The African Drum

Tanzania - Kilimanjaro - Kenya, September 1987

By Neil Peart, 205 pages, limited edition of 100 copies privately published by The Cumberland Press in 1988
The first five chapters (of a total of 29) transcribed by John Patuto and Eric Hansen

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part one - tanzania

Mumagari onaga unene.
He who travels sees great things.
(Kikuyu Proverb)


Etejo opa olnojine, "Mme kamunkyak oshi, keju maitagol."
The hyena once said: "I am not lucky, but I'm always on the move".
(Maasai Wisdom)


Through the thick warm blanket of tropical night, I walked across the runway to reboard the KLM jet in Dar es Salaam. It was still very dark on the ground, but so near the Equator sunrise is a swift performance. By the time the plane was in the air I could see light spreading from the east. And suddenly I could see it. Rising through the mass of grey clouds, the two peaks of Kilimanjaro stood out dark and solid. The jagged tooth of Mawenzi, and the wide, snow-capped bulk of the main peak- Kibo. I felt a thrill of excitement, with my eyes fixed upon this mystic and majestic vision. Three weeks from now I hoped to be standing right there, on the highest point of all Africa- the snows Kilimanjaro.

1- into africa

Kilimanjaro International Airport, Tanzania. Wet black runway, red earth and brown grass. Grey terminal building, grey-green trees and pale sky. Brown hills stood in the distance under low clouds. The crowd of weary passengers streamed into the modern terminal, and formed into the inevitable shuffling lines to face the formalities. After checking your passport and vaccination certificate, they send you over to the bank to change the obligatory fifty US dollars into Tanzanian shillings (the special "Extortion Tax"). I returned with a bulky envelope weighing a good five pounds, most of my 3400 shillings conveniently in coins.

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It's only after you have fulfilled this requirement that your passport is returned, so the situation soon became chaotic with another formless line crowding opposite those still waiting in the first line. There were some who had come just for the Kilimanjaro climb, and didn't have enough money to change, and others who were being hassled over various immigration difficulties. Voices were raised, demanding attention, protesting and arguing, but the local officials remained stern and unruffled.

Finally wriggling through the bureaucratic net, I stood by the luggage conveyor and waited for my backpack to come out. This is always a nervous moment on a journey like this, but eventually it arrived, the last piece to appear. A big blue backpack with a sleeping bag strapped to the top, and one of those foam sleeping pads strapped to the side. After hearing a few horror stories of people being stranded in some desolate place, I had decided to remain as mobile and self-contained as possible, thinking that it would be better to have luggage that I could just put on my back and go with.

As I walked out through the doors I could see a big pink truck out in the parking lot, which I remembered from the brochures. This had to be from the Tracks company, with whom I would be traveling. As I walked toward it a young woman approached me and asked if I was traveling with Tracks, and when I replied that I was, she checked me off on a list and we waited for the others to arrive.

"I wasn't sure about you, you walked out like you knew where you were going!", she said to me, and introduced herself as Val. Her accent told me she was Australian.

"Oh, I recognized that pink truck from the pictures in the brochure."

She laughed. "Did you meet any of the rest of the group coming from London?"

"No I flew in from Montreal, and just joined this flight in Amsterdam"

I looked eagerly around me- at Africa- out to the open bush country which began just beyond the parking lot.

"Are you excited?"

She must have seen it on my face, and I was happy to admit I certainly was. I can't recall now if I was that excited on first arriving in China, I was probably just too tired, but now I was truly on edge with anticipation.

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One by one another four or five of my "fellow travelers" appeared, were duly checked off on the list, and we were led out to the truck for the drive into Arusha.

Like most of the big safari trucks I would see, it was a four-wheel-drive English Bedford, with the box on the back converted into a passenger compartment. It was certainly equipped for the wilderness, with a winch, towing hooks, a spare driveshaft bolted to the side of the chassis, spare sets of springs, long stamped-metal "traction mats" to lay over muddy ground, a spare wheel on the front, huge fuel and water tanks underneath, and shovels, axes, tools and spare bits and pieces everywhere. There was even a vise welded to the front bumper for emergency repairs. Atop the cab was a heavy steel rack for the tents, and a caged-in compartment in the back for the luggage.

Inside, it was rather like an open-air bus, a row of seats facing to the rear and three rows facing frontwards. The driver recommended we leave one of the side curtains down for now, as it was a cool and windy morning. With them raised you not only had a good view, but were right out in the view!

It was a fairly rough ride, the roads paved but not particularly flat. The passing landscape started out very arid near the airport, with dried-up brown cornstalks lying on the ground, but gradually became greener and more lush as we rose higher. We passed some coffee fields and pretty tropical vegetation, but most interesting of course were the people. Some of them were dressed in very colorful traditional clothes, while others wore the more usual international costume of T-shirts and shorts.

As we got closer to the town of Arusha everything became uniformly green and lush, looking like the rainy side of the Caribbean islands. Here in the shadow of Mount Meru there is plenty of rain all year round, making it an especially beautiful and fertile oasis amid the surrounding dry plains. There were many broad-leafed banana trees lining the road here.

The Hotel 77 looked quite promising, a spread of low bungalows among brilliant tropical flowers and shrubs. I learned that it had been built for a United Nations convention in 1977 (hence the name), and was part of a complex of hotels and convention centres which had been built at the time, and must remain largely unused since.

This was to be the meeting point for the seventeen people on this trip, some of them arriving from Europe and some from other parts of Africa. Once we were checked in, the five of us who had arrived together agreed to take a walk into town and have a look around. I was trying hard to put names and faces together, to get over that initial awkwardness of a group of strangers being thrown together. At least knowing their names seems to make all the difference.

We walked south along the dirt footpath at the side of the road, Mount Meru swaddled in clouds behind us, then turned right at the main road into town. We passed a row of surprisingly big, somewhat decaying houses set in large tree-shaded properties. One would imagine these impressive estates must have been left over from the colonial days. Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was a German territory from 1885 until the end of World War 1, when it was mandated to Britain by the League of Nations. The country became independent in 1961, then amalgamated with the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba in 1963, to become Tanzania. (I'd always wondered what happened to Tanganyika!)


