SIAFU --THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER THREE: THE GAME PARKS OF EAST AFRICA
The vast plains of Serengeti defy description. A man must see them, and the huge herds of zebra and wildebeste that roam these seven hundred square miles of national Park with their attendant predators. He must feel the savage splendor of all its sights and scenes in his heart. The seemingly endless stretches of thick savannah grassland, dotted with flat-topped acacia trees and patches of thick scrub and forest, contain the greatest concentration of game anywhere in the world. Every year in May or June the hot, dry summer forces the grazing herds to migrate in their thousands. They must return to the more permanent water holes on the western side of the park adjoining Lake Victoria. Lions, leopard and cheetah stalk the stragglers, and hyena, jackals and vultures wait upon the heels of the killer cats to clean the final shreds of meat from the luckless victims.
We reached Serengeti from the south after passing through Tabora and Shinyanga. Poaching is a big problem in the game parks and just before we reached Tabora, an old town on the route of the 16th century slave trade, we saw just how it was done. We witnessed three government vehicles filled with Tanzanian policemen, all happily poaching with police weapons. As we had just shot a small buck for the pot as they came up, and were hastily stuffing the dismembered pieces of blood-dripping meat into Peter’s sleeping bag, we were hardly the right ones to complain.
We arrived at the Seronera Lodge in the centre of the game park at eight o’clock in the evening and pitched our tent under the stars at the approved camping site to the tune of hyena howls and the yapping of Zebra. The latter sounded remarkably like dogs. The occasional growls of lions were again just a little too close for comfort.
There are times in the bush when a man has to move away from the safety of his camp and attend to his own private needs. Peter was on such an errand when a particularly vocal hyena decided to call his mate. Somewhere in the darkened night the animal took a deep breath, lifted his shaggy head to the stars and let drive with something that was somewhere between the scream of a banshee and the shriek of a vampire just receiving the wooden stake through his heart. For good measure the hyena added an insane cackle at the end. Peter came back faster than I had ever seen him move before, his shirt tails flying and his revolver in his hand.
“What the hell was that?” he demanded.
I told him, and for his further edification included my own personal hyena story. This was a particularly nasty experience that had happened during a drive down from Kenya to South Africa almost a year before. I was camped with a Kenyan traveling companion just outside Dodoma on the edge of the Masai steppe. For supper that night we had killed and cooked a guinea fowl and not bothering to bury the intestines and other remains had simply thrown them into the bush.
Before turning in to sleep we could hear hyenas or jackals scrounging around the perimeter of the camp but I didn’t spare them a second thought. All scavengers were cowards who lacked the courage to attack a man, or such was my belief. However, on this occasion I had forgotten two vital facts. One was that we had seen very little game in this area so the scavengers would be unusually hungry – and two, and far more important, we were camped in Masai country.
The Masai have a strange custom in disposing of their dead. When and old man or woman senses the approach of death they will inform their relatives, who will then carry the dying person out into the bush to be left unarmed for the hyenas. Brutal it may be, but the Masai believe that if a death occurs in the village then every hut must be razed to the ground and the whole village must move away to escape the dead person’s spirit.
Because of this the hyena on the Masai steppe are accustomed to feeding on human flesh.
Forgetful of this I lay at that blissful borderline between consciousness and sleep when the whole body is relaxed and the senses dulled. In another few moments I would have drowsed into oblivion, but somewhere in my subconscious mind there was a sixth sense that had developed over my long years in the bush. I escaped possible death and certain disfigurement because of this built-in warning system which picked up a sudden, soft rustle of sound, identifying it from all the other murmuring sounds of the African night as a signal of danger. My eyes snapped open and I sat bolt upright.
Not ten feet away was a large spotted hyena, trotting towards me at a shambling run. He was desperate and hungry, head down and mouth open, his sharp canines shining wetly from powerful jaws.
On that trip I was carrying a shotgun that lay beside me. I grabbed it frantically, swung it round and pulled both triggers. The butt slammed a mule kick in my groin and I missed with both barrels. The hyena was startled by the crash of the gun. He tried to check his momentum but failed and came stumbling over my feet which were still trapped in my sleeping bag. I swung the shotgun and caught him a glancing blow on the side of the head and with a snarl of rage and fear he recovered his balance and fled into the night.
I was sweating and realized that I had had a very narrow escape. Hyenas are cowards but for their size they have the most efficient snapping jaws in the animal kingdom. I have seen Africans with a big chunk of flesh or a hand missing where a hyena has taken a bite while they slept. Except that I had come alert in time it had almost happened to me.
Peter listened to this little piece of reminiscing as though he would have preferred me to keep this little tale to myself.
