Game for anything

Symington, Martin


Book ID 433

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Symington, Martin Game for anything, 1997
Extract Author: Martin Symington
Extract Date: 1997 November

Game for anything

On an unusual safari in Tanzania, Martin Symington finds the cultural sites of ancient Africa as thrilling as the wild animals

'THESE are the Pneumatic Rocks of Moru. Billions of years ago, as the Earth's surface cooled, bubbles of air got trapped inside. The Maasai people believe this air has mystical, magical properties.' Dr Cornelius Mollel tapped a boulder with his acacia staff, to demonstrate the point. A strange, hollow sound rang out. My companions and I were soon tapping and listening, in wonder.

We had just scrambled up a kopje - one of the majestic granite outcrops which rise like rugged islands out of the sunbaked savannah of the Serengeti Plain in northern Tanzania. Our guides had gone ahead to check for lurking leopards but the creature we should have been looking for was the Cornelius Leg-Pull. It had put in one or two appearances already on our safari; 'pneumatic rocks' was a classic.

The night before we had camped out in the Serengeti, kept awake by the low, growling roars of a pride of lions just a few hundred yards away. At daybreak we were driving across grasslands dancing with antelope, heading for the western corridor where wildebeest and zebra in staggering numbers were drifting northwards in their ceaseless migration in search of pasture. We had stopped at Moru Kopje for a picnic, and to explore some Maasai cave paintings which, joke now over and in serious mode, Cornelius was interpreting for us.

'The shields, elephants and abstract lines were drawn in clay, ash and ochre during the 18th and 19th centuries, when nomadic Maasai tribesmen roamed the plain. Young warriors would periodically retreat from the world and live on the kopje in a semi-meditative state, eating meat and observing and painting the world in its raw state,' explained Cornelius. The last Maasai from this area were 'resettled' in the 1950s, when the Serengeti National Park, a game reserve not far off the size of Wales, was established.

Cornelius is a Maasai himself. Born in an adobe homestead near Arusha, he was destined for the life of a herdsman and warrior. At the onset of manhood, he had been ritually circumcised, scarred and taught to wield a spear. However, exceptional intellectual gifts earned him scholarships to mission schools and eventually a doctorate from University College London. Now he has returned to Arusha where he has a veterinary practice and a guest-house. As a sideline, he also leads specialised safaris, like the one I was on, which blend traditional game viewing, with exploring the cultural sites of ancient Africa.

'Safari' in Swahili means a journey and ours began at Arusha, the tourist town in the shadow of mist-shrouded Mount Kilimanjaro, from where herds of Land Rovers disperse for the game parks and lodges. We took a more obscure route, heading south across plains flushed with green from recent rains, and dotted with thorn trees and the occasional fat baobab. Against a jagged backdrop of exploded and collapsed crater cones, lone Maasai tribesmen draped in red broadcloth shukas were grazing cattle.

Eventually scrub gave way to patches of swaying millet. The bumpy, beaten-earth road led us through the tin-roofed villages of Magugu and Babati where traders sat patiently on palm mats, trying to sell their piles of mangoes, grain, dried tilapia fish or flip-flops cut from car tyres. All the while, Cornelius answered our questions about life in modern Tanzania, the years under ex-President Nyerere, corruption, poaching, conservation, justice, attitudes to sex and different tribal practice. Sometimes he referred in Swahili to Mtili, our cheerful young Manchester United-supporting driver, before giving an answer.

We drove along the floor of the Great Rift Valley, the fissure which slices through the Earth's crust from Asia Minor to southern Africa, and eventually turned off the main road at Kolo village. Engaging four-wheel drive, we lurched along a track to strike camp on a glade next to the dried-up Kolo river. This was the site where Mary Leakey (wife of anthropologist Louis and mother of Kenyan politician Richard) set up camp at various times in the 1950s. She was studying some Stone Age rock paintings she had chanced upon, and which we had come to explore.

Next morning we were joined by a grave-looking, elderly gentleman called Juma Mpore. He clutched a weathered copy of Mrs Leakey's coffee-table book, Visiting Africa's Vanishing Art - The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, autographed with a message of thanks to himself, as one of her most trusted assistants. With Cornelius translating from Swahili, Mr Mpore was to be our guide to the Kondoa Irangi rock paintings.

We found the paintings four miles further up the valley wall just as they have been for more than 30,000 years, unrestored and protected by nothing more than an overhang of rock.

And yet they are extraordinarily well preserved. The elongated pin-figures, graceful as Giacometti sculptures, depict hunting scenes, merry-making, beautifully fluid dancing and swimming, and even a bit of frolicsome soft porn cunningly disguised as a fertility rite.

Mary Leakey meticulously recorded and photographed all these paintings and many more in the area. She discovered that the paint, mainly red but also some white and yellow, was made from ochre pigments, latex from trees and animal fat. For brushes, the artists used the tail-hair of giraffes.

