Winner of the 7th iteration of the bucket list INITIative
This page includes the four separate videos shot and edited by Zach Fackrell, my companion on my trip to Tanzania. The text that surrounds it is my story of this incredible trip and it serves to substantiate the video content. To see the original content please visit passionpassport.com.
Chapter 1: Dar - First Impressions
10,000 miles – that was the approximate distance I was to cover from San Francisco to Dar Es Saalam, Tanzania.
I arrived at the airport all business. I was far too preoccupied with checking in and ensuring I had everything I needed for my trip to process what I was actually doing. I checked my 20 pound bag and walked toward my gate, boarding pass in hand. As I slumped down on an empty seat, all of my suppressed thoughts began to surface. As a young girl, I had dreamt of adventures like the one I was about to take off on, but I never fathomed it becoming a reality – especially under these pretences, as winner of Passion Passport’s The Bucket List Initiative. “How is this happening right now?” I thought.
I vividly remember staring out the window on the plane. My fingers reached for the necklace I religiously wear, but they found only skin; I had decided to leave my jewelry at home. East Africa, with its archaeological and paleoanthropological discoveries dotting the landscape from north to south, always enchanted me. A lifetime of anticipation and a month of preparation had me feeling both ready and anxious to finally be in Tanzania.
My deep-seeded excitement and jitters were only amplified over the course of my 44 hours of travel; at times, it was almost too much to endure. When I finally touched down in Dar, I was utterly exhausted. After being approved for my visa and claiming my luggage, I headed out to find a taxi. Greeted with warm, humid air and an enthusiastic driver, I was thrilled to be heading to my hotel to get some much needed rest.
As we drove through Dar, I was surprised to feel trepidation. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what I was seeing and feeling. Everything was dark. Street lights flickered as we drove by, lighting up small groups of men on either side of the street. My driver made a point to tell me that I should not go out at night, which really pushed my quieted anxieties to the forefront. Even now as I reflect on this moment, I am unsure what it was that gave these anxieties such power and life. Perhaps it was as simple as this being my first solo trip abroad, but nothing could have prepared me for the self-doubt I felt. It grabbed hold of me and completely swallowed me up. I was embarrassed and ashamed to be feeling these things; to be doubting myself and my own abilities. At this point I couldn’t quite discern between exhaustion-induced concerns and reality, and I spent a sleepless night trying to shake whatever it was that had me so spooked.
The next day I awoke groggy and confused. I wasn’t sure if the sun was rising or setting, but a glance at my watch confirmed it was the latter. The hotel staff, like the taxi driver, had repeatedly recommended I not leave the hotel past dark; I was traveling on my own and there would be no one to escort me out. This in no way calmed my already established fears about venturing into the city alone, but I was starving. My stomach growled at me mercilessly and my head felt foggy and sluggish. Against every subconscious plea to stay in the hotel, I decided to leave the comfort of my room and search for a restaurant.
Equipped with a map of the city, I embarked on my quest. Despite not having to go very far, the warnings of all the people I had encountered resounded in my head and each step I took was made with conscious effort. My eyes memorized every street sign and turn. I wasn’t going to get lost, and all of my senses focused on that single goal.
While I was nervous to be out at night, it was impossible to not notice the life of the city, densely populated in all of its nooks and crannies. Mothers and their children sold fruits and other household goods on corners. Men talked excitedly with passersby. There were infinite new sounds and smells that I wanted to explore, and I berated myself for having slept through the majority of the day when there was so much to do and see.
I eventually stumbled into what I presumed was some sort of buffet. Men and women were cast about the restaurant haphazardly and there seemed to be no order; it was unclear who was sitting where and with whom. Fortunately, not long after I arrived, a table cleared and I graciously took it. I sat for a long while trying to deduce the correct method of ordering, but nothing really made any sense to me. I locked eyes with a waitress, who made her way over and ushered me up and over to the food. She couldn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Swahili so she simply gestured to all of the options, of which there were many. Flustered, I pointed to rice and some stew. Satisfied, she nodded and led me back to my table. I sat, stared out and laughed to myself: “Wow, I’ve finally made it!” In that moment, I could feel how far away from home I was. It was liberating, terrifying and empowering all at once, and for the first time since I had arrived I felt confident in my abilities and my intentions. I contentedly sat with these newly discovered sentiments and waited patiently for my meal.