Passing the New Arusha Hotel, a Ford agency and a gas station, we walked into the main square of town, shops and businesses lining both sides of the street. Some of our group were interested in carvings, and we took a look in a few of the shops, most of them run by Indians. Apart from those catering to tourists, the shop windows were like those in many Third World towns; a bit of this, a bit of that, and not much of anything!

All of us had been told that bargaining was the order of the day here, and never to pay the price asked for anything, but the first time one of us tried to bargain for a carving he was interested in he was told: "We don't bargain here". Oh.

We walked into the coffee shop at the New Arusha for some lunch. Along with an egg sandwich and a Coke, I was encouraged by the others to try an Indian snack which they pronounced 'samosa', but seems to be spelt, among variations, 'sambusa'. They were delicious, a spicy meat-filled dumpling which would become a popular "junk food" on the trip.

After returning to the Hotel 77 for a couple of hours sleep, I set out alone in the late afternoon for another walk into town. It was a beautiful evening, the sky was clear by now, and the trees cast long shadows across the road. Meru was still crowned in clouds behind me. It was cool enough to wear a sweatshirt, as the altitude here is over 5000', and I noticed that most of the people I passed were dressed in western clothes, though there were still quite a few wearing more exotic traditional clothes.

I noticed several people sitting along the side of the road tending small fires, roasting ears of corn which they offered for sale to the passersby who were moving in slow motion on this peaceful Sunday evening. Arusha is not a big town, only about 100,000 people, but since Tanzania is not a very urbanized country it still counts as a major city. In a country of something over twenty million, even Dar es Salaam as the largest city has only about a million people.

It was strange to notice that even in a place like this where westerners have been coming in considerable numbers for the last hundred years or so, they still look at you strangely and stare as if at an oddity. I saw that the "Elite Cinema" was showing a double feature of Shoot with Cliff Robertson and King Solomon's Mines.

Evidence of friendly relations with China is apparent here. I passed a couple of sidewalk merchants hawking the color magazine called China, a publication of the Chinese government, in several languages, and I looked in the window of a bookstore which had whole racks full of very obscure, esoteric-looking Chinese books in English. (Who on earth buys them?) They also offered a large selection of books in Swahili, which has become the official language of many East African countries, being a hybrid of Bantu, Arab and later European influences.

The traffic is mainly pedestrian, with the occasional car and even less-frequent bicycles. What bicycles you see are usually Chinese models, that heavy old one-speed Raleigh replica with a single brake lever across the handlebars. As to the cars, most of them seemed to be Peugeots, but of course there were several Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers. I also saw one posh-looking Range Rover, and a few Mercedes-Benz cars.

There are an amazing number of safari companies around town, perhaps twenty or more offering different trips around the abundant game parks in the area. It would probably not be hard just to arrive here and make your arrangements on the spot. I was approached by a few young western people looking for others with whom to form a safari group, sharing the expenses of hiring a Land Rover or minibus.

It's facile to draw comparisons between places, but the look of the streets and the buildings, and of course the way the people look, definitely put me in mind of the Caribbean islands, while the atmosphere of the smoky fires and roasting corn along the roadside, and the small-time entrepreneurs selling nuts and candy was reminiscent of rural China.

As Idi Amin brought sharply into the world's focus, there is a gulf between the Indian and African populations of East Africa. Apparently the Indians were first brought here as cheap labor to work on the railroad, like the Chinese in America, and then stayed to become successful traders and merchants. They were among the first traders to bravely penetrate inland from the coast, and they have played a large- if silent- part in building the economies of East African countries. Like the Jews have been (are) in Europe, they seem to be used as a kind of scapegoat, being resented as much for their insularity as for their prosperity. The book North of South by the Trinidad-born writer of Indian descent, Shiva Naipaul, paints an interesting picture of this syndrome, and the so-called "Asians" being used as a buffer between Black and White- a meeting ground of mutual resentment and distrust.

As I walked along pondering these things, I saw an interesting incident. An older African man stopped his car at the side of the road, and went running over to warmly greet an elderly Indian man. They lit up to see each other, shook hands eagerly and spoke together for a few minutes with obvious warmth and concern in their faces. It was a beautiful thing to see.

There is also a fairly large Arab presence in East Africa, going back hundreds of years to a vast trading network, mainly along the coast and in Zanzibar, but stretching inland in search of ivory, and later, the shameful raw materials of slavery. I passed a mosque just as the people were coming out, everyone dressed in black and the women with heads and faces covered. A carload of them passed me, a whole family in sombre black, but with a brightly-colored flower of an African girl in the back who must have been the children's "nanny".

I walked back to the hotel with the sun almost down now, and the clouds at last clearing from the peak of Mount Meru. I met a few more of the group in the bar, as we gathered for our first dinner together in the hotel restaurant.

It was getting hopeless trying to connect sixteen new names and faces, but I knew about five of the group now. Just to make it more confusing, we even had a pair of twins, Heather and Barbara, red-haired and freckled farm girls from western Australia. At dinner I also met Alan, a young Scottish doctor, and his wife Carol, a nurse, who had missed their flight from London and had had to fly into Nairobi, then take a crowded taxi for the four-hour drive here. That made an adventurous start for their holiday.

I was fortunate to find myself sitting at the table beside Val and her eleven-year-old son Joe, as they carried on an interesting and informative conversation through dinner about the place, the people and the animals. They have an interesting story of their own.

Val decided to come to Africa from her native Australia shortly after her fortieth birthday, and sold her house and just took off with Joe. She had been a social worker, and was getting "burned out" on other people's problems, she told me. As the months passed without finding work, even cheap lodgings began to drain her savings, and they lived for five months in a Nairobi dormitory with seven hundred other transients. It's hard to imagine the discomfort, lack of privacy and sheer tedium of living that long under those conditions, and the constant, fruitless search for work made ever more urgent by their dwindling resources.

