The lions of the Grumeti Reserve have something to say
Lately there have been three discontented lions roaming the perimeter of camp in the early hours of the morning, articulating with various leonine grunts and bellows, some lingering grievance against the world. Why this should be so it is hard to say. The plains and savannah surrounding camp are absolutely awash with zebra – supposed to be the favourite food of lions – and other antelope species that mean my three nocturnal friends could hardly be hungry? My suspition is they are beginning to get comfortable in and around camp, and might in due course become a problem.
For the time being, however, lying in my cot and listening to the grunting and coughing of these creatures in the dead of night is a thrilling experience. This is particularly so since there is no particular risk involved, although of course the visceral fear that comes from some distant evolutionary experience of being lion food is difficult to escape.
Sometimes as I listen I find myself thinking how it must have been in ancient Rome to be held in a cell beneath the coliseum, doomed the following day to face the lions, and to hear them somewhere else in the structure making that very sound. A very different type of experience I am sure.
Looking back on history and how Africa might have been
Juxtaposing my own experience on history has always been a favorite muse during times of insomnia, or other moments when I have found myself resenting the human destruction of some once beautiful habitat.
As a guide in the Chimanimani mountains of Eastern Zimbabwe I used to sit on occasions, particularly in the days when I regularly smoked an imagination enhancing herb, and wonder what it must have been like for the first Europeans to step onto those gorgeous high plains and for the first time look around at an absolutely untouched and untainted landscape. In the same way I often wonder how it must have been for Henry Morton Stanley to have sailed down the Congo River, or glimpsed the snow capped peaks of the Rwenzori before reams of tourists turned its trails into bogs. How awestruck David Livingstone must have been to tramp the banks of the Zambezi River a century before booze cruises, canoe safaris and ski-boats began to carve up the placid water. How Frederick Courtney Selous must have marvelled at the Rufiji bushveld before it was turned into a Game Reserve and named after him.
Likewise here, in the depth of the Serengeti, where in the distance I can see a microwave tower, and at night the far away lights of a sprinkling of luxury camps, how the first travellers through this land must have regarded its vastness and natural multiplicity.
The reality probably is that the first non-indigenous feet to stir up the dust of long-distance trails were the Arab/Swahili traders who penetrated deep into the interior in search of slaves, ivory, gold and other raw materials coveted in the east. Trails would have been littered by the usual detritus of human commerce, with the addition perhaps of many dead slaves. Camps would have been entrepots of human misery as slaves were chained up, fed and secured for the night, and the crude Ruga-Ruga – the local strong-arm roughnecks of the slave trade, who were employed for their absolute disregard for humanity and propensity for unbelievable cruelty – sat around the fire and gorged on bushmeat and laughed among themselves in the way that vulgar, insensitive and mediocre people do worldwide.
The first whites to arrive would have been missionaries, and no doubt their perceptions were blinded by the glare of all this moral decay and misery. Their dreams and visions would have been filled with the notion of a world ordered by western civilization and moderated by Christian values. Behind them would have followed hunters, prospectors and explorers who would have seen mountains of ivory and trophies, and pounding stamp-mills spewing arsenic into the rivers and churning out gold. Next would have come capitalists dreaming of railways, farms and factories…and of course the rest is history.
Is it possible that as a mass movement it is only in our generation that we look at what remains and try to capture and retain it’s essence, even though in many ways the wild majesty of Africa is a myth? Even here in the Grumeti Wildlife Reserve, one of the last remaining wild bastions of the continent; where lions haunt your sleep and hyena yip and whoop in the dead of night; where the savannah is cut by roads and the landscape is sectioned into wildlife concessions; and where men in landcruisers aggresively patrol in order to limit poaching and protect the borders of their individual concessions, the wilderness has dimished into vulnerable pockets pressed in on all sides by humanity…
Goodbye to the Serengeti after a worthwhile trip
As I climbed out of my tent this morning, and saw once again, and for the last timeon this trip, the absolute majesty of the African plains sunrise, all these bittersweet thoughts once again flooded my mind. I have been here for three months and I am looking forward to getting out. Nothing in Africa is ever easy. Tomorrow I face the long journey back to Arusha, and then to Dar es Salaam, and then finally through Dubai to San Francisco and home. What have I learned? The same as every man who has ever watched the same sun rise over the same plains before me. Absolutely nothing…