As a steaming plate of food made its way over to me, my only thought was: “Holy sweet mother of chicken!” I was both shocked and amused by the American-sized portion, and truth be told, a bit worried as well. I had an inkling – no, I was certain – that the 10,000TSH I had on hand was not going to cover this Mighty Khan-style portion. Concerned that I couldn’t afford it and reluctant to even take a bite, I asked how much the meal would cost. The waitress shook her head, assured me that all was fine and that payment would be due after the meal, and continued to encourage me to eat. Another audible plea from my stomach came just then, temporarily assuaging my worries. I decided I would deal with this after I finished and I did what any sensible person would do: I ate.
I was soon joined by two Tanzanian men. It seemed common to share a table with other diners, and I embraced their company. They were amused by the fact that I was eating there alone, this strange mzungu with that doe-eyed, fresh-off-the-plane look plastered all over her face, and I was happy to entertain them as they instructed me on the do’s and don’ts of Dar Es Saalam. At the end of the meal, one of the men offered to escort me back to my hotel. “You shouldn’t be out here alone!” he scolded. I trusted him, this gentleman who had pleasantly interrupted my dinner, and didn’t think twice at the offer. “So I’ve been told, rafiki (friend). So I’ve been told.” Together, we walked back to my hotel.
As I reflected on the myriad of emotions I felt over the course of just a few short days, I came to a peaceful realization that what I experienced was perfectly normal. It was okay to have felt trepidation and anxiety, as well as comfort and contentment. One of the most important features of travel, I believe, is that it requires an individual to feel – I mean truly feel. Venturing into the unknown is a great adventure, and no amount of research can adequately prepare you. I was learning to trust myself and my instincts and that was a great relief. Growth is impossible without some struggle, and so long as you don’t let that struggle paralyze you, it can be an important aspect of humanity that keeps you alive.
It was this newfound sentiment that propelled me into the next leg of my trip, and I was beside myself with excitement and anticipation.
Chapter 2: Zanzibar and Pemba - Are We Still in Tanzania?
A frantic, hurried sprint to the ferry port in Dar left me anxious, sweating and out of breath. Somehow, I managed to fill the last available seat on the boat. My ticket read DIPLOMATIC and I soon came to understand what that meant – I was to accompany the captain and crew on their short voyage to Zanzibar. Captain John and I became quick friends as I told him of my plans. He graciously offered ideas of activities in both Zanzibar and the neighboring island of Pemba, and together we set off north, taking in the changing shades of the ocean and the warm colors painted delicately across the sky.
My first stop was Stone Town, the older section of Zanzibar City. Exuding a rich, palpable history, it’s no wonder it is declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whether it be in the 22,000 year old microlithic tools, the stone-lined pathways, or the iconic Zanzibari doors, there is a story to be found.
Walking through Zanzibar was like being transported back to ancient Persia. Mesmerizing Arabic and Swahili script kissed off-white walls. Red and blue flags hugged the tops of buildings, guiding island inhabitants along narrow, twisting pathways whose ornate doors enticed its visitors further. A friend once told me that Stone Town reminded him of scenes from Aladdin, and he was not far off. The Call to Prayer, a nostalgic reminder of my months spent in Morocco, completely transfixed me. I could have stood for hours in those ancient walkways swathed in the reverberating sounds of those foreign, comforting words, forever vulnerable to their charm. I was intensely drawn to the zest that is Stone Town, feeling immediately welcome and at home within its walls.
