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No romance in Ruaha


George, the assistant camp manager, was leading me from my tent to the outdoor dining area at Mdonya Old River camp. The sky was the usual belittling array of stars; a crescent moon’s horns pointed upwards, away from the earth. I’d been in Ruaha National Park less than a day and already had a few unsettling surprises. For a start, I expected complete silence, in a park that is celebrated for its wildness and remoteness. But the constant chirping and buzzing of insects, the barking of impala and mysterious snuffling noises in the undergrowth provided a background as continuous as the urban noise of traffic, although distinctly more pleasant to listen to. George had detected something amiss with that night’s natural muzak. He swept the torch beam over the sandy bed of the dry river after which the camp is named. “I can’t see anything,” he hissed. “But why have the impala disappeared?” I was reminded of a horror film moment of realisation – the face in the mirror, the light under the door, fear shining in the eyes of the nubile lead. For just a moment, the jolly façade of my safari dropped away and I felt like, well, like I was in a vast, unpopulated wilderness with a bunch of wild animals. I quickened my pace to keep up with George, lest a leopard was about to spring out of a tree.

It was an unnecessary precaution. Although the camp is in one of the wildest areas of the notoriously wild park, the animals are totally uninterested in the visitors. Guidelines on camp etiquette helpfully left in each of Mdonya’s roomy, comfortable tents advise guests, “don’t be afraid of the animals, but do respect them”. Tourists’ fascination with Ruaha’s wildlife is a one-sided affair: the lions that often pad through the camp don’t even bother to glance at its inhabitants, and often the only sign of their presence is the sudden absence of herbivores. In any case, I had more to worry about than wild animals:  a former love interest of mine was working at Mdonya, and my stay revolved around the twin poles of game drives and tired performances of arguments we’d had before anyway.

Well, it would never have worked anyway. I’m a city girl: I like noise and bars and traffic. But in Tanzania, weekends away tend to revolve around elephants and lions rather than cocktails and art galleries. In the spirit of open-minded research, I spent five days in Ruaha trying to understand, not only, um, certain aspects of my personal life, but also the enduring appeal of the safari – an appeal that’s made tourism Tanzania’s second biggest industry after mining, and is inexorably transforming the country. Around a third of Tanzania’s land mass is made up of national parks and game reserves – well beyond EU targets or the recommendations put forward by environmental agencies. And national parks are still appearing on the register: Saadani, the first coastal park, was gazetted as recently as 2002. Some of the older parks have remained obscure: Katavi, gazetted in 1974, still has only a couple of lodges and the tsetse flies that plague the area have kept visitor numbers low. At the other end of the scale, there’s the Serengeti, which is so popular that it’s almost achieved brand name status: a safari park equivalent of Coca Cola.

Ruaha, to its credit, is somewhere in between these two extremes. It’s got the kind of cult appeal that leads old safari hands to declare it their favourite park, and it’s little known outside Tanzania. But it’s sufficiently popular to sustain a choice of accommodation and daily flights from Arusha and Dar es Salaam, around $300 each way with Coastal Aviation. The park might not have the international fame of the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater, which are the Tanzanian tourist board’s show-stopping numbers, guaranteed to bring the house down – and to keep the tourist dollar rolling in. What Ruaha has got is a raw, brutally beautiful landscape, and a whole host of obscure unique selling points. On arrival, inexperienced guests will meet the news that both greater and lesser kudu live here in great numbers and that five packs of wild dogs lurk around the park with polite nods, unable to understand the importance of facts like these. But after a couple of days, even the newest of safari novices – me, for example – will be confidently discussing these facts like an old safari hand. Ignorant as I am about the complexities of the ecosystem, I could see the effect that Ruaha was having on the other guests. One woman, who used to run a safari camp in Botswana, came back from a day-long game drive, eyes shining with happiness and her arms full of mysterious vegetation culled from the park’s immense variety of trees. While she was hurling superlatives at the camp manager, a family of bush pigs – rotund, sprightly little animals with savage-looking Mohicans – trotted past the entrance to the camp. “They’re very rare,” whispered our safari guide, so that I could join in the general exuberance at the sight of the pigs.  The guide, Richard, a former professional hunter now working in the photographic safari business, was a bottomless source of softly-spoken information, not all of it believable: when I repeated Richard’s story of a dramatic hunting incident at dinner, lingering over the details of a hunter gored by a buffalo who managed to shoot the animal while its horn was stuck in his leg, I was greeted with scepticism. It was a good story, though; I resolved to tell it again in more gullible company.

