I start writing this at around 8.30 am on Sunday morning, sitting in Amsterdam airport directly facing the Rolex store. The store has a steady stream of visitors, only a few of whom put on a credible show of being potentially serious buyers, and has made one sale in the last hour. Perhaps this is about the same ratio you’d observe in any Rolex store, but it’s tempting to think the fact of being in an airport, of being open at such an hour on such a day, encourages an unusual volume of substanceless engagement. We’re particularly attuned to such a state, perhaps, because of the rather unfriendly timing of our flights – leaving Toronto at 5.15 pm, arriving at Amsterdam at 6 am local time, leaving for Kilimanjaro some four hours later. Landing in Amsterdam, we’re up late and up early at the same time; the airport is quiet (but rapidly gets busier) and yet studded with patches of dazzling mercantile light in which you can spend thousands of dollars on things you don’t need. Like all airports, it’s a rather stunning event space, even if the real event for everyone here will always be elsewhere, at the end of the departing flight, or the connecting flight after that. Anyway, the flight from Toronto was fine enough, although we would have chosen to sleep for more of it, or else for better sound quality on the earphones (neither of us ended up watching a movie – I gave up after two minutes, Ally persevered a little longer). In Amsterdam we eat a little and then sit here facing the Rolex store, which I keep thinking may seem suspicious to the store employees, whom I feel are attuned to notice small if essentially meaningless things (and, once in a while, to sell small and essentially meaningless items for $10,000). I read the news for what I expect to be the last time for quite a while, actually the longest while since the internet became an actual everyday Thing. We are both calm and serene, because this isn’t yet the event.
I pick it up again in the final third of our nine-hour flight to Kilimanjaro. This time we’ve both slept fairly well. I watched the recent French film L’amant double (even in the era of personal video screens, I was amused that such a sex- and nudity-ridden movie could make it onto an airplane menu) and Ally watched the scandal-free Canadian film Maudie. We have lots of legroom (economy comfort class!) and no real complaints – like the flight to Amsterdam, we’re not just on-time but in fact scheduled to arrive early. I think there are fewer black faces on the flight to Kilimanjaro than there were on the flight from Toronto to Amsterdam (except for a slightly higher incidence of “safari” pants on board, and an absence of cowboy hats, you couldn’t tell from surveying the passengers whether we’re headed for Tanzania or Texas). This seems wrong, but perhaps it’s an instant reminder that this is to be, from most perspectives, an exercise in experiencing an imagined Africa more than a real one…
At the airport, arriving at around 7.30 pm, the passengers divide into those with and without visas. The former sounds like the best group to be in, but in fact both groups seem to move at much the same speed – that is, hardly at all. This is another respect in which being in premium economy seriously pays off though – if row 14 takes 45 minutes, what of row 48? The process involves being photographed and electronically fingerprinted, although it’s hard not to think this is largely theatre to make you feel better about paying $100 to get in. It also involves a large, somewhat randomly choreographed cast of officials. As we’ve experienced in China and elsewhere, Tanzania seems from the outset to create multi-participant chains out of activities which elsewhere would be done by one person, if not automated. When we arrive at the inn for the first night, the process of getting our bags to the room seems to require three or four changeovers. That was after being met at the airport and then driven along a very dimly lit road for 35 minutes or so. Apparently during the day we could have seen Mount Kilimanjaro. As it was, we only caught passing glimpses into small, square rooms, while hoping not to knock over the people walking to and from them (at first glance, foreign traffic always seems impossibly perilous).
We spent the first night in the Rivertrees Inn, a pretty collection of bungalows on 10 acres, ably conveying a sense of privileged, serene separation. Our room had a church-like roof and a small library which included a 2002 guide to restaurants in Spain and Portugal. We ate dinner around 9.15 pm – everyone else in the restaurant was probably like us, starting a trip or ending one. We got up early the next day and left around 6 am, continuing along the same road toward the town of Arusha. For most of the way it looks like a torrent of small-scale capitalism – countless “supermarkets” and “pubs” and car washes and the occasional more esoteric enterprise like the “Shalom Israel Stationary” store. We passed mini buses elaborately decorated in praise of Jesus, or of the Los Angeles Lakers, kids walking to school in green uniforms, overladen motor scooters, cluster after cluster of early morning negotiating and settling; and then in the middle of this the occasional astounding assertion of modernity – a shiny office tower, or a huge cultural centre of such striking design that we were still trying to figure out which way was up when we left it in the rear view mirror.
We arrived at the town airport – another example of extreme distribution of labour, seeming fairly chaotic in its approach to organization and to carrying out basic tasks, with more small business – coffee stands, gift shops - dotted everywhere. And yet it worked because we were plucked out of the twenty or so waiting passengers (again, all evidently tourists like us) and efficiently directed to the right plane, with our bags already on it. It was a twelve-seater aircraft, with an Australian pilot, and except for brief periods above the clouds, we were able to observe the ground throughout the hour and a half journey (which included two stops) – over the Ngorongoro crater, over stretches that look entirely dead and burned out and others that support sparse but thriving-looking trees and bushes, always with the feeling of pushing deeper and deeper into the Serengeti. One young woman on the flight spent almost the whole time playing games on her phone, seldom looking outside.
But again, everything involves more infrastructure than you’d at first imagine – when we finally touched down, we found a cluster of some twenty vehicles and a small crowd of guides and visitors. We spent almost an hour there while the guy who picked us up (I think his name was Pinda or Penda) put another departing couple on a plane and then organized our permits. Based on that hour, small planes come and go every five or ten minutes, and once we got under way, we encountered something close to traffic congestion. But. of course, it is a big desert and this rapidly thinned out. On the way to our lodge at Lamai Serengeti – in the far north of the desert, just a few miles from the Kenyan border - we saw giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, mongooses, numerous kinds of deer, zebras and hundreds of wildebeest, so it doesn’t seem animal-spotting will ever be a problem. Pinda/Penda seemed masterful at glimpsing such creatures out of the corner of his eye; Ally would usually tune in a second later; and then I’d be straining to focus and catch up to what they were talking about.
It's actually not so funny because we’d forgotten to pack my contact lens solution, and I was worried about suffering through the whole trip with impeded vision. But on arrival I mentioned it to the co-manager Helen who said she’d email and get some sent over on the next day’s plane. If this sounds rather decadent, it’s as nothing against the grandeur of the Lamai camp. This is a series of stone-walled, thatched-roofed buildings, joined by winding pathways and steps, constructed on the side of a granite “kopje” – it’s absurd to think anyone ever thought of building a high-end vacation location on such a remote and inhospitable mass of boulders, but since they did think of it, and even actually managed to do it, it means that every room (really a stand-alone cottage) has a vast, soaring view of the Serengeti (over the course of our stay, we would see buffalo, elephants, wildebeest and baboons merely from our window). It also has solar-heated showers, enormous canopy beds, a full power supply, and basically anything you want. It has wi-fi in the communal areas, but for the first time on vacation since wi-fi became a thing, I’m not planning to seek it out, as I can’t think of any way in which knowing what’s going on elsewhere would enhance anything we do here (and many ways in which it wouldn’t).
We had lunch (a fresh and varied buffet, already speaking to the efficiency of the supply chain), we both slept a bit, I wrote this diary. In the afternoon it started thundering and we wondered whether the evening drive might be in jeopardy, but it never delivered more than light rain. In the main area at around 4 they served coffee and cake, and then we set out with our permanent guide Lazaro (I checked this spelling with him – he says it would also be fine to use Lazaru, or Lazarus, or about ten other variants) and a couple from Switzerland who’d arrived the previous day. The next few hours unfolded almost as if governed by a software program that ensures a new wonderment at ten- or fifteen-minute intervals. The guides are all constantly in radio contact, so when one of them spots something especially good, it’s never a long time before other trucks trundle up as well. The prime example on Monday evening was a leopard, whose relaxation was undermined by one batch of camera-wielding gawkers after another. I think he or she took it remarkably well under the circumstances. I’ll write much more about our experiences with Lazaro and his vehicle (an open-sided heavy-duty Toyota something with a canvas roof that seats six people in two rows of three, and which is more comfortable than you’d think, if only because comfort is the last thing on your mind).