It was then that everything began to fit in with other theories of the Leakeys: that man evolved in the Rift Valley, and that the Rift itself was a funnel for early human migration into Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. Cornelius proved to be a walking encyclopaedia of every theory and counter-theory of evolution and pre-history going.

As our safari continued through the relatively small Tarangire National Park, our pondering on these subjects continued. We observed pairs of giraffes, necking rhythmically as if to music. In a reedy pool shaded by fever trees, hippo were sinking, rising, yawning and blowing like tubas. Trails of ugly warthogs stopped to gawp at us, as we did at them. A shy, gaunt cheetah slipped across the path in front of us.

Northwards, by Lake Manyara, the Rift narrows drastically and its walls become precipitous. High above, on the very escarpment lip is Kirurumu, a luxurious safari lodge where we broke our journey to unwind for a day. The lodge has just four bungalows of explorer-style tents raised on stilts under thatched roofs, and a restaurant and bar with awesome views over Lake Manyara National Park in the valley far below.

I breakfasted on papaya, pork sausages and rich, strong local coffee as a silver sun dispersed the morning mist to reveal the white soda flats of the lake a few miles up the valley. Then the horizon began to shimmer as thousands and thousands of flamingos took to the air. The day's main activity was a walk through a nearby, plant-rich gorge with Temindia Milunga, a tall, aristocratic-featured Maasai in a tartan shuka. Milunga is a botanist and expert in tribal medicine, retained by the lodge as a part-time guide.

In a few leisurely hours with us, he picked and crushed numerous leaves, barks and berries, explaining how the Maasai Oloiboni - medicine men - use these to counter diseases such as malaria and sleeping sickness. He found a Sodom Apple, a natural anaesthetic used to treat toothache, and taught us the traditional etiquette surrounding the Tirimu Engiti or 'wait a bit' bush, strands of which crossed our trail. The shrub bristles with razor-sharp spines, and failure to shout its name in warning when someone is close behind you is likely to elicit the traditional Maasai insult: 'May the hyenas kiss you!'

The final leg of our safari took us east to the Serengeti, crossing the undulating hills of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where Maasai homesteads of adobe and thatch are huddled within protective wooden stockades. Their herds of cattle were grazing alongside nonchalant wildebeest and zebras.

We skirted the Ngorongoro Crater rim to gaze down into the collapsed volcano floor, 12 miles across and teeming with wildlife. Next we paused at the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary spent years excavating fossils, animal remains and primitive tools from different eras, preserved in stratified layers of ash from the periodic eruptions of the (now extinct) Sadiman volcano. In 1959 Mary found the skull of a early hominid, posing evolutionary puzzles about which debate still rages. Fascinating though all this is, the gorge and excavation sites are out of bounds to tourists, and there is little to see, bar a small museum.

We rounded off the safari with some serious wildlife viewing in the Olduvai Gorge, on the edge of the Serengeti, before flying out from the Seronera airstrip at the park's heart. It was a glorious end to the journey. The endless, flat savannah under huge skies conjured up all the romance of Africa as gazelles fled to the horizons and big-bearded wildebeest bucked and stamped up clouds of dust. But our safari had been so much richer than simply a game-viewing journey. So thanks, Cornelius. And as for your pneumatic rocks - may the hyenas kiss you!



Martin Symington travelled with Tanzania-based tour operator Hoopoe Adventure Tours, which puts together tailor-made itineraries. For example, a week's journey split between Kirurumu Lodge, the Mary Leakey camp-site at Kolo and camping in the Serengeti, costs in the region of "1,200 per person based on four people sharing. The price includes all meals (drinks extra), transport, park fees, staff and the services of a local guide, but not flights.

Book through Hoopoe's London office (0181 428 8221), or through the following UK tour operators: Art of Travel (0171 738 2038), Casenove & Lloyd (0181 875 9666), Okavango Tours and Safaris (0181 343 3283), Wild Africa Safaris (0171 259 9909), World Archipelago (0181 780 5838), or Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions (0171 381 8638), all of whom offer Hoopoe's safaris as part of flight-inclusive packages.

Martin Symington flew with Alliance Air (0181 944 5012), which flies from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam twice a week, and to Kilimanjaro (near Arusha) once a week; return fare from "507.

When to go: There are two rainy seasons : Nov-Dec and Mar-May - best times for seeing migrating herds. The cooler, dry months are better for walking.

Reading: Tanzania by Philip Briggs (Bradt, "11.95), East Africa handbook by Michael Hodd (Footprint, "14.99) and Lonely Planet's East Africa (�13.99). The 'must read' travel book is The Tree Where Man was Born by Peter Matthiessen (Harvill, "7.99).

Extract ID: 1489