The sun was setting rapidly on my single night there, so I hastened my pace to make it to the hotel before dark. The Warere Town House greeted me with such hospitality and warmth. Ideally located in a quiet area of Stone Town, there I found a unique blend of both solitude and companionship; something I desperately needed after my whirlwind time in Dar. As I opened the door to my room I stared and beamed. I made my way past my four-poster bed, the wood carved with beautiful Zanzibari intricacy and style, and I gazed out from my second story window. The tangerine sky left me breathless; its golden, vivid hue grew deeper as seconds passed, casting gentle shadows against the cobblestone ground below. As I opened the window a breeze wooshed in, washing over and blanketing me in its dewy comfort. I felt giddy. This place truly felt like magic; as if it could vanish in an instant without any explanation. I was determined to fill every moment of my short time there before it slipped away from me.
Despite a prolonged 4am struggle with Africa’s largest known cockroach, I awoke refreshed and ready for the day. The hotel staff had kindly arranged for a local man to take me on a walking tour of Stone Town and at 10am sharp we set off to do just that. I quickly found myself hanging onto every word my guide said. He spoke passionately about the island, and it was clear he had a wealth of knowledge he was eager to share.
We entered the basement of a building which once housed numerous slaves. The rusted chains used for their imprisonment lay atop cement blocks, haunting visitors. Making our way out, we spoke of the Arab slave trade and the importance of Zanzibar in its history. The same Zanzibari doors I had marveled at the day before also spoke to us, telling us of their origin, as well as the meaning in their carvings, color, and size. I am so lucky to be led through Stone Town by this man, I thought. And I welcomed each new piece of trivia, silently promising to research further once I was home. This place fascinated me, and I again felt at home as we made our way contentedly along.
Before I knew it, though, four short hours had quickly passed and it was time to make my way to the airport. The rush through traffic is not something I'll likely forget, and many times I doubted I would make my flight. We'd found ourselves buried in the congestion surrounding the port, but after much practiced bobbing and weaving we finally made it to our destination. Relieved, I checked in, handed over my pack, and sat in wait of the arriving aircraft. After a short time, airline staff approached me, ushering me out to the airstrip where I was pleased to find Zach, my companion for the duration of the trip. Before we knew it, we were abroad our tiny, Auric Air aircraft and on our way to Zanzibar's neighbor island - Pemba!
If I hadn’t known any better I’d have thought I’d flown into a scene of Eat, Pray, Love. We flew straight over heaven and landed right in the heart of it. Children excitedly shouted greetings as we passed and cars whizzed by on either side. We arrived in the late afternoon, and were consequently blessed by an otherworldly sunset. I stepped out of the taxi, immediately welcomed by the humid, Pemban air. A deep orange exploded across the sky, as the sun, glowing and radiant dipped behind palm trees and spice farms. What a magical, untouched island we had stumbled upon. How is it that tourists so rarely find themselves making the short 100km trip to visit this place?, I wondered. I didn’t know the answer, but I was elated to be among the few who had included Pemba in their itinerary.
The varied assortment of noises I awoke to assisted me out of bed that next morning, and for that they were a welcomed accompaniment to my morning routine. After readying ourselves for the day, we purchased some snacks (two loaves of bread), gathered our things, and set off. We’d arranged for a driver to take us north, stopping off at various locations along the way.
I pushed myself against the window, soaking in the sights of rural Pemba. I was glued to the glass the entire time, marveling at the various shades of foliage so well complementing those indigenous to the island. On our stroll through the Ngezi Forest Reserve we kept our eyes peeled for the endemic Pemba Flying Fox, while taking care to step over the occasional millipede. By mid-afternoon we had made our way to the Ras Kigomasha Lighthouse. I could have spent an eternity up there, basking in the hot sun. Unaffected by heights, I made my way to the grated platform at the top, sat down, and let my feet dangle over the edge; the wind blew unforgivingly around me, while the waters sparkled brilliant blues, inviting me in. It was my hunger that stole me from my reverie and I made my way down to seek out a meal.
The late afternoon was spent exchanging greetings with various children we found congregating near the road side. I could feel the dull ache in my cheeks from smiling and the sun-kissed glow atop them from a long day outside. We pulled up to a beach, one whose beauty fails to be described in so many as 10,000 words, where we were greeted by turquoise waters and picturesque, floating dhows. We swam, climbed trees, and ran around the beach. The fine-grained, white sand is still caked along the bottoms of my pants.
