Mahale: Journey to the ends of the earth

After what felt like hours in a light aircraft, the dry barren interior of Tanzania transforms into lush green mountains beneath us. The plane banks steeply, and drops suddenly onto the airstrip, careering at high speed towards the lake shore. It stops just in time, my heart in my throat; certainly an interesting introduction to Mahale. We escape the Cessna caravan to sail on a wooden dhow along Lake Tanganyika, passing villages where children play in the shallows as we enjoy a picnic lunch, soaking up the sunshine – now that’s more like it! After two hours, we round a corner and see the majestic tall thatch building I have seen in the photographs, the iconic Greystoke, our base for exploring the Mahale Mountains. Shoes off, we hop off the dhow and walk through the powder-soft sand to our rooms, furnished with reclaimed wood from old dhows with the peeling coloured paint a reminder of their former life. A dugout canoe has been transformed into a ladder leading to an upper daybed area. To me, I have finally found heaven, at the ends of the earth. No mobile phones or televisions here, no modern day stress, and some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever encountered. Towering mountains cloaked in dense green forest, home to chimpanzees, forest hog and countless other creatures, beautiful beaches and Africa’s deepest lake, crystal clear for swimming in.

We wake early the next day to track down our primate cousins, the chimpanzees. The trails twist and turn through the forest, steeply rising until we catch our first glimpse of a chimp in the wild. He acknowledges us with a sideways glance before rolling over onto his back to bask in the sunshine. Walking further, we find two boisterous males play-fighting, testing one another’s strength in preparation for later years when they will likely battle for dominance in the troop. A young one bounds through the trees with remarkable speed, branches crashing and leaves rustling as he leaps around his natural jungle gym.

The afternoon is as relaxed as the morning energetic, a dhow sailing trip around the small coves further along the lake shore, enjoying a spot of fishing. We keep the best fish of the day to take to the kitchen to make sashimi as our pre-dinner treat at the bar. Dinner is a feast, served on the sand under the stars, our bare feet plunging into the cool sand. After dinner, we retreat with a gin and tonic to the campfire, treated to some local dancing by the staff. Clumsily we all try to join in, much to their amusement, before eventually retreating.

All too soon it’s over, and we are back on the plane, doing the reverse version of our dramatic landing with a steep incline up and over the mountains, leaving the glistening lake behind us.

Sundowner time!

One of my absolute favourite things about being on safari is sundowner time. Celebrating the day you’ve just had and taking the time out to stop, listen to the sounds as the night time creatures spring to life, and watching the giant red sun drop like a ball to the horizon. A cold gin and tonic with ice, and maybe a few nibbles (wonderfully named “bitings” in East Africa) are the icing on the cake. Somehow this small tradition makes every day special and it’s something I sorely miss when I return home and realise I’m stuck behind my desk, or in a traffic jam and have missed another sunset.

Beguiling bee-eaters

I used to think my favourite African bird was a fish eagle – their majestic stature, haunting cry that echoes across the water and their distinctive plumage. But recently I’ve had to make space for the smaller but perfectly beguiling bee eater. The pair of white fronted bee-eaters above were seen in the Lower Zambezi. I had to sit patiently for what felt hours but was probably more like 20 minutes, trying to catch a shot of the two together, in focus, properly composed. Many many misses later, my patience was rewarded…one had caught an insect, and perched right in front of my camera. It’s not a perfect shot by any means, but was by far the best of the day. So this pretty pair put them in top spot for the time being, not just for this experience but for their delicate colouring, elegant flight and Zorro-style masks. Who knows how long they’ll stay in number one position, I guess my next safari will be the judge of that!

The rains are coming to East Africa

It’s officially April, in East Africa it’s the start of the long rains, bringing with them brooding stormclouds, sheets of rain passing over the plains and everywhere life being restored. Whilst other countries have a spring, summer, autumn and winter, East Africa has dry and rainy seasons. April and May are the long rains, November the short rains. Both provide much needed nourishment to the land, both for the people and wildlife that lives there. In the southern reaches of the Serengeti, the rain sparks an age-old instinct in some two million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles to start their annual migration. Dormant seeds lying in the dry earth suddenly sprout and turn the land green overnight. Flowers pop up providing bursts of colour and flocks of butterflies fill the skies. In many ways, it’s not dissimilar to our spring time here, with new life popping up everywhere – just a lot more dramatic. For anyone braving the storms, enjoy it and pray for a good rainy season for the sake of the people, land and wildlife of this beautiful corner of Africa.