Wednesday, March 24, 2010


We decided to go to Serengeti as tourists since none of us except Mzee, who had worked in Serengeti for a few years, had been there. We drove for about 10-12 hours during the day from Morogoro up north and rested for the night in a hotel in Arusha. We picked up our journey the next morning and drove another 4-5 hours to Serengeti National Park.

Serengeti is spectacular but expensive. Very very expensive if you are going in as a tourist and you are not a Tanzanian citizen. We had our first shock at the entrance of what is known as the 'Ngorongoro Conservation Area'. The road to Serengeti goes by the Ngorongoro Crater and whether you actually drive into the crater or not, the charge for just using the road with a view of the crater was $50 for non-citizens and 1500 Tsh (equal to just about $1) for citizens. And this charge is just one-way. Which means that you may not even see the entrance to the park, but your pocket will be lighter by $100 by the time you turn around and drive back home. If you actually want to drive in the crater, that will be an additional $200. We had not budgeted for the 100$ road-use charge and were a bit shocked by it. But having come all the way up north, we were not going to let a $100 per person fee stop us. So we coughed up the amount. While we were paying the fees inside the office, outside MM was warding off some very aggressive Olive Baboons who wanted to get into our stuff and steal food from the back of our truck. The fact that everything was tied down tightly with a tarp did not discourage them. One particularly aggressive female baboon was already on the task of loosening the ropes. MM tried to scare it away with a stick, but it tried to fight him. But soon enough seeing that it was getting nowhere near the food, it left for greener pastures or vehicles if you will. So on we went towards the park after paying the fees. We stopped at a point mid-way where you could view the entire crater. The breathtaking view convinced us that the money we shelled out for using the road was worth it.

The road was unpaved and full of ruts and for the next 3 hours until we reached the entrance of Serengeti National Park, every bone of our body was subjected to constant jarring. Here, we had to shell out another $50 each per day per person to camp inside the park. Compared to the $20 rate in Ruaha National Park (which as researchers in Ruaha we don't have to pay) for a non-citizen tourist, this seemed extorbitant. But in many ways we were lucky, because I heard that the rates were hiked up to $100 per day just a month or so after we visited. Once inside the park, we had to drive a few more kilometers to reach the campsites and we happened to chance upon 2 cheetahs on top of an abandoned anthill bathed in the soft light of the setting sun, looking into the distance at all the different kinds of antelopes and deciding what dinner was going to be like. They had absolutely no problems with our vehicle just about 10 feet away. They just did not care. The animals in Serengeti are far more relaxed around humans than in Ruaha. Probably because there are so many more tourists in Serengeti and poachers are also a lesser menace in Serengeti.

By the time we reached the camp it was almost 7 pm and the sun had set. We went to 2 different campsites but neither of them had any water. So we ended up camping in another very crowded campsite which had water. I looked around and realised that we were the only people camping there by ourselves. Every one of the other tents belonged to Safari Companies. As we were unloading in the dark, a group of young park officials came by and demanded gruffly to see our permits and they were yelling at us for parking in the wrong place. Mzee, who is generally a patient man, had enough of their rudeness. He just walked to them and asked them what their problem was. He told them that as far as he knew they were not breaking any rules and he should know since he had worked in Serengeti as a park warden for so many years. As soon as they heard his name and designation, their demeanour changed completely. They were literally grovelling before him and apologising. As soon as they left, Mzee translated his conversation with them into English for me imitating their mannerisms and we all had a good laugh.

The Serengeti is more famous than its fellow national parks for a reason. It's spectacular grasslands ensure that you can see until the horizon in any direction you look and so you are absolutely ensured of seeing animals because they have no foliage to hide in. You could easily go to Ruaha and not see a single animal. But that will never happen at the Serengeti. We were lucky to see the start of the wilderbeest migration. Millions migrate as you have probably seen on National Geographic. Mzee tried imitating their call and some of them responded to him. This only encouraged me to try the call out and add it to my already expanding repertoire of animal calls used primarily to annoy/amuse (more annoy than amuse) my wife. The wilderbeest migration season is also their birthing season. Mzee says that the hyenas are called midwives because they will follow pregnant wilderbeest females and then pull the baby out of the mother just as they are being born. The poor babies never even see a single minute of life before they become a meal.

