Africa in a new light

Africa in a new light

13/03/2013 0 By Chris Parnell

Travellers often dream of visiting East Africa – it’s the stuff folklore and legends are made of. Well, Sue Verrall lived there for sixteen years, working along the Great Rift Valley stretching from Ethiopia to Mozambique and meeting some amazing characters from a range of lifestyles in rather diverse environments, ranging from lush tropical and cool mountain rainforests, to hot humid coastlines and dry savannahs.

Initially visiting Ethiopia, Sue discovered their ancient history, wonderful food, incredible dancing and gracious welcomes. The high plateau in Ethiopia, about the same size as the South Island of New Zealand, surprises with its swathe of intensively farmed emerald green a stark contrast to the savage parched lowlands 2,000m far below. Here, in the shimmering heat, lengthy camel salt trains traverse the Danakil Desert, a 480 km wide stretch of wild sand, sulphur and Afar tribesmen, bordered by the Red Sea with its little known stunning coral reefs.

The friendships, the joy, the heartaches, the laughter and the incredible African spirit that Sue encountered during her 16 years of living in this region of Africa, keep Sue returning time and time again. It is these sorts of experiences she tries to share on her trips. ??Involvement with the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa was Sue’s introduction to the ‘least talked about’ plight for millions of women worldwide. This incredible hospital was established by the Drs Catherine and Reg Hamlin.

“Doctor Hamlin and I met because of a New Zealand Hebe in her garden, and I consequently discovered the incredible work they were doing and all that they have achieved,” says Sue. “They perfected an operation which has given life back to thousands of women who previously existed as outcasts in society.”

Sue is of course, talking about the difficulties resulting from prolonged obstructed labour which may result in the death of the child in the womb and can lead to fistula. Such problems are unknown in NZ because of good ante-natal care, ready access to hospitals, and the use of C-sections. However, throughout developing countries the lack of education and access to medical facilities, especially in remote areas, results each year in hundreds of thousands of women experiencing fistula, often being abandoned by their husbands. Specialist surgery can repair this condition in 90% of cases, restoring to the women the prospect of marriage, future children and a normal life.

Landscaping, environmental projects, development work and of course safaris provided Sue with extensive explorations, and numerous opportunities to learn what and who goes where, and why they go there in often punishing environments. Sue then built a home high on the slopes of Mt Meru, near Arusha in the north east of Tanzania – living at about the same level as the summit of our Mt Hutt. From her veranda she looked over towards Kilimanjaro, while from the west her vistas were of the Maasai Steppes and those brilliant sunsets for which Africa is famed. It was a gardener’s paradise, with warm dark soil shaded by bananas and coffee.

The Migration in the Serengeti is an unforgettable sight. The new born slip into the world with their feet already running in the hope of avoiding predators and to keep up with the constantly moving herd. “One recent visit,” says Sue, “the wildebeest and zebra had not quite mingled; two enormous herds of thousands were waiting in adjoining valleys for that exact moment when the ancient rhythm of co-dependency throughout the weeks of The Migration would commence. The wildebeest were constantly clowning about, while the zebras created moving black and white crisscross patterns, all waiting for the decision to move.”

Tanzania’s Wildlife and Park management have nurtured the environment and the animals. The integration of differing tribal land uses has created a lasting heritage for East Africa The Serengeti is either dusty or muddy, but it is not difficult to traverse these days with the use of modern Land Cruisers … “of course with an open roof so you can stand in stocking feet on the seat and really feel the experience”, remarks Sue who refuses to go on a safari in a mini bus.

With climatic variations, it isn’t straightforward predicting exactly when the migration will begin, so when Sue organises a trip, she chooses the location of accommodation very carefully, ensuring clients get the best viewing available. In East Africa the small eco lodges and permanent camps are wonderfully individual, incorporating local fabrics and designs cleverly combined with western comforts such as comfy beds and ensuites. You’ll know you are in Africa, in a safe, but not sterile hotel environment – these are Sue’s favourite safari accommodation options.

Sue delights in the stories her clients will take home with them. She recalls taking one group through the Serengeti. “I overhead a breakfast remark that had me a little worried. A guest said: ‘I did not sleep at all!’, then gave a huge big grin at my worried face and went on to clarify: ‘I sat up and watched the last million wildebeest thunder past!’ It’s those sort of comments that make all my trips special.” Nights are filled with the roar of lions and the coughs and chuckles of hyenas, while an early morning wake up could see you witnessing a giraffe silently nibbling the top leaves of an Acacia just metres from your awning. “It is a breathtaking start to a day’s game viewing. Each visit is different and there are always animals to view,” says Sue.??“

A perfect safari day begins at 6am with a cuppa. Those enormous wide skies colour up equally well in the morning and the stretched brown savannahs are pinging with wildlife. The numerous varieties of buck are so plentiful, always immaculate, always alert. The wart hogs so comical, the giraffe so graceful. The elephants are so disciplined, yet destructive as they move on silent feet through the bush, tipping over trees or peeling back bark –“it takes a lot to satisfy an elephant”.

Sue contributed on an elephant committee for three years, falling in love with elephants and gaining a huge appreciation and respect for them.??After a hunt, the lions bask on the Kopies (little hills) taking in the extra heat from the rocks, while the cheetahs take their kill to the high branches. Watching a morning kill, you can witness the natural balance of the wildlife, every ounce of meat divided by the hierarchy system of the animals and birds. Take a rest for breakfast, then you’re off again. The colourful East African birds are abundant – the Secretary bird looks elegant, the vultures are very ugly but smart, and the kites so fast. With a lunch box in hand, you can stay out all day – or at least until you have to be back at camp by 6pm, a National Park rule.

Once back at camp, Sue encourages her clients to witness the sunset while sipping a sundowner – the perfect end to a dusty day. “And you can do it all again tomorrow – but different,” she sighs peacefully. “It’s not just about the safari and the animals,” says Sue. “The people are so welcoming. In Tanzania and Ethiopia my involvement with differing projects enables me to take groups into homes and visit farms. This is not the usual tourist experience; this is ‘how it is’ and it means I get to retain contact with old friends.”

Sue’s next trip will visit coffee and tea plantations, dairy farms, a Masaai environmental project, markets, an agricultural college, sisal revival project, a small scale pineapple farm, a trout farm, and a rainforest. She’ll also include a local fishing experience and the Spices of Zanzibar. Let’s face it, no trip to Africa should miss the coast; the culture is different, as is the music and food. “To relax on the beach in Zanzibar after a safari is superb. Stone Town with its history of slaves and trading is magic, and great shopping,” grins Sue.

FACTS:?Sue chooses to take the tours when there are fewer mosquitoes and the temperatures aren’t too hot, but the water is still warm. In 2010 she has three tours. :
• April/May – two trekking groups in Ethiopia
• June – 20 days in Tanzania,
• September/October – see Insight tour details below
• Plus any private groups who are interested in travelling together.

To contact Sue, email her at

Ethiopia Insight Tour – a 23 day luxury lodge based safari explore the culture of ethiopia on a wildlife safari.?Experience a side of Ethiopia that only a privileged few have ever seen.

Depart: Addis Ababa, 12 September 2010?Cost: US$4995 (per person twin share)

For further information or to reserve your place: Phone: 0800 WILD EARTH (9453 32784)? or visit

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