It was like no other afternoon I had ever spent before and I wasn’t prepared to leave. It was Ramadan, though, and our driver had a warm meal to get back to. We let ourselves take in one last moment along the sea, said our goodbyes to those who came to welcome us, and let ourselves back into the car.
Though I so longed for it to stay, the sun began its initial descent in the evening sky. I was still wet and salty from my dip in the ocean; my hair a frazzled, tangled mess against my back. I let my forehead sink and rest against the window, trying to absorb every last feeling and sensation in that moment. Smoke from cooking meals escaped into the open air, billowing out along tin rooftops. Towering palm trees cast the sun’s reflecting, orange beams against my face and yet again I felt myself in a dream. A question crossed my mind, and it would with some regularity in the days to come: When will I get the chance to come back? I let this question sit – and then float away, dismissed as quickly as it had come. My driver’s voice filled the vacant space this thought left. Be at peace.With a long exhale, I surrendered myself to his request, taking in the final moments of that setting sun.
Chapter 3: Tanga and Arusha - From Sea to Meru
I was inundated with premature nostalgia as I secured the final buckle of my backpack. How can I extend my stay, I wondered. I had so quickly fallen in love with Tanzania, and especially with the island of Pemba. Not only was it stunning, but it had a unique and highly sought after quality: it was removed. In today's world, I've found that it has become increasingly difficult to find those sorts of hidden gems, but here I constantly felt like I was the first to discover its beauty. I missed Pemba before I even left, but I felt solace in knowing I'd one day return.
As we flew to the mainland city of Tanga, we marveled at the erupted sandbars below us. They were met with calm, aquamarine waters that stretched for miles before turning into darker turquoise pools. It was fun imagining what it would be like to man a dhow and take it out to one of the many islands below, making it mine for the day. I knew that if I returned, I would have to make a point to fulfill that fantasy.
We spent only one day in Tanga - it was a stopover of sorts before heading to Arusha. We lodged along the sea where we ate a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and toast. In the afternoon, we meandered through the city’s streets, talking with locals and making plans for the days to come. We eventually stumbled upon a hidden cove where we skipped rocks and collected sea shells before seeking out dinner nearby. Our time was calm and easy - exactly what we needed before heading off to our next destination. I was excited for what was to come, and particularly eager to see how drastically different the landscape would be as we flew inland for the first time.
In stark contrast to the jaw-dropping blues and white-sand islets of my flights to and from Pemba, on the way to Arusha my eyes were met with infinite nothingness. It was an interesting dichotomy. The cracked terrain was etched with roads that stretched for miles, a mix of earthy pastel browns and chalky reds that drew a maze atop the landscape. The homogeneity of the land only added to its vastness, and as the plane’s engine roared, thundering us onward, I studied it thoroughly. I felt lost in the enormity of this place and wondered what paleoanthropological treasures lay below me. While I’d so enjoyed my time amidst the sea, it took but an instant to be reminded that I prefer to be among the desert, where colors dance exhaustively with the setting sun, whispering secrets into the wind from times long passed.
Stepping onto the paved airstrip in Arusha, I felt surprised. I hadn’t anticipated just how mountainous and fertile the landscape would be. The miles that stretched around us were stippled with soft green rolling mounds resembling enlarged mole hills. They sprouted up every which way, giving the East African Rift Valley a topography unlike any other I’d seen. I came to learn that these features were caused by millions of years of volcanic activity, but in that moment I stood digesting their unfamiliarity. Overall, though, the terrain was redolent of my home in Idaho and I felt instantly at ease among Earth’s natural giants.
Driving through town I felt nervous excitement. When it was announced that I was the winner of Passion Passport’s The Bucket List Initiative and would be traveling to Tanzania, I received countless emails from community members offering tips and recommendations for things to do. One of those came from Sophie, who also graciously offered to host Zach and I for the few days we’d be in Arusha. We were thrilled to be staying with her and her boyfriend, Willie, in their house just below Mount Meru, and couldn't wait to arrive.
