Day 1 Brussels – Istanbul -Dar es Salaam – Mikumi: a lot for one day

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At 4 in the morning the 6 of us emerged from Julius Nyere Airport in Dar-es-Salaam into the heat of the African night. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a man holding a sign with the name “Chabo Africa” written on it. This was Modest, whom I had been in contact with on and off for the past month setting up this trip and bothering with endless questions and requests. We  now shook hands and he led us to a Land Rover with the company logo on it; we loaded the luggage and drove off, first through seemingly endless silent markets and low slung buildings and then out into the dark countryside. We talked little, shyly feeling our way on this our first actual meeting. The others,  after a long flight from cold and wet Belgium, via the east-meets-west madcap bazaar atmosphere of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport  ( 1 hour stopover) seemed too tired or confused to say anything. We drove on and after about 2 hours, and as the light began to grow we stopped for coffee, omelets, fried bread and bananas at a roadside café. We were soon joined by a busload of Maasai in purple and red shawls who ordered bowls of steaming goat meat for their breakfast. I relaxed – I was back in Africa.

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It was time to move on as we still had some way to go to reach our destination: Mikumi National Park. I was a bit worried about our little group; I had counted on everyone getting a good sleep during our night flight from Istanbul to Dar, but the Turkish Airlines crew (who provided an otherwise outstanding service) had different ideas and woke everyone up at the halfway point to serve a delicious but badly timed dinner. So we are all a  bit groggy as we drive on through miles and miles of empty lowland bush. So far, except for some sparrows and crows (no offense) I haven’t seen a bird worth lifting my binoculars for and I am worrying, perhaps this was all a big mistake? At a brief comfort stop by a little creek off the road we spot a Zanzibar Red Bishop  – a spectacular bright red little bird; some weavers are busy building nests nearby and above us a Wahlberg’s Eagle is soaring on the first warm updrafts of the day.   Villagers are arriving to tend their fields, Africa is beginning to work its charm.

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We drive on. When we arrive at the park gate  the sight of Zebras, Impalas and a couple of Giraffes just the other side of the barrier has everyone immediately awake. Inge is especially delighted as Giraffes are, she says, her favorite animal.

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We drive in and immediately run into some Elephants. One of them seems to doing a little dance, showing off right in front of us.  It is a lovely welcome and as Modest drives us slowly on into the park there is something to see every few meters.These are all the more “common” species but they are on their best behaviour  and showing beautifully and my friends,  most of whom are meeting these guys for the first time are amazed at the  abundance and beauty surrounding them.

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We stop by a pool with Hippos (Jeanne especially liked those) and lots of water birds but not for long as Modest hurries us over to a nearby thicket where a Lioness is lying up.  It’s almost too good to be true.

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Adrenalin is keeping us going but its time for a break.  Its been 30 hours since we got into the shared taxi to Brussels airport and here we are looking at a Lioness in the hot middle of the day in the African savanna. Modest drives us to a small restaurant in the park for some lunch and a bit of a rest.

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Later we drive around some more, we see a male Lion, many more birds, Elephants, Impalas, Buffaloes, Wildebeest …. but exhaustion is setting in and though there is still so much to see we head out of the park and down the road to an early dinner and a welcome bed at the Swiss-Tan Hotel.

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It has been a very long day,  too long really, and I already know how to do it better next time. Live and learn. But we did  really well,  the weather is amazing, considering it has rained  here almost every day for the last month, and every body was blown away by the abundance of wildlife in the park.  I am happy with Modest our guide/tour operator and the group seem  all in a good mood. So far so good.

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Day 2 Waterfalls and Monkey Business: Udzungwa Mountains

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I scheduled a late start to let everyone recover from the long journey of our first day. I was happy to see every one looking fresh and cheerful at breakfast especially Martin who had seemed the most tired the day before. The day was bright and sunny so we set off to the Udzungwa Mountains National Park. Modest had misgivings about it as he had driven there last week and been seriously bogged down on the way. We had planned this as an option, depending on the weather – it was the rainy season and I had been monitoring online weather reports rather anxiously as it rained day after day. However this had stopped abruptly a day before our arrival and I was optimistic; I was sure we would get through and find the forest dry and welcoming.

