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Tanzanian Tantrums

TIME : 2016/2/27 14:25:30

Before I even left the UK things were going wrong. The Kenyan embassy

had “lost” my passport, the bank had cancelled my credit card and my traveller’s cheques still hadn’t arrived. As I pushed myself through the throngs of happy Christmas shoppers in London’s Oxford street, I was becoming increasingly concerned that I might have to spend Christmas in the UK after all.

Wearily I dragged myself to the visas section of the embassy and was greeted by a smiling guard.

“Jambo?” I asked, “How are you?”

“Jambo Jambo,” he smiled back as he thrust me my passport.

I had been to the embassy so many times in the last few days that it felt like saying goodbye to an old friend as I shook his hand and pushed back into London traffic.

Within a few hours I packed and squeezed myself into a crowded tube

train. The pin striped commuter next to me looked at my bulging ruck

sack, my combat boots and t-shirt.

“You do know it’s snowing?” he asked, as I cleaned my sunglasses. And then, before I could answer,

“Going home for Christmas, eh?”.

“No, East Africa actually,” I replied, which obviously upset him somewhat as he promptly returned to his crossword.

A few days later I was sipping cool Tusker beer on a veranda in Kenya.

It had been some time since my last trip to Africa, and I was glad to

see that things hadn’t changed too much. The people were still

rioting, the economy had more holes in it than a Dutch cheese and

Tusker beer was still the best beer in the entire universe.

Things were, however, going to plan. I was away from the UK, no one had

mentioned Christmas to me, I had no mobile phone or pager to constantly

stress me out and the barman was attentive to my needs, “Will that be

one crate or two this evening, sir?”.

Good conversation, the warm night air and some delicious food lulled me

into a sense of false security. I began to relax, which is probably why when someone suggested we hire a Landrover and go for a few days to Ngorongoro Conservation Area I readily agreed. A quick dip into the guide book revealed that the crater had been compared to Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Eden – and has the added advantage of actually existing.

Today, Noah might be a bit a disappointed by dwindling animal numbers but he’d have no trouble finding lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and many of the plains herbivores such as wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelle, zebra and reedbuck, as well as thousands of flamingo wading in the shallows of Lake Magadi, the soda lake on the floor of the crater. However, the guide book definitely said nothing about stranded Landrovers, something which we would certainly see a lot of in the next few days.

We picked up the Landrovers just outside the small town of Arusha.

The light rain which seemed to have followed me since London had now

turned into heavy squalls interspersed with stair rods. Local people

crouched under makeshift tarpaulin shelters and complained about the

“worst rains to hit East Africa in years” as we scurried around the

town buying food and beers for the two day expedition. As a last

minute thought I grabbed a Swahili phrase book from a beautiful Kanga

clad local.

A few hours later we were bouncing through the scrub on our way toward the crater. Our driver spent most of his time with one hand on the wheel and one hand trying to eject an Elton John tape from the cassette deck. He seemed to hit every pot hole and rock in the road, which was not surprising really as he spent more time facing backwards to chat to us then he did looking forward. Encouraged by our shouts he floored the ageing Landy and sent us spinning along stream beds, flying over rocks and into every mud pool he could find.

Wedged into the back seat between our gear I was quite safe, so as a

precautionary measure our mobile bar, which had been bouncing away on

the front suicide seat was passed back to me.

We arrived at our campsite, the beautifully named Safari Junction, just

as the sun was setting and I quickly laid the bar out on the rust red

road and made cocktails for everyone. Apart from a few bruised bottoms

and a rather unfortunate incident with a bottle of tequila, we were in

good spirits. Only a good night’s sleep separated us from the crater

and some magnificent game viewing.

Contentedly, I finished my 6th sundowner and retired to my tent. The big African sky was now studded with stars and I spent a happy hour trying in vain to find the Southern Cross. Later a storm woke me. The heavens were streaked with wild prongs of fork lightening, ominous claps of thunder rolled round the hills and rain came down in Biblical proportions. However, in my intoxicated state all could do was smile and think about the poor commuters in London.

