Tanzania and Zanzibar!          May – June  2001



Vast open plainsEnd of the rainy season, the lull before the storm of the full summer tourist rush; it was an ideal time to go on safari.  

I had (Brian just comes along for the ride!!!) decided I wanted to see for myself huge areas of grassland, what a Baobab tree looked like, a Rift Valley, a soda Lake brimming with pink flamingos, an African sunset followed by deep night and massive herds of wild animals etc.  Our safari of 12 days amply allowed us to see all of that and get a feel for the country and people in Tanzania


Most Tanzanian safaris start in Arusha.    We arrived there via Dubai (whose new Airport is quite awesome - like a vast tubular shopping mall) and Nairobi (whose Jomo Kenyatta Airport is quite the opposite - dilapidated, dingy and awful) and a very cramped five-hour mini-bus drive.  On the way we partly dozed, partly watched the scenery and partly sweated gently in the squash.  Open countryside with views across to Kilimanjaro sitting with its head in the clouds.  We had paid for two Transit visas in Kenya, then only 3 hours later paid for two Tanzanian visas at the scrubby little border town of Namanga.   Back into the mini-bus squash for more bum-numbing bouncing, as we bowled our way to Arusha, jolting into ruts in the road and listening to tools rattling behind our seat.   

It was impossible to fall asleep with all the juddering, and then suddenly in the middle of the road loomed a lonesome giant, a rather startled giraffe!   The others in the bus ignored the animal, but I felt quite a rush of excitement, I certainly haven’t ever driven along a road and been confronted with quite such a large animal!  He stood his ground until fear got the better of him and he loped off into the bush to the rest of the group!

We arrived in Arusha with night falling, Maasai standing on the roadsides, tall and upright in their bright red cloaks; fires burnt outside every mud house with pots of food bubbling away on top.   20 watt electric light bulbs shone feeble and bare in roadside shacks and shops.

Our Hotel was the beautiful sounding “La Jacaranda”, an old colonial house converted into a small Hotel.   Our room was large, two beds, a plastic table, 2 plastic chairs and an ancient bathroom with a pot plant in the bidet!  Our first taste of Africa.


Anti-malarial tablets are necessary in East Africa, and the day before we left Cyprus my brother told me about a new drug called Malarone.  Out of curiosity I looked it up on the Internet, and to my dismay found our already packed supply of Chloroquine and Proguanil was ineffective for East Africa!  Panic!   After a telephone call to our Safari Company, I was assured that we would be able buy anti-malarial medicine in Arusha.  But on our first day, a Sunday, nearly all the pharmacies were closed.   Still, it gave us a chance to see the back streets, the churchgoers and the Arusha in daylight.  Definitely not a Mecca for tourists!  Eventually, after three small pharmacies hadn’t produced any tablets – let alone heard of Malarone, we found one who sold us Paludrine!  (Same stuff we’d left at home!)     In Africa, Malaria is dealt with when it occurs, and there were plenty of pills available for that; what isn’t so common is prophylaxis.


We left Arusha and travelled for two hours on a good tarmac road, until a turn off to our first camp site.  The next 10 days were all on rough road surfaces! 

Tanzania was green and pretty, colourful and interesting to look at.  Fields cultivated with maize, coffee plantations and beans.  My first preoccupation was what new birds were around!   Hopefully it wasn’t going to be like China – almost devoid of bird life.   (It wasn’t!)

As we trundled along the road to Lake Manyara we were fascinated by the structure of rural Tanzania.  The people are grievously poor, living in villages of stick and mud huts, with jokes for roads, a huge unemployment situation, widespread corruption etc.   The space in the country is awesome - standing looking across rolling grassland as far as 'ever'.  The Baobab trees unmistakeable in their 'up-side-downness', the black faces of children beautifully appealing, the undercurrent of sensuality in the way the locals walked and moved.  It was all new and absorbing.


Our transport for the trip was a 6-seater 4WD Land Rover.  There were two armchair seats, a lifting roof, and a local driver cum guide who turned out to be very knowledgeable about animals, birds, dry semi-invisible tracks and the local National Parks.   ‘Nixon’ was with us for the whole of our trip and proved to be an amusing, friendly, resourceful and reliable guide.


