The DIY Safari

“Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water.”

- W. C. Fields (1880-1946)

I’ve always (loved) other animals.  Not is some mushy, Disney-like sense, but as a source of endless, often morbid fascination.  As I young boy, I’d while away the hours on a heady summer’s eve pulling the wings off crane flies, incinerating ants and otherwise dissecting (a.k.a. torturing) the small invertebrates that shared our backyard.  Later, as a reactionary teenager, I realised the error of my ways and became a hard-boiled vegetarian; I went on to spend the next 10 years of my life studying human-animal relations, culminating in doctoral research on nature worship in western India.

Clearly then, I dig nature, so an African safari should be my dream vacation.  The only problem is, having spent most my life studying animals (as opposed to, say, structured finance or orthodontistry), I can’t afford to go see them in the wild.  Or so I thought, until a recent trip to Tanzania opened up my eyes to the possibilities of a DIY safari…

After all, what do you really need to go on safari?  A vehicle, sure, a national park, and some animals.  In Arusha, capital of Tanzania’s northern safari circuit, which includes the Serengeti and Ngorogoro conservation areas, the standard day rate for a safari is around $250/person, which covers park entrance fees, guide, fuel and food.  $250?  In a country where the GDP per capita is a mere $500, and a budget hotel room costs just $3?  Surely, I said smugly to my companion, there’s a cheaper way to do this!  All you need is a little a travelling chutzpah…

First stop was the car rental place, lodged deep in the bowls of a shopping mall on the wrong side of town.  The man on the desk seemed suitably surprised to see us there, but he offered us a car with fuel and driver for 90 bucks a day.  Aware that the fees for the nearby Arusha National Park were $35 per person, we agreed to take the vehicle, happy in the knowledge that we’d be saving over $300 between us.

At 5 a.m. the next day, our car came to meet us, and the tone for the tour was set.  On first inspection, the vehicle looked decent enough: a smart and sturdy hatchback, comfy seats, mp3 player.  Our driver-cum-guide, Lucky, assured us that it could handle the roads of the national park, and we were inclined to believe him.  Off we went.

Three minutes in, the first catch: the back windows don’t roll down.  Ummm.  Hmmm.  So any animals we encounter will be viewed through glass, kinda like a TV screen.  Oh well.

Five minutes in, the second catch: Lucky is blasting Kenyan hip-hop on the car stereo.  This is fun at first, a suitably subversive soundtrack for our shoestring safari.  The fun wears off when we enter the park.

Lucky, it emerges, has never been on safari, and is hence unaware that few wild mammals enjoy the politically charged stylings of Gidi Gidi Maji Maji.  We proceed to tour the park with our banging base box, my companion and I penned up in the back like errant school kids.  Fortunately, there aren’t many animals to look at anyway.  Occasionally Lucky will stop, take a photo of something we can’t see on his camera phone, then drive off; at other times, he’ll point out a bit of tree that could be mistaken for an animal if you’d never seen either before.

By and by the action hots up.  Giraffes appear, and with them zebra, buffalo and wildebeest.  A huge flock of flamingos turns the lakeshore a crystalline pink, while in the muddy pools heavy-coated waterbuck forage for shoots.  By now Lucky’s mp3 player is churning out Elvis’ 1961 hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, and it’s against this surreal soundscape that we enjoy the highlight of the day: a family of banterful baboons exhibiting a gamut of monkey behaviours, from feeding and fighting to frolicking and farting.  Sure enough, we’ve fallen in love.

Not long after our monkey moment, the car starts acting up.  Lucky leaves the vehicle to have a look, and we briefly entertain the possibility that he’ll be devoured by a lion while he’s out there.  As it is, the truth is much worse: we have a flat tyre.  Lucky’s solution is to put pedal to the metal and get the hell out of the park before we lose the pressure completely.  And so it is that our shoestring safari ends with us hurtling down the 12-mile access track, with the sun setting behind us and hip-hop blaring all the while, like a scene from Hotel Rwanda.

Back on the main road, it’s a long wait for a bus.

Kilimanjaro – 5 Things They Don’t Tell You On The Package

Last year, an estimated 25,000 people set out to climb Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.  In so doing, they ate approximately 110,000 snickers bars, drank 70,000 litres of tea, expelled 75 cubic metres of intestinal gas and used 962 kilometres of toilet paper.  More significant for the rest of us, they also produced some 25,000 personal accounts of the climb, tales of altitude, aptitude and attitude that have been written up, blogged about or televised more times than Britney Spears’ waste line.

