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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.