The greatest show on earth

Sher, Antony

2002, Feb 18

Book ID 604

See also

Sher, Antony The greatest show on earth, 2002, Feb 18
Extract Author: Antony Sher
Page Number: 1
Extract Date: 2002, Feb 18

The greatest show on earth - Ngorongoro

As our jeep starts up the steep slope, the terrain changes dramatically. For hours we've been rattling across the flat, dusty bushland of central Tanzania, but now, suddenly, there are towering forests of strangler figs and deep dark valleys. Jungle Africa. This is more like it.

I'm on holiday with my partner, RSC director Greg Doran, and our friend, the actor and director Richard Wilson. We reach the top, crest a rise, and stop. "Good heavens," Richard says quietly, while I inadvertently blurt out: "I don't believe it!" (The phrase is forbidden in his presence.) Greg's eyes are filling. "I've waited 35 years to see this," he says. Tanzania was his project at primary school, with special emphasis on the remarkable sunken landscape before us. The Ngorongoro Crater.

About two million years ago, the cone of this giant volcano fell away, creating a ridge of walls around 100 square miles of grassland. The great plains of Africa are legendary, but here, curiously, is one great plain all on its own. Perfectly outlined. An Eden, containing one of the best collections of game in the world. I never expected to see the entire cradle of land in one heart-stopping view. We stand there, hushed. The place holds power and tranquillity in equal measures.

Our hotel, the Crater Lodge, is situated high on the rim of the southern side. Created by an Italian designer, this is European camp meets African primitive, and surprisingly the mixture works. The rooms are wattle-and-daub huts with private verandas. Inside, chandeliers hang from the woven palm ceilings and luscious taffeta drapes adorn the French windows. These overlook the crater. As do the windows in the bathroom, and even in the toilet. A loo with a view.

Serious luxury is on offer here - good food, fine wines, a personal butler for each room - but the main focus is the daily game drive into Ngorongoro itself. Our guide is Haruna, a cheerful, grizzled character wearing a baseball cap. Down on the crater floor, the morning light has a rare, delicate quality which makes the walls seem to float around you. Incredible. But then you are inside a volcano that's blown its top. We have terrific sightings. A massive black-maned lion stalks towards us with what looks like deadly intent, then goes straight past and crosses the plain, clearing it in his stride - herds of zebra and wildebeest break into a run at the first sight of him. The flocks of flamingo look like a pink heat haze on the soda lake - Lake Magadi - and the scene is noisy with their buzzing, haw-hawing chatter. A huge troop of baboons process past our jeep - every shape and size from swaggering muscle-bound males to curious, stumbling babies - while we watch, beaming, cameras clicking away. Meanwhile, I notice some British tourists in another vehicle secretly photographing Richard. What entry will they make in the game book at the hotel? "Today saw lion, baboons and a telly star."

Lunch is alongside a water hole. A family of hippos lie half-submerged, occasionally rolling over in the mud, which acts as their sunblock. You're allowed out of your vehicles here, but Haruna warns it's best not to eat in the open. Kites can snatch the food from your hand, leaving ugly talon wounds. Wondering if he's exaggerating, I throw some bread on to the ground. Immediately there's a rushing noise. I look up to see an enormous black bird take aim, tuck in its wings, and dive - a terrifying funnel of energy - scooping up the prize. I stagger back. And now the whole sky is whirling with a mob of kites, their big shadows flashing over the grass. This makes The Birds look like a Disney film. I leap back into the jeep, saying: "I think Haruna's right - let's eat in here."

Before dinner one night, all the hotel guests assemble on the lawn for champagne. Then we're led round to the back where an extraordinary spectacle awaits us. Two hundred Masai warriors with flaming torches are lining a route to the South Lodge. As we walk between them, they chant a hypnotic, insistent song. Fairly sloshed by now, I wonder if I'm in a dream or movie. At the other end, the entire Masai village is present: women bobbing their multicoloured neckplates, youths performing the traditional bouncing dance, men rushing at one another in mock attacks, then falling to the side, corpsing like actors.

We've already noticed the Masai grazing their cattle and goats down in the crater, and it's an arresting sight: the herdsmen in red robes, armed with only spear and stick, guiding their livestock through herds of wild animals. So there are humans in this Eden, too. Haruna explains that lions wouldn't dare attack them. Time has taught both sides who's master here.