Sophie and Willie’s house was charming and cozy - a crisp, stark white contrasted beautifully with the green of the trees and the red of the flowers - and it offered a convenient, quiet respite from the busy city center of Arusha. If the area wasn’t so characteristically jungle-like, I’d have thought I’d made it to the Mediterranean. Once we’d settled in, I pleasantly succumbed to African time. It was late afternoon and the fog was making its slow descent, bringing with it a wet, penetrable cold. We decided on Ethiopian food for dinner and made our way to the restaurant, each of us taking in the light purple hue that shrouded the top of Meru. Dinner was casual and relaxed, and once we’d returned home it took no time at all to fall into a much needed sleep.
In the morning, I took long, slow sips of coffee as I journaled on the porch. I relished the cooler inland air, feeling its shock as it washed over my exposed skin. Boomer, Sophie and Willie’s dog, kept me company, parading the walled perimeter surrounding us in pursuit of the ever-present vervet monkeys. Between pen strokes, I made conscious efforts to look up to appreciate where I was. As was frequently the case, I felt so amazed by my circumstance. I was here - in Tanzania and at Sophie and Willie’s home - for a number of reasons but they could, in essence, be chalked up to Instagram: it was through that platform that I had learned of TBLI and that I connected with our wonderful hosts. That realization, which struck me often, made the trip seem that much more unreal.
At Sophie and Willie’s recommendation, we decided to trek to Mount Meru Falls. To save money, and also because it was way cooler than taking a car, we opted to travel to the trailhead by motorcycle. I was elated as I hadn’t had many chances to ride a motorcycle before so it was a special treat for me. Not long after we set out, I began to feel the burn in my legs from holding them up alongside the bike. I was definitely conscious of my screaming muscles, but in truth the sensation didn’t compare to anything else I saw or heard around me. As we made our ascent I took in all I could. Monochromatic streets were lined with people running errands and going about their morning business. With time, the hustle waned and the congested streets faded into a slower pace customary of agricultural villages. Never before had I seen so much fresh fruit, coffee, maize, and other vegetables, all common staples in Tanzania.
As we continued our ride, it occurred to me, not surprisingly, that there was nothing mundane about this place. Life was languid and lavish; tremendous color decorated the scene before me and I tried with all my might to slow time so I could retain as much of its distinct aesthetic as possible.
Finally, we arrived at Mount Meru. Standing just shy of 15,000 feet, Meru was palatial with its grandeur and enormity. I couldn’t wait to explore it. We began our hike, my fingers constantly locking with the proffered hands around me which belonged to the boys responsible for guiding us to the waterfall. “Pole, pole,” they kept repeating, encouraging me downward. The viscous mud that had adhered to the bottoms of my hiking boots made for a perilous, albeit entertaining, trek down and the boys didn’t have to tell me twice to go slowly. Between bushes of African stinging nettle on either side of me and the weight of my overly-packed bag dragging me under encroaching branches and twigs, I was careful to make it down in one piece. It wasn’t long before we met up with the gentle stream below and I took a moment to rinse my boots and hands before continuing onward.
While I had silently admonished myself on our way to the falls for having on far too many layers, I quickly learned that it had been a wise decision. Once we’d reached the cascading stream of water, which lashed tirelessly against the rocks before us, I was shaking with cold. It pierced me straight to the bone but it in no way took away from the beauty around us. We gave ourselves a moment to silently appreciate our surroundings before unloading the cameras from our packs, jumping from rock to rock, and running around the base of the falls in pursuit of the ultimate shot. A short time later, I turned my back on Meru Falls with tingling, burning fingers, just like the ones I’d get from hours out in the snow. My hair, I knew, was wavy and wet from prolonged exposure to the humid, chilly air and I looked forward to venturing out of the dense foliage where I was sure to find sunshine - and the sensation in my toes.
Our ride to the trailhead, the entrance fee to the falls, and the tips we offered our guides had left us shilling-less, but I was so entranced by the sweeping villages before us that I didn’t mind having to find our way back home by foot. Caked dirt flaked off my shoes as we journeyed toward Sophie’s, having baked in the now beaming sun. As I began to warm up, I removed my layers once again, the feeling returning to all my extremities. Vanquishing just about every other thought I had, though, was my hunger, and I daydreamed of french toast for the majority of our way down.