Most of the accommodation was in permanent tented camps.  MaOur first tented safari campybe 16 tents, each with space around them, chairs for sitting under the front awnings, proper beds and a "bathroom” that had a flushing toilet, washbasin and solar heated hot water shower.   I have to add that there were also some other ‘guests’ in the tents – frogs, spiders, preying mantis and speedy cockroaches!   But the compensation was being able to sit outside the tent or round a blazing fire, listening to the night time sound of crickets, scuffling animals, buzzing insects, birds and other mysterious noises!   No noisy traffic, planes, dogs or motorbikes! 

We loved the freedom of having a vehicle to ourselves, being able to stop when we saw something interesting, being able to stand up and look out of the top of the vehicle without having to "take turns" or "Excuse me, could I just...., oooh! I'm so sorry, whoops!"  Ha Ha!    After the tenth time we saw giraffe or lions or huge herds of dim wildebeest, we did get blasé and not ask our driver to stop.  So it was excellent that we all loved the bird life and stopped much more often to identify and look at birds than animals!  170 different species of birds on my list, 50 different animals.  (Nothing stringy!!)


Lake Manyara National Park

Our first NP in Tanzania.   Small, easy to orientate oneself within and containing a wide variety of animals (although in small numbers) including the famous-but-shy Tree climbing lions!   Standing up in our Land Rover, keenly peering out and able to see all 360 degrees we didn’t know which way to look, nor did we know what to look for!    Eagle-eyed Nixon was both driver and spotter, calling our attention to a small patch of grey in the middle of some bushes – an African elephant, or a small darkish patch in a thorn tree – a vervet monkey, or a lump on a branch – a Silvery-cheeked Hornbill and so on.   We managed giraffe and some of the various antelopes by ourselves!  Two excellent birds were the impressive Giant Kingfisher and the small Speckled Mousebirds with long streamer tails.


Late evening view across the plain

Down by the Lake we nearly saw a lion kill; what we actually saw was a fly-infested dead wildebeest, while panting and chock-full, sitting not 10 yards from it, a group of three lionesses – replete and resting!  (Obviously tree-climbing was off today!)  Head in bush, only visible by an inch or two of occasionally wagging tail was the male lion!   Perhaps I’m glad I didn’t actually see the kill, there’s a dilemma between excitement and revulsion.  


Baboons and indeed all the animals on the roadway avoided the vehicles partly due to the Park NO-FEED policy.  A group of Maasai Giraffe, with attendant Oxpeckers, grazed elegantly on the prickly acacia trees; immaculate, neat Impala danced away on slender legs and two tiny Dik-Dik balanced on a quartet of knitting needles looked nervously up and down the road.  A troupe of 4 Vervet monkeys ambled to a puddle for a drink; the male showing off his bright blue balls and red dick, before deciding he had time for a quick ‘doggy’ with a willing female and then moving on!

Lake Manyara had flooded severely in 1998 (El Nino) and we walked to the lake side to see where grass and reeds are now replacing the brown sticky mud.  Acacia bushes were full of Fiscal Shrike, a bush baby nestled asleep in the fork of a larger acacia and the lake itself had 25 or so Lesser Flamingo.  In the far distance we could just make out our first sighting of Hippo!  Circling overhead, too high for us to identify, about 50 raptors.

And so our first day was spent looking at nature with our “Long-Eyes” (Nixon’s term for our binoculars!) and being hooked by its splendid bio-diversity.


Lake Natron

Lake Natron is a soda lake, and not usually on the tourist trail, but I had hoped to see it coloured by thousands of flamingos.   We left Manyara for the long drive, carrying all the food we needed for our stay at Natron.   Across large plains, the wind whistled as it caught the grasses, past distinctive Maasai villages with their round mud huts in round enclosures protected by prickly acacia branches.   We drove for nearly 6 hours, sometimes through the grassland, just pointing the Land Rover towards our reference point - a distinctive volcano!   The next reference point was to drive to the right of the volcano!    Under its shadow we drove over black lava flows, bumping our way across by the faintest of trails.  Occasionally we passed Maasai mixed herds of cattle and donkeys attended by a lone red-clothed herdsman.  Saw 2 Ostrich that ran off fast into the distance. 