But she finally got a job as what is called a "courier" for the Tracks company, meeting the people at the airport, making the campsite reservations, organizing the crew and supplies- and listening to the complaints! But they seemed to enjoy their lives here, and had a nice house to live in which was provided by the company.

Joe told us that he hadn't been to school for over a year, as he was on a waiting list for the public school, as opposed to the alternative of paying ten thousand dollars to go to the American school. Wow! He had tried a correspondence course, but understandably it hadn't worked out too well. It would take a lot of discipline from within or without to make that work, without even the camaraderie of other children to leaven the task of learning. (I learned later that it was also Val's lack of proper residency papers that made it difficult for Joe to go to school!)

One could imagine that spending over a year living in Tanzania would be an education in itself, and that was certainly true. A bright-eyed, intelligent and articulate boy, Joe entertained us with stories about the wild animals, the natives, the lack of entertainment, and everyday life in Tanzania. He could speak Swahili very well, and conversed freely with the waiters and the young men who would be our driver and cook.

Val stood up after dinner to give us the "welcoming speech", explaining the nature of the trip to us, and what our responsibilities would be. We were asked to help with loading and unloading the truck each day, to set up and tear down our own tents, and to wash our own dishes. The three members of our crew would look after the driving and the preparation and cooking of the food. Fair enough. After all, we chose this kind of trip to get involved.

As I walked back to my room through the darkness of my first night in Africa, I watched a crescent moon moving in and out of the clouds, a few stars shining through as well. It was quite cool and I felt a few drops of rain coming down. I shivered and walked faster along the dimly lighted pathway.


Iyiolo eninuaa kake miyiolo enilo.
You know where you are coming from but not where you are going.
(Maasai Wisdom)

2- ngorongoro crater

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Having crossed six or seven time zones in a day, my inner clock was pretty confused. Even though I got to sleep early, I was awake by 2:30 in the morning and began reading the book I'd started on the plane, Herman Wouk's tragicomic Don't Stop the Carnival, about "real" life in a Caribbean resort. Coming to the end of it, and still wide-awake, I decided just to stay up until breakfast time, and started on The Moon And Sixpence, Somerset Maugham's fictionalization of the life of Paul Gauguin. I had read it years ago, before I even knew who Paul Gauguin was, and since I had become so engrossed in his work lately I had wanted to read it again.

When the sun came up I got out of bed, enjoyed the last hot shower I would have for a while, and put my pack together again.

It was a cool and overcast morning as I walked over to the main building, my heavy backpack pressing me into the ground. In the cold morning light you could see that the Hotel 77 was not aging gracefully. After only ten years the concrete was starting to crumble, and was badly water-stained.

Although many of the others had spoken of being on the truck for its 8:30 run into town, only Janne was in the dining room, and I invited myself to join her for breakfast. Janne was a big burly Australian lady, perhaps in her early forties, and was one of the Australians on the trip. She had been in Africa for about a month already, traveling in Botswana, Zimbabwe and visiting Victoria Falls. She told me she had also traveled widely in Canada, including a camping trip up into the Yukon and around Alaska. So she made good conversation. We were surprised to find that the morning coffee was instant, after all the coffee fields we had seen on the way in.

It would be interesting learning everyone's stories, how they came to be here and what occupations gave them the "disposable income", as people say, to be able to make a trip like this. Especially someone like Janne, who obviously had a couple of months of freedom and the savings to pay for it.

Four or five of us were waiting for the truck when it finally showed up around nine. We were to learn the nature of "African Standard Time", and not to take stated hours too literally! The American journalist David Lamb spent eight years as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Africa, and in his book The Africans he writes eloquently of this fundamentally different world-view: "you quickly realize that all those things you learned in the west about punctuality, efficiency and rational thought processes don't have much to do with Africa. Africa can only be explained in terms of Africa", and quotes an anonymous proverb:

"In Africa the clock is always at five minutes to twelve."

We were let off at the Clock Tower- which is, rather ironically the main crossroads of Arusha- while the truck went off to collect fresh provisions. Some people walked across to the post office, Janne was off on a quest for English cigarettes, and I was hoping to find some field guides to the birds and animals of East Africa. Val and Joe had told me of a kiosk in the New Arusha Hotel that should have some.

I went inside the bookstore l had looked at yesterday, and found that not just some, but most of the books were from China; Recollections of West Hunan, Yunan Travelogue, A Small Town Called Hibiscus, China and The World (including "China on Disarmament", "Chou En-Lai the Diplomat, "US Policy Towards Taiwan", and "West European Countries and Their Foreign Policies), The Taiping Revolution, and my personal favorite: China Today From Youth To Retirement; ("A Lost Or Hopeful Generation", "Marriage And Divorce Today", and "Growing Old And Gaining Respect"). I love that "lost generation" reference; how very literary! But they must just send crates and crates of English language books over from China, in a strange and futile kind of foreign "aid"- who reads them?

The only western book I saw in the whole store was a dusty pile of lurid purple copies of Goodbye Columbus. Since I've enjoyed some of Philip Roth's later books and had never read this one, I picked up a copy, figuring it would make an interesting souvenir.

It was strange to see the car dealers, Ford, Renault and Peugeot, with their showrooms absolutely empty but for one old tractor in the Ford window. This was a good indication of the shortage both of goods and the money with which to buy them.

There was quite a lot more hustle and bustle around Arusha on a Monday morning than there had been on Sunday. I learned that the black market in East Africa is very active in foreign exchange, offering rates up to double the official one, and I was approached several times by young men with "Change money? Change money?". But of course it's highly illegal, and since you're supposed to declare all your foreign currency at the border, and must carry a receipt to account for all your exchanges, you'd have to smuggle money in to be able to use their services.

I found the kiosk in the New Arusha Hotel, and sure enough, the old fellow had what I wanted, The Field Guide to the National Parks of East Africa, among his meagre stock of scruffy, mostly second-hand novels. The only problem was that he was asking an outrageous price for it. Twenty-five hundred shillings- that's almost fifty Canadian dollars!

Remembering the advice about bargaining for everything, I offered half of what he asked, but he just shook his head no. "Maybe in Kenya you can get it for less, but it costs more to get everything here". So I offered a little more and still he firmly refused.

