One great thing about having a friend fall in love with a safari guide is that you get to go on safari.
I came to Tanzania in the middle of the high season for tourism, which unfortunately meant Sylvester was away with clients for much of the time I was in Arusha. So to spend a little more time with him and because I really wanted to see giraffes, Joelle and I turned ourselves into the clients.
Sylvester organized a three-day, two-night safari into the Serengeti for us. We rented a truck, packed it full of tents, meat, beer, veggies, and cooking supplies, and headed West, stopping on the way to pick up Sylvester's cousin, Peter, who would be our cook for the adventure. Even if you're on safari with your friend as a guide, you're legally required to hire a cook. But honestly, who likes doing their own dishes while camping anyway, and labour is – unfortunately – very cheap here.
The drive into the Serengeti takes you past Ngorongoro Crater, which is not actually a crater but a caldera, in fact the largest unbroken and unflooded caldera in the world. A World Heritage Site, the caldera is home to fossil evidence from hominid settlement dating back three million years, the oldest evidence of early human settlement ever found. So human-type creatures had been kicking it in the crater from three million years ago until 2009, when a wildlife conservation act forcibly displaced the Maasai pastoralists who had been living there, already once displaced from the Serengeti by a similar British colonial act in the 1950s. I guess you could say three million years is a good run.
Going into the crater itself is apparently underwhelming compared to looking at it from the ridge above, not to mention the park fee is $300 USD per vehicle, so we stopped to take in its breathtaking aerial view and then continued on, past Maasai villages, through dry rolling hills, and into the yellow plains.
The Serengeti, if I had to describe it, is difficult to describe. It is just incredibly, overwhelmingly vast. Canadian prairies flat. Ocean endless. Golden hour beautiful.
I ask Sylvester how to say “Holy fucking shit it's so goddamn pretty here” in Swahili but he doesn't have a satisfactory response.
Zebras casually kick it with giraffes while dik-diks bounce out of the path of the approaching trucks. Male lions chill in the shade of any available tree, elsewhere a female lion keeps watch while her cubs rip a zebra apart. Surprisingly pink hippos bathe in muddy water and a small river gives life to an oasis of palm trees in a sea of yellow grass. Lion King-style rock formations jut out of otherwise flat ground, acacias stand alone in the distance. Families of elephants stroll out from the between the trees and a mom of a young baby approaches the truck out of curiosity or a warning. We don't stick around to find out which one.
We head to camp as daylight fades to evening. Joelle's up in the front seat while Peter and I stand with our heads poked out of the safari truck's oversized sunroof, trying unsuccessfully to keep our beer in the cans as Sylvester guns it at a casual 120 km/h across the plain's bumpy dirt road.
Camp consists of a bathroom with showers, a few outdoor tables, a cooking building, and a basic dining room. Like an empty room basic - you bring your own tables. Heavy duty canvas tents are spread around the buildings making the place look more like a small army operation than a tourist destination.
Peter grabs a counter space in the cooking building and starts chopping veggies and boiling water for ugali while the rest of us set up the tents and shower the thick film of dust from our backs. The cooking building is cool, a bunch of men lined up along a long counter, each preparing their own client's food but sharing ingredients as needed. A little salt here, a little extra pepper, a glass of wine, a sip of konyagi. They're shooting the shit while they work, the guides moving between entertaining their clients and coming into to chat to their friends.
For safari guides and cooks in high season, much of their life is away from home. Two-day, four-day, eight-day, 16-day safaris. Tourists come here on the trip of their lifetime, an unforgettable experience, and these guys make good work out of ensuring they have an incredible time. It's nice to see Sylvester in his element, in a landscape he knows like the back of his hand, catching up with the other guides over a beer and a laugh and a camp-cooked meal.
The second night at camp, we finished dinner and finished the beer, so Peter drove a few minutes to the camp store to pick up sweet wine – a low-alcohol, extra-sugar local variety that most tourists hate but I'm an undiscerning wino and I'll be damned if it isn't delicious.
Another cook and guide were getting into the konyagi, and one glass of wine turned to two turned to six turned to “sure I'll have a konyagi, thanks” turned to a wee hours 3-person dance party by cell-phone speaker once everyone else had slowly ambled off to sleep.
The guide is busting out Dancehall and Nigerian R&B and American Hip Hop while we dance and smoke inside and discuss whether or not Kendrick Lamar can save America from itself.
“So when the US collapses in on itself and China owns the world, will we love Chinese culture like we love America's?”
“So which culture will be exported around the world for mass consumption?”
The cook rolls out a sleeping bag in the kitchen so he'll be able to wake up three hours later to make breakfast for his clients, and I wander off to a heavy sleep uninterrupted by the grumbling of nearby lions.
On the way home we stop for a lunch of fruit, peppered beef, and pasta salad under the shade of an acacia. Tap the bulbs and fire ants climb out, they live in the bulbs and they protect the shrub, a little Serengeti symbiosis.
We roll into Arusha in early evening, go for a few beers in a local spot while Sylvester gets his beard trimmed at the salon next door. Dinner of whole grilled fish at a little restaurant that has no bathroom, you just pee on the street outside, then a slow bumpy ride back up the hill to their quiet home in Sanawari.
If the future is Pan-African, sign me up.