Tanzania Musings

Daniel S. Weld, December 15, 2004 to January 12, 2005

Incredible animals, eye-opening cultural interactions, and one near-death experience characterized our four week, family trip to Tanzania. Here are my reflections on the experience.

(12/18/04) I can't believe how well the kids (aged 6-9) did on the unending flights from Seattle, thru Amsterdam, and on to Kenya; what troopers! Yesterday, we spent the morning recuperating at a garden hotel on a quiet hill above Nairobi. As the kids swam in a welcome pool, we spotted a cute bird, whose antics led Adam to coin the name "Black and white wag tail." Apparently, Adam discerned much of the bird's true nature, since the Audubon guide declared it an "African Pied Wagtail"

In the afternoon, we took a five-hour bus ride to Arusha. Quickly, the mixed neighborhoods of Nairobi passed by our eyes: a rapid alternation of modern concrete buildings, surrounded by tall walls topped with razor wire, and rough shanties constructed from recycled debris and defended with broken glass and barred windows.

As we left the city behind, the traffic thinned and the Tanzam Highway stretched across brushy bushvelt, dotted with ochre termite mounds. Pairs of Massai, wearing a mixture of drab Western clothes and traditional, red tartan shukas, marched along the dry roadside, herding cattle. Lulled by the pitching bus, Adam and Leah lay down sleeping, but Galen insisted on drowsing upright --- head wobbling in huge arcs then jerking uncomfortably upright.Meanwhile, I scanned the SE horizon for the first sight of Kilimanjaro on the horizon, but was continually disappointed. Suddenly, Galen awoke from his slumber and announced "Dad, look! There's Kili!" and indeed, the huge, frosted massif rose ethereally past the clouds. Subsequent animal sightings make it clear that the boy has inherited his paternal Grandmother's eyesight.

(12/19/04) An hour before dawn, I awoke to the exotic warbling sound of the Muslim call to prayer. Ignoring the summonds, I sank back into the comfortable bed in our garden bungalo in the hills above Arusha. It's been aanother relaxing day as we recovered from travel: the kids swam endlessly in the pool. Yesterday, we walked into town along a busy dirt road, shaded by bananna trees and lined with shanties, many doubling as small stores or hair salons. Women squating by the roadside tended charcoal braziers, roasting corn for sale. Despite the crude surroundings, many of the walking women were dressed beautifully, in strikingly printed fabric; half carried loads balanced effortlessly on their heads.

Today, we took a taxi into town, buying some last minute supplies as well as some gifts. We had lunch at a small restaurant, whose menu included the kids favorite: crepes! Since it was Sunday, most shops were closed, but we were besiged by flycatchers none-the-less. Despite being warned, I was astounded at their audacious persistence.

(12/20/04) On the endlessly long drive to the Gol mountains, we saw trees with short logs hanging high off the ground. Our guide, Exaud, explained that these were beehives: logs had been cut in half and hollowed. Once filled with honey, men burned a special mushroom whose smoke put the bees into a deep sleep so the men could remove the honey.

Finally, we reached the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, ascended to the rim, drove to the far side of the park, where we picked up a ranger who would accompany our `walking safari'. After crossing a vast grassland, dotted with the wispy beginnings of the Wildebeast migration, we finished the long journey and camped in a small glade in the Gol mountains. The site was sheltered in a tiny valley, with thick Acacia branches shielding the merciless sun. Nearby was a dry creekbed, where the kids played happily, collecting pink quartz, while we set up camp: hammering huge stakes into the dirt to anchor the sturdy, canvas tent. A Maasai man, brilliant in his crimson plaid robes and white-bead earrings, entered camp and helped.

We were all tired from the drive and still adjusting to the timezone, but Galen and I stayed up briefly to take time-exposure photos of distant lightning, hardly thinking it might rain here.

But just past midnight, the rain arrived --- a pelting, continuous torrent, pounding the fly with implacable force. Waking quickly, I zipped the fly door shut and checked the walls for leaks. Since everything tested dry, I tried to resume sleep, but the noise was relentless. For an hour I alternated leak-checks with intermittent dozing to the mezmerizing din of drops trampling the fabric like a herd of migrating Wildebeast. Everything seemed secure.

Then, just after one am, I started to a loud thump. Adrenaline surged through my body as I wondered if an animal were nosing the tent. As the noise repeated, I realized that Exaud must be outside in the downpour digging a perimeter trench about our tent; gratitude flushed my heart. I certainly didn't want to exit the tent's shelter!

"Get out of the tent!" Exaud's voice was laced with urgency. "Quickly! The river is flooding!"

