Moving On from the Serengeti National Park
Having been in the Serengeti for some days, we needed to leave as our fuel, food and funds were running low. But plans change. Our programme of Facebook and blog posts had been noticed by an old friend, Veronica Otter, who’d once been the manager of Manta Reef Lodge in Pemba, and understood our Tanzanian journey for what it was – an attempt to inspire people to consider travelling to Africa. She suggested that we stay at the Lemala lodge, run by her new company, not far from our previous campsite. The chance to see another lodge at such a reasonable cost made her offer irresistible. As we were extending our stay, we needed to find fuel. Food would be taken care of in the lodge. And funds? Well, the lack thereof would just have to look after itself!
Our first job was to extend our stay in the Serengeti at the Kogatende ranger post which adjoined the airstrip. Mr Gara, the warden, informed us that the system was down, and so a new permit could not be issued. This was a worry, but he assured us that we simply had to drive to the exit gate and pay there, flourishing a letter stating that we would pay for the last days on departure via Tabora B gate. As we were discussing this, an agitated aerodrome officer came in to the office and declared: “If you lot can just stop talking about paperwork for a second, I have 100 animals on my runway.” On cue, a Cessna Caravan roared overhead and circled, unable to land.
It was the job of the Tanapa rangers to keep the runway clear, and I’d often seen them in their vehicle, chasing buck and zebra off the murram (laterite soil with embedded stones) strip. But on this occasion, a guide jumped into his safari Land Cruiser and tore off down the runway, getting rid of most of the animals – bar one resolutely immobile group. So he debussed and ran at the wildebeest waving a white handkerchief. This had an immediate effect and the wildebeest herd bolted into the bush, and after a few more circuits, the Caravan landed safely. Our next need was fuel, which was much easier to solve. A phone call to someone was made and two orange vegetable oil containers appeared, full of diesel.
The refuelling process was mucky. We did not have a funnel, as we generally used military jerry cans and a dedicated spout. One of the friendly drivers cut a water bottle open and did the best we could. As soon as we were full, we set off towards the Mara River, barely a kilometre away. There we saw a group of wildebeest massing on the far bank, and we waited on nearby hillside to see what they’d do. After milling around aimlessly for 45 minutes, they started to jump down the steep river bank and leap into the river, a dramatic and iconic sight. We decided to get to our new home, the Lemala Kuria Lodge. Following the route on the application maps.me on my phone, we made our way across a series of the most beautiful valleys – but then we came across a karongo (old watercourse) that was so steep and full of mud at the bottom that we simply could not get down the sides. Perhaps we could have done so in a pair of unladen Land Rovers, but not in a single Tigger stuffed with all our kit and camping gear and water. Cisca then had to drive for 90 minutes at breakneck speed, retracing our path across the valleys back to the all-weather road, and then race, at max allowed speed, along the main track from Kogatende to our new lodge. We had to be inside the camp compound by 7pm, but in the dark, we stood no chance of finding the correct track to the camp. By the skin of our teeth, we arrived in the dark at 1850hrs, and I walked straight into the bar and ordered a beer. Twenty seconds after I took my first sip, and Captain Carl Salisbury MBE, HM Hon Consul to Zanzibar, and very old friend from my Pemba days walked onto the balcony. All ideas of checking in were lost, I just sat down and we started catching up. The Zanzibar of 20 years ago seemed such a distant memory. We were joined by his partner Sabine and Atrom, their Arusha agent. When I finally got to the tent, I was quite merry.
Into the Lemai Wedge
After our initial decision to extend our stay once, the decision to extend a second time was easy. There were so few cars (only ours, actually) in the Lemai Wedge, and we were so taken with this tiny section of the Serengeti between the Mara River and the Masai Mara border, that we stayed on. By now, we had built up a series of routes over the bridge at Kogatende, and then up to the Kenyan frontier. We would literally drive along the border and then turn south to come back a different way, sometimes returning over the hills, the plains, or a tributary of the Mara River.
On our last evening, the Lemala camp laid on sundowners on a boulder forthe three of us. We sat on the boulder, contemplating the last eight days we’d spent the Serengeti National Park. We had not been alone, but other vehicles were just in ones and twos, and we’d been privileged to go back in time. We had been exposed to a wild Serengeti, which the world not seen since the 1960’s.
Mwanza, Lake Victoria and the Short Rains.
Departing the next morning, we drove to Mwanza, Tanzania’s second city on theshores of Lake Victoria. The road was rough and very unpleasant but eventually we hit tarmac. And then the heavens opened: the short but heavy rains had arrived. This wasn’t a standard rain shower, more a serious all-day downpour that filled storm drains and flooded streets. This threw our plans into disarray – would we be able to get to Kigoma and Gombe Stream, or would the rain make the journey pointless?
Regardless of the weather, Tigger had taken a beating on the corrugated roads of the Serengeti and a serious check-up was required. We went to my old contacts at Fortes Garage, currently the Toyota dealers of Mwanza but once Land Rover experts, who happily helped us out. Through a process of deduction, they managed to solve the last of our niggling problems. Tigger was now performing as never before, cruising easily at 60 mph, touching 75 mph while overtaking a dala dala (minibus taxi), and easily reaching 80 mph downhill. But too nervous to overly stress his engine, we stuck at a sedate 60 mph.
