Takeaway

Tanzania’s beautiful beings

Mita Ghose | Updated on September 20, 2019 Published on September 20, 2019

Creatures great and small: Tanzania’s wildlife sightings bring you face to face with nature in the raw   -  MITA GHOSE

From the eager ranger in search of a rare sighting in the wild to the escort who mimics a mating lion’s call to lure in a hesitant lioness, a host of intrepid people powers Tanzania’s tourism sector

A tousled mane shoots up from the camouflage of tall grass. The lion’s jaws open in a warning snarl before it lands a resounding smack on its competitor’s face. The lioness retreats; it’s the male’s prerogative to feed on the kill first. In no mood to share its meal, the lion snatches up the carcass — a small Thomson’s gazelle — and carries it further away. Watching the drama unfold from afar is a scruffy gang of spotted hyenas, wondering if they’ll even get a scrap.

The scene playing out in this Unesco World Heritage Site — a renowned caldera or collapsed crater formed millennia ago from the massive eruption of what was once a volcano in the Eastern Great Rift Valley of northern Tanzania — is balm for my earlier disappointments. Spread over 102 sq miles, its luminous, mineral-rich salt licks providing essential nutrients for its abundant wildlife, the Ngorongoro crater seems to be living up to its promise.

Warm glow: A Maasai mother with her infant   -  MITA GHOSE

 

I sigh with relief, for reality hasn’t always matched my expectations. A view of Mt Kilimanjaro, for instance, remains elusive like the Lake Manyara area’s cheetahs and famous tree-climbing lions. And Melanjan Emanyata, the village of nomadic Maasai cattle-herders we visit, seems, despite its air of neglect, custom-made for Western tourists, with its stock tribal dance performance, its tacky souvenirs priced in US dollars and the chieftain’s brightly robed, English-speaking son punctuating every sentence with a disconcerting “Yeah”!

Craving consolation for the letdowns, I look for it in the more unique experiences Tanzania has to offer. Only to discover that, like the tanzanite, the beautiful, locally mined blue gem, anything offbeat comes at a steep, steep price — be it a visit to Silalei village in the Makuyuni region to meet its legendary chieftain, the 106-year-old Laiboni, who reportedly boasts 23 wives, a hundred offspring and 500 grandchildren; or an exploration of Ngudu, the village of shamans from the Sukuma tribe near Lake Victoria in northwestern Tanzania’s Mwanza region, where even children are said to be initiated into shamanism and the strangest things happen, attracting other occult practitioners from as far away as Europe.

In comparison, our exploration of the Ngorongoro crater this morning seems humdrum. At least till the moment when, prompted by Azaria, our driver, guide and friend-in-the-wilderness, we leap on to the seats of our hired Toyota Land Cruiser and gaze out from its open top, spellbound by the enraged lion’s performance, reminding ourselves that this is no circus act, but nature in the raw.

Far away, the crater’s rim, rising at its highest point to nearly 7,500 ft, is obscured by low-hanging clouds. Standing out in contrast to the grasslands along the crater floor is the Lerai or acacia forest we’ve just explored. It’s in this magical Garden of Eden — where giraffes and elephants roam, where zebra, wildebeest, impalas and gazelles graze and suckle their young, unperturbed by passing safari vehicles — that the wisdom inherent in the crater’s Maasai name — the “gift of life” — becomes apparent.

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Our car radio suddenly comes alive. A flood of excited chatter follows in Swahili between Azaria and a wildlife ranger tracking animal movement in the crater. It ends with an exuberant “Rrrogerrr!” from the anonymous voice as he signs off. That’s the signal for us to set off at breakneck speed, with our driver-guide yelling, “Let’s go, baby”.

That’s a change, indeed, from the deferential “Mama Mita” and “Mama Manoos” — a mangled version of Manosi — that my friend and I have quickly adapted to. As we have to those rich gems from our Man Friday’s English vocabulary which he’s “glady” to share, along with invaluable information about his country’s “wildie beasties”. With his sharp eyes, quick reflexes and sixth sense, he’s an asset, equally adept at spotting lion cubs guarding a zebra kill in the central Serengeti and, in the north’s rocky outcrops, a perfectly camouflaged klipspringer — a tiny antelope that can leap 25 ft into the air. What is really impressive though is his skill in mimicking a mating lion’s call to lure in a hesitant lioness so that we can witness the courtship. The training in animal calls comes in handy as a form of self-defence for every driver-guide, he explains, especially when a vehicle breaks down in core Simba country. And as we’ve seen, these occasions are not uncommon.

Naturally, it’s Azaria we now badger about the reason for such excitement in the crater — the sighting of the endangered double-horned black rhino. With the ranger alerting us to its location, we’re hopeful of tracing it.

It’s this faceless man, providing feedback over the radio, who obviously calls the shots in the African wilderness. Just days earlier, another ranger tracking wildlife movement in the northern Serengeti had rudely interrupted our much-needed “bush leak” (an outdoor toilet break) with information about a “river crossing” in progress — bush lingo for wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara River into Kenya during different phases of the Great Migration. Thanks to the urgency of his announcement, we’d made it just in time to catch the herbivores braving the currents to reach the opposite bank. Unlike us, the grinning crocodile slithering off its perch and into the river in anticipation of a feast had been sorely disappointed.