Unzipping the door, I reached out into the murky storm and discovered, in lieu of the expected wet grass, eight inches of rushing water, tugging at the tent. Panicked by Exoud's frightened commands, we stumbled out of the tent into the wild maelstrom, flashlights whipping across the rain-steaked night, and splashed through the current to higher ground and the Land Cruiser. The dark rain battered us, dressed only in our long underware, as we struggled to unlock the door and reach shelter. Finally, we all crammed in and Exaud drove the vehicle to safer terrain.

Taking stock, we counted blessings: everyone was safe, Margaret had brought her medicines when we escaped the tent, and I had saved my camera and laptop. But all our money, my medicines, Galen's shoe, and all our clothes and other posessions were in the tent. A few of us dashed back out into the storm to see if anything else could be saved, but the river had risen five feet from its track and now spread at least seventy feet across --- astonishing and irresistable. Flashlights swept across the torrent, hitting nothing but muddy water. "It's gone," shouted Exaud across the tumult, "Swept away."

Back in the car, Exaud broke down, and sobbing, clasped his knees. All our food and kitchen tent, sleeping bags, shelter and possessions were gone. We had no choice but to survive the night and drive all the way back to Arusha. It would likely take days to restock and replace what gear we could. Would there be any way to get appropriate medicines? Or recharging equipment for my camera? And we had no money or credit cards. And even if we succeeded, we would have the terrible drive yet again.

But we were all safe. Stuffed into the rover, nine cramped people tried to sleep. Outside the storm continued, full force.

(12/21/04) Our cramped dozing ended as the birds announced the sky's slight greying. The rain had diminished to drizzle, so we stretched, and explored the remains of our camp. Somehow the river was gone? A tiny creek still flowed down the bed, but what took pur tents? Our disaster began to feel as if a dream!

The kitchen tent had crumpled, collapsed and bent by the water's force, but this luckily prevented some heavy crates from washing out, and hence we had some food remaining --- if no pots or utensiles. Then someone found our tent, miraculously snagged 50' downstrean. Inside, soaked and muddy, were many clothes, as well as our money. Even most of my medicines had survived.

Searching downstream, we found more posessions, as well as the twisted bodies of two dead Mongooses and some drowned Agama lizards. Later the Maasai man, Parkipunyi, returned with Leah's raincoat, which he had found five kilometers downstream! The day was spent washing clothes, tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, and much more in the dwindling stream. We salvaged rope for clotheslines, and soon the whole glade was rainbow-hued with our drying spree.

Exaud had used the radio to arrange a partial resupply, which was being sent on a truck driving to stock a luxury camp in the Serengeti; Exaud now had to retrace much of yesterday's drive to rendezvous. Amazingly, our trip could go on! We celebrated by hiking up a nearby hill, accompanied by the armed ranger and flushing tiny dik-diks from the veldt.

That night, we slept in laboriously-repaired tents... apprehensive about some threating cloulds, but safe and warm. As we drifted off to sleep, we were serenaded by Hyenas.

(12/22/04) Yesterday, as we were working, Parkipunyi's three wives appeared and sat together in the shade, one alternately nursed her baby and fed it milk from a hollow gourd, decorated with myriad beads. Today, even more Maasai appeared and sat watching. And, indeed, when we left the following day, there was a veritable village observing our lifestyle. These Maasai came from two different bomas, clan-sized communities with a ring of acacia boughs protecting a few circular thatch huts. Since we were in a very remote area, the Maasai here were little used to visitors, and lived in their traditional manner: tending cattle, migrating with the rains, and eating a diet of meat, blood, and milk. Galen became enamored of the Maasai mens' wooden staffs, and he borrowed one, carrying it everywhere.

In the morning, Exaud led a game drive, and it was startling to see how many Zebra and Wildebeast had flooded the grassland in just the two days since we had seen them before. The rains may have destroyed our camp, but they also drew the animals to this region! In the afternoon, Parkipuni won Galen's heart by formally giving him his wooden staff; Galen glowed. We went for a delightful walk up valley, past Maasai children tending goats, to reach a seren vista and thrill to the sight of Wildebeast trotting towards our campsite. As dusk approached, we headed back. Saipi, another Maasai accompanying us, split off for the forest in search of a special tree. Later, at our campfire, he arrived carrying three stout sticks. Entranced, Adam, Galen, and Leah watched him temper the branches in the fire, peel the blackened bark, shape the two ends carefully, straighten the sticks, rub the knotty protuberances flat with a rock, and create a Maasai staff for each child.

