2012-02-19

Africa 2012: Safari

(continued from part I)

Continuing our journey by plane to Kilimanjaro international airport in Moshi, Tanzania. An airport so big you can actually bypass security by accidentally choosing the wrong door from the airfield into the building ;-) We get picked up and driven to our hotel, the Springlands Hotel. We pass a bustling market and an abandoned railway line which now functions as some sort of pedestrian zone. The roads leading away from the airport are decent and paved. However, we turn off this in Moshi onto something we don’t even recognize as a road at first. It’s mud and dust, strewn with potholes and so wide it’s not clear where the “road” ends and the fields begin. Careful slalom. The drivers have learned to navigate such terrain and we seldom hit the ground with more than our tires... Which reminds me of pedestrian zebra crossings. The only way to enforce them are speed bumps and speed bumps they have! You have to almost come to a full stop and cross them diagonally in order not to wreck your car.

The hotel is a walled garden and guarded. Despite almost three meter high walls the dust of Africa is everywhere. The bottom of the pool gets wiped everyday or else it would turn into a mud bath. Climate is obviously very different from home as you can guess from the fact that the only place meals are served is outdoors. Only a roof for shelter and windows in the rooms that cannot be fully closed. Again, the clientele is exclusively white. There are tons of waiters and other employees swarming around. It seems every single open job position is occupied with at least three different people. One waiter for knifes, another for forks and a third for spoons or something.

We meet our driver for the next week of safari, Mohammed. He’ll take us on game drives through the national parks lake Manyara, Serengeti and the Ngorogoro crater and another one whose name I forgot. Each one more impressive than the last. Especially the crater makes you wonder why humankind ever developed agriculture if there was so much meat to choose from. Seriously, it’s kind of ridiculous. You’d try to shoot a zebra but can’t frame it without also getting giraffes, antilopes and water buffaloes into the picture. Our first elephant sighting caused lots of Ohs and Ahs but by the end of the week we’d be so spoiled we’d be mildly annoyed there was yet another herd of elephants blocking the road again.

Mohammed is a very experienced driver and knows the place like the back of his hand. The drivers are in active radio contact and give each other tips about the latest sightings. For rare animals or animals of “The Big Five” (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros) you haven’t seen yet that means a wild chase to the spot of the sighting. Drivers usually get an extra tip if they manage to show their clients all of the big five, hence the incentive to fly like the devil over the sand pistes. We were extraordinarily successful and had multiple sightings of each, including rarer or shy ones like cheetahs, warthogs and the hyena. The later one must be the most ugly creature ever and would sneak around our tented camp at night, making all kinds of strange wailing noises. Anita was particularly fond of all the young animals and we started mocking her by imitating overjoyed “Ohhh, baby elephant/giraffe/monkey/lion/zebra/x” exclamations whenever we saw one (or didn’t).

Mohammed has an impressively keen eye for spotting lions hiding and hunting in the tall grass or leopards chilling in the shade of the crown of a tree with their dead prey on a branch nearby. He taught us to tell the difference between a male and a female leopard in a tree: the female will lie flat on the branch with limps hanging down left and right of it while the male will have both legs to one side of the branch as not to hurt his balls ;-) He also warns us about some large birds in the trees at one of our rest spots. We acknowledge that and proceed to eat our lunch packs, thinking that if the birds wanted our food they’d beg and hop around like the birds we are used to from home would. Far off. One of them does a combat dive straight for Volker’s sandwich and we only realize what happened from Volker’s surprised scream, his missing sandwich and bleeding hand. Lesson learned.

It’s usually not allowed to leave the car in order to protect yourself and the park. While this is a perfectly reasonable limitation it does get annoying to drive around for so long a time. The drivers have developed various mocking games over the radio or when meeting to keep it entertaining. Mohammed seemed to occupy some sort of alpha male role amongst them and was usually the fastest, boldest and most aggressive. He’d intentionally bump into other cars to push them out of the way. All in good humour and mostly accompanied with lots of hearty laughs. Needless to say I enjoyed this kind of macho behaviour and rewarded him with a generous tip and my binoculars (which he often borrowed) after the trip ;-)

Tanzania has two official languages: Swahili and English. All billboard advertisements and signs are in English. This should make communication easy in theory. In practice we found that while our English wasn’t great the other party was usually even worse. This lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding where Alex tried to compliment Mohammed on his knowledge of the place and taking us the road less travelled into an area that looked like a grass desert. His choice of words contained a phrase like “big nothingness” which Mohammed interpreted as us complaining about being bored and him disappointing us. Exactly backwards. Caused him to turn around immediately and floor the gas pedal in order to make good. Took a while to soothe him and convince him we were more than happy with his services. Resulted in some laughs and a “Hakuna matata” (literally: There are no worries).

It seems everything here is out to get you. During the day you’ll have the Tsetse fly transmitting human sleeping sickness, during the night mosquitoes transmitting malaria. Lots of poisonous snakes and nasty parasites. Not to mention the big game, which, if you annoy it enough, will easily stomp you. Hyenas with rabies sneaking around your camp, bacteria flavouring your drinking water. All but one of us were suffering from more or less bad cases of diarrhea. We’d develop running gags about the texture and consistency of our shit and inform each other in great detail about our latest produce. This became even more pronounced later on the mountain. It’s astonishing how crucial and interesting the simplest body functions can become. It’s also astonishing how much the human body can absorb. In the space of a few days we had completely changed our diet; moved our sleeping schedule by a couple of hours time difference; teleported from winter to summer; from -15 degrees Celsius in Switzerland to 35 degrees in the shade in Africa, a difference of 50 degrees! And this was only the beginning, we fully intended to climb from sea level to almost 6000m and less than half the usual air pressure and thus oxygen.

We spent a night in the Highview Hotel in Karatu. Again a hotel with an outdoor pool. Completely perverse as the water for the whole village has to be pumped from a 900m deep (!) well and up the mountain to the hotel. The hotel is trying to do good and started lots of initiatives to involve the local population. Massai women are allowed to sell their craft on the property, farmers cultivate coffee and various other agricultural crops. Massai men are allowed to work as porters in a month long rotation to earn some money in tips. You end up passing your luggage to a Massai warrior in traditional dress complete with knife and huge ear piercings walking in sandals made from worn out car tires. We took a tour of the premises and were shown around. Climbing the hill behind the hotel, passing a big hole in the ground with smoldering garbage (the usual way to dispose of it here), you can visit a hut where the porter Massai live and keep some cattle. Although the hotel is by no means luxurious compared to European standards the contrast to the hut is stark. Primitively made from sticks and leafs, dark and smelly due to an open fire burning 24/7 to keep the insects out. Bedsteads made from naked pieces of foam. Most porters, Massai or not, seemed to be illiterate as we discovered with confused room numbers and baggage room slips. The hotel tries to encourage the Massai, especially the women, to go to school and to this end provides scholarships and sponsoring. Of course lessons are being taught in Swahili or English, not in their native tongue. Way to kill a culture. It’s moments like this that I hated myself in the role of a tourist. WTF are we doing here?

Continued in part III