Have you ever had that feeling, when you meet someone for the first time, and you immediately feel like you’ve known them your entire life? You don’t know the silly things like what their last name is, or where they work, but you can easily guess the important things, what sundae they would order at Cornerhouse, or who their favourite author is. That’s exactly what happened with Africa.
We spent two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania in June, timed to catch the great migration in the Serengeti. And strangely, it felt like a trip back to a childhood home. The people I met – open and friendly, perhaps we played hopscotch together, after school, one summer. Or bought candy from their store, many years ago. The roads knew my name, hot dusty winds, and even the sharp, light rains at dusk, all felt eerily familiar
The highlight of a trip to the continent is wildlife, but if you, like me, are not much of an outdoors person, fear not, because the safaris are designed to provide every imaginable comfort. There’s plenty to do beyond animal watching – Africa’s eastern coastline boasts of beautiful, stark, white-sand beaches, and deserve to be featured in your itinerary.
Africa is special. It wasn’t like any other holiday, that’s made up of bits and pieces of hallmark experiences, strung together by the same narrator. It was like living a different life. Different not because its new, but because it is as old as you are.
Into the Wild
The best place to stay in Arusha, is around the clock tower. This area has a host of friendly restaurants and cafes. If you’re here on a Thursday night, all roads lead to Via Via, atleast after 12:30 am. This place attracts people from all walks of life, and you can be sure to hear some interesting stories at the bar or the dance floor, or at the very least, get your fix of Afro-Pop.
Our Safari vehicles picked us up in Arusha. The omnipresent, omnipotent Toyota LandCruisers come well-equipped. And I don’t mean with guns or tranquilizer darts. I mean freezers to store beer, charging stations for all your devices, holders and organizers to stow your chips and lunch boxes and sunscreen and make-up. You know, bare essentials.
There are several national parks in Tanzania ; depending on the time of the year, and how much time you have, you can plan your route. We were keen on chasing the migration, and spotting flamingoes so here’s what we did.
Tarangire is herbivore-sighting haven. Did you know that giraffes’ spots vary quite significantly depending on the species – in colour, shape and size? Also zebras, in their smart , retro stripes, are not all identical either? And Ostrich feathers, look more like the coat of a furry bear? It was most amusing to watch them with their needle-like faces. I discovered a particular likeness to Rowan Atkinson’s rendition of Whistler’s Mother.
Serengeti was the absolute highlight, where that nagging feeling of familiarity reached a crescendo. We stalked a cheetah as it made an unsuccessful attempt to hunt zebra, saw menacing herds of water buffalo and innumerable species of monkeys and deer.
And then there were the lions.
The first pride we encountered, was some distance away. The second encounter, and every single one that followed however, was excitingly close – close enough to count the flies picnicking by the lions’ eyes. With engines dead, and a host of cars pooled about the young pride, we watched in awe, as the lions strolled about and then settled down for a staring match. The beasts were so close, that all they would have to do to enter our jeep, would be to extend a single toe… err claw in our general direction. If they’d just partaken a meal seasoned with garlic for instance, we would have been able to smell it.
Lions I have concluded, are largely lazy creatures. Males lions sleep about 18 hours a day, and all the 35- 40 lions that we met, were either asleep, just about to nap, or had just woken up from a nap.
We were also lucky to spot the most elusive and private of all cats, the leopard. Perched atop a mossy cliff, a young leopard schooled her cub, as it amused herself, swatting at her mother’s tail. At the time of this sighting, it had started to gently rain, and yet the audience in their open LCs, gathering about this endearing performance, only grew thicker.
Evenings in the Serengeti are thrilling – the sky catches fire as the sun sets, and the grass turns to a pleasing pink. While it appears calm and quiet and restful, darkness actually provides a useful cloak for a whole host of nocturnal hunters.
Ngorogoro Conservation Area
Ngorongoro is a large caldera – a depression formed when the top of a volcano, collapses into itself. This grassy expanse is home/visiting grounds to numerous species of animals, sort of like an office cafeteria. The experience of driving into Ngorogoro is unforgettable – as you make the steep descent into a green bowl – the wind whipping your hair, passing clouds creating confounding patterns on the grass below – the little flecks of black in the distance, slowly bloom into shapes of animals.
The centre of the grassland has a large saltlake – here is where you will see the flamingos, sporting their jaunty coats of pinks. We spotted the rarest of the “Big Five”, a pair of Rhinos in the distance, admist a large group of grazing impala.
Ngorongoro has numerous ponds, which are home to Hippos. You have to be extremely patient, as you wait for them to emerge, to see anything more than what looks like large potatoes stewing in mud. But when you do spot them, it can be very intimidating. Large cavernous mouths filled with rows of teeth; hippos are known to be extremely aggressive
Accommodation throughout the week-long Safari was splendid, we alternated between a beautiful coffee lodge, and a tented jungle camp. As night fell everyday, the solar powered lights would flicker and die, and then you would see a glorious night sky, lit up with thousands of timid stars.
One such night, we fell asleep to the soft, gurgling sound of what we concluded was a sweet nocturnal bird. Weeks later, while watching The Lion King, I realised to my horror that that night we had actually been surrounded by packs of hyenas.
For an additional fee, you can visit one of the numerous Masaai settlements, to observe the lifestyle of this famous tribe. These visits include an introduction to their culture, and even a rather enthusiastic demonstration of school children learning Mathematics.
The entire episode feels rehearsed, and commercialised. I am genuinely concerned how those kids will ever learn anything – all they do is recite numbers from 1 to 20 and translate goat, milk and potato into English, every 20 minutes, for a new batch of tourists.
Diani Beach – Kenya
After spending two days clotted up in Nairobi’s traffic, we took a train to the busy port town of Mombasa, and from there to Diani beach. Enroute we befriended two lovely women who were headed to Diani to celebrate a birthday. Both well-read lawyers, they found Indian culture as intriguing as we found theirs, and we tried our best to be ambassadors for the motherland. “You are all from India, but you talk to each other in English, why don’t you speak Indian?” “Well, because we’re all from different states and cities, so we speak different languages”. “Ohh so you’re from different tribes!” “Not exactly. Some languages are common to many states. But each state has a different language. And each state also has its own set of tribes….” And then we gave up.
The resorts dotting Diani beach, are absolutely marvelous, and for a reasonable fare you can book luxurious villas with private beaches. The town-center sports chic restaurants, boutiques and a massive supermarket. It’s the perfect place to unwind and spend a few days, without a specific plan.
Africa is an experience like no other. It fills you up with a certain conflicting quality – the realization that you’re a tiny cog in an enormous scheme and at the same time, you are also the entire universe yourself.
Amidst the dust, chaos and gore, I found peace.
And also my new ringtone, thank you Toto.