We spend our time wandering the streets of Mwanza. The town is a clash of African activity and decrepit old German colonial buildings. We are the only tourists in a town and enjoy the lack of attention from the busy traders. We manage to sample the only two Asian restaurants: the Chinese Yun Long and a teppanyaki restaurant (which turns out to be excellent).
Our tranquil stay is only slightly disturbed by the giant marabou storks (voted among the top ten ugliest animals in the world, according to Conrad’s latest App), who stomp the grounds of the town as if they owned it. Nightmarish creatures the size of a small person who wander around the port, the parks and the markets like ghouls feeding on corpses.
We spend a couple of days in Mwanza, a charming town on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, far from the safari trail. Built on several hills with dramatic views over the lake, Mwanza could be anywhere on the Riviera or the Amalfi coast, except for its colourful African streets and markets.
Its lovely hills are the home of stately villas while the low-lying areas are the stage for all manner of street scenes. A bustling fishing port, the ferries departing for Uganda, markets.
We go for long hikes around on the island’s remote paths, often hearing but never seeing the wretched creatures lurking in its forests.
Meanwhile, the boys, ever the passionate conservationists, do their bit to bring the Nile perch population under control.Several mighty battles with perches later, we end up well provided for in sashimi and other lake delicacies…
Rubondo Island, on Lake Victoria, is a mysterious place. A tropical island covered in thick rain forest, with an ideal climate (20-25 degrees year-round), pristine beaches and giant trees that look right out of “Avatar”, it could be a perfect resort island…except for the unseen creatures ruffling leaves in the jungle and the spine-chilling cries in the night.
Since the 1960’s, Rubondo has been a National Park and its only human population lives at the small lodge we stayed at and at the ranger post. When Rubondo was first gazetted as a National Park, it served as a haven for animals rescued from the wars in the Congo and from European circuses and laboratories. These introduced species have since expanded and colonized the island, but outside of their normal environment and family structure, they have gotten somewhat out of control.
The young elephants brought in without their mothers to teach them manners have become exceedingly mischievous; the descendants of the traumatized chimps out of the test labs have a deep terror of humans but prey on the native Sitatunga antelopes.
And the monstrous Nile Perch, introduced in Lake Victoria a few decades ago, has wiped out almost the entire population of native fish. The Nile Perch is a fish which just keeps growing as long as it can feed. The larger specimens are 250kg juggernauts…and they’re still growing.
In that environment where nature has gone haywire, the smal lodge we stay at for three days is a haven of civilization and refinement…which just adds to the Dr Moreau feel of the island !
Another Maa word, the Serengeti means the “endless plain”. Dry, yellow savannah as far as the eye can see, the Serengeti seems like an ocean of grass gently swaying with the wind, only disturbed by the passing animals who seem like so many waves.
In the Serengeti, we get re-acquainted with the Great Migration who we had last seen in Kenya, in the Masai Mara, in August. The millions of wildebeest and zebra have by now crossed the border into the Serengeti in search of water and are wandering along the plains like an unstoppable tidal wave.
We witness an interesting scene that day. A seemingly unending column of wildebeest and zebra walk past a couple of resting (and intermitently mating) lions, fairly close, within 50 metres. As each animal walks past, it stops for a few seconds, turns in the direction of the lions, lets out a loud snort and continues on its way. Difficult to explain their behaviour. Perhaps it is their way of exorcising their terror of lions – when they know that the otherwise occupied lions will ignore them ?
The Ngorongoro Crater is an anomaly. The world’s biggest unbroken caldera, 300sq km in size, it sits in the Ngorongoro Highlands like a gigantic bowl gently nestled among the mountains. Ngorongoro is Maa (the Maasai language) for “bowl”.
A sort of Noah’s Ark, teeming with every kind of wildlife, the Crater is its own microcosm of East Africa, with a swamp, a forest and most of all, savannah. Most striking, though, is the fact that the bottom of the caldera is a completely flat and open field.
With so many predators and prey in full view of one another, the Ngorongoro Crater feels a bit like an ancient battle field with enemy armies continuously maneuvering around one another.
Every day, a few Hadzabe spend the night at camp with us and we gather in the evenings around the camp fire to exchange stories. They tell us the story of the old man who became a man-eating lion, and the story of how the baboons got their “naked” bottoms.
We tell them the story of the Mid-Autumn festival, and of the Moon Fairy (which has them surreptitiously gazing at the moon trying to see the Fairy) ; and the story of Promotheus and how he gave fire to men (which leaves them feeling a bit depressed – they’re not used to sad endings !).
The Hadzabe introduce us to Lukuchuku, an addictive game of chance. Each player has a wood chip, one side of which bears a distinctive marking, the other side smooth. The chips of all the players are then thrown against a tree together with a larger, “mother chip”. The winner is the only player whose chip faces the same side as the “mother chip”. If more than one player’s chip falls on the same side as the mother chip, all the chips are gathered and thrown again until only one player’s chip faces the same side as the mother chip.
The one morning when the Hadzabe tried to hunt in a planful way, we woke up at 4.30am to accompany them to a hunting blind near a baobab tree, reaching it before the sun rose. Despite sitting patiently inside the blind for a couple of hours, we returned to camp empty-handed after an arrow narrowly missed a dik dik. The Hadzabe were more philosophical about it than us, laughing all the way back to camp after their fruitless morning.
We also accompany them on their gathering expeditions, sounding out the apparently barren ground to identify the presence of tubers – fibrous starchy roots which they also eat on the spot.
The Hadza do not plan, do not hoard, do not store food and do not own anything individually. They are a completely egalitarian society, without leaders who live for the moment. As such, they are opportunistic hunters. Their bows and poisoned arrows are always kept handy, and they are always on the look-out for their next meal, consuming what they catch on the spot. Even when involved in another activity, their senses are constantly scanning the bush around them. We saw them one afternoon suddenly abandon their arrow-making and run towards some rocks, coming back a few minutes later with a rock hyrax which they quickly gutted and threw onto a fire, skin and all. They kept pulling the hyrax out of the fire to tear a piece off and eat it as soon as it was half-cooked.
From Tarangire, it is a seven hour drive across the Eastern escarpment of the Rift Valley to the Hadza country. Crossing the escarpment is like experiencing three seasons in an hour. From the dry savannah with a few farms and fields on the eastern side, we are soon in the green and cool highlands of the escarpment, and a few minutes later, we descend on the western side into the Yaeda Valley, a desolate country of parched earth, desertic plains and rocky hills where grows. Surrounded by mountainous walls on every side, the isolated valley feels like the Lost World.
It is the Hadza country, home to the remaining six hundred Hadzabe who still survive entirely as hunter-gatherers. The Hadzabe are an echo from our distant past. They are the last hunter-gatherers in East Africa and live as all of humanity did 10,000 years ago. In small temporary settlements of 20 to 30 people, an extended family, building makeshift huts out of dry grass. The women go out every day foraging for tubers and berries and the men go out to hunt.
Josh’s family has been involved with the Hadza for 20 years, helping them secure land rights in the Yaeda valley so that they can retain their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We pitch our camp just outside of the Hadza settlement and spend the next several days with them.