The next day the sun had cleared, and in the early morning mist, the

world looked new and ready for conquest. I half expected a British

missionary to come tramping out of the undergrowth and offer to save my

soul or at least buy me a G+T. My peaceful thoughts, which seemed to

lack some coherence due to the large hangover I was nurturing, were

shattered by our overzealous driver telling me to shake a leg. “Pole

Pole” I smiled at him, “slowly slowly”, which seemed to cause much

laughter and back slapping amongst the other drivers.

The drive to the entrance to the crater was pretty uneventful, the long

hot drive through the rough scrubland was only livened up by our eagle-eyed driver suddenly slamming on the breaks. This would not have

been a problem if we had not been on a hair pin bend at the time and if

I had not been trying to fix the first cocktails of the day, Malibu and

gin shot everywhere. The driver turned down his Elton John tape for

a few seconds and scanned the horizon with his binoculars. A tense

silence descended on our small group as we waited to see our first

animal (and to see how much gin I could salvage).

After what seemed like hours, our driver dropped his binoculars and let rip with a real belly laugh. Between convulsions he explained to us that he had mistaken a tree for an elephant, and the funny thing was he had done the same the previous week. Retrospectively, this should have rung all kinds of alarm bells.

The descent into the actual crater was somewhat of an anticlimax after

this. Through the mid morning heat haze I could just make out the

thousands of flamingo wading in the shallows of Lake Magadi, a sight I

had fallen in love with the first time I had seen it as my 747 came

into land in Mombassa many years ago. The sight, which had lived in my

dreams for so long now, gradually came into focus below me. It was

then I realised it was Christmas eve…

The bottom of the crater is a different world, both in an ecological

and in a philosophical sense. The crater is no longer teaming with

game as it once was, but it still is a unique place to see game in a

relatively undisturbed environment. Few memories remain more vivid

for me than sitting patiently on top of our Landrover beside the shores

of Lake Magadi watching the hippos play. I had seen hippos before in

Africa but never so close and never in such a relaxed state. I must

have been lost in thought because I had failed to notice that a rare

black rhino had come closer and was obviously as keen to take a look at

us as we were of him (later I learnt that rhinos have a terrible sense

of sight and rely mainly on smell, which says something about our own

personal hygiene I guess).

The weather, which up to now had been hot and sunny was gradually

becoming less appealing. Many feet above us, around the top of the

crater, we could see thick storm clouds swirling. We asked the driver

if this was going to be a problem, but he just smiled his most

enigmatic smile, shrugged his shoulders and spun the Landrover out into

the middle of the crater in search of more game.

“Closer, Closer” we told him as he inched towards a herb of zebra. However, the zebra were having none of it and en masse bolted away. The driver, never one to give up, gave rapid pursuit, leaving us clinging for dear life to the top of the Landrover. In an attempt to get in front of the herd, the driver aimed the Landy at a small gully of a dried up river bed.

However, what the driver, with the click of cameras pounding in his

ears, had not remembered was that last night’s torrential rain had flooded this gully and we suddenly found ourselves axle deep in mud.

Out we all piled and began to dig under the back wheels. The zebras

looked on, puzzled. Inbetween grunts and spadefuls of sticky red mud,

my travelling companion fiddled with his camera and asked the driver,

“These zebra are not dangerous are they?” To which our driver, who

had now ejected the Elton John tape replied,

“No, but the lion we saw 100 yards back is…”

We dug much faster after that.

All this digging did not help too much and by the time the other Landrovers in our convoy arrived we were plastered from head to toe in mud. The first Landrover of the convoy attempted to push us out, which

even to me seemed not very sensible, and soon we had two Landrovers

sitting on the river bed slowly sinking.

“Get the bar, get the bar!” my friends were yelling at me. Eventually, a rope was found from somewhere and, as the rain began in earnest, it was fastened to our rapidly sinking vehicle. Again I was too slow and the spinning wheels covered me with a fresh layer of mud as our Landrover slowly, but surely eased its way out of the mud. The second Landrover, however, was stuck fast and after another 30 minutes of pushing and shoving, the discussion to abandon it was made. One Landrover down – 4 to go.

