali, but we chose to head back right away, and arrived around 1.30 pm. The drive was no less scenic than before, especially as Kigali came into view and you could simultaneously see the small rural houses clinging to the hillsides, the density of the old town, and the gleaming high-rise city beyond. At regular intervals you see women sweeping the side of the road – apparently something that’s expected of them for the portion of road near their house, but very strange when the road is a tire-busting disaster, and yet the side of it is being perpetually swept. Still, I must say Rwanda apparently has almost no littering. We passed innumerable farmers’ fields with people at work, but I don’t think we ever saw a tractor or any such machinery – everything seems to be tended by hand, then delivered by bicycle. You certainly get a sense of the near-impossibility of climbing out of such a life.

Two things made the drive rather heavy. Kevin told us about his 2-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy and for whom the treatment is ruinously expensive, and so he’s trying everything he can to solicit donations. Obviously the tour company would not at all approve of him hitting up clients for money, and we promised we wouldn’t tell them, while deferring any further answer. Assuming the story is true (and you always have to be aware it may not be, but we chose to assume it was), it’s a difficult moral question, whether this cause deserves our support more than (say) poor Rwandan kids in general, or poor Canadian kids for that matter (the Daily Bread food bank has been our main cause for some years). From this he led (somewhat artfully, if you were being skeptical) into his personal genocide history – other than his parents who were out of the country, he was the only survivor out of 75 family members, with a story which involves witnessing brutal deaths of his sister and others, being thrown into a crocodile and hippo-occupied river and making it out alive, and a long solitary walk to the Ugandan border. If it were a movie, as the cliché goes, it would be both unbelievable and barely watchable. Anyway, these twin subjects drained the life out of the party for the remainder of the drive.

We checked into our room at the Serena Hotel – the room looked almost identical to the room we had the other night. Then a brief panic followed because Ally had lost one of her credit cards, and was on the verge of calling the bank to cancel it – we found it in one of our bags. We went for a walk in Kigali. Everyone emphasizes how safe it is, and we saw no evidence to the contrary, but of course being safe isn’t the same as being left alone, and we were approached by numerous vendors, all with the same limited inventory of local English-language newspapers, language guides and (oddly) issues of The Economist, and by a couple of begging kids. They all backed off fairly quickly – still, in more populous parts of the city it suggests the harassment might be considerable. We stuck to the area around the hotel, which has lots of modern development and wide streets and not much foot traffic. It’s pleasant, but not of great interest other than as a symbol of progress – still, we were happy just to be walking in Kigali! We found a modern restaurant called Fusion, tied to a boutique hotel called The Retreat, where the clientele was certainly made up heavily of visitors rather than locals, and we had a pleasant late lunch there in quiet surroundings, before walking back to the hotel. And there we had an email from the guys to whom we gave $50, showing themselves posing with a nice new ball! This is what they had to say:

·       Hello our dearest friend 

·       How are you doing there? We are  very happy to email you for a purpose of show you a ball you give us and we are going to attend the champion very soon we have to tell you result from in

·       It was nice to meet you in our life 

·       We will tell you about more our selves very soon and our term information 

·       Please greet for us your wife we are walking very well and sport but also as we told you 

·       We are also students

·       Still have good time 

·       Your friends Seth,Paul,valence

·       We are waiting your forward soon

·       Heard of term Seth

Well, the details may be fuzzy, but I’m happy that we did them a favour. We spent the evening at the Serena Bar – the place again didn’t seem very busy. The next day we had breakfast and were picked up by Kevin at 7.30 am – he said he’d been at the hospital all night because his daughter had a fever. No doubt his job (like any job that gives you access to tourist dollars) makes him better off than the average Rwandan, but it’s still precarious – he didn’t know when his next client would be assigned (he said he sometimes waits a week, or even two), and he only gets paid on the days he works. His ambition is to work for himself but no doubt it’s not easy to get something like that going. It’s rather astonishing how many people he knows – whether at hotel reception, at the airport drop-off, at a traffic red light, he’s always catching up with someone. He’s on his phone constantly – in this regard, Rwandans are certainly part of the modern world.

Kigali rush hour traffic was predictably chaotic. We drove on yet another new road – open just two weeks apparently (the roadsides lined with remnants of recent demolition). The main entrance to the airport was closed, perhaps for the President’s use, said Kevin (or Ellen’s?) and we took another entrance at which we had to get out of the car and unload our bags to be checked out by the canine unit (like all such working dogs, he really seemed to enjoy his work). The check-in itself was easy enough, although it transpired that our flight was leaving half an hour later than we’d been informed. With hindsight, Ruaha in Tanzania is not a very easy logistical fit with Rwanda, and we probably would have planned things a different way (maybe just to spend the whole trip within Rwanda as I said before). Having said that, spending one night of your life in Dar es Salaam isn’t such a bad thing to have done. We always thought we might get to the hotel too late to do anything meaningful in the city, and the later flight just made that more likely. Actually though we did better than we might have – our hotel, the Southern Sun, is quite close to the ocean, so we were able to walk along there for a while (including the portion of it named after Barack Obama), observing local kids with an impressive commitment to fitness, and past some of the embassies which are on the same street (Canada, UK, Germany…) The hotel literature also emphasizes its proximity to the city’s botanical gardens, but this seemed mostly like a dusty semi-wasteland, and likely a contender for the worst “botanical gardens” in the world (as surely as the Serengeti is in contention for best national park in the world, as our driver was telling us).