To leap ahead momentarily, I woke up in the middle of Monday night, hearing heavy footsteps trampling in the undergrowth around our room. Initially I thought it was one of the guards on patrol, but it soon became obvious this was implausible, and I came to think it was an elephant. I woke up Ally so she could share in it, but as we felt we should heed the instructions not to go outside, and as we had no way of illuminating what was out there, we didn’t see more than a dark shape moving beneath our window. The following morning though they confirmed that elephants had moving around the lodge, so that was seemingly it (later information suggested it may also have been a buffalo).
I couldn’t get back to sleep for a long time afterwards, and among the things to ponder was “Dennis,” a “retired marine lawyer” who sat across from us at dinner, and who seemed physically, verbally and attitudinally to be in fact Albert Brooks, the actor/comedian/director. When I put this to him, he said that no one had ever previously remarked on the resemblance, which seemed like too extreme a denial to be true, and therefore to prove he was indeed Brooks. Further, among other things, he said he lives in Malibu with a second house in Aspen, which he conceded is very likely where Albert Brooks lives too. Anyway, we had a fine and extended conversation, and if he was indeed Albert Brooks, I’m content that I was able to entertain him in the manner in which he deserves (as I write this real-time journal, I can’t go online in search of further evidence to prove or disprove the theory, but I’ll return to the topic once I’ve done that).
On Tuesday morning our drive lasted approximately six hours, and didn’t feel anything like it. This is exactly what we experienced ten years ago in South Africa and had wanted to revisit, but the Serengeti is already proving a richer experience. In part, that’s just sheer plenitude – the abundance of animals here almost seems falsified, or to disprove your own senses, given what we know of endangerment, environmental recession and so forth. Wildebeest in particular are so dense here that they feel like the plasma between blood cells, often mixing with zebra in particular, with smatterings of deer or antelope (our stay was not long enough for me to reliably distinguish between steenboks, topi, waterbucks and the rest, although I think I could pick an impala out of any line-up). There’s something so pure and satisfying about seeing different animals mixing peacefully together, even if one realizes the simplicity of looking to the animal kingdom for symbols of constructive harmony. During the six hours we saw as many as forty hippos in an extended group, perhaps ten of them squeezed together like sleeping puppies against a sandbank, others in various stages of submersion or activity; we saw elephants clumsily exiting the water and clambering up a bank, trying things out on land for a while, and then just as clumsily changing their minds and heading back; we saw a lion mating with another (we came the right time of year for this it seems, especially as they apparently mate every fifteen minutes and therefore sightings of the act, and of the preceding proposal/acceptance, aren’t particularly rare at present); we saw ostriches and hyena and baboons. Only one giraffe though, and we did not succeed in seeing a rhinoceros, which are scarce in these parts.
But the highlight of the morning drive was the crossing of the Mara river by a huge herd of wildebeest. There must have been thirty vehicles positioned near the river, watching the herd prepare to cross – several times it seemed ready to enter the water before succumbing either to fear or indecision and running off again (in this as in so many things, it often seems that nature is merely toying with us, that what we’re observing here is too perfectly scenic or dramatic to actually be “real,” however that might be measured). But in the end the decision was made and they went, and then all the trucks rushed forward to claim the best available vantage point – we came out of this extremely well. With uncanny precision, the wildebeest – surely well over a thousand of them – followed the same single-file route down the bank into the water, across the river and out the other side, and the same pattern of deceleration through the water and acceleration when back on dry land, and our guide seemed genuinely elated when every single one of them made it unharmed to the other side, because he said he’s seen a hundred of them die, through misjudgment or bad luck or predatory intervention. This was an incredible, stirring sight, although it was also satisfying later in the drive to leave the other trucks behind and to feel alone in our small piece of the desert.
As I mentioned, wildebeest would recur over and over as the connective tissue of the whole experience – the creature who overwhelms you in vast numbers while you wait for the other scarcer sightings. You can’t help but assume they’re among the dimmer desert inhabitants, surviving by breeding prowess rather than by guile, and if they ever do anything distinctive, it’s generally only to become possessed by sudden spasms, as if electrically stimulated from the head down. But the river crossing, and subsequent sightings of the vast herds majestically sweeping across open plains, will stand among our most amazing memories. At such times we’re watching aspects of the great migration, the slow formation of what will turn into a complete abandonment of this area – in a month, we’re told, there won’t be a single wildebeest to be seen. They’ll leave the grass of this area behind to be replenished and recovered, returning perhaps in the middle of next year, and the cycle will continue for as long as it’s allowed to (here like everywhere else, people tell us that the pattern has shifted, presumably due to climate change (unless you’re a Republican)).
It thundered again on Tuesday afternoon, again without delivering on its threats. One of the staff woke us from our nap when he comes to turn down the canvas window protectors; he didn’t knock but rather stood outside saying hello until receiving a response – we would come to know this as the African way. It’s the same way they bring us our early morning coffee and tea, which is passed to us from outside through a hatch. Again, the lodge seems to be staffed by a vast number of people with carefully delineated functions. At night it’s guarded by local tribesmen with spears – we’re not allowed to go outside after dark unless accompanied by one of them (and on the first night, in addition to the elephant, we could hear what sounded like roaring lions, sounding not far away, so we don’t need further convincing). The laundry is handwashed every day by men, but since they’re Muslim, they won’t do female underwear (it wasn’t explained why women couldn’t have stepped in for the sorting and for that one subsection of the task – instead the room has washing powder and a clothes line so that the likes of Ally can do it herself). There’s a large complement of waiting staff, and then of course the no doubt constant churn of arrivals and departures. It’s hard to imagine Nomad, the owner/operator of both the camps we’re visiting, and organizer of everything in between, often trips up significantly on any of this. My contact lens solution, by the way, was waiting for us when we arrived back from the Tuesday morning drive, less than a day after I’d mentioned it.
On Tuesday, given the six-hour morning drive, lunch and a necessary nap, we have barely an hour’s downtime until the next outing, or just enough to update this (so when would I have been able to go online anyway, even to check on Albert Brooks?) In the afternoon we do a walking safari – four of us start out from the lodge, accompanied by Lazaro and not one but two other men with guns. We don’t cover a great distance in our hour and a half to two hours of slow walking, but we still manage to see wildebeest (of course!), zebras, eland, warthog, all of which seem far more nervous about people on foot than they do about (the perhaps boringly familiar) trucks. We also hear a lion roar not so far away (apparently though they wouldn’t have viewed lions as a gun-necessary risk, compared to potentially charging elephants and buffalo). The grounds (and again, this is just steps from our lodge) are a virtual killing field of remains from wildebeest, zebra etc., some of them recent enough that the hair is still attached even if the flesh was long wiped clean, others of them years old (but I guess there’s no bone removal service in these parts). No doubt relishing the opportunity to communicate more detailed knowledge, Lazaro regularly stopped to analyze the age and origin of droppings (and even to identify how, for instance, monkeys had been digging around inside the droppings to extract beetles) and to identify flowers and trees. We finished as the sun was going down, and to our surprise (although perhaps we should have seen it coming) someone from the camp had driven out with drinks and snacks, which we enjoyed on a rock overlooking the sunset, and apparently with a lion lying on a rock beneath the setting sun (although neither of us was able to see it). So, truly, what a day.
