Story telling from Australia
The sound of a tent being unzipped is the same the world over. I could be in North Wales or Cornwall, Devon or Gloucestershire. I could even be in Broken Hill. I’m not though, I’m in Africa, under canvas in Amboseli National Park, protected by the shade of a spreading acacia tree near the border with Tanzania, on the Kenyan side of Mount Kilimanjaro. And that’s where any comparison with camping in England ends.
All of life is here (thankfully outside the tent) in open space and big skies, in dancing dust devils and slow moving shadows, and in a parade of wild creatures swooping, running, leaping, striding and stampeding in their thousands. I had no idea there would be so many. I never thought there COULD be so many, and nearly all of them vegetarian. My type of animal!
Yesterday the camp was cloaked in a dust storm that could have blown in from Broken Hill. I could just as easily have been sitting on the veranda of a sheep station in Australia, watching dust roll in from a distance with no sign of rain behind the cloud, as hunkered down here on a hilltop in Kenya. You can smell rain coming, just as you can in Outback Australia. The cattle farmed by Masai tribes would have known instinctively where the rain was falling, like the Brahman cattle in Queensland that sense when the big wet has arrived and set off in search of green pick.
The rain arrived this morning, preceded by angry rumbles of thunder and sudden wind that whipped through the tent. ‘Tent’ is too flimsy a word. This magnificent structure is like a swaying bull elephant, canvas flapping and snapping in the wind, timber creaking, ropes pulling against thick webbing straps and the clang of metal d-rings. Sometimes I wonder if we’re not about to set sail.
You’d never feel alone in Africa. How could you? The noise at dawn and dusk is louder than rush hour traffic on a six-lane highway, and infinitely more beautiful. The size of a creature seems to have no bearing on the volume it can produce, as the male frogs that live in a distant waterhole nightly prove. Dozens compete to be heard and they’ve perfected the art of never calling at the same time. It sounds like Macbeth’s witches boiling jam in a giant cauldron. The frogs only stop when they find a mate (and so far none of them have had much luck.)
When the rain stopped a veil of grey mist lifted from Kilimanjaro to reveal a summit covered in snow. I love this place. Can you tell? Stupidly, hopelessly, romantically, I love it. Africa has got under my skin and I LOVE IT.
I love the smell of fresh dung after rain has fallen, the sight of tiny dick dicks foraging for food outside the tent, birds singing, gazelles leaping and the sheer fecundity of this land. The plains might look dry and dusty but they support so much life, from huge herds of elephants to well-fed zebra. Melting snow from Kilimanjaro runs into underground streams that emerge in marshland so it seems there’s always somewhere for animals to eat and drink.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, isn’t that what Keats wrote? The authenticity of this place is what I love about it, a natural paradise with barely any sign of human intervention, only rocks and stones and dirt and trees, grass and marshland… and animals. When drought hits, as it did in 2009, numbers fall and when the rain comes again, they increase.
Of course, just by being here we’re spoiling that natural beauty, which is a conundrum that I conveniently choose to ignore, and the predators – lions, hyena and vultures – are nowhere to be seen, which may have coloured my romantic view of this paradise. The bones of animals scattered around waterholes prove the predators are out there but with so many thousands of animals you’d have to be unlucky to be chosen – a bit like the risk we take in Australia when swimming in the ocean.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to the puddings, we left them in a hotel in Nairobi. This tent may be solid but with so many vegetarians around I wouldn’t fancy our chances of getting out alive.