During that night it sounded as though every single animal in Africa had congregated just beyond the thin canvas of our tent. The uproar of grunts, yelps and growls, and especially the barking of the zebra completely drowned out the normal insect chorus. We were up well before daybreak and when the sun waved red streamers of dawn above the eastern horizon we gradually began to pick out all the varieties of wild life around us. We were literally surrounded by zebra, there were black and white striped rumps, flanks and faces in every direction. Hyenas skulked from bush to bush and sharp, dog-eared jackal faces peeped at us uncertainly over the long grass.
We drove back the short distance to the Seronera lodge where we had arranged to hire a guide for the next two days. Waiting for us was a smiling young African in khaki shorts, shirt and bush hat. His name was Marwa and he was to prove an extremely friendly and courteous companion, and, more important in a game guide, he had the eyes of a hawk. Our two days in his company were an unforgettable experience.
The zebra were uncountable, as were the long-faced golden hartebeest and the wildebeest looking like under-nourished buffalo with extra long black and shaggy faces. There were gazelle in their hundreds, thompson’s and grant’s, and also topi and impala. We watched them for the first signs of nervousness or disturbance which would mean that they had sensed the presence of a stalking lion or leopard, or perhaps even the lightning-swift cheetah. The blue skies we searched for the slow-wheeling vultures that would guide us to where one of the big cats had already made a kill.
Marwa found us our first lions less than an hour after we had started out from the lodge, or to be more exact two lionesses, lazy-muscled and sleepy-eyed, stretched out under a clump of shading thorn bush. Around them we counted seven bold little pussy-faced cubs. Behind them lay a torn red rib cage, all that remained of their last meal, together with a pair of crooked horns that identified their victim as a hartebeest.
We drove up to within a dozen yards to take photographs but the big cats ignored us. They knew that they were the queens among beasts and that no puny man would dare to step out of his four-wheeled sanctuary and molest them. The cubs were even more careless of our presence for they were quite confident that their sharp-clawed, steel-toothed mama could handle all their problems. One little cub lay snoozing right in the middle of the meat-stripped rib cage, one front paw hooked over it and the other paw folded neatly across his fat white belly. It was a tame scene, until you looked into the great yellow eyes of the two mothers and read the cold warning deep in their depths.
We drove on, spotting more lion; waterbuck and reedbuck standing alert with their heads raised and horns sharp against the blue sky, and then a giraffe, taking a sedate stroll in his chocolate-patterned coat. From the comfortable altitude provided by his long forward-sloping neck he calmly survey the plains. With his long legs he had no need to hurry and stepped carefully like a British policeman moving at regulation pace. I thought that a blue helmet balanced between his knobby horns would have fitted him quite well. Then Marwa touched my arm and said in a satisfied tone:
We stopped the Land Rover and even with Marwa’s pointing finger to show us the way it took us a few minutes to spot the leopard. He was sitting up in the fork of a tree and watching a small group of topi very closely. We drove up to him slowly but he was far more interested in the little brown antelope than he was in us and allowed us to park almost underneath his branch. Next to Cheetah Leopards are usually the most difficult of the hunting cats to approach and so we were delighted at the opportunity to get some good photographs of our spotted friend.
When we were satisfied we moved off to try and find buffalo. With Marwaa to guide us we could not fail for he knew exactly where every type of animal had its favorite haunt. We soon found a lone black bull, glowering at us from beneath his massive boss and thick horns. We photographed him and moved on. Shortly after that our exhaust broke as we crashed the Rover unwittingly over a rock. Peter and I removed the exhaust pipe altogether and then we drove off again, roaring down the road like a rusty old farm tractor. We spotted another buffalo bull, as black and threatening as the first, but when we tried to approach him he quickly took off into the bushes.
The noise had startled him but Peter was still hoping for some pictures and so I eased up to the bushes where he had dive for cover as quietly as possible, my foot resting very gently on the accelerator. However, I was still making too much noise and abruptly the bushes parted. Out from them burst one and a half tons of enraged charging buffalo who had positively decided to put a stop to all this noise and nonsense.
Buffalo charge with their head held high and one look at those furious eyes blazing at me along the thick flared nostrils was enough. I stamped on the accelerator and swung the Land Rover around hard and fast to beat a hasty retreat. The buffalo was almost upon us but I had to concentrate all my attention on trying to miss the worst of the pot holes and trees that kept flashing up before us. Beside me Peter kept up a frantic running commentary of: “GO! Go! --- Faster! Faster! – It’s catching up!” While in the rear-view mirror I could see the brute growing larger and larger with every second. The, when it seemed that escape was impossible the buffalo suddenly swerved to the right and came hurtling close by on my side of the cab. He overtook us easily and missed us by bare inches. I was so startled that I almost crashed into a tree and while I slowed down and stopped the buffalo kept going and vanished into the bush.