I tested on our Swiss friends my theory that “Dennis” was Albert Brooks, but I think they found it (while certainly amusing) too complicated to take too seriously (to which I might say, the more sophisticated the joke, the more likely he must have been its author). We ate dinner alone on a plateau above the main dining room, if only to prevent me from accusing one of the guests of being, say, Woody Allen. Our sleep was again interrupted, and from the tracks they identified it the next morning as a buffalo. I again had trouble getting back to sleep and felt the toll of it a bit the following morning.
But who can succumb to fatigue when there’s so much to see? We had Lazaro to ourselves for the morning drive (the brochure states you pay a premium for avoiding shared drives, but the occupancy appears to have declined compared to the last two days so it seems we got lucky). One might imagine the Serengeti as a rather uniform, parched expanse, but even within our little chunk of it, there’s quite considerable variation, reflecting differences in rock formation, tree density (often we pass as many dead trees as live ones, apparently due in large part to the efforts of the elephants), closeness to water and so on: boulders and termite mounds add their own crude landscaping. It’s all in shades of green and yellow and grey though – if you see a splash of bright colour, it’s more likely to be a lizard or bird than a flower. Today we spent most of our time on the wide-open plains, under the largest, most cloud-filled sky on earth. The wildlife was a little sparser than yesterday, although that’s entirely a relative assessment – we again saw everything I already listed, absent the hippos, and we made a crucial addition – the cheetah. There are not that many in the vicinity, and sometimes they cross over into Kenya and so are inaccessible to Tanzanian groups. We caught up with two of them as they were serenely doing just that, strolling together through the desert as if well-aware of their celebrity. We very briefly crossed to the wrong side of the border (marked by stone pillars at kilometer intervals) so we can say we have technically been to Kenya. Then we hung around there for a while to greet a series of Kenyan safari trucks and taunt them about having better wildlife than they do.
This started at 6.15 am, and it was much chillier than yesterday, and remained overcast for most of the morning – I spent a few hours huddling under a blanket. The safari experience is full of rituals, and breakfast is another, requiring that the guide meticulously set up a folding table and chairs, and lay out a spread of eggs, cereal, yoghurt, coffee, tea, and more. We ate it in the middle of the plain, with elephants in the distance, but no other trucks. At the very end of our drive, we saw two lions together in the shade, the female walking over to a nearby watering hole – their exclusive property of course – for a drink, the male trying to interest her in other things. Once again, you worry only that your memory will become too full.
After lunch we slept – me for longer than Ally, leaving little time to write this diary, virtually none for anything else. We have been taking our shower in the afternoon because that’s when the solar-heated water is available – if you want one in the morning they need advance notice to heat the water electrically – but today the solar-heated water ran out after a few seconds. Never mind. For the first time in my adult life, I have gone three whole days without even a shred of news. It seems that many or most other guests spend a chunk of their time in the wi-fi area, but it seems like the plush equivalent of cramming into a foul airport smoking zone. There currently appear to be two guests – both middle-aged women – who are traveling alone; we always vacillate on whether this is poignant, or impressively pragmatic. Of course we are at fault – what would be the term, couple-normative? - in thinking we need to assess it as being anything at all. The lodge is managed by Helen and her husband Clyde, a 30-ish couple from the UK and South Africa respectively. She told us they met while working on cruise ships, and that she often finds it lonely here, spending much time on Skype and so forth, but that it has many advantages, which of course she didn’t need to expand on. Based on how quickly the contact lens solution turned up, the supply chain may be capable of addressing almost anything, or anything physical anyway. It’s interesting to speculate on the process behind the super-fresh, varied salads they prepare at lunch (but one suspects it may not always reflect the sustainability concepts that Nomad emphasizes in its marketing).
For the third successive day, it thundered and poured, requiring one of the men to again rush over and tie down the covers. Today though, unlike Monday and Tuesday, it didn’t really stop. We set out anyway at around 4.30 pm, the wheels displacing walls of water from the start; the radio usually crackles with the sharing of information (or maybe in part with gossip and dirt about the guests, who knows) but now was almost quiet, most guides from most camps not having ventured out (and apparently one of those who did, managed to get his vehicle stuck). We started heading between the one thin, bright break in the grim sky, but it would have involved crossing a creek, and we couldn’t make it. So we waited for a while, watching perhaps seventy or eighty zebra move rather indecisively across the plain, and a few buffalo waiting it out under the trees. We decided to head back, and despite everything, we would have ticked off a pretty good chunk of the mammal spotting checklist provided in our room, if we hadn’t done it already. The highlight, as it so often is, was a family of elephants, huddling together and swaying with heavy grace to the gentle music in their heads, before deciding to move on and crossing the path in front of us, on the way to their next happy exercise in tree destruction (Lazaro said however that rain such as this does a great job of helping the trees to recover from their encounters with elephants).
When we left the camp, two of the guys were catching a puff adder which had wandered into the area outside the dining room, and manipulating it into a basket; when we arrived back, a group of hyraxes which live in the surrounding rocks had moved into the same area and were huddling together out of the rain, largely oblivious to the comings and goings. We did some shopping in the little gift shop, where it appears a young woman called Vicki sits alone for large chunks of the day. Despite the curtailed evening drive, we still had little time to spend in our room before dinner. In addition to writing this diary, I want to write a short story about a man who goes on safari, and becomes obsessed with a (false) idea about another guest, to the extent that he completely fails to appreciate anything before him. I’d like to write it while I’m here, but I doubt I’ll even get started on it. You will appreciate that only the tiniest germ inside this concept can in any way be taken as personal testimony.
We ate dinner with the group – a traditional Tanzanian buffet, all excellent; our dinner companions included a couple of Los Angeles lawyers and a retired Texas judge, one of the two solo women I mentioned. We walked back to our room at the same time as a young couple from Manila, and I conceded that my knowledge of the Philippines is largely confined to what I’ve gleaned from the (excellent but very long) films of the director Lav Diaz. He’d seen none of these himself, but he recognized the name and seemed impressed. “Lav Diaz,” I heard him explain to his partner as we closed the door, “National artist!”
I did ask Lazaro at one point whether he’d driven any famous people, and he showed us a photo of himself with a famous American actor that neither one us could identify from the name nor the appearance (apparently the guy is best known for some kids’ show, so we may be the wrong demographic). He also said he’d driven someone from the US Supreme Court, but could only remember the man was called John. Based on this, and the general description, it seemed it might have been Chief Justice Roberts. If so, one only hopes any liberal guests in attendance at the same time found it not too hard to remain civil. Lazaro opined that well-known guests might often not volunteer their identities, which I found no difficulty in agreeing with…
On our last day, in anticipation of further evening rain, we extended our morning safari, and ended up staying out for some nine hours. In a way, this might be the ultimate testimonial – I can’t think of another circumstance under which one could drive around for that long and not regret a second of it. We ate breakfast for the first time at the lodge rather than taking it with us, and got to watch the daily routine of the monkeys trying to raid the buffet (we saw one of them swoop in, grab a muffin, and gleefully shove it down his throat). Our main objective after we set out was to find a rhinoceros, and we drove far into the area where Lazaro (whom we again had to ourselves) thought that might be achieved – we saw far fewer trucks today, and many of those were just the same recurring ones on a similar quest. We were often very close to the Kenyan border again, able to watch animals on the other side, and at times Lazaro was unsure whether or not we’d strayed across it. After some four and a half or five hours we stopped for lunch and then started to reverse our steps. At some point – and again, the radio chatter is an ever-present background to the journey – he got word of a rhino spotting and started speeding off, displacing vast herds of wildebeest, and all but dismissing a not-exactly-negligible view of two lions watching a passing family of elephants (no doubt wishing they could just get one of the calves alone) to reach the location. By the time we (and several other trucks) got there, they’d vanished again (the area had plenty of dense clumps of trees where they could hide indefinitely). We waited and waited, and then left for a while to see the lions after all (by then the elephants had moved on) with a side visit to see a lounging cheetah. Based on Lazaro’s analysis of a nearby fresh carcass and of the vultures and storks (who knew storks were that way?) picking on it, the cheetah had killed a gazelle in the last few minutes, already eaten its fill, and left the rest for the other scavengers. I guess in these parts, a cheetah can afford to be complacent about finishing up his meal.
