Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Encounters with the masai and the king - Anjaly Thomas

Reuben, my driver and guide for the next three days on my great African safari, arrived just as I was ending a very interesting conversation with a missionary from Ghana over breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant. In Arusha on business, he was about to launch into the tale of an attempted break-in in his room the night before, when Reuben interrupted. 
‘‘Mambo. We will leave in 10 minutes’’,  he declared.
I thought it rude to interrupt a conversation but clearly Tanzanians thought nothing of it. The missionary gave me a meaningful wink. Then with a warm hug and promises to keep in touch, I left in search of Reuben, who had, in the blink of an eye vanished into his large safari car.
Safari cars are built to accommodate four, including baggage, food stuff, tents and such like. However, I was alone, having suddenly decided to go on a safari as a treat for summitting Mt Kilimanjaro.
It began to rain as we pulled out of Arusha, and Reuben, despite his initial frostiness, thawed enough to launch into a stream of guide-talk.Arusha had a lot going for it. It was at a higher altitude than Moshi, was close to Mt Meru, had pleasant weather and was the gateway to all national parks in the northern circuit. In short, it was one rummy town that demanded attention. I decided to allot some time to it upon my return.  
Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara 
Our destination was Tarangire National Park. After two road surprises (Hakuna Matata, Reuben said, for it was normal) we reached a village before turning towards the park and had our third surprise. A flat. Hakuna Matata, repeated Reuben, brandishing a jack and calling out to villagers who promptly arrived to help. I took the time to familiarise myself with my surroundings. 
I was a foreigner in their land. To them, I smelt of money. Masai women with necklace and bracelets pressed their wares on me. Children posed for pictures and demanded money for doing so. They stuck and refused to go till Reuben stepped in. The tyre had been fixed. We were off on the game drive.  “Let’s play,’’ grinned Reuben. Tarangire National Park promised much adventure. It was also here that I first saw a baobab tree.  The grass was tall which meant animal sighting would be difficult. We drove around, changing tracks, surprising hordes of gazelles and the occasional ostrich, while giraffe continued to strip trees of their green. In the distance, River Tarangire, muddy and swollen, snaked through the silent green landscape.It was exhilarating. 
Out in the middle of nowhere, life took on a different meaning. I had been told that game drives were addictive. It was true. Not a bad day after a lousy start. I spent the night at Sun Bright campsite in Mosquito River town, close to Lake Manyara.  The town lived up to its name. It was where I had my first taste of fried cassava and (acidic) fish from the lake Manyara.  The next morning the folly of sampling exotic food made itself known. Hakuna Matata, I told myself, popping another pill as we drove towards the Lake. I would soon get used to the African ways!Unlike Tarangire, Lake Manyara was dense, and we drove straight into a herd of elephants! Reuben warned me to keep the roof shut while passing under trees, fearing snakes would drop into the car! I didn’t believe him till I saw a poisonous green mamba crawling up a branch above me. A few metres away, a warthog stood on the road, refusing to move. I hesitated to bring out my camera, fearing he would run. But not until I had taken a couple of shots, did he show any signs of moving. Who would think that warthogs loved showing off! Something above me then caught my attention. A monkey with a strange blue-coloured behind! ‘‘Vervet monkey,’’ explained Reuben, knowing well the sudden encounter with the blue-scrotum primate had left me wondering. The hippo pool was particularly fascinating. It was my first real close encounter with them. By that time, Reuben had decided that it was best to leave me alone, and didn’t utter a word as I inched closer to the pool. I didn’t get past the fence as the pool was flooded. The best shots I managed were from the top of the safari car.Lake Manyara, which made up most of the national park, was beautiful. Thousands of flamingoes stood on the water’s edge while giraffe, buffalo, zebra and deer grazed peacefully nearby. Mongooses scurried about looking for food and bright coloured birds broke into a cacophony. Manyara could easily be called an ornithologist’s paradise!  
Masai Village, Ngrongoro Crater 
Enough birds, I thought. I now wanted to meet the Masai people, get up close with them. But Reuben discouraged every attempt I made, as we drove along. “They are not very friendly,” he said. “You must pay them for their pictures or they may attack you.” I was kind of getting used to pay-for-pictures scheme. But I didn’t understand the Masai attitude. I had to wait till we got to the Village. Our destination of the day was Ngrongoro Crater and a visit to the Masai Village, where I could take pictures without being attacked.  We passed through Ngrongoro Conservation Area (NCA). It was the end of tar roads. From here on it was dirt track. If we were lucky, we would find leopards sunning on the roads. 
The NCA, I was told was unique as it was the only conservation area that allowed humans to co-habit with wildlife! However, the thought of waking up with a lion was not a pleasant one.   The smell of dung directed us to a Masai Village, built in a circle. Tall, skinny men in traditional Masai shawls welcomed us. They even spoke English. Reuben warned me to leave money behind, for Masai, clever as they were with swords and sticks, also loved dollars!If it weren’t for the thrill of meeting the Masai, I would have stayed away from the village. It smelt of dung. Dark children in tattered clothing and running noses, women in colourful necklaces and earrings and smelling of the village eagerly surrounded me while the men tried to talk business. “You give sunglass, you take this,” said one, pushing a gourd decorated with plastic beads in my direction. They clearly didn’t know their math!Masai lived within the enclosure with cattle, their only source of income, that and the occasional dollar which came their way from generous tourists. (That morning there were a few.) We returned to the Crater. Time to greet the Big Five!Not so soon, for as we descended into the crater, thousands of zebra and wildebeest blocked our way! There was no hurrying them. We were in their territory, after all! I applied myself to the binoculars and was duly rewarded. At the edge of the water far away, sat a cheetah, a tiny speck, but even through the lens, he looked majestic. We drove slowly past buffaloes, zebra, gazelles, wildebeest, ostriches and the occasional elephant till we came upon the rare black rhino. He was coming straight for us! Reuben stiffened, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. There were very few left. The rhino thundered his way through grass, passing few meters in front of us. It looked like he was marking his territory!The danger had passed.But I still hadn’t seen the Big Cat and was disappointed. “In the jungles, you need patience,’’ Reuben said. I suppose he was bored too, having no one but me to speak with. I could live with not seeing the tiger or the buffalo, but lions were something else. No game drive was complete without them. We drove around till we came upon other cars parked in a bunch close together. That could only mean one thing — The King had made an appearance.The Crater fell silent. I saw why.A few metres away, the royal couple was engaged in a private moment. The King, unmindful of watchers, let out satisfied roars. We must have stayed there for what seemed like an eternity, not breathing. It seemed vulgar to photograph them in their domain. 
Reuben broke into my thoughts.‘‘It’s lucky to see a mating lion; you will get married soon.”I suppose it would take another trip to Ngrongoro Crater to make his prophesy come true! Hakuna Matata.                              

 — Anjaly Thomas is a single Indian woman backpacker  - thebackpacker76@hotmail.com