We almost saw a Cheetah hunt in the afternoon. Three Cheetahs on top of an anthill were surveying the land before them and they decided to go after a reedbuck. They split up and 2 of them covered the flanks and lay in wait amongst the reeds while the third one went directly to the reedbuck to chase it into the waiting jaws of the other two. But the reedbuck was smarter than them and it ran away before the cheetah could get near it and it ran in a direction away from the other two. The Cheetahs gave up and walked right between the tourist vehicles to rest under the shade of the only tree for miles.

We saw a bunch of lions as well in a couple of places. One lioness was resting alone and our truck was the only one near it. None of the other tourist vehicles had reached there yet. Of course, I wanted a picture with the lioness in the background and as I was posing on the back of the truck, Mzee asked me to get down from the vehicle and pose. I thought he was joking and laughed. But then I realised that he wasn't. The lioness was a good 50 metres away and it was a very hot afternoon. So the chances of it moving to do anything 'mischevious' were absolutely none. So I got down somewhat hesitantly and stood a few feet away from the truck with my back to the lioness. My instructions to my wife were, just say 'run' in case of danger and I will be in the back of the truck in a second. Thankfully like the majority of females I knew during my bachelor days, the lioness was also not interested.

We saw a bunch of other animals in the Serengeti and I won't bore you with the details but I wish MM and I had seen the baboons who stole our pineapple from our closed tin trunk near our tent. The trunk was locked on one side with the bolt on the other side not quite shutting down. Although it was quite difficult to get into the trunk through this side, the baboons got into it. By the time we came back, the area near the camp was a mess of trash, earbuds, Mzees' tobacco and pineapple rind and we were heartbroken. MM and I over the loss of the pineapple, Mzee over the spilt tobacco. I hope the baboons got acidity from eating too much pineapple in one go.

When we signed out of the park, we happended to glance at the vistors book. It was filled with ridiculous comments. About security, condition or roads etc. There were also comments reprimanding those who had complained. It was very much like the comments section of a youtube video. But seriously some of the complaints were quite amusing. One of the complaints was that there were no security guards in the camp. I wonder if the people know that they are actually going into a national park, which is just another way to describe a jungle. If they want security guards, they should just visit the airport and camp there. Another person complained about how much money they had to shell out to use the badly rutted unpaved road. Which I agreed to somewhat but at the same time I can understand why the authorities would not want to build a tarred road to go to Serengeti. If they did that, the number of tourists going there would get blown out of proportion and that would just be bad for the park, the animals, tourism and just about everyone involved.

We stayed overnight at Arusha once again and that evening my wife and RC planned to eat at an Italian restaurant, while Mzee and MM were planning to eat Tanzanian food. I decided to accompany Mzee and MM and let the ladies have their Italian food. As Mzee and MM and I were walking in search of a place that Mzee used to frequent many years back, we found out that the restaurant was no longer there. In its place, there was a large building belonging to a Safari company. As we were waiting there wondering what to do, I saw a man, desperation writ on his face, most of his shirt buttons undone running towards us, as fast as his legs could carry him. There was another man running after him a few feet away and shouting 'Mwizi, Mwizi'. He was gesticulating towards us and I thought he wanted us to do something. I realised at once that something was amiss, but I had no idea what 'Mwizi' meant. I looked at Mzee and MM and they were just standing and staring, just like me. The man running in the front looked at us to see if we were going to react and then he was past us in a flash. Another guy crossing the road tried to trip him with his leg but the guy stumbled a bit and kept running. He suddenly changed directions and tried running into an alley close by. I just needed to confirm my suspicions and I asked MM if Mwizi meant thief and he nodded. The thief was eventually caught in the alley but we could not see him as he was surrounded by people. Next I saw a man running barefoot towards the crowd carring a large vicious looking knife with serrated edges in his hand. He was already holding it tight with his fist, tip pointing downwards, the way you would hold it if you were going to stab someone. We walked away and soon there were a bunch of people on motorcycles honking and going towards the crowd. The honking was quite disturbing. As if someone had just won a football game. Mzee said that if the thief was lucky, the police would arrive soon. Otherwise he was a dead man for sure. MM asked me if I had noticed that the man who was carrying the knife was running barefoot although he was quite well-dressed. I nodded. MM thought that the man must have been so angry and desperate to get at the thief that he must not even had time to put on his shoes. That night I went to bed hoping that the police had arrived soon or atleast that the thief's death was quick.