It had all happened so fast and the Land Rove had been bouncing and jolting so violently that Peter hadn’t got a single picture and so after that we decided to return to camp and weld the exhaust back into place.
That evening, after a spectacular sunset, it was unanimously decided that we had earned a drink for our labors. We climbed into our repaired Land Rover and with Peter at the wheel circled our camp to head back to the lodge. Our headlights cut a sweeping path of light over the darkened bush and flashed back at us was a wide mass of bright, startled eyes. As usual we were surrounded by zebra.
The beam of our lights blinded them. The younger, more highly spirited animals panicked and quite unexpectedly we had a wild stampede on our hands. It was a spell-bounding sight, a mass of striped animals charging aimlessly in the night, their horse-like heads held high and their dazzled, rolling eyes completely out of focus. Then the spell broke as I realized they were headed straight for our camp and I yelled a warning to Peter.
He had no more desire to see our tent flattened than I had and already he was swinging the Land Rover in an effort to head them off. He was partially successful but the tent survived mainly because of the large fire we had built. The zebra felt the heat and swerved at the last minute, although their flying hooves flattened our pots and pans and scattered them over the veld.
We stopped to restore some of the damage. The night grew quiet once we had switched off the engine and then suddenly I heard tins rattling in the rubbish pit which was located some twenty yards away. It was not the slow nuzzling of a rat or a jackal but something far more agitated. I picked up a flashlight and moved cautiously toward the sound. The noise stopped and there was absolute silence.
I hesitated and then continued my wary approach. The rubbish pit was narrow and very deep, and protruding from it with ears pricked forward was the head and shoulders of a badly-frightened young zebra. He was firmly stuck and when he realized that his petrified silence hadn’t helped him to escape my attention he began to throw himself violently against the sides of the pit.
Peter came over and we discussed the best way of getting the trapped animal out of its hole. One method would be to collapse the side of the pit and try to make him a ramp which he could climb up, and the only alternative would be to rope him and try to haul him out. The latter idea would leave us with the problem of how to untie a frightened, biting zebra once he was out. However, before we could come to a conclusion we heard the hunting grunt of a lion and retreated hastily to the security of the camp fire.
There we decided that Peter should drive up to the lodge to get help from the African game wardens who might have some better ideas. Peter departed with the Land Rover while I prepared to wait with a ready rifle and the flashlight.
Our zebra had heard the lion too and was very still and quiet. The lion grunted again, closer this time, and then blind panic gripped the zebra and he started to thrash around madly in his pit. The lion heard him and soon I was convinced that there was more than one lion out there in the black African night. They had sensed that some animal was in trouble and they were closing in for the kill.
The law of the jungle is the survival of the fittest – the weak, the crippled and the unfortunate are there to provide food for the fast and the strong. I had watched a kill before and felt no cause to interfere with the law, but this case was different. It was mostly our fault that the trapped zebra was in his present plight and I felt that it was up to me to get him out. I had to re-balance the law that I had disturbed and give him a fair chance for his survival.
I moved out from the safety of the fire and returned to the edge of the pit. The zebra was frantic with terror and his efforts to free himself were kicking dust and gravel and rubbish everywhere. The lions were growling cautiously to each other and it was obvious that Peter was not going to return in time with cavalry. I set my flashlight on the ground and keeping the rifle ready in my hands I tried to kick down one end of the pit to make a sloping ramp.
It was a desperate business for both of us and when I was sure that the lions were in striking range I had to back off again towards the fire. Then came the sound of our Land Rover returning, and ironically it was the alien sound that had scared the zebra into the pit that now scared him out of it. He made one final super-zebra effort and heaved himself up over the ramp I had started to make.
He was gone in a flash, and as I did not hear him pulled down I had reason to hope that on that occasion he got through the tightening cordon of lions. A few seconds later Peter arrived, and behind him a lorry with over a score of African wardens. With some embarrassment I had to explain that the zebra had now escaped and the ring of African faces all showed disappointment at the fun that had been missed.
Despite our nocturnal adventures we were more than ready to join Marwa again the next morning for our second unforgettable day of game viewing. Almost immediately he found us two young male lions standing at the foot of a tree and seriously regarding a large leopard who returned their gaze with much indignation and annoyance. This was a fascinating scene and we drove closer to investigate. Whatever was happening the leopard looked most upset about the whole affair. He sat upright on a stout branch with his head held high and his whiskers bristling, disdaining even to snarl at his tormentors. The arrival of our Land Rover distracted the two lions for a moment and the spotted cat seized his chance to escape. With one beautiful, soaring leap he was down from the tree and bounding away for cover in a streak of dappled fur. One of the lions made a half-hearted sport of trying to catch him but very quickly gave it up and returned to his brother and the real business at hand. They had obliged the frustrated leopard to leave a fresh kill in the fork of the tree and clumsily they hauled it down and began their stolen meal.