With all this exposure, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a trek up Kili (as it’s affectionately known by morons) would yield little in the way of surprises, every trivial twist and turn having been cogitated ad (altitudinal) nauseam in the pages of some glossy travel mag.  Certainly this was my feeling as I embarked on the climb last month: there was nothing that could catch me unawares, right?

Well, it turns out I was wrong.  And here in testament to the fact is a list of five things they don’t tell you on the package:

i) Ants.  Ok, so not a huge revelation, but a surprise none the less: for the first few hours of our trek we were constantly molested by angry blank ants.  (Presumably we had disturbed their nests, which were dotted along the trail.)  Even our guide, Thomas, was caught off guard, at one point having to strip naked to extricate some overly curious specimens.  Thankfully for Thomas – and any as-yet-unsired progeny – the ants disappeared once we got to higher ground.

ii) Flatulence.  A bit crude I know, but this was truly the most surprising part of the climb: altitude plays havoc with your bowels!  The final phase of the ascent, which covers the 1,200-odd metres from Kibo Hut (4,703m) to Uhuru Peak (5,895m), was without doubt the gassiest few hours of my life.  I’ve since learnt that this is a common condition caused by the differential in atmospheric pressure.  It even has a suitably stomach-churning name!

iii) Snow.  Or lack of, that should be.  For the frozen crown of Africa immortalised by Hemingway is alas all but departed.  When my father climbed the mountain in the early 1970s, the glacier spanned the entire summit, and his grainy black-and-white photographs showed squinting men silhouetted by the snowfall.  Now, however, just a few chunks of ice remain, and soon the country’s natural emblem will lose its top completely.

iv) Difficultly.  Believe it or not, climbing Kili isn’t all that difficult.  My pre-trip research had prepared me for five days of bodily torture, but in fact, any hardship incurred was less physical than psychological.  Providing one’s spared the vice-like grip of altitude sickness, which can fell even the most seasoned of mountaineers, the going is relatively easy, albeit somewhat repetitive (a lot of going up, then a lot going down).  The only real obstacle between you and Uhuru is your own mind, man! Trite but true.

v) Dogs.  Ok, this one’s cheating a bit as it’s not technically my own discovery, but it happened while I was on the mountain and it’s too good to leave out.  Reminiscent of the famous frozen leopard described by Ernest Hemingway, a stray dog was found alive and well on Uhuru peak, some 19,341 feet above sea level, where it appeared to have been living for some time despite the freezing temperatures and absence of a proper food source.  According to our guide, this dog wasn’t the first aimless-looking creature to be spotted skulking around on the summit.  I didn’t take it personally.

So there you have it: five tales of the unexpected from Africa’s highest peak.  With the probable exception of the snowlessness, prospective climbers may find none of the above on their own trek up Kili.  Rest assured, though, the mountain’s still got a few new tricks up her sleeve, not to mention an old dog or two to learn them.

The Small(er) 5

Safari is the raison d’être of East African tourism, like the pyramids in Egypt or cheap fags in Calais.  For some undefined reason, flying halfway across the world to watch a variety of amusingly shaped mammals avoiding each other has become one of the must-do travel experiences of our time, alongside frolicking with dolphins and throwing yourself out of a plane.  For some folk, of course, seeing a lioness tear through the flesh of a baby zebra is the stuff of childhood dreams, but for others, it seems that much of safari’s attraction lies in its exclusivity.

Put simply, safaris don’t come cheap.  In Tanzania, you’re unlikely to find a tour for under $120 per day, and these budget safaris often come with a big catch (a lack of big cats being one example).  The upper end of the price spectrum, meanwhile, is pretty much nonexistent, with 7-star hotels, hot air balloon rides and sundowners on the Serengeti meaning it’s possible to spend the equivalent of the region’s GDP tailoring the trip to your ‘needs’.

We opted for a three-day mid-range safari on the Northern Circuit, covering the Ngorogoro, Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks.  (The Serengeti, also on the Northern Circuit, is a bit further afield.)  Now for someone used to shoestring travel, this ‘mid-range’ seems pretty luxurious.  For one thing, all travel is by means of chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned, low-emission 4×4 (the kind you see in swanky London boroughs).  On top of this, the game lodges are plush, expansive affairs, complete with pools, terraces and the obligatory colonial-era trappings (everything from wicker chairs to a waiting staff comprising tribesmen in over-starched uniforms).