Well, I knew I really wanted to have the book, in it were pictures and information on most of the birds and animals we'd be seeing. And this- this- pirate had the market cornered, so I pulled out my wallet- only to find I was five hundred shillings short of the asking price.


I asked at the front desk if they would change a traveler's cheque for me, but they would only change money for their guests, and sent me across the street to the bank. This was to be an education and an adventure. It was a fairly large building, but there were at least a hundred people in there milling around the tellers' windows. I found that the foreign exchange desk was off to the side, and joined a small group of conspicuously pale people in that lineup.

When I finally got to the front, I had watched and was familiar with the routine. I filled out a couple of forms, and handed them to the lady behind the counter, along with my foreign exchange receipt, my passport and the signed traveler's cheque. Then they were sent off to sit for a while on another desk, eventually to be stamped without interest and returned, and shuffled to yet another desk. Eventually the pile of papers is returned to you, and you're sent to a teller to actually (and finally) receive your money.

I went to the indicated teller and stood behind a couple of young men, one of whom seemed to be discussing an urgent matter with the young woman behind the counter. I waited impatiently for them to finish their transaction. Suddenly she was holding out her hand for my papers, while continuing to talk to the one young man in a rapid-fire delivery, and passed a big bundle of Tanzanian shillings past the two of them and into my hands. I thought this rather strange, but after spending the last forty minutes doing all of this I just wanted to get away. As I counted the impressive-looking stack of notes, trying to calculate if the exchange was right, and then finally gave up on it and turned to go, she never once had to interrupt her conversation. Bureaucratic efficiency in action.

Now I was running late, as it was after ten o'clock, the announced departure time. I hurried across the street and pain the ransom for the field guide, then walked rapidly back toward the hotel. I kept looking over my shoulder and hoping to see the big pink truck on its way back, to know that it was late- and I wasn't. It would be terrible to get there and see the whole group sitting in the truck waiting for me- on the first day too!

But I needn't have worried. I'd forgotten- we're on "African Time" now. You poor fool, don't take a silly thing like time too seriously!

There's sunrise, and there's sunset, and then there's all the time in between. That's all.

It was more than an hour later, well after eleven, before we were finally aboard the truck, to receive a little more advice from Stewart, the young Englishman who was "Operations Manager" for Tracks. I gather it was his job to basically keep the trucks running, and repair abuses they suffered on safari.

There was a buzzer in the back of the truck which communicated with the cab, and he told us how to press it once to stop for photos or whatever, twice to go again, and three times for an emergency toilet stop, A shovel- The Shovel- was provided for the digging of personal latrines. We were advised not to wander away from the truck for this purpose, nor to wander away from our tents during the night- for any purpose. He told us an amusing but probably apocryphal story of someone running out from behind a bush with their trousers around their ankles, having been "unseated" by a passing lion.

We drove out of Arusha on the Uhuru Road, seeing another side of life in the town. Away from the faded charm of the colonial houses, and the rows of shops around the centre of now we passed through a crowded area of corrugated metal shacks, some with signs advertising "Hotel". This was confusing at first, until I learned that "hotel" means "bar" and "lodgings" means "hotel". Okay.

Both sides of the road were a pageant of people, buses, dogs, goats wrecked cars (stationary and still moving), women carrying great baskets on their heads, men in native dress with their walking sticks, and others lounging in doorways and against the walls. It reminded me of something young Joe had said at dinner last night, that if the women of Tanzania laid down their tools and burdens the whole country would fall to pieces.

As we left the town we also passed out of the rainshadow of Mount Meru the sun was shining now and the country became dry and dusty. We passed a few coffee farms, and some fields of dried-up corn stalks, then were upon a flat plain of brown and yellow grass with rounded hills in the distance. There were only occasional flat-topped acacia trees, cacti and thorn bushes now.

The paved road lasted about forty-miles, then we were into wilder country. Instead of goats and cattle we were seeing ostriches and zebras- our first wildlife. A huge male ostrich cavorted before his chosen hen, white wing feathers dipping back and forth in an impressive mating dance. I hadn't imagined these exotic creatures to be so plentiful, but they are one of the commonly seen wild animals. Now we were intently watching the passing landscape, and were rewarded by seeing a herd of Wildebeest, more zebras, Impalas, Secretary Birds and a giraffe. We watched many hawks and vultures circling high overhead.

It was already starting to feel like a trip back in time. These were the plains across which our earliest ancestors walked, and to the eye at least, nothing has changed. I couldn't help but think back in time, and I felt a kind of "atavistic homesickness". We passed a strikingly arrayed group of warriors, all dressed in black robes, their faces wildly painted with white stripes, and black feathered headdresses wafting out behind them. Unfortunately though, in reality the costumes were probably in hope of earning a few shillings by posing for photographs.

Apart from the characteristic acacia trees of the plains, there were also many of the majestic Baobab trees, dormant now in the dry season, their impossibly thick trunks full of spongy material which stores water for the dry months. I learned from one of the twins, Heather- or was it Barbara?- that these unusual trees are also found in northwestern Australia, and since they are often hollow, there is a famous one there that was used as a jail- naughty people were simply locked up inside the tree for the night.

Barbara- or was it Heather?- was also telling me that their family farm in Australia is 11,000 acres, of which 3000 are planted in wheat. That is a big farm, and it sounds as if they have a good life there, remote but self-contained. They first met Janne and Cheryl, the other Australian girls, on a camping trip in the Yukon and Alaska, and they had all decided to share this trip as well.

Anywhere the bare trees were tall enough we would see long wooden cylinders hanging from high branches. These were a source of mystery and much speculation among us. My best theory at the time was that they were for drying meat, to keep the animals away, but I later learned that they were in fact beehives.

Around midday we pulled off the road and parked on the plains, among the dry brown grass and small thorn trees. The crew put together a light lunch with a nice salad, along with the "Dettol Ritual"- a bowl with a solution of the disinfectant Dettol in which we were to rinse our hands before meals. Thus our food would always be "flavor-enhanced" with the wonderful scent of disinfectant. Alan and Carol, doctor and nurse, laughed at this idea, saying that you'd have to soak your hands for several minutes in a very strong solution for it to do any good, but we all went along with it. You can't argue with rituals.