Lazaro then seemed to indicate we’d have to give up on the rhino given the approaching rain, and then a few minutes later we saw two magnificent rhinoceroses after all, completely out in the open, walking majestically along (I am really not sure to what extent our guide orchestrated this apparent disappointment followed by last-minute triumph). We watched them until they disappeared again, and then he headed back, moving quickly enough that he had to take precautions against his cushions and blankets flying out of the vehicle, and got us back to the lodge some five minutes before the rain (just as we always knew he would).
I mentioned before that the land is much more varied than you might escape – today it seemed to have breathed in the rain from yesterday and then to have exhaled in a richer shade of green. Some bleaker areas look like the aftermath of battles or fires – sometimes that’s the work of elephants laying waste to trees (as carelessly as cheetahs, but with less benefit for other animals – we saw some giraffes standing in a particularly wretched-looking spot as if trying to remember what had happened to the lush trees of their memories), or of various tree parasites (sometimes, plants invade others and break them open from the inside). But on the whole, it’s lusher, and water is more plentiful, than we’d expected. It’s hot of course – even spending so much time in the vehicle, you burn rapidly. But it’s a different kind of heat compared to Toronto’s summer – I covered up today with a long-sleeved thing we bought in New Zealand, and never felt overheated from it. Another aspect of plentitude is the abundance of new-born animals – we’ve seen baby monkeys, elephants, lion cubs, zebras, giraffes, and so on. You wouldn’t usually expect warthogs to constitute a highlight, but it was so joyous one day to see a family of warthogs just running around, apparently simply playing, just because they’re alive, and they can. We saw numerous other examples of play too, including unserious competitions between male buffalo and giraffes. Of course, such showdowns often involve real stakes. Lazaro keeps up a steady commentary of analysis on the structure of what we’re observing, pointing out the males versus the females (the latter usually outnumbering the former, sometimes by a ridiculous ratio), males who are plotting to displace other males, and so forth – I only wish I had time to document it all here. Sometimes he indicates that particular creatures are on alert because of the proximity of predators – such as a deer calmly eating while its mate stands guard like a sentinel, knowing a leopard is on the other side of the rocks. On the other hand, he sometimes assessed various animals as being oblivious to the danger they were in. This of course would be bad news for them.
We learned that Lazaro actually owns his vehicle and receives a daily rental fee from Nomad for it, contrary to what we’d assumed; apparently this is under some Nomad micro-finance loan program (which he said will take several years to pay back though). This and other aspects of the company seem very progressive, but inevitably it’s possible to have reservations here and there. Most obviously, there’s the basic structure of two white managers overseeing what appears to be an entirely black staff, which might suggest rather unfortunate colonial parallels (the primary owner of Nomad is, we’re told, a wealthy Scotsman who has extensive business interests in Tanzania – this somewhat explains why, months ago when I was transferring money to pay for all this, the business address was listed as a tiny village in Scotland). The staff quarters are hidden away behind some rocks but it doesn’t sound like they are anything to brag about – tin-sided buildings occupied two to a room, with little or no view, et cetera. The hours are self-evidently grueling – you see people late at night serving dinner or tending the bar, and then again serving breakfast (albeit they get some downtime during the day). And of course there’s the isolation of the whole place and the consequent separation from family, although that’s inherent in the premise. Anyway, it is no surprise to hear that the life is not for everyone, but I must say that the staff we encountered are all astoundingly pleasant and amiable-seeming.
It’s possible to explore the desert on a self-drive basis, although between the difficulty of navigation and not having access to the radio intelligence network, it’s hard to see how you’d locate most of the natural wonders. We came across one guy stuck in the mud – a supply truck had stopped to help, and Lazaro joined in as well (the guy’s wife stayed in the vehicle throughout). I was happy the guy gave Lazaro some money for his help once he was finally out. He came up to apologize to us also and said he hoped it would be the only farce we’d witness today (it was). I did advise Lazaro to get away from the guy quickly before he got stuck again. Regarding the radio chatter – we were told that while Swahili is common to everyone, Tanzania also has 126 individual languages, all of which thrive within their distinct tribes or subcultures. Of course, it would take much more time and investigation to get a real sense of the country. Apparently it’s recently become mandatory for children to go to school; however, the best schools are private and beyond the reach of ordinary people (one staff member, telling us about this, hinted very politely about his hope of finding a foreign benefactor to fund this for his sons). Family structures are evolving toward something more recognizably Western (as in Lazaro’s one wife versus his father’s five; we heard another story like this too) but at the cost of well-established traditional structures. I suppose everything is always a tumble of steps forward and accompanying (hopefully smaller) ones backward.
At dinner we talked to a neurotic American from Portland and yet another Swiss guy – as often happens, we didn’t necessarily start off strong with the group conversation, but ended up still being at the table after everyone else had moved on. (Whenever I tell people I’ve been completely off my phone, they usually start by claiming to be doing much the same thing, a claim which then rapidly falls apart on further questioning – it’s similar to how people like to claim they hardly eat meat, again regardless of their actual habits). The lodge is much fuller than it was yesterday, in part because one of the mobile camps was washed away by the storm and so people had to be relocated. The buffalo were yet again moving around the lodge during the night, but we didn’t hear them (the nights are far from quiet, with a complex symphony of chirps and hums and rustles and even the occasional roar, but we didn’t find any of this kept us awake). We had breakfast for the last time here. We filled in our comment card and did not have a single criticism.
Pinda/Penda drove us to the airstrip, just as he’d picked us up. He said his great ambition is to be a full guide – currently he is more of an assistant guide/jack of all trades (his duties include doing the laundry). If nothing else, the tips are much much greater for a guide as they are customarily the only ones who are tipped separately (I have to admit we gave more to Lazaro individually than to all the others combined, although this is not out of line with what the lodge recommends). We felt bad for Pinda/Penda though because it seems he has a long way to go in overall fluency. For instance, we passed a very freshly killed zebra, with the victorious lion on a rock nearby, having eaten no more than a few mouthfuls out of the underbelly. This surprised us, but it was only when we mentioned it in Selous that we were given the likely narrative, that lions are often exhausted after their kills and frequently take such respites before settling in to enjoy their handiwork.
Anyway, it is funny that the Serengeti’s Kokatende airstrip requests that passengers arrive forty-five minutes early, as the normal airport process is entirely absent – you just walk up to the plane with your (entirely unchecked) bags, and if your name is on the list, you get on the plane. The plane was a ten-seater, and that includes the seat next to the pilot, which I expect would be a big thrill for some passengers. We stopped in one airport to refuel – it seems there is a Four Seasons Serengeti near there (must be quite something). Some ninety minutes later we touched down in Zanzibar, so we got to see it from the air at least – ranging from what looks from above like vast areas of tin boxes on one side of the island, to (presumably) hotels with as much space to themselves as a hundred such boxes, and then large areas on the other side of the island where it was hard to make out much population density at all. Overall, it looked smaller than we’d expected – we’d toyed when planning the trip with the idea of spending a few nights there, but our impression from above was that there was no reason to regret our decision to skip it. We took off again, and fifteen minutes later arrived in Dar Es Salaam, a much bigger city, which at least from our narrow entry angle seemed to allow its inhabitants a little more breathing room. Our bags did get scanned there, and ten minutes later we were in the departure area, where we spent a couple of hours (naturally, Nomad had supplied us with lunch to take with us). We went on wi-fi for the first time since arriving in Tanzania, but it wasn’t a particularly uplifting experience, so we’ll revert to silence now for the next five days. I must admit that my confidence in my Albert Brooks theory has now somewhat diminished, although I could not research the matter enough to reach a definitive conclusion one way or the other.