Our flight initially landed in Kilimanjaro (at the airport where we arrived on our previous Tanzania trip) before continuing on to Dar. At various times we did have some fairly spectacular view of mountains and deserts – at one point we could see what seemed to be the loneliest road in the world, just stretching out for tens of unpopulated miles. The arrival process was horribly slow and convoluted – first you go to one place to fill out an immigration form, then you go another place to get photographed and fingerprinted for a visa, then to another place to pay for the visa ($50US each), then to another place for passport control, which is itself subdivided between two different people. Each of these stages moves extremely slowly, so I can’t imagine how long it would take if you were at the back of the line from a big plane (Rwanda, you may recall, involved one quick check, mostly for the purposes of collecting the cash). Then the drive to the hotel took another hour or so through horribly congestion - Kigali traffic chaos was nothing by comparison, so the investment in new roads may be paying off. On the other hand, Dar es Salaam appears to have far more cars (and therefore relatively fewer motorbikes). While waiting in traffic, the vehicle was approached by a constant stream of vendors – for ice cream, peanuts, cashews, maps, flashlights, razors: strangest was a guy with a tank of ornamental fish on his head – or beggars. It often seemed too that every patch of sidewalk – to the extent not dense with people - was occupied by a street vendor. Between us we spotted only one white person during the whole hour (I note this only for anthropological interest). We therefore assumed we might get harassed during our walk, but actually we were entirely left alone, even more than in Kigali, which we deeply appreciated (however, as I mentioned, we were walking through more rarified areas). The hotel itself is a bit more basic than the Serena, but completely fine – they start serving breakfast at the unheard of hour of 4 am, which I think speaks to how many guests just touch down briefly there before an early morning departure to more exotic things, just like us (in fact, we later learned that some book a room just for a few daytime stopover hours, although that would make better sense if it were closer to the airport).

The restaurant had the widest selection we’d encountered so far – five vegetarian entrée choices! I had a “Swahili vegetable platter”: Ally made a more conventional sandwich choice. We were sitting outside and were entertained by two cats flagrantly trolling the tables for scraps, and two very young kittens apparently learning the ropes (and visibly growing in confidence as the night went on). The waiter said they are not strays but rather live in a nearby building – they certainly make good use of their freedom. He also told us that his wife and two children live near Kilimanjaro (because she works for the telephone company and they transferred her there, but he had to stay with the job he had) and that he only sees them a few times a year, sometimes catching the bus after work and traveling all night, then turning up to take them to school in the morning. Life here certainly does run on different prevailing assumptions.

We were the only ones at breakfast, and left the hotel at 6.30 am, before the city’s congestion hell had kicked in – the journey back to the airport took only a fraction of the time, with most of the street vendors not yet in place. This was our second time at the Dar es Salaam light aircraft terminal – everything seems very ramshackle by usual airport standards, but all holds together somehow. We flew off on an eight-seater plane, with three other passengers. The first stop was at the little airstrip in Selous, the same one where we got off two years ago (one might get used to multiple visits to, say, Frankfurt Airport, but being back at the Selous airstrip seemed like pretty rarified territory). Two more people got on there, and then an hour later we touched down in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania’s biggest, although certainly not its best known or most visited. We lost and gained two passengers there, and then flew another ten minutes to an airstrip further inside Ruaha, where the flight ended. This was a relatively busy spot, with ten or so vehicles from various lodges dropping off or picking up passengers. We met our guide for the next five days, Goodluck, and the English couple with whom we’d be sharing most of our drives.

Ruaha felt vast and parched (far removed from the last rainy season), but dense in vegetation, often with huge, richly green trees standing out against shades of yellow (during the rainy season, it’s apparently all green and dense, to an extent that makes the animals almost impossible to find – the camp closes at that time for several months). Over our five days we would come to appreciate the diversity of the terrain – sometimes the ground looks like a stretch of dusty copper, sometimes it’s pitch black. Some sections look like a nuclear blast hit them – the actual explanation is usually elephants. If one were a student of vegetation and/or mineralization, I’m sure it would be entirely as rewarding in a different way (maybe even more so). Anyway, the initial drive to the camp took about an hour, during which the highlight was a leopard sleeping in a tree, stretched out languidly on a branch, as relaxed as perhaps only the supreme predators can allow themselves to be. Near there we saw ten or so elephants standing around a tree, all facing outward, the arrangement suggesting some grave act of communion. We saw several other elephants – at one point, a wide angle lens could simultaneously have captured an elephant, two warthogs and a baboon. We saw impala, zebras, and five giraffes who stared uncaringly at us when we stopped, seeming far less anxious about the people than their Selous equivalents (likewise the elephants). Overall a fine collection of sightings for the first hour.