(12/23-24/04) Observation of the Serengeti's wildlife formed the next part of our trip. Our new base was a more luxurious (showers!) fixed camp in a shady grove of Acacia trees with a beautiful view over the savannah. A herd of Zebras grazed day in and out within a stones throw, and the wildlife viewing was superb. Early one morning we saw a Cheeta family gulp down a freshly killed gazelle. Meanwhile, an ugly Maribu stork led a flock of vultures in a slow advance on the Cheetas, who reluctantly abandoned their prize. Later, we came apon a huge Fig tree, teeming with squaking Green Pidgeons. Closer examination revealed that the birds weren't the only consumers: a large troupe of Baboons were stuffing their faces with green fruit. The adults moved deliberately, seemingly proud of how their olive fur fluffed in a frizzy mane, while the babies cavorted nimbly, practicing their aerobatic moves. Nearby, a pair of stupendous male lions slumbered away the midday heat on a shady granite kopje. Giant Hippos bobbed slowly in a swampy pond, submerged in a in a communal mass, and occasionally splashing muddy water on themselves with their paddle-like tails. Later we saw these behemoths lumbering slowly across a field, gumming grass. They looked gentle enough, but one quick glance confirmed the size of their tusks, and I suddenly believed what I had read: that in one bite a Hippo could cut an adult crocodile in two.

(12/25/04) There were no carols last night, but on Christmas day we woke to an exceptional instance of the "Morning Chorus," when the African beasts greeted the coming dawn with a pulsating symphony of Monkey calls (which sounded more like the croaks of monstrous frogs), dissolving into jumble of eerie Hornbill squawks, rising into a shimmering cicada crescendo, spreading into a mysterious mixture of grunts, snorts, and laughs, and ending with a welcome tide of traditional chirping birds.

With this music fresh in our minds, we bid the Serengeti farewell and drove back towards the Ngorogoro crater. Again we marveled at the dramatic influx of Wildebeast; the herds were beginning to truly cover the savannah. Suddenly, Margaret called out for Exaud to stop --- she thought she'd seen a gazelle calf being born! Indeed, when we backed up, there it was, just twenty feet away! Partially hidden in the grass lay a moist, black form: a newborn Thompson's Gazelle. The mother alternated licking the calf and walking a short distance away. The baby kept struggling to control its legs, but each attempt to stand ended in an ungainly sprawl, and we couldn't help laughing. Once his mother had removed the calf's ebony slick, revealing delicate fur, she started chewing on ... what was that? The placenta. After fifteen minutes, the calf managed to saty on its feet and the pair were lost in the savannah's thick grass.

In contrast to the Serengeti National Parks, the Ngorogoro Conservation Area permits Masaai to graze their cattle and build bomas for shelter. However, development of a good dirt road and the presence of numerous tourists has already changed the culture. Maasai warriors in full regalia stood by th side of the road, ready to pay a fee for photo posing. We also saw Maasai boys, healing from recent circumcizions, dressed in black robes. I was quite startled by their fearsome visage: long fronds of ebony-hued, Ostrich, wing feathers thrusting from their heads and spots of white pigment dotting their dark faces. The Maasai culture is based on a cycle of seven years. Children (now just boys) close to 14 years of age are circumsized, when the xxx man comes by the village, becoming Junior Warriors in a celebration once they have healed. Seven years later this group becomes Senior Warriors, later Junior Elders and Senior Elders. While this cylce has repeated endlessly, only recently have the boys trekked to the road to pose for passing tourists.

In the afternoon, we visited a nearby boma. Here, the interactions were relaxed, since our safari company had arranged with the chief to show us the village and explain their way of life. Besides raising questions about the pros, cons, and possible inevitability of development, it was fascinating to see the difference between the the way these Masaai lived and the traditional, pastoral life we had seen before. In the Gol mountains, the Masaai went barefoot or wore cheap sandals made from discarded tire treads. In contrast, the chief wore Austin Powers styled shoes and socks beneath traditional robes. While the traditional Masaai had been very proud of their grossly-elongated, pierced earlobes and emphasized the size of the manufactured hole with many pieces of flashy, bead jewelry, the chief had no earrings and seemed to be letting his hole shrink. On his wrist he sported a watch in addition to a bead bracelet. But these changes in appearance were tiny compared to the evolution in lifestyle: these Maasai had abanodoned the ancient migratory ways, following the rhythmic patterns of rain and drought, leading their cattle in search of young grass, and building new bomas as they moved. Here, they had settled permanently, started framing, and shifted from a diet of meat, blood and milk to one which included corn. One built a mill nearby and a larger community formed nearby. This sedentarty life allowed thm to build more elaborate mud dwellings, many sporting locks on their doors. Indeed, outside the boma, the chief had just fashioned a cinderblock abode with glass windows and sheet metal roof --- ready for his son, soon to return from boarding school in Arusha. We didn't go in this cottage, but the chief did invite us into the hut of his third wife. Windowless and very dark, we stumbled past a steaming fireplace and sat by a large bed, built into the home; the cowhide mattress exuded a nausiating stench, which caused Leah to flee for fresh air. We talked for a long time. Then, as the chief answered Adam and Galen's last questions, I explored the drk interior, taking pictures. Imagine my surprise when I ran into the Chief's wife, hiding silently in the far end of the hut! We had no idea that she'd been here, yet not invited to the conversation, the whole time. We wondered if poligamy or the vastly different roles for men and women in this society would diminish with increasing education. And would such erosion to their culture be a good thing?