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As we passed through a lovely rural landscape of villages, mango trees, markets with piles of fruits, green fields , forested hills and rivers swollen with rain water I asked Modest if we could change our plan and stay the night at Udzungwa – it was looking so beautiful it would be a shame to have to cut our visit short. Without a word he fished out his mobile made a few calls and said – “its done”. I was beginning to really like this guy. We came to and crossed the Great Ruaha River, for the rest of our trip we would never be far from it.

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The road, though deeply rutted , was dry and we got to the park in the late morning. Now we had plenty of time and so we hired a guide ( a  young lady named N’eema), picked up a light packed lunch and started up into the forested mountain on the trail to the famous Sanje Waterfall. It was the middle of the day, hot and sticky. Rainy season is also the hottest. Still we climbed bravely up the steep forest path, stopping frequently to catch breath and cool down from red-faced to merely pink.

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Some trees along the path had   signs with their names hand-painted on and N’eema’s explanations gave us  good excuses for more stops. Finally, and with much less stress than expected we were at a viewpoint overlooking the falls. A shaded table and benches   invited us to take the weight off our feet , enjoy the spectacular view and get our packed lunches out ( turned out to be a spicy vegetable spaghetti with a hard-boiled egg – perfect).

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On the way up we had seen some Udzungwa Red Colobus  ( a mouthful but that’s their name) lively little monkeys with a bright orange punk hairstyle, found only in the Udzungwa mountains. Now as we started down the path to the waterfall I caught a quick glimpse of a larger grey monkey running along a branch on one of the immensely tall trees we were passing. I described it to our guide, as we scanned the trees to try to find it and we agreed – it had probably been a Sanje Crested Mangaby, another endemic; it was the right size, colour and behaviour but I hadn’t seen enough to be sure.

Oh well, on we went and soon we were by a large pool at the base of the falls. It was a little piece of paradise. Bathing suits came out and soon the heat and the climb and just about anything else were all forgotten as we  swam and dunked in the perfect water…

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Quite a while later , cooled and healed by our lengthy  ablutions we climbed a short way up and started down the mountain.

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It was now later in the day and the Red Colubuses where out in force. We met gang after gang of them on the way down up to all sorts of monkey business. With them as well were some of the larger Angola Black and White Colubus; apparently they have different food preferences so the two species get on well together.

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We were in  no hurry, taking our time and Hilde made sure she had a photo of every tree we passed. Eventually  after passing a few forest dwellings, we came out of the forest to where Modest was waiting with the Land Rover. A local had coconuts for sale;  seeing me slaking my thirst with the mineral rich water of one everyone soon followed suit. It was a nice end to a super day and we were reluctant to get in the car for the short drive to the Twiga Hotel.

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At the Twiga everyone took off to their rooms, leaving me to complete a rather lengthy registration procedure. That done I was about to follow them when the dining room staff asked for our menu choices for dinner. So I went around to each room with  the menu and after much discussion (Hilde was in the shower and had to be passed the menu and her spectacles by Jeanne) choices were made. The wide choice of soups was commented on by everyone and when we sat down to eat we eagerly awaited the Onion, Clear Vegetable, Tomato and Cream of Mushroom we had  chosen. The soups arrived and much to our amusement – after all the fuss – we all got the same orange coloured dish; it was ,of course delicious and we all had a good laugh for no extra charge.

N’eemi, it turned out, was also the barkeeper at the Twiga. We sat around chatting and she told us that there were many Syke’s (also known as Blue) Monkeys in the area between the hotel and the park headquarters and if we liked she could show them to us in the morning. We arranged for a pre-breakfast walk for those who felt like it.

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Day 3 The Never-ending Road – we arrive (dramatically) in Ruaha

At 6:30 Martin and I met in the hotel garden.To my astonishment , there on the tree right in front of us was a large male Sykes monkey! The monkey stared back at us and apparently decided he didn’t approve of this disruption of his morning routine. He jumped around a bit, shook some branches and took off , disappearing over the garden wall just as the other 4 showed up looking bleary-eyed and unenthusiastic – I wondered why they hadn’t stayed in bed, since I had said this was optional, but said nothing.  There was no sign of N’eemi so we started up the road, eventually meeting her coming our way.

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We carried on, but no monkeys and not many birds – just the odd Common Bulbul and some rustlings in the bushes. By now Jeanne and Inge were thoroughly fed up and turned around and walked back to the hotel. As if on cue  birds started popping up all over the place and we had a nice leisurely stroll back to the hotel accompanied by Mousebirds, Hornbills, Puffbacks, Sunbirds and others.

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Still no monkeys but the people at the park headquarters (who had just been opening up) assured me that if we stopped by on our way out we would be sure to see some. So after breakfast and loading up we stopped by and several guides very helpfully tried to find us a Sykes Monkey; of course none showed, but the masses of Yellow Baboons kept us entertained. I was getting a bit tired of the Syke’s Monkey thing – I had wanted to show the group this very pretty (and usually fairly common) species but enough was enough, so off we drove, much later than planned. Modest, who had caught the bug, scanning the roadside trees for you-know-whats.

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We made a brief stop along the way at a fruit stall/barbershop/ bicycle repair shop under a giant Mango tree to sample some exotic fruit. Jack-fruit got low marks but Custard Apple was a big hit.

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Then back on to the TanZam highway and starting the climb into the Southern Highlands. First we drop into the Ruaha River Gorge and follow it till it opens out into a wide Baobab studded valley. A brief stop on the river bank at “Crocodile Camp” and we climb on , away from the river into higher and higher hills, finally reaching Iringa for a very late lunch at the trendy traveller’s stop Neema Cafe, next door to Modest’s office.

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We still have to drive on to Ruaha so things are a bit rushed. While the others have lunch (pre-ordered  en-route over the phone – a complicated procedure as the Neema is a charity for disabled people and many of the staff communicate by sign language) I go over to the office and meet Ernest, Modest’s partner and we take care of a few formalities, have a bit of a chat and its time to go. In the car I hand out the chocolate-chip cookies I got at Neema’s , we tank up and take the road to Ruaha.

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Since arriving in Iringa there is a subtle change about Modest, he seems bigger, stronger and more confident. Now, as we drive on and he tells us about Chief Mkwawa and the great war of the Wahehe people against the German colonists in the 19th century, I understand; this is his homeland, his tribe. I couldn’t have chosen a better  guide to show us this country.  The road to Ruaha has been heavily damaged by last month’s rain so the going is slow and bumpy. Finally we reach the last section, known as “the never-ending road” . It is beautiful  and as we zoom along it (no potholes here) far ahead a large slightly hump-backed form with large horns steps out for a moment on to the road before melting in to the trees. “Kudu” says modest, a magic word,  an animal I had read about, seen pictures of  but never seen, a name that seems to capture the mystery and romance of Africa. We look in to the bush as we drive past but it has slipped away into the evening. I can feel the magic in the air as the light fades clouds  gather and we  race to reach the park gates before dark.

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We get there with the last faint glow of sunset and the first drops of rain. Tse-tse flies welcome us with a few nasty bites as we look at the row of skulls on display by the office – Elephant, Lion, Buffalo and the great spiraling horns of a Kudu buck. Modest is soon back from the office, the barrier is lifted and we drive into the park. Thunder rumbles, the rain gathers strength and soon we are driving through a torrential downpour. Visibility is down to a few meters in the headlights as we drive up and down hills, across a bridge and on into the park. An elephant stands on the road blocking our way, threatening until her little one crosses and joins the herd across the way, then she turns and leaves, letting us through. This is wildest Africa indeed!  Finally we drive up a hill and pull up by some buildings with lights on. The rain is too heavy to get out of car, sheets of water are flowing across the ground, a bolt of lightning strikes  nearby, but we have arrived at the Ruaha Cottages, our home for the next 3 nights. Modest dashes through the rain and returns with a small man (the manager) and an umbrella. Somehow we all make it into the spacious dining room and the cook, who has opened up the kitchen for our late arrival serves us an improvised meal of Pancakes, rice, spaghetti and sweet tomato sauce. It’s a somewhat unusual combination but it is cooked with love and we are very happy with it. We find our rooms, some have water on the floor from the recent deluge but soon we are all sorted out. Hakuna matata (Swahili for no problems).

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We are a long way from Kansas, as the saying goes (or something like that?). In just three days, so much. I know I am pushing the pace a bit, but some of the group didn’t have longer and its a pity to come all this way and not get the most out of it. It’s a balancing act and it’s working; we are having a lot of fun, it’s an incredible adventure.