Ruaha’s lower profile has worked to its advantage. It’s still a real wilderness – 12,950 square kilometres of untouched bush. At night the darkness is thick and palpable, full of a mild, titillating sense of threat; hearing a leopard’s strange bark outside while you lie safely tucked up in bed is similar to the feeling of being warm and indoors while rain pelts down outside. Unlike in bigger, brasher camps, where the wilderness is sanitised and safety-belted, Mdonya Old River camp is a proudly back to basics affair: tents, candlelight, open air hot showers. At night everyone gathers around a communal table outdoors; waiters hover in the darkness, appearing at your elbow to serve soup or take drinks orders – perhaps, on reflection, this slightly tarnished my sense of being a newly minted, rough-and-ready safari aficionado, but at the time, full of food and wine, I wasn’t complaining. The camp is run by Italians, and the food is predictably good and plentiful. All in all, the Mdonya experience felt a bit like camping, only with three hot meals a day, waiters bringing red wine on command, proper beds, and a mild dose of emotional turmoil. If all camping were like this, I would have been turned on to the joys of the great outdoors a lot earlier in life. The outdoor showers are a stroke of particular genius – soaping myself under the stars by the light of a kerosene lamp turned out to be a pleasantly surreal experience.  As I was shaving my legs, I heard hyenas cackling among the trees.

After a rough reunion with the former love interest on my very first day, which helpfully reminded us of everything we disliked about each other, I was fully prepared to remain indifferent to Ruaha just to annoy him. But an hour into my first game drive, I found myself helpless in the face of the park’s natural charm. Zebras were taking turns to drink from a waterhole made by elephants in a dry riverbed. They were oddly rotund, like domestic ponies hand-fed on apple cores. The landscape, at first glance a stark, alien expanse, seemed to suddenly reveal its subtle charms: it was an intricate web of dependencies, from the baboons rummaging in elephant dung for undigested seeds, to the oxpeckers that hopped around on the backs of giraffes and buffaloes, eating ticks. The animal population here, left mostly undisturbed, has expanded to fill every ecological niche. Dik diks, tiny, Disney-cute antelopes, foraged in the undergrowth; herds of buffalo lounged around in the shade of trees; families of elephant crossed the road with surprisingly gentle footsteps, the baby of the family nuzzling at her mother and tripping over her own feet. This is the only conservation area where eastern and southern African species overlap, and the profusion of plants, animals and birds is spectacular.

With 526 species of birds here, those who already practice the gentle art of birdwatching will have their work cut out, and even those who have trouble telling the difference between Big Bird and a penguin are likely to find themselves converts. I came back to the camp every evening with a breathless list of birds for identification – “the tiny yellow and green one”, “the one that’s lots of different colours”, and, mysteriously, “the one with purple and blue on its back and white and black around the tail”. The former love interest, who seemed to have blossomed into a bit of an expert birder since we first met, failed to recognise this last bird from my garbled description, and I briefly entertained a fantasy that I’d discovered yet another new species of bird – several have already been found are endemic to Ruaha. But on consulting a bird book I realised it was a type of pigeon, not so different from the ones that harass pedestrians all over my hometown of London. There went my burgeoning fantasies of life as a bush ecologist.
 
The park is mostly undisturbed, but not completely. Our guide pointed out a tree studded with sticks, the work of honey poachers. The Tanzania National Parks authorities, the tourism and the hunting industry sing from the same hymn sheet in condemning poaching, and of course it’s no good thing, but I can’t help wondering what local people make of the armed rangers posted to stop them tapping honey from a tree, while in Selous game reserve to the north of Ruaha, wealthy hunters stalk leopards, elephants and the elusive spirit of the colonial ‘great white hunter’. Efforts to glean local opinion on the subject usually end inconclusively. One young American woman I spoke to, who’d been interviewing villagers around Saadani National Park on behalf of an NGO, related that the interviews began with ringing endorsements of the new park, and it was only after a couple of hours that interviewees would start to complain of a lack of access to resources, and a total absence of the promised trickle-down from expensive lodges. That might not mean that Ruaha suffers from the same problems, but it’s an incentive to choose your lodge wisely: not every camp lives up to its promises of ecofriendliness and community work. Thankfully, Mdonya’s down to earth ethic meant that I felt absolved of tourist guilt while staying there. The camp looked like it could be packed up in an hour or two and bundled off in the back of a truck, and the landscape would be barely marked.

Temporarily unburdened, I was free to bestow my attention on Ruaha’s inhabitants – the buffalo grazing mournfully, the lions grunting and roaring over a gutted carcass. Driving home in the jewelled light of an extravagant sunset, I had a brief daydream of meeting a handsome safari guide and being swept off into the wilderness, until I remembered that, all things considered, I was better off admiring the resident animals rather than the people. 

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