It would be repetitive to describe every lion that we saw in the Serengeti; let it be sufficient to say that in our two days there we saw fifty-five of these Kings of Beasts, including three of the famous black-mane males. We observed four leopards and four of the even more elusive cheetah. The herd animals such as gazelles, buck, wildebeest and zebra we witnessed in their thousands, grazing placidly like domestic cattle.
We left the plains reluctantly on the third day and drove to Ngorongoro where even more fantastic sights awaited. Ngorongoro is an extinct volcanic crater that is truly one of the wonders of the world. It is a vast wooded bowl with one hundred square miles of floor area below the two thousand foot high walls of the crater’s rim. It is filled to bursting point with vividly colorful wild birds and stupendous numbers of every variety of wild animals. In the centre of the crater is a saline lake surrounded by dazzling white salt licks, all fed by fresh water streams flowing down from the almost vertical crater walls. One side of the lake is covered by rain forest where herds of elephants have made their home and on the open floor of the crater the cloven-hoofed plains animals again made a patterned carpet of moving black dots on the lush green grass.
We drove into the crater down a very steep and rocky road, which every few minutes offered us magnificent views of the vast, rich green saucer beneath a searing blue sky where piles of cumulus cloud drifted like a froth of pure white cream. The descent was so rough that I doubt that anything but a four-wheel drive vehicle could have made it and returned.
Once on the crater floor we were back among the familiar herds of grazing animals, but today we were hoping for something new, something different. Then I spotted them, the massive lumbering forms of two rhino in the distance. We went after them in a crazy cross-country chase that had the Land Rover bumping and swaying wildly. It was rough country which meant that a really fast turn of speed was not possible and I found myself hoping that these rhino were peaceful and not inclined to charge.
It was just our luck that we were chasing Arthur, Ngorongoro’s only aggressive rhino. Today he had his wife with him, who, like any well-behaved woman, simply follows her old man around and takes her cue from him. When we arrived they simply snorted at us in unison and then impolitely turned and presented us with two huge backsides with up-turned tails. Presumably if you cannot turn up your nose then the next best thing is to turn up your tail. Having made this derogatory gesture Arthur and his lady began to depart at a sedate plod.
This was not the photograph that Peter wanted so we followed on their heels, trying to strike up a friendship which was snubbed very forcibly when they both wheeled round with lowered heads and more snorts of defiance. Peter snapped a couple of pictures but I didn’t like the look of those huge pointed horns which were now aimed ominously in our direction. I was already taking evasive action when the two rhino charged. They went by us like runaway tanks with only feet to spare and careered off erratically into the distance.
Arthur promptly vanished from sight but his lady either lacked the energy for a long run or she was embarrassed by the rudeness of her spouse. To make amends she allowed us to catch her up, which we did very cautiously I must admit, and then, deciding that we were not such bad chaps after all, she permitted us to get quite close and take as many photographs as we liked. Perhaps it was her way of apologizing for the disgracefully unsociable behavior of Arthur.
We now had excellent photographs of all of Africa’s Big Five but for good measure we drove round to the rain forest on the far side of the lake to get some good camera shots of Ngorongoro’s elephant. After that it was late afternoon and because the park rules are adamant that all visitors must be back in the safety of their lodge or camp before sunset we had to reluctantly leave the crater.
At noon of the following day we resumed our journey and drove on to Arusha and a farm owned by two old friends of mine, Piet de Wet and Danie van Rensberg. They were second generation Tangiyikans, born and bred here as their parents before them, and I knew them well from the days when my father was the Agricultural Officer just over the border. Danie owned three farms in the area, built up by sheer guts and a lifetime of hard work. We arrived on the day that they received news that their farm lands had been confiscated by the new Tanzanian government.
The farms were due to be handed over to peasant African farmers, or other Africans with “large government loans.” There was to be no compensation for the losers and for the whites the meaning was clear – get out of Tanzania. For the five hundred Africans who had comprised the farm’s work force the meaning was equally clear – unemployment.
While we were there Danie had to set about disposing of eight hundred head of cows and beef cattle, the finest dairy herd in Africa, plus three Land Rovers, one truck, one jeep twelve tractors, two caterpillars and numerous sub-soilers, planters and ploughs. He had to sell them for what he could get and it was tragic to watch a man being forced to tear down the results of a lifetime of work. After the past three days it was a reminder of reality and the fact that not all of East Africa is a tourist paradise.