Now, several days later, thanks to another anonymous bush hero in the Ngorongoro crater, we spot the black rhino within minutes of the alert, laughing as it breaks into a run, its tiny legs disappearing under it, making it look momentarily like a fat, airborne sausage.

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Our safaris across the Serengeti’s almost limitless expanses, where sky and earth seem to kiss in a never-never land, had offered similar entertainment: A warthog — or the “Serengeti Express”, as Azaria called it — scooting off, its tufted tail held rigidly upright like a flagpole; a bull elephant making a spectacle of its morning ablutions for our exclusive enjoyment (“Not only did this elephantie pee-pee,” our delighted driver-guide had chortled, “he poop-pooped too!”); and wildebeest, not the brainiest of creatures, bleating and scattering in panic as our vehicle approached, only to change tack and risk death by dashing across its path, followed by equally suicidal gazelles and a flustered ostrich hen wondering what the hell was going on.

Spot me: Elephants, giraffes, wildebeests, lions, hyenas, gazelles and more — Tanzania’s wildlife is a breathtaking affair   -  MITA GHOSE

 

But however engaging its wildlife, Tanzania is equally about its people — among them, Modeste, Omega, Suleiman, Maria, Happiness, the completely batty Chef Zuma and our very own Azaria — all involved, directly or indirectly, in their country’s flourishing tourism business. A few, though, remain nameless.

There’s the ever-smiling “escort”, armed with bow and arrow, who shepherds us from our tents in the wilderness camps of the central and northern Serengeti to the dining area after dusk.

Not to be outdone is The Voice. It erupts like a deranged genie from the walkie-talkie in our tent — the only means of communication with house staff in the wilderness camps — moments after Manosi’s departure for her pre-dawn hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti. Murmuring, parrot-like, the same, incomprehensible word in Swahili, it spooks me proper. Nothing — from a ridiculous jambo (“hi” in Swahili) to ‘bhoot amar poot’, a Bengali incantation for warding off evil spirits — can exorcise it. The Voice persists until daybreak. I’ll not forget its owner.

Nor the melancholy young fellow assigned to show us around a curio shop in Bashay village, with his whispered appeals for “a present” (a tip). When Manosi obligingly fishes out her purse, he hisses, “Not in front of the boss!” With the store owner striding in and out constantly, the hide-and-seek game seems never-ending, until its grand finale is celebrated in the parking lot, away from censorious eyes.

It’s from this very store, in fact, that I bring back the essence of Tanzania, preserved in the memory of a sculpture I couldn’t afford — that of an enormous hippo in solid ebony, turning to look at you, its cheesy grin suggesting what a joke life is. Marvelling at the sculptor’s vision in creating such a tongue-in-cheek antithesis to his real-life inspiration — the foul-tempered, dangerous creatures that had stared balefully at us from various waterbodies — I feel nothing captures the country’s spirit quite so effectively. For however sombre the realities, people here seem gifted with the ability to find hope in adversity and focus on the positive. I recall the risks those driver-guides cheerfully take in their stride when their vehicles break down in predator territory. But what ultimately stays with me is the matter-of-fact remark of a genial local man accompanying Manosi on her hot-air balloon ride: “Given the dangers of life in the bush, if I had to die young, I’d pray that a lion gets me. Unlike the hyena, it goes straight for the jugular. The trauma is minimal.”

  • Travel log
  • Getting there
  • Several international one-stop flights operate between Delhi/Mumbai and Kilimanjaro, the most convenient airport in Tanzania for tourists heading for wildlife safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro regions. Arusha, the nearest large city, is a 45-minute drive from Kilimanjaro. For those planning to visit the Lake Victoria region directly, there are flights operating between Kilimanjaro/Dar-es-Salaam and Mwanza.
  • Visa
  • Indian nationals require a tourist visa from the Tanzania High Commission in New Delhi (www.tanzrepdelhi.com). E-visas are also available, as are visas on arrival, though having the latter processed could be time-consuming in a small, crowded and chaotic airport such as Kilimanjaro, where queue jumping isn’t unheard of.
  • Wear
  • It turns quite cool early in the morning and after sunset. The Ngorongoro crater region is downright chilly. Always carry a jacket and scarf. For daytime travel, sunscreen, sunshades, a sun hat tied under the chin, are musts.
  • Shop
  • For the well-heeled, there’s tanzanite jewellery. The African Galleria in the Manyara area is a reliable option and offers a good selection. It also stocks some of the best Makonde figurines and animal sculptures in ebony as well as more affordable souvenirs. But for gifts, check out the little shops on your tour route for animal sculptures in wood, wall hangings and Tinga Tinga paintings. Wherever you go, drive a hard bargain. The locals expect it.
  • Tipping
  • Almost all hotels and lodges have a collection box for tips. As for your driver-guide, who is your support system during the tour, he will never demand a tip, but usually deserves a generous sum that could amount to $20 per head per day for those opting for a customised package.
  • BLink Tip
  • Plastic-free zone: Plastic in any form is banned and airports in Tanzania are particularly vigilant about enforcing this regulation. Plastic bags or packaging found in checked-in or cabin baggage will be removed by the authorities.
  • Safari rules: The driver-guide lays down the law during safaris and you’d be wise to respect it. Littering is strictly prohibited.
  • Safety: It is inadvisable to go out after dark in the cities.

Mita Ghose is a freelance writer and editor based in Kolkata

Published on September 20, 2019
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