A group of children materialized out of the thorns and dry grass, leaving their herds of cattle and goats to stare at us for a while. We had learned to say "Jambo" ("hello", or "how are you?"), but that was as far as our communications could go. They just stood there silently and looked at us, not moving until we drove away again.

Later in the afternoon we made the long, steep climb up the wall of the Rift Valley. It was about two thousand feet high here, up a rocky dirt road winding back and forth across it. We labored upward, with baboons wandering along the dusty road beside us, then crossed a fertile plateau to the entrance of the Ngorongoro Crater Park. We had gained a lot of altitude already, and it was fertile and lush once again. By the time we climbed up even higher, to the rim of the crater, we were at eight or nine thousand feet, and were surrounded by rich and tangled greenery. We stopped on the road to gather some firewood, and enjoyed a fabulous view back over the plateau in the dwindling light.

It was dark by the time we arrived at our campsite, Simba Camp, (simba means lion in Swahili- great!) and we helped to unload the tents and baggage. It was a challenge trying to set up unfamiliar tents in the dark, but we stood around shining our flashlights on our cook, Emmanuel, as he demonstrated with one, and then we went off to try our luck with the others.

A linguistic note: to everyone else on the trip a flashlight was a "torch", and a "zee-bra" was a "ze-bra", and, being the only North American, for the sake of "standardizing communication" I soon found myself bending to these terms.

People seemed to separate into tent-sharing units without discussion, and we found that there were two tents to be shared between three single men. One of them was Geoff, a six-foot-six New Zealander, so Simon and I agreed to share one tent, and let the over-sized Geoff have one of his own. The three of us became good friends almost immediately, and Simon turned out to be a great person to share a tent- and an adventure- with. Once again, as in China, I had thrown myself into the middle of a group of strangers and come up lucky.

Simon is a squarely built, compact man, with a round expressive Welsh face haloed with short dark hair, and an active, if somewhat droll, sense of humor. A seemingly confirmed bachelor, he's young for his age- mid-forties- and keeps himself in good shape with cricket and rugby. Simon is the best kind of Englishman, one who has traveled widely enough to gain an open mind. (Well, mostly open- he didn't always agree with me!)

In his youth he had spent a year or so in Norway as a lumberjack, living out in the remote forest with an older Norwegian woodsman, each unable to speak the other's language. He has also spent a lot of time in the US, traveling around the "real America" by bus, and making friends while visiting quite a few different parts of the country. Thus he is blessedly free of the anti-American paranoia which afflicts so many of his countrypeople; the complete contempt for two hundred million people they've never met and the vast and beautiful land they've never seen. (Except on television of course.)

The darkness was soon a mass of shadowy activity, lit now by a fire as well as by truck's spotlight. The tents were soon up, and everyone was struggling against the greater obstacle of the camp beds, trying to sort the mysterious struts into their proper shape. One of each pair of happy campers would be shining a flashlight (torch) on the bits and pieces while the other tried to assemble them with force and bad words. I shared a bit of my whisky with Simon and Geoff, from a flask of Chivas Regal I had brought for just such "emergencies".

It was cool in the night at this altitude, so I put on a sweatshirt and jacket and joined the rest of the group shivering by the fire. After the baptismal Dettol ritual, we enjoyed a welcome spaghetti dinner. Alan and Carol aroused some jocular comments with their "torches" mounted on their heads, but I'm sure they found them very useful- and they had the advantage of being able to see their food!

Taking a cup of hot black coffee, I wandered away from the light to look at the stars and talk to my tape recorder. I was evolving a good system of keeping written notes when I was with the group, and recording them when I could get away by myself. I looked up to the clear black sky and a bright crescent moon, with the Milky Way stretching across the heavens.

Still out of sync with the time changes, I slept for a few hours and then was awake most the night. I lay there in the utter darkness, uncomfortable on the confining camp bed, and resolved in future just to sleep on the ground with my foam pad- at least I'd be able to roll over!

Every once in a while my pulse quickened to hear the roar of lions from down in the crater, and what must have been the eerie wailing of hyenas. It was a bit spooky, and I had to reflect on how cool I'd be able to be if I heard something big snuffling right outside the tent. Could I just lie there and wait for it to go away? Simon got up in the night to relieve himself, and remembering Stewarts warning about wandering away from the camp, he just knelt at the door of the tent.


Ukenda chooni na giza basi shetani atakupiga kofi.
If you go to the lavatory in the dark, the devil will give you a box on the ears.
(Swahili Superstition)

3- game drive

"To depart on a safari is not only a physical act, it is also a gesture.
You leave behind the worries, the strains, the irritations of life among people under pressure,
and enter the world of creatures who are pressed into no moulds, but have only to be themselves. . ."

Elspeth Huxley
The Mottled Lizard
Click to enlarge

At 5:30 AM most of the group was up and about, though it was still very dark, and surprising cold. The spotlight from the truck was diffused into a wash of light by the thick damp air, and shapeless figures moved in the shadows. The solid beams of flashlights moved across the dark grass as we took down the tents and packed up our things, like gypsies stealing away in the night. As we finished packing and began to huddle around the fire I got a great picture of Simon emerging out of the foggy darkness, a yellow waterproof poncho reaching down to his bare knees, and The Shovel over his shoulder.

Everyone was talking about the sounds of the night : "Did you hear the lions?", "Did you hear the hyenas?" One of the girls, I think it was Simon's friend Kathy, told us that she had been outside during the night, and had turned around to see the stripes of a zebra in the moonlight, right there in camp. The crew also told us there had been some hyenas through camp in the night. Wow!

There was some grumbling about other sounds of the night as well. There are no secrets between the thin walls of neighboring tents. Apparently Janne was a loud and frequent snorer, and her experienced traveling companion Cheryl has learned to sleep with earplugs. Their neighbors however, were not so well-equipped. And the two young Englishmen, Ross and Grahame, also took it in turns to add to the chorus of the African night, and they all took some good-natured ribbing. This would become a regular morning litany, recounting the concerts of the night before.