 

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Day 4 Lions, Leopards and beauty all around: a day in Ruaha

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Last night we arrived in the dark and so had no idea where we were. Already from my window I can see some pretty dramatic scenery, to put it mildly.  The landscape is so majestic, so utterly beautiful, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to sing or just stand there, silent . I meet Jeanne who is in a similar mood and  we get some coffee and hang out on the terrace, enjoying the view, sipping our coffee and watching birds and animals.

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Below us the ground falls away to a valley where the Great Ruaha river, wide and muddy  snakes along with flat-topped Acacias on its banks . Green hills and  mountains rise out the plain and stretch to the horizon. Everything is the lushest green you ever saw, every imaginable shade, from the yellowish grass to the dark green of the  trees.P1090378 Small groups of Elephants are moving placidly along and slowly we start to notice other animals moving through the tall grass – Giraffes (easiest to see), Wart-hogs, Impalas… a Lilac-breasted Roller swoops  to the ground in front of us with a flash of  brilliant blue wings. Red-billed Horn-bills flop around in the nearby trees.  All utterly pristine  and crystal clear after last night’s rain.

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The others show up slowly, there’s no rush, this is a morning to savour. Last to appear is a smiling, freshly shaved, very dapper  Martin who has found a small Owl just outside his room. Just as we are polishing off the last of our breakfast pancakes Modest rolls up in the Land Rover and we set off to explore this magical kingdom.

We haven’t gone very far (stopping for some Elephants  and the odd bird or two) and are admiring some pretty Little Bee-eaters when Modest calmly says: ” there’s a lion” and there indeed she is, a little way up the hillside, just peeking out of the tall grass. Soon she stands up, followed by a cub and moves down the hill; another and another appear out of the grass and soon they are crossing  the road in front and behind us, 6 lionesses, a young male and a cub. They are all fat and sleek, bellies full from the Zebra they killed yesterday. Modest has the story – yesterday evening some of the park workers  who were playing football at the nearby TANAPA staff quarters  saw the action, so it wasn’t a coincidence we passed by this way today ( Modest’s father worked as an engineer here and so he spent most of his childhood in the park and seems to know everybody).

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Not a bad start for the day, we take a break at the little riverside bungalows nearby and  rest of the morning passes quickly as we drive around the park stopping to look at animals, birds and the breathtaking landscape.

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Then it’s back to the cottages for a delicious lunch of fried  local Tilapia fish.   I am so happy with the cook I get Modest to teach me how to say  the food was delicious in swahili and go and visit him in the kitchen. He is delighted and  so am I  and so is the little manger who is there too. I feel among friends and am so happy we chose this budget accommodation to stay at instead of the pricey lodges, we couldn’t be better cared for and who needs hot water in this climate? I organize some beer for the group’s  evening (“hakuna matata”) and go for a siesta.

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In the afternoon we set off and soon find the lions again. They are up on a little hill , the big male now completing their numbers. Two lionesses are alert, heads up, watching a nearby herd of Impalas. “They have the hunting look” says Modest, and indeed the Lionesses change position, eyes all the time on the Impalas. Then some Elephants move out of the riverside trees and amble into the clearing. The lions stand down, not in a hurry and we decide to move on.

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We roll over a rise and enter a valley of stone sculptures, everywhere are  granite outcrops, colourful rounded shapes rising out of the mixed forest and grassland. Modest has said something about Leopards so every time we stop I scan every rocky hill carefully with my Nikon Binoculars. I had encouraged everyone to get some good binoculars for the trip: Jeanne has my spare pair which are not bad, Hilde and Martin have reasonable Porro types, Dirk uses his camera zoom and Inge’s – well, they are pink… Modest has a reasonably good pair but none come close to my superb Nikon Monarch 5 (hello sponsors are you out there?) and today proves it: about one km away, lying on a huge granite slab in the shade of tree I can  see  a yellow shape with legs, a tail and a head – a  Leopard!  It is so far away that I have to pass my binoculars around for everyone else to see it, but its worth a look, she is lying there like a queen, shaded by a wild fig with a view of the valley spread out below. We then  drive as close as we can get to the hill and finally find a place where by standing on the car’s roof we can get a fairly good view.  Leopards are not easy to find so this is very good, and I see Modest is  now determined to find something good – to match my lucky sighting, so to speak.