Before we had left for our hike, we had told Sophie of our strong desire to make a trip to Lake Natron - something that had been exceptionally hard to plan in advance. Not long before we had reached her house, she called. “I’ve found a man who is willing to take you to Natron!” she exclaimed. Beaming, I quickened my pace, anxious to hear the details of our next adventure.
Chapter 4: Lake Natron - There Are No Words
A curiously off-the-beaten-path destination, Lake Natron represented a goal I had long ago conceded defeat to. Information on how to get there was limited, and any directions that did exist were quite vague. I’d read about bandits in the area, as well as the specific challenges some tourists faced in passing through the three gates that preceded the lake’s access. It all seemed quite daunting, and by the time I had arrived in Arusha, I had come to terms with the idea that a visit to the region would likely have to wait until my next African sojourn. Needless to say then, when Sophie announced that we’d be traveling there, I was caught completely off guard – and was ecstatic.
The morning of our departure, Zach and I were greeted by our driver and guide, Lumumba. The ride to the lake was long and bumpy, and the constant harsh jostling of our Land Cruiser sent copious amounts of dust into the car, stressing my already burning lungs and throat. Despite these discomforts, though, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the terrain change as we headed north to our destination. As we drove on, becoming more and more removed from the bustling city of Arusha, I found an intimacy with the landscape that I craved. I thought of my 12-year old self flipping through Origins, marveling at the picturesque African landscape that existed so far away. I thought of how I’d always imagined myself in this dry remoteness, breathing in the warm air and feeling completely alone with the Earth. Now, here I was. I’d dreamed of this day for nearly two decades, and as I stared out into the vast landscape, I became consumed by this memory. It was an incredibly profound moment, and I happily let it wash over me.
Ol Doinyo Lengai, which translates to the Mountain of God, is one of the defining features of the region. It immediately captivated us, looming intimidatingly over the valley floor. As we approached it we came upon one of Natron’s other notable features – God’s Depression. This impressive, desolate crater stretched across the expanse before us giving no real indication of its reverence. It wasn’t until later that we had discovered that God’s Depression was the site of sacred rituals performed by the Maasai; a winding, steep path led to its center where such rituals infrequently took place. The land surrounding it truly looked as though it was a painting. The depth of the scene was hard to gauge as bright earth tones bled together, deceiving the eye. It separated its visitors from reality, the scene in constant variance, changing with the turn of a cheek. It was exceptionally windy when we got out of the car to check out the crater rim, and clouds of dust blew in my mouth and eyes. Where in the world am I? I thought, as I watched a Maasai woman make her way over to me, jewelry in hand.
When we finally reached the campsite, it took no time at all for us to deposit our things and set up camp. Though it was already evening, we were eager to catch a glimpse of the lake. Jumping back in the car, we made our way out towards Natron, stopping at a small hill to appreciate the incredible views: the volcano, Lake Natron itself, and the Great Rift Valley Escarpment. This was the Africa I had dreamed about. I could have been staring at life-sized photos in a National Geographic magazine and I wouldn’t have known any different. The sun shone towards me, softened by the red and purple haze floating in front of it, and then descended, quickly disappearing behind the escarpment. I didn’t have my camera with me but I didn’t want it. I refused to witness this scene from behind a lens, which would have tainted an otherwise raw and sacred moment. Beauty, like that which lay before me, always drew me inward. Its realness resounded in me as I held my knees against my chest, listening to the sounds of Natron as it prepared for bed. I sat with this feeling for some time, delighting in my current circumstance, before letting it accompany me to sleep.
The next morning I awoke at our campsite to the sounds of the village and the dreamy blue sky. I stared awhile, watching the clouds pass by before making my way out to brush my teeth. Our plan for the day was to visit the lake, head to the Engaresero Hominid Footprints after a quick lunch at our camp, and then make our way back to the lake for sunset. Zach and I ate peanut butter honey rolls as we headed out, waving to the Maasai people as we passed.