There was fresh fruit, bread, margarine and jam laid out on the folding table, and Emmanuel sat on a stone by the fire breaking eggs into the big frying pan. Coffee and hot water for tea were in metal pots on the large square grill which stood over the fire. It was funny to see the Australian girls sharing a jar of Vegemite, and Cheryl gave lessons in making toast on a fork over an open fire. It's a demanding art- attested to by the number of broken slices of bread which collected in the ashes. I moved as close to the heat of the fire as I could, hands around a mug of hot coffee, amazed at how cold it was- I mean this is supposed to be equatorial Africa- but of course here on the crater rim we were at almost 8000' of altitude.

With breakfast over, the tents heaved up to the rack over the cab, and everything loaded into the back of the truck, it was noted that one of the rear tires was a little on the flat side. So we stood around and shivered a while longer while the crew tried to get it off and change it. They couldn't get the jack to raise the truck high enough to get the wheel off, and ended up digging a hole under it.

Of course, we were all eager to get out and see some animals, and eventually we were driving off into the fog, even colder now moving through the chill air in the open truck, and the scats were covered with heavy condensation. Beside the narrow dirt road we could make out the trees, eerie as they appeared out of the fog, moss hanging from their branches. We all caught our breath as we sighted three elephants slowly foraging among them.

We stopped at a group of buildings to pick up our guide for the day, then finally headed down into the crater. The Ngorongoro Crater, more correctly called a caldera, is the largest and most perfect in the world. About nine miles in diameter, its walls form a circle some two and a half thousand feet high. The whole area comprises a game park, the floor of the crater stretching over a hundred square miles, and providing many natural environments for the thousands of animals which are protected there.

We couldn't see much as we started down the steep one-lane track, which was perhaps just as well as we wound dangerously down this precipitous dirt road. But as we descended below the clouds which lingered on the rim, this amazing vision began to clear. In the middle of the walled circle of brown grasslands was a blue lake, perhaps three miles long, and thin lines of greenery across the savanna indicated the nourishing moisture of small rivers. There are also two areas of acacia forest, to add to the great variety of habitats. The remains of a wrecked truck near the bottom graphically illustrated the dangers of the descent.

As we drove out onto the crater floor, the first thing we saw, to our great excitement, was a pair of lions, male and female, walking slowly through the short grass. The truck came to a stop and the engine was switched off, as we took turns moving to the left side for pictures, and tried to stifle the 'oohs' and 'aahs' of excitement. Suddenly the male climbed atop the female and started mating energetically, oblivious to or perhaps contemptuous of our presence. As the short performance ended, and the pair continued walking calmly along, our guide told us that they would be back at it every fifteen minutes or so.

"Really", said Simon, "what takes him so long?"

Vast herds of Wildebeest, mixing with smaller numbers of zebras and the huge African Buffalo, stretched across the plains, and there were many herds of different kinds of antelope; Grant's Gazelles, Thomson's Gazelles, Kongoni, and the largest of them all, the Eland. The shy and bizarre-looking Warthogs went trotting away as we approached, their tails in the air like radio antennae. There was such an exciting variety and abundance of wildlife, and we were busy spotting new ones, taking photos, consulting the field guides for identification, and just looking around in wonder.

We stopped on the shore of the lake to marvel at the vast numbers of flamingos, living on tie algae formed by the alkaline lake. A small flock of white Sacred Ibis flew overhead, their black necks outstretched, and the noble Crowned Crane made a beautiful sight, with the straw-colored tiara which gives it its name. At the "hippo pool" we could see their shiny backs, and occasionally pink nostrils and ears, but they remained cool and discreet beneath the surface.

One of the best sights of all was a whole family of hyenas sunning themselves around a complex of burrows. The adults stood a lazy guard, while the pups played and fought between them. Whenever the very small ones would pop their heads out of the holes, they would be pushed back down again by the older pups, acting as playful but firm babysitters. We were learning how to be silent now, or at least to be excited in whispers, and we sat and watched them for about fifteen minutes, fascinated to be witness to this domestic scene.

Our guide promised to find us a Black Rhinoceros, perhaps the rarest of all animals these days, having suffered so much from the depredations of poachers. I was astonished to learn that in the last ten years, some ninety percent of the rhinos have been wiped out, all for the sake of their horns. All this unbelievably irresponsible slaughter, just so a Yemeni can display his manhood with a rhino-horn dagger handle, or some Oriental can bolster his with a spurious aphrodisiac. In the game park offices I saw many gruesome pictures of rhinos and elephants which had been killed by poachers, untouched except for a bloody gash where the horn or the tusks used to be. Very sad. In fact more than that- maddening.

Near a reedy area there were a couple of Land Rovers already parked, one of them with a camera on a tripod perched on the roof. Most of the smaller safari vehicles have removable roof panels, which make for excellent game viewing or photography. In our big tall truck, we could just hang out of the open sides- or clamber up on the framework of the tarpaulin roof for something really special. We stopped beside the Land Rovers, and followed their camera lenses and binoculars to a black shape among the reeds.

Through the glasses you could just make out the line of a dark back sloping to a large head, and that tragic horn protruding up and back. Though we watched fixedly for quite some time, he wasn't moving, and that was all we would see of this rhino. But even that was fortunate enough, as in my whole time in Africa I never saw another, which is not surprising as there are reckoned to be less than a thousand left, and those must be particularly wary and evasive to have survived the greedy poachers.

As we moved across the crater floor once more we saw another rare sight, a Bat-Eared Fox trotting along the dusty track. This is the only fox native to Africa, and since these animals are normally nocturnal it is unusual to see one abroad in daylight. We approached one of the acacia woodlands, and spied a couple of elephants browsing among the trees. Just beyond the woods we stopped in an open clearing for lunch.

