Chasing the Tanzanian Express

Chasing the Tanzanian Express

13/03/2013 0 By Chris Parnell


“Warties at 1 o’clock” was the signal to grab our cameras to try to catch our favourite guys running. Warthogs are very cute, and seeing them in full flight with their tails sticking straight up in the air, they certainly lived up to their name – the ‘Tanzanian Express’. My sister and I were on our second day of our African safari and were already old

hands at ‘game driving’, standing on the seats in the Land Rover Defender, swaying about as we traversed rutted roads, with binoculars slung around our necks and cameras at the ready.

We began our safari with two nights in the wooded savannas of Tarangire National Park in the south of Tanzania, followed by a long drive up to Ngorogoro crater, with a stop for lunch at the iconic Gibb’s Farm, a hundred year old organic market garden and coffee plantation.

As we drove north, the arid Tarangire, dotted with the ubiquitous acacia trees, gave way to lush banana plantations and tropical forest around the rim of the crater. Dusk comes fast in this part of the world, close to the equator, and driving to our camp along the rim we were privileged to see a mature leopard lying by the side of the road, basking in the late afternoon sun, an astonishing and never to be forgotten sight.

Ngorogoro Crater is home to the highest concentration of wildlife on the planet and is the largest volcanic crater on earth. This is where we found ‘bush babies’ in our beds – big, fat hot water bottles – as the temperatures dropped quite considerably on the rim at night at 7,500 feet.

“Jambo, jambo“, (“good morning!”) was the warm and welcoming wake-up call outside our tent every morning, as the camp boys delivered the hot water for our morning strip-off wash.

Waking up in the bush in Africa is incredibly special, listening to the myriad sounds of lion, leopard and hyena, snug in the knowledge that an armed guard is patrolling the perimeter of the camp. In the cool damp of a new day, with the dark red ball of the sun showing through the tent flap, we would find our thermos of boiling water to make a cup of tea and sit in the still dawn, taking in the breathtaking African morning.

This idyllic situation was rudely interrupted one morning when, just as we were sitting down outside our tent to have our tea, we heard a huge ‘swishing’ sound as a herd of fifteen to twenty ‘mothers and babies’ rumbled past looking neither left nor right. In trying to describe the sound these elephant made, no more than fifteen feet away from us, the ‘swishing’ comes first, followed by the ground trembling and the sight of these gentle beasts swinging their trunks, blowing and snorting and occasionally rooting

out small trees. Unbelievably wonderful. What a way to start the day!

A day in the life of a luxury tented safari doesn’t always start with an elephant ‘march past’, but there is something every minute of the day to entrance and inspire. We knew we would fall in love with the animals, we did not expect to fall in love with ‘the bush’.

Having read ‘Out of Africa’, ‘Into the West’ and various other accounts of life in East Africa, I had always been intrigued by the lyrical descriptions of the ‘bush‘. Now, I understood. It is very hard to put your finger on this ‘feeling’ for Africa, but it is very, very primal and does not go away when you leave. My only way of describing my experience is that I felt I had always been there, and I never wanted to leave.

We were always keen to get on with the game driving, so getting up at 6am every day was easy. We were privileged to have the services of an unbelievably knowledgeable guide, Makinda, who drove for up to ten hours every day, all the time pointing out lion asleep in trees, hyena resting in puddles, trees full of vultures and, one time, the very rare African wild dogs. Makinda had not seen the dogs for many years, so was permitted to leave the official ‘road’ to photograph and report back to the camp authorities this extremely rare phenomenon.

Leaving the crater, we commenced the big drive up to the Serengeti along roads that were barely more than tracks. On one of these ’roads’ we were intrigued to find twenty or more Masai, some on foot, some with bicycles, stopped and peering ahead. Driving some sixty meters further along, we came upon a huge bull elephant bang in the

middle of the road. He was just taking his time, so we had to drive around him. We could see why those on foot were not game to pass him by.