Finally we reached our tented camp.  Very basic, damaged by El Nino it looked rather forlorn as our tent was the only operational one!  Getting replacement building material is a 6 hour ‘bump and jar’  ride to Arusha!

Looking out towards Lake Natron we saw Marabou and Abdim’s Stork picking their long legged way around the fields.  Again there were loads of raptors in the sky, but which?

Brian looked inside the primitive ‘kitchen’ and said I shouldn’t!   The food was decidedly basic!

Our tent had no electricity, but one of the local Maasai brought us an oil lamp; he was the camp guard and sat by his fire all night. So having nothing to do, it being completely dark, we were in bed by 8.00 p.m.!!!

The early morning light was the signal for various birds to announce day!   Delicate Little Bee Eaters, noisy Weaver birds and loads of tiny things without name!   After breakfast we drove to the lake over ground crusty with soda, to see around 500 flamingos feeding along the shoreline.  It was a wonderful place, the volcano behind us running down to a flat soda-dry area with rivulets of fresh water flowing to the lake bordered by green reeds.  Four pelicans sat solidly in the shallows and an Egret fished in the fast flow of the stream by twisting and stabbing at fish.   Maybe 3 times out of 10 he succeeded!   From mud prints we could tell that there had been hyena and mongoose around, too.

The flamingos were not as numerous as I had hoped but in their varying shades of pink they were graceful on their personal stilts and very elegant in flight.  Partly the remoteness and partly the feeling of timelessness made our visit memorable.


The Great Rift Valley

Map of the Rift valley

 Across the Rift Valley


The Great Rift Valley is actually a long, deep depression with steep, wall-like cliffs; two sets of highland regions separated by a valley. Some experts refer to it as a huge scar that crosses from north to south through the eastern half of Africa and the Middle East. Along its enormous depression, the earth is patched with extinct or inactive volcanoes alternating with tectonic lakes, and at least three tectonic plates all converging on each other.  The eastern branch enters Kenya at Lake Rudolf and proceeds through lakes into Tanzania at Lake Natron.


We left our very basic camp at Lake Natron and slowly climbed the escarpment, looking back every so often at the water shimmering in the sunshine.  The Land Rover manfully applied itself to very rough tracks and for over 3 hours we met no other traffic.  Occasionally we passed herds of donkeys or goats or cattle or even mixed herds, nearly always getting a wave of acknowledgement from the Maasai.  Small children, deep black skin contrasting with the red Maasai colours of their cloaks and their brilliant white teeth were often wandering alone in charge of a herd.

We joggled and bumped our way for a total of 9 hours to get to the Serengeti N.P.   The most spectacular part was climbing the side of the Great Rift Valley and then stopping to look down at the huge natural ‘fault’ in the landscape.  We passed small villages perched on slopes, drove over Great Plains, climbed hills and stopped for mongoose, vultures and our packed lunch.

A long tiring day!


The Serengeti N.P.

Immediately we were inside the National park we saw a large herd of zebra.  Beautiful faces, pointed ears looking alertly at us, round plump bottoms, they really are lovely animals.   Youngsters are skittish, their stripes more brownish than black.  I loved the way the adults stood in pairs, nose to tail, watching both directions!Zebra in the Serengeti

We were booked into Lobo Wildlife Lodge for one night.  It was designed to blend in with the surroundings and used space and wooden structures well.  Unfortunately, due to some bottled water that we were given at Lake Natron (it wasn’t sealed!!) I developed what is locally known as ‘pan-splatter’!   And it disturbed my sleep drastically!  Lucky we had reasonable facilities and it only delayed us the next day by 3 hours.