Lake Natron was vast, disappearing somewhere along the Kenyan border. Milky whites and soft greys blended together to make for an indistinct skyline. I turned around, curious as to how the Mountain of God looked from this vantage point. Its enormity laid claim to the land, a designated and eternal caretaker whose governance was never questioned. I made my way closer to the water’s edge where flamingoes stood in the distance, blanketing the mirror-like shores in a bright pink hue. What I’d do to see this place from above, I thought. Time flew by as we chased the birds, determined to get close enough for a shot. The cracking, thick mud bonded to our shoes, slowing us as we marched up and down the shoreline.
Our next destination was Engaresero. Arriving at the site of the footsteps was surreal. While the prints were not quite as old as Australopithecus afarensis’ steps at Laetoli, they did belong to individuals indigenous to the land approximately 120,000 years ago. Walking along, I noticed there were prints of both adults and children, perfectly preserved by the layers of volcanic sediment which had frozen them in time. I took a moment to imagine what this scene might have looked like all those years ago, and nothing else seemed to exist around me in that moment. I vividly remember each movement and sensation as I traversed the ground below me. I felt my lips, dry and parted as they gaped at the site. I felt the inconsistency of my breath as I made sporadic, excited exclamations, oohing and awing at the different impressions. I felt my fingers as they unconsciously released the grip on my camera, slumping down beside what I believed to be the most impressive print. I felt the coarseness of the ground, tracing the contours of an individual’s single last impression made upon Earth. Africa has a tendency to make me feel small and insignificant, and this place was no exception. I often feel as though I’m the first to have arrived here – each new sight, taste, and smell a sensation belonging exclusively to me. It’s something I can’t quite explain, but never before had I felt so much awe and wonder. Tears welled up in my eyes at the realization that I’d never before witnessed a place quite like this. It took me back to gazing out the window of my flight from Tanga to Arusha, marveling at the overwhelming immensity of a place I knew so little of. Knowing I had just graduated with my degree in anthropology and that I was most excited about the footsteps, Lumumba gave me space to digest everything, patiently waiting outside the gate as the sun climbed higher in the afternoon sky.
Emotionally exhausted and reeling from what I had just seen, I was happy knowing that the day was soon coming to an end. I wanted to reflect on all that I was feeling and be alone with my thoughts, embedding the events of the day in my memory. At camp, though, we were met by young Maasai women and children who invited us to stroll the streets and play hand games. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I even learned some phrases in the Maasai language. It was crazy, but I really felt like we were building a rapport with many of the people at Natron and I couldn’t help but wish that we had a little more time to solidify our newly formed bonds. Their friendship made for an even more fulfilling trip, and I was thankful to have crossed their path, even in a moment when I craved solitude.
As we set out the next morning, I thanked the universe for having made this trip a reality. It left a lasting impression, one I’ll cherish and hold onto as long as I live. And though I may never see the Mountain of God again – that cracked, barren surface whose body gleams soft purple in the early hours of the day, I am thankful for its existence. It towered protectively over me during my stay, its surface reminiscent of an archaic river bed whose tributaries dance and weave together like the beaded works of the Maasai, always congregating at its feet.
Chapter 5: The Northern Circuit - Tracking Hominins
What in the world did you get yourself into? I murmured, trying to dig the grime out from underneath my fingernails. I’d made it safely to Arusha after having spent an awe-inspiring few days at Natron. I walked into the bathroom of my hotel and looked anxiously into the mirror. I didn’t look any different – aside from the wash of dust covering me head to toe, camouflaging what would have otherwise been matted, greasy hair – but I felt different. It’s not everyday that you get the chance to fulfill one of your greatest fantasies, and yet here I was, experiencing this fantastical gift that generously offered more and more with each passing day. Cupping my hands, I placed them underneath the faucet and brought them up to splash my face, silently giving myself permission to break from what seemed like an eternal reverie. I watched the dull, brown water swirl down the drain, having refreshed me for the final leg of my journey. I gazed back up at the mirror, satisfied with the clean glow atop my cheeks. I dried my hands, turned off the light and headed to bed.
