On safari

The Hadzabe people have nothing; no animals, no land, just the clothes on their backs. And, crucially, the skills and resourcefulness to produce everything they need from their environment. We travel 4-hours west from Arusha to Lake Eyasi to meet this tribe of hunter-gatherers and find them sitting in gender-segregated groups, with the men playing small lute-like stringed instruments and applying a poisonous tree resin to their metal arrow-heads. They light a small fire by rapidly twisting a hardwood twig into a softwood stick. It soon smoulders and Nick, intrigued, has a go too.

The Hadzabe bushmen, of which there are now fewer than 400 left, live in groups of about 15 people and speak a unique language of clicks that is very different from other click languages elsewhere in the country. The tribe is believed to have been living in this area for at least 10,000 years, although their ancestral range has been shrinking as their land is swallowed up by farmers, government-designated conservation areas and private game reserves. Indigenous rights organisations are legally challenging the government to provide a hunting area for the Hadzabe, but so far nothing has been done. Most groups are highly secretive and flee approach because they fear it means more people trying to capture them and move them on. But a relationship has developed between a couple of groups and a local Eyasi village, and villager Edward introduces us to one of these groups and acts as translator.

More than half of Hadzabe children die before age five, from malaria usually, but also from other treatable diseases. A large proportion of women die giving birth, too, hemmorhaging in the bush or succoming to any of the other dangers out here, including sleeping sickness transmitted by the tetse flies (or ‘testes flies’ as we have started to call them, due to their habit of zoning in on men’s crotch areas). Edward’s group is trying to get women in labour to hospital in time, and children to schools, but it’s a struggle. Among the many problems is the fact that people are culturally scared of buildings – “Being under a roof is thought to be fatal and so children only stay in school a month or so, and women are scared of giving birth in a hospital and refuse to come,” Edward explains.

The group of five men and boys stands up as one and begins to walk off, carrying bows and arrows, the strings of which are made from giraffe tendons. One of the men, with a head decoration made from baboon fur, is clearly the leader. He carries the longest, most decorated bow. We follow the group, trotting and sometimes running to keep up as they search the tree foliage and bushes for animal prey. A bushbaby is spotted and there is excitement as the men take aim and fire arrows into the branches. I hold my breath. “I don’t want to eat anything with ‘baby’ in its name,” Emily says.

It gets away, I am secretly relieved, and we move on. The thorny bushes grab at us as we hurry past, snagging our clothes and ensnaring our hair. The Hadzabe are all bare footed. We pass trees and shrubs that provide supplementary food here, including sour, juicy tamarind berries and plants whose roots can be crushed for juice or eaten for medicine and vitamins. Meat is plentiful here at the moment, now the rains have arrived. They mostly catch small creatures like birds and rodents, but a baboon is good. The baboons here are understandably skittish of these people, though. Sometimes, a bufallo ‘strays from the reserve’, we are told, which makes a delicious and long-lasting feast.

Ahead, the men have spotted something in the trees. They surround it with their bows taught, arrows poised. This time they are successful. One of the boys climbs a tree to retrieve the arrow and a small bird speared halfway down it, its wings still fluttering pitifully. One of the men pulls the bird off the arrow, sticks its tiny head in his mouth and bites its neck to sever its spine. Then the kill is stuffed into his belt and we continue onwards.

An hour or so later, there are two birds (Nick puts the second fluttering bird out of its misery, breaking its neck with bloodied hands, as we look on in horror) and a squirrel in his belt and we make our way back to the camp, where the creatures are cooked on a fire and we all share the meal. Nick and David become predictably excited and competitive over an archery tryout, attempting to hit a target a few metres away. I find it difficult just withdrawing the sinuous bowstring, let alone hitting the target.

We leave the group as we found them, sitting on the ground, strumming their instruments.