The Serengeti is huge, and we started off through ‘grassland’, but to encourage new tender grass growth for the migrating animals our first views of it were blackened earth.  The smell of smoke drifted all around us from the controlled fires.  A small tortoise was trying to escape the heat by getting onto the track and then in the sky we saw vultures gathering, circling then converging onto a spot where even more vultures and 3 Marabou storks were jostling and flapping over a recently killed zebra.   They were an unruly mob, squabbling and tearing at flesh.  It got particularly frantic when a tasty bit of intestine was exposed!  One of the Marabous managed a quick dash for a black ash-covered morsel and then walked pompously down to the water pool to wash it before gulping it down!  The melee continued, the vultures by now deeply into the body cavity, their heads covered in blood and their manners deteriorating.


Our accommodation for the next night was another tented camp (just outside the Serengeti) where we were the oA Hamerkopnly guests; much better than the Lake Natron camp as we had solar powered light and heated water!


Most of the next day we stayed fairly near the camp (in case of further pan-splatter!)and stopping by a seasonal river saw three wonderfully named birds: a Bataleur overhead (large Bird of Prey), a Hamerkop (Heron-ish) in the water and Go-Away birds in the trees.  Later, in the afternoon, we sat under our awning watching small herds of Grant’s gazelle and zebra in the distance, A Go-away Birdwhile in front of us the garden and mowed field occupied our eyes and binoculars with Hildebrandt’s Starlings, White-headed buffalo Weavers, woodpeckers, Cordon-bleu, a beautiful green Wood Hoopoe and a pair of Hunter’s Sunbird.   Behind the small water pond was a makeshift housing for 5 Fischer’s Lovebirds, rescued from the bird trade, waiting impatiently for their flight feathers to grow back!   As the rain started to come down we saw a group of placid Ground Hornbill plod slowly onward, seemingly oblivious to the weather!

In the Park, baboons gathered in mixed age groups, babies remaining dependent for a long time.  The groups amble along the roadside, rushing into the verges as vehicles approach.   With tails held high, they wander to a safe distance and then sit on their shiny bottoms and stare at you!

The giraffe have superb grace but are quite dim looking.  They eat the tender shoots of the acacia before the thorns are like needles, so their dimness is relative!  Generally they were quite calm about the vehicles going past.


A dim looking WildebeestThe wildebeest were an odd looking mixture.  Small piggy eyes, long, long faces elongated by a beard but then a strong lithe body balanced on quite dainty legs.  The blackish brown markings down the shoulders look like a long mane at first but they are just part of the design!  Around the camp we could hear them grunting to one another and when a weather front came over prior to a heavy rain burst, the young animals charged back and forth with a mixture of fear, fun and excitement.  Young wildebeest can walk within 5 – 6 minutes of birth and after 10 minutes they can follow the herd.  All wildebeest are born within a 3 week period.  Imagine what the rutting and mating season must be like with trophies to be won or lost!  

Thompson’s Gazelle were everywhere, delightful, delicate animals each with a small black non-stop bum-flicker of a tail!  With their two little horns and delicate legs they are a cheetah’s favourite delicacy.  These gazelle set up loose, mixed herds.  

Impala on the other hand organise into two groups – the dominant male with a harem of around 40, (he works hard defending his conjugal rights!) and Bachelor Boy groups.  Impala are pretty animals, elegant and swift, although the Bachelor Boys play rough games of boxing or ‘chicken’ in front of safari vehicles!


The Serengeti is huge space surrounded by blue distant hills – vast plains of grass where the soil is so thin nothing else can grow.  Parts were already dry and brown, parts still green and growing.  Easy to realise just how fragile the eco-system is if rain doesn’t fall at the right time on the right plain.  Drought, Rinderpest and predators are all enemies, but drought must be cruellest.

In good times the Serengeti is laced with freshwater streams and pools that eventually feed into Lake Victoria.  Hippos stay in water all day and then lumber out to graze at night.  Sometimes it was almost A hippo poolimpossible to believe that there were Hippos in a pool as they can submerge for up to 3 minutes, but the smell of decaying, festering, fermenting green dung is unmistakeable!   Our first pool was a favourite with all the guides, with around 25 hippos and 3 gigantic crocodiles on the other side of the pool!   We stood on the bank watching ear-flicking, farting, stubby tails flapping to disperse the dung, yawning fetid breaths, quick splashes of surprise, floating blobs of ‘hippo-processed’ grass.  What a good job they can close their nostrils as they submerge!



