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

Precision of another sort—an altogether spectacular sort—was on display the next day, when we followed some of the men in pursuit of honey, the sole commodity linking the Hadza to the world of commerce. Honey is traded for tools and the bare rubber sandals in which the Hadza cover so many miles of harsh terrain.

The procedure was remarkably efficient. A fire was built at the base of a baobab tree by rubbing sticks together. A number of strong pegs were hewn with a hatchet. One of the hunters then pounded the pegs into the side of the tree, mounting as he went. He was erecting a ladder for himself, rung by rung. The speed of his ascent was amazing.

And the fire at the base of the tree?It provided a smoldering ember, which the hunter plunged into a beehive, hoping to drug the bees with smoke before attempting his theft. The plan worked, mostly. He received only a couple dozen stings, rather than hundreds. It was an arresting sight: a young man high in a baobab, enveloped by an angry cloud, tossing to earth the plunder his bare arm had scooped out of darkness. Wedges of honeycomb hit the ground. George picked one up and sampled a bite. "A bit smoky," he said, "but good." Hilary and I also broke off little chunks. Smoky?Yes. But good.

I've always loved the kind of travel in which entertainment runs thin at the end of the day. No TV, no radio, no DVD's, no telephone, no computers. That's how our evenings were in Tanzania. After sunset (night at the equator falls with a speed I never could get used to), we had nothing but ourselves to rely on for amusement. So, in an appealingly timeless ritual, we swapped stories. Chaucer's pilgrims on their way to Canterbury would have recognized the impulse, or the houseguests in Henry James's Turn of the Screw, competing to come up with the spookiest ghost story.

Our own spookiness was supplied by the soft cries of hyenas in the bush around us: doo-wup, doo-wup. Hyenas make an unnervingly tentative, almost friendly sound—an inquiring call in the blackness. Having looked for animals during the day, we now felt watched, the surrounding night full of hungry eyes.

We were five people of different backgrounds and ages, sitting inside a vast tent after dinner. Conversation was facilitated partly by wine and scotch, partly by a certain reluctance to make one's dark solitary way to one's dark solitary tent. Martin told us about growing up in Germany. Markian had grown up on the western plains of Canada. George had left Dar es Salaam at the age of eight, to attend an English boarding school. Hilary decided it might be a good idea to figure out her college applications while wandering under African skies. Eerie night-sounds continued to glide in and out of the dark. George narrated the tale of the jinxed safari during which an impala, desperate to elude a pack of hyenas, had crashed into and through one of his guest's tents in the middle of the night. Then he added the capper: "Incidentally, the tribes around here don't bother to bury their dead, since the hyenas will only dig them up anyway. They just leave the bodies out."

Doo-wup, doo-wup.

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