The Nomad Kigalia camp, built on the banks of a currently dry river, only has seven tents – on our first night there were four Americans and two Germans. There’s a nicely upholstered central area where everyone gathers for meals, and then the tents are all spaced out along the river. We had lunch and I could overhear the Americans discussing Trump (they didn’t seem like fans, but still, that’s literally the last thing you want to hear about in such a place). It appeared the camp might initially have overlooked the information about us being vegetarians; still, we got by just fine on the bread and salad. Our tent was off by itself at the end of the camp territory – as we initially approached, a couple of bushbucks sprung past (actually, I rewrote that sentence a few times – initially I referred to “some kind of antelope,” later changing it to kudu, and later yet again to what I believe is the final correct answer). They allow you to take the path alone during the day, but after dark you don’t do anything without accompaniment, which you can summon on a walkie-talkie; the tent also has an emergency horn, an emergency whistle, a couple of solar-powered electrical outlets, a big comfy bed, a little veranda with a table and two chairs (also not to be used at night), a flushing toilet, an electric fan, and much more space than the term “tent” typically evokes. There’s a sufficient water supply for a little sink, but for a shower (of the outside bucket variety) you need to place an order in advance, and then they bring over the warm water (the leftover water gets poured into a nearby drinking basin, where it’s happily consumed by monkeys, birds and others). It’s simply a remarkable place to be. We both had a nap – when we woke up we were observed by several black-faced monkeys (also known as velvet monkeys, blue monkeys, or based on recent news stories as Trudeau-faced monkeys), who we know from past experience would certainly steal some of our stuff given the chance (the room also has a big wooden chest with a lock on it). Not that we are super-experienced old hands at this, but we rapidly fell into the same exotically peaceful frame of mind we felt on our last Tanzania trip.

Other pieces of the routine rapidly fall into place. The afternoon game drive starts at 4.30 pm, after grabbing a coffee and a snack. On our first evening we drove to a nearby area called “Little Serengeti” for its openness. We saw a huge number of elephants – in particular a herd of thirty or forty of them crossing the river. We saw five sleeping lions, not caring about our presence – one of them even rolling on its back to show how little we mattered – and not far from that, a herd of impala, no doubt the lions’ main project for later. We saw many more giraffes, and many unusual birds – the two British people sharing our vehicle were birdwatchers and so that took up a greater part of the conversation than when it’s just Ally and I (but all for the better). We only saw a couple of other trucks – mostly we were alone in this vast beautiful landscape. The question sometimes comes up of what’s your favourite of the animals, and you might answer this way or that, but the glory is that they’re all so distinct and beyond replication and so deserving, and they’ve kept it going for centuries, and will into perpetuity if they’re allowed to.

Going back to the routine – on the way back, the guide can call in your request for a shower so that it’s all ready to go when you return. As we had ours, out in the open, we could hear a creature enthusiastically drinking from the basin, presumably another monkey, but by then it was too dark to see. Someone came back (when summoned) to take us to dinner, which typically starts around 8, after drinks and somewhat stilted chatter around a camp fire (not usually my favourite part of the day I must admit – if there’s any good conversation it comes later). There’s a perpetual gentle humming in the background – cicadas, frogs, I don’t know – and the occasional more interesting rustling. Dinner passed pleasantly – the Americans far away at their own table, everyone else at another. Most of the talk was of Africa – well, why wouldn’t it be? As so often happens, we were the last ones left and chatted with Raj the manager for a while before being walked back to the room, where before going to sleep we could hear further energetic drinking and other unidentifiable motion. 

We had our wake-up delivery of coffee and tea at 5.45 am. Apparently an elephant had been trampling around the camp during the night, trying to get into the kitchen to steal fruit (we were told later it made off with all their bananas) – I think we did hear it trumpet at one point, but for the most part we slept undisturbed. We headed off at 6.30 am, returning over six hours later, spending most of the intervening time in the vicinity of a not-dry river (an obvious strategic ploy for maximizing animal sightings). We again saw many giraffes and many elephants, zebras, many varieties of antelope and deer, mongooses, monkeys, baboons; sometimes in their own majestic slab of space, sometimes mingling. The portion of conversation devoted to bird identification only continued to grow (the British guy, Barry, commented afterwards that Goodluck’s skills in this respect are shaky, citing some wrong calls). We saw a lion separated from her pack and moaning as she tried to find them again; we also saw her on the way back, having made no progress (Goodluck said the back story might be as simple as one lion falling too soundly asleep and missing the departure of the rest of the pack). We also saw two other lions lying in the bushes, surrounded by several trucks hoping they’d emerge into the open; the lions outlasted all of them.