Back at the camp that night we sat with a glass of South African Chardonnay around the camp fire discussing how odd it was to have a Maasai night watchman complete with bow and quiver of arrows looking after our safety in the 21st Century!


Olduvai Gorge (or Oldupai Gorge)

Cradle of mankind stuff! 

The Laetoli footprintsOlduvai Gorge is an archaeological site located in the eastern Serengeti Plains.  The gorge is a very steep sided ravine roughly 30 miles long and 295 ft. deep. Exposed deposits show rich fossil fauna, many hominid remains and items belonging to the one of the oldest stone tool technologies, called Olduwan.   Between 1930 and the 1990’s Louis and then Mary Leakey worked in the Gorge and provided evidence of the longest sequence of hominid presence and activity yet discovered anywhere in the world, with fossils, stone-tool industries, the skull of a small hominid Australopithecus africus (about 1.75 Million years old) and a set of footprints dating back 3.6 Million years at Laetoli.  The tracks were made by two adults and a juvenile of the upright-walking ape-man Australopithecus afarensis. Raindrops and a variety of other animal tracks also marked the soft ash which had previously been wetted by rain.  Quite an amazing and unique set of geological events needed to come together to first preserve evidence and then millions of years later offer the evidence up again to the archaeologists.  The small museum on the site was fascinating, with copies of some of the more important finds, excavations and details of the area, as well as the personalities that had had such tenacity and belief in the archaeological significance of the Gorge area.


The Ngorongoro Crater

The road to the NG Conservation Area was really rough and we travelled miles with nothing of note, except that the Maasai were back with us again in this area, their villages dotted inconspicuously in the landscape.  Young men are starting to get into the ‘begging’ habit, “Photo?” chorused 4 tall handsome dark-skinned, red-robed Maasai – but we drove on.  I took a sneaky and wildly wobbly photo of a village as wA young maasai lade rumbled past.

Finally we reached the Crater rim and our first impressions were disappointing!   A vast crater (10 miles across) with a soda lake in the centre tinged with pink.  (Flamingos)  But nothing much else was visible from the rim.  Descent is one-way and only 4WD are allowed. (Costs $70 a day)  Easy to see why only 4WD, as the road was steep, rough, twisting and narrow!   As we got further inside, animals became visible; zebra, Thompsons, Wildebeest mixed with domesticated cattle herded into the crater each day by Maasai herdsmen.   Once on the floor of the crater we could see the Greater and Lesser Flamingos standing a good distance in the water, away from any predators.  Nixon (and us) stopped for ages watching a lone wildebeest staring at a ridge of grass – was there a lion hiding?  If there was, he had more patience than we did!

On one side of the crater is a small forest which even has elephant in it!   The reason that NG Crater is so well known is the sheer diversity found in such a small area; we saw hyena – ungainly ruffians, more hippos – one lumbering its way back into the water, lions lying besmirched with mud and idly ignoring us while whisking flies off their exposed tummies, herds of zebra, wildebeest etc.   There are Cheetah in the crater, but with the dry grass four feet high, we could have driven past one and not even realised! 


The steep climb out of the crater could best be described as diabolical!  It made Brian’s headache into a throbbing nuisance and sealed our decision that one look in the crater was enough!  It was good to be back in a Hotel Lodge with steaming hot water in the bathroom and a decent food buffet!   In fact the next morning the crater was full if mist, so without too many regrets we left the area. 


The page that got the "Ooohs!"

Many times during the trip we stopped to look at birds, and on our route out of the NG Conservation area we saw a small wagtail (with a fan-like tail).  A family of 6 children piled out of a mud shack to watch us, so I wandered over with my Bird book to show them the pictures.  Grime and snot made me a little careful about handing the book over (!)  The children were fascinated at the pages of pictures, finding special “Ooohs!” for the flamingos and the Long tailed Widowbird.



