Lions and Hippos and Giraffes, Oh My!

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November 26th 2005
Published: November 26th 2005
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So...the last week I spent at the Selous Mbega Camp ( about 250km south-west of Dar es Salaam. Selous Game Reserve is the largest reserve in Tanzania, and also a World Heritage Site (as decided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Being located in the south it is off the beaten path of the tourist track (everybody goes north to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater) which was a huge part of its appeal to me, and it is also one of the only reserves in which you can do a boat safari on the river. Which was the main selling feature as I was mostly in search of hippos. Yes, hippos. I make no apology, it was hippos I wanted and hippos, happily, I found.

I had phoned down to the camp and reached the owner beforehand, who helped me organize my travel arrangements for actually getting there. And here's a funny thing. Remember the residence permit saga? Well because I (almost) have one, I paid the resident rate, which is about half of what I would have paid as a tourist. Hallelujah! I knew that little sucker would come in handy for something. Between us (the owner and I) we decided that the best course of action was for me to take the train there, but to fly home because coming back the train is coming from Zambia and is often up to 20 hours late! Yikes. So I got my tickets ahead of time and Monday morning I headed to the train station, having absolutely no idea what I was doing. But what the heck.

The train station was packed and I was super careful with my bags because I didn't want the trip to be over before it started. I was on the second level and could look down to the first, where there was an enormous pile of boxes either waiting to be loaded onto the train, or just having come off. I mean an ENORMOUS pile, with a couple of guys lounging on top of it, obviously waiting for their next move. No hurry in Africa. I wanted to take a picture but I remembered that here it is illegal to take pictures in certain government buildings, so I decided to be safe rather than sorry. Again, didn't want the trip to be over before it started.

I was just trying to figure out how I would know where to go and what to do when the time came, when all of a sudden, en masse, the entire room stood up and headed for the doors. I have absolutely no idea what prompted it or how they knew it was time. But as I so often do here, I decided to just go along. As I passed through the door I attempted to ask someone if I was going in the right direction but he just hurried me along, so I thought, I'll assume yes. If there was any debate as to where I was going, someone would ask to see my ticket. After some confusion I got loaded onto the train (someone did in fact verify my ticket), onto my first class seat (which cost literally $6.00) which turned out to be a berth in a compartment with three other berths. I guess if I were going on a long trip I might like to nap part of it away. The window was wide open, which was pleasant because it was a very humid day, and as we got going it gave a great breeze. We left right on time, which is more than I can say for Via Rail in Canada.

Riding along was very pleasant, not too scary as the train seemed inclined to stay on the tracks (I assume nothing anymore) and my companions chatted away, albeit to each other and in Swahili. But no problem. The conductor was a woman and she spent a lot of time in our car trying to figure out who was who and who belonged where, but I couldn't get enough of the conversation to figure out what the problem was. I thought for the millionth time how terrifying it would be to be in a country where there is war or other physical danger, and not speak the language. When something is going on here and I don't understand it, it's generally not a matter of life or death and if I need to know somebody will endeavor to tell me. I can't imagine how terrible it would be if you knew you were in danger but couldn't figure out exactly what was happening. Anyhoo...We passed through all kinds of little villages, where the kids stood and waved at the train as it went by, and the adults stood and watched. And I marveled again at how much people are the same everywhere, as that is exactly what happens when I ride the train in Canada.

As we got closer to my stop, I started to see impalas (a member of the antelope family). I also saw a warthog, and a group of Helmeted Guinea Fowl before I even got off the train. Very cool. (I'll give as many of the proper names as I can for those who want to Google...and you know who you are.) The owner had warned me that I had to be really careful not to miss my stop as I would basically be lost if I did. Hmmm, okay. He said it was out in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately one of my compartment-mates spoke fair English and assured me she knew when it was. Which was nice because by that time the conductor was nowhere to be found. Happily she did appear when it was my turn to get off, and they ushered me to the door.

Unhappily, I was not provided with a parachute, as it was no less than a six foot drop to the ground, and there was no staircase of any kind. As I hesitated, trying to figure out how to get off, one of the conductors said, would you hurry up please? (!!!!) I said, I'M WORKING ON IT! and I think they got the message as somebody moved over to help me. It turns out there was one step (oh silly me) sort of ladder style and I had to turn around and reach down as far as I possibly could with one leg (thank God they aren't any shorter than they are or I really don't know what I could have done) and step onto it, then pull the other leg down. Then again, down to the ground, which I sort of dropped to finally, not being quite able to reach. Thud. Then I had to reach high over my head for them to hand me my suitcase, and I swear to you that is no exaggeration. Another selling point for light packing.

