Goodbye Serengeti

A letter written a few days before I left Grumeti in June 2005

I am sitting at my computer in our little stone office at Grumeti for the last time quite overcome with the thought of leaving. I have been running Grumeti River Camp for three years and the time has come to finally say goodbye. I still have to pinch myself when I say this as I cannot believe that I am actually leaving and that in a week I will be living in Johannesburg!

I have learnt so many lessons during the past years:

Bats don’t fly into your hair!! These days I do not even flinch as they swoop past my face in the evenings while I get ready to go and host guests for dinner.

It is a good idea to check your shoes in the morning – all sorts of interesting specimens make homes out of shoes, including scorpions. Black Spitting Cobras have even been found in toilet bowls, so it’s a good idea to take your torch with you to the loo during the night!

Gekkos make a slapping sound as they fall off the ceiling onto the floor of my room and are also no cause for alarm. When I am awoken in the dead of night by the sound of nails scratching on my roof, it’s just the Gennets coming back from a forage for food. Hippos seem to favour the area around my house for grazing and can sound rather ominous in the pitch black of night.

Lions have also taken to resting on my verandah from time to time – a great excuse for lying in bed in the morning and not venturing out too early! Baboons alarm call from across the river as a leopard goes by, hyena whoops and lion roars are all part of the wonderful African lullaby that I fall asleep to at night. So, if anything, I have leant to sleep through some rather interesting sounds!

The staff here have renewed my faith in humanity – gentle, welcoming people with a sharp sense of humour and sometimes roguish behaviour. Up until very recently, I was the only woman in camp – the queen bee among 33 men. I have never once felt threatened and have never locked the door to my home – I can’t anyway – it is a tent! A beautiful big tent – BUT a tent.

I was first known as Mama, but more recently took on the name ‘Shangazi’ – meaning “Aunt”. Mussa tells me that this is a compliment as the aunt has the duty to decide a bride price and is actually rather important. I have never worked out if that sudden change came from the fact that it is meant to be an honour or if it had something to do with a rapid weight gain! I had come back from South Africa carrying a few pounds after I had my thyroid removed. I can tell you that no one lost a minute to tell me so. Joseph however was the funniest when he said to me:

“Karen, imagine!”
“Imagine what Joseph?”
“Imagine, you were in South Africa for a month and you got so fat! What would happen if you went for a year? You would just explode”

When I first arrived at Grumeti, the staff thought it great fun to hide in the bushes and make lion sounds as I walked past, much to my horror and their amusement. These high jinks were always initiated by Rueben (Ruby) – the prankster. When I arrived I was tested by all of these notoriously tough men. Let’s see if this Mama has what it takes….The first few days were hell and I had literally been thrown into the deep end, running a full camp from day one. It was Ruby who made them stop…

I had been hauled off to Seronera by immigration as my work permit had not yet come through. I thought that I was going to end up in a Tanzanian prison and took along spare underwear and my toothbrush. I managed to survive that ordeal with some pretty slick excuses, and when I came home to Grumeti, I acted as if nothing had happened. I think the staff expected a South African woman to explode, especially as they had been the one’s to report me! The next day, Ruby stepped out of the crowd during the morning meeting and pushed a stray strand of hair that had fallen over my eyes behind my ear – I think this was a sign for the others to leave me alone, because since that gesture, I have never had a hard time from any of them.

They look after me when I am alone in camp – telling when there is a buffalo near my home or poachers in the vicinity. They never leave me to walk home alone in the dark, which is just as well considering that a manageress who worked here before was gored by a buffalo on her way home one night. It’s easy to let your guard down here, and I often have to remind myself to keep my eyes open as there just could be a lion around the corner.

These same men drove 18 hours, two trips back to back, through axle deep mud to fetch fuel for our generator when the Grumeti River was in flood and we were cut off from the outside world for 22 days. When they got back to camp, they turned around and did it all over again! They also regularly wade onto our flooded bridge to remove logs in full view of the biggest Nile crocodiles in Africa, some reaching 5 metres or more. The crocs “fish” a few metres away from the causeway with their mouths wide open, snapping their jaws shut on fish as they are washed over by the flooding waters. My job during bridge clearing was to throw stones at angry hippos that got too close to the working men and to keep my eyes peeled for any crocs looking for an opportunistic meal!

I’m often asked if I was lonely out here. The answer is generally “No”, but I have to admit to getting homesick on Sundays (when I think of reading the morning papers) and my birthday. I am often asked what I do all day. For some odd reason, people believe that working in these camps is a permanent holiday! My day started at 6.30 am and did not stop until the last guest went to bed at night, and, even then I had to have one ear open for the radio in case of emergencies. A day ALWAYS had a problem or two or ten!

Our camp is extremely remote. It is situated in the western Corridor of the Serengeti. Our nearest town, Bunda, is 70km away on dirt roads and lies on the shores of Lake Victoria. To call it a town is a bit of an exaggeration! It is a town that time forgot, and just about every duka (shop) has a tailor outside operating a pedal driven sewing machine. However, the inhabitants can make just about anything – from spare parts for vehicles to uniforms for our staff. We support a community garden there. We supply seeds for all our fresh produce requirements and then we buy the produce back from them.

So, I look back on my time here with mostly a smile, sometimes frustration, and certainly awe for this beautiful, harsh place I have lived in. The wildebeest migration which can only be described as the “Greatest Show on Earth” has nearly reached us. The Grumeti crocodiles are visibly more aggressive – they know their annual feast is due to arrive. The lions are looking forward to over 2 million animals moving through their territory and a return to a time of plenty.

The Serengeti has been an amazing place to live. One moment hot and dusty, the next wet with raging floods! The wide open plains are like nothing else I have ever seen and the sheer volumes of animals are awe inspiring. So, as I prepare to leave here and start my new career, I take away many wonderful memories of both the place and all the special people who have touched my life. I wish Scott Tineja and Mussa Mathayo all the best in their new positions as managers of Grumeti and hope they will leave here as enriched as I am. Mussa came to me the other day and told me something that I will never forget and will hold dear for the rest of my life. He said:

“Karen, we often say that some people should have been born in different places from where they were actually born. It is the same with you. You should have been born in Tanzania because you have a Tanzanian heart”. And I have to say I agree with him….

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Karen Richards

&Beyond Travel Specialist

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