Selous Chances

Selous Chances

About eleven months from now I’m guiding an exclusive group of veteran African travelers on what I donned the “Last Chance Selous Safari.” Will we be too late?

London’s Daily Telegraph posted, “Kicking up plumes of dust that scatter the grazing wildlife, a relentless flow of bulldozers, water tankers and lorries trundles along the main track across the northwest of the reserve towards Stiegler’s Gorge..”

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OnSafari: Village Visits

OnSafari: Village Visits

Recently a good friend who is returning again to East Africa after a period of about ten years asked me if she would be able to visit a Maasai village near one of their camps, as we had regularly done years ago.

The short answer is yes. There are these scam “villages” scattered all over East Africa near expensive foreign tourists camps and lodges. The long answer is much more troublesome.

It was natural that my friend would ask the question. I often took all my guests to a village in the earlier days. It became an essential part of the trip and introduced foreigners to some of the traditional lifestyles of early East Africans.

Somewhere down that long and winding path of my 47 years guiding safaris it hit me how unauthentic villages had become. Simultaneously, I realized how racist it was of visitors – and me – to so eagerly want to visit something so unauthentic.

Once it was authentic, years ago. The majesty of traditional peoples, especially the Maasai, was shown in all sorts of ways: Women could put up and dissemble a home (boma) faster than you assemble a prefabbed bookcase. Men could spear a marauding animal at 50 yards. And despite their primary need to protect their lifestock, they spoke almost poetically about the wildlife among which they lived.

In those days the Maasai were not unlike the wildebeest. They went wherever the rains took them. Rarely did a homestead (boma) last more than 3-4 months, because that was the cycle of rains and new grasses.

The bomas were clean, sanitary and the children were usually well fed and happy and did not have flies in their faces and snot dripping down their cheeks.

The pressure on traditional peoples was intense in the 1990s, as Africa began to rocket its development. The Maasai in particular had been pushed around unconscionably ever since Bernard Gzimek convinced Tanzanian parks to evict them from what is now the western corridor of the Serengeti.

He tried to do same at Ngorongoro, but they resisted there. Gun battles resulted in one of my friends, a one time greeter at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, losing his life.

Even today the unwarranted oppression continues on the Maasai. A huge movement including mass demonstrations and legal filings is attempting to enjoin the Tanzanian government from moving successful Maasai ranchers out of a huge swath of the northeast of the country. Why does the government want to do so? To give the land to Mideast princes as private hunting grounds.

Early visitors were fascinated with Maasai circumcision ceremonies. I have 32 slides of one I was invited to in 1973. Visitors were titillated when told that Maasai drink blood. In fact, all Nilotic peoples years ago mixed cow blood with milk to produce probably man’s most nutritious food as a yoghurt. It was an ingenious method for growing food in a desert: let the cows and goats nibble on the few weeds available.

For the most part Maasai don’t have these elaborate ceremonies any more or live traditional lives. I know of a few very distant places in East Africa where handfuls of such people might still exist, but they are very few and live in very remote areas.

Maasai boys spend Tsh. 2500/- at a hospital if they want to be circumcised. Cows aren’t farmed for their blood. A cow in Ngorongoro goes for upwards of $1200 today, roughly 2/3 the Tanzanian GDP per capita. Many Maasai are quite rich.

The Vice President of Kenya was Maasai. One of the CEOs of Kenya Airways is Maasai. One of Google’s continental vice presidents is Maasai. In 2017 I was inducted by Kenyan Maasai as the first white American to be made an honorary Maasai elder. I don’t drink blood. Neither do the real elders who inducted me.

Why racist? And how did I contribute to this for a while?

It came slowly and then hit me like a truck.

I was taking a group of my clients to a village in Samburu. As soon as we entered I noticed that several of the “reenactors” were waiters at the camp where we were staying. They winked at me. I winked at them.

The guests were taken through the tour which ended at the “blacksmith’s” station. There a wonderful kid I knew at the lodge had donned traditional garb and was having a dickens of a time trying to start a fire rubbing sticks together.

He looked up at me and said in Swahili, “A long, long time ago, we used matches.”

I didn’t laugh. I suddenly realized what a mess I was making not only of Maasai but of all the many issues associated with Maasai repression and their attempts to break out of it.