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The afternoon has more in store for us: further along in a  Baobab dotted glen on the side of a mountain a  small group of Kudu are making their way along the bank of a small river. The beauty of the scene and the graceful antelopes, like a Victorian painter’s romantic picture of Africa, is … well,  I think we all feel it and look on in a sort of hushed awe….

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On we go.  Modest is still determined to find something. It’s no good saying this has already been a mind-bogglingly amazing day. I had mentioned to him that I would love to see a Verraux’s Eagle, a handsome bird of prey which had eluded me for 30 years or so. They specialize in hunting Rock Hyraxes  and we are driving around the rocky slopes of Kimilamatonge Hill – Hyraxes galore – when he asks “you see the Eagle?” Far above, one, then another and another – 3 Verraux’s Eagles swooping over the granite slopes, black as ebony, bright white wing patches; I am delighted and Modest is satisfied now. We are all in a sort of dreamy euphoric mood as we drive slowly through the bush ,  taking a break where two roads meet, coming from nowhere, going to nowhere.

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But there is still a grand finale. Nearing home, Modest is busy on his cellphone when glancing up into a Baobab by the road he spots another Leopard! This one is really close, fast asleep on a thick branch (we can see his paws twitching as he dreams, maybe of a juicy Impala or perhaps a pretty lady Leopard?). He is a big one, his fur is so beautiful you want to reach out and touch it.

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2 Leopards in one afternoon is really something (not to mention all the Lions and other stuff we have seen today), and now modest is really pleased, but also a bit puzzled – “you are a strange group” he says, and Jeanne and I smile and have a good a laugh. We stop at the riverside to hang out with some Elephants with very small calves (who doesn’t love a baby elephant?) and are back at the cottages for another wonderful dinner and the promised beers – Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Tusker.  Very very happy campers tonight.

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Day 5 Just another day in Ruaha

P1090669It rained all night, and at a late hour I  watched from my terrace as two Black-backed Jackals trotted past on the path. We make an early start, the idea was to have just a snack with our coffee and some fruit later in the bush. Coffee and bananas in the dining room but instead of the promised doughnuts are some canned sausages. Modest explains that we are out of flour, supplies didn’t get through as a small bridge near the park entrance has been washed out by flooding.  It means we may be stuck here and everyone is thrilled.

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First we visit some nearby Kopjes. Hyraxes are sitting out on the rounded Granite domes soaking up the early sunshine. The shapes of the stones, the Baobab trees rising out of the wet grass in the morning light …Cameras click away (or they would have in the old pre-digital days!)

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We head back towards the river and some comic relief is provided by a party of Guinea-fowl on the road – we are reduced to Guinea-fowl trot speed for a kilometre or so as they refuse to let us pass, running along ahead of us,  pecking at bugs, jumping around and putting on a great show.

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For the rest of the morning we make our way  slowly  along the Ruaha river through a lush landscape of huge Acacia trees and lush grass. The grasses are topped with feathery flower heads in great swathes of delicate pastel colours,; a feast to the eye and a lovely setting for the animals we see, the trees and the landscape. There are Hippos in the river, birds of all sizes and shapes and some   animal or other around every bend. We stop by the river   to eat our  papayas, avocados and Bananas.

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The evening before, Modest asked everyone what they wanted to see today. Hilde wanted a good look at Zebras which was easy enough. Inge had asked for Ostriches; Modest was a bit doubtful about that  – not a good time of year to see them here – but  sure enough we soon came upon a group of them standing by the road .

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Now we have to find a crocodile for Dirk and a snake for Jeanne  – not so easy. Crocodiles  are abundant here, but the heavy flood of the river has driven them into hiding.  We search high and low but no crocodile, no snake and it’s getting hot and we turn back. We are nearing home and Modest is again on his cell when Dirk calls out “stop, a crocodile!”. There it is, just a couple of meters away in a little pond in a stream we just crossed, not just a croc but a huge one  hanging  motionless in the water, just bobbing up and down a bit with its breath. We head home for a well-earned lunch.

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Another superb lunch (  I ask Modest if we can hire the cook for the camping part of our next trip – “I have already” – we seem to be on the same wavelength).