Then we caught another small plane, another ten-seater I think, to Selous, flying over dazzlingly mysterious patterns of water and forest and sand. It took about half an hour to the Kiba airstrip, which is literally just that, without even the tiny facilities of the Serengeti strip. Another guy got off there, and it turned out he was the manager of the place, Eric, returning from a brief leave. It’s instantly apparent that we will be even more isolated here than we were in Lamai (where, as I mentioned, we were always running into trucks from other safaris – we may have registered as many as thirty different safari brand/logos there). The drive to the lodge didn’t take long, and then we met the acting managers, Fabio and Barbara - another young imported couple, this time from Germany – and we got an introductory pep talk which was much like the one in Lamai, except that the European accents make things sound more like commands than enticements. One thing that’s different is that here the laundry excludes all underwear, not just female underwear – this is a recent change they say they made for egalitarian purposes (they acknowledged Eric may change it back).
The lodge has a main “mess area” with a library and a bar on the left, and a dining area on the right. Beyond the bar is a swimming pool, and from there you can walk down to a beach (which however you’re not meant to do without staff accompaniment, mainly to avoid getting between a hippo and the water – more on this later). Our room is similar to Lamai in terms of size (i.e. embarrassingly huge) and general opulence – however, the walls are of wood rather than stone, and the front is completely open, so that only a mosquito net separates us from, uh, all of Africa. They say there is no risk of dangerous animals entering our room, but monkeys or bush babies may come in and steal anything that seems edible, or sweet-smelling, or otherwise appealing – various boxes are provided to lock things up. We may have taken this too much to heart because as I write this – a day or so later – I can never find anything because we’ve so meticulously hidden it. Directly beneath our window there is a clearing, and some brush beyond that, and then interwoven stretches of sand and water, with more trees and mountains beyond. It’s very dark at night, but during the day there is every chance of seeing hippos, and they may come up very close to the units as well, even directly below. But I think the “bush music” overall is a little quieter than it was in Lamai.
At dinner we met two older couples, one British and one Italian. Overall the lodge is more dimly lit than it was in Lamai and the staff are either more evasive or else fewer in number, giving things the constant sense of being on the verge of slipping away altogether into the night. But again, the Nomad brand rapidly comes across in the structure and tone of the day. The staff vary in their command of English, but the one phrase they all know is “You’re welcome.” I think some of them grab onto it as an all-purpose substitute for “Hello,” or “Please” or “Enjoy your meal” or whatever else evades them; it’s very endearing. The conversation at dinner though was a bit monotonous, focusing almost entirely on past safari experiences (both the other couples were double-digit veterans) and on great photographs of their past or of their imagined futures (I had no idea that wild dogs were such an evasive target). I imagine our little camera looks silly to such heavy-duty people, but we would much rather rely on our senses and memories than on photographs (I rather like the idea of coming here and not taking a single picture, but everyone would think us crazy, and besides in the absence of any photographic evidence might suspect us of having invented the whole trip). We took two glasses of wine back to our room to end the night – we never did this in Lamai because, as mentioned, we wouldn’t have been allowed to drink them outside). We both fell asleep quickly, but I woke up at some point and couldn’t get back to sleep, which made the following morning difficult at times. I ended up sleeping through lunch the following day, so Ally had to go and eat alone like a sad solo traveler.
But there was nothing sad about the morning drive, unless you adopt the perspective of the numerous dead animals we encountered. We had heard two things about Selous – that it’s hotter than Lamai, and that the animals are less plentiful. The first is entirely true – we left at 7 am, and by around 11 am the heat was uncomfortable even in the shade of the vehicle; we arrived back at 12.15 pm, which by that measure didn’t seem like a moment too soon. They avoid scheduling anything during the afternoon, which seems wise (even though our room avoids technology with regard to such things as televisions and mini-bars, it does have an enormous electric fan above the bed). The second is also true – we saw an almost comically small number of wildebeest compared to what we’ve come to expect, and there were often longer waits between sightings, especially again toward the end of the drive when the animals had all scurried into various patches of shade. But there were wonderful compensating benefits. We certainly saw giraffes in greater numbers than in Lamai. We saw amazing sweeping panoramas, in which by turning your head you moved from hippos to drinking giraffes to a herd of buffalo to a lioness and her eight cubs, feasting on one of those very buffalo. We drove closer to the latter sight and ended up watching it for well over half an hour – various cubs deciding they’d had enough, then changing their minds and coming back, fighting over the best shreds of remaining flesh; the mother dragging the carcass deeper into the shade, over the objection of two cubs; and for most of the time, the wretched hollow stare of the dead creature pointed in our direction. Later we saw an even more ghoulish sight – a hyena tearing at the neck of a fallen giraffe, long after the lions had moved on; we saw the hyena move on too, just suddenly deciding enough was enough and trotting away without a backward glance, at which the vultures moved in, plunging their beaks deep into the little that remained. It’s an entirely efficient distribution of spoils, as if constituting the bleakest possible ad for a project management enterprise. We also saw various antelopes, eland, warthogs, birds (I’ve been delinquent in saying much about the birds – I guess they’re more for connoisseurs – but this is certainly some kind of birdwatching paradise I imagine) and so on.
We drove up to a river bed that seemed entirely dead, of interest only to baboons, but for a group of elephants in the distance extracting with their trunks the little water that remained in some subterranean reservoir and spraying it into their mouths (not quite as efficiently as the events I just described). But during the rainy season (still a few months away), it appears the river will be entirely replenished, to a depth of what looked like over ten feet; likewise we drove through a “lake” which couldn’t possibly be identified as such now, but will reappear when the rain starts. There are a few more durably defined roadways which will be the only supply lines during that season. For now the ground is mostly much drier-looking than in the Serengeti, a study in yellows more than in greens, although there are certainly exceptions, and few areas are completely devoid of trees or bushes (I believe these are often acacias). The sense of reduced plentitude also applies to other humans – we saw only a few trucks from other lodges (even the nearest of them lies 35km away from us), a few self-drive cars, and a guy driving a tractor who had gotten lost on his way to the airstrip. I realize this can happen to anyone, but of all places to be imprecise in one’s navigation… (he seemed to have retained his cheerfulness though).
Our guide now is Deo, and we shared most of the morning drive with a British guy called Nick who we picked up after a night of fly camping (see later comments) and who was laden down with cameras, although in his case it’s actually part of his job (providing new visual content for an Africa-centric website, or something like that). Overall, still writing this on the first afternoon, I think we may have designed the trip perfectly – the bountifulness of the Serengeti provides an instant surfeit of safari bliss, and then the Selous follows it up with something a little more refined. It’s impossible as of now to say which of the two will be stronger in our memories, not that it is an important matter to resolve. As I write, more than halfway through the trip, we’re both surprised how little time we spend on anything other than pure safari experience – we’re both still on the same books we were reading back in Toronto for instance. This is of course exactly how it should be. We can read any time!
