On Saturday evening, shortly before sunset, we took a boat ride down the Rufiji river and came across five elephants playing in the water. Two of the elephants were rolling around on their backs, and three others were splashing themselves. They froze when they smelled us, but resumed their games when we moved downwind.
After bathing, the elephants decided to cross the river. They formed a cautious procession, each one surveying a different direction, trunks held up to sniff the air for potential predators. Clumped together, they shuffled awkwardly and slowly across the river, pausing frequently to reassess whether it was safe to continue. All went smoothly until the elephant leader, who had almost reached the river bank, stepped on a hippo who shot up out of the water.
The elephants roared in surprise and tripped over themselves in their haste to flee to the forest. Several crocodiles, who had been sleeping lazily in the sun of the river bank, jumped quickly into the water. The hippo retreated to the depths of the river and then, only after the elephants had long disappeared, rose back out of the water to bark in indignation.
This past weekend, almost by accident, my parents, my brother, and I all found ourselves in Tanzania.
My parents arrived in East Africa in late September, planning to visit me in Dar towards the end of their trip. A few weeks after they left home, my brother received an unexpected job offer in Edmonton, quit his job in Eastern Canada, and booked a last minute ticket to Tanzania.
We met in Zanzibar on Friday night and decided to fly to Selous for the weekend. Selous is a UNESCO world heritage site and the largest conservation reserve in the world. Early on Saturday morning, we boarded a small unsteady plane and landed on a tiny airstrip set amidst the jungle.
Selous is a landscape of blue, green, and brown, where life and death have entered into an uneasy alliance. Piles of bones are abandoned on the brown earth; carcasses of elephants, hippos, and giraffes picked clean and bleached white under the strong midday sun. Birds soar out of trees, fantastic flashes of black, green, orange, and yellow, while blue butterflies flutter near the ground. Lizards play hide-and-seek in elephant skulls. Grey branches litter the ground, bone dry and twisted into impossible skeletal shapes. Herds of impala kick nervously while giraffe float above the trees and appear to defy time.
A thousand stories a day unfold against the backdrop of the East African sky.
On Saturday morning, we ran into a half-eaten giraffe and, a few feet away, a pride of lions were lazily digesting their breakfast. By Sunday morning, the giraffe had disappeared. Later, we found it being finished off by a pack of hyenas, one of whom ran away with the giraffe’s leg in his mouth. Another passed by our car with trails of blood running out of his mouth. Later still, some vultures made a meal out of the giraffe’s ribs.
On Saturday afternoon, we found a newborn baby impala being guarded by its mother. It is about two hours old, our guide said, and will learn to walk in the next few hours. These first few hours are the most difficult, because the baby impala is helpless against predators. As if to demonstrate this point, the impala’s mother hissed at us to leave her baby alone and we retreated.
We drove on through the trees and stopped at another pride pride of lions. This time we were impossibly, fearfully close. Alone in the jungle with lions that were close enough to touch. We watched the two small cubs play with twigs, playfully stretch out on their backs, scratch the trees to sharpen their nails. Our guide explained that we were not appealing to the lions and that we smelled of rubber and exhaust. This did not sound very reassuring and I hoped that the lions would not become hungry or angry. After many moments, the lions got up, walked past the car, and disappeared into the jungle.
We were lucky to find a family of wild dogs sleeping under a tree. Panting in the afternoon heat and curled up in the shade. There are only a few hundred of these dogs remaining in the world and most of them live in Selous. The puppies do not have a high survival rate, and are frequently eaten by the hyenas.
On Saturday night we slept in tents on the edge of the Rufiji river. The camp has eight tents and no fence. It is guarded by members of the Maasai tribe who are armed with spears. All night long, we listened to the low, flat grunt of hippos in the river, the splash of the water buffalo, and the high-pitched squeal of the cicada. In the morning, a hippo wandered out of the river and sidled up to the camp to chew on some grass.
I have long been skeptical of safari vacations. Africa is a diverse and fascinating continent that is too often reduced to its animals and exploited in the name of adventure. I would rather learn about Tanzania by sitting in a small cafe in Stonetown, drinking spiced coffee, eating chapatis, and watching the people walk by.
And, yet, there is no denying that last weekend was magical, offering a rare glimpse into another world, one where a baby impala gasps its first breath, where lions feast on a giraffe under the shade of a tree, and where human presence is rendered insignificant.
Life, death, and everything in between.
The beauty and the agony.