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 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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