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Tanzania is famed for its safaris so Nicola Jackson takes a less crowded route for an undiluted and multisensory African adventure on the mainland before finishing with an island hop to sultry Zanzibar.
We ate lunch overlooking a lion's buffet. About 30 antelope were grazing at the lake's edge, their plump hides contrasting gold with the salad-green lily pads. It was deliciously quiet. I thought about the predatory lioness we had been tracking just ten minutes earlier, but I bit my lip and perched near the bonnet, occasionally scanning the grass for a twitch of feline ears.
Just as I was starting to drop my guard, there was a smudge of tan and white — the entire herd of impala bolted. The lioness sprang out of the mopane scrub in front of us, muscles wrestling under her blonde fur. Seeing us, she darted into the bush, maybe six metres away from a thicket, where one of our group had nipped for privacy. Shouts of 'get in the car!' mingled with impala barks and the cry of worried birds. Louise emerged, tucking her shirt in calmly, completely unaware of the cat she'd crossed paths with.
Chances are nothing would have happened. But thoughts of mauled intrepid travellers and wild stories of near-death experiences were swapped and exaggerated in the Land Rover for the rest of the afternoon. We were in the right location for big, emboldened tales. We were in East Africa, where violence and romance blur like wind through long grass.
I had flown into Kilimanjaro International Airport, where, even close to midnight, the air felt the same temperature as my blood. The aptly named Kia Lodge is ten minutes from the airport and yet feels a world away from the anaesthetised corridors of typical airport hotels. Here, elegant Masai men wrapped in crimson blankets, or shuka, escorted me along winding pathways fringed with lush aloes and blossoming bougainvillea.
My room was an individual chalet with a simple shower and a vast mosquito net. I went for a stroll and found the rustic bar, where I sat next to the resident dog and sipped my first Kilimanjaro beer. Most other travellers were stopping over on their way to tackle Kilimanjaro, Africa's 5,895m-high mountain, which lurches independently out of the surrounding balmy plains.
From Kia Lodge, on a clear day, the snowcapped peak of the legendary dormant volcanic mountain looms in the distance. I admit I had been relieved to discover the strenuous hike was not on my itinerary. I was going to be using planes, trains and automobiles to zigzag across Tanzania. The route would start on a little-known ranch in the northern territory, zig to the lesser-known bush and beaches of the east coast, then zag south to the mighty Selous Game Reserve and finish in sultry Zanzibar.
The next morning I met up with the rest of the team I'd be travelling with. There were ten of us in total, and our ages ranged from teens to 50s. Our transfer vehicle was a dilapidated olive-green minibus that was so rickety, a hammer and spanner were needed to pry open the boot. When everyone roared with laughter, we knew it was going to be easy being together (Africa's not a good country for prima donnas). A few hours later, when the boot popped open and spewed our luggage into the fine red dust at 80km an hour, there was another peal of laughter. I was relieved — without a sense of humour in common, the next ten days could be a shocker.
Ndarakwai Ranch's owner, Peter Jones, had been shopping for a tidy eight hectares in 1994 but couldn't resist the 11,000-hectare challenge presented by this ex-colonial cattle farm. The result, 16 years later, is a classy fusion of conservation and luxury that has Jones achieving his dream of evolving the local landscape. The rooms are independent, with thatched roofs and canvas sides, there's enough porcelain to keep you comfortable, and hot showers are created with an ingenious raised bucket-and-pulley system. Guests simply order water, and gravity does the rest. The main lodge has various collections of chairs, couches and hammocks, while the two hippo-sized fireplaces add drama to the space. It is a tasteful interpretation of Africa, and has been sensitively built using local craftsmen and materials.
From the ranch, we hiked through the wilderness, drove in the amber dusk and knocked back aperitifs at the two-storey tree house that looks like a homage to the post-apocalyptic movie Mad Max. We saw an astounding number of Tanzania's national symbol, the giraffe, moving in slow motion against a backdrop of pale lavender mountains. We watched herds of mismatched wildebeest and dazzles of zebra, traced hyena tracks in the dirt and learnt about the termites that literally build mountains out of molehills. We walked alongside secretary birds and followed shy elephant families through acacia trees.
All this is good news for Ndarakwai, as the area is being rediscovered as a safe passage between Amboselli and Arusha National Parks. An astounding 70 per cent of Tanzanian wildlife is believed to live outside the national parks, and as a result controlling poaching and human-wildlife conflict is complicated.
Ndarakwai's highlight, however, is the ranch's proximity to an authentic Masai village. We arrived just before the livestock were shepherded back from grazing, and it was magical. Dust was kicked up in the dung-floored boma, where livestock are kept, and thin threads of wood smoke hung in the pink-tinged light. The Masai women were wrapped in deep jewel colours, with layers of beads around their necks and wrists. Their elegant shaved heads and traditional body modification of stretched ear lobes and skin scarification give them a unique and iconic grace. I bought two intricate pieces of beadwork from a young Masai mother — a long necklace and a wide bracelet cuff that she laced on to my arm with thin string.