(12/26/04) With great anticipation, I had been waiting for a game drive in the Ngorogoro Crater --- an ancient caldera, five miles in diameter, now an emerald soup-dish, filled with a microcosm of an intact African ecosystem. A halo of hawk-like rangers perched around the rim, surveying every bit of the park with telescopes. Amazingly, their alert actions stopped poaching in the park and preserved a small population of Rhinos (once common across Africa, but extinct except in a very few parks). We were lucky enough to see a mother and baby grazing slowly in the amber grass; their grey, wrinkled skin covered in sallow mud from a recent wallow. Soon after, we spotted a huge lion lay snoozing with one massive paw draped over his recently killed Wildebeast. Nearby, a pack of jackels waited, panting in the sun, for the Lion to eat again and leave. The vultures appeared equally impatient, but stood somewhat farther back. At day's end, we aimed for the verdant crater wall and the road back to camp, but suddenly our vehicle was blocked by an enormous troupe of Baboons parading single-file down the track. Tiny babies clung upside down to their mothers bellies, while larger children rode their parent bareback. It took more than five minutes for the procession to pass!

(12/27-31/04) The Hadzabe, a small tribe of perhaps 2500 dispersed individuals living in the forest just north of Lake Eyasi, are one of the last intact hunter-gatherer societies in the world. Our five-day visit was the trip's highlight. The group's chief, Ndaya, had received a fellowship to study wildlife management, when he was younger, picking a small vocabulary of English along the way. In five full days, he taught us an enormous amount about the forest and their way of life. We grew to love his gentle sense of humor, and our kids cried when we finally had to leave.

We started by following Ndaya into the thorny Acacia forest and watched as he tutored a small group of boys on their hunting skills. One could eailly tell that some hunters were much more experienced than others, since after each successful kill of a large animal, a Hadzabe would tie a bit of the prey's pelt onto his bow. Ndaya's bow was almost hidden in tufts of fur, but poking from the frizzy covering poked the talon of a lion: testimony to a past heroic deed.

We tracked fresh Impala prints, and flushed several Dik-Dik antelopes from the scrub; alas, they bounded away too quickly. One boy wounded a Bat-eared Fox and chased it into the creature's burrow, but despite myriad probings with assorted branches we couldn't force it out. Soon someone spotted a Bushbaby high in a tree. Mixed feelings invaded my thoughts --- the animal was an adorable cross between a monkey and a squirrel with luminous, child-like eyes; should one kill it? Before I could pursue these thoughts, the thrill of the hunt swept over me. Expertly-thrown rocks forced the creature onto an exposed limb, but before an arrow was aimed, the beast jumped --- no was it flying? --- to a new tree and another and another. The group followed, running, and more stones were thrown until Ndaya's eldest son shot a single arrow high into the tree and hit the Bushbaby square. It seemed an amazing shot!

Unfortunately, however, ... the quarry was not dead. The Bushbaby squirmed, and slowly --- the long arrow still piercing his body --- tried to inch higher in the thorny Acacia tree. As everyone watched, transfixed, another boy meticulously clambered up the tree, evicerating the copious spines with a machete; the painstaking ascent seemed endless, but finally the he got within reach and knocked the beast to the ground with his bow.

At this point our group split, the boys snuck off to resume hunting, while Ndaya demonstrated how to start a fire. Amazingly, it was just as Heinrich Harrier had written in his acount of his first ascent of the Carstenz Pyramid; his Irian Jayan porters could build rain-proof shelters from nearby plants faster than the Europeans could assemble their tents, and the natives could light fires from scratch more swiftly than those with matches. Now, we saw it for ourselves: holding a straight, arrow-like stick between palms, Ndaya spun it rapidly, causing friction on a flat wood shard resting on his knife in the dirt. Within fifteen seconds there was smoke. Ndaya slipped the tiny embers from his knife into a ball of dry grass, blew gently...

...to be continued...