Serengeti was bad for my wife's vehicle partly because of the road and partly because of the hidden speedbumps all across Tanzania's highways. There were speedbumps at the most unexpected and unwanted places and sometimes without any signs. And in many places where there were signs for speedbumps, there were none. The very sharp speedbumps were definitely designed by a sadistic mind or by someone who gets a commission from all the car repair shops in Tanzania. Thankfully it did not cost a lot to fix the car and that ended our very very memorable Serengeti trip.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Kitisi is a village just outside the Ruaha National Park. Since the animals don't know where the park boundaries end, they venture into Kitisi all the time. They usually keep their distance away from the houses and people, but they wander all the time into the farms which are mostly on the outskirts of the village. And that is where we were camping. Underneath a tamarind tree. In fact, twin tamarinds. It was quite a unique looking tree and we camped right below it.

Kitisi is the place which I had mentioned in my previous post about Mzee - the site where the lion walked by the tents and scared the hell out of NM, the place where the impala headed straight towards Mzee's tent in terror and leaped over it. Anyway when we reached Kitisi, it was a nice afternoon and we put up our camp rightaway. There were lots and lots of pesky flies and I had to improvise my attire (more on that later) using my hat, my glasses and a handkerchief to keep them away from my face, much to the disapproval of my wife who thought that I looked completely ridiculous. I ignored her negative comments and protected my face from the flies with my 'ridiculous-looking' improvisation till the evening, when the unsuccessful and tired flies finally called it a day and flew away to rest. We could hear a couple of lions in the distance and the trumpet of some elephants. All other animals were wisely keeping their distance from the village or maybe there were present but just not announcing it to us like the elephants and lions were.

Night fell and Mzee regaled me with the story of the visit of the lion when they had camped there last time. I was told that when a lion roars/grunts near your tent, your tent vibrates and you can actually feel the sound in your chest. Unfortunately none of the lions roared next to our tents when I was there. They roared from a respectful distance so as not to disturb my sleep. I think the real reason is that they might have seen scared of me after seeing me in the afternoon in my fly-proof improvised-attire.

The next morning, I did something I had not done for a long long long time. I think I was 19 and in Goa the last time I had done something like this. I don't know how to say it politely so I will just describe the something as 'crapping in the open without a toilet'. Not the best of topics, but it has to be addressed. Ruaha National Park, being a park had very good toilets, probably the cleanest camp toilets I have seen anywhere in the world. But Kitisi being just an unmanaged site outside the park, had no such provisions. So you took a shovel with you, dug a hole, squatted, did your business and covered all traces of it with the dug-up dirt using the shovel. However I saw 2 problems with the whole process:
i) The first day I dug up the hole in the morning and I did not like the time spent digging the hole, when there were more urgent matters to be attended to. My process-improving solution was to dig up 4-5 holes behind some bushes right that afternoon for use during the rest of our stay there. Everyone else in the camp thought that the idea of pre-dug holes was funny but I just thought it practical and even invited them to use it.
ii) The holes had to be far off from the camp for obvious reasons of privacy and cleanliness, but also not that far that you were no longer in the relatively safer area of the camp. Safety was a major concern because you did not want to become the next meal of a lion or or just be squashed by an angry startled elephant. This has to be one of the most embarassing ways to die. Even if you don't die and just try to escape, running from danger with your pants down is not only difficult but also quite ego-deflating. I had no solution for this, so I just hoped that I chose the distance of the holes from the camp wisely.

A few things at Kitisi remain stuck in my mind. When we went out on our daily data collection effort, we walked by a few farms and I noticed some pieces of cloth tied to the wooden rickety fences along the farms. On enquiring about it with Mzee, I was told that these pieces of cloth were soaked in a mixture of oil and a kind of crushed green peppers (called pili-pili in Swahili). They had been placed on the fence since that was the only thing that kept the elephants away. Elephants despised pili-pili. I thought that was quite a smart approach to protect your crops. I remember how much they sting. Once I was chopping some pili-pili for dinner and I accidentally wiped my face right after that and it burned. It burned for a few hours. Washing my face with water lessened the burning sensation very slightly. It just spread the burning feeling to the other parts of my face. Thankfully I had avoided my eyes. It could have been much worse. I am glad I did not pee rightaway either.

One day we were processing the samples in the afternoon. Test tubes, chemicals, centrifuges etc were all over the place around us. I guess we must have looked like people of some medical knowledge because a woman walked towards us with her baby on her hip. The baby was hardly a few months old and was fast asleep. The woman who looked quite distraught walked directly to my wife and said a few things to her in Swahili all the time pointing to her baby. I had no idea what was being said, but one look at the baby confirmed what I thought she was saying. The poor baby was covered in rashes. Its face,arms and legs were scaly and covered in rashes. At first glance, it looked like the baby had eczema. We felt so sorry for it. The woman said that she had taken the baby to the local dispensary but they did not have any medicines. The closest town, Iringa was about 3-4 hours away and she had not taken the baby there yet. We apologised, saying that we were not doctors and there was nothing we could do. But she was so desperate for help that she almost insisted that we give her some medicines. Seeing her so desperate was very very moving. My wife finally gave her a generic over-the-counter kind of topical cream for rashes that we had and told her that the cream was meant for adults and not for babies. So she had to be really careful to apply a very tiny quantity on a small area of the baby's legs to see if it caused any problems first, before using it elsewhere. The woman seemed very grateful to have atlast finally got some help. We never saw her again the rest of the days we were there. So I hope that the cream worked in some way in alleviating the baby's discomfort. I thought about all the tiny little things that we who live in cities rush to the doctor for and I felt ashamed. It felt really unfair that one section of the world's population had access to medical care more than they needed to have and another section had nothing at all.

We had the option of washing ourselves either at the Tungamalenga river or just bringing the water back to the camp and wash behind some bushes. I chose to wash myself at the river so that I had all the water I needed. I went there to actually look for a river, but what I found was a little puddle of water, barely 12 feet in diameter and it was surrounded by tall chest-high grass and some bushes. On a closer look at the puddle of a river, I realized that it had an underground source. The water was cool, fresh and had an aroma of the minerals in the soil. This was the same place where Mzee had scared NM during their last visit to kitisi. I stripped and started washing myself, when the thought that a lion could be lurking in the tall grass came to me. After all it was almost evening by then, which is usually the time they start to get active. In such a case, my only option would have been to to run naked. Quite embarassing. But not as embarassing as running away with your pants down like I described before. Atleast I would be clean if I got killed now. Although I had gone to the river to ensure that I had enough water to wash myself, I think that it was probably the fastest and least water-consuming wash that I have ever had. If any place has water shortages, all they need to do is prohibit inside bathrooms, and let some lions loose.

We left Kitisi and on the way out we had to sign out at the village ward office. The office was opposite a school and children were walking to school. All of us signed out in the village office's visitor-register and returned to the car except for Mzee, who kept chatting with the village ward officer. All of us patiently waited for him in the car and soon we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by the school children who were staring at us curiously. We waved and smiled. Some of them waved back, but most of them just stared at us. It was getting a little awkward with us just sitting there and about 50 odd school children standing a couple of feet away and staring. So I finally said 'Habari za asubuhi? (How are you this morning?)' to the closest boy and he laughed out loud and said 'Good morning'. I replied, "Good morning." I wish I had not opened my mouth because that set of a chain of the largest number of individual 'good mornings' that I have heard in a space of 5-10 minutes and of course, we could not be rude. So my wife and I kept saying Good mornings for the next 5-10 minutes to as many children as possible, praying that Mzee would finish his conversation and come back quickly. Even NM was getting antsy about Mzee not coming back. Finally he did, and we set off on our way back. The children running after our car and waving goodbyes frantically.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


AP, who is assisting my wife in her research as a tracker/botanist/wildlife-expert extra-ordinaire is referred to as Mzee (pronounced M-zay) by all of us. Mzee is a term used to respectfully address older people. Mzee AP is 64 years old but he has the energy and stamina of a 24 year old. Although small in stature and slight in built, he is fitter than the fittest person I have ever met. His endurance levels belie his age. His knowledge about flora, fauna and the bush in general is beyond comparision. You point out any plant, any animal to him and he will tell you it's name, it's latin name, its characteristics and how you can use that information to your advantage in the bush. He can tell you what bird it is just by hearing its call. He does not even have to see it. He still makes notes for himself on little scraps of paper about the plants and animals he encounters while he is doing his regular job, just because he likes to continously keep himself updated and that is because he is so interested in what he does. And because he is so interested in what he does and he likes what he does, he is the best.

