by Risa Weinreb
Dawn breaks over the dark continent. The sky - inky just a millisecond ago - starts to rip silver from the horizon. Next to my tent canvas, I hear a snuffle: of something big or small, warthog or elephant, I'm not quite sure.
Carefully, I unzip my tent flap and look out - just in time to see a hippo sashaying from our camp to the water. Moving surprisingly daintily - we're talking about a four-ton animal built like a Humvee - it lowers itself into the water, leaving just two ears and peering eyes above the surface.
I had come to Africa on safari - the word means "journey" in Swahili. This safari would take me beyond the usual tourist routes to lesser-known destinations in Tanzania and Malawi.
Tanzania - The Wild Side
Tanzania is known both for its variety of wildlife - 430 species - and also for its vast numbers of animals, especially the herds of zebra and wildebeest that sweep across the Serengeti in the annual migration. An estimated 90% of visitors head for the so-called Northern Circuit, which includes Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and other safari superstars.
Instead, I was heading to southern Tanzania - away from the grasslands and plains to the woodlands and riverbanks where elephants outnumber the tourists.
"In the south, it's not crowded. Visitors get a more personal experience," explained Solomon Olemwaipasi, the guide from Kearsley Travel & Tours who greeted our small group at Dares Salaam International Airport.
Ranging in age from the 20s to the 60s, we came from all over the U.S. and had interests that included birding, photography, and scuba diving. As we got acquainted, we talked about how we all craved the full sensory impact of African safari: to feel the ground rumble as wildebeest stampeded by, and smell the damp exhalation of earth by a riverbank.
Although it's possible to fly from Dar to the southern game reserves, we instead drove in two rugged Toyota Land Cruisers. The road trip, although bumpy, offered a look at real African life, not just khaki-clad tourists in the safari camps.
Instead of jungle, southern Tanzania serves up vistas of woodlands and an almost constant series of villages -simple, cleanly swept settlements of wattle and daub houses. Wearing brightly colored kangas (cotton wraps), women walked by the side of the road balancing loads of tomatoes, corn, or firewood on their heads.
Spectacular Wildlife Viewing
The largest wildlife reserve in Africa, Selous Game Reserve covers approximately 18,000 square miles - about 5% of Tanzania's total land area and more territory than Switzerland. Although it ranks as one of the largest conservation areas in the world, the reserve draws fewer than 100 visitors a day. Its most extraordinary game viewing centers along the Rufiji River - a gathering place for creatures ranging from 12-foot-tall elephants to palm-sized bee-eater birds.
Located beside the river, Rufiji River Camp offers 20 permanent tents with comfortable beds and bathrooms. It was here that I nearly came nose-to-snout with that perambulating hippo mentioned earlier.
In Selous visitors can enjoy three different safari experiences: viewing wildlife by boat, on foot, and in four-wheel-drive vehicles. For the boat adventure we boarded a small, shallow-drafted craft accompanied by Solomon and Musa, the guide from Rufiji River Camp. After casting off from the dock, we cruised past giraffes that melded with the bush with their perfect camouflage, and crocodiles that swiveled soundlessly into the water.
About eight miles upriver, we encountered a dozen elephants and drifted our boat in so close that we could discern the veins on their ears. Upon spotting our boat, the mothers nudged their babies into the center of the herd for added protection. One large male parried with two young bachelors, wrestling with his trunk and butting them with his forehead in a dominance display. Even our guides were amazed by the altercation. "Every time I see elephants, they do something new -something I've never seen before, nor read about in books," remarked Musa.
Exotic Bird Species
The Selous also shelters over 400 species of birds. A Malachite kingfisher flashed blue over the water, and yellow bee-eaters swooped into their cliff burrows like ancient tribal dwellers.
During our journey, Solomon shared tidbits of information. He described how hip-pos secrete a pink liquid to protect their skin from sunburn, and a zebra has 84 stripes on each side. A Maasai from Ngorongoro, he also explained tribal traditions, talking about the painful circumcision rituals that adolescents undergo, and the importance of cows to daily life.