Whilst all this was occurring, a Landrover full of Germans had pulled

up to watch. We were desperately trying to get some traction on the

back axle by getting everyone to stand on the bumper and could have

done with their considerable Teutonic bulk. However, they took one

look at us plastered in mud, laughed and drove off…

As the rain came down harder we decided to abandon the Safari and head

back to Arusha. We could hardly see a few feet in front of the

windscreen and driving was becoming more hazardous. Our driver now had

two hands firmly on the wheel and with me hanging out of the passenger

seat window we were making reasonable time towards the only road out of

the crater.

We managed to miss most of the gullies and streams by a combination of skilful driving and my guidance. However, the ones that we didn’t miss soaked me in cold wet mud. After half an hour of this there was not a clean bit of skin left on me, my clothes were drenched and the thought of my family sitting around the Christmas tree sipping brandies suddenly seemed very attractive.

My misery suddenly turned to joy as the German Landrover, which was

hacking away in front of us, suddenly hit a gully and dived nose first

into a stream. I had never seen a Landrover before with its back axle

45 degrees in the air. It really was a quite impressive sight. We

pulled to a stop close by and spent a good twenty minutes taking

pictures of the flustered Germans.

Our driver seemed keen to help and so once again I found myself dragged out in the rain to offer an engineering viewpoint (next time I go away I am going to say I work in a bank). I was, by now, cold, miserable, muddy, and totally pissed off. It was instantly obvious that there was no way the Landrover could be dug out.

As one of the Germans was diabetic we reluctantly agreed to take him to Arusha with us. The others could stay we decided. I waded into the three foot deep mud and water that surrounded the Landrover to help him with his stuff. It took some time to convince him that the river wasn’t full of killer piranha and eventually he reluctantly stepped into the water. Just as we got back to our Landrover and were sorting out some cocktails he thanked us for the help, but said that his shoes, which were soaking wet, were ruined.

The temptation to roll him in the mud was all too much.

The road out was still passable and we spent the next three hours

bouncing along quite happily. The after lunch cocktails were doing the

rounds and I let myself fall into a deep sleep. I was awoken much

later by the Landrover slamming to a halt. By the time I was fully

awake, the driver and my travelling companion were both standing on the

bonnet of the Landrover with worried looks on their faces.

The main road which run almost vertically up a mountain, had vanished in the rains and the was now blocked with lorries and trucks. Nothing was

moving anywhere. We joined the queue of traffic and got comfy for a

long wait. Blankets were laid on top of the Landy and the bar was

opened. Our driver wandered amongst the other drivers trying to find

out what was happening. Various estimates from days to weeks came

back. We smiled each time our driver came back with bad news, shrugged

our shoulders as he told his “shit happens, this is Africa, baby” and

carried on our quest for the perfect cocktail.

As the sun went down, my impromptu English school and choir broke up

and I decided that all things being equal I could really do with a

beer. On top of the hill I could just make out the lights of what I

presumed to be a small town. They must have a pub or something, I tried

to convince my long suffering friend. Against his better judgement (and I am never allowed to forget this), we began the long slow trudge

through the mud and vehicle tracks in search of beer.

Trucks were trying to climb the hill one at a time. The whole village would get behind the truck and with one concerted effort the driver would floor the throttle and the villages would try to push the truck up the muddy hill. Sometimes they were lucky and this produced loud cheers from the crowd, sometimes less so and the vehicle would skid back down the slope sending everyone diving for dear life. Eventually we reached the town and found what looked like a suitable place for a beer.

Cautiously we entered. If there had been a dart board, then I am sure

that the dart would have stopped in mid flight. It was dark and whilst

I searched in my pockets for my flashlight I could feel, somewhere

close to me, people watching me. The smell of dried sweat and yams was

rich in the air. We made out way to the metal grill covered bar, where

a stern faced bar woman was scowling at us.