We continue westwards through one of Tanzania’s few irrigated areas – the onion farming belt – past Laeteli in the Olduval Gorge, where Mary Leaky discovered the oldest human footprints, dating back some 3 million years. We pass lush landscape and overgrazed plains, where Masai herd their cattle and goats as they have done for centuries. They wear decorative beads and red tartan blankets. They are either barefoot or shod in simple rubber sandals made from old tyres. The governement has moved them from their ancestral lands on the Serengeti, allowing them only a relatively small section of Ngorogoro and its surrounds. It’s a hotly contested issue (mainly argued by agencies on the Masai’s behalf), the Masai haven’t been compensated for the loss of their homeland. When I see the unparalelled Serengeti, with its lush grasses not reduced by livestock as it is everywhere else, I see what the Tanzanian government is trying to do. Endangered animals vs. endangered way of life.

We head to the world’s largest complete volcanic crater, at Ngorogoro. It’s an incredible site: a vast, perfect circle of steep-sided earth surrounding a flat plain with lakes. All of Africa’s main plains mammals are here, except giraffes, which can’t make it down the steep sides on account of their ridiculous design! Giant tuskers stand in groups – so much larger than their Asian counterparts. The pink soup at the edge of the alkaline lakes turns out to be gatherings of flamingoes, and among them walk jackels and hyenas. The grass is black with bufallo and wildebeast that have migrated back south from the Masai Mara in Kenya. They move in crowds or strangely ordered lines, with their stripy necks and golden beards shimmering in the sun. Black and white stripy zebras graze among them like nicely decorated circus horses.

Our jeep driver is hunting for another creature altogether: more jeeps. He finds a gathering of half-a-dozen vehicles and we speed over to them, the four of us in the back clinging to the car’s metal skeleton as we race around. The attraction is soon visible, a decidedly lazy pride of lions, lolling around regally in the grass. As we approach, the large male heaves his big head up a few inches, before deciding that it’s far too much effort and dropping back down. He rolls onto his back, enormous back paws inelegantly skywards and one front paw resting on his massive full stomach. And there he remains for the next hour. Lions that have recently fed are not prone to energetic displays it seems.

We leave them eventually and search for more. Across the plain, two black rhinos, mother and calf, walk towards us like prehistoric tanks of muscle. It’s amazing seeing these huge celebrity animals so close – they don’t seem real, they are such strange and different shapes and sizes. But it’s slightly unreal, seeing them from our jeep like this. They are completely wild (livid!) and we are in their zone, but something about the perfect circle of the crater and the other tourists makes it feel set up. I finally realise what is missing, it’s fear. Many of these animals are close enough to kill the lot of us, yet I feel no fear because I know they won’t. It’s a bizarre sensation – I wouldn’t enjoy the experience half as much if I thought I was going to be eaten, but…

Crossing into the Serengeti, this feeling of unreality evaporates. The Serengeti is simply vast, with the world’s biggest collection of large mammals in the world. Against a backdrop of thousands of migrating wildebeest, our jeep is small – it’s nothing in a landscape that stretches eye-achingly far, with a horizon that goes on forever. Serengeti means ‘never-ending plains’ in the language of the Masai.

We spend the next couple of days happily hunting animals with camera lens and binoculars. We see cheetah stalking and hunting its prey in an exhilerating flash of muscle and tendon. We find different prides of lions with their kill or just hanging out being big pussycats. We come across a leopard, slung smugly over a branch with its impala dinner tucked into a crevice above. Families of warthogs grunt around and splash happily in muddy pools on their stumpy legs. Panic-stricken dik-diks skip past, big-eyed – they are everyone’s favourite dinner. We see ugly yet magestic maribou stork, waiting like the vultures for the opportunity to steal from a carcass. Bat-eared foxes dart out of burrows in the rusty termite mounds and hippos wallow in magnificant blubbery ugliness, bunched up together in too-small pools. At night, tucked up in sleeping bags in our flimsy tents, we hear bufallo munching past us, lions roar and leopards call. “If you go to the toilet in the night, use your torch because the lions often come into the campsite,” our guide tells us. Nobody needs the toilet in the night, strangely.

The Serengeti exceeds my expectations and none of us can bear to leave. People we have met talk about ‘safari fatigue’ – I guess I’m immune.

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