Such morning drives are chilly at the outset – the truck helpfully provides blankets and hot water bottles (yes, in Africa – actually we had them at the Five Volcanoes hotel also) but of course by the end of the drive that’s the last thing you need. A couple of hours in, we stopped for breakfast in a scenic spot where we could see elephants in the distance. The breakfasts are of course outstanding – cereals, juices, yoghurt, French toast, pancakes, sausages. I think all four of us passengers subsequently dozed briefly off at one point or another, which of course isn’t to say we weren’t loving it.

We had lunch around 1 pm. Another piece of the daily routine – some people go, in this case the Americans; some new ones arrive, in this case another British couple (their names were Richard and Lindsay, but over the next few days I would consistently amuse myself by pretending to forget their names, referring to them instead as Ken and Margaret or whatnot). They were serving burgers and had made two veggie ones for us with a beetroot base. The kitchen is really astounding, especially considering they only get deliveries twice a week. In theory it sounds like you have a big period of downtime in the afternoon, but in practice once you’ve had lunch and the inevitable nap, it might not be much more than an hour. We woke up from our nap to another visit by the monkeys, who were circling our tent and watching us as much as we were watching them, and by several bushbacks, who also seemed to know we were there and not to mind. Some dung in the vicinity suggested the elephant might have been closer than we knew during the night. The little drinking spot near our tent was dry so I refilled it from our own supply – this seemed to be much appreciated by the monkeys and by various birds.

We set out again around 4.30 pm, retracing some previous territory (it seems that only a relatively small portion of Ruaha is actually available for such drives, which means some animals may not appear at all if they’re choosing to stay in the other section). The main new addition to the repertoire was the hyena, followed by the eagle owl, but otherwise the focus was very much on elephants, the highlight being a river bed in which a family of five was excavating water – despite the dry-looking surface, there was water not too far below which they were adept at using their trunks to remove (after first shaking out the dirty sandy stuff). Four of the elephants, including two very young ones, stuck very close together through all this, and we reflected yet again on how they have their own kind of complex intimacy, and on how they belong in this kind of space where they can live as they choose to, and on the cruelty of sticking them in any kind of confinement, let alone the even greater cruelty of slowly destroying their homeland altogether.

We stopped for a drink near a huge and ancient tree, with a hole in the trunk capable of hiding several people (and apparently used by poachers in the past for that very purpose). Sharing rides with people you didn’t like would obviously be a drawback, but the British couple, Barry and Jill, were quite easy to get along with, and we readily agreed on some plans for the coming days. We talked to them a lot at dinner, at which we were served a vegetable curry (under more stars than we could ever hope to see at home – perhaps some time we should spend an entire African evening just looking up); the Germans were celebrating their daughter’s birthday, and the staff marked this by performing a communal song and dance and bringing out a bottle of champagne (I’m sure they find an excuse to do this every few days). We again shut down the place, and yet were the first to arrive for our drive the next morning. The night in between was very quiet, with no reported elephant visitations.

Funny, the German guy remarked that his earliest impressions of Africa came from an American TV show of his youth called Daktari, which featured an animal doctor and a cross-eyed lion. I would never have thought of it, but the same might be true for me (neither of us could recall anymore how the cross-eyed lion fit into things). I don’t think the show was a big long-running success or anything, but it must have had an extremely accomplished foreign sales agent. Anyway, the highlight of the morning drive was a grandstand seat on one side of a mostly dry river for an entertainingly primal narrative on the other side. We were watching a male and female lion lying in the water, taking things easy with no particular plans. A herd of twenty or so buffalo slowly emerged into the scene behind them, tentatively moving down to the river to drink, initially unaware of the lions but then tuning into them, clearly weighing caution against thirst. Based on observation and Goodluck’s commentary, the buffalos’ odds always seemed pretty good, and so it transpired. After a few false starts, they descended to the water, never losing their focus on the lions; the male lion watched them closely but the lioness seemed to view it as a lost cause. Eventually the lion did get up and run toward them, but with little hope of achieving anything; maybe he just couldn’t stand watching them anymore. The buffalo easily made it back up the slope, their ambitions fulfilled, and the lion returned to his spot in the water. You can watch things like this for hours, as engaged as in the most dynamic of movies. We returned to the scene a while later, to see the lions walk toward the shade, stopping for a final drink before lying down in a secluded spot and disappearing from view. Later we saw a larger group of lions, with another herd of buffalo well within their sights; although separated by water (to the lions’ disadvantage), the buffalo assessed this one differently and withdrew.