We learned that this was the spot where we would have camped last night, had we made it to the crater earlier. One could see why they chose not to drive down that road in the dark, but how fantastic it would have been to have awakened this morning in the middle of this world of wonders. If we had left Arusha on time we would surely have made it. It was a nice campsite, with outhouses and running water- and what a setting! The crater is like a vast amphitheatre, with its green walls stretching around the horizon, and a complex and beautiful chain of life within.

While the crew prepared lunch we laid around in the dry grass, feeling the hot sun finally draining the last of the morning chill from our bodies. Layers of clothing and long pants were coming off now. The heat shimmered on the plain as you looked out, blurring the figures of a huge herd of Wildebeest. Apparently the only animal which doesn't live in the crater is the giraffe, as the crater walls are too steep for its ungainly body to negotiate.

The steepness of those crater walls became a subject of close scrutiny for us, as our truck began the arduous ascent up the exit road. Once again a single-lane dirt track, it zigzagged up the half-mile wall of the crater in only about four switchbacks, so it was extremely steep. The truck strained in low gear, climbing slowly upward as the crater floor receded below us. To look down, over the side was to look into space.

What a test of driving skill for our driver- and what a test of nerves for the passengers! There was one switchback where a rock all prevented us making it in one turn, and we nervously as he backed up to the edge of the road, where a sheer drop of a couple of thousand feet fell away behind us. We looked at each other questioningly, eyebrows raised and I was glad to be sitting on the outside- mentally preparing to leap out! Even the guide, who must have made this climb dozens of times, grinned a little nervously in the back of the truck. I couldn't help but picture the twisted wreck we had seen on the way down. I watched the orange and grey Agama lizards scampering on the rock face, inches from the side of the truck. We all drew a deep breath when we emerged into the rain forest at the top of the crater. Now that was adventure!

As we reached the cluster of buildings once more to drop off our guide, Geoff and I put together a tip for him, and Geoff delivered an eloquent speech of thanks on behalf of all of us. I mentioned before that he is a big fellow, six-foot-six, 250 pounds, and his legs make mine look like toothpicks. Though he mightn't thank me for it he looks like James Arness in the old Gunsmoke TV series. In spite of his stature, he is one of the "gentle giant" breed, a soft-spoken New Zealander in his mid-thirties, and one of the truly nicest people I have ever met. With touching and almost naive sincerity, he said that it had been one of the greatest days of his seeing all of those animals in the wild, and I found that he was expressing my own inner excitement, which I would probably have been too self-conscious to state. Bravo Geoff.

We stopped at an outlook on the top, looking over the bright floor of the crater to one side and down to the dark green plateau on the other. There was a memorial there to several people who had died in the service of the wildlife. One killed in a plane crash in the Serengeti, one killed by a rhino attack, but saddest of all were the last several names on the list- all killed by poachers. What punishment could possibly fit these inhuman criminals? (Their own extinction might be a start!)

We were soon out of the humid lushness of the crater forests, continuing downhill past barren yellow hills, sometimes with a crown of green at the top where the moisture collected. After an area of rocks and thorny scrub, we were back on the bare and dusty plains. It was all on such an incredibly vast scale, mile after mile of dry savanna, yellow-brown and featureless, unbroken even by the usual thorn trees. A thick cloud of dust billowed behind the truck, soon covering us and all our possessions with a layer of grit. We passed many herds of the attractive little Thomson's Gazelles, with their long delicate horns, and trim brown bodies marked by the characteristic black side-stripe.

Leafless, dead-looking thorn trees sometimes clustered around a dry rocky riverbed, and there we would see a few giraffes and baboons. An occasional hyena loped across the plains, and I loved to see the pretty black and grey Secretary Birds stalking their prey in the grass. It is the only bird of prey which doesn't hunt from the air, but simply by walking around. In fact they seem to fly only reluctantly, striding around on their long legs and picking snakes and rodents out of the grass.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at the gate of Serengeti National Park, and while the driver went into the office to register, we were relieved to climb down from the truck and stretch for a few minutes. I say "relieved" advisedly, as being bounced around on the rough roads is tiring, and hard on the bladder. We were up on a small hill here, and there were several large boulders and acacia trees forming an island on the featureless plain we had been crossing for hours.

We watched a pair of giraffes browsing in the nearby trees, when suddenly a big hyena walked out and lay down in the sun, maybe thirty yards from where we stood. Even without binoculars you could count his spots. The giraffes watched him closely, as did we, to see what this sneaky fellow was up to. But it was a three-way standoff, with the giraffes, the hyena and us all watching each other warily.

I think that hyenas have been the victims of bad press. Seeing them in the wild, especially that family at Ngorongoro, really gave me an affection for these much-maligned animals. I find them quite attractive to look at, muscular and purposeful-looking, and their voices in the night are as eerie and haunting as the song of the loon. Their reputation as scavengers is largely undeserved, as they are reputed to be excellent hunters, often having their prey stolen away by lions.

With all of the wildlife programs I have watched about it over the years, it was almost like a pilgrimage to be visiting the fabled Serengeti Plain. As the truck got underway again I stared around me fascinated. It began like the golden-brown grasslands we had been crossing all day, but soon a series of rocky outcroppings appeared, jutting out of the savanna here and there in fantastic shapes. The effect was like a supernatural version of the stone icons which the Inuit build in the Arctic.

These mystical towers which dot the limitless plain are called kopjes (silent "j"), and as I learned from one of those nature programs, form a complete little ecosystem of their own. Birds, small mammals and reptiles all make their homes there, and predators use them as a lookout post from which to survey the plains.

The park itself is impossibly vast, over five thousand square miles, and our campsite was near the centre. So it was still a couple of hours' drive, with only a brief stop at a dry riverbed to collect some firewood. I climbed back into the truck covered with burrs and thorns from the tangled undergrowth. We watched the sun setting above the open country, shining in and out of the brilliantly-colored clouds.

It was beginning to seem like a long day, exciting but tiring, and we were glad to finally arrive at our campsite. The fire of a neighboring group of campers offered a welcome suggestion of security in this wild place. A couple of times a blur of motion crossed the ground in the path of our headlights. These were the Banded Mongoose, we decided after some discussion and a consultation in the field guide.