These undiluted African experiences are unfortunately becoming rarer. I saw a Masai man on a mobile and noticed plastic sandals that have replaced the goatskin or tyre-tread shoes of old. Current initiatives encourage the Masai to evolve and urbanise, as both drought and relocation outside conservation areas threaten their pastoral way of life. Last year, up to 65,000 cattle died as a result of the 2009 droughts. The droughts were made worse because the Masai are no longer able to migrate towards the natural water sources that lie within the parks. However, it is also these pristine parks that present a new revenue stream, through village visits and craft sales to tourists.
Soon we were to do our fair share of staring out of a window. After three relaxing nights in the hinterlands of West Kili, we made the long and arduous drive to the coast of Saadani in a bizarrely out-of-context Japanese school bus. The driver had a kamikaze sense of urgency and he, his mechanic and co-driver talked animated Swahili for eight hot, bumpy hours. The group teased me about how I was going to gloss over this sticky, itchy part of the trip but, honestly, if I were to do this again, I would add on a leg to the Ngorongoro Crater and then fly to the Saadani area. The drive is long and while you get a glimpse of Tanzanian villages, there isn't time to explore them.
Our final destination is worth the journey. Tent With a View's location, on the border of Saadani National Park, is that kind of castaway paradise you associate with romantic novels. The gently sloping white beach is fringed with tall palms, interspersed with stilted bandas just metres from the gentle, warm Indian Ocean. The nearby Wami river boat trip was far richer than the game drives, and it quickly became clear that Saadani National Park, though geographically striking, is still developing its game diversity and stock after heavy poaching in the 1990s.
We boarded the Tazara train in Dar es Salaam for Kisaki and were ushered into tiny retro sleeping cabins. The humble berths make up the first-class section of the train and allow for those travelling overnight to Zambia. A young German doctor, on his way to do voluntary work in a remote village, shared the cabin with me. We sipped cold drinks in the intense heat and swapped seats to snatch views of the smudging Tanzanian landscapes. Unfortunately, the section in the Selous Game Reserve was swamped in looming dark. I am sure African nights darken faster than anywhere else in the world, and it was into this deep purple blackness that we were despatched at 9pm. At Kisaki there is no platform, so we had to throw our luggage out of the cabin window into the arms of waiting porters and then leap out of the train doors on to the tracks 6ft below.
As we lurched into Sable Mountain Lodge in open-topped safarivehicles, it was so dark we could see little more than stars. After two courses of a delicious but unidentifiable meal, we collectively got uncontrollable giggles. There was a birthday, and it was made unforgettable by the staff who punctuated the dark with a massive green and brown cake laden with the brightest light we had seen for hours — a mass of candles. Each time the candles blew out, the staff stopped singing. It was like a comedy sketch.
The next day, the sun lifted above the mist on the slopes of the densely forested hills surrounding the famous Selous Game Reserve, and we headed into 55,000sq km of pristine wilderness. In under an hour we had seen cats. The two male lions were mane-less, like the famed Man Eaters of Tsavo, and the female was young and stressed. Our guide theorised that they were on the move, between prides.
A few minutes later, we came across a group of playful elephants, and our day continued to produce incredible sightings against landscapes that changed as regularly as theatre backdrops. Selous is special. It has a vast ecosystem, healthy migrating wildlife and truly incredible scenery. In one full day's game driving we had seen almost everything the park has to offer, including a buffalo herd so large it had its own cloud of dust. We left for Zanzibar feeling lucky.
Stone Town is a jumble of tarnished glamour and fierce spices, and has been deservedly declared a World Heritage site by Unesco. The market spins and whirs with bicycles and brilliant colours. My nose was teased by cardamon, wreaths of cloves, star anise and fresh coriander, then assaulted by the salty stink of the fish market. Narrow winding alleys revealed mosques and chic shops in between decaying facades and elaborate doorways. This town has lived large over the last three centuries and is fighting to retain its dignity. History has lived here and left its mark. David Livingstone's body was brought here on its journey back to the UK. Gandhi was hosted here. Sultans rubbed shoulders with spice merchants and slave traders. And, on top of all this, the shopping, diving and snorkelling is sensational.
The Livingstone Beach Restaurant is under the stars and rubber trees on the left-hand side of the Tembo House Hotel, when facing the sea. It was here that we sat together on our last night, all ten of us, united by our shared experiences.
We'd seen white mosquito nets drifting on hot breezes, and the lope and gaze of wild cats, and we'd breathed the pungent allure of rich spices. As we sat reminiscing at the lamp-lit table, with our toes in the sand, we feasted on seafood and debated the authenticity of the seagull risotto. Nobody was adventurous enough to risk it. But the following morning I did notice that seagulls were rare and, for an island rich with sea life, that's a little suspicious.
Tanzania is a full-colour, multisensory version of the Africa that I have always had in my imagination. It is the archetypal land of wild things. Adventures live and breathe and interrupt your picnics there.
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