The river generated some wonderful views of (for example) impala and zebra and giraffe within the same frame, all peacefully mingling, enjoying their water and their space. Our choice of breakfast spot (a common choice, based on a clump of used toilet paper located behind a bush) disrupted the peace of some giraffes; they withdrew, but later resumed watching us from another spot – once again, you wonder who’s putting on a show for whom. On the whole, the animals seem quite accustomed to trucks. The morning passed as smoothly as ever. There were no new arrivals, and the Germans departed, so we were down to three couples, and Margaret (or whatever her name was) was under the weather and skipped lunch (vegetable fritters in our case – Jill complained that the lunches were sub-standard and undercooked, but ours were fine, so perhaps they put more effort into the vegetarian alternatives). The afternoon was disappointing only in that the monkeys failed to make an appearance (actually, that’s what I wrote originally, but then a few of them turned up after all). At this point, by the way, we still had not been in Africa one full week, which when we reviewed our experiences and memories appeared hard to believe. It certainly sums up why such vacations are so rich, and why they don’t really need to be that long to leave your senses satiated (at some point we heard someone say they were in the course of a six week trip, but that to us would be like people who cram five movies a day into the festival, so that the memories merely start erasing each other).

Although the vacation was all prepaid, it felt in Rwanda that we were constantly being obliged to tip someone or other, and I was certainly glad I’d obtained a stack of smaller denomination bills. In Ruaha the tipping is only at the end, and money need never make an appearance. Well, for that matter, nor need anything else from the outside world. On our third evening we went on a night safari, starting and ending later than usual, and so in theory allowing sightings of nocturnal animals (the premise was that we would ignore the animals we’d already seen, focusing only on finding new ones. Because of the (albeit slight) additional danger, we had to sign waivers, and were accompanied by a park ranger with a rifle. Although their exchanges were all in Swahili, it appeared that the ranger was certainly the dominant personality, and that Goodluck basically did whatever he was told. We also had Justin, an assistant guide, along to drive the vehicle, while Goodluck was scanning with the search light. Sometimes they stopped the vehicle and switched off the search light and we were in complete darkness, less well-equipped for survival than the lowliest mammal.

Despite all these resources, we didn’t see many new things. Notwithstanding the premise I described, we spent most time on six or seven lionesses, amassing not very far from – once again - a herd of buffalo (seeming like much better odds for the lions than the meeting I described just above). But it seemed they were taking their time, so we moved on. The most sustained sighting of a nocturnal animal was of a hare; we also glimpsed genets, jackals, mongooses and a honey badger, but for the most part very fleetingly. The best part was the first hour, before darkness fell: we saw a leopard that had recently killed an impala and carried it up a tree – having eaten its fill (for the present anyway) it was stretched contentedly out on a branch, the dead creature’s head and front legs hanging downward, as if displayed as a trophy. On driving to the other side, we could see the impala’s hollowed-out torso, but it seemed the leopard would get a bit more use out of it before abandoning it to the scavengers. We also saw four tired lions lying in a row, occasionally rolling over or briefly raising their heads, but basically with no agenda. We had something to drink as we watched them, just a few metres away; has a Sprite evet had a better backdrop?

Shirley (or whatever her name was) was still under the weather, so Bob (or whatever…) joined us alone for dinner. Between him and Jill and Barry they had quite a volume of complaints about the camp, but Ally and I said we didn’t care about any of those things, and they did seem to concede we had a point. For the third night in a row we were the last to leave, and we had to make a slight detour because an elephant was moving in the vicinity; apparently he came quite close to our unit but we didn’t hear him. However, when we stepped out the following morning, we had an immediate view of a giraffe!

On our last Tanzania trip I was having incredible vivid dreams and initially attributed this to the wondrousness of Africa, but Ally suggested it might more mundanely be a side-effect of the anti-malaria medication. It went on for a long time after I stopped taking the pills – perhaps it never completely stopped – but now I was taking them again and the dreams were back in full force. I don’t like it – the dreams are invariably more arduous than soothing – but as the long list of possible side-effects goes, I suppose it beats hair loss and daytime hallucinations (and those are among the more palatable ones). Anyway, the dreams were always curtailed as there was always a new reason to get up early. On the Sunday, it was a three-hour walking safari (the longest route that they offer – the shortest would just be an hour), starting at 6.45 am. We actually walked for about three hours and twenty minutes, although I doubt we were moving unusually slowly. The ranger was there again to lead the way, and another ranger brought up the rear. There’s no expectation of getting close to animals on such a walk – either they run away or they’re avoided – but I was surprised how close we came to a herd of elephants at one point. The main purpose though was simply to be walking in Africa, through an at once uniform yet endlessly varied landscape, receiving a stream of instruction on identifying footprints and dung and so forth. For example, you can tell whether elephant dung came from a male or a female because in the former case the dung and the urine will be slightly apart whereas in the latter they’ll be intermingled; if you’re ever lost in the desert with nothing to drink, you can squeeze water from the elephant dung (or alternatively, roll it up and smoke it). The leopard aside, they identified fairly recent deposits and/or footprints from just about every animal in the vicinity. The walk passed quickly and without too much strain, but of course the temperature only continued to rise, so it’s probably just as well it wasn’t any longer.