After lunch back at camp, we headed out for a game drive. Our main hunt was for the hunters - lions that Musa had seen on a kill earlier that day. We came across several lionesses with their cubs. Less than a week old, two of the babies still had their spots.
While both the river safari and the game drives focus on the macro - the elephants, lion, and other big game -the walking safari the next day concentrated on the micro: an aardvark hole in a termite mound, or rub marks from elephants scratched 15 feet up a tree. "On the walking safaris, you feel the heartbeat of the game reserve," Musa commented. You also sense the possible danger: our group was also accompanied by Robert and his .458 rifle -a reminder of the claws and fangs that lurk in the bush. As we hiked through thickets and woodlands, we saw hammerkop nests that weigh over 100 pounds, and colobus monkeys swinging high in a tree.
"Even though I see animals every day, each safari is different," Solomon observed as we returned to camp. I was deeply touched by how both he and Musa - people who earn their living by being with animals all day, every day - still kept a sense of wonder about the creatures that they encountered.
Our southern circuit in Tanzania also included Mikumi National Park adjoining Selous. Instead of thick woodlands, Mikumi offers panoramic grasslands and huge herds of wildebeest and zebra.
The Spice Island
We added surf to our turf, combining our visit to Tanzania's game reserves with a stay in Zanzibar, located 25 miles off Tanzania's coast.
Once known for legends of sultans and slave traders, pirates and spice planters,
Zanzibar today lures vacationers with smooth, white beaches and crystal-blue waters. Luxury hotels dot the east coast, which has many of the island's best beaches. Blue Bay Resort fully lives up to Zanzibar's exoticism, with luxurious thatch-roofed villas surrounded by gardens. On this stretch of coast, the sea recedes so far at low tide that you can walk hundreds of feet offshore, and still only be knee-deep in the water.
Although it's tempting to hunker down on a beach chair for a few days, it's worth exploring the island. A World Heritage Site, Stone Town brings together Arabic, Indian, European, and African architecture. Minarets mingle with stone fortresses, gingerbread-trimmed porches, and Internet cafes.
During the 19th century Zanzibar was Africa's largest trading center for slaves with more than 20,000 captives a year passing through its market. Erected by the Omani Arabs in 1700, the Old Fort functioned as a barracks, prison, and holding area for slaves before auction. The former site of the slave market is now the Anglican Cathedral - its altar incorporates a circle where the slave market whipping post once stood.
Just outside of town, Maruhubi Palace reflects the opulent lifestyle of Zanzibar's sultans. At this compound, adorned with pillars and gardens, a 19th-century sultan ensconced his 99 "secondary wives." The structures are now crumbling and overrun with weeds; people wash laundry in the pools where concubines once swam.
Spices are still Zanzibar's number-one industry. On tours at Kizimbami Spice Farm, visitors can learn how all the staples in their kitchen cupboards grow, including tumeric (a root resembling ginger), vanilla (pods hang from vines), cinnamon (a bark).
A landlocked nation, Malawi lies nearly 400 miles from the nearest coast. But the country also contains Lake Malawi, which covers one-fifth of Malawi's surface area. Africa's third-largest lake, it ranks second only to Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika.
Although Malawi has been independent from Great Britain since 1964, it maintains many Anglo traditions. English is the official language (although many people also speak Chichewa, the dominant tribal tongue), and even the tiniest, most remote villages often have a tea room.
Zomba, the former British capital, retains a colonial-era feel. With its Victorian houses wrapped with porches, it resembles a London suburb -except for the baboons scampering across the road.
Rising more than 3,300 feet above the town, the Zomba Plateau offers excellent hiking and biking trails. Our base for exploring the area was Ku Chawe Inn, built on the edge of the escarpment. Rooms feature massive stone fireplaces, which special attendants light for guests. Gardens flourish with datura, nasturiums, and calla lilies, and an excellent restaurant serves specialties such as kampango, the local lake fish.