And then there are the game drives themselves.  Needless to say, attempting to convey the spectacle of safari in writing is a fairly impoverished venture, like describing the taste of a single malt whiskey or reviewing an opera on Twitter.  For this reason, I offer only some brief and entirely anthropomorphic highlights from our short safari, starting with the Ngorogoro Crater.

A volcanic caldera over 600m deep, the Ngorogoro Crater is like the inverse of Conan Doyle’s tepui-top Lost World.  Inside are some 25,000 large mammals whose forebears, by virtue of their isolation, escaped the crosshairs of colonial hunters.  Today, tourists visit the crater with high hopes of spying the so-called ‘Big 5’ (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhinoceros), which exist here in greater numbers than almost anywhere else in Africa.  Of these, the first three are usually easy to see, the latter pair almost impossible.  And so, to make things more interesting, I resolved to establish an alternative, ‘Small(er) 5’, namely, the jackal, the mongoose, the serval, the aardvark and the honey badger.  What odds of sighting this motley crew?

The Ngorogoro Crater is vast, flat and relatively treeless, which gives its sweeping, sunburnt savanna a faded, painterly quality.  As such, your chances of spotting anything more interesting than a mosquito can seem surprisingly slim, but a decent pair of binoculars should tip things back in your favour.  And if like me you’re prone to nerdy excess and have bought a pair of Russian military 90x magnification binoculars off eBay, well, more power to you.  (In Soviet Russia, animals spot you!)  Not long after entering the crater, they’re already justifying their inclusion.  While my fellow safari-goers amuse themselves with a pack of sleepy lions, I’m transfixed by a black and grey blob about a mile in the distance.  Could it be?  It is!  A honey badger!  The world’s most cantankerous creature!  He shuffles about, rooting for things, chewing at bits and bobs.  And while all eyes are on the lions, he and I share a moment, a second or two in which I am the only one aware of his presence, and probably the only one who cares.  But a honey badger? – it’s worth ten lions!  Later in the day, as the sun slips low across the sky, our path is crossed by a serval – the cheetah’s foppish cousin – and we leave the crater happy, with two of the ‘Small(er) 5’ under our belts.  (Not literally of course; smuggling wild animals in one’s trousers is a crime, not to mention a pain in the arse.)

Our next port of call is Lake Manyara, described by Ernest Hemingway in one of his less eloquent moments as the ‘loveliest [lake] in Africa’.  The surrounding national park is largely forested, which makes for more intimate encounters with the various inhabitants.  Among these, the tree-climbing lions usually receive top billing, but I’m more intrigued by the characterful co-stars, and none so much as the jackal (the Steve Buscemi of the animal world).  This time the binoculars aren’t needed, just a vociferous shout of ‘STOP!!’ to our driver-cum-guide, who seems hell-bent on delivering us lions at the expense of all other creatures (presumably because his tip usually depends on it).  Beside our car strides a side-striped jackal, an elegant little omnivore, aloof yet amicable: a lesson in humility for those limelight-hogging lions…  3 out of 5.

Last on our itinerary is Tarangire, a park famed for its giant, Ent-like baobabs and, moreover, for its myriad herds of elephants.  There are enough of the latter here to make a thousand grand pianos, but of more interest to me are the towering, organ-like termite mounds and their furry little squatters.  Though 10,000 times smaller than an African elephant, the dwarf mongoose is no less intriguing.  (In fact, given that they take down snakes for a living and team up with hornbills to go foraging, you could argue that the mongoose is a whole lot more interesting.  I mean, when was the last time you saw an elephant wrestle with a poisonous reptile twice its size?  (That’s a rhetorical question.))  So a mongoose I was after, and mongooses I got.  As well as bedding down in empty termite nests, the little fellows like to hide beneath rocks in the dry riverbed, and it’s here, among the baboons and vervet monkeys, that I spot a 10-strong family group.  4 out of 5.

And that was that.  Alas, the final creature on my list – the aardvark – eluded us this time, but then you’ve got to have something to come back for.  And this is the thrill of safari: there’s always something more to see.  With a keen eye, a strong stomach and an appreciation for all creatures great and small, you’ll find that the wild world heritage of Tanzania serves up an endlessly engaging drama, a play of life and death, tragedy and farce, in which our own species was once but a background player.