Once again we set up our tents in the dark, though this time with some familiarity. Simon and I had a passion for "organization" in common, and we had it down to a system, where he would stake out the pegs while I assembled the struts, and then I would erect the centre pole and the fly sheet while he wrestled with the camp bed. We had even tried to introduce a rotation system for the truck, so everyone would be in a different seat every day, but it was only half-heartedly adopted. Some people just seem to resist "organization" of any kind- even in the interest of fairness!

By the time everyone was "moved in", Emmanuel had supper almost ready, and gathered around the fire on the little folding campstools to enjoy a welcome meal. (Avec le parfum de Dettol, naturellement!) Conversations began to spread among all these new acquaintances, the shared experiences of the last two days already drawing a bond between us. I really had lucked into a special group of people here. Even with a few couples among mostly single people, a mix of several nationalities, and the Australian girls who had traveled together before, there was no "cliquishness". Everyone mixed pretty freely, and by the end of the week there was hardly anyone in the group with whom I didn't have at least one really good conversation. And with Simon- I had a lot. We really struck up a rare friendship.

And though he would blush to hear it, he's a great person. He claims he has never married because of a dark side to his nature, and that he can be "a right miserable bastard" when the mood strikes him. But I never knew him to be other than good-natured, cheerful, vocal, funny- and sometimes vulgar- but also thoughtful, intelligent and well-informed. He possesses two qualities which endear a person to me. One; and perhaps greatest in all estimation of my Fellow Man, he makes me laugh! And two; he loves to talk about any number of interesting subjects, full of opinions with the knowledge to back them up, and full of a real love for the world and delight in life. He works as a Systems Analyst, which explains his love of organization. For mine I offer no excuse.

The senior members of our group were Ray and Day (short for Daisy), who were both in their late sixties. Ray is Australian, and Day was born in New Zealand. They were truly a sweet old couple, warm and solicitous to each other and to everyone else, always bright-eyed and enthusiastic, and uncomplaining about the discomforts of bouncing around in the hot dusty truck all day, lugging tents around and setting them up, and sleeping in those horrible camp beds. It was sobering to realize they had children older than me.

A few clouds drifted slowly across the dark sky, black masses passing over the stars and a bright half moon. The beacon of flames and smoke from our fire was mirrored by that of our neighbors, perhaps fifty yards away. All else was impenetrable darkness. As we sat or stood in groups around the fire, drinks were shared from Duty Free bottles of whisky and brandy, and the talking went on for hours.

Simon and I stood with Ray and Day for a while, as they told some good stories from their long and interesting life together. Ray is a veteran of World War Two, and I believe they actually met and were married in England during the war. Day told a long story of returning to New Zealand for her class reunion, full of calamities and farce, and they told us of a hiking trip they had taken in the mountains of New Zealand some years ago.

Then I fell into a good conversation with Geoff, Simon and his friend Kathy, who is an English lady, a few years younger than Simon, who works as a draftswoman in the field of Industrial Design. As they knew what I do for a living, the conversation eventually turned to music. Naturally enough, people are very interested in the workings of the maverick demimonde of the music business, an interest which I understand because I am too. Being uncomfortable with the "fantasy" aspect of the public perception, I am always glad to explain the reality of it, as an art and as a business (and ever the twain shall meet!)

As often happens, I was caught up in a discussion of the "morality" of music. This is a dangerous subject to let me get started on, as it is something I take seriously. In explaining how I see my own work, songwriting as an expression of thoughts and feelings I care about, music as a reflection of craftsmanship and informed taste, I wandered into an explanation of the "cheaters"- those who "play down" to their audience, calculating everything they do to the lowest common denominator of public acceptance. It probably got started by someone mentioning someone (an "entertainer" most likely, as opposed to a musician) for whom I have no respect, forcing me to explain why! (Yeah.)

It was a strange subject to be expounding upon before a fire in the middle of the Serengeti Plain, under the African night sky, but expound I did:

"There are all kinds of "tricks" which a musician can use, both in songwriting and performance. As a simple example, there are certain chord progressions which will trigger broad emotions of, say, sadness, and certain easy clichés which will ensure an audience response, whether to dance, tap their feet, bang their heads, feel happy or angry or sad. But of course these are shallow things, and draw only shallow responses. That's one reason why there are so many bands who appear and disappear like shooting stars, either they run out of "tricks", they aren't smart enough to figure them out again, or they start to believe those who tell them how great they are, in preference to facing the, ah- unattractive truth."

And I went on fearlessly into the even darker realms of taste:

"Well you know, one thing that really bothers me is that people set themselves up, every one, as experts on music. Only in the- what would you call them?- "entertainment arts" [loathsome expression], like music, TV, movies, do people really believe that they know what's good or bad. People don't think their opinions are equal to the knowledge of, say, a doctor or a scientist, but you can't say: 'Look, I've been studying and playing music for over twenty years, I know something about it'. That doesn't mean a thing. But again, as in any profession, when someone becomes successful by what you consider to be dishonest means, you resent it. Or I do, anyway."

And on and on I rambled, now orating on the subject of "quality":

"And it's never a question of "I like this", or "I don't like that". It's not an expression of their personal taste. It's always this song or this artist is good, that one is bad. So it's a qualitative judgement, and an accepted truth. The thing you like is good, the thing you don't like is bad. And, (I laughed), like other notorious things which everybody has, you can't argue with opinions!

"But I have learned that there is music which I might like but I know isn't very good, like some infectious little pop songs, and there is music which I know, by objective measures of quality, like some classical music, is very good but doesn't move me. So I think there's a big difference between taste and quality.

"Even some professionals, musicians and critics, fail to acknowledge this distinction, denying any 'objective criteria'. Bollocks! People who care about music know the difference. Even the great Duke Ellington said it: 'There are only two kinds of music. Good music and bad music.'"

Everyone was asleep.


Ejo tunani shaat ena naa torrono ena, kake meeta enayiolo te pokira.
A man says this is good and that is bad but he knows nothing of the two.
(Maasai Wisdom)

[End of excerpt]