“Hi, we are from the UK. Any chance of a Tusker?” asked my friend in the careful tones of one who is seriously wondering if this is a bad move. That broke the ice and with a few seconds we were busy shaking hands, slapping backs and sipping ice cold beers. The idea that we were actually stuck in the middle of nowhere seemed suddenly unimportant. The chief of the village was summoned and another round of drinks was ordered. Things were going well.

Word had reached the bar that a tractor had been found which could pull

our Landrover up the hill and, leaving my friend clutching his beer, I

went to investigate. The sky flickered with lightening and the rain

began to fall in earnest again. I think I slid down the hill more than

I walked as lightening strobed above.

Our driver was busily repacking our gear for the assault on the hill. I dived into the passenger seat to give him some much needed moral support. The tractor had not appeared, but the driver, who was now bored, decided to try anyway. Three dozen mud caked locals were ready to push. We agreed on a route up and the driver fired the engine up. We climbed slowly, mud was spraying everywhere, the wheels were slipping and the locals were getting tired, but at least we were moving.

Suddenly, the wheels found traction and we shot forward up the mountain. The driver had not been expecting this and in an attempt to stop himself smashing into a tree, over corrected to the left, hit a rut and sent the Landy into a barrel roll. It all happened in a flash, the floor became the ceiling, the bar went everywhere and for some reason the stereo suddenly began to play “Nikkita” by Elton John. The fact that I was going to die as the Landy rolled over the edge of the mountain did cross my mind.

I counted one, two rolls before we suddenly stopped. Things were still

not as they should be and before I really knew what was happening, hands

were reaching through the open window and pulling me out. I was placed

safety on the side of the track and with a Herculanian effort, the

villagers righted the precariously balanced Landy. Before I knew what

was happening our driver floored the Landy again and finally sent it

shooting up the hill. The second vehicle in our depleted convoy

followed shortly.

We arrived at the top of the hill just in time to meet my friend, whom

I had left guarding my beer, running screaming towards the Landrover.

“Drive, drive!!” he yelled as he flung himself into the back window, a mob of screaming locals in swift pursuit. As an experienced runner, he

later told me that running for his life was certainly a new experience,

one which he hoped I could share with him someday. We slumped into our

seats and relaxed. The road back was clear now, the rain was still

falling, but all being well we would be back in a few hours.

Things were going well, the second Landrover had raced ahead and we bounced along the thick African night listening to Elton John. Our driver, who had now been behind the wheel for about 19 hours decided to take a short cut, which he said would get us back to camp in an hour. Wearily we agreed. We swung off the main track and plunged deep into the bush.

So confidant was our driver now that he failed to notice the river

ahead of us and plunged the Landy straight into it. The sickening

sound of the back axle splitting woke me up from my slumber. By the

time water began to seep into the Landy I was wide awake and we were

rapidly moving all our belongings onto the roof. There was no hope of

ever getting the Landy out and despondently we sat hunched on the roof,

cold tired and wet. We knew we were in for a long wait till a tractor

could be found in the morning. Once again I could see my family gathered around the Christmas tree singing carols. Even a half hearted

rendition of silent night did nothing to improve my foul mood.

I was just on the verge of crying when out of the torrential rain came

a brand new Landcruiser. The electric window slowly wound down and a

head appeared.

“Going to Arusha?” the driver asked, “Jump in.”

Once snug inside the air-conditioned car and being force-fed chocolate, I began to feel slightly happier.

“You see, the problem is this,” smiled our new Friend, “the locals just don’t know how to drive.” We agreed.

“Unlike my country (Holland), where we all drive so well that…”
We never did hear what he had to say as at that moment we hit a rock,

sending the car spinning into a ditch and the trailer into a tree.

Three hours later, after we had collected his worldly belongings from

the surrounding countryside, and got covered in a fresh layer of mud,

we hit the road again. Just as the sun was rising over a perfectly

clear blue sky, we rolled into Arusha.

Weeks later I finally got back to London and popped into my local for a


“Hey we missed you at Christmas,” the barman smiled, “had the family over. It was quite terrible you know….”