Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mrs Thatcher's Handbag

In southern of Tanzania lies a wild and woolly place called Ruaha National Park. You can drive the 600 kilometres from the capital city Dar Es Salaam, but take my advice – don’t. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll hit a stray elephant (not good for your car or the elephant) or be side swiped by one of the many overload local buses. (Not good for you. The bus driver probably wouldn’t even notice – even if he was awake at the time.) No, far better to fly. You’ll be there in 2 hours. In any case it’s a very scenic flight in a light aircraft, culminating in an exciting landing on a gravel bush strip within the National Park itself.

At 10,300 square kilometres it is huge – Tanzania’s second largest park. Much of the wildlife activity is centred on the Ruaha River – a wide, meandering waterway that attracts some of the best birdlife to be seen anywhere on earth. My favourite lodge within the park is Ruaha River Lodge. It has 48 bandas (lovely stone houses) strung out along the river. All have large ensuite bathrooms and verandahs.

It was in Ruaha National Park that I met Margaret Thatcher – not the strident, handbag wielding ex-Prime Minister of Great Britain but an even more formidable lady with wrinkled grey skin, big flappy ears and a trunk. The guides had named her Margaret Thatcher because she had a tendency to take exception to people for the most insignificant of reasons.

Our guide Josephat – a softly spoken man with the gentlest of natures had stopped our open game drive vehicle so that we could observe a small herd of elephants emerging from the scrub. It was a peaceful scene, half a dozen females with a couple of smaller juveniles. They contentedly munched on branches and rumbled to each other as we watched from about fifty metres away. Enter Margaret Thatcher. She pushed her way through the scrub and trumpeted crossly the moment she laid her piggy little eyes on us. Almost immediately she raised her trunk to smell us and then mock charged, spreading her ears, kicking up dust and stopping after a few metres. We all relaxed and continued to watch the herd for a few minutes.

Then Mrs Thatcher charged again. This time for keeps – silently and with her trunk tucked in. She came on at an amazing speed. Simultaneously the three of us the back of the vehicle yelled “Go! Go! Go!” at Josephat who was watching a troop of yellow baboons crossing the track ahead. Fortunately he’d left the engine running and after a second’s hesitation it dawned on him that several tons of angry pachyderm was bearing down on us and he gunned the engine and we shot off down the track spraying Mrs Thatcher with stones and grit.

Needless to say this did little to improve Margaret’s mood and she sped up. My wife Jacky and I were sitting in the back seats and therefore had the best view of the elephant’s tusks as they approached our rear ends. Josephat casually turned his head. “Has she stopped?” Our collective reply almost deafened him. “No. Go! Go! Go!” Six feet from the rear of the truck Mrs Thatcher was keeping up her shuffling sprint. At that point I was very glad I had opted to wear my khaki trousers. I swear I could smell her grassy breath.

At last after what seemed like several minutes, Mrs Thatcher began to tire and we pulled away from her. She finally stopped in a cloud of dust and trumpeted in either triumph or frustration – I’m not sure which, and then turned away to rejoin the herd. We all grinned a little insanely at each other and laughed – albeit somewhat nervously, realising how close we’d come to a damned good handbagging.

For more information on Ruaha River Lodge contact Peter Emery
Phone 0449 689 447

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