We awoke early morning by the shores of Lake Victoria to a lavender sky with a scattering of pink tinted clouds; the last remnants of sunrise. Silhouetted against the sky two men out in their boat were fishing. They were not impressed with my photography, something which would happen again later; I redirected the camera on the pied kingfisher perched on a post by the shore; it flew off.
We were warned about the mosquitos at the camp site by Lake Victoria, but apart from those that had died of exhaustion flying around the lights in the toilet blocks they had not made their presence felt. Breakfast always included the malaria tablet, and the breath inhibiting smell of the DEET in the insect sprays was always on the air morning and evening.
We were due to travel to the Serengeti National Park, but first up was a walk around Musoma town while our cook Wilson stocked up with fresh fruit and vegetables. Our walk took us through the town and towards the banks of the Lake, our guide pointing out the mosque of the Nizari Muslims whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan and telling us how tolerant the townspeople were. He said that he was a Muslim, his wife was a Christian, and his daughter was quite taken with Roman Catholicism. He was very proud of his town; adding that this tolerance is also reflected in the schools.
As we burst out of the streets onto the banks of Lake Victoria Erellah told us not to take any photographs without asking first. The bustle and volume of people was matched in intensity by the sounds of their voices; we stood trying to stop our mouths from falling open conscious that we were the only people on the shore who did not know what to do there.
Women sat on stools behind great mounds of dried sardines, not at all eager for us to stop and stare if we were not going to buy. Spreading out beyond their stalls were great expanses of drying sardines their silver skins glinting in the sun, and on the other side were Marabou storks patrolling through the crowds like black coated security guards. Everywhere we looked were people either buying, selling or both, and all we seemed to be doing was standing in the way. We attracted some unwelcome attention, mainly for the cameras that unused hung about our necks and drew threats from the women that Erellah and our guide struggled to placate.
We returned to the bus via a shop where we were told we could change money. The small shop front was deceiving, as once through the door it expanded Tardis like into the distance and was divided up by narrow corridors lined with perilously high walls of goods. It was difficult, or sometimes impossible to move around other customers depending on the size of the item they had selected for purchase, and a group trying on shoes by the exit caused gridlock. At the back was the money exchange and counter; I think he guessed I was exchanging currency because I had no random item in my other hand to pay for. The dollars were taken from my hand, disappeared into a back room and were replaced by Tanzanian Shillings. Back on the bus I remembered that I should have been given a receipt to be able to change unspent money back again….
Our last stops before heading off to the Serengeti were for water and beer. The Exodus team provided clean, sterilised drinking water in barrels on the truck, but Erellah told us that Serengeti water was not good and that we should purchase some bottles instead. We were camping at Seronera in the Serengeti that night in open bush land with no bar, so beer purchases along with a sack of ice for the cool box were a necessity. That evening after completing a very hot, bumpy, dusty and fly ridden journey to the camp site I think I would have cried if we had not bought those beers.
We stopped for lunch at the entrance gate to the Serengeti; our regular lunch time companions the baboons were joined by vervet monkeys including a very young infant that stole the show. The reception café was another coffee star turn, and the souvenir shop did plenty of business although surprisingly bartering was not an option. We wondered whether the caged area that the owners sat in was for protection from the animals or empowered them enough to refuse to barter.
As we bumped and jolted our way into the Serengeti we were joined for some of the journey by some very unwelcome hitch hikers who had taken advantage of the fact that we had the air conditioning on (windows open) to join us. Our first indications that we were not alone were a few exclamations of pain, irritated voices and a frantic spraying of insect repellent. Erellah calmly informed us that they were tsetse fly and that they did bite, as Sam our driver was already experiencing, as he struggled to navigate the indistinguishable track while at the same time dodging the tsetse flies that had joined him in the cab.
Tsetse flies, very similar in appearance to house or horse flies, feed on the blood of animals, including humans, and in so doing can transmit the sleeping sickness parasite. The tsetse fly is found in 39 sub-Saharan countries, with infection usually confined to rural areas such as farms or game reserves.
The tsetse fly’s impact is massively disproportionate to its size with the effects of the sleeping sickness it inflicts on animals seen as one of the major causes of poverty in Africa. Their impact on livestock is devastating; with medicine expensive and not always effective farming becomes impossible in tsetse infected areas. The tsetse fly prevents farming in over 10 million square kilometres of fertile land in sub-Saharan Africa; an area which contains 30 of the lowest income and food deficit nations.
Although it was hard to appreciate it as we battled the tsetse fly invasion in the truck these insects are the safari tourist’s friend, as their anti-social infection carrying bites have meant the preservation of large areas of wild habitat that would have been converted to farmland. The safari favourites the tourists want to see, although vulnerable to the tsetse flies are less susceptible than cattle. Those of us who were bit could take comfort from the fact that although there is no vaccine sleeping sickness in humans is on the decline with only 15,000 cases reported in 2014.The only strategy to prevent infection is to avoid being bitten, which ratcheted up if possible the frenzied battering of every surface human and non- human in the truck. It was too late to save those in the tsetse fly’s favourite colour of blue, and perhaps not the best moment to remind them that safari guides always wear khaki.
The drama over we continued towards our camp site for the night. The Serengeti is just under ten times larger than the Masai Mara, and it is this mind blowing endless vastness that explains why the Masai call it “siringet” which means “the place where the land runs forever”. We were camping at Seronera where there is the greatest concentration of wildlife, and which is the area that formed the first partial game reserve in 1921 before the establishment of the Serengeti National Park in 1951.
On our approach to the camp site we passed a small herd of elephants, and Erellah said that they were preparing to settle down for the night. The herds are adult females and calves as the adult males are solitary. They were forming a circle facing outwards with the young in the centre safe from predators. It was obviously a well- practised routine, and maybe one that might be useful to note given the two nights of camping that lay ahead on an unfenced site.
Later, our tents pitched around the campfire, and with nothing between us and the vast expanse of land and sky that encircled our home for the next two nights we responded as most do in such circumstances with humour and the support of alcohol.
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