Things That Go Bang in the Night

24 04 2009

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“I love the sound of firecrackers in the morning, it’s the sound of victory!”   (Mt. Meru, Arusha, Tanzania)

 

 

Night is always the most dangerous time in Africa. It’s when lions and leopard hunt, when hyenas and jackals forage and villagers barricade themselves and their livestock behind acacia thorn and stay safely inside their huts. It’s at night when every sound makes hearts palpitate, when campers lie in their tents wide-eyed and sleepless and when spear-toting warriors patrol campsites to fend off dangerous trespassers. But sometimes, it’s the guards themselves that cause the biggest frights.

 

Arriving back in Arusha, Tanzania after several weeks on safari, we found our campsite on the outskirts of town guarded by several soldiers in fatigues with automatic rifles. They smiled happily and raised the gate as we drove in, before resuming their posts. As there’d been no such security when we’d stayed in the same spot two weeks earlier, we couldn’t help but wonder if there’d been a coup while we were off in the wilds…or anything else similarly dramatic.

 

After setting up our tents and relishing long-awaited showers, we headed to the rustic bar for a cold beverage. It wasn’t long before someone asked the bartender what the army was doing at the gates.

 

“Someone tried to rob the campsite last week,” he explained non-chalantly, pouring from a bottle of Konyagi. “The owner heard them and came running out with a rifle. There was a scuffle and the owner and one of the robbers was shot. The police arrested the owner, but they’re worried that the robber’s friends will come back for revenge.” He shrugged and went to the other end of the bar while we stared at each other in shock.

 

“So,” someone finally said after an uncomfortable silence, “we’re staying at a campsite guarded by police in army gear carrying AK-47s in case the friends of a shot burglar come back to shoot the whole place up in revenge for their friend’s injuries???”

 

“Yeah, pretty much.”

 

“Right, I’ll have another beer.”

 

After dinner we headed for our tents expecting to be awakened by gunfire. Alas, at the usual hour the beer I had consumed to help me forget that I was sleeping in the middle of the O.K. Corral bid me to visit the toilet. I shuffled into the cool darkness and walked towards the cinder block building that was dimly lit by a single naked light blub. As I approached the building I heard a loud noise and peered nervously into the shadows.

 

There, slumped in a tyre-swing hanging from a tree was one of our police guards, fast asleep. His head lolled on his chest, he snored noisily, his rifle lay across his legs with his finger on the trigger. I tip-toed past terrified that I would make a noise and be felled by a startled burst of automatic rifle fire.

 

Safely inside, I heaved a sigh of relief. Business done, I headed to the doorway and glanced across at the swing. Our sentinel was still asleep and still snoring. Legs shaking, I held my breath, and tip-toed back past him, all the while daring not to breathe less a particularly loud exhalation suddenly woke the marksman.

 

I dived into the tent and threw myself flatly to the ground. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, but I realised that I’d sooner walk past a pride of starving lions or an amorous bull elephant in the night than again venture past a sleeping, possibly trigger-happy policeman with a machine-gun!

 

 

Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009 

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The Dark Side of Safaris

6 04 2009

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Oy you, lion…you distract them and I’ll grab the boiled eggs…” (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)

 

African parks are inherently dangerous, and that’s not just the abundance of flammable khaki polyester and suspiciously tacky safari hats. Sartorial inelegance aside, it’s the close proximity of wild and dangerous animals that’s obviously part of the great appeal for many visitors.

 

Even before arrival, travellers are warned of the dangers that lurk in the wild places. With rare exceptions, it’s never permitted to get out of vehicles in national parks. Private lodges tell guests not to leave their rooms until ‘collected’ by an armed guide the next morning. Tented camps give visitors bells to call spear-toting askaris to escort them around after dark…and overland trips just advise their clients to run really quickly. But is all that precaution and fear actually warranted or is it just to give visitors a greater sense of adventure?

 

Like much of life, activities in Africa fall into three categories: generally safe, outlandishly dangerous and calculatedly risky. Most safaris qualify as safe with the occasional dash of calculated risk and perhaps the odd – but always memorable – soupcon of unanticipated downright danger. In a world of snakes and crocodiles, predators and pachyderms, attack sometimes comes from the least expected of places, however.

 

Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is truly one of the natural Wonders of the World. A massive volcanic crater, it offers visitors a self-contained Garden of Eden with forests, lakes and abundant wildlife. A half-day game drive often provides more wildlife viewing than several days in most other parks, and all set against the spectacular backdrop of the crater walls. Once your Landcruiser has made its precarious way down, you’re told not to venture outside except at one picnic spot. When you start spotting rhinos, elephants and prides of lions, you understand why.

 

The picnic site is a picturesque spot thoughtfully equipped with tables. Vehicles gather, visitors stretch their legs, and lunches packed earlier in the day are retrieved. At first, everyone’s a little edgy realising there’s nothing separating them from the game they’d previously been watching and photographing. But gradually, they relax and nibble.

 

It’s when you relax that you are at your most vulnerable.

 

The first attack came moments after the sandwiches were unwrapped. There was a scream from the other side of the clearing and everyone jumped to their feet, expecting to see a victim dragged into the tall grass. Someone was faintly whimpering and holding their head. The commotion died down. Shortly afterwards there was a second, louder scream, and a man was seen diving for a safari van. A ripple of fear ran through the panicked picnickers.

 

The third scream sent the Pringles flying. Clearly, we were under attack by an as-yet unidentified menace. And then the sky darkened and our enemy revealed itself.

 

The black kite loomed menacingly out of the blue sky, talons extended, sharp beak gleaming in the sun. It swooped down before arcing skyward just inches above our ducking heads. Again and again the large birds of prey descended attempting to steal bananas, sandwiches, Twiglets and Twinkies. A guide raced around shouting for food to be hidden and heads kept down. Gaggles of tourists dashed for minivans all the while dive-bombed by hungry wheeling and soaring raptors.

 

“Beware!” the guide shouted, “They’ve been known to slice open scalps with their beaks,” he explained as he leapt for cover beneath a picnic bench.

 

The big birds continued their attack. Some visitors threw their sandwiches away like offerings to the Gods, while others fought the good fight and continued to eat, grabbing a bite in between each air raid. It was like being besieged by seagulls…only armed with machetes and hedge-clippers!

 

Once the food was gone, the birds disappeared into thin air as quickly as they’d arrived, although eagle-eyes claimed they were seen lurking in tree tops eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next bounty of boiled eggs and unwary picnickers.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan