Friday, September 26, 2014

Bikes, bush and beauty - a safari with a difference

By Richard Knocker I'm half way up the 2nd hill - we've only just started, and it's clear that I just can't do it. This is ridiculous! Somehow I puff and pant my way to the top, and a lovely view opens up below: in the distance, the steep escarpment of the western wall of the Great Rift Valley; ahead the track swoops down to a broad plain, a patchwork quilt of maize and sugar cane fields; to the right glints Lake Babati, our destination for today, some 50 kms (30 miles) away. This is Part 2 of the Vijana Challenge (vijana = boys in kiSwahili) , a 3-week voyage of learning and adventure for my 4 young charges from Switzerland and Canada. We have already completed a short bush mechanics course and an introduction to wilderness 1st Aid; yesterday evening, we hiked up to view the ancient rock art of Kolo in the caves and rocky overhangs that dot that part of the Rift. We are just starting a 120-kms bike ride and the we are getting into our stride. Our guide for this section is Julius, a lean young man with dreads and a great sense of fun. For back up, we have Juma, a biking legend: he can fix anything on 2 wheels, under any circumstances. Free wheeling downhill with the wind in my face, my early sense of despondency quickly wears off and I soon start to enjoy the ride. This is easy! From now one. it's all fun: we pass through rural villages, where people smile and wave at the wazungu (white folk) on their bikes; through patches of airy forest, and through acres and acres of sugar cane. At the end of the day, I spot my chance: on the slope leading up to camp, I stand up on the pedals and push hard, blasting past Julius and the 4 teenagers, who, not suspecting that the old fuddy duddy bringing up the rear has it in him, are completely taken by surprise. Camp is a lovely spot in a grove of tall fever trees right on the lakeshore; fishermen come and go and some cows graze peacefully nearby, We go on a short bird walk, which yields fruit galore: highlights were a Purple Swamp-hen, a couple of hippo, a dik-dik and a Scarlet-chested Sunbird feeding above us. And lots of waterbirds... Next day we are, unsurprisingly, saddle-sore as we mount our trusty steeds once more. We have a little over 60 kms ahead of us, but I have no doubt that I can manage. Sure enough, we arrive in time for a late lunch at Magara Campsite, a pretty location on the edge of a sand river set about with big sycamore figs. A short distance away are the Magara Falls, where we go for a wallow in the chilly water and to be pummelled by the full force of the main waterfall. Hugely reinvigorating! Afterwards, a young local boy, Musa, demonstrates his gymnastic abilities, with a series of somersaults and back flips in the sand. Next morning, it's an early start: we're off to nearby Lake Manyara National Park. We have the option of a full day in the park, or a half day followed by another bike ride. The lads are unanimous: time for some seeeeeerious game viewing! Almost immediately we are in the middle of a group of elephant, feeding peacefully in the forest in the new southern extension to the park. Soon after, we emerge onto the lakeshore, where herds of wildebeest and zebra wander, with warthog and impala dotted around. As we approach the Maji Moto hippo pool, we come across throngs of water birds: storks, herons, ibis - and thousands upon thousands of pelicans. They are everywhere, swimming in vast flotillas, sailing majestically overhead, squabbling in the trees. Can there really be enough fish in the rapidly dwindling lake to support this many birds? The answer is clearly yes, but surely not for long? Next morning, it's time to move on. We say goodbye to Julius and the crew and head off with our new best friend & guide, Kilerai; we will spend the next few days with the Hadzabe, some of Tanzania's last hunter-gatherers, who somehow make a living from the harsh, jutting landscape of rock and thornbush around Mongo wa Mono and Yaeda Chini. It's an austere place, especially in the dry season, as now: the colour seems to have bled out of the world, leaving a palette of ochre, olive and grey. It is strangely beautiful. The next couple of days pass in a blur of wonderful times spent with the Hadza; a morning spent with the women as they dug up edible yam-like tubers; finding honey in a beehive high in a baobab tree; making arrows, Hadza-style; hiking across the Yaeda Valley; and heading out at dawn each morning on hunting expeditions, each boy accompanying a Hadza hunter. Each day is packed with fascinating incidents on their treks through the bush, covering many miles on each outing. One day, Jenerali notices that a nearby marula tree is fruiting and that many animals - kudu, bushpig, duiker - are visiting each night to hoover up the fallen fruit. After a brief discussion, we all set out to build a blind 20m from the tree and the boys wait up to try their luck. It is a beautiful full moon night. Towards morning, the clatter of a displaced pebble alerts them - there in the silvery light stands a herd of Greater Kudu; they are wary, their delicate ears twitching back and forth, searching for threats. They sense that something is wrong and they melt into the night once more. All too soon, this part of the adventure draws to a close, and we have to say goodbye to our Hadza friends. The final leg takes us to Tarangire for more big game; this park is excellent in the dry season, with large numbers of game dependent on the permanent water sources - the Tarangire River, Silale Swamp - now that the rest of the ecosystem has dried up. Elephant and large buffalo herds are everywhere and each night we are treated to a lion chorus as the different groups roar to each other. Damien is on a wild dog mission - there have been some reports of late, so we check out all the best places, but no joy. No luck either with oryx, but we score with lesser kudu, terrific cheetah and leopard sightings as well as some memorable views of lion.