I will never forget the days that followed. I traveled down roads that weaved tirelessly through the plains of the Serengeti and heard the low moans of water buffalo as they grazed outside my tent. I felt the humid chill of the Ngoronogoro Conservation Area and saw the most majestic creatures just outside my window. I witnessed stars like I’d never seen before, dotting the sky like a practiced artist does his canvas. I felt the cavernous age of the places I visited; their timeless features persistent reminders of Tanzania’s rich history.
Anyone who has been following my journey thus far will know that I am inspired by landscapes; I think that being surrounded by diverse natural beauty is immensely powerful, and am aware that people – including myself – sometimes take these opportunities for granted. I made absolutely certain to appreciate everything around me on my last few days in-country, as I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to witness so many different elements of the Tanzanian landscape. I had waited so long to see this Africa, where discoveries of archaic hominin life lay unturned in sand and the Earth melted seamlessly together, bridging grassland with desert and desert with sea.
A region of particular interest to me was Olduvai Gorge, a small belt of land belonging to the larger region of Arusha. Today, it could be described as desolate, harsh and perhaps even uninhabitable, but that was not the case millions of years ago when lush vegetation spanned the great plains of Eastern Africa. In fact, the area is home to some of our species’ greatest discoveries pertaining to the evolution of man, but you might never suspect that visiting now. The famous paleoanthropologist, Richard Leakey, once wrote: “There is an inescapable and persistent excitement in the search for the origins of humanity,” and I couldn’t agree more. It was this excitement that had me aching to travel there for so many years. Looking out the window, I watched the arid landscape stretch endlessly across the horizon, reaching so far across the expanse that it seemed to drop off the edge of the planet. Heat from the sun permeated the ground and created a hazy, moving filter over an otherwise unchanging landscape. It was like staring hypnotically into an oblivion and being completely incapable of looking away.
Each day I woke early to the sounds of different animals, always feeling revitalized from a night of good rest. After breakfast, I’d jump excitedly into our car, anxious for the new sights the day would bring. In Tarangire, the populace included the adored tembo (elephant) almost exclusively, though we did see hippos basking in dwindling pools and dik-diks that catapulted precariously in front of vehicles. The Serengeti introduced colors I’d never seen before; they pirouetted elegantly across the sky as lions lay dormant in the bush, only rising with the trilling of raucous birds. Unfortunately, it also offered a gnarly stomach bug and large tick in my back, though I’ll spare the details. In the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, our vehicle hugged corners of a steep, dirt road leading us deeper into the infamous crater. Here we managed to check off the last of the Big 5 by spotting the elusive African Rhino lounging far off in the distance. We also nearly froze in the early hours of that misty, cloudy morning but our layers and hoodies kept us in good spirits. In the evening, we found a reprieve from the cold by hibernating in our tent, which sat atop a beautiful green field complete with zebras and one single imposing tree at its center. From there, we watched bright pinks highlight the deep green foliage that surrounded us on all sides before turning black – carrying us into the last day of our adventure.
Tanzania had me absolutely reeling, searching for an abyss to dive into that would allow for an eternity of this feeling; a feeling where my heart finds peace in the unfamiliarity of a place so rife with light, life, love, and meaning. Each time I close my eyes, I see the vibrant reds and deep majestic blues of the Maasai shukas dancing endlessly in my mind. They move swiftly with the wind, singing lullabies at me whose graceful intonations wax and wane with the warm light. The breeze, though blown with gusto from the mouths of towering mountains blanket me in an unmatched, unmistakable calm. I feel its strength as it moves through my open fingers and let it hold me steady on this ancient ground. I open my eyes.
I’ve left now. Back to a land whose sounds, colors and sensations I am much more familiar. It’s strange, but it’s an adjustment I am thankful for. Tanzania, its people, and its land somehow managed to make me feel foreign; like a piece had been added to my being, affecting me in ways I can only wait to find out. Because of this experience – because of this place – I now have the privilege and the opportunity to discover a whole new me in a world I now know has an infinite number of adventures and opportunities to offer. What’s more is I have a lifetime to do it. How much more beautiful and powerful, I wonder, could that possibly be?