However, Piet and Danie were generous to the last. Typical of most East African whites they offered us their hospitality despite their misfortunes. We were welcome to stay as long as we pleased, or at least as long as they were able to stay themselves. We spent three days with them and left the day before the African immigration officials came round to check on our presence.
We entered Kenya at the Namanga border post, the formalities were dealt with speedily and efficiently and I was home. Here I had a wealth of old friends to re-visit, invitations to parties never ceased, hospitality was forced upon us, and in all our trans-Africa safari was interrupted for a full three months.
During that time we made trips into all of Kenya’s big game parks, to Amboseli, Masai Mara and Tsavo, and found them all rich in birds and animal life. Soon we had repeated all our game-viewing experiences a dozen times over. Peter was by now as confident and experienced an old bush hand as I was myself. However, there was one incident on our last trip into Amboseli that is worth recounting.
The park is situated on the northern base of Mount Kilimanjaro, whose snow-capped peak, shrouded in mist we were to see next morning. This particular night we were camped just short of the park and because we were not yet into the game area we had not bothered to erect a tent or light a fire. It was splendidly quiet and starry night and after supper we simply rolled up into our sleeping bags, one on either side of the Land Rover.
We slept peaceably and then abruptly at four-fifteen am I was wide awake. Somewhere nearby a strange animal was calling harshly. A lion perhaps? I wasn’t sure. It certainly didn’t sound like any lion I had heard before, but then, it didn’t sound like anything else I had ever heard before.
On the other side of the Land Rover I heard the cautious click of the bolt action on Peter’s rifle. He too was awake and listening to the alien sound. It was repeated but neither of us could identify it. We weighed up the situation in soft whispers passed to and fro beneath the Land Rover. When the call came for the third time we decided that to satisfy our curiosity we must investigate.
We both rose silently from our sleeping bags, paused only to slip on our shoes, and stark naked we set off to stalk this mystery creature of the night. We made a fine sight, two intrepid and very obviously white hunters, senses keen, rifles ready, magazines full, moving quietly through the bush to get downwind of the sound. We only had a few pale stars to guide us but eventually we found the cause of the disturbance – a harmless, lone greater bustard practicing its mating call. It was a protected game bird but with us it took no chances. One look at us, starkers, determined and complete with heavy rifles, was enough to scare any poor bird out of its feathers.
The bustard fled with a final squawk and we returned somewhat abashed to our slumbers.
When at last we tired of the game parks we moved down to explore Kenya’s gloriously sun-bleached coast. We visited Mombasa where the Portuguese built Fort Jesus in 1593 to protect their trading base from the Turks commanding the Red Sea. A hundred years later the Omani Arabs from the Persian Gulf took the fortress after a thirty-three month siege, at the end of which only nine of the Portuguese defenders were left alive. Since then Arab influence has been dominant and even today when the trade winds blow in from the Indian Ocean the old harbor will be full of sea-going, slant-sailed Arab dhows.
Now the inner walls of Fort Jesus have crumbled and only the yellow-brown outer bastions remain intact. The cannons that point out through the embrasures overlooking the white-flecked sparkle of the blue sea are black with age and have long been silent.
The old town of Mombasa is a narrow maze of streets, the old houses washed blue, yellow and brown, grubby now and with high shuttered windows and carved wooden balconies. Many of the doors are massive, handsomely carved and studded with polished spikes in the tradition of Zanzibar. The people are varied and cosmopolitan; Arab women in all-enveloping black robes and veils, Indian women in silk saris, old men with skull caps and flowing white beards, Indian and negro youths and crippled beggars. Overall is the musty smell of fish pervading the whole harbor area. There is a white-spire temple to Vishnu, a Muslim mosque, a Roman Catholic Cathedral and a Jain temple like a glittering cake of white icing.
Seventy miles north of Mombasa is Malindi, where the beach is pure, virginal white sand between dazzling blue seas and slanting green coconut palms. It was one of those rare magical places with which you fall in love and never want to leave. We stayed there for a month at the beach cottage of a friend, lazing away the time with sunbathing and with swimming and skin-diving in the crystal clear waters. We took to the sea in native catamarans to be dropped way off-shore on to the shallow, coral-studded reef, where we spear-fished for monster rock cod. In the evenings we wandered into the nearby Driftwood Club where bathing costumes or a kikoi, a kind of Arab sarong, was a formal enough dress and plenty warm enough in the tropical night air.
Malindi was four weeks of paradise.