The rituals continue – here too they serve tea and cake at 4 pm at which time you meet your guide and discuss the evening’s activities; he meets you again before dinner to plan the next morning, and so on. A lot of it is scheduling – what time to leave, what time to have breakfast, what time to have a wake-up call (and the early morning delivery of tea/coffee, delivered here in the anti-monkey box, rather than through a hatch as in Lamai). It could seem like being tied down too much, but on the other hand, when will the time spent on activities ever be as precious? For the evening drive, Nick dropped out and it was just us and Deo (they charge a supplement if you want to guarantee your drives won’t be shared, but we were lucky in that the great majority of our drives worked out that way regardless). It was relatively low-key by some measures – only a smattering of significant animal sightings (which is just as well as I’d forgotten to reload my camera battery after recharging it) – but had one great incident which summed up how you get drawn here into great narratives. Deo heard some baboon sounds which he identified as a possible reaction to a leopard; then by watching the movement of the baboons he deduced the possible location of the leopard, and then he drove a little further and there it was! I expect it’s largely down to experience, but it still seemed pretty masterful. The leopard only spent a little time in the open though before disappearing into the bush, where we and another vehicle were reduced to grabbing at shadows and faint flickers of movement, with both Ally and I straining to catch even the faintest glimpse (it helped when it moved its tail). We left for a while to look at other things, and when we arrived back the leopard had relocated to a sturdy tree branch, where it lay with all its legs hanging down, as if lacking a care in the world. By this time it was getting dark, although on the way back we still got a kick out of a group of hyenas rolling around in a mud puddle and refusing to move for us (I guess they feel much ballsier at night).
Deo says the leopards do come into the lodge area sometimes, but that the total lack of protection in our room isn’t a problem because they avoid humans. We accepted this, but it’s not hard to see how some might be concerned. He told us he started as a waiter here and rapidly became a guide. Another employee with aspirations to be a guide was sitting in the back of one of the other trucks tonight, monitoring events and exchanges as they drove around. His challenge, we’re told, will be fluency in English rather than technical knowledge; this seems to be a common thing given the similar situation we described in Lamai. But it’s a sad necessity – the guides aren’t just here to point out animals (although that’s hardly a negligible skill) but also to hold you captive through the spaces in between. Anyway, observing the rituals at the lodge continues to be interesting in itself. We perceive now some slight disorganization because the regular manager Eric has returned, but the relief managers are still here trying to do their thing, so that (for example) we were asked twice about our plans for the night. This hardly matters. Eric seems to be born to the task by the way – a white Tanzanian who has the host thing utterly down while also speaking fluent Swahili (he co-manages the place with his girlfriend Natasha, who has also returned now after being away). Fabio is also trying to learn Swahili, and gave us several facts about the language, but some of these were subsequently contradicted by others. Whether in management or lower down within the labour force, I guess there are always challenges….
We ate dinner at a table set far away from the main group table, and again took some wine back to the room afterwards. So far we’ve seen but one lonely monkey in the vicinity of our room, and there was no real indication he was planning on stealing (funnily enough, as soon as I wrote that I went to check on some rustling sounds, and about ten or twelve at least have now arrived, but their intentions remain unclear). In general, the animals here are clearly more cautious than in Lamai. Most prominently, the elephants up there didn’t seem too worried about all the trucks and the gawkers, but the elephants keep a severe distance here – Deo says this is learned behaviour flowing from the local history of poaching. It’s a bit sad to be told that parts of the Selous national park are set aside for hunting, and that one can obtain a licence (albeit only very very expensively, unless you bribe a crooked ranger or something) to kill just about any animal (the giraffe is one exception, being Tanzania’s national animal, and so is the elephant). It’s hard not to feel contempt for someone who would see, say, a lion, and want only the experience of killing it, but perhaps they are more to be pitied than scorned.
We both slept well on Saturday night, and then on 7 am on Sunday morning we set out for a boat trip on the river. We only saw two other boats during the subsequent five hours or so. We saw – and I’m truly not exaggerating – perhaps a thousand hippos though. Time and again, we saw them from a distance, partially out of the water; then as we approached they submerged themselves up to their eyes and ears, leaving us under scrutiny by ten or fifteen suspicious hippo craniums, then as we drew even closer they submerged completely (an underwater camera would have yielded some astounding mass hippo groupings). Obviously they are very reticent about humans, which is just as well, because plenty of Tanzanians have been killed by stumbling upon a grazing hippo and inadvertently blocking its path back to the water. The other main feature was crocodiles – for all their fearsome reputation, apparently as skittish as the hippos; we had the recurring sight of a crocodile basking on its little patch of sand, and then sliding into the water as we approached.
Throughout the trip, we passed by what would be stunning, soft-sanded, secluded beaches, if one had a way of getting to them, and of being sure they were not areas of interest to crocodiles (at this time of year, there are many unhatched eggs secreted in that sand). Other creatures made guest appearances on the banks – a solo drinking giraffe, elephants (but to prove the earlier point, they disappeared as soon as they registered our presence, even in a boat), impala (in terms of guaranteed sightings on any particular outing, impala are to Selous what wildebeest were to Lamai), baboons, fish eagles, kingfishers. After about two hours, we stopped at a spot within a towering gorge (plainly they often stop at the same spot, indicated by the evidence of a discarded flip-flop sole). Deo set out breakfast there on a table-sized rock, and we ate overlooking the water. We headed back, with the heat rising again for the last hour or so, and arrived back just before noon. Fabio and Barbara have departed now and Eric is back in control. Perhaps this is why the gift shop, which they’d told us was open for us to wander into twenty-four hours a day, was securely locked up when we tried to check it out. No doubt the original laundry directive is already back in place!
If we were people who tanned, we’d be impressively brown by now; as it is, we must settle for avoiding the worst potential for sunburn (which I think we’ve achieved adequately). The monkeys chose to move on without invading our room, which might be viewed as a bit of an insult. The only regular visitors are ants – I think the staff sprays for them every evening. We ate lunch (carrot baklava – hard to fault the menus here) with hippos in the distance, and then spent a few quiet hours in the room. In the afternoon we had a very peaceful drive, with the animals mostly seeming very mellow. I have not even tried to write down all the insight into animal structures and behavior. You try to resist viewing animals as broader versions of humans, and yet time and again they seem to invite that kind of parallel. We learned for example that when you see buffalo by themselves, it’s usually because keeping up with the ever-moving herd has become too much for them with age, and so they choose a smaller area in which to spend their remaining days. Today we saw three such old male buffalo, all ambling along the side of the lake together, then collectively venturing into the water; Deo says that as long as the three survive and stick together, they’ll be safe from lions and leopards. In the upcoming movie version, they’ll of course be played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin. Also very entertaining is the forward movement of the baboon troop, always with a lookout in the trees scanning diligently for leopards, ready to shriek when they do (which is bad news for them, but as previously documented, good news for tourists with alert guides).
We arrived at the “fly camp” as the sun went down. This is a mobile camp, allowing visitors an even more rarified and separated existence – it only accommodates one group a night. They had set up a tent for us to sleep in, overlooking the lake; a tent behind that in which to change; a bucket shower, which we didn’t end up using; a drop toilet (with a proper seat and everything though); a fully set table for our dinner; a bar area; and a bonfire with seats around it. In addition to Deo, who spent the whole night awake on guard, it comes with a waiter, a cook, and a general attendant – the latter two stayed well out of the way, to protect the refined nature of the existence. The truth is, it was a little too much pampering for us. At dinner they served I think six different kinds of vegetable dish, and then apologized to us for having unnecessarily barbecued three different kinds of meat which we didn’t want (perhaps the suggestion was that if they’d realized we didn’t want the meat, they would have bought ten different kinds of vegetable dish?) It was a beautiful spot though – a bird watcher’s paradise of eagles and kingfishers and geese and herons and others, with hippos and crocodiles entering or exiting the water, and other animals occasionally visiting on the other side. After it got dark we saw the stars more clearly than we have in years – neither of us is sure we’ve ever really seen the Milky Way before. Deo occasionally swung his flashlight to illuminate the fish (tilapia) jumping from the pursuing crocodiles. We chatted occasionally to Deo and to Jimmy the waiter (yet another person who expressed his desire to be a guide, and for whom language will be an evident difficulty), learning among other things that the most popular sport with the guys is English soccer (the previous day, they’d been collectively watching Liverpool versus Manchester United in the staff quarters; Tanzania has never even qualified for the World Cup finals) and that their current favourite musicians include Rick Ross, Chris Brown, DJ Khaled, 50 Cent, Beyonce, Rihanna and Kanye West (I mentioned we had actually seen some of these perform live, but it seemed like too abstract a concept to fully register). Sample names such as the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen evoked not the slightest glimmer of recognition. No one has seemed overly interested in asking about our lives – hard to say whether that’s a matter of policy or of disinterest. Jimmy asked the occasional question that stumped us though, for instance: where would we obtain the firewood, if we were to heat our home using firewood rather than electricity? (Of all times to have wished for the Internet!)
