Josh’s family set up “the Nest” 20 years ago when they used to come camping at Mkungunero, at the southernmost tip of the Park. It is a simple platform made up of multiple layers of broken twigs and branches on a gardenia tree overlooking the waterhole, eight metres above the ground. To call it a treehouse would be an exaggeration. It is more like a giant nest and has all the simplicity of one, including the absence of a ladder. So its temporary denizens either need wings to fly into it or…they need to climb up the tree !
We spend a magical night in the Nest, with just our down quilts to separate us from the wild. As the sun sets, a long precession of animals makes its way to the waterhole and in the fading light, they become silent shadows dancing in the faint moonlight, a “wayang kulit” of the wild. As we lie on our backs in the Nest, the night sky fills up with stars and seems to envelop us until we are floating amongst the stars. Almost close enough to catch the tail of a shooting star and travel across the night with her. The crescent moon looks like a broken spotlight which only manages to cast a faint halo on the land around us.
We fly from Mahale into a small airstrip in Tarangire National Park, where Josh picks us up and drives us for three hours to a remote and wild part of the park, near the Mkungunero water point, well away from the tourist trail.
By the time we arrive, it is pitch black and we can only guess the location of the tents, scattered about the bush, by the faint glow of the small solar lanterns hanging on them. Over the next few days, we go for bush walks and sit quietly at camp reading and writing, surrounded by the symphony of sounds from the bush.
One afternoon, as we are walking in the bush we stumble upon a group of African Wild Dogs. The dogs had been eluding us for weeks and when we least expected to find them, here they were ! The dogs are fascinating social animals who live in large packs. They are clever and ferocious hunters, said to devour their prey while still alive. Unfortunately, they are almost extinct and seldom seen these days.
I firmly believe there is a Law in the bush which dictates that “thou shalt not meet what thou seekest, but shalt encounter it when thou least expect it”.
Our mornings are spent hiking up the Mahale mountains and watching the chimps of Group M going about their daily life. Soon, we almost feel part of the colony and the main actors of that real life soap opera become familiar faces to us.
Primus, the recently deposed Alpha-male who is playing peacemaker to try and regain his position. Fanana, the vicious ex-Alpha, who got deposed (and punished) by a coalition of chimps fed up with his tyrannical rule. Alofu, another ex-Alpha, the wise leader who ruled by persuasion and inspiration rather than force. Orion and Christmas, two mischievous chimps who love to scare their human cousins by mock-charging them. And the kingmaker, old, machiavellian Kalunde, who seems to engineer the power transitions through guile and manipulation.
It takes us a while to overcome our instinctive fear of the wild. Before we ever see the chimps, we hear their blood-curdling cries echoing through the jungle. Their mock-charges can be terrifying. A black ball of fury hurtling down the hill towards us, all fire and brimstone, shaking trees, pulling on lianas and brushing so close against us that we are nearly knocked off our feet.
Mahale, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is one of Africa’s most hauntingly beautiful national parks. Covering the densely forested Mahale Mountains as well as part of the lake, it is hard to access and feels very remote. We spend four days at Greystoke Mahale, a small camp with six tents located close to a colony of 60 habituated chimpanzees who live nearby in the forest.
Lake Tanganyika is Africa’s longest lake at 673km, and also its largest (in terms of the quantity of water it holds). It seems animated by a will of its own. At times dark and brooding, light hearted and friendly or menacing and unfathomable, its mysterious presence surrounds us during our stay.
The boys go fishing on the camp’s dhow, procuring a sashimi dinner every day. And we go swimming – away from the shore (which is teeming with crocodiles and hippos), conscious of the fact that, when we are floating on the lake’s surface, we are at the midpoint, almost equidistant between the bottom of the lake (at 1,400m) and the top of the surrounding mountains.
Mount Meru is shrouded in clouds, and for most of the ascent we can only guess where the summit is.
Clouds rest gently on the valley below, looking like whipped cream. It takes us two and a half hours to climb the remaining 400m to the summit. It is a difficult climb where we frequently stare down at an abyss below. Edward motivates us by telling us that we are about to “eat the lion’s heart”. The last 100m are so steep we need to scramble on all fours.
Then, suddenly, before we realise it, we are on the summit. After all the efforts of the last three days, it feels almost disappointing to have reached the summit. Climbing a mountain really only has meaning in the journey. The end is strangely devoid of value. And then, the long, tedious trek down begins. By the time we reach the Momella gate, at the entrance of the park, we will have walked for 30 hours.
It is the eve of our summit attempt. We spend a very short night at the Saddle Hut and get woken up at midnight for a departure for the summit a 1.30am. Saddle Hut is at 3,500m. It’s a miserable night, and we get no more than two hours’ sleep before we are woken up and force-fed a heavy breakfast to energize us for the summit ascent.
We hike up the mountain in complete darkness for five hours, using head lamps until we reach to mid-point to the summit.It’s a challenging walk and at times we are clinging onto the mountainside, with sheer drops of several hundred meters just beneath us. By the time we get to the midway point, at 4,100m, we’re tired, hungry and running low on motivation.
At this point, the boys decide to return to Base Camp with Oswald, the Ranger, while Laura and I carry on towards the summit with Edward, the Head Guide, and Isaac, one of our porters. We are so proud of what they’ve achieved, overcoming their fears and physical limits to come this far !
On Sept 29th, we leave for Arusha National Park to begin the ascent of Mount Meru. At 4,566m (14,978ft), it isn’t the tallest mountain in Africa (that title goes to Mt. Kilimanjaro at 5,895m) but it is one of the most challenging, and reportedly steeper than Kili. By the time we get our briefing, we realize that we are woefully unprepared and have approached the whole affair in an amateurish manner.
The conditions on the summit of Mount Meru are extreme, with temperatures close to zero, the last few hundred meters require one to climb on all fours and the return trip to the summit covers almost 80km. We will spend four nights in mountain huts with minimal facilities, no showers and no heating. We have an expedition of 14 support staff, including a Head Guide, an armed Ranger, a Cook and 11 porters to bring up everything we need for the four day hike.
We spend our first couple of days hiking through beautiful montane forests…Gnarly old trees, Old Man’s Beard, the odd Alpine flower… Where Kenya’s Chyulu Hills felt like Fangorn Forest, Mount Meru’s forest is Lothlorien. Magical, bright, one almost expects to see Elves darting between the trees.
Finally, it is time to leave our Alpine paradise and return to the hot and dusty Maasai plain. The seven hour drive to Ndarakwai, a camp on a Maasai ranch in the West Kilimanjaro region, gets us there just in time for a surprise birthday celebration for Enoch.
Bush babies pop out of the bush to join the party and a surprise cake and celebration leave Enoch beaming and looking as impish as a leprechaun.
Taking advantage of their good WiFi, our time at Ndarakwai is otherwise entirely focused on filling out the boys’s school applications in anticipation of our return to Singapore, a year from now. It feels quite unreal to write school application essays when that part of our life now seems so remote.
Still in the Usambaras, we drive three hours to the remote town of Mtae, a small settlement on a mountain bluff which juts out over the Maasai plain, 1000 metres below.
The road seems to go on forever, our journey only interrupted by the small school children who dart on and off the road like will-o-wisps, materializing seemingly out of thin air, just long enough to yell, “jambo, wazungu !”.
At the end of a long, winding road, Mtae has an almost otherworldly feel to it. With a few houses scattered around dusty roads, shrouded in clouds, preternaturally quiet, it seems to exist in another dimension.