I realized that visitors, at the time egged on by me, were titillated at the repulsive ideas of being dirty and sick and drinking blood. The particular village visit where my epiphany occurred was actually pretty sanitized. As a “living village” it wasn’t bad, and I convinced all of them later to promote it as such: no longer actually being used, rather as a historical remembrance.

Meanwhile many other so-called villages stagnated and even increased, growing more putrid and letting more kids get sick, because this drew visitors! The price went up in the 2000s from $10 per visitor to $20.

Those fake villages don’t move, so obviously sanitation is horrible. The price brought in by tourists amounts to much more over a few years than the potential a kid might get from going to school, so the kids are kept out of school!

Admittedly, many Maasai and other formerly traditional peoples are today caught in a bind: either in the horrendous slums of the great cities or because they’re land-poor. They can’t move easily either geographically or vocationally into the modern world.

That’s a very serious problem and one that modern East Africans grapple with daily, very much like Americans grapple with Appalachians or RV retirees without pensions clogging KOA parks. These are serious problems, but their possible remedies aren’t helped an iota by visitors thinking that this is how they want to be.

Times change, I had to tell myself. Yes in the early 1970s when Kathleen and I first came to East Africa there were many traditional peoples, proud and happy and successful. Not today. They are as mired in the political and social difficulties of globalization as any visitor. And they want to master coding and global economics and how to sell short just like you do.

Refusing to see this is racist. Refusing to understand that the poverty that widely exists in East Africa has anything to do with anything but the world’s unfair economic system is racist.

So my friend returning to East Africa, first my apologies for having probably encouraged your village visits long after I shouldn’t have. And second, visit a school, visit a town on legitimate interactions organized by reputable places like Gibb’s Farm. Visit a slum in a city by reputable tour companies showing how remarkably clean they can be despite the horrendous poverty and how smart and hopeful the people living in them are.

But don’t as I did try to make the future the past, just because it’s more complicated and unpleasant than we might want to admit.

OnSafari: Win for Eles!

OnSafari: Win for Eles!

Our safari ended in Tarangire, Africa’s greatest elephant park, with an exciting surprise! I’ve been coming to Tarangire regularly multiple times annually for the last two decades. This is the first time I noticed that elephant tusks are getting bigger!

Whoa nelly. There’s no tonic that makes elephant tusks grow larger – it’s completely genetic. Nor did the 40-year old male that stared me in the face, or the 60-year grand dame who almost brushed the side of our vehicle, each with tusks easily 50% bigger than the norm recently visit a stretching spa. Bigger tusks are a genetic imperative, and there has now been enough non-poaching time for big tusks to begin expressing themselves again noticeably in random populations.

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OnSafari: The Crater

OnSafari: The Crater

We were among the first at dawn onto the crater floor and were headed up the Mugai River to see the old Boer homestead when right there in the road in front of us was a mating pair of lion!

Lion have been observed by safari guests for generations, and crater animals in particular are unusually tame, so neither Tumaini or I had much reluctance to interrupt the romance for a better view. Until we got closer.

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OnSafari: So Dry

OnSafari: So Dry

I have to constantly remind myself how wonderful – especially for first-timers – the dry season seems. To me it’s worse than the worst ever winter in Chicago; it’s earth challenging its own creation. What I see through the billows of dust are all the battles being lost to survive.

But the battles won are by the cats as they pick off the sick and wounded like turtles. For the cats it’s their heyday. That’s why the visitors love it so.

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OnSafari: Seronera

OnSafari: Seronera

Shelly’s pride is one of the most famously studied groups of lions in the Serengeti, probably the most photographed by professionals and tourists alike, and without doubt the most tame.

There are 19 in the pride and when we saw them a grand male and female were (literally) hanging out on a thick, low horizontal sausage tree branch together, their majesty rather compromised by various appendages and supple parts of their engorged bellies dripping from the branch like pancakes on a grill.

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OnSafari: Mean America

OnSafari: Mean America

It’s not easy being an American in Africa, today.

There’s been a slow swell in criticism of America ever since Trump came to power, but now, with the story of child immigrants being abused the criticism is severe. The frowns, the delayed services and lack of previously wonderful engaging conversation with locals makes me feel more and more alone. America, you are absolutely becoming cruel and fascist in the eyes of the world.

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OnSafari: Zanzibar

OnSafari: Zanzibar

I can wallow under a giant rain shower or soak in a bathtub even larger than the 19th Century four-claw tub at my home.

