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Going back to our roots in Tanzania

The attractions of northern Tanzania are so plentiful, a museum marking the - or, at least, one - 'cradle of humanity' rarely gets a look in, writes Mark Footer

 

"Welcome home," says the museum guide, with little enthusiasm. "Welcome back to where we all began."

According to the guest book, we are the first visitors the Oldupai Gorge Museum has seen in four days, which is surprising given this is where we all "came from", including the many animal-chasing humans speeding past, a few kilometres from this spot, on northern Tanzania's safari superhighway (albeit a dirt one), between the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.

The Big Five are all well and good but what about us No1s?

To say the Oldupai Gorge is the cradle of mankind - as the guide does, as we look down on it from a viewing platform outside the museum - is taking a bit of a liberty, perhaps, given the many unknowns concerning evolution. That uncertainty is demonstrated a mere 45 kilometres away, at Laetoli, where hominid footprints that date back 3.6 million years have been found. But with Homo habilis (known as handy man) having lived here approximately 1.9 million years ago and Homo erectus 1.2 million years ago, the gorge is as good a candidate for mankind's "cradle" as any.

Nevertheless, the museum is a lonely marker to our distant history, and to stand here not three days after having flown out of Chek Lap Kok, one of the most advanced airports, in one of the world's newest cities, feels a little surreal. The feeling is amplified when three Maasai boys wander over with their hands outstretched - a greeting as common as " Jambo" in these parts - one of them wearing a Chelsea Football Club replica jersey.

This part of East Africa gave the world the human race and what does it get in return? English Premier League football. Not that you'll hear any complaints; there really is a passion for the league here.

"All of Tanzania" believe referees go easy on Manchester United, our guide, Bahati Mufasa, will tell me later. "Everyone is talking about it."

The logos and colours of United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are everywhere, from the windscreens of motor rickshaws and the backs of coaches to the schoolbags of children and, of course, the ubiquitous replica shirt.

No one is wearing a football jersey in Seneto, though. This is a "friendly" Maasai village, Mufasa assures us, which means that for US$10 to US$50 a head, its inhabitants, members of the most well known of Tanzania's 120-plus tribes, will show visitors around their enkang (a circle of homes inside a high wooden fence: a protection against lions) and even take them into one of their bomas: small (even by Hong Kong standards) huts made of wood, mud and cow dung in which a family of six or seven live in almost pitch darkness, along with whichever calf from their herd needs the protection.

As we approach, the men of the village, resplendent in bright red, orange and blue shukas - pieces of fabric that can be worn in a variety of ways - come out to greet us and, once we have paid our dues, dance a well practised routine that involves lots of bouncing. The money, we are told, will go towards putting Maasai children through school - and you can't argue with that.

Seneto is situated at the top of a vast, gently sloping, grassy hillside, one of the outside edges of the Ngorongoro Crater, a huge volcanic caldera that is breathtaking (and I do not use that term lightly) when viewed from the special platform or one of the lodges built on its rim. Seneto has a picture-perfect location but it will not be here for long. The Maasai are a nomadic people and they up sticks (literally) every five or six years, the village head says, when it's time to find better grazing for their livestock.

Inside the fence, the women stand in a line and give us a song before their menfolk begin the hard sell; many beaded bits and bobs can be had for the price of several, if you haggle hard enough.

It is with the sound of cow bells and dollar figures (preferred to local shillings) in our ears that we leave Seneto, bound for the Serengeti.

Of the Big Five, the leopard is the most difficult to spot and we only do so because Mufasa's eagle eyes spy one catnapping in a tree. Dawn has just broken and we've been racing around the grasslands around Seronera, at the centre of the Serengeti, in an open-top jeep. Watching the big cat languorously climb down the trunk and slink through the grass (mostly we see just the tail) is a wonder to behold.

It will again be thanks to Mufasa's eagle eyes that we see a pair of rhinoceros, in the Ngorongoro Crater, but buffalo (especially), lions and elephants - the other Big Five animals - are easy to spot. Hippopotamus and giraffe are commonplace, too - as are zebra and wildebeest, given the time of year.

The two migrate together, searching for fresh grazing and better water, accompanied by gazelles and impalas. The "stupid" wildebeest follow the "smart" zebra, according to Mufasa, the former preferring the longer grasses, the latter the short. This travelling menagerie arrives on the southern plains of the Serengeti and in the northern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in late November or early December. From then until April, when the whole show begins to migrate north towards Kenya's Maasai Mara, these plains are dotted as far as the eye can see with hides of beige, tan and black and white stripes.

Over two days we also catch sight of a couple of cheetahs on the prowl for lunch, a huddle of hyenas having a kip, troops of baboons and other monkeys on manoeuvres and a family of warthogs whooping it up in the mud. The birdlife is incredible, too, although the Ngorongoro flamingoes are little more than pink dots seen through a pair of binoculars. Safari jeeps are not permitted to leave the dirt roads that criss-cross the Serengeti and the crater, and no road runs close to the lake.

According to Mufasa, the Big Five numbers are holding steady (and the rhinos that call the Ngorongoro Crater home now number 18, up from nine a few years ago), although the average length of elephant tusks is shortening as genetics favours those less attractive to poachers trying to profit from the illegal ivory trade. However, Mufasa's boss, Travel Partner chief executive Eric Mashauri, is less optimistic. When asked about the recent estimate that there would be no elephants left in the wild in Tanzania or Kenya in 20 years, he says: "That is the assumption, because the poaching rate is very high. And it's known that there are smugglers in Hong Kong who are very rich who are behind this business."

So there we have it; the story of mankind. We left East Africa, populating the world and inventing fire, the wheel and football - and the means by which to enjoy them on a once barren rock on the edge of Asia - but still feel the need to show off to one another with trinkets made of ivory (not to mention "aphrodisiacs" made of rhino horn), even if that means wiping out a whole species in the process. And with those animals will go the pleasure of the safari (the Swahili word for "travel").

The animal kingdom would have been much richer if we'd just stayed at home in Oldupai.

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there to Kilimanjaro, via Dar es Salaam. From Kilimanjaro Airport, it is a five-hour drive to Seronera, the road passing through the city of Arusha, round Lake Manyara and through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, before entering the Serengeti National Park. Car hire, itineraries and passes can be organised through tour companies such as Travel Partner (www.travelpartner.co.tz), which provided its services for this article for free.

 

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