Today we are driving from Amboseli Kenya to Lake Manyara Tanzania following the back roads which quickly turn from the wash board graveled roads to two tracks in the sand. I count 8 families of elephants that I can see on the plains before hitting the desert. Bradley can’t decide if they are better stated as a herd of elephants or a pack of pachyderms. Each family unit contains about 24 elephants and they are so majestic looking walking in line one behind the next, the sun rising behind them on the horizon. Just before reaching the desert we come across 3 young male cheetahs that have separated a soon to be doomed Wildebeest steer from the safety of its herd, it is a spectacular sight that we stop to witness.
We are travelling with our group in 2 Landcruisers – and this is remote territory. We will not see another vehicle for 2 hours until we reach the border. It is similar to travelling a cutline in Northern Alberta – not really a road but 2 tire tracks – and very unpredictable. We travel across a large dry salt lake bed which only a month back would have held water – the driver opens it up as this is smooth travel. All one can see for miles around is the salt flats and the ever present mountains which frame the Rift Valley on either side; a flock (herd/pack/unknown term) of ostrich is running beside us on the flats. At the end of the lake the trail rises up onto the upper Valley and the terrain changes from the savannah grass plains more to a scrub brush and sparse tree forest land. This is Maasai territory, and we pass dozens of villages along the way. There are close to 200000 Maasai in the Kenyan rift valley and at least that many on the Tanzanian side.
A Maasai village is perfectly constructed to protect what is important – the cattle. A village is started by building a large ring fence line made from thorny dead scrub brush. It is 6 feet high and about 8 to 10 feet thick, with thorns that are needle sharp and close to 2 inches in length … perfectly large enough that it would make a mess of any predator that tried to jump over it.
Next to the fence line is a ring of homes constructed of stick frames packed with fresh dung from the cattle; left to dry it looks and feels like adobe. The roofs are thatched grass. The doorways are tunnel like, similar to an igloo, and inside there is a common area with a bedroom on either end; one bed for the children and one for the mother, each bed covered with cattle hides. The whole thing is maybe 150 sq ft with low ceilings and it is dark inside; I hit my head more than once. It is actually a dung igloo for no better term. A fire is lit in the center common room and the smoke exits via 4 fist sized holes on each wall placed close to the roof. It is hard to imagine that the whole place isn’t filled with smoke when a fire is lit.
The Maasai are polygamists – each home is cared for by the woman – the men roam from home to home depending on the mood. The more cattle and goats a Maasai man has the more wives he can afford and the higher standing he has within the tribe. But each tribe and village has a chief – they all clearly obey his every command. Leaving from the home Bradley notices that I have dung on my hat which I quickly brush off.
The circle of 32 homes is constructed so that there is little or no space between them, another barrier for a lion to get past. The middle of the village is a ring for the cattle, which every night come back from the grazing areas. The dung is used for everything imaginable, including fuel for the fires. The inner most part of the village is a pen for the cattle which are returned every night from the pasture land and the gate is closed up with the thorn wall being reinserted into the opening. Every piece of a cow is used – milk and blood is the staple diet, dinner will include some meat, hides are tanned and used as bedding, and the bones are dried and used to carve into jewellery and tourist trinkets. We passed on the option of spending the night in the Maasai village yesterday – their lifestyle is best left imagined rather than experienced I decide.
We visit a local Maasai school – a one room shack with dozens of dusty preschoolers age 7 and younger packed into 4 large desks. The teacher asks one of the boys to come up and do the alphabet in English – he points to the A and loudly says “A is for Antelope” and the whole class repeats his words. The entire alphabet is recited for us. It is heart wrenching seeing the conditions of this school, my wood shed at home is in better condition – the dirt floors and no lights with children packed 8 to a desk. It is easy to see why so many people travel to do missionary work with the Maasai.
Back on the trail we come across Garuke (sp)which look a lot like an African mule deer, some giraffe are running up ahead of us, antelope, jackals, huge vultures sitting high in the trees waiting for something to die. I see the real value of the 15 foot whip antennae on the front bumper. We arrive in Tanzania and into a border village where we see our first vehicle in over two hours – hard to call it civilization but it is a village with clapboard shacks. We bid Benson farewell and pick up our new driver and guide – Goodluck (his name is Swahili and it sounds like Good luck). His vehicle is virtually the same as Benson’s Kenyan one and off we head into Tanzania for Lake Manyara. The travel here is now mostly on paved roadways but still following the Maasai lands – hundreds more villages can be seen along the way. We pass through a Maasai open market place where people are selling live animals and buying or trading for goods. It is a sea of people and a colorful sight with the bright red and bright blue blanket clad Maasai people haggling on mass in the square.
Chris buys some beaded bracelets and rings for a few dollars and we move on eventually arriving at the Escarpment Lodge overlooking Lake Manyara perched high on a rocky ledge above the lake. It is an amazing view from the patio and the beer in Tanzania is even better than in Kenya. The Lodge itself is opulent luxury in the midst of this most rugged setting – beautiful. Tomorrow we will head down to the lake and search for tree climbing lions. Dinner is served in the dining room with guests from all over the world. Maasai musicians play and sing traditional songs – we sit by a fire with a drink before bedtime. My last thoughts are of the vultures sitting in the trees above us wondering if we were going to make it to the border.