In search of a different safari experience, 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
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."
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.
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."
Unlike the Hadza, who dress in rags and whose fly-by-night existence discourages much accumulation of property, the Barbaig we met have a taste for finery. They keep cattle; their lives are tethered to big, solid objects.
George introduced us to a man in his sixties who owned a great many cows. He is a rich man—as evidenced in his having once had seven wives. One had recently died, and now he was making do with six. Of course, being rich means different things in different places. Although there was a house for each of the wives, there was no running water, no electricity. The ground was littered with discarded flashlight batteries. And those wives' houses were—by any standards we'd brought with us—grim, low structures: packed-dirt floors, walls of dried mud, ceilings a thatch of mud and branches.
Having no language in common with them save what George could provide as translator and intermediary, we did a lot of wide-eyed looking. And so did they. I was touched when one of the wives snatched Hilary's hand and held it up in the sunlight, peering at it quizzically. It seems she'd never seen nail polish.
Some further sentences I'd never heard before coming to Tanzania:
"A hyena is the one animal that has ever woken me from a deep sleep purely by its stink."
"I lost two friends to Cape buffalo last year."
"I don't know, but I think it's wildebeest pâté."
"Baboons aren't that smart, but they're still too smart."
George drove us for an hour or so deep into the bush, to a remote Barbaig village. We watched a couple of young men fetch water for their cows. A steep pit had been dug around their well so that the livestock couldn't approach and pollute it. This meant, though, a good deal of backbreaking hauling from the bottom of the pit. I was struck again, as any Westerner new to Africa must continually be struck, by the extent of human labor that we would naturally expect machines to handle. Bucket after bucket was dragged up into the sun. When at last the men were finished, the cows made a quiet sound that echoed down the millennia from biblical days: livestock lapping up water that someone had just hoisted out of the ground.
Martin and Markian asked whether they could take some photographs. Initial reluctance quickly yielded to universal enthusiasm—eventually every- one in the village, after dressing in their best flowing robes, wanted his or her picture taken.
Hilary and I were particularly impressed by a pair of pretty young girls who were watching everything with large, curious eyes. We asked how old they were. No one knew. "They are about twelve," we were finally told, which was roughly what we'd figured.
The two girls looked pleased but puzzled about being photographed. As we soon learned, they had never seen photographs of themselves. Of course, scenes in which the technologically unsophisticated are shown scientific marvels can seem irredeemably clichéd. But if anything can redeem them, it's a 12-year-old girl, bringing to the moment a freshness of experience that revitalizes all of our worn impressions.
Martin handed one of the girls a Polaroid of herself and her friend. What ensued was one of the sweetest sights I've seen in my life. The girl peered hard at the picture and then whooped and laughed in a bright ecstasy of recognition. There I am! her smile and her laughter declared. That's me!
The trip ended and yet lingered—lingers. You might say it ends finally some 7,000 miles away. My daughter and I are in New York, at the Museum of Natural History. We, too, are having our bright moments of recognition. We're saying, I saw those and I recognize that. We're walking from one diorama to another in the Hall of African Mammals. Thompson's gazelles?We can now distinguish them from Grant's gazelles. Wildebeests?Topi?We identify them.
After seeing the real thing, we'd worried that the museum might seem tame. But the opposite proves true. We bring to the dioramas something new, a rich, slightly dizzying dual vision. It's as if, not long ago, we stepped behind the glass and walked there.
One of the dioramas depicts the Serengeti. Someone has painted a baobab in the background. We can almost see a man standing in the tree's crown, stoically going about his business in a cloud of drugged but angry bees. He's tossing honey to the ground.
When to Go
The weather is coolest and driest from June through October. For safaris, consider what you want to see and where you want to visit. Although animal movement can be difficult to predict in the Serengeti, the major wildebeest migration tends to take place in summer.
KLM operates flights from major U.S. cities via Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro International Airport, 35 minutes by shuttle, bus, or taxi from Arusha.
Tourist visas (mandatory) are available at all Tanzanian embassies, on www.tanzaniaembassy-us.org, or through any visa service and cost $50 for a single entry. Applications must be submitted with a valid passport.
Yellow-fever vaccination, malaria prophylactics, and preventative measures for hepatitis, rabies, and typhoid are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov).
George Mavroudis Safaris (255-27/254-8840; www.gmsafaris.com) leads custom, private, luxury tented safaris in Tanzania and specializes in both wildlife viewing and cultural experiences. Itineraries—from 14 to 21 days, including visits to four or five wildlife and cultural areas—are arranged based on your activity level and interests. Prices vary depending on the number of people; for six, the cost per person per day is $870, including accommodation, meals, guides, transportation, and a visit to the Hadza. Additional excursions can be added at extra cost. The company also operates Lukuba Island Lodge on Lake Victoria, an ideal base for hiking, bird-watching, and visiting local fishing villages. Although T+L highly recommends Mavroudis, other companies that specialize in cultural experiences in Tanzania include the high-end Hoopoe Safaris (255-27/250-7011; www.hoopoe.com; tours from $2,545) and value-priced IntoAfrica (44-114/255-5610; www.intoafrica.co.uk; tours from $1,395). Additionally, there is a Cultural Tourism Program representative at the tourism office in Arusha who can help independent travelers arrange visits to local peoples.
What to Read
The Tree Where Man Was Born By Peter Matthiessen. An insightful portrait of the relationship between humans and animals in East Africa.
Safari By Bartle Bull. A detailed history of the African safari tradition.
The White Nile By Alan Moorehead. A readable history of European exploration in Africa in the 19th century.