We arrived at a picnic area where our breakfast had been set up by Justin, and then spent an hour or so driving round, during which everyone again fell asleep at some point. We saw some lions eating a recent kill, but only from a distance (as we had two rangers in the vehicle, it appeared Goodluck was being more of a stickler about not leaving the marked paths). Once again we had lunch – Ted and Vera (or whatever their names were) were all excited because Michelle, the manager from their previous camp (the same Selous camp where we stayed two years ago, although she didn’t work there at that time) was flying in for the day. Whether she was as happy at having them descend on her was harder to tell. I had an afternoon nap, but Ally was distracted by the wondrous intermingling outside our tent – the monkeys, bushbucks and impala – and couldn’t get to sleep. I put more water in the drinking basin and they consumed all of it between them – later I put in some more (just about exhausting our supply!) and they came back for more.

The highlight of the nighttime drive was a massive herd of buffalo – perhaps four or five hundred, a few of them watching us while the others peacefully grazed. We also saw (elsewhere) a pride of nine lions lying in the sand, content from recently eating (evident from their bloated bellies) – apparently Serengeti lions will often hunt every day just because it’s easy, but Ruaha lions will more likely wait a few days between kills. As we watched (again while enjoying our drinks) several of the lions rolled onto their backs with their legs in the air, a position that can’t help but evoke Ozu on our couch. An elephant walked by in the background – we all continue to love these layers and juxtapositions. Just as we arrived in the camp, we heard a massive, almost electronic-sounding noise escape from the darkness – this was identified as a female elephant disturbed by the lights of our vehicle. As we were accompanied back to our tent, I spotted something which I correctly identified (according to Joseph who was walking with us) as a honey badger, so I was obviously happy with my developing skills!

The guys who work at Kigalia (they’re all guys) are all very engaging, and although I expect it’s a “good” job in many respects (not least in allowing access to tourist dollars), it’s obviously isolated, with long hours (we see the same faces when we leave at 6.30 am and when we shut down at 11 pm or later – I asked one of them whether they had a nap anywhere in between but he said not). Many of them live far from home – Goodluck for example has a wife and 5-year-old daughter in Arusha: sometimes he can get a standby flight home for around $40, but otherwise has to take the bus, which takes something like a day and a half (you’ll recall a waiter in Dar es Salaam described a similar life structure). The staff sleep in ordinary low-to-the-ground tents, which are shared, so could not be blamed if they regarded our quarters as horribly decadent. They have a shared TV in a mess area, which we’re told is frequently tuned to soccer. It seems Nomad does like to transfer people between different camps to some extent but that would also have pluses and minuses (Goodluck only recently relocated here after fifteen years in the Serengeti, which is far closer to his home). Anyway, at the end of the trip I think we allocated $230 in tips - $120 to Goodluck, $40 to Justin the assistant guide who accompanied him on about half the trips, and $70 to be divided between the rest of the staff: it doesn’t seem very proportionate perhaps, but each of those is slightly more than the recommended amount.

At dinner, somewhat prompted by the presence of Michelle, the other two couples spent yet more time moaning about the deficiencies of this camp compared to others they’d visited. We couldn’t comment on some of it (the unsatisfactory quality of the cooked meat was a recurring issue), and didn’t really buy into much of the rest (such as the undefined notion that the place needs more of a “female touch”). We thought it was an amazing place to be. I woke up a lot during the night and had extreme trouble gearing up for the morning of our final day. Barry and Jill and Cliff and Phyllis (or whatever that other couple’s name was) were heading to the airport that morning in another vehicle, taking in a few final hours’ viewing on the way, so we had Goodluck to ourselves. You have to pay extra to be guaranteed a non-shared guide, but based on our experience it often ends up that you get at least a few drives by yourselves (last time round we were lucky, and only had to share on a few occasions). We didn’t connect with Goodluck quite to the extent of the two guides we had on the last trip – among other things, they were better storytellers – but he’s an amiable person who certainly delivered on what mattered. 

The highlight of that morning was likely the same huge herd of buffalo we’d observed the previous evening, stopped in their tracks by our presence and that of another truck. We patiently waited, and eventually one very brave buffalo tentatively moved forward, crossed between ourselves and the other truck, and made it into the desired territory on the other side. A second buffalo quickly followed, but then the momentum was immediately lost, and it took a long time for a third buffalo to risk it, after which the migration was on and we were watching a river of buffalo. Even as they moved on and disappeared to our right, new members of the herd were still coming into sight on our left, so it would have taken a very long time to observe the entire passage. It’s quite reminiscent of the wildebeest herds we observed in Serengeti, although the wildebeest are far easier for the lions to kill (at the time of our visit, there were no wildebeest in Ruaha, this being the wrong time in their migratory cycle).