Extract ID: 3368

See also

Sher, Antony The greatest show on earth, 2002, Feb 18
Extract Author: Antony Sher
Page Number: 2
Extract Date: 2002, Feb 18

The greatest show on earth - Kusini

We move on to the Serengeti. Kusini Camp. Posh tent accommodation set among spectacular prehistoric boulders. The manager is also our safari guide: Colin McConnell - Kenyan born, a rugby forward with specs and a sense of humour.

The Serengeti is my idea of fantasy Africa: vast savannahs dotted with herds in such numbers they look like insects, the horizons so wide you think you can see the curvature of the earth itself, and those infinitely high skies occasionally brushing the land with dark skirts of rain. Here again we have terrific sightings - like the gang of adolescent male lions we called The Magnificent Seven and drove alongside for an hour or so - but in the end it's a tiny and insignificant animal that becomes the real star of the trip.

That morning we had stopped to breakfast on a bleak stretch of plains. As far as you could see in either direction was a migrating herd of wildebeest. They trudged past in single file, heads down, with a determined fatalistic look. "Like the queue for the ladies at Stratford," said Greg.

Richard was helping Colin load the hampers back on to the jeep when we suddenly heard him exclaim, "And where on earth have you come from?" There was a miniature green chameleon on the running board, its bright orange mouth open and hissing. Colin thought it could have been knocked into the vehicle when we set off at camp, reversing under some trees. Because the Serengeti is a singularly flat landscape, we decided to transport the creature home, and christened him Kermit - the facial resemblance was uncanny. As we set off, and now resident on Greg's forefinger, Kermit began to wildly swivel his bulbous eyes in separate directions, as though desperately scanning his colour chart for flesh and finding nothing there. Then he realised there was no danger and relaxed.

This being the season of the short rains, plagues of flies had been hatching daily and tormenting us. Now was our chance for revenge. As one unsuspecting customer landed on Greg's knee, he shifted it within Kermit's reach. The long tongue shot out. And again, and again. "That's five. That's six!" Greg reported, aghast. As Colin rightly pointed out, "Given his size, that's like you or me eating six turkeys."

By the time we got back to camp, Greg was smitten. When he carried Kermit over to the nearest tree to say his farewells, the scene began to resemble Joy Adamson's parting with Elsa. Richard whispered: "I think we should leave them alone," and guided me away.

Extract ID: 3580

See also

Sher, Antony The greatest show on earth, 2002, Feb 18
Extract Author: Antony Sher
Page Number: 3
Extract Date: 2002, Feb 18

The greatest show on earth - Ras Kutani

Our final week is spent at Ras Kutani, a beach resort just below Dar es Salaam. We're in Hill House 1 & 2, overlooking the hotel's sloping woodland and beach. I think this must be one of the most sensuous places on earth. At night a tropical wind comes up, thrashing through the forest of palms and fever thorns, and then the noise of the surf joins in, and this roaring, slushing gale finds its way deep into your room, making the mosquito net billow, and lightly touching your naked body. During the day, the Indian Ocean has a fabulous equatorial warmth, rocking you in soft swells or coming in assaults of small strong waves, which you can body-surf. Otherwise it's sunbathing, beach-walking, or a rowing expedition through the mangrove swamp. We tried this late one afternoon, hoping to see the Colobus monkeys come down to drink.

Three men in a boat. With one problem. None of us could row. Richard cast himself in the role of compass - one arm outstretched, pointing the way - while Greg managed, through sheer sweating, growling force, to manoeuvre us across the lagoon. Then it was my turn. I found I could make the vessel go in circles, but never forwards or back. "This is probably a design fault," I told the others, "which we must report to the management."

As we kept going round, crashing into the banks, we became hysterical with laughter. Richard couldn't catch his breath, and I, who'd been suffering from bubbly belly all day, began to erupt with escaping air. By now, we were making so much noise that all the monkeys had retreated to their trees. Peering down, I suddenly realised the lagoon was quite shallow. "Oh we can walk back!" I cried happily. The others were outraged - our return route went past the other guests' verandas and our dignity would be irreparably damaged. Eventually we managed, God knows how, to cross back to the jetty, which we reached with a final jolting thump.

Our last night. Richard was in party mood, while Greg and I felt rather melancholic about returning to grey little England. After dinner, we had a final walk along the beach - the warm, moonlit surf rushing round our legs - then slipped away quietly to our room. From our balcony we watched a distant group of skinny-dippers on the shoreline. I knew Richard was among them, and prayed no paparazzi were present. Then we went to bed early. It's always sad when a holiday ends, it's especially sad when you've been in paradise

Extract ID: 3581