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After a Siesta, we set off for our last game drive in Ruaha.  We roll along  and look at this and that, but somehow it’s not really happening. Maybe we are a bit tired after the long morning run, maybe its just enough game drives, we have seen just about everything we wanted to and so much more, maybe its a case of “more is less”. I feel it’s time for something different. Ruaha is famous for what is called “Walking Safari” – walks through the bush with the park rangers – and I had wanted to put that in our program. But with the grass so high it’s not safe at this time of year, it’s not an option. When we make stops to stretch a bit and move around, Modest chooses open places and carefully checks the area, throwing stones into thickets, before letting us step out of the car – so walks are not on. Still I feel we need to touch the earth, especially the rocks, the smooth, ancient granite. So I ask Modest if it’s possible and  of course he knows a place.  We change direction and a bit later are on the bank of the Mawgusi River where a Large chunk of the granite I have longed for juts out into the reddish floodwaters. It is warm and smooth and so comfortable to stretch out on.  We hang out there, enjoying the stone and the gentle burbling of the river.

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Finally we head back, through muddy trails (no problem for our Land Rover and Modest’s driving skills – though we heard about some of the lower slung Land Cruisers getting stuck in this area). On the way we meet a Doe-eyed little Dik-Dik (on Dirk and Inge’s wish list) and further along   vultures of 4 different species are perched in some trees. We catch a whiff of  the kill they have been feeding on, but it is hidden somewhere in the trees.

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We are quiet, each in their own world as we come up the hill to the Cottages. The sun sets in a blaze of colour, and a Black-backed Jackal,  one the pair we see often around our home base, stands in the road as if welcoming us home after a long day.

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Day 6 We start heading back

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I had hoped to give us a lazy morning after yesterday’s full program. The plan was simply to drive back to Iringa, with a stop on the way at a Maasai Boma. However, the Maasai had called, asking us to be there when the cows came in from the morning grazing and before everyone took off for the day’s businesses. It meant another early start and I was a bit concerned – everyone had been a bit bushed last night after two long game drives. But at 7 o’clock everyone showed up looking well rested and ready for  whatever the day held in store for us.  By 8 we were being waved off by the cook and the little manager and heading for the park gate.  Along the road we passed many favorites – Giraffes, Elephants, Zebras, the little Jackals and  even some Kudus seemed to be wishing us well on our way.

We made a stop at the bridge over the Ruaha. The river thundered through a rocky narrow, Hippos rolling in the shallows. Standing on the bridge , feeling the power of the flood (the Hydro-electric Dam further downstream supplies a large percentage of Tanzania’s electricity), it was quite mesmerizing. We stayed there for a while on the trembling bridge, just watching the river rolling on.

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We drive on, stopping to let a pale green Chameleon cross the road with its peculiar swaying slow motion gait. We then turn off on a little track to the Maasai homestead. The father of the family greets us, we say hello to the ladies, dressed in their finest, but of course the kids steal the show, especially one little toddler who has our ladies cooing and clucking like anything.

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From the bush comes the lowing of cows, answered by eager moo’s from the penned calves  and soon the herd enters the kraal followed by the boys who have been out with them.

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The calves are let in and some of the ladies, including the charming grandmother approach with calabashes and start milking cows, often with the calf suckling from the other side. It’s all very easy-going and gentle, a far cry from what you would see in a modern dairy farm.

 

Father shows us around – sleeping quarters, cooking areas, all kinds of gadgets and things made from cowhide and home-made ropes and mats. So simple, comfortable and elegant. The toddler is with us again and gets a fair share of attention. Jeanne discovers a little 3-legged stool carved from a single block of wood. We all try sitting on it and it is indeed extremely comfortable. But father is not selling it – it was his father’s  and is a treasured object –  he has, however, another one he made himself . It is a beauty, the wood shiny from many bottoms resting on it,, and Jeanne wants it . I tell her bargaining is customary, but she, usually a fierce negotiator, refuses to take a penny off the asking price she is so impressed with this lovely little piece.

Business concluded and smiles all around we enter a shady enclosure where a little market is spread out, some touristy nick-knacks but mostly the family’s own handicrafts, traditional jewelry and some lovely batik paintings by one of the daughters.I have a bag of gummi – bears to give the kids and I ask Father to hand them out but he craftily refuses, insisting the honour go to me. In the free-for all that follows I try to make sure everyone gets one and that I am not fooled too often by the same boys – but there are plenty of gummi-bears and fruit gums and we all have fun.

