Sunset in Saadani

Dear @USelaine,

I am only writing to you first because it is late at night and I can always count on you to be awake. No matter what time zone I am in, you are on Twitter and as social media friends go, you are as dependable as the fire department.

This morning at breakfast I was pickpocketed by a long-armed vervet monkey who scratched at my hand, eager to steal my last bite of biscuit. These primates are cute to a point, and then they become a bit selfish and bothersome so that one is forced to argue back at them. I told that poor monkey, “No!” and then scolded him. “Don’t you dare give me Ebola!” I hissed and he ran away. Oh, but how I love the monkeys here—especially the baboons!

My first two days in Tanzania have been so rich and filled with adventures and wildlife that even I am overwhelmed. Yesterday I left the (surprisingly clean) city of Dar Es Salaam and headed north to the old slave fort town of Bagamoyo where the paved road disappears and turns quite literally to dust. As a traveler, it is always encouraging to trade a paved road for an unpaved rut through the wilderness, no? Thus I smiled joyfully while bouncing over sandbanks and mudholes for two more hours.

This is when the baboons began to appear, mothers and babies and then a whole troop of adults roaming across the dry, yellowed landscape. As evening approached, they roosted in the trees and they looked so comfortable and secure up there, I felt as if I was watching the oldest ritual on Earth: primates nesting in the tree for the night.

I begin my safari across Tanzania in Saadani National Park, which is actually quite young (only established in 2005), and yet such a unique place in Africa. On one side lies the turquoise calm of the Indian Ocean and it is here that I am staying, right on the beach, with the most pleasant sounds of hushed surf to whisper me to sleep at night.

A few steps away from the beach takes you into the great grasslands for which eastern Africa is known—the true savanna, with its telltale acacia and baobab and pandanus trees. The trees offer a constant reminder that I am in Africa because they are all so African—and while the landscape is as khaki as my wardrobe, the birds flitting from one tree to the next are brighter than a birthday party. Bright green bee-eaters leap from limb to limb, and this afternoon I saw a flash of iridescent blue that turned out to be a Sunbird, buzzing past me. I could write you five more letters all about the birds, but instead, I will tell you about the beasts.

There are all manner of beasts in Saadani, starting with hartebeests, who, when standing just so in the African sun look as if their fur is glowing—on fire. I also saw a good-sized herd of wildebeests, who have a tendency to stomp a lot in the dust. I want to tell you about all these beasts and antelope because in my opinion, they just get overlooked too often. The classic safari rush for big hunting trophies forgets the rank-and-file of the savanna, so indulge me while I explain the waterbuck, who has a very blatant white circle drawn on its behind, which I’m afraid to say, looks a lot like a target. Fortunately, the whole point of Saadani is to protect these animals from poaching and by the diversity of antelope I have encountered, I’d say they’re doing a good job.

Sure, you will find the big animals as well. Already I have seen the park’s resident elephants who knocked down a tree just to show me they could, then hid behind another tree and pretended to be bashful. More prominent though are Sadaani’s giraffes, who are so numerous because this place is carpeted with their favorite food—acacia. Tonight, while driving back from my third game drive in less than 24 hours, I spotted a wee baby giraffe that was so adorable, I almost cried.

Saadani’s third crowning grace is the river—yet another ecosystem to add to the mix. The Wami River flows right into the Indian Ocean and this morning, I spent four hours cruising up and down its banks, basically dodging the resident hippos. I wish you could hear the sounds they make—which is like a very low-pitched and slow machine gun bass: “uh-uh-uh-uh-UHH!” And when they come up from being submerged they actually twirl their ears in little circles, spinning out all the water.

Everyone is always reminding me how dangerous hippos are, and while I accept the statistics, I find them some of the most endearing animals on Earth. As animals who want simply to eat and swim and sleep, I can relate fully to the life they lead. Crocodiles, on the other hand, are simply not to be trusted. I stared a crocodile in the eye today and all I’m saying is that I was very glad to be in a boat with a good distance between us. I will always respect crocodiles—they are magnificent—but I will never coo over any reptile that I spot in the wild.

For all of its wildlife, the real beauty of Saadani lies in the beach, the river and the savanna—three ecosystems wrapped up in common geography and aim. And yet there is a fourth element that makes Saadani unforgettable to me: the light.

The light on the equator is remarkable and like no other—fluid and warm, yet ever-changing. You feel the heat throughout the day—sometimes it is simply unbearable—and then the afternoon comes and every tree trunk turns to gold, the sky deepens two shades bluer and then the sun begins to drop, so steadily.

This is the hour for safari—this is when the animals leave their day jobs of doing nothing and begin to peruse their options for the evening. As they nibble and chase and enjoy the cool air blowing in from the sea, the sky catches fire, glowing orange and pink and yellow.

But then, like a snap of your fingers, it’s night—pure, dark night. The temperature drops ten, fifteen degrees—the trees lose their shape and the world becomes black except for the smattering of stars and the half-moon, ringed with yellow. Night is morning in Africa, when a host of creatures wake up and begin their work—the night shift, as it were.

On my way back to camp, we spotted a huge civet halfway across the road, frozen in a poised feline stance, as if caught completely off guard. It looked at me with green, cat-like eyes and then lifted its long busy tail to run off.  Later, at dinner, a beautiful and sleek genet cat appeared from the bush and lurked beneath my table. Apparently they are wild cats and quite common throughout all of Africa, though to me it seemed like the most exotic animal I had encountered out in this park.

Indeed, exotic seems to be the theme of this small and lesser-known corner of coastal Tanzania. At night I shower inside my tent with local soap concocted from only three ingredients—coconut oil, clove and cinnamon—and I feel truly exotic.

“I smell like Zanzibar,” I think, because the island is just across the way. Maybe if I squinted a bit harder across the Indian Ocean, I would see it. Instead, I can only hear its call in the perpetual blue waves, hitting the sand again and again.

That’s right Elaine—I am blogging to you on the beach, live from the Indian Ocean! And if that’s not enough, I am writing this entire epistle using solar power—all of the energy for my cameras, phone and computer was pulled from the warm equatorial sun.  As I write this, there are insects running across my computer screen—which reminds me, I really must remember to take my anti-malarial pills tonight.

So, this is Saadani—I sincerely hope you make it here someday. Until then, you can imagine me in your place, dreaming on a daybed in the sand and praying for a lion or two to pass by on the beach—just to liven things up a little.

I wish you well, Elaine, and as they say in Swahili—Lala Salama (sleep peacefully)-

Your friend,