I was then left alone on the tracks, which had rocks in between each rail and were extremely uneven and hard to walk on. I could see a tiny shack of a building in the far distance (I was right at the end of the train, which was quite long) and of course it was a gajillion degrees. Right. I started walking, carrying my little suitcase with me and feeling sort of like Paddington Bear as the train pulled away (with me right beside it -- all along the way I saw kids playing on the railroad tracks and people walking right alongside the train as it roared past). I could see a vehicle up with the little shack and I was praying it was my ride because I really had no idea what I was going to do if they didn't show up! But happily as the train pulled away, two men appeared right beside me, as they had been there on the other side of it, waiting for it to leave. One wore a t-shirt that said Selous Mbega Camp -- my guys! They took my suitcase and away we went.

There was a 75km drive to the camp, which took about two hours in an open safari vehicle just like you see on TV, through absolute wilderness, although we did pass another vehicle at the one hour mark. The "road" consisted of a faint set of tire tracks that I suspected came from these guys on their way to pick me up. Okay then. But they knew where they were going and on the way to the camp we saw warthogs, wildebeasts, tons of giraffe up close and personal (most animals ignore you or run away, but the giraffe stares at you like, what the???), a baboon troop, Grand Hornbills (a big ol' bird), greater kudus (also part of the antelope family I believe), a hyena, a huge African Fish Eagle munching happily on a snake, and three lions snoozing under a tree. We went right up to them, and as someone said to me later, there is really nothing to keep them from jumping into the vehicle with you, except they are so incredibly lazy. Think of a house cat in the sun. Then just when I thought we had seen it all, we rounded a curve, and...elephants! Lots of them, about eight, and we were right on top of them. It was amazing. I sort of gasped and said, oh my God, and the guys just chuckled. They paid us no attention at all, but continued wandering and eating and we sat and watched them until they had strolled away. I said you know, I could turn around and leave right now. I just saw in two hours what I hoped to see in five days.

When we got to the camp it was late afternoon (the train ride took about five hours, the trek to the camp another two) and I settled into my tent. The tents were very large, holding a double bed, a single bed, a bedside table, a chair, and a sort of wardrobe with four hangers to hang up clothes. All this plus space to walk around the furniture. It was completely self-contained (with good industrial strength zippers -- yeah, that'll keep the lions out for sure, I thought), and when you unzipped one side there was a bathroom -- with running water -- praise God! Flush toilet and a shower, in the middle of nowhere, in the absolute jungle. Nothing less than a miracle, I swear. I was so happy. The bathroom part however was not entirely closed, meaning the critters of the forest had free access. Mainly that meant the little lizards, which I found out are actually gekkos, quite harmless, although a bit startling at three in the morning when you stagger in, in a sleep dazed stupor, to go to the bathroom. But for the most part we coexisted quite peacefully. The entire set up was on a wooden platform about six feet off the ground with a ladder for access. Later on I found out that this was because crocodiles and hippos from the river tend to roam at night, and both are extremely dangerous on land. We were cautioned NOT to leave our tents at night. DO YOU THINK??? They also accompanied us back and forth to the food tent after dark, just to be safe.

Just outside my tent all through the trees and easy to see were the "mbega" that the camp is named for, in English, the Eastern Black and White Colobus monkey. They were everywhere. Glossy black bodies, with white faces, white tips of the tail, and what could only be described as white fringed sleeves down their arms. Very cute, very into jumping from tree to tree, and very curious about me. Very very cool.

At dinner, in the sort of open air restaurant (all meals included and the food was delicious, truly), we could hear the hippos making their hippo noises (hard to describe, but sort of what you'd hear out of pigs or cattle) from the river which was basically right there. It was cool but a little disconcerting. At one point it was so loud you would swear there was just over your shoulder. The guy at my table turned to the darkness and said, what are you drinking? and that was pretty much it. (It made me laugh, not so much because it was funny, but it is exactly the kind of thing my grandpa would have said, and in just that way.) Because it's the off season, there were only five other people in the camp -- a young couple that pretty much stuck to themselves, and an older Swiss couple and a guy from Germany -- and the four of us did pretty much everything together, which was great because they were a lot of fun. The German guy didn't speak much English but was game for pretty much everything. The Swiss couple were fluent and did whatever they could to make sure everybody knew what everybody else was talking about. Very nice.