We retreated to our tent around 11 pm. It’s strange that once we zipped ourselves up in there, we actually had a thicker barrier between ourselves and the Selous than we do in our room, where there’s only the mosquito net. We fell asleep quickly and slept well, although I had much longer and more vivid dreams than I usually do, perhaps a gift of the stars (or perhaps, Ally points out less poetically, a side effect of the malaria pills we take every day). Sometime around 5 am, they started setting up our breakfast table and preparing our meal – once again, of course, far more than we needed (we had eggs and toast and a little of the fruit, but declined the yogurt, cereal, sausage and bacon). Deo reported hearing several leopards during the night, and a passage of elephants not far away, but I think it was a largely uneventful night in the African wild - it certainly seemed quieter than we expected, at least until dawn, when the hippos return to the water after a night of grazing and call out to each other.
At around 7 am, we set out to walk back to the lodge. This is not the typical end to the fly camping experience – it’s usually followed by a morning game drive – but we requested the walk. It took about two and a half hours to cover the 7 km – it seemed that we took the most direct route possible, ascending and descending over rocky terrain that would be inaccessible to the truck. It was hot from the start, with minimal clouds today, and the route allowed little shade, but at least we had the occasional breeze. To attempt the same walk at noon might perhaps be virtually suicidal. Poor Deo not only had to do all this after a sleepless night – we hadn’t realized when we made the arrangements that he would be on patrol all night, we assumed it would be someone else – but also had to carry his rifle, a first aid kit, and who knows what else. I assume there’s only the faintest chance the rifle would ever be necessary, as we encountered very few animals, and then mostly only brief sightings as they ran away. It might seem that animals would be more scared of big mechanical trucks than of people on foot, but experience has taught them the opposite. The bravest were the wildebeest, or perhaps they were only the most reluctant to give up their nice patch of grass (which I think they circled round and returned to as soon as we passed out of sight).
Ally is continuing to try to develop her guide skills, but her ability to recognize animal footprints remains a bit haphazard (it is interesting though to learn from the prints that the dead zones we passed through this morning were, within the past few hours, virtual highways of activity by intermingled zebras, buffalo, baboons, civets, etc.). The camp failed us to greet us with cold drinks and wet towels – somehow I feel Lamai would have been more on top of this! Oh wait, I said we didn’t want to be overly pampered. Ally ventured bravely to the main area to get the drinks herself. The morning passed easily by; we napped, Ally finally finished reading Swing Time, I wrote this. We had a shower – the room has its own solar-heated water supply, and given where we are, it must the most scalding solar-heated water in the world. But then I don’t think it is stored in an insulated tank or anything, because during the night it all gets cold. The monkeys did not return, and the beach and river below our window appeared barely disturbed.
We ate lunch – Eric came over and commented on how Deo had been dripping with sweat at the end of his walk. The lodge has five rooms and three somewhat larger “suites,” which incorporate a private plunge pool – I think it is currently just over half full. This includes a British family, parents and two boys, who seem (from our merely superficial impression) to embody teenage alienation – one of the boys seems disinterested in everything, and has skipped at least one of the family outings altogether, seemingly preferring just to hang around the lodge by himself (later we were told he was working on an essay, which seems a bit odd in a different way). We walked around the grounds for a while and checked things out. Like all such places, the library is a mystifying mishmash of curios (an outdated guide to aviation theory and practice, a German translation of one of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, A Life on the Road by Charles Kurault, and so forth). A heavy wooden box decorated in handsome giraffe carvings opens to reveal a backgammon set. And so on. We’d been told not to go down to the beach without some accompaniment, and we considered requesting that, but then decided it was too hot anyway. We spent more time in the room. Among other things it is equipped with sarongs, which Fabio earlier went out of his way to position as the ideal evening wear for the fashionable male – he and Eric both adhere to this at dinner, and at least one male guest so far has followed suit. For me it was enough of a fashion leap to have worn something other than black for our daytime drives (probably a wise decision here, but I don’t think the white T-shirts will see much action at home). In addition to writing this (as if that wasn’t already more than anyone would ever read) I’ve started writing the short story I mentioned earlier. Ally is now reading a recent edition of The New Yorker, even while lamenting that it makes her think too much about the real world. We won’t be removed from it for so much longer.
But first, more game drives. There are very few female guides, Deo tells us, because “they do not want to spend too much time in the bush because they want to be taking care of the babies.” So there you are! On the topic of guide diversity, we saw no white guides in the Serengeti; we did see one down here though, from another lodge – apparently the guy can speak Swahili and so isn’t frozen out. We are both quite taken by Deo’s manner of speaking, and the kind of deliberate poetry he gives to lines like (regarding baboons) “it is the noise they are making when they are seeing the leopard” or (regarding hippos) “they are moving from the shallow water to the deep water.” He's also very adept at mimicking various animal sounds (I teased him that he probably practices this in his room). Our game drive tonight was mostly quiet (apparently we missed no exciting sightings this morning either) until we saw the leopard, and although it was a close call, I think Ally may have analyzed the situation and identified the leopard a fraction of a second ahead of him, so I was very proud – she studied the impala and the way they were staring in one direction, and then she scrutinized the relevant portion of the bush, and she located the prowling leopard! Because the leopard is very shy – we also like the way Deo calls every animal “very shy,” except for the few exceptions he identifies as “not very shy” – it skulked away into the bush, and then we and another vehicle spent some time circling until it came out. It ended up posing nicely on a sturdy tree branch. We also saw the civet for the first time, although not as much more than a furtive silhouette.
An English woman at dinner was very jealous of our two leopard sightings here, having scored none herself, but at least she has two more days to remedy it. We sat near yet another Swiss couple, and another British couple – the man was from Liverpool and they were very familiar with the part of Wales where we go to visit. The conversation was fine except for the times when it veered into Trump and Brexit. I am seriously thinking on how to spend less time going forward on monitoring and absorbing the endless depressing sludge of “news,” and more time on mental engagement that’s elevating (without, that is, being merely escapist). It’s been easy to do here, but the state of mind you cultivate in Africa probably won’t make it through Canadian customs.
We again had a last glass of wine in the room, and set off the following morning at 6.30 am. I mentioned before that one of the rarer sightings, to our surprise, is that of the wild dog packs, because they roam so widely and unpredictably. A truck ahead of us got a good sighting this morning of a 14-dog pack retreating into the bush with its kill, a baby impala; we arrived in time only to see the last of the fourteen disappearing from view. For the first time today we saw the kudu, regarded as perhaps the most beautiful of the antelope, especially the male for its distinctively twisted horns. They were in a particular area where they often congregate for the dense availability of a particular yellow-flowering tree. As I sometimes do, I was whispering in Ally’s ear my imagined translation of an extended radio exchange between Deo and another guide:
Hamadi: Deo, you lied to me man, there’s no kudu anywhere around here.
