We were flying to a place I'd never heard of until recently—Lake Eyasi—in a plane so tiny I sat beside the pilot. Trusting the wonders of technology, I took comfort in the general inscrutability of the control panel, while feeling unnerved by those instructions I thought I basically understood (do not attempt reverse with propellers feathered). We landed safely, though our descending plane shooed a pair of gazelles off the runway. This was Tanzania, after all. We then had a jolting drive down a road of thick rust-red dust that exploded in such dense clouds, I could make out nothing through my passenger-side window. I'd been in occasional blackouts, when the electricity failed, and whiteouts, when snow came down so fast I seemed to be inside an iceberg, but this was my first ocher-out. Eventually, we wound up on the shore of Lake Eyasi—if a lake that has no water can be said to have a shore. Vast in the rainy seasons, but always quite shallow, Eyasi dries away to cracked lake bed during much of the year.
We had come to this unlikely spot because our safari guide, George Mavroudis, wanted us to meet people he'd befriended from two tribes, the Hadza and the Barbaig. Tourism in Tanzania has been booming in recent years, and the number of safari companies has exploded. George takes justifiable pride in the fact that his safaris offer more than the typical Land Rover cruise to view animals (though we had, in fact, already seen spectacular, superabundant wildlife on the Serengeti Plain). He aims to give travelers a deeper look at Tanzania, in part by bringing them into contact with people who still live in intimacy with that wildlife, tribes for whom daily sightings of lions or hippopotamuses are matters of significance and concern.
George was shepherding four of us: me; my teenage daughter, Hilary; Martin, a photographer; and Martin's assistant, Markian. In the bush we had quickly learned to trust George's judgment. Born and reared in Tanzania, he commands inimitable knowledge of its terrain and wildlife; as the son of a Cypriot Greek immigrant who ran a hotel, he also seems to have the hospitality business in his blood. George told me that he considers English his third language, after Greek and Swahili, which I found discouraging, since he spoke it better than his four guests, all of whom live in the States.
An ideal guide, then, and, as it turned out, an ideal place to ponder the role of people in a shifting landscape. Within living memory, the shores of Lake Eyasi were a hunter's paradise. There was a wealth of game, including now nearly extinct rhinos, tramping myopically through the rich mud of the wooded lakeshore. But a growing human population brought widespread deforestation—trees cut for firewood and the clearing of farmland—and overgrazing by domestic animals, and soil erosion. Here and there, a few pockets of green had been carefully preserved, reminders of a lusher age. But mostly there was a deep dust everywhere, through which the ghosts of big, striking creatures—rhinos, lions, wildebeests, elands—silently wandered.
Some sentences I'd never heard before coming to Tanzania:
"A small elephant is still a big elephant."
"My sister has a pet warthog."
"A lion often sounds like someone throwing up in the distance."
"You don't want to know what's inside a zebra."
"If I say run, you don't ask why."
"Look! The dead crocodile is climbing into the water."