The ranger sat back in his chair, his hands clasped
comfortably behind his head. He gazed around at the collection of
English gap-year students that surrounded him, hanging on his
every word. A bonfire blazed merrily away in the middle of the
circle of people, sending a plume of sparks and smoke up into the
African night sky. Most of the people in the group were hanging
on his every word, waiting for him to tell yet another anecdote
about being charged by an angry elephant or attacked by a hippo
or bitten by a snake. He cleared his throat and his audience
leaned forwards, eager to catch what he had to say:“And you
know what the best thing about working here is?” He let the question hang in the air for a few seconds to allow
the suspense to build up slightly, before going on:
“It’s the most romantic place in the world. Seriously,
there’s nothing like the sound of hippos shagging in the
background for getting women into bed. Trust me on this
one.” He looked around him with a smug, arrogant smirk stamped alll
over his fat, ugly face, and I suddenly had an inexplicable urge
to stamp on it a bit more. But I didn’t. It would have made
things awkward. We were in the Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania. This
is not a particularly famous place, mainly because getting there
involves eight hours spent in an African bus and another two
hours in a Land Rover. It is worth making the effort though,
mainly because the difficulties of getting there mean that it
tends to be almost empty. It is also ridiculously large –
roughly the size of Wales, in fact, and while we were there the
total guest count was 21. Try to imagine an area the size of
Wales, completely devoid of anything remotely civilised. Anyway,
it is one big open space, full of pretty much any sort of
wildlife you care to mention. The wildlife tend to be unconcerned about the presence of
humans. On arriving at our lodge, we all got out of the Land
Rovers to stretch our legs, and were greeted by the sight of a
full size African elephant strolling across the car park, about
20 feet away from us. I don’t know if you have seen an
elephant that close before – it certainly doesn’t
happen much in Basingstoke – but it does make you pay
attention. The pachyderm in question paused for a second, looked
in our direction, snorted contemptuously, took a monumentally
large crap, and walked off into the bush. As statements go, it
was a good one. All the Western self-importance and confidence
that you bring to the place takes one look at the array of teeth,
claws and sodding large animals that surround you and exits stage
left. You suddenly feel very, very small indeed. On a game drive the next day we had ample opportunity to
increase our feeling of total inadequacy. After parking next to
what I thought was a tree, we gazed around as our guide pointed
out a herd of elephants in the distance, a few vultures hovering
over a carcass a few miles away and what we were actually next to
– a giraffe. As if on cue, the “tree” moved
slightly. The giraffe gazed downwards at us with a stupidly
benign expression on its face and slowly stalked away, balanced
on its implausibly spindly legs. The guide looked at us with our
jaws hanging down and giggled to himself. A bit later we stopped by the side of a river for a drinks
break. We sat in the Land Rover drinking warm beer from the
bottle and basking in the glorious sunshine when a herd of water
buffalo stepped out of the bush one by one – this took a
while – to drink at the river. The head bull of the herd, an
immense beast seemingly carved from black granite, strutted a few
paces towards us, sniffed a couple of times, and proceeded to let
fly a stream of urine from what I had previously assumed was one
of its legs. Talk about making a bloke feel inadequate. When we returned to the lodge for the evening we were met by a
burly South African who proceeded to blather on about all the
amazing things he had seen and done during his time working in
the park. As I sat by the fire with the others, thinking about
how nice it would be to knock him out and feed him to a passing
lion, I began to feel a little bit jealous. The Ruaha National
Park is the most jaw-droppingly beautiful place I have ever been
to, and this guy got paid to be there. He may have been arrogant
and self-obsessed, but you had to hand it to him: he did have the
best job in the world. The bastard.ARCHIVE: 1st week TT 2004