Our hotel housekeeper constantly refills our 4 2-liter bottles with purified water for more than just basic drinking needs, and plenty for our massive tea or coffee consumption. This is the Zanzibar Park Hyatt where each guest on average uses 30 times more water than the average Zanzibari.

EWT and other foreign guests wouldn’t come here were it otherwise. But it isn’t sustainable and many progressive Zanzibaris are growing increasingly vocal about it.

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OnSafari: Ndutu

OnSafari: Ndutu

We were ready to leave the crater at the end of the game drive when Tumaini noticed far away near the down road a huge group of wilde running down the side of the escarpment.

We stopped and turned around and with my binocs I could swear I was in the western corridor watching a couple thousand frantic animals in their endless search for better grass. But we were far, far away from that place.

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OnSafari: Crater

OnSafari: Crater

Breakfast in the crater.
Our family safari plowed through the tse-tse of Tarangire, had a really quick picnic game drive in Manyara and settled into the crater for a fantastic day.

Tarangire was much wetter than usual but cold as usual. The odd combination kept the tse-tse somewhat at bay but really reduced our finding the transitory elephant in the southern half of the park. The northern half was chock-a-block full of elephant as always, and that’s where the most productive game viewing was.

On the way to our Sopa Lodge we passed elephant fighting on the rim and arrived just before dark.

The day in the crater was wonderful. I love these margins of the season, when the tourist rush hasn’t yet totally clogged out the crater and a drizzle every now keep the beautiful yellow biden-biden blooming so that the veld is covered in yellow.

When we went down there weren’t many wildebeest. We saw lots of zebra and quite a few lion – all fat and sassy from previous kills – but as we ended the morning a long line of wilde ran down the side along the down road.

They were kicking and blarting and the males were still actively rutting, which should have already come to an end. I couldn’t figure out why so much commotion and such clear migratory behavior in these 400 or so wilde, since they were headed in the wrong direction!

But that’s … nature! With so many beasts there isn’t an uniform movement, and for some reason this group – totally healthy and enthusiastic – either got turned around by a bee or the smell of new grass on the crater floor.

Whatever it was it was great fun to watch them. I’m having a particularly wonderful time, since this is my family. I guide a family safari every ten years. This was the 4th one!

From here it’s on to my favorite place in the world, the Serengeti. Stay tuned.

[Apologies from the bush. My laptop is having serious problems, and I’m going to great lengths to post blogs. Will do my best!]

OnSafari: Tarangire

OnSafari: Tarangire

The night was as still as a ghost but inside the mess tent there was almost riotous laughter as the millenials recounted a recent wedding gone awry, the old folks proudly compared whose child was eating the most barbecue and poor Charles, our waiter, searched the back pantries for still another bottle of Spier shiraz.

I stepped briefly outside the warm solar lit canvas box into a crisp Tarangire night. It was a half moon. The thick overcast which begrudgingly was giving way to a long dry season momentarily cleared. Every star in the firmament twinkled. It was so still that the terrifying screeching of an elephant fight made its way all the up from the distant river almost like a far away old-time radio trying to catch its signal.

I’d hardly walked to the camp fire, maybe 15 meters from the dinner party, when the rhythmic groans of a couple lionesses triumphantly walking the main park road back to their cubs announced to any who cared that their kill was over: At least for this night there was no further need to hide.

Tarangire in this cold end of the rainy season is like an old man at the bar. The struggles under massive thunderstorms whose rain nary touches the ground because it’s so hot, the new acacias swept away by flash floods, the endless fighting of the elephant in muskh and the thousands and thousands of open-bill, white and other migratory storks all vying for a piece of the great Silale swamp was over, now. It was time to sit on a quiet stool in the corner and look fondly at your beer as the foamed slowly dies away.

Africa is a cycle of death and rebirth like no other place. It bans our anxieties over the next election, the dumphesses who think they can control the planet and the ticket clerks who can’t find our luggage into some uncertain but undeniable future.

They’ll be another day. The droll almost-hoot of the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl insists (blink). Just rock a little in your chair and let the morning wind warm you up.

OnSafari: China in Africa

OnSafari: China in Africa

There are few places in the world as diverse as the Addis Ababa airport. Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s most connected carrier. It’s a hub for the entire continent and the panoply of nationalities crowding its terminal is mind-boggling.

It’s been the same for my nearly half century traveling through Africa, with the important difference it’s now so much bigger and there’s so many more people from virtually every part of the world. There is one additional noticeable difference, though:

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