"Just say what you want and we'll run and do it for you," Myles Laing, the general manager, had graciously offered. He arranged a sightseeing drive to Queen's View overlook, where Queen Elizabeth (wife of King George VI) had visited in 1957. Here, our driver Gibson served a proper British tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches and cookies.
A visit to Mvuu Wilderness Lodge and Camp in Liwonde National Park is essential for anyone interested in the issues and realities of conservation and ecotourism. During the 1980s and 1990s, much wildlife was severely depleted in Malawi, and species such as black rhinos were completely wiped out.
Mvuu's game conservation project aims to change all that. "The whole idea is to breed endangered species," stated Hans van der Heiden, Mvuu's dynamic general manager. With funding and support from the "J & B Circle" of Malawi (yes, the whiskey people), Mvuu established a fenced sanctuary in Liwonde for black rhino, as well as other threatened species, such as sable and cape buffalo. Because poaching is prevalent, rangers in the sanctuary have orders to shoot unauthorized visitors on sight.
To help local people recognize the importance of tour-ism and conservation, van der Heiden runs a medical clinic once a week and organized a project to build a new village school - the local community made their own bricks to build classrooms. He also started a cultural village where visitors can visit Malawian houses and sample local dishes. Donations from Mvuu guests help fund the projects. For its work Wilderness Safaris (the operator of Mvuu and several other lodges in southern Africa) in 2003 was honored with the World Legacy Award for nature-based tourism by Conservation International and National Geographic Traveler.
Foray in the Dark
In addition to regular game drives, Mvuu features several unusual wildlife viewing opportunities. Mvuu's guide Paulo led a night game drive. We saw many nocturnal creatures, including a civet with banded eyes and a porcupine that clattered its quills as it shuffled away. "Stop," Paulo suddenly called to the driver, then ran 30 feet into the darkened bush to lift what looked like a dead leaf on a twig. Instead, it was a tiny chameleon.
The next morning, I awakened before dawn and dressed by candlelight (the power hadn't come on yet) to join Paulo for a bush walk. In contrast to the dense woodlands at Selous, Liwonde features open grasslands with long sight lines.
Lovebirds and Antelopes
As the sun rose behind the baobab trees, a flock of jabbering Lilian's lovebirds flew overhead. Tracks of antelope, baboon, elephant, and hippo marked practically every inch of the sandy ground. The crisscrossing footprints conveyed a sense of all the life in the bush, reminding us that the jungle was not empty, but very, very full.
The itinerary concluded with a visit to Lake Malawi. With its golden sands and turquoise water, the shoreline looks more Fantasy Island than land-locked lagoon. Set on the lake, Club Makakola resort reflects the tropical ambiance, with suites set in rondavels bowered by bottlebrush and plumeria.
Club Makakola features snorkel trips to Bird Island. On the way, the skipper stopped to feed fish eagles, tossing fish filets into the water. We watched and photographed the birds snapping the morsels in their talons.
We stopped at a cove for snorkeling. The lake is known for its cichlids, the largest family of fish in Africa. Even though one thinks of freshwater fish as drab (think bass), Lake Malawi's cichlids range in hue from lapis blue to Midas gold and garnet red. Their brilliant hues make them favorites for aquariums around the world.
Although most people know the Swahili word safari, they are less familiar with a related word: msafiri, meaning "the traveler." My return to Africa renewed my awareness of nature ... reawakened me to the beauties of the beasts.
The travel, in fact, has trans-formed the traveler.
RETOSA (Regional Tour-ism Organization of Southern Africa) provides information about travel to its 14 member nations, which include Tanzania and Malawi, as well as Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Seychelles, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Publications include a comprehensive directory covering member countries and tourist attractions. For information, call 212-286-9300 or visit www.retosa.co.za
For information about tour operators and programs, see the Geographical Index under "Malawi" and Tanzania."