We met our main guide the first night, a guy named Mpogo. He made sure we knew it was Mpogo and not mbogo, the Swahili word for an aggressive buffalo. Okay then, good to know. He let us plan what we wanted to do and basically took us wherever we wanted to go. Over the three main days I had we did two vehicle safaris, two boat safaris, and one walking safari (which involved picking up an extra guide with a huge rifle -- fair enough). Most of what I saw was a repeat of what I saw the very first day, but believe me, it didn't get old. We also saw a bunch of interesting birds, including plover, ibis, spoonbills, Egyptian geese, lapwings, egrets, sandpipers, hammercocks, African open billed storks, grey herons, yellow billed storks, yellow weavers (which make nests that look like tiny little wicker baskets), black and white kingfishers, Malachite kingfishers, white fronted bee eaters, woodland kingfishers, red billed oxpeckers, African mourning doves, crowned hornbills, vultures (in a very stereotypical pose, a group of them at the very top of a dead tree, just waiting) and red beaked kingfishers. Very very cool. As well there were blue monkeys, zebras, mongoose (mongooses? mongeese?), water bucks (again, sort of antelopey), "small" monitor lizards at about 18 inches, a dead python with a bite out of it (apparently whoever killed it didn't care for the taste), Nile crocodiles, and of course, the hippos. The croc is quite eerie looking, in that you think it's just a log in the water until you see it blink. It can stay submerged for up to an hour as it bides its time. They can also apparently see quite well under water. Bad news for whatever prey happens to cross its path. There were a lot of birds along the shore with the crocs and I asked why they weren't lunch, but apparently the crocs don't care much for the feathers, which is why they make out okay.

But lets talk about hippos, my new favourite thing. They are quite fabulous I have to say, having rotund, portly bodies that require submersion in water for the better part of the day when the heat gets bad. They will actually die if away from the water for more than an hour or so. (I completely relate.) Which might be why they are likely to bite you in half if they meet you on land, particularly if you are blocking their access back to the water. They can stay underwater for only five or six minutes so it was not unusual to see a head pop up where before there had only been calm water. They twitch their ears and shake their heads to get the water out, and basically laze and yawn and talk to each other, and have mastered the art of chilling out and getting cool. Too funny.

One option we had was going to a local village to see how the people live. That was brought up after a couple of days there, one evening after dinner when our guide pulled up a chair to see how we were doing. I had read some about this, and I said, well, I'm not sure how I feel about that. There was a bit more discussion and I said, really, I'm not sure that will work for me. Somebody asked me what I meant and I said, well...carefully, gently (I hoped) feels very exploitive to me to go in and stare at people as a bunch of tourists while they are just basically trying to live their lives. The group looked at me in a sort of stunned way, but I carried on. Like today, I said, we were out on the boat and a group of villagers were at the river bathing and gathering water (in the muddy muddy river, but I digress) and I said I don't think they liked being gawked at. I said, well I wouldn't want to be gawked at, anyway. And silence fell over the table (clunk goes the lead balloon) but I looked at the guide who was Tanzanian like all the staff there, and he was nodding. I felt bad because some people had been taking pictures, but the topic came up naturally and I felt like I wanted to speak that piece of it. I said, but maybe that's just me, do the villagers work with you guys to bring the people in. No, said our guide. Ah I said. And silence prevailed. That was the last it was mentioned. You can take the girl out of the social work program...but I really felt that way. People have to be allowed their dignity, if nothing else, and I felt we were not doing that as a group. And nobody seemed to hold it against me when all was said and done, so that was good.

On our walking tour we saw much more of the plant life and things like animal tracks that get missed when you're in a vehicle. We also heard the legend of the baobab tree, a very ugly tree with a huge trunk and only a few spindly branches up top. The guide told me that the people say the baobab used to be the most beautiful tree in all the jungle, but it was very vain, and boasted of its beauty to all the other plants almost constantly. Finally the other plants and trees got tired of it and appealed to the gods to make it stop. The gods took the tree and turned it upside down, so its beauty was underground and only its spindly roots showed up top. And that's exactly what it looks like actually, a tree that has been turned upside down. So let that be a lesson to you all...

On the last night I was there we were out on the boat and we stopped to watch the sun set. And all I could hear was the wind through the trees, and far off in the distance, the sound of drums from the local village. I kid you not. It was absolutely amazing.

So that was my trip, but I have to tell one more thing. Every night we were served a sort of salad with dinner, that was full of onions, and of course since I think onions represent all the evil that walks the earth, I declined with thanks. After a couple of nights of this, the restaurant guy asked me if I don't like salad. I said I do, but it has onions. Yes? I said, sipendi kitunguu -- I don't like onion! He laughed. But I said there is plenty of food and it's not a problem, everything else is delicious. The next night there was an extra small dish...of salad with no onions, prepared especially for me. I thought it was one of the nicest things ever. So if you go on safari in Tanzania, I totally think you should go here. It was an amazing experience.


26th November 2005

Jacks If you're really into hippos check out Mafia Island, there are around 40 pygmy hippos in the ponds at Chunguruma. titch

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