Mzee started his career in the department of wildlife for Tanzania National Parks when he was 22. He joined the department as a Game Assistant and retired as a Chief Park Warden. He spent close to 40 years in the bush, working in almost every national park in Tanzania. During this period, he worked with many famous biologists and ecologists. But he is as modest as can be. He became a master at botany, tracking, research, survival in the bush, basically everything related to the jungle. But just focussing on his professional skills won't do justice to the portrayal of him as a person. Because he is much more than just his work.

Mzee is a very warm person. He knows everyone whether he is meeting them for the first time or if he is old friends with them. To see him talk with strangers, you would think that he has known them for years. He is a favourite amongst small children as well. Every time that we went to pick him up or drop him at his home, he was surrounded by his little followers who would run after him chanting 'Babu, Babu' (Babu = grandpa in Swahli). In many ways he is also a child at heart, because even now he does not shy away from practical jokes. Mzee is also a great entertainer and a master story teller. He tells his stories laden with voice inflections and sound effects and being in the bush for so many years, he has some great stories.

One day when we were camped outside the village of Kitisi, I noticed that he had put a bunch of thorny braches cut from an Acacia tree along both sides of his tent. He had not done that in any of the previous camp sites. So I asked him about it. He replied, 'Bwana Jai (Mr. Jai), last time when we camped at Kitisi, a lion was patrolling this area. He walked right next to the tents of NM and MM grunting in the territorial way male lions do. At that time, a few impala which were sleeping somewhere close by panicked and they ran - a few of them directly towards my tent. I could hear the sound of their hooves coming directly towards me and a couple of them jumped right over my tent. Thankfully the lion was not looking for a kill and did not chase them that night or he would have come straight at my tent. So these thorns are to discourage both impala and lion". He continued, trying to pull NM's (driver/cook) leg, "NM was so scared that time that he did not breathe for 10 minutes. He did not move his body one inch the whole night." NM of course laughed it off. But the truth is that NM seems scared more than the others and rightly so, because when we go off during the day to collect data, NM is alone at the camp. He has always said that he feels a lot relaxed when he sees impala grazing without showing signs of fear, because that means there are no lions around.

Mzee told me that after the lion and impala incident at Kitisi, the next evening each one of them went to wash at the river at some point or the other, but NM refused to do so. He just did not want to go anywhere away from the car. He definitely did not want to go to the river alone. The river had pretty much dried down and was more of an underground river with fresh water surfacing from a very small area. It was surrounded by long dry grass. So it gave you the privacy you wanted, but at the same time the bushes could easily have hidden a lion. So anyway NM refused to wash himself and Mzee kept teasing him about it. Finally NM decided to take the car to the river along with our game scout SM, because he needed to fill up water in the large buckets that we carried for cooking. When they got to the river, SM went into the water to wash himself and also fill up the buckets while NM refused to step out of the car. Meanwhile unknown to NM, Mzee had taken a short cut to the river and he had hidden himself in the tall grass near the river. From his vantage point, he saw where NM was and he crept close towards the car and started making some rustling noises in the grass. Mzee says NM was terrified and started asking SM what he thought the rustling was. SM assured him that it was probably some small animal. That is when Mzee started imitating the grunting roar of a lion. I have heard his lion imitation and it is pretty good. From a distance, it actually feels like a real one at a distance. That pretty much did it for NM and he ran out of the car in panic towards SM. That is when Mzee started laughing and stood up revealing himself. When Mzee narrated this to me, I laughed but I also felt sorry for NM, who usually comes across as a tough guy in town, but as a lamb in the bush. I was also amazed by Mzee having the energy to play practical jokes at his age.

Mzee has an unbelievable endurance and stamina. When we would go out during the day for data collection, we basically would end up walking for atleast 6 hours and sometimes 8-9 hours. Some days there would be small periods of rest and most days there would hardly be any rest. That meant 6-9 hours of continous walking in some of he harshest terrains possible under tha harsh sun. All of us except Mzee would finish our drinking waters way before we returned to the camp. Only Mzee would open his water bottle after he returned to the camp. It was almost a competition of sorts for him. It seemed like he was constantly challenging his body to endure as much as it could. He also smoked his pipe incessantly (more on this in a separate post). For someone to inhale all that tobacco for so many years and yet have this unbelievable stamina at 64 is really incredible.

There are so many other things about Mzee that can be told but this post is getting longer and longer and maybe I will split them into different posts. Mzee has also told us a truck load of stories, some of which I am going to chronicle in a separate post exclusively for his stories. Sorry for the abrupt end, but I will be back.