After a “Chinese parliament”, we decided to chance our arm and continue our journey to Lake Tanganyika. This involved a stop at the railway town of Tabora where we stayed at the Orion hotel, once the Kaiserhof hunting lodge before it was renamed by the British. The Kaiser never came there, but Princess Margaret had once stayed, and it reminded us of every sensible colonial railway hotel ever built.
There seems to be a ‘buffet de la gare’ in every part of Africa, and the Orion maintained the old-fashioned standard of decent food at reasonable prices and decent service. It was a well-maintained property, we were served by waiters in white shirts and bow ties, and the smartly-dressed barman was dynamic and fast. It was a bit like stepping back in time to an independent Tanganyika. Having been stuck in the Land Rover for so long, Cisca and I went for an aimless evening stroll which led us to the rather Germanic railway station. We wandered onto the platform and asked permission to look around, and an official gave us the timetable of all trains heading east, as well as letting us take photos. A small number of travellers sat on benches waiting for a train, while a shunting engine moved a score of goods wagons back and forth a few meters as African music blared out of a speaker, and the sun set slowly over the rolling stock and tracks. This idyllic scene was new to me, as Tanzania Railways had been rejuvenated since I lived here, new locomotives replacing old and trains running on time and full.
The next morning, we rose early and drove west. The tarmac gave way to red earth and we trundled along hundreds of kilometres of corrugated earth tracks. Eventually, at Uvinza and 100 kms shy of Kigoma, the route returned to tarmac and the bouncing stopped.
The Slow Boat to Gombe Stream
After a very peaceful night in Kigoma, we met a park ranger called Hussein. He was the chief fixer for getting independent tourists into the Gombe Stream National Park. We negotiated hard, in Tanzanian shillings, to get a wooden dhow to take us to Gombe, and laden with our own food, boots, sticks and cameras, we motored slowly up the coast of Lake Tanganyika. Fifteen miles north of Kigoma, and roughly halfway to the Burundi frontier, we landed at the park.
After checking in, we wandered off on a trek in search of chimpanzees. Initially promised a short walk, we were soon told that the chimps had moved, followed by the Tanapa chimp tracker who reported their movement to Hussein by radio. “Go up,” he said, “they’re moving fast.” Hussein turned uphill and we dragged ourselves through the miombo forest. My baseball cap was utterly useless and got caught on everything, and I could barely see green-clad Cisca behind me. I realised that I really needed a cropped short-brimmed jungle hat with an orange high viz flash on it so that we could see each other more easily.
I had to remove my 5.11 daypack frequently and push it in front while I crawled through a hole in the trees: this wasn’t forest trekking, more like crawling through jungle on a muddy trail and incessant rain.
“Go down,” said the tracker on the radio. “They’ve killed a colobus monkey and are eating.” We reversed our route and slithered along a treacherous path on the side of a lush green valley. “Be careful, it’s slippery,” said Hussain. “You don’t say.” I muttered tersely, cursing the fact that I had left my walking poles behind.
And then there they were. Whooping, howling and shouting, sat a group of chimpanzees. A large male was eating a very dead monkey and ignoring
all pleas to share his prize. Unusually, the group stayed in a set of trees, playing, fighting, begging, whooping and calling. After our allotted observation time was up, we moved down and back to the camp, with some of the less senior members of the chimp group following us, and strolling inches close to Sara.
As we walked back along the beach, we saw the large trading jihazis (dhows) come back along the coast. “They have come from Congo,” said Hussein, and I watched the slow-moving wooden dhows, engines burbling away, returning from the chaotic nation to our west. I was envious of the passengers on board – it would be so much fun to go to Congo. Maybe next time?
Saying Goodbye to the Chimpanzees
We left Sara at Gombe Stream as she wanted another night with the chimpanzees before heading back to Britain. We had more places to visit and had to nurse our dwindling budget. Before we left, Hussein took us to Jane’s Ridge, the place where Jane Goodall had first seen chimpanzees come close to her. We walked down the steep path into a valley, followed by chimps, and then came across another group fishing for termites. Chimpanzees use twigs and grass stalks to fish into the termite mounds and pull termites out to eat. Their use of tools was first noted by Jane Goodall, changing perceptions of animal intelligence.
We later discussed this with a gentleman called Dr Anthony Collins. He gave up his dinner solitude to talk to us about baboons (his speciality), chimpanzees, the history of Gombe, and Africa in general. We could not thank him enough for his company, so I left him a part-full bottle of Jameson whiskey as a farewell gift.
And with that, it was time to board our slow dhow back to Kigoma. We watched as Gombe National Park drifted past the gunwale, and then I nodded off until we reached the bay of Kigoma town. The chores of doing laundry and writing articles awaited.
On our final day in Kigoma, we headed into town. This involved a short auto rickshaw journey to Kigoma railway station where we asked the stationmaster where we could eat. He pointed us to a most excellent cafe on the edge of the station, where we enjoyed rice with small fish and spinach, washed down with spiced black tea. Waitress Margaret told Cisca where everything was in town, and we wandered off to the market, bought vegetables for the next few days, and made our way back to the station.
I wanted to have a look at the Dar es Salaam-bound train. The station master gave us permission to explore and after a quick police security check, we wandered around, speaking to the restaurant car chef, the porters and attendants. We climbed aboard the first and second class carriages, and Cisca met some nice ladies bound for Tabora.
I had no particular desire to go to Dar es Salaam, but when I was on that platform, I had a near-overwhelming desire to simply get on a train and ride through the Miombo forests, the central flat lands, and the Uluguru mountains of Morogoro. Perhaps one day we’ll continue a safari by train.