The main new sighting was a leopard tortoise – despite its shell, a most vulnerable seeming creature in this vast predatory landscape (sometimes, said our guide, they do get turned over and eaten; or sometimes lions just play with them). We also enjoyed watching a baboon on look-out – as we’ve seen before, a member of the troop positions itself high up and watches for predators, sounding the alarm if trouble comes into view. The look-out baboon was taking its role extremely seriously and seemed most unlikely to let anything slip by. We also saw the same pride of lions from the previous night, in the midst of moving from the open sand into the shade. A male lion tried to mount a female one and was loudly and violently rebuffed, after which he stood and tried to repair his dignity before slowly moving away. As always, we had a fine open air breakfast with a view that went on forever. Lunch was quiet, the day’s new intake of guests not yet arrived. I refilled the water basin; we had our afternoon siesta. At one point, we both heard what sounded at that moment distinctly like a big cat roar, very close by. Naturally we went into high alert, but nothing else happened (probably it was an elephant again), and soon afterwards the bush bucks wandered into view, sensing no danger, once again seeming to enjoy our presence. And of course the monkeys made a final appearance.

Our final evening brought an influx of four Americans, from New Jersey and Buffalo (they flew out of Toronto, just like us). Our evening drive with Goodluck was probably the quietest of the trip. In the summaries above I’ve described the conventional “highlights,” but there are often long stretches where nothing much happens. We never mind this at all, because the worst that can happen is that you’re driving through the heart of Africa in an open-sided vehicle, drinking in these vast, spectacular landscapes. But obviously a trip that generated few or no animal sightings wouldn’t be judged a success. Anyway, we spent some beautiful moments watching a female elephant with her cub (maybe just six months old, learning the ways of things) and a female baboon with her even younger offspring, variously clinging to her belly or riding on her back or trying out life on the ground, and we did log one previously unchecked box – the rock hyrax (although actually we spotted a couple of those in Rwanda too, even though I didn’t deem it worthy of recording at the time). We stopped for a drink while overlooking the sunset from a beautiful look-out point, and among other things I astonished Goodluck by describing how I work 72 floors above the ground.

Among theoretical sightings that we didn’t achieve in Ruaha are cheetahs, hippos and wild dogs (there are no rhinos), but we did see all of those on our previous trip (particularly hippos which we saw in the hundreds in the Selous – it was horribly sad to hear that their habitat is threatened by a new dam). As I mentioned, a large area of the national park is inaccessible to game drives, so it’s no surprise if some animals just vanish from view from time to time. Talking of the Selous, we were told that our guide there two years ago, Deio, was bitten in the hand by a crocodile while fishing and therefore missed several months of work, which must be tough. Still, he’s better off than the guide Goodluck told us about, who also went fishing in the Selous and was never seen again (except for the bits they located after shooting and cutting open a crocodile). 

The evening evolved in an  unexpected direction. Dinner was just us and three of the Americans, the other being under the weather. The conversation was of no particular interest, over-dominated by sports, but none of them were drinking so at least it seemed likely to be short. Two of them were gone in little more than an hour, and the other, Howie, was hanging around smoking a cigar. We got into a much more vibrant conversation with him, which lasted two more hours, to all our surprise I’m sure. Among other things, he vented a bit about his issues with the other couple (the friendship is really between the wives); he talked about his days of teaching primary school science to Donald Trump’s son Eric and of trying to communicate with Trump and his then-wife Ivanka (as fruitless an endeavor as you’d expect), also of teaching John McEnroe’s kids and various others; he talked about memories of long-forgotten Broadway shows, which I was actually able to keep up with (when we ran into him briefly the next day, he said he’d been racking his brains and that I was right – his memory of seeing Michael Caine on Broadway was likely a false one). The saddest thing though was that he and the others had yet more complaints about the site – they’d been on their first drive that afternoon, and found their guide (Raj, who is also the site manager) overly talkative, superficial and under-informed (examples included not knowing that the rock hyrax is more closely related to the elephant than the rabbit – actually we knew that! – and of spoiling the mood by quoting The Lion King). Howie had been deputized by the others to deal with this issue, but didn’t really know what to do about it, and so seemed to appreciate us serving as a sounding board. Anyway, yet another example of how the random encounters you have in such a place often generate something memorable (see my Albert Brooks (or as Ally still insists, “Albert Brooks”) story of two years earlier…) It was a real shame though that so many of the conversations at Ruaha had a negative element.

