Brad Leithauser travels to Tanzania, where he not only finds animals but also meets the Hadza and the Barbaig, whose way of life gives a new perspective on the wild kingdom

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A Tanzania Safari Experience

The Hadza we visited are hunters and gatherers. they have no long-term fixed abodes. They build structures made of branches and grass, which suffice for a while. When the land around them begins to get depleted, and their makeshift homes begin to be infested with vermin, they move on. It's a mode of life that has served the Hadza since time immemorial.

They are a small group of people—it has been estimated that there are only about 2,000 speakers of Hadza, a language full of those little clicks that phoneticians call suction stops—and a small people: many can't be much over five feet tall. Traditionally nonconfrontational, the Hadza have been jostled from one homeland to another by larger, more aggressive tribes, finally ending up in a remote terrain near Lake Eyasi. The Tanzanian government at one point attempted to induce the Hadza to settle into a society of rooted agriculture, but the effort was not a success. They soon reverted to nomadic life.

The hunting portion of their hunting and gathering is an exclusively male activity. They hunt with bows and arrows—poison-tipped arrows. "How poisonous are they?" I asked, and George translated my question for a group of hunters. The answer came back with much confident nodding of heads. George reported: "They say that if you scratch yourself on one of the arrowheads, you don't make it back to camp."

Keeping our distance, we followed them—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they allowed us to tag along on their hunts. We walked through the bush, over hills, and into valleys, for an hour or so. The presence of four inexperienced, twig-snapping tourists cannot have made their task any easier, but they nonetheless came close to bagging a dik-dik, a miniature antelope that would have provided a modicum of meat. George, translating, told us that they had felled an impala nine days before. Everyone had feasted that night.

These days, such celebrations among the Hadza must surely have a somewhat bittersweet flavor. Their land—which is to say, their way of life—is imperiled, given the encroachments of the country's burgeoning population and the threat of ever-diminishing game.

But such dire speculations cannot be dwelled upon during a hunt, for the hunter must devote every iota of concentration to his task. This was apparent even to those four twig-snapping tourists who found themselves caught up in a process both timeless and very much of-the-moment. You might say there's nothing but the moment, since everything is building toward that instant when a dik-dik or an impala or a warthog stands tensely before the man with the poison-tipped arrow. He'll have one shot, and his aim had better be true.

The Hadza women spend a good portion of their days grinding the podded fruit of the baobab tree. Around Lake Eyasi, baobabs are so much larger and more massive than any other vegetation that—like elephants among warthogs—they dominate the landscape. Its pods contain a white, chalky, edible filling surrounding an inedible shell, which surrounds an edible nut. The edible is separated from the inedible by pounding the fruit between rocks and sifting the result. Hour by hour, the women create a ringing that reverberates through the bush. We watched three old women at work. One seemed to be nearly blind, with cataract-cloudy eyes, but she knew by touch what was before her. The rock in her hand fell confidently, time and again, missing her thumb by a fraction of an inch. Although the task looked primitive, she was a precisionist.


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