Of course, it hasn’t all been work. The day shift at Tanzanian hospitals ends at 3.30pm, technically, and a lot of the senior doctors look alarmed at the thought of working after 2pm. It leaves plenty of time for poking through the crowded markets, taking boats around the archipelagos of Lake Victoria, spending afternoons at the nearby luxury beach resort, dodging (four) marriage proposals, and on one Saturday lunchtime waxing the guys’ chest hair off to raise money for our local orphanage.
On Friday, sixteen of us took a couple of days off work and spent a long weekend in the Serengeti and at the Ngorongoro Crater.
My mother’s penetrating wisdom was, “Don’t get eaten by a rhino. They’re very big, you know!”
First, let me dispel any misconception that a safari is a passive experience. In four days, I spent well over thirty hours in a Toyota Landcruiser and for most of those hours was standing on a chair with my head and shoulders sticking out of the open top as we rattled along dirt tracks at 80kph. I have no corneas, no unshredded muscles in either of my shoulders, and very few unbruised ribs. I didn’t shower or change my shirt for four days — yes, there is a photograph of what I looked like at the end. I’ve used squat toilets and holes in the ground and, once, when it was very dark and very cold and there had been three zebras outside the toilet block earlier in the evening, a completely open field without cover of rocks or trees or handy tents.
Our days on Friday and Saturday were spent entirely at the Serengeti, where we found a herd of elephants, hundreds and hundreds of zebras, more gazelles than we could begin to count, young lions stretched out in the grass and an adult male who eyed the humans with lazy curiosity from his perch on a rock, giraffes eating their lunch, and, when we looked carefully, a cheetah asleep at the top of a tree. Our driver, Tyson, was a marvel, with eyes that could spot a camouflaged animal from miles away. And I’m not what you’d call a natural or especially enthusiastic camper and slept badly in our squashed five-man tent on the first night, but then I crawled out of it on Saturday morning and a little thrill went through me as I remembered that I’d slept in the middle of the Serengeti.
On Sunday, we woke at very-dark-o-clock for a dawn drive and my housemates, with whom I had for three weeks maintained a facade of early morning civility, discovered what I’m like if someone attempts to withhold coffee from me. However, coffee was secured and my grumpy face was averted and as the sun rose over the park, we happened across a whole pride of lions eating breakfast. The cubs and the females first, and then the dominant male making his way across the grass as our drivers whispered to each other in Swahili, “Look, grandad is coming!” It’s difficult to pick a highlight from a weekend like this, but that was mine.
And then onwards to the Ngorongoro Crater, which I don’t have the words to properly describe or the photographs to do justice. We went with the hope of seeing rhinos and we did see two from very very far in the distance, but the Ngorongoro isn’t actually about the animals so much as it’s about the crater itself. The scope of it as seen from the edge is one of the few things on Earth that literally takes your breath away.
What I do have the words to describe is the unexpected coldness of that part of Tanzania at night. Everyone says that the Equator gets cold, but we weren’t expecting it to be quite that cold. I huddled in my sleeping bag, dressed in two pairs of socks and scrub bottoms and a t-shirt and a hoodie with the hood up, and I announced to those who had the misfortune to be sharing a tent with me, “The last time I was this cold, it was January and it was Glasgow and my central heating had been broken for nine days!” In reality, I may have used more expletives than that. It was worth it, though, for the sunrise the next morning and for the hilarity of keeping warm by trying to do the Dashing White Sergeant at our campsite high above the crater.
Finally, a thirteen hour drive from the Ngorongoro and back through the middle of the Serengeti and down the long road home to Mwanza. We fell in the door late on Monday evening, tired and scruffy and smelly, and we sort of charged at the food and the showers.
So, not a passive experience.
But one of the best things I’ve ever done, in possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, and, above even that, a great weekend and a great laugh with some fantastic people.