We left the lodge for the last time at 6.30 am on Tuesday morning, taking our bags with us. The drive was abbreviated because our flight was due to take off at 11.45 am, and even when it’s just a dusty airstrip with no check-in and no security they still tell you to arrive early, but it generated a fine array of closing memories. A local company offers early morning balloon rides, followed by a “champagne breakfast” – we never considered doing it because it’s too expensive ($500 or $600 a person) and just not necessary anyway, but it’s pleasant enough to watch the balloon, even if looks dirtier than in the publicity materials.

We watched an eagle pecking at what little flesh was still attached to a pair if impala horns – probably the animal was killed by a lion or leopard, then the remaining carcass was dragged by a jackal or hyena, gradually becoming minimized to the remaining grisly sight. We watched six or seven lions bask in the sun – our views of lions were heavily dominated by such activity – before slowly moving off into the shade. We had breakfast at a look-out spot with a family of elephants hanging out below, and later watched another group of elephants cross the road in front of us (I think several of today’s elephants found our arrival unwelcome, but they sucked it up). Even as we waited for our plane, we could see elephants moving around on the slopes above the airstrip. And we did see one creature which had evaded us to that point – the waterbuck. So just a wonderful last few hours. We did wonder how the other group fared with Raj though, and we didn’t really do anything to help – they were taking much the same route as us, but arrived too late to see most of the lions, and also missed out on the best of the elephant action. And we took the best breakfast spot. Hopefully it all worked out for them.

Goodluck was also heading home on leave and failed to get a stand-by flight, so was embarking on that long bus ride (much of which, he said, he spends listening to country music, Kenny Rogers being a favourite): someone else was there to drive the vehicle back to camp. It’s clear that Coastal Airlines operates in a somewhat ad hoc kind of way, stringing routes together based on who wants to go where on a given day. The plane was there at 11.45 am, but we waited and waited for the last two passengers, coming on another plane from another Nomad camp. The arrival time in Dar es Salaam was amended from 1.45 pm (three hours before our flight to Dubai) to 3 pm. We stopped for refueling in Dodomo, a pleasant-enough town as seen from above, but probably not a major destination: much or most of the airport staff was sitting around playing cards. We took off again and delivered those same two passengers to a different air strip in the Selous, before continuing to Dar es Salaam, where we arrived at 3.45 pm, only one hour before the departure of our next flight, and from a different terminal. But this is where being in the hands of a locally-connected organization really paid off. A Coastal employee pulled our bags off the plane and whisked us through the terminal, delivering us to a waiting Nomad driver who basically ran with the bags to his vehicle, speeding us to the international terminal and into the hands of another Coastal employee who was waiting to take us to check in, where they knew all about the situation, and we made it. We went through departing immigration (nothing can be done to speed that up it seems) and security and the airline people were again waiting on the other side to see us on board. We got on at the same time as what seemed to be a local military dignitary, whose arrival I suppose had been timed for the end. Anyway, we made it!

We were incredibly impressed with the dedication and organization of this final flourish – I don’t know that Toronto’s airport would have come close. As I said, it put Nomad in an excellent light. And despite the stress at the end, it’s far more entertaining to be on a Coastal Airlines flight, flying over national parks and exotic looking houses and communities, than it is to be sitting in a departure lounge. But it did mean we barely registered the end of our trip – one moment we were in Tanzania and the next, it seemed, we were gone.

The flight to Dubai, five hours or so on Emirates Airlines, was fine. We had an empty seat next to us – the plane wasn’t that full in general. Ally watched Tarantino’s Jackie Brown on her ipad. As usual, we did far less reading on the trip than we’d prepared for – almost all my downtime was consumed by writing this blog and looking at our photographs. In the course of transferring to Dar es Salaam from Kigali I’d watched the 1960’s Italian anthology film The Dolls. Arriving in Dubai, we went online for the first time since before Ruaha and checked the news, and it was hard to care about any of it; in one way or another, it all spoke to decay and corruption. Our few hours there passed by quickly, and the flight home was on time. Those thirteen or so hours passed by fairly rapidly also – I read the latest New Yorker and watched yet another old European movie (L’horloger de Saint-Paul) and I suppose the fact must be that I slept for most of the rest. Ally watched Election

              It was nice (even if merely relative) that Howie said we were the youngest people he’d met on the trip – it does seem true that such trips are mainly the province of the over-sixties (for obvious reasons of time and money). And yet, if Africa has transformational power – and we think it does – then that shouldn’t just be invested into easy sightseeing and pretty pictures, taken by people who are too old to change. But maybe the transformational power I’m talking about is largely a branded illusion – it’s certainly not the real Africa as measured by the lives of the millions of people who try to get by in Dar es Salaam. And yet, I think those wondrous, tender, purposeful families of elephants are as pure and worthy as anything I’ve ever seen, even as it sometimes filled me with huge sadness, wondering if a little six month old elephant will be allowed to live the long, peaceful life he deserves, and what kind of sanction should be placed on humankind for placing that in such doubt.
              But the last line of the story, as always, belongs to the happy homecoming of an entirely different animal!