Back to Arusha through its poor shanty outskirts, unkempt roads, untidy buildings, makeshift stalls and muddy sidewalks, past people pushing cheap wooden carts with old car tyres piled with goods.   Battered old cars jostling with Abercrombie and Kent shiny 4X4’s. 

Back to civilisation – I suppose!







The next part of the holiday was to the sexy, exotic, alluring, tropical paradise of Zanzibar for rest and relaxation, and Emerson & Greens  (Hotel) was our little bit of luxury after all the tents and cockroachy bathrooms! 

The guys that bought, repaired, styled and now run Emerson & Greens are 2 gay Americans.  Wonderfully be-caftanned Emerson appeared one evening in orange floaty top and trousers followed the next night by a similar blue creation.  Immaculate; coiffured and manicured he sat exuding his New-Yorkness in the Bar.   Conventionally dressed Tom, was the designer of the place - had studied Theatre design, classical ballet and stuff, informative about living in Zanzibar.  And then Brian.... a typically couth example of a gay Aussie!     "Fantastic place here, it's like having a new box of chocolates every day - peering in and wondering whether to have a hard or a soft centre!!!! !!! !!!"  "God, that beauty over there, he wants to come up to my place - but you really can't fuck your employees! !!! !!!"  "Christ, it's no wonder there's so much Aids in Africa - the buggers'll fuck anything that moves! !!!"  Quite an eye-opener for sensitive little souls like us!!   Plenty of laughs when he was around!


Our room was at the top of the building, smallish, with nowhere to hang clothes, but the huge green outdoor bath, with trellis dividing us from the outside world, the canopied four-poster bed and thick purple drapes gave it an unforgettable ambience which made it worth it.   On our second night we had booked for an extravagant meal on the rooftop – lobster and various exotic dishes to the accompaniment of a group of musicians and dancers.   Never have I seen dancing like it, the dancers kept their bodies, from head to waist, absolutely still but their hips gyrated and swung, circled and flicked back and forth to furiously fast rhythms.  Eye-popping stuff!


Poor Zanzibar.   Left by the Big Brother Tanzania to fall into decay.  No wonder they had flare-ups after the last election, when Tanzania imposed their will on the place.  Tanzania takes taxes from Zanzibar and gives very little in return.  The place is crumbling and in the warm, wet atmosphere walls get creeping black growth all over them.  There was a feeling of hopelessness and idleness in the narrow streets, rubbish accumulated and people sat around in tiny, grubby little shops. 

The 'work ethic' so beloved by Europeans, missed the Africans here completely.


We idled our 3 days in Stone Town, looking at the dingy remains of slave markets, dungeons, crumbling palaces and fly-blown markets, then decided to go to the North to idle a bit more by the sea. 

We had a vision. 

It's always dangerous to pre-visualise!   The north just didn't meet up to our vision; we ended up in a community built around a stretch of coral sand, a couple of dive outfits and just one restaurant.   And little to do.    We did the walk along the white coral sands a couple of times, found the rotting remains of a turtle shell and lumps of blackened driftwood, we watched the picturesque dhows set sail for their night fishing.   We read a bit.

And we sat outside our clean, neat little bungalow and plotted escape!  

Emirates said they could change our flight home with no penalty, so we paid for our bungalow and bumped back along the unmade road to civilisation and the ferryboat to Dar es Salaam.   The less said about that journey the better, it was rough and suffice it to say that the steward dished out little plastic bags to all the passengers, and they were well used!    I could now go into an advert for Stugeron, as I was able to pass my little plastic bag, without opening an eye, to the Indian sitting next to me.   (Curried sick smells different!)

Two hours after leaving Zanzibar we arrived at Dar es Salaam port and like all ports and airports in third world countries, foreigners are immediately besieged by hordes of Taxi drivers jostling to get a fare for their battered, crusty vehicle.  Dar port was no exception, and that was how we turned up at the plush door of the Sheraton in a rusty old bucket! 


Two nights in cocooned colonial style!  Lawns, planted prettiness and a cricket pitch separated us from the realities of Dar. 

It was OK by us!