A Tough Road (Part 1)

Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. Isaiah 53:1,2

One of the joys of living in the northern part of Tanzania is that once in a while you get to tour the great Serengeti National Park at minimal cost. There is a road, called the Northern Corridor, which links the entire Lake (Victoria) Region with the coffee-producing and tourist hub that is the city of Arusha. This road runs through the Serengeti.

Tanzanian citizens are allowed to pass through the huge Serengeti National Park by bus or private car after paying a nominal fee. Public bus is the customary mode of transport in Tanzania, and there is a bus that daily makes the 12-hour trip from my hometown of Musoma to Arusha.

It is not every day that one gets to make such an expensive journey, and therefore the novelty of this route never wears off for us. Travelling through the Serengeti is an exciting experience. Varied and astonishing scenes of terrain and wildlife await anyone who ventures there.

(Hundreds of miles later, after one leaves the Serengeti, the bus route cuts across the southern rim of the even more magnificent Ngorongoro Crater. As the bus meanders its way around it, one can actually look down into the crater and view its beautiful natural wonders.)

But the Serengeti is also a vast arid patch of savannah land. During the dry season it can be as dry as the Sahara Desert.

During one such drought-stricken season my wife and I took a ‘safari’ by bus across the Serengeti. At our age, bus journeys no longer hold any excitement for us. But the thrill of passing through the Serengeti defies age, and it was with much anticipation that my wife and I boarded the bus that morning.

Five hours into our journey, we arrived at the western gate of the park and here all the passengers had to get off the bus for the mandatory inspection by the park wardens.

Soon we were on our way again. Many of the other travellers, like us, were making a rare trip through the Serengeti and we were all on the lookout for all the wild animals we could get to see. There were a few veterans of that route, of course, people who were regulars on this route and who wouldn’t have batted an eyelid had a lion growled outside their bus window.

My wife’s big, round eyes grew even rounder as she observed firsthand many of the park’s animals. We saw nearly every kind of animal and at one stage we were held up by a herd of buffalo stampeding across the road. The combination of power and grace that these brutes possess is a sight to behold.

The highlight of our ‘sightseeing’ was a hyena that was stalking a group of deer. The hyena could see the deer, but they could not see him as they fed quietly in the tall grass. It was something straight out of a nature documentary. We would gladly have given the driver all the money remaining in our pockets to have him stop and allow us to witness the unfolding drama. But I doubt the driver would have entertained any idea of stopping the bus to watch a hyena stalking deer!

After some time my wife got tired and slept on my lap – which is one of the things that I love about travelling with her. At home she cannot lay her head even on my shoulder, but whenever we travel together, quick as a jiffy she is all over me! Women, bwana! As she dozed off she said to me, “Wake me up only if you see elephants.”

Elephants?! I was flabbergasted. We hadn’t seen any lions yet, and I thought they were everyone’s pet choice. In any case, elephants have never been my favorite wildlife ‘sights’. But I did not tell her any of that.

I said, “O.K.” and off she went.  .

Sure enough, an hour or so later we met a large herd of elephants and it seemed that lady luck was on my wife’s side because the mammoths were feeding right by the roadside. I woke her up just in time and she savored their sight to the full. Contented, she went back to sleep.

It was growing hotter by the hour and as the heat mingled with the dust the atmosphere became suffocating. On nearing Arusha the terrain gradually changes. The earth is drier and during this particular period it was hot and dusty to the extreme. By now, everyone inside the bus was the color of dust. I particularly pitied a young lady who it appeared had forgotten to cover her intricately done expensive-looking hair-do. She had now turned into a Medusa-like apparition and I constantly kept fearing she would turn and look at me and I would instantly turn into stone, or whatever it was that Medusa was known to turn people into!

As we were traversing this vast, barren terrain we entered a region of deep valleys and dry, foreboding hillsides. The area appeared to be exceptionally bleak and inhospitable. There was virtually no vegetation here. There were only parched gullies where the last rains had sent brief but powerful rivers thundering down the winding valleys. Boulders and rocks which had been torn from the surrounding hillsides littered the gullies.

The dust on the road must have been a foot deep. Considering the intense heat in the gullies, I held on with bated breath, waiting for a tyre burst at any minute. An overheated engine also seemed a likely candidate. I was also thinking that if our bus broke down and night found us here, the hyena packs in the Serengeti would be laughing all the way to the bank, as they say.

But there was something in this terrain that soon made me to forget about impending catastrophes. In the midst of all this barrenness I noticed some trees. This sight deeply fascinated me. They were no ordinary trees, however. They were terribly gnarled and malformed. You couldn’t put an age to them but you could tell they were very, very old. In this hostile terrain, these dinosaur-like phantoms held on in grim determination. They twisted their way about, struggling to grow any which way. Due to erosion, large portions of the roots lay exposed, and I assumed that they must go very deep to bring up water for the trunk and shoots.

These trees, if you could call them that, were totally covered with dust and you couldn’t tell what kind of trees they were. They were vastly different from the trees we had left behind in the more agreeable parts of the Serengeti, though. There was no beauty nor any form of consolation about them. It was clear that even during the rainy season they had little reason to celebrate, for they had to contend with the powerful floodwaters pounding down the gullies which constantly threatened to uproot them.

As the bus slowly and carefully made its way through this very forbidding territory I watched the trees one by one in a sort of fascinated horror. I wondered why they would choose this place to grow in, of all places. But probably, again, they did not choose it of their own accord. And yet I couldn’t help admiring the patience and sheer resilience that they embodied.

It appeared that in the final analysis these trees had overcome anything that this hostile environment could throw at them. In their gnarled, beauty-less state they lived on, defiant and triumphant.

I do recall that I tried to say something to my wife, but the right words failed to form.

Oh, I almost forgot… the trees in this region were not many. They were very few, scattered here and there. Sure, you could find two or three bunched close together. But there was no chance of a forest here.

[This (photo below) is DEFINITELY no way to tour the Serengeti – unless you are a local!]



2 thoughts on “A Tough Road (Part 1)

  1. Ever since we connected I have wondered about coming to Tanzania, though such a trip would be a challenge. BUT, reading this you have pushed me ever closer to that trip. Your writing painted a wondrous verbal canvas grand to behold! Thank you.

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