Serengeti females discover their natural advantages
Tanzanian encounters with chilling lionesses and pioneering women
True luxury has come to mean proximity to nature, so we decide to forgo a relaxing afternoon at the Olakira Camp in Ndutu, Tanzania. Instead, we bump along, 6 hours each way, to spend all our daylight hours in the Serengeti National Park, just north of us.
The sea of grass reveals trains of wildebeest, bat-eared foxes, cheetahs and innumerable creatures. Driving through an acacia thicket, we swat tsetse flies and emerge with red welts on the backs of our shins and necks. Ahead lie the bald-headed Moru Kopjes, solitary rocky outcrops with tangles of vegetation at their base, home to hyraxes, vervet monkeys and leopards.
It’s midday. Safari jeeps are thin on the ground as guests sip chilled Chardonnay back at their camps and sleep off the torpor-inducing afternoon heat. The creatures of the bush too have melted into the thickets. The blurry haze is so strong, a meandering gazelle appears to totter unsteadily. Just then, our guide spots something in the distance, looks through his binoculars, and we start speeding towards a lone tree.
It’s a wonderful thing when your safari guide is blown away by a sighting. He holds his arms up, victorious. “Lions!" he exclaims. “See all those lions up on that tree?"
We close in, and halt. The low, wide-branched sausage tree (Kigelia africana) is heaving with lionesses. They are sprawled everywhere, their tails and hanging limbs mimicking the dangling sausage-shaped fruit of the tree. They are snoozing for the most part, some perched elegantly, others looking rather comical, with bellies popping through the forks of branches. We count 13 adult females.
Lions aren’t naturally arboreal, unlike the lighter and more lithe leopards. I had read of lions climbing trees, but the stories usually mentioned two or three individuals. This looks like an entire pride. We observe them for ages, wondering what led them to go up. There isn’t an aggressive elephant or buffalo in sight, nor any nettlesome flies on the ground.
A loud yawn, and we see an enormous male with a fiery mane befitting a carnival prop lying several yards away by the tall grass. He’s huffing miserably. We realize the lionesses are enjoying the cooler temperature up in their tree house. So much better than lying on the heat-radiating earth. Poor old boy, he would have cracked the first branch trying to make it up there.
This incredible sighting of the lionesses making it to the top foreshadows what comes next.
Asilia Africa, the company that runs the Olakira Camp, also has a camp called Dunia in the Moru Kopjes area, which is run entirely by women. Our guide radios them and they invite us for tea.
Manager Angel Namshali, in her mid-30s, chats with us over iced hibiscus tea in the stylish, vintage-safari themed lounge. The unfenced, eight-room tented camp is set in a secluded spot overlooking a wildebeest migration corridor. Dunia, she confirms, is run entirely by female staff who drive jeeps, guide, guard, haul luggage, tend the bar, produce delectable fare, and perform the myriad tasks that keep a camp like Dunia running smoothly. We see them in action around us, attending to guests with tremendous attention to detail. Angel looks on, her eyes flecked with pride. The sword in her is sheathed in the gentlest mannerisms, natural humility and a winsome smile.
This wasn’t supposed to be the trajectory of Angel’s life. She grew up in a village near Mount Kilimanjaro, destined for an early marriage. Despite being a capable student, her college offer was refused as her father said he only had enough money to pay for his two sons’ education. Angel wept, accepted her lot, and got a job organizing a linen closet at a lodge. In time, she became the manager. In 2016, she was hired by Asilia, along with a handful of other women. One of them was Zewadi, who was passionate about the bush and had studied wildlife at college. In a dream come true, she now works as a naturalist and guide. The success of the only women-run camp among the 138 camps in the Serengeti, has been game changing.
Of course, there were many challenges. “Men used to come to visit, but I put an end to that politely, saying only those who stay here can come. They would laugh, saying, ‘We will see you out there in the bush, when your jeep is stuck’, but it’s us who help them with their jeeps!"
There has been a lot else to deal with: bush fires, a tent canvas being blown away in a storm, once there were 23 lions right inside camp, another time a herd of elephants raided the pantry. But Dunia survived it all.
Angel looks out for the girls in her village. “My people did not approve of this job, but now they realize that I get respect and meet wonderful people from around the world. Now the villagers tell their daughters about me and ask me for advice. I encourage the girls to go to school, and not get pregnant. I use my earnings to help them study further."
As we drive back to our camp, the Savannah is swathed in soft, coppery evening light and we are awash in the warmth of the thrilling encounters with two sets of females who have lifted themselves above their default setting with bravado, intelligence and teamwork.
Geetika Jain seeks redefined concepts of travel and luxury around the world.
FIRST PUBLISHED06.03.2020 | 02:39 PM IST