Deo: They’re where they always are dumbass, near the yellow flowers, you just need to look harder.
Hamadi: Oh I screwed up, I thought you meant away from the yellow flowers, I always get that wrong.
As it turned out, the first part of that imagined translation was essentially accurate.
The main event of the morning though was the lions, the same mother and eight cubs we saw the other day feasting on a buffalo. We encountered them not far from that spot, moving regally down towards a lake at different speeds and in varying configurations, the cubs eventually settling in the shade, where some of them ended up rolling over on their backs as they slept, basking in the kind of entitled relaxation that few non-domestic animals can allow themselves. The lioness positioned herself with a wide view of the lake and of the action around it, but few animals arrived to drink, and most of those were on the far side, away from imminent danger; a herd of buffalo managed to come and go without incident. A warthog toyed with entering the danger zone, but thought better of it and withdrew. We drove to a nearby spot for breakfast and then drove on before returning later. Our timing was very fortunate – we arrived as a family of giraffes came to drink on the far side of the lake; the parents moved away too soon, leaving a young giraffe behind, still drinking. The lion immediately reacted to this opportunity, murderously circling the lake like a dark surge in the sand itself, closing in on the distance (10 to 20 metres) from which it likes to attack. The various impala in the region tuned in and took off, but the giraffe didn’t seem to sense danger; we were certain its fate was sealed. But the careless parents came back into view, the calf closed the gap, and the lion pragmatically started to return without ever going in for the kill.
But then an even more gripping drama developed, because the warthog returned, now with a companion, stumbling into a patch of beach that now held lions on both sides. The prowling lioness refocused and drew closer, but the warthogs thought better of it and withdrew to safety. Deo’s assessment was that the lions would wait there all day and that the better hunting opportunities would return in the late afternoon as it cooled, so we headed back for lunch, etc. Not the least entertaining part of this was that most the lion cubs had been dead to the world through the whole thing. Presumably they would have been happy to wake up to eat though; indeed, the lioness would likely have insisted they eat first. Again, one can satirize this in human-like terms (kids today are just too entitled!) but that would only obscure the beauty of it rather than illuminating it.
Ally started to organize our baggage, to extract the clothes we intend to wear on the way home and so forth, an obvious sign of things winding down. But neither of us is too sad. The trip has been relatively short by the standards of many trips to Africa, but our memories and our senses are already full enough. The big question, as so often, is how to make this an experience that lives on in Toronto in some form, rather than solely in the rearview mirror. The other big question is how soon we’ll return to Africa, or even to Tanzania specifically. At the moment, we’re thinking it should be very soon, but we may remember in due course that the world has other choices with other worthy cases to argue for themselves, even if limited by the absence of lions and giraffes.
On our final evening drive, we saw twice as many wild dogs as we did before, that is, two of them. Having said that, we got to see them for an hour as they lay right in the middle of the road, occasionally standing or shifting before sitting back down again. Of course, it’s all too easy to compare them with domestic dogs as they sit there happily panting, to imagine you could feed them treats and teach them commands, but they are ruthless killers – Deo says that they can pass through an area and wipe out all the baby impala within it. Anyway, other trucks showed up and apparently it was a rare day when all the guests at the lodge got a really look at some wild dogs. Ironically, it almost turned into too much of a good thing, because no one wanted to leave, for fear of disturbing the dogs, or missing some great event (such as the return of the rest of the pack) and so all the evening light got used up. Eventually the dogs just got tired of hanging out there and ran away, and by then it was too late to drive on to see the lions. So we drove around a little more before returning to the lodge, without any further breakthroughs; it’s no doubt fitting that our last sighting was, I think, of impala, the Coca-Cola of the Selous.
In the end, the heat of the Selous wasn’t as oppressive as some had warned – the mid-afternoon break built into the schedule protected us from the worst of it, and anyway, the heat doesn’t have the vicious humid edge we’ve experienced in some other places. We were happy the trip was organized as it did – the first stop, in the Serengeti, overwhelmed us from the start with its abundance, allowing us the rapid satisfaction of having seen the things people expect you to see (without ever feeling merely crass and touristy); the second stop, in the Selous, was like stepping back and slowing down to apply deeper layerings of colour and texture. Oh, and except for some very brief incidents of “upset stomachs,” we had anything to report in the malaise department. We did not, of course, drink the water.
We joined the group for our last dinner – it was all people I’ve already mentioned, and not very galvanizing. Eric was at one end holding people captive with his knowledge of travel logistics and local geography and the like, and Natasha (whose initial charm rapidly wears thin) was at the other delivering a long monologue about her days in the German reality TV business (I wonder if any guest gets out of here without hearing about that). We took a bottle of wine back to our room. In the morning, a monkey scrutinized us in great detail, but left without making any move on us. It’s a little disappointing to have been so uninteresting to the monkeys – they did reportedly descend on another room the other day. At least we had our own lizard who liked to hang out by our toilet. We also saw, once again, but with undiminished pleasure, hippos and crocodiles and impala and a nice array of birds. We had our last breakfast, and left the place at 8.30 am. Deo (who was free for this task only because another family had canceled at the last minute, which one imagines would be a wrenching decision) drove us to the airstrip, accompanied by an armed guard (required just because of the extra time spent out of the vehicle I assume). They goofed around with saying bye bye to the animals on our behalf. The plane arrived almost immediately, and just like that we were gone, although Ally did make a few final animal sightings from the air.
We made two brief stops to pick up more passengers on our way to Dar Es Salaam (or as those in the know call it, Dar). One woman was lamenting that her only reason for coming to the Selous had been to see the wild dogs; she’d been in a truck that received a call of a sighting, but they got there too late. We said nothing. She and her husband were headed for Zanzibar; someone else was going to the Seychelles. As for us, Nomad surprised us one last time by having a guy waiting for us at the airport, just to transfer us from the domestic terminal to the international terminal – a nice gesture, but something we could likely have managed. Still, it gave us a brief taste of the rush of activity on a Dar street. The international terminal is fairly modest, with little energy surrounding the duty-free shops, or surrounding anything really – although a group of schoolkids seemed to be enjoying their guided tour. Ally observed a staff member carrying a loaf of bread through security – just not something you really see much in airports. We flew to Abu Dhabi – the flight wasn’t too busy so people were able to spread out. We both slept a bit; the five hours went by easily enough. To balance out my earlier comments about the flight from Amsterdam, this flight was a multicultural celebration of sorts – rows of bright head coverings, immaculate white linen outfits, merely a few white faces like ours looking like refugees from a glummer, worse-dressed place. The three steps from the plane to the airport bus afterwards may constitute our only direct time on UAE ground.
It was dark when we flew in, but the city below looked like a different and much newer world, with precisely measured intervals between lights, and a sense of immense scale and scope. The airport reinforces the impression – the planes and trucks and other amenities all look as if they came from the factory just yesterday. A tired mass of people were moved most efficiently through a security check; perhaps it’s just coincidence that the Muslim women seemed more inclined than the men to take the stairs. I’m sure the airport has plenty of possibilities, but we ignored them and paid to use one of the lounges for four or five hours. I used the Internet a bit, not least to get a look at Ozu via the webcam, but he had a cone on his head for some reason, presumably because of a mishap of some kind. This only underlines something we discussed several times during our trip, that Ozu’s chances in the wild would not be high. Even after five technology-free days, it seemed unlikely the rest of the web would generate anything much better (maybe I really have changed in this regard!), so I turned back to this diary instead (the Albert Brooks-inspired story would have to wait a few more days, but I did finish that too). There’s no doubt our vacation is over, and yet we’re still more than half a day away from home, following up (as we must) one of the most glorious and beguiling and stimulating periods we’ve ever had by spending time being nowhere at all.