We retire as the market is rolled up and are invited back in for the lady’s  Singing and dancing  to conclude the visit. It’s been great fun, and an eye-opener for some.

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We drive on, passing through Modest’s home village where we meet his mum at her little grocery shop. We continue and on the road in front of us – it’s not a long branch, it’s the last item left on our wishlist – a snake! This is no ordinary snake, it’s about 3 metres long, as thick as my arm  and shiny black. It turns towards us and briefly lifts it head, the unmistakable shape of a Cobra. Then  (seeing it’s only us) it turns around and goes back the way it came from, disappearing into the bush. Well… when Jeanne wants to see a snake we get good one, I’ll say. (too quick for a photo – sorry)

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We bump along to Iringa through a shower of rain and have a late lunch at the Neema Guest House/Cafe/Shop. We were going to stay the night here but they have reserved only 2 family rooms for us (some sign language mix-up) and so while the group hang out on the terrace, Modest and Ernest are at the Chabo Africa office next door sorting out an alternative.

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When  found, it’s just down the road, past the commonwealth war cemetery (it’s hard to believe but in world war one there were battles in this area).  We immediately like the Gentle Hills Hotel; brightly painted, life-sized Zebra’s, Giraffes, Elephants and other animals decorate the entrance courtyard. On top of the gate a plaster leopard is dragging an Impala   to hang in a safe place (I  am sure it killed it gently). The reception is manned (womanned?) by a team of very cheerful ladies and the rooms are clean, cool and comfortable. ( I will come to know this place very well next week when I stay on after the group’s departure).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI join the others for a drink (Passionfruit Fanta – why don’t they have it in Europe?) at the outside bar where a Tanzanian wedding party is winding down. The mountain air is cool, laughter all around from the party-goers. It is almost the end of the short trip. I look at my fellow travelers, I am pretty sure they have had a good time. Nobody got sick, everything ran smoothly, we had all sorts of adventures and saw many wonderful things. I will sleep well tonight, at the Gentle Hills.

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Day 7 Goodbye!

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I wake early on this our last morning together. The others turn up later for a very Tanzanian breakfast buffet. There are fried Plantains, Cassava and a spicy Liver stew (also some more familiar stuff for us Wazungi – only Martin is brave enough to try the  stew).  Everybody loves Gentle Hills, much preferring a proper Tanzanian Hotel to the Neema traveller’s scene. Modest arrives, we load the luggage and pile in to drive about 500 meters to the Chabo office. A cousin of Modest’s leads us through the city park to the bustling market. We look around the vegetable stalls, the neat pyramids of rice and a mountain tiny dried fish.

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Then across to a souvenir stall, and on to the maze of little shops around the central market, selling just about anything imaginable.   Jeanne and Inge get into it, they could spend the whole day, but time is short and we head back, not before Jeanne finds a worm cure for her Alpacas at home at a bargain price in the pharmacy, next door to a hair salon where I go to change some money. We visit a few more curio stands, there are masses of beautifully carved wooden animals, bowls, shields, nativity scenes, masks etc. – rows and rows of them in ebony and hardwood. Who buys all this stuff? We do, at least a few small bits and pieces.

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We go back to Neema for lunch, but being a church-run charity – it’s closed for Sunday. Ernest takes us to another restaurant around the corner, but it too is closed ; finally we discover a little café that is open. The Muslim owner welcomes us and serves us tasty samosas and savory doughnuts, all the time keeping up a  patter in Italian and French.   It’s a great final meal, quirky and delicous, washed down with Passion-fruit Fanta.

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Back to the office where we sit around a bit and then drive the short way to Iringa’s little airport. Just as we turn off the road I see the long-winged Cessna landing and taxiing to the airport building. This is the group’s ride back to Dar, but I will be staying here for another week – and  some more adventures. We walk out onto the runway and I chat with the pilot – he tells me that they will be landing at Selous Game Reserve and at Mafia Island before reaching Dar es Salaam, and that the weather is good all the way.

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Sounds like a real fun flight, I am a bit jealous. It’s all a bit rushed, the luggage is stowed, hugs all around, thank-yous and so-on. Then everyone is in the plane, the pilot starts the engine  and Modest, Ernest and I watch as they take off and rise into the sky and disappear to the east.

What happened after that – well,  that’s another story.

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