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About the bush: trekking through Tanzania

A six-day, 150-kilometre trek through the Tanzanian wilderness offers a sense of purpose a regular safari would not have. Words and pictures by Andrea Oschetti

 

Mtoto Shakwa is sitting in front of a slow-burning fire, deep in the Tanzanian bush. In his ancient click language, he tells of last night's fight with baboons on a steep ridge of the Great Rift Valley. Other men of the Hadza tribe listen attentively. They are smearing poison on arrows and tightening their bowstrings. A baboon is roasting on the fire.

Shakwa leads the way into a landscape of spiked acacias and thorn bushes, hunting for birds. Each morning a few tourists get pricked and scratched trying to keep up with the hunters.

The Hadza are becoming aware of the economic value of their culture. They are true hunter-gatherers; they have no crops, no cattle, no permanent shelters. They are one of the oldest people on Earth. Many Tanzanians consider them primitive and they have lost most of their land to other ethnic groups, who seek onion farms, pastures and hunting reserves. Some Hadza want change, some don't.

The advantages of modern life are obvious: medicines, education, job opportunities, personal security and devices that make life more comfortable. Traditional societies, however, also possess attributes that are valuable: they have strong social bonds that last for life; they raise children in ways that foster independence and maturity at a young age; their relationship with nature is sustainable; their eating habits are healthy; they assess dangers realistically; they treat their elders with respect.

Properly managed, tourism is bringing the Hadza the freedom and the dignity to fight for their land, to migrate to the city or to keep hunting and gathering.

Lake Eyasi, the Hadza's homeland, is the starting point of my journey through the Tanzanian wilderness: a six-day walk of 150 kilometres towards Lake Natron, camping along the way. With me in our five-person group are Liymo, an armed national park ranger (a compulsory companion for a trek of this kind) and a Maasai guide.

Eyasi is a seasonal soda lake constrained by the cliffs of the Serengeti Plateau, the Crater Highlands and the Alipi escarpment. Leopards, hippos, monkeys and a variety of birds live on the meadows along the shores of the lake. The surrounding bush and forests are home not only to the Hadza but also the pastoral Maasai and Datooga; the Iraqw, who have domesticated animals; and the business-minded Sukuma.

Following trails made by zebras and buffaloes and a geological fault line whose forces created volcanoes, craters and depressions, I reach the Ngorongoro highland plateau. This is a special place: the place where we all came from.

Here, in the 1970s, two anthropologists were play-ing football with the dung of an elephant when they stumbled onto the Laetoli footprints, the oldest evi-dence of walking man. Many theories try to explain what made us bipedal but scientists agree on one thing: learning to walk was the turning point of our evolution. Our hands became free and the brain developed to make use of this opportunity.

 

ENTITO DID NOT SLEEP last night. At dawn, in the dark, smoky hut of her childhood, the 17-year-old cried in the arms of her mother, together with friends who don't know when they are going to see her again.

I meet Entito by chance in thick bush on the northeast ridge of the Ngorongoro crater. We are going in opposite directions. She has left her village for good and is walking with her new husband, Mbeeya, and two of his friends.

Despite being dressed in her matrimonial finery - an ankle-length red gown; a bridal necklace of colourful beads; a headdress made of beads dangling from looped strings; and, in her hand, a light brown stick made of congesta, an important symbol of support - Entito looks perturbed. She is Mbeeya's second wife and, this afternoon, she will reach his village of Olbalbal, 25 kilometres away. She does not know anyone there but she does know that the senior wife will not like her; Entito is younger and more attractive.

I offer to send the couple copies of photographs I take and I am surprised to learn that one of Mbeeya's friends has a Facebook account. He studies forestry at one of the universities in Arusha. Educated Maasai are esteemed and enjoy more freedom of choice when it comes to marriage.

"There was a time when we thought education would destroy our culture. Today we encourage children to go to school," says Ole Dorup, the chief of Misigiyo village. The preservation of the Maasai's identity is his main responsibility. "It is an act of balance," he says, revealing his anxiety about the future. "We focus on preserving what is most important, like our dress code. We let go of other traditions, like the holes you see in my ears: my son and his generation do not want them."

Maasai highland villages share similar characteristics. Surrounded by the grass on which their herds graze, the villages are groupings of loaf-shaped homes, inkajijik, made of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine. Some of the homes are arranged in circular encampments, each belonging to a single family. These encampments are surrounded by a fence of acacia thorns, to keep out lions. Next to the inkajijik, livestock is kept in fortified enclosures made of tree logs.

I march through herds of fast-dispersing wildebeest and zebra. It is astonishing to see animals that are relaxed next to one another run away so fast when a man on foot passes - even dangerous predators such as lions don't scare herds of wildebeest and zebra, unless they are on the attack.

I wander near giraffes grazing on the twigs of acacia trees. I follow the fresh trails of elephants. At night I hear lions and hyenas.

Most tourists here experience this from the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser. Walking is offering me not only the opportunity to interact with the locals but also to see wildlife as an uncertain surprise behind corners and not a deliverable of the tourism industry.

I stand on a cliff of the rift valley looking out at the extreme environment of Lake Natron, the end point of our walk. The view takes in what I imagine a prehistoric landscape would look like. There is no sign of human settlement. To the south stands the imposing cone of the Lengai volcano. Strata of lava flows from countless eruptions have designed geometrical patterns through-out the open valley, from the volcano all the way to the lake. Behind Lengai, other volcanos are visible in the distance. To the east are cliffs. To the north is the lake itself, its alkaline water still, melting into the horizon, infinite. Temperatures here reach 60 degrees Celsius.

Modern travel is often disappointing. Tourists are spectators taken to an orgy of landmarks that blur into insignificance. Walking through the Ngorongoro highlands has given me a sense of purpose that a standard safari would not have. It has allowed me to rediscover the art of looking, without distraction, and let go of assumptions, such as those relating to the risks of the wild.

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there to Kilimanjaro International Airport, which serves Arusha. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area authority allows responsible operators, such as Summits Africa (www.summits-africa.com) to set up camp outside the usual designated areas.

 

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