These are the main roads between villages in this part of the world, rutted and sometimes barely visible, but always our intrepid guide assuredly reached our camp at the end of the day. That was, until ‘The Flash Flood’. Serengeti National Park, at 9,000 square miles is one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. We had just paid our dues at the park gates early in the afternoon, when huge dark clouds began to roll in and waterfalls of rain began to obscure our sight through the windshield wipers of the Defender. Thunder rolled and violent slashes of lightning took over the landscape all around. It was incredibly exciting, but not for our guide Makinda. We could hear him urgently calling on the shortwave radio to one of the local guides from our safari.
The ’road’ had now become a river, one on which we had no alternative but to slither and slide along. Again and again Makinda’s urgent tones beseeched the invisible guide to make contact. Our small team in the back of the ’rover became very quiet as we began to take in the seriousness of our situation. Apparently a small creek which we needed to cross to reach our camp had become a raging river, and we were on the wrong side of it. The sight of Makinda wading thigh-deep along the ’road’, mobile in hand, will stay in my mind forever. This huge storm showed no sign of abating, but at last our intrepid guide made contact and we backed up the Defender. After much slit

hering and sliding, with the ’rover completely covered in black mud, we arrived at our first Serengeti camp.

It was always such a pleasure to arrive in camp at the end of a long day’s game-driving, but today there was huge relief. There were the ’jambo’ boys, this time with hot towels for washing and cool drinks of mango juice. Four of the tents in our camp had been blown down and washed away but, as usual, we were made so welcome and were soon sipping on a fine South African wine while our dinner was prepared.

A word here about our tented accommodation: For two kiwi ‘girls’, accustomed to camping in New Zealand, this was luxury personified. Beautifully decorated with wall

hangings and carpets, African art and beaded lamps (solar), these tents sported an ensuite bathroom with twin wash-stands, shower and toilet. Our beds were plush with Egyptian cotton sheets and we had a wee balcony out the front for cups of tea in the morning, or a glass of chardonnay at night. The meals were simple but delicious, all prepared in the open-air kitchen over open fires. Thomson Safaris do not believe in polluting the environment with diesel fueled generators, so the water for our showers was boiled over the open fires and the restaurant at night was romantically candlelit.

Despite the daily evidence of a ‘kill’ right outside our camps, we always felt incredibly safe, although we were never allowed outside the camp perimeter or to get out of the Land Rover. Up at the crater, our guards patrolled with heavy Masai spears and at the other camps with home-made bow and arrows, with specially poisoned tips. There is so much game out there in the parks that the predators have no trouble finding their dinner every day!

We drove right up to the Kenyan border on our last day in the Serengeti, with the beautiful flat-topped mountains of the Masai Mara visible above the shimmering haze of the ‘land that flows on forever’. Here we witnessed the start of the 1,000 mile migration of about 1.5 million wildebeest – an amazing sight on the ground, and, unbelievably, visible from our small plane as we flew back to civilisation, the end of the most wonderful experience of our lives.

Fact Box:
Thomson Safaris – U.S. Office.14 Mount Auburn Street, Watertown, MA 02472, USA
Tel: 617-923-0426 / Fax: 617-923-0940, E-Mail:
Airline booking agent for Air Tanzania and other ground and air services: Paul Bartlett, Cavalier Travel 333 Remuera Road Auckland, Phone: +64 9 529 0888, Facsimile: +64 9 529 089
Airlines flying to South Africa:
Qantas Airways: Auckland to Johannesburg via Sydney
Singapore Airlines: Auckland to Johannesburg via Singapore
South African Airways: Auckland to Johannesburg via Sydney/Hong Kong
Thai Airways: Auckland to Johannesburg via Bangkok
Malaysian Airways: Auckland to Johannesburg via Kuala Lumpur
Cathay Pacific Airlines: Auckland to Johannesburg via Hong Kong

Best time to visit: Dry season for sheer animal numbers, June-September. Hunting season is July-December.
Health watch: malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis A & B, meningitis, tetanus, typhoid.

ns: drink bottled water only; avoid ice, raw vegetables and salads when eating at street vendors; use a mosquito net at night.

Currency: Tanzania Shilling (Tsh). Major currencies exchanged in town, US$ preferred. Standard Chartered Banks ATM’s allow withdrawals from Visa cards, while Barclays Bank ATM’s allow withdrawals from both Visa and MasterCard. Credit cards only accepted at major hotels, lodges and travel agents.
Visa: Check with your travel agent.

Budget options: 
Top end: Luxury camping safaris in tented camps provide cooks, tent staff, waiters, drivers, guides and the best in service and food.
Budget: Feel like you’re roughing it, but still enjoy beautiful locales, drivers, guides and cooks. Expect to help pitch tents and, in some cases, take your own camping gear.

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