Welsh 4×4 journalist Robb Pritchard recently travelled to Tanzania. There he discovered a rather different pace of life. He also visited the Mount Meru National Park. He tells the story.
It was a splendid day. A kitted-out Land Rover, a day off-roading in the African wilderness with one of the best guides in Tanzania… it was going to be a perfect day out. Abdullah Mwiny trundled along at 60km/h in absolutely no rush for anything. Although he does tourist-group game safaris in the Serengeti, he occasionally also takes BBC film crews deep into the jungle to capture footage of some of its rarest and most elusive animals. Today, though, we were heading to Mount Meru National Park. We soon saw our first herd of zebra. I’ve seen plenty of those during an extensive three month adventure in Southern Africa. There was one thing I was really, really missing: trees. From the arcadia-dotted plains at the foot of the hills as soon as we started climbing the lush mountain slopes, the trees closed in and we were in glorious mottled shade.
A Welshmans’s paradise. Apart from the lack of sheep. At just 137km2, the Mount Meru Park is the smallest in Tanzania, dwarfed by the vast expanses of the Serengeti. What it lacks in acreage it more than makes up for in diversity as incorporating the foothills of the 4 500m mountain it includes many different ecological zones, from the open savannahs up to bare rock at the summit, when it’s not covered in snow. It’s best known for its colobus monkeys which are so much nicer than the ubiquitous big-teethed bare-bottomed baboons and we stopped to watch a pair grooming each other’s slinky fur right by the road. Then it was up to a place called Rhino View…
A long way down in the swampy bottom of an ancient volcano crater we could just about make out a herd of buffalo, but that’s all there was. Thanks to the ruthless efforts of poachers, there have been no rhino roaming free here for a long time. Africans have a slightly different idea of what constitutes off-roading. Where I would only go in a Land Rover with centre diff-lock engaged, we came across the rather surprising sight of a school bus, which had rather unsurprisingly slipped into a ditch. The large group of kids, all in impeccable uniforms were happy to see us turn up, as they’d obviously grown tired of trying to push it up the hill by themselves. Abdullah duly got the tow rope out but buses aren’t generally fitted with recovery points. After a few deft knots were tied around something hopefully solid in the front suspension and with the kids screaming in joy at either the mud being flung up or just the sight of the bus moving again, we dragged it to the top of the hill.
I obviously wanted to take as many epic photos as I could but this was a little difficult seeing as it’s strictly forbidden to get out of the car. There’s a good reason for that though, as apex predators like lion and leopard have huge hunting ranges and can climb over the big fences so no one knows if a big cat has entered the park and is sitting in the bushes waiting for dumb tourists to go for a stroll. Ones with nothing but a blunt lump of Canon with which to protect themselves. I had to get a few shots of the Land Rover in the stunning landscape with the steep slopes of Mount Meru but stepping out of the safety of the Land Rover also meant taking a step down the food chain and something moving in the undergrowth was probably just a dik-dik but my self-preservation instinct screamed hungry tiger.
I leapt back into the Land Rover so fast it made Abdullah burst out laughing. The best viewpoint was up on Mughwanga Hill. High on a ridge before us was the central plain where beady-eyed Abdullah spotted an elephant far below. Taking up almost the whole horizon were the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro but as is often the case, its summit was lost in the clouds of its own making. Abdullah pointed out where the starting point of the five-day trek. At a cool $1 700 (R22 300) charge, I would be skipping that. Back down on the plain was a family of giraffe. Such improbable looking animals are living examples of evolution and are one of my favourite African animals. They weren’t frightened of us and stood staring inquisitively as we drove right up to them, so close I had to switch over to a wide-angled lens. Them reaching up to get at the lower leaves of an arcadia tree with Mount Meru in the background was a perfect African image.
For $20 (R260), a ranger with a rifle (to ensure that we stayed at the top of the food chain) took us on a little stroll through a soggy field of buffalo, warthog and baboon to a little waterfall. It is possible to go further up the hills but being in the African heat with the flu wasn’t doing too much for my energy levels so we trudged back to the Land Rover and I continued my experience from the relative comfort of the passenger seat. Another incredible highlight is the giant fig tree. Over many years it has been trained to grow with a forked trunk and now the gap is so big a Land Rover with a roofrack fits through. With energy levels almost depleted, I thought the day was done but Abdullah had another surprise in store. In a little clearing in the middle of nowhere was a perfect view of the steep tree-clad slopes of the mountain lost in the gathering clouds was a large canvas tent filled with big cushions and plush rugs.
The couch was so comfortable and in the absolute tranquillity I immediately fell asleep. When I awoke, a pot of the most amazing locally grown coffee was ready… and so was dinner. The place was so gloriously peaceful that I didn’t want to leave and going back to the dusty and chaotic mess of Arusha was no fun. Abdullah is a perfect combination of utterly chilled, yet highly knowledgeable, which makes him the perfect guide. He runs tours, safaris and expeditions all over Tanzania, including the Serengeti and other lesser-known but equally spectacular national parks and reserves, all tailored to your needs and desires, from BBC crews hunting exotic creatures, to people like me who just love nature and off-roading. I cannot recommend enough spending a night in the camp. I really didn’t want to leave. One thing is for sure though